The Trouble With Women

“The church is a terrible engine of oppression, especially as concerns women.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Last year, I had the opportunity to visit a local megachurch’s men’s conference, and report back about the goings-on there. One of the things that I noticed was the servile-and-separate role that was played by the women in the congregation, who cooked and cleaned and hand-delivered ice cream sandwiches to guys watching other guys punch each other in the mouth.

(Yes, this happened in a church. It’s also, not coincidentally, the same church where the pastor bedded his wife on the roof and tried to arrange a zoo for Easter this year. So, you know, it’s that kind of church.)

To me, the way that these gender roles were accepted and presumably defined by the organizers was icky at best, and downright insulting at worst. But more importantly, I was probably the only person out of the thousand-or-so attendees who thought so. And just over a decade ago, I would most likely not have noticed them at all. As a young Christian, I happily accepted the typical gender dynamics of the religious culture (Man as the “head,” Woman as the “helpmeet”), and was particularly proud of myself for writing an opinion piece for my college paper that lauded women as precious “gifts from God.”

After my apostasy those views changed dramatically, to say the least. My dating patterns changed as well, and I began to seek out women whose courage and strength mirrored and transcended my own. I even married the best of the bunch. As I became involved in the atheist community, two things were clear: there were similar women to be found, but few had a voice. One of the first things that I did was to take an organization led by two men, and create a directing board populated by equal numbers of men and women. When founding the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, the original board was overwhelmingly female. In fact, I was the only male director until the first official election, when a more equivalent balance resumed.

This was not something that was particularly orchestrated, or a long-running conspiracy to tinker with the gender balance of a local organization. Rather, it was an instinctive desire (shared by many in addition to myself) to make the local secular community welcoming to both sexes. And the easiest way to do that, in my own humble opinion, is to find female leaders, put them in charge, and get the fuck out of their way.

This strategy has paid massive dividends. Across the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason, the gender distribution is 60% male, 40% female. This remains consistent in both of the largest member organizations, the Metroplex Atheists and the aforementioned FoFDallas. Not coincidentally, both of those organizations also have leadership boards that are at least 40% female. (We’re still working on racial and ethnic diversity.)

That’s why it’s so disappointing to hear about sexism in the atheist community at large, which has been an unfortunately recurring theme over the past few years. Last year’s “Elevatorgate” incident boiled over the atheist blogosphere like nothing I’d ever seen before (although the FoFDallas did an excellent job analyzing and contextualizing the issues locally). This year, it appears to be another minor comment in the wake of the Women in Secularism conference (a landmark event which will hopefully not be overshadowed by the brewing controversy). Instead of the intrepid Rebecca Watson advising potential suitors to avoid late-night elevator propositions, this time around it’s Jen McCreight who let slip some inside baseball about icky male speakers.

Yes, it’s disappointing. But it’s important. And here’s why.

To my own great discredit, I’ve been privy to some of the same advice that Jen received (although couched in a different context), and it didn’t occur to me that this would be a concern to women. Not even once. Oh, sure, I thought “ew, gross” to myself a few times, and made a mental checklist of which speakers I did and did not want to associate with, but that’s as far as my concern went. I suppose that’s about what would be expected from someone with my level of societal privilege, but frankly that’s not good enough.

I should be held to a higher standard. We all should. And I offer my gratitude to Jen for (unknowingly) raising my consciousness about this issue. I’ll never look at it the same way again.

If organizations within the secular movement want to represent men and women equally, then they’ll need to stand as strongly on that principle as they do on any other issue. Don’t talk about advancing humanism if you can’t provide an environment where women feel safe. I suspect that conferences and conventions are more at risk than local organizations; people tend to act with less social restraint when they’re on the road, I’ve observed. So if it’s the case that you know what I know and Jen knows (and presumably other insiders know), please make a point to disinvite those individuals to your next event. I know I will, attendance be damned – the secular community does not exist for the purpose of organizing conventions, and we don’t need conventions to exist as a community.

If we in the secular community are truly serious about providing a counterpoint to the perceived oppression of women by religious institutions, then we’d damned sure better act like it. The next secular event I attend or organize will have a clear anti-harassment policy or it won’t happen. Simple as that.

