Thursday, 26 July 2012

View from America: Is secularism a boys' club?

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To coincide with the publication of his new book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton-Mifflin) we areposting a series of short films and blog posts by Jacques Berlinerblau, one of the most perceptive commentators on America’s religious and irreligious landscape.

In his fourth dispatch he asks why there are not more women involved in secularism.
The Secular Centre, Episode 3: Is secularism a men's club?

Secularism is a men’s club! That statement is kind of true. That statement is kind of theoretically false. And that statement speaks to the considerable challenges that confront the political growth of the beleaguered secular movement in America.

Let’s start with the part of the statement that is sort of accurate. If you equate secularism with atheism (an association which I urged readers not to make in the last episode of Secular Center), then, yes, you will find that the domain of non-belief is by all statistical indices an awfully “manly ship”.

This does not mean that atheism lacks for intelligent, innovative and influential women. Yet the data reveals over and again that males gravitate to godlessness in proportions that are astonishingly uneven (while women, surveys show, evince a greater affinity for religiosity).

I have never seen a definitive explanation of why this is the case. Some have suggested that women are turned away by the dogmatism of some strains of nonbelief. Although a bit on the essentialist side, it’s a plausible surmise. But why do we see the same imbalanced gender ratios among agnostics? By definition, they are opposed to dogma, be it theist or anti-theist. Yet there as well we see an affluence of dudes.

I’ll let someone else unpuzzle that mystery. For now, I want to move on to the false side of the claim that secularism is a men’s club. In theory, secularism should have considerable appeal to women, be they believers or nonbelievers. This would come to pass if we understood secularism not as atheism, but as a political doctrine that is deeply suspicious of entanglements between Church and State.

On issues such as reproductive freedom, contraception, stem-cell research, and wage equity, to name a few, there is an obvious synergy between secular ideas and issues of concern to women. That’s because secularism is there to push back against traditionalist (and sexist) modes of religious thinking that seek to dictate governmental policy. Once again it is important to recall that women of faith run afoul of such theocratic excesses.

The common interests between the secular movement and believing and nonbelieving women who do not want conservative religious worldviews to rule their lives are obvious. The challenge consists of convincing women that secularism is not the same thing as atheism. From there, it needs to make the case that the disentangling of Church and State is a women’s issue.

Easier said than done. But as I note in the video above, progress will be made when more and more women are permitted to lead secular (and atheist) advocacy groups.
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