Shocking new allies: Atheists and Christian women!

Atheism and Christianity both have a history of mistreating women. Maybe it's time they work together

By Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig

Published August 5, 2013 5:03PM (EDT)

Christopher Hitchens, Sikivu Hutchinson, Richard Dawkins                   (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton/Facebook/Chris Keane/Diane Arellano)
Christopher Hitchens, Sikivu Hutchinson, Richard Dawkins (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton/Facebook/Chris Keane/Diane Arellano)

Pre-Christian Rome: a bastion of philosophy and intellectual discourse couched in sparkling white marble columns and bustling fora filled with busy men and women going about their daily errands with colorful diaphanous togas fluttering about their sandal-clad ankles.

Well, not really. The grittiness — not to mention the overwhelming odor — of ancient Rome has received decent play in film lately, from "Gladiator" to "Agora." And that’s just the sensory texture of the empire. The notion that the pre-Christian Roman empire (or the pre-Christian Grecophone world, for that matter) was a hotbed of high-minded and rational intellectual discourse also seems to be gaining its due elements of nuance, though "Agora" would rather you think that early Christians were primarily a misogynistic, stone-lobbing bunch of brutes.

A number of people would have you think that, really, and not just about the early Church. And it’s not entirely untrue. But when it comes to explaining why early Roman Christians were, in some cases, inexcusably sexist, it is useful to note that they were likely that way before they became Christians, and merely clung to the tradition afterward, sometimes with new language for old ideas.

I point this out not to defend the reputation of ancient Roman Christians, but because the Church itself is often blamed for the generation of long-standing misogynistic attitudes toward women. While the Church has had a hand in perpetuating misogyny, the task was hardly a difficult one. This is worthwhile to realize because contemporary secular discourse sometimes suggests attempts at alleviating misogyny that center around the elimination of the Church, its ethics, its doctrines, and its influence. Consider this recent Salon piece by Katie Engelhart, rightly criticizing the new atheist movement for its de-facto diminishing of its woman luminaries:

“Let Atheism have its waves, and secularism its churches. But if Atheists are going to use “church,” as a word and an organizational model, they should pay heed to the long legacy of women’s oppression and torment that the Church represents. New Atheist churches should be active in their inclusivity, aggressively seeking out diversity in leadership and attending directly to issues of women’s rights.”

If the Church represents a long history of torment and women’s oppression, it is only because of some (likely well-intentioned) misremembering. From the apostle Paul’s associate Thecla to Margaret Fell Fox to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an impressive number of Christian women have championed women’s rights both within and outside the Church. Even if we dismiss those women as anomalies, we return to the question of whose ideology they were really combating. And, though they certainly had fine reasons to oppose anti-woman doctrine and dogma within the Church, those principles did not necessarily arise from a uniquely Christian attitude.

I meditate here upon pre-Christian Roman approaches to women primarily because of the verse Engelhart selects to open her article with:

“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”

It comes from a letter most likely composed by the apostle Paul himself, written to the members of the Church at Corinth. Though the Corinthian Church was a community or group of communities located in Greece, Paul himself is widely understood to have been a Roman citizen, educated in a variety of philosophies, including the popular school of Stoicism. As Bernadette Brooten points out in her 1996 Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism, Paul’s promotion of a particular brand of female passivity likely originated within a widely held set of cultural beliefs about the natural differences between the sexes, emphasized in a number of pre-Christian philosophies, including Stoicism. Paul’s letters, Brooten explains, arise from “a larger cultural pattern of asymmetry in sexual relations (active/passive; superordinate/subordinate).”

Needless to say, women were assigned, in those power binaries, to the lesser role. Paul had no need to inculcate a view of women as naturally passive, weak, emotional, and infantile into his readers and hearers, because centuries of philosophies predating Christianity — many of which enjoyed broad popular appeal — had already established as much. In fact, Brooten argues, Paul’s willingness to promote traditionally held Roman cultural views on gender likely softened the blow of his more radical teachings, such as his advocacy of intermingling between Jews and gentiles. It is not difficult to imagine that the soft sexism perpetuated by some members of the secular movement serves a similar purpose.

None of this is to say that the anti-woman attitudes espoused in Paul’s letters have not heavily influenced Christianity and by way of doing so, much of Western culture. But it is important for the cause of women’s rights to acknowledge that Christianity is not the origin of all anti-woman oppression. Turning away from Christianity — or any religion, therefore — is not a panacea for the maltreatment of women. The seeds of misogyny were planted in the literatures that gave rise to the discourse of the earliest Christians; the tendency of new atheists to adopt similar exclusionary tactics with regard to woman thinkers isn’t, therefore, necessarily evidence of secular thinkers acting too religiously. They may well simply be responding to elements of our culture that run deeper than religious doctrine.

Engelhart herself selects a verse to communicate the misogyny of the Church whose authority has been repeatedly disputed by Christian feminists. Consider Margaret Fell Fox, writing to her fellow Quakers shortly after the advent of the Religious Society of Friends, just as Paul wrote to the burgeoning Church of the Corinthians:

“For what are we, but what we have received from God? God is all-sufficient to bring in thousands into the same spirit and light, to lead and guide them as he doth us. And let us frame and fashion ourselves unto the Apostle’s doctrine and practice, who was in a glorious shining light (read I Corinthians, chapter 9, 19, ver., and so to the end).”

Remarkably, Margaret Fell Fox calls upon the same letter that Engelhart uses to evince the inherent misogyny of Christianity in order to exhort her church to welcome others in humility and friendship as equals, without judgment. And she does so as a woman. It is a pity, then, to see those interested in the promotion of women’s voices legitimize so carelessly the authority of verses that have been used to silence them, despite the efforts of Christian women to destabilize the power of such texts.

But this is precisely why I whole-heartedly support Engelhart’s message, though I myself am a Christian woman. The struggle for full equality between the sexes will not be achieved by the elimination of the Church; nor will it be achieved by the denigration of women’s voices within secular movements. Engelhart is right to question the invisibility of women within the new atheist movement, and I hope her project is a fruitful one. Because the roots of sexism reach so deeply into our shared cultural history, they won’t be uprooted by a fractured front. Misogyny begins with cultural narratives about asymmetry between the sexes that span philosophies, religions, and creeds -- and it will end only with the same level of cooperation.


Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig

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Atheism Feminists New Atheists Religion