Faith & Feminism: A message to secular sisters

This powerful guest post by scholar Kimberley George, bio after the jump, launches our new Feminism & Faith series. Look out for weekly posts that explore this neglected intersection from a wide variety of voices in the coming months.

Whether “western” secular feminists like it or not, religion continues to play an enormous role globally in the 21st century, and women of faith are key participants. In fact, within some religious traditions, women make up the majority.

Last year I went to an important conference on Women, Religion and Globalization at Yale University (my place of study) that began to address critical issues of representation when it comes to talking about women and religion. Even as we drew attention to problematic representations, sometimes we unknowingly enacted them. My time at the conference helped me articulate four common problems that come up when feminists talk about women and religion:

Problem #1: We make monolithic statements about women and religious traditions.
To talk about any religious tradition with monolithic statements is like talking about “women” as a monolithic category—both are just bad feminism.

For example, it’s deeply problematic to say something to the effect of: “Muslim women who “veil” must be oppressed by their religion.” While such a statement might be an honest attempt to name perceived harm, these monolithic statements almost always prove to be ignorant, arrogant, and infused with “western” constructs of the self. Monolithic statements just don’t get at context and the complexity of systems within which we live. They certainly don’t respect cultural diversity or women’s agency.

Problem #2: We assume that religion is inherently “irrational.”
There is a tendency, especially within the academic world, to secretly assume that religious people aren’t quite on board with the modern “rational” project. But, it’s a serious misrepresentation. We have to realize that when we use the language of “rational” and “irrational,” we are borrowing (consciously or not) a hierarchical system of thought gifted to us largely by Anglo-patriarchal Enlightenment philosophers. It’s a binary that has justified sexism, racism, and colonialism. We feminists ought to be suspicious, to say the least, whenever the terms of this binary are invoked, implied, or even just snuck into the conversation by our dismissive attitudes.

When we assume women of faith are “irrational,” we elide their agency, and worse yet, we tend to marginalize important players in women’s history—because the truth is, women’s history is infused with super smart religious women who are writers, peace-keepers, reformers, and political agents.

Problem #3: We let loud fundamentalists define what a religious tradition is.
It is simply poor feminist strategy when we allow Sarah Palin or George W. Bush or Jerry Falwell to define for us Christianity. If we let fundamentalists define Christianity in America, we seed the battleground they want to create. Such people want you to think this is an “us” versus “them”—they want you to think that Christianity looks like their politics. Feminists can’t afford to buy into it their representation. There is a great deal of diversity within all religious traditions—Christianity included. We need to find the diversity that already exists and harness a middle base that isn’t being represented by the “us” and “them” binary.

Problem #4: We are too dogmatic about our feminism.
The tendency to be dogmatic about our beliefs is not so much a religious tendency as a human one. But our feminist dogma—even if inspired by the best of intentions—won’t fuel change.

What will fuel change is diligently studying the complexities of the systems in which we live, and then practicing a spirit of partnership, dialogue, listening, and curiosity. This point is critical. Even if we find ourselves adamantly atheist, we must still create imaginative space inside our heads/hearts that respects there might yet be a religious impulse—a kind of receptivity to the Divine—that has merit in people’s lives. That impulse lives in many, many people, even it’s shrouded in religious structures that can be weighted down by patriarchal and spiritual abuse. If we don’t allow for the genuine possibility of the religious impulse, we won’t partner well with religious women. And if we don’t partner well with religious women, we are not doing our job in the 21st century.


Kimberly B. George is a writer, feminist activist, and graduate student at Yale Divinity School. Her most recent research focuses on the intersection of sexual violence and philosophical and Christian traditions. When she is not writing or reading about violence, she is learning how to celebrate all the goodness in life. She blogs at

Join the Conversation

  • nazza

    On the subject of being overly dogmatic, as a Quaker I am called to see that of God within everyone, even those I dislike. It’s a challenging exercise, but it does force me to see where other people are coming from. I’ve tried to apply it even to people who leave rude, trollish comments, and it is possible to channel one’s dogma in a totally different way.

  • Cathy Brown

    “Look out for weekly posts that explore this neglected intersection from a wide variety of voices in the coming months.” Unless the voice you want is an atheist one, because, despite their (imaginary) control of feminism, we are expected to remain silent and kowtow to the religious apologism of feminist theists. The reality is that atheists are an unpopular minority in both the general population and within feminist circles. Tell me, when was the last time you published something about religion by an atheist feminist? Well, who can blame you, because posting something about atheism might make you have to confront criticisms of your weak, typical religious apologism.

