I just got done watching the “Women Leaving Religion” panel at the Women in Secularism 2 conference. The theme of the panel was the experience of various women who grew up in religious contexts or who were prominent figures in their respective religious communities who then left religion and the social positions they previously occupied. Many of the panelists talked about their gratitude for being welcomed in the atheist community and the alternative social supports the atheist community has offered to them. There wasn’t much talk about feminism or religion “oppressing women” though it was mentioned somewhat.
The idea of the panel was that there was something wrong or dysfunctional about religion and these women had “escaped” their former intellectually stifling oppressive existences and now they were “free” finding communion with their atheist compatriots. It is an odd thing that the existence of men seemed almost totally absent from these women’s discussions about their former lives or their current lives. There was talk about how the women’s decisions to leave their former religious lives affected their children both positive and negative but references to men; particularly in terms of how the men in their lives have been affected by their decisions; was pretty much absent.
In my experience with religion, which isn’t much, there are indeed churches, even conservative churches, where atheists as church attendees is a given. Atheists even seem to be accepted as part of the church community to a certain extent. I have heard pastors ask the members of their congregation to repent for not really believing in God and to accept Jesus fully as their Lord and Savior. What is funny about these messages is that they acknowledge there are atheists in the congregation listening to the sermon. In some churches it is not even a requirement to “believe” in order to be a deacon or take on other low-level roles in the church.
Here is an interesting quote from Mark Driscoll, pastor of a conservative complementarian (or patriarchal) church in Seattle; speaking on the subject of “Should Christians be Tolerant?”:
“Should we as a church tolerate, from those who are professing Christians, immorality? No.
To be clear, I’m not talking about non-Christians. The problems and divisions in the church are not because of the non-Christians but rather because of those who say they’re Christians but live like unbelievers.”
This is an interesting quote for two reasons. First it implicitly acknowledges the existence of non-Christians in the Mars Hill church community (where Mark Driscoll preaches). Driscoll also says “The problems and divisions in the church are not because of the non-Christians but rather because of those who say they’re Christians but live like unbelievers.” In other words it is not the unbelievers in the church community that cause problems, it is those who claim to be believers but don’t follow church rules. This suggests that being an atheist by itself is OK as long as you live as a believer, as long as you follow and cooperate with the church’s teachings on moral matters. This makes me think that an atheist really can find acceptance even within a church community as long as they agree with and follow the church’s teachings and are tolerant of the religious faith that is the foundation of the church they have decided to join.
The women in the panel discussion who talked about leaving their church community behind and finding refuge in the atheist community; what worries me is that the atheist community these women are seeking refuge in is not a sustainable community. In particular it will not communicate moral values to the next generation, to these women’s children, that will enable the children to lead happy and productive lives and prepare them for their adult family responsibilities when they grow up. Christianity, particularly conservative or patriarchal versions of Christianity, offers a blueprint for life that works. That has been proven to work for hundreds if not thousands of years. What is the atheist blueprint for life? As far as I know it is pretty much non-existent and certainly has no proven track record. These women spoke at the Women in Secularism 2 conference which has feminism as its central theme even if the particular panel on “Women Leaving Religion” didn’t emphasize feminism much. So embracing atheism means embracing feminism? One might be able to function well as an atheist if you are an atheist with traditional moral values but one can certainly not function well as a feminist in terms of teaching functional moral values to the next generation. The atheist community these women have found sanctuary in might provide social opportunities and generous financial help and employment but it cannot provide to these women’s children the moral values or moral structure the child’s previous religious environment would have given them.
The Christian Patriarchy Movement as it exists today is almost totally made up of atheist or weakly religious converts. It is not old time adherents to devout religious faith holding on in the modern world; it is a rebellion against the moral aimlessness of secularism, either outright atheism or prior religious affiliations that were only weakly adhered to. Furthermore from what I know it is usually the women who first push Biblical Womanhood and more devout religious practices upon their husbands who then go along with their wives’ demands for a more traditional lifestyle. Certainly in the more secular realm that I am familiar with it is definitely the women who are clamoring for a return to patriarchy first.
I hear much talk in the atheist community about “community” and how atheism needs to find a way to reproduce the social aspect of what church offers. Yes, the social aspect of religion is an important aspect of religion but I think “community” is missing the point of what religion offers. Alain de Botton comes closer to identifying what religion offers in his “Atheism 2.0” lecture at TED. I quote:
Alain De Botton: Atheism 2.0
4:26 to 5:17; 5:52 to 6:13
“If you went to a top university, let’s say you went to Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge and you said “You know I’ve come here because I’m search of morality, guidance, and consolation. I want to know how to live!” They would show you the way to the insane asylum. This is simply not what our grandest and best institutes of higher learning are in the business of. Why? They don’t think we need it. They don’t think we are in urgent need of assistance. They see us as adults, rational adults. What we need is information. We need data. We don’t need help. Now, religions start from a very different place indeed. All religions, all major religions at various points call us children, and like children they believe that we are in severe need of assistance. We’re only just holding it together. Perhaps is it just me, maybe you? But anyway. We’re only just holding it together. And we need help, of course we need help. And so we need guidance and we need didactic learning.”
“What’s the difference between a sermon and our modern secular mode of delivery, the lecture? A sermon wants to change your life and a lecture wants to give you a bit of information. And I think we need to get back to that sermon tradition. The tradition of sermonizing is hugely valuable. Because we are in need of guidance, morality, and consolation. And religions know that.”
I would agree. We are children (as religion teaches) in need of guidance. We are in need of “guidance, morality, and consolation;” things that religion provides very well. I would say however that even Alain de Botton is missing what is most fundamental about what religion offers. What religion is based on is not community, not rituals, and not even moral teachings in the sense of a list of rules to be followed or directives. What religion is based on is God or in secular terms the “God concept.” Religion first and foremost offers a connection to God and a way of understanding God as the central organizing principle and source of guidance and comfort in life. Atheists have this odd habit of not recognizing that God is at the center of religious purpose and religious belief; atheists don’t seem to be aware of the fact that Christians first and foremost see their purpose as serving God and obeying God and that God is at the center of their lives as Christians.
What atheists need in order to gain the benefits of religion is a God concept compatible with atheism. God comes first both for atheists and for the religious. The atheist definition and understanding of God will be different from the religious definition and understanding of God but for both atheists and the religious God must come first.
I fear that for those leaving religion and entering into atheism the atheist community they enter into will prove to be more morally impoverished than the religious community they left. In order for an atheist community to flourish and be successful that atheist community has to embrace and teach the kind of traditional moral values that religion has taught for generations. There is no escaping traditional moral values because traditional moral values are the truth whether one is a believer or not.
Women in Secularism 2
Held May 17 – 19, 2013 in Washington, D.C.