    • Evelyn

      Thank you for this comment.
      I wish to ask the author the following questions regarding “Problem #2″:
      If we do not appeal to rationality to make sense of the world in which we live, how else are we to draw conclusions in a way that is universally consistent? Why should atheist feminist critics of religion be condemned for reinforcing “hierarchical system of thought” when religious people’s beliefs about the divine are immune to criticism?

      Not to mention that it was only through skeptical (and rational) inquiry that feminists arrived at the conclusion that the subjugation of women and other oppressed people is an ethically reprehensible practice–the same mode of thought endorsed by the “Anglo-patriarchal Enlightenment philosophers.”

    • Amelia

      I hate it when people make generalisations about religion and religious people, as if a religious person is automatically bigoted, fundamentalist, and ignorant. It is simply not true!
      Ignorance and fear would be around even if religion were eradicated. Yes, religion can be used to spread it, but does that make religion inherently bad? TV spreads ignorance, fear and hatred all the time. Does that make TV producers and people who enjoy TV inherently bad? What about the aspects of TV that help to increase awareness and understanding?
      Religion can be used in a bad way, that is for sure. But I think the root problem is not religion, it is fear and ignorance. Work towards eradicating fear, ignorance and hatred, working towards eradicating religion is closed-minded and a waste of energy. You keep your atheist beliefs (and don’t hurt people), and let others keep their theist beliefs when they are not hurting anyone with them. Recognise that it is not a universal fact that all people who practice religion are bigots. Have some respect, for fucks sake.

  • Sam Lindsay-Levine

    You’ll pardon me for being put on the defensive by this post, which in my subjective reading hardly felt like a trust-building hand extended to secular feminists.

    Dismissing the concept of rationality as a patriarchal construction completely fails to resonate with me. It’s very true that “it’s a binary that has justified sexism, racism, and colonialism” but surely the use of the concept of rationality to justify terrible things does not mean we should not attempt to operate rationally. People have used science to justify terrible things, as well as equality, freedom, and probably someone out there has used feminism itself to justify terrible things. That’s not a valid argument for discarding science, equality, freedom, feminism, or rationality.

    If we give up rationality, don’t we give up the whole game – how do we claim that feminism is the right path for our society if there is no way to attempt to reach conclusions about the universe? Can’t anti-feminists then just say “don’t force your rationalist studies about the inefficacy of abstinence only sex-ed programs on us, patriarchy is an important part of our culture to us and don’t try to impose your monolithic universalist western ideas of human rights on it”?

    I don’t think considering religious beliefs to be irrational marginalizes women’s history any more than it marginalizes the plethora of religious men throughout history who are universally considered hugely important.

    Regarding being too dogmatic about feminism, I think it is much more dangerous to be willing to compromise away our feminist principles than it is to remain too adherent to them. After all, we live in a society that tries in a million different small ways to erode feminism every day. If we aren’t willing to stand by our principles, nobody else will for us.

    I am definitely willing to agree that there are plenty of other people who find their lives improved by religion, but I believe there is an objective reality and that the beliefs of almost all religions are contradicted by that objective reality. In addition, I don’t think that there is a ‘Divine’ (pending further definition) and I think that everything that exists is either a physical corporeal object or a process embodied by physical objects. I think that the human impulse towards religious belief is a relic of our brains having evolved to become consummate pattern-recognition machines, with a consequent hugely powerful desire to see patterns where no actual pattern exists.

    Does that mean I don’t have an imaginative space within my head, of the type you describe? Does that mean that I am automatically, in your consideration, a bad feminist?

    • Evelyn

      Never mind “the beliefs of almost all religions are contradicted by that objective reality”; the claims put forth by the various religions contradict each other!

      But I digress. I would like to add that not only have awful things been done in the name of logic and reason, awful things have been done in the name of religion and god as well. Does that mean that rational modes of thinking is necessarily evil? Of course not! In the same way that religious belief is not necessarily evil. We shouldn’t let the fundamentalist “atheists” (i.e. Hitler, Stalin, Mao) tarnish the image of atheism and science in the same way that we shouldn’t “let loud fundamentalists define what a religious tradition is.”

      I, too, think that we can be critical religion in a non-paternalistic manner while not abandoning our beliefs as feminists. It is unreasonable for feminists of faith to feel silenced or abandoned by the “modern ‘rational’ project” (whatever that means) because the only thing that unites us all are the laws of logic, mathematics, and science. If not rationality, then what else? As my math professor once told me, there is no such thing as ‘European math’ or ‘Jewish math’ or ‘Hispanic math’–there’s just math.

      I certainly agree that “if we don’t partner well with religious women, we are not doing our job in the 21st century.” But it is not the atheist’s/secular humanists burden to apologize for to religious beliefs of feminists. Keep in mind, people of faith are in the majority here. I argue that it is not atheists, but people of faith that have a much harder time creating “imaginative space[s] inside [their] heads/hearts” that respects people without faith.

      • Lisa

        Hitler was a Catholic, NOT an atheist.

        • Evelyn

          I am well aware. I put quotes around “atheist” in that context to indicate that people mistake these dictators for atheists. It should be noted that dictators like Stalin and Mao rejected organized religion (and thus could be labeled atheist), but they certainly were “not champions of reason,” as Sam Harris explains. Here stands the problem with the term “atheism”–it technically means ‘the disbelief in the existence of a divine being.’ But many prominent atheists today use the term to mean ‘the disbelief in the existence of a divine being through the use of logic and reason.’

          I apologize for the confusion. Admittedly, I did not appropriately define my terms.

  • Matt

    I think you are running off some hasty generalizations — for one, that all feminists are women (unless you feel that men, androgynes, and people of alternate genders cannot truly be feminists).

    I don’t have any data to go off of, but at least for people who are active at this website, we (generally) don’t talk about religious women as (necessarily) suffering in that role. It was just a few weeks ago (I think) that we had an article discussing Muslim veils in particular (I can’t find the post in the archive for the life of me), and the people who commented on the article agreed that prejudging such women as being oppressed was wrong — especially since some women don’t care and others (very obviously) are actually allowed a choice. Of course there are plenty of women who are oppressed by the veil, but the broader problem of religious oppression isn’t specific to women — anyone forced to adhere to religious practices is potentially oppressed, and we could just as well talk about children who are oppressed by their parents and relatives.

    Likewise, point #2 really rings false. We have too many feminists who are religious. But even putting that point aside, it is hyperbolic to tie the use of the words rational/irrational to sexism/racism/etc — the greater part of the English language has origins in the “Anglo-patriarchal” world, and just about any other English term would be similarly “guilty.” If your contention is that someone using these terms is being intellectually lazy or dismissive, please, just make it about that point.

    Just as you don’t want feminists to look at all religious people as being the same, you would do well to not assume all, most, or even a large minority of feminists fit the impression you seem to have of them. Any group with open membership (and just about any that’s closed for that matter) is going to have at least a few people miss the point on a given issue, but the impression you present does not represent feminism as a whole.

  • Beth

    Nice post, but I would say all of the above apply to religious feminists as equally as it does to us “secular sisters.” Human understanding is something we should all strive for, and implying that communication breaks down because of an elitist or condescending and limited mind-frame from atheists is not accurate nor helpful.
    I work with religious folks in all sorts of activist realms, and I respect and encourage their view points and experiences, but I constantly live with the anxiety of being discovered and hope no one asks me about faith because I do not want to be shamed or ostracized. As non-believers, many of us understand the marginalization of Muslim and other minority (in the US) faiths and have increased empathy for those experiences.

  • Heather

    I am a Pagan feminist myself. I don’t find it hard to connect feminism and Paganism together, but I do find it hard to find some kind of place within the feminist community as a whole.

  • SamBarge

    Feminism informed my atheism. The reason I rejected first the teachings of the church I was born into and, eventually, all the Abrahamic faiths was because their doctrinal misogyny. As a feminist (even a percocious 10 yr old feminist) I knew that the church was wrong about women. Once that reality struck, it didn’t take me long to figure out that they were wrong about a lot of other stuff as well.

    Ultimately, as a feminist and an atheist, I desire the truth in all things. I can’t pretend that irrational beliefs, particularly those which have wrought so much pain in the world, are okay. If you want to believe in Yahweh, Allah, God, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Santa, the Easter Bunny, Zeus, Odin or the Flying Teapot – fill your boots. But don’t tell me to respect your beliefs and don’t tell me that your rejection of rational, empirical knowledge is a virtue.

    But especially, don’t tell me that religion is good for women when I can look around and see its negative effects every single day. The Abrahamic faiths are to misogyny as hamburgers are to MacDonald’s; they didn’t invent it, but they do a booming business in it.

    If you don’t want fundamentalists to define your religion, then don’t let them. Last time I checked, it wasn’t atheists attending the mega-churches and sending cash to Pat Robertson. It wasn’t atheists screaming for blood when pictures of Allah are drawn. You want people to define the faithful as tolerant and loving? Then start being that way.

    • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

      “But especially, don’t tell me that religion is good for women when I can look around and see its negative effects every single day. The Abrahamic faiths are to misogyny as hamburgers are to MacDonald’s; they didn’t invent it, but they do a booming business in it. ”

      This makes the supposition that the Abrahamic faiths are the only form of religion on the planet.

      • SamBarge

        That’s why I said Abrahamic faiths in my post. The topic of all religions (and pseudo-religion created by adherents to counter any argument) is too broad for this post.

  • Samantha

    I find it interesting that the accusation that “Rationalism” was brought to us by “largely by Anglo-patriarchal Enlightenment philosophers” (#2). Whereas it’s pretty obvious to those who have studied the history of at least the big three religions, “God” was brought to us by male, patriarchal governments. (Not Anglo, given the skin tone of the region from which the Big Three were formed, but the area and time equivalent of the same.)

    I think a better question is, how have these systems evolved and adapted to current needs in culture? Rationalism has taken hold in many feminist circles; likewise, most rationalists (secular humanists, outspoken atheists, whichever title you want to associate with rationalist) are staunch supporters not only of feminism, but of the intersectionality involved in feminism and the needs for addressing just that. Religion, on the other hand, still maintains the position that women are to be subservient to men (Biblical precedent and all that) in one way or another, whether it’s the firm belief that women cannot teach, that they must cover themselves, etc. Rationalism acknowledges that faith has provided Good Things, but also points out that there’s a whole lot of Bad Things that faith has provided, too. Religion points out that secularists have provided Bad Things… Hmm. Religion tends to claim the cornerstone on morality most of the time. Rarely do you hear a religious sort saying, “That person over there, that doesn’t believe in my god – yeah, they’re cool, and they’re not going to burn for all eternity or whatever, because they’re looking at the evidence provided to them and just not seeing a god out of all this.”

    I have that space in my head that Ms. George speaks of (#4) – the one “that respects there might yet be a religious impulse”. I also understand there are a lot of impulses left to us from times gone by that are residual and unnecessary; and, that as more than a sum of our parts, we do not have to necessarily buy into our impulses as being our destiny (a great blog post about this very topic in a feminist context regarding evolutionary psychology is happening over at right now!). As a whole, we have the impulse to further the species – does that mean that individuals don’t make a decision as to whether they want to follow that impulse? We have an impulse to eat fatty foods because they provide the most caloric bang for the buck – does that mean we just do what our body wants us to?

    The argument that “such a statement might be an honest attempt to name perceived harm, these monolithic statements almost always prove to be ignorant, arrogant, and infused with “western” constructs of the self” (#1) is an interesting one to me, and gets bandied around far too often without understanding the ramifications of what that really means. In a sociology class I’ve taken, the discussion of female circumcision was addressed – something that I think most if not all agree is wrong. But by the same argument, we seem to be imposing our “‘western’ constructs of the self” in fighting this; there are parents who actively seek out this activity, and in cultures who perpetrate this crime against women, it is frequently the women who insist upon the procedure. Does that make it any more or less valid than stating the required wearing of the hijab or burqua is oppressive to women?

    “If we let fundamentalists define Christianity in America, we seed the battleground they want to create”. The problem is, what defines “fundamentalist”? You start traversing a slippery slope when you pick out “fundamentalists” as an exception, because to what degree is someone a “fundamentalist” Christian? If they’re standing on a streetcorner shouting the word of god, does that make them fundamentalist? If they’re saying their way is the one true way to god, and the other ones are a sham, and you really need to accept Jesus as Your Personal Lord And Savior, does that make them fundamentalist? If they decide they’re going to pray for you, whether you want them to or not, does that make them a fundamentalist?

    As a religion, it is necessary to claim ALL of the members of that religion – you don’t get to pick and choose who fits your definition, whether you want them to or not. And ultimately, if they’re the ones that speak the loudest, they’re the ones that are going to be more readily associated with the title. Feminism has its analog, as well: generally speaking, we’ve laid down broad requirements to claim the title Feminist, but in Feminism we have our sects, all of which seem to think they’re “Doing Feminism the Right Way.” The ones that yell the loudest become most associated with the title, which is how the man-hating, anti-porn feminist tropes came into play. We’re forced to acknowledge that those people who claim that any action within the kyriarchy is a result of brainwashing by the kyriarchy and not a part of a woman’s own agency is a Feminist, just as the person who’s fighting for a woman’s right to choose whether to use birth control or have an abortion is.

    I appreciate the ideal of reaching across the aisle to unite atheist and religious to further a goal – especially the many goals Feminism has. However, from the piece, above, it seems as though we should put aside our lack-of-belief in favor of catering to the religious beliefs, and generally being proselytized at in the process, without being allowed to express that lack-of-belief. It took me a long time to come out of the atheist closet; I’m not going to force myself back in so that religious people have an easier time working with me.

  • Lisa

    I’m offended this is only addressed to “secular sisters.” One it assumes religious women are blameless when it comes to judging cultures they do not understand or find “oppressive.” Which is clearly not the case. I’ve seen Christians say how “oppressive” Islam as much (if not more) as I have atheist/agnostics/humanist/freethinkers/etc. (depending on how people identify their beliefs). I’ve seen some atheist say religious people are irrational but that is not the majority of them. Most atheist talk about religion itself and not people who are religious. Talking about religion is completely different from saying religious people are irrational or oppressed.

    “Even if we find ourselves adamantly atheist, we must still create imaginative space inside our heads/hearts that respects there might yet be a religious impulse—a kind of receptivity to the Divine—that has merit in people’s lives. ”
    I find this statement to be incredibly problematic. There are impulses within the brain that prove there are “religious impulses” but that does not mean religion is not socially constructed (and there is a subfield in sociology that says it is). I firmly believe the “divine” is not real and is socially constructed. I know religion is socially constructed. That does not mean I cannot work with people who disagree with me. That does not mean I don’t respect people’s opinions on religion/the “divine” no matter how much I disagree. Yes, people find merit in religion and it brings comfort to them. However that does not mean I will change my beliefs because of that. I firmly believe one day science will prove god is not real (and I firmly believe it is starting to, especially when we learn more about how the universe was formed and evolution). I will not change my beliefs because they offend someone. However, I will respectfully disagree with someone. So, I completely disagree with that statement and find it incredibly problematic that you would assume atheist should do that.

    I am an atheist and an outspoken one at that. However, I know my beliefs are not welcome in a lot of feminist circles for the fact that I critique religion. I don’t just critique how sexist, racist, classist, etc. a religion is but whether or not it has any merit. I speak openly about my beliefs that I want religion to have no part in government and our society should not favor one set of beliefs over another (which you know, should be feminist goals as well). However, we live in a society that favors Christianity over every other set of belief (and it is true in feminist circles as well). I speak out against Christian privilege in our society and that doesn’t make me popular among feminist.

    Also, shouldn’t a series on religion also have contributors who are not religious? I feel like if we really want to know womens experiences with religion, we have to talk to women who are non-believers as well.

  • zill222

    Please Please Take Heart! Don’t let some of these comments dissuade you from writing again. I am a feminist (a good one too) and a Christian. As a United Methodist some of the greatest feminist work I have ever seen done has been by little old ladies in United Methodist Women. Preach sister!

    As for some of the people who posted comments. Please see derailing for dummise specifically, “You’re Being Hostile”- Beth, “But That Happens To Me Too!”-Cathy Brown, and “Your Experience Is Not Representative Of Everyone” – Matt.

    • Beth

      I certainly am not trying to encourage anyone not to write on this subject again, especially not the author of this post (and hopefully the women of various other belief backgrounds and stories that are to come). But the truth of the matter is, that in attempting to ridicule atheists for stereotyping Christians, the crux of this argument is based on stereotypes of atheists. Not all of us are holier-than-thou, pipe-smoking, self-righteous elitists. In fact, that two-dimensional characterization does represent a lot of the patriarchal manifestations of atheism, that secular women and feminists are forced to struggle against in order to make our voices heard. We should be supporting our atheists sisters in this fight, not shaming them; just like I will always support my Christian (and Muslim and Hindu and Pagan and Jewish) sisters should they decide to use some self-determination and fight against the manifestation of patriarchy in their own religion, which undoubtedly exists.
      I appreciate your saying that a vocal group crying out “this isn’t universally true” when defending their position of privilege and power is insulting and counter-productive. But, for better or worse, atheism is not the zero-sum religious affiliation in this country, and the position of power belongs almost completely to Christians. Their representation in resources, media, in elected offices from local to state to federal level is completely dominant. The idea that us atheists are sort of whining and feeling sorry for ourselves despite the fact that we have limited voice (go outside some small gatherings and academia to the real world, and you will hear hardly a peep from any of us. I don’t bring it up at work, with my family, even socially, while talk of Christmas and Jesus and prayer surrounds me constantly) and even less power is hostile, whether you like that term or not.
      We have so much to accomplish, so many struggles ahead of us, and I am grateful to the women and men of various backgrounds and religious histories that join me in accomplishing them. But when I am misrepresented, insulted and then told to be quiet about it, that doesn’t seem particularly revolutionary or productive.

      • zill222

        Thanks for the good faith reply. I think you are confusing the point of the post. The author is not talking about the way religious people are treated in the US, she is talking about the way religious feminists are treated within feminism. I believe, that your and my disagreement is not about privilege. My point was that the responses for the most part were derailing.

        • Beth

          Thanks. I will say, that based on this response, I wonder if the critique might be that too much of the discussion of feminism is happening inside academia and not on the streets where work needs to get done (either in church basements, community centers, labor union meetings, etc. etc.). On the streets, I don’t see “secular sisters” coming down on religious folks, I think we’re trying to move something, and it’s all hands on deck. And the complaint about feminism in general is that it is a movement of white, elite, educated folks. And that’s one I’ve never tried to defend.

          I still disagree that I was trying to derail by saying that the context of the discussion seemed limited, but we’ll leave it at that.

  • Ryan

    Ditto everything above. But I’ll just make an additional comment about the mention of religious role in feminist history: let’s also not forget that the early American feminist movement was riddled with social purity movements which, if had been successful, we today know are damaging to society and gender liberation–not to mention that it put an anti-sex pro-control connotation on feminism which we are still battling today. And during that same time frame, when anything but Christianity was sorely condemned by all of society, the role of radical atheist feminists like Emma Goldman in revolutionizing our understanding of women’s (and everybody’s) liberation cannot be ignored either.

  • Rea M.

    Sam Lindsay-Levine, that was an amazing reply. Thank you for that beautiful articulation.

  • Mary Ann

    As a Christian feminist, I need to be reminded of these points. I wonder if some of these judgments that are made come from within the religious circle towards people of other denominations or religions more than from outside of it.

    As a liberal Christian, I am sometimes dogmatic about my feminist beliefs. I judge people of my own religious tradition for their “irrationality.” I speak in monolithic statements and sometimes I give in to fear and let fundamentalists represent the message of my faith rather than speaking up.

    Kimberly made some great points that I needed to be reminded of…who else participates in such actions, I am not sure. But I know I do sometimes. So thanks for the reminders.

    With that said, I think we are in big trouble if we do not have religious feminists. In my own tradition, I am deeply disgusted by the patriarchal impacts of my faith on people within and outside of our community. But if those of us who become feminist run away from religion, those patriarchal impacts will never go away. When well examined, my own tradition is one of justice, mutuality and right relationship. We just don’t live that out very well.

    • Evelyn

      Mary Ann,

      I, too, believe that “we are in big trouble if we do not have religious feminists.” Although I am an atheist, I recognize how important religion is to people’s lives, and I recognize that that religious patriarchy is not going to disappear any time soon. While “run[ing] away from religion” was my natural instinct, I understand that not everyone wishes to abandon their faith in light of promoting feminism. Indeed, as Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz commented below, feminism need not be “mutually exclusive with believing in deities.” It is not up to me (and it is certainly not my place) to make feminist reforms in religion, which is why religious feminists are so badly needed. Change must come from the inside.

  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    Thank you for addressing some of these issues, I don’t know how prevalent they are, but I have encountered some atheists who seem to think that being a feminist (or progressive/leftist in general) is somehow mutually exclusive with believing in deities, even outside of the the familiar traditions of the Abrahamic based faiths. I’m not saying this is always the case, as the majority of atheists I’ve known (including those who had a part in raising me) are very tolerant and cool in a live-and-let-live sort of way. They’re aware of my beliefs, don’t espouse them but respect that I do, and I return the favor towards their atheism. Sadly though, the few I’ve encountered that don’t feel that way tend to have a harder time letting up on anyone who thinks differently from them on spirituality than some religious fundamentalists!

  • sotah

    I am troubled by “problem #3″

    It is a given that “Christianity” a religion of millions is composed of a variety of perspectives; However, some of these perspectives are embodied by Sarah Palin and George Bush. Not only that, but Sarah Palin’s Christianity is certainly not a tiny minority fringe. It is nothing but intellectual dishonesty to suggest otherwise. Can we really afford to divide Christianity or any other religion in fundamentalist and not fundamentalist members? What does it mean to “harness a middle base, ” I wonder? What I really want is to understand and learn from women who are choosing differently then me, and hope that in the process they will come to understand me (even a little). Dividing religious people into the doctrinally pure fundamentalists and everyone else, and then suggesting that everyone else is represent the good and true religion, is the opposite of intersectionality.

  • AMM

    One thing that bothers me whenever I see people arguing about how atheism (or non-religion) is rational, as opposed to the supposed irrationality of religion, is that the supposed “rational” people seem to be as full of unexamined assumptions, prejudices, conclusions based on privilege, etc., as anybody else.

    The thing is, who is to say what is “rational” or “reasonable”? In practice, it’s usually those in power and those whose thinking dominates society. To make this relevant to feminism: think of how often women who protest their place and treatment in society are dismissed as “irrational” or just plain crazy. A thousand years ago, those in power interpreted (or twisted) the ideas in the Bible to justify what they did and to dismiss those who disagreed with them as “heretics” or going against God’s law. Now they use “reason.”

    I’m not knocking reason. I think the idea of critically examining one’s beliefs and one’s life is one of humanity’s great advances. But we have to also keep in mind that it is simply a tool. When it is used to make the world a better place, then it’s good; when it is used to oppress people, then it’s bad.

    The same can be said of religion.

  • Christine

    It seems like many folks that are commenting on this post are offended because they believe they have been thrown into a generalized category of “Atheists who ridicule religious persons”. I believe posts like this are meant for reflection on our actions. I honestly don’t think the author meant to accuse every atheist of being insensitive or disrespectful, but just meant to call everyone to reflect on their actions and treatment of religious feminists. If you don’t believe this applies to you, well then it wasn’t meant for you.

    On that note, I will say I am very surprised in the some of the comments of this piece. Some I feel have missed the point of the article entirely. Others have actually said that they refuse to respect religious persons beliefs. I think this article was more about respecting each other than respecting beliefs.

    I have no idea if there are more religious feminists vs. atheist feminists. What I do know is that some religious women don’t always feel welcome in feminist circles because there is a lot of criticism of religion, and that can create and environment that makes religious women feel unwelcome. Even if the criticism is warranted, this article was a reminder of the mistakes we can make during these discussions.

    Some commenters here have claimed that they are the marginalized ones, often citing personal experiences in society. I know we (in the U.S.) live in a majority Christian nation, and that in most places, being an atheist can be difficult. But we’re not talking about within our families or within our social circles, we’re talking about on this site and within feminist circles. In my experience, those circles are mainly inhabited with atheists. I could be wrong about this. But I think it’s that feeling that motivated this article.

    Finally, though I believe this is besides the point, there are those who commented by basically saying it is the religious folks’ problem if their religion has problematic beliefs or is irrational and is therefore not respected; that they need to be ones who change. But how do we know they aren’t? Change takes time. And in the mean time, do we ignore the problems that clearly this author has witnessed in our feminist discussions of religion?

    PS. I don’t believe the author was trying to convince us all to believe in a Divine by suggesting that we all acknowledge a religious impulse. She was just saying that we should be open-minded as to why religious feminists choose to be religious.

    • Lisa

      I think you missed the point of some of the women who are atheist. Even in feminist circles, they are still on the out skirts of the feminist movement. Atheist in feminism are a minority. Atheist in social justice movements are a minority, period. That is not to say “lets feel bad for the atheist” but to point out there is a religious majority in feminism, well actually a Christian majority. Feminism is not an atheist movement and never has been. A lot of the feminist who have spoken out against problematic things in a religion, are practicing that religion themselves.

      I read all the comments and I never got the impression the atheist in this thread thought problematic religious beliefs were only religious women’s problem. Most of the people in the thread, including myself, were annoyed that the author only addressed atheist. This is not just an “atheist” issue but a feminist issue at large. I was offended she did not target everyone because I have met religious feminist who are more vocal about their distaste for some religions than atheist.

      • Christine

        You might be right that I misunderstood why some atheist commenters were offended. I agree that religious persons criticize religion, too, and can fall into these same mistakes that the author points out, but I see this post as a post meant to be directed toward atheist feminists for a reason. There are statements the author makes that only work if they are intended towards atheist feminists. For example, Point #2. That is not a statement a religious feminist would make because she would most likely not accuse herself of being irrational. Also, in Point #4, the author writes “Even if we find ourselves adamantly atheist, we must still create imaginative space inside our heads/hearts that respects there might yet be a religious impulse—a kind of receptivity to the Divine—that has merit in people’s lives.” This is clearly a statement that only applies to atheist feminists. The author may make points that also apply to religious feminists, but I believe she wrote this post with secular feminists in mind.

        As I said before, I have no idea if there is a majority atheist or religious population within feminism. I don’t how we are defining “Christian” or “Religious” or even “Feminist.” Are we talking about American feminists, activist feminists, blogging feminists, etc? Self-indentified as feminists or self-indentified as “religious”? Are we talking about practicing religious persons? We all come from different places and may have a different perspectives on what is the majority- I don’t know of any statistics on the matter, but I would actually be really interested in that if anyone knows of any.

        PS. The comment I was referring to about commenters saying it was religious persons’ problem was from SamBarge “If you don’t want fundamentalists to define your religion, then don’t let them….You want people to define the faithful as tolerant and loving? Then start being that way.”

        • SamBarge

          Oh, I’ll respond to that.

          I was referring to the OP’s comment that ‘we’ (I assume she means feminists) can’t let fundamentalists define religion. I’m fine with that but, as an atheist, it’s not my job to change the public face of Christianity or Islam or Judaism (if we can stick to the Abrahamic “Big 3″ without being accused of cultural chauvinism). I’m not a Christian, a Muslim or a Jew. There’s nothing I can do to cast those faiths as tolerant and progressive in the international dialogue. I can react to what the faiths present to me but it’s not my job to keep making excuses for different faiths.

          Let me give you an example. Lets say your a Mormon. Okay, your church actively funded the anti-gay marriage lobby in California. How do you expect me to perceive your church and it’s adherents? As tolerant and progressive and inclusive of gay members who wish to live as GLBT? Is it my job to excuse that action, which did nothing good but caused hardship for a minority? Is it up to me to respond to people speaking about it with comments like ‘hey, some Mormons aren’t homophobic?’

          No. It’s up to Mormons to change their church. And, if it doesn’t change and members aren’t leaving in droves, then that tells me that they support the church’s actions. Or, atleast, it tells me that they are willing to allow the continued oppression of a minority in order to remain in the comfort of their faith.

          I don’t respect that.

          • zill222


            Let me give you an example, Let’s say you’re a citizen of a country that provides no rights to women. Okay, You country actively persecutes women and supports systems where women are abused. How do you expect me to perceive you nation and it’s citizens? I support you in your struggle for change. I defer to you that you know more about the system in which you live. I let you tell me what you are and I don’t insist that I get to define you.

            It IS up to the members of a group to change their group but when someone comes to us and says that they share our beliefs about feminism and are also members of this church we shouldn’t tell them that they can’t be both or tell them that they have to choose. We should support them in their efforts for change.

          • SamBarge

            If they are making efforts to change. Telling me that your version of faith is different from the espoused dogma of the church you claim to belong to is not the same as trying to change that church. It’s not enough to say ‘all Mormons/Catholics/Muslim/etc. are like that; I support gay rights therefore you’re wrong’ when confronted by the actions of your church.

            And, being a citizen of a country is different from being an adherent to a faith. I can vote and, although I don’t always agree with my government’s actions, the rule of law gives me and my fellow citizens the tools to change an unjust system. The Prime Minister of my country isn’t god’s infallible representative on Earth.

          • Kathleen Lewis Greenwood

            Spot on!

          • zill222

            Many, Many Churches Do not see their leaders as God’s infallible representative on earth. And even in faiths that do traditionally see their leader as God’s rep doesn’t mean that all followers agree with that belief. But please keep showing your ignorance by generalizing all faiths and all followers.
            Also, there are nations where citizen’s can’t vote, and the rule of law DOES NOT give them tools for change.
            As for “Telling me that your version of faith is different from the espoused dogma of the church you claim to belong to is not the same as trying to change that church.”, I am really concerned with the way you seem to feel that I am only “claiming” to belong to a church. I will say it again: I defer to you that you know more about the system in which you live. I let you tell me what you are and I don’t insist that I get to define you.