Thermopylae and The Doubting Thomases

The Public Library is a great place to grab a few good DVDs. On my family’s most recent visit to the Rockwall Library, I found a History Channel special called Last Stand of the 300, which details the events surrounding the Spartan stand at Thermopylae during the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BCE.

A particular fact about these events struck me. The Greek city-states (not a unified, singular “Greece” yet) stayed away from each other for the most part. Each city-state looked after its own interests, including religious differences, and did not typically become embroiled in the affairs of others. The second Persian invasion changed that, at least for this battle. Several city-states banded together to prevent overall domination by the Persians—a force with tremendous momentum and evil intent.

Before I even finished the documentary, I texted Zach to point out the analogy between the Greek city-states and us—The Doubting Thomases. Zach and I agree on very, very little. Our presuppositions—despite a somewhat-shared realism—could not be further apart: he’s an atheist and I’m a theist. Such a difference has massive implications socially, politically, hermeneutically, and so on. The fact that we have this difference and continue to be friends is not shocking or even surprising because we’re both fairly nice people and easy to get along with. We send Christmas cards to each other. We sometimes get books for each other when we see books the other would like (Including an awesome set Zach got for me last year, which had autographs from three of my heroes: Robert M. Price, Bart Ehrman, and Daniel Wallace!) We’ve sent gifts to each other’s baby boy and occasionally even seek wisdom from one another about difficult personal matters. In short: we’re friends. Good friends (don’t correct me on that, Zach, or I’ll cry.)

What makes this partnership so fascinating is that, like the Greek city-states, we don’t share universal interests. We have our own agendas and our own views to refine and develop. We even have “battles” between us that have been known to stretch out into 65 comments on my Facebook wall. He has frustrated me a few times and I’m certain I’ve returned the favor more times than that.

What unites us is a shared sense of responsibility to use the gifts and resources we’ve been (yeah, I’ll say it) blessed with to make a difference and push back against “evil”. We both hate social injustice. We both want the world to be better for our sons. We are both disgusted by hatred, intolerance, neglect, and abuse caused by those using religion as a justification for their subconscious or conscious lust for power.

Zach has known some good Christian and otherwise religious people. I have known some good atheists and otherwise non-Christian or non-religious people. There are truths we can all agree on and there are evils we can all take up arms to battle against. We don’t have to erase what makes us unique; but we need to set aside what prevents us from growing stronger so that we can truly push back the darkness that threatens to destroy us all.

Billboarding Faith

Zach posted an intriguing blog about billboarding the other day. While growing up, he did not feel the need nor cultural pressure to advertise his faith through bless-ed threads. Only now, as an atheist, is he making use of ideological branding to share his views.

I share the younger years indifference to outward marketing of my “faith.” To be fair, I did not take my faith very seriously so any displays of religious affection would never have even crossed my mind. It wasn’t until I started following Jesus at age 17 that I felt emboldened to make sure everyone knew I was a Christian. T-shirts (including the “Lord’s Gym” shirt Zach mentioned,) bracelets, necklaces, wallets, patches, car emblems, car stickers, guitar case stickers, hats, sweatshirts, and the ultimate self-branding: tattoos. Thankfully, I was smart enough to get good-looking tattoos independent of hyper-evangelical memes.

The situation changed as I became more aware of how such in-your-face “witnessing” came across to others—even other Christians. I admire people who are bold and open about their faith. But I admire those who are free to share because it is a part of who they are and they use genuine interactions and situations to show what their faith means and provide solid commentary when appropriate. The Gospel does need to be told; but so often it’s told very poorly because of awful theology or communication. Billboarding and branding usually exhibit both.

I don’t wear Christian shirts anymore (except one from my seminary, DTS, which says “Hallelujah” in Hebrew—I mean, come on, that’s cool.) I don’t wear bracelets period. I took the Jesus fish emblem off of my guitar pick guard. Why? Because I don’t want to be lumped together with every other person who has those things. Let’s be honest: a lot of people have fishes on their car who are awful drivers and show no respect for anyone else on the road. History is replete with examples of people who call themselves Christians yet act like monsters. I don’t want such an easy association to be made with me (I’ll screw up my witness to others by myself, thank-you-very-much.)

On the other side of the discussion, just because someone wears the WWJD bracelet doesn’t mean they are so easily categorized, either. The trouble with branding is that it conveys things beyond one’s control. Even in close, lengthy, detailed conversation people can get the wrong impression. Billboarding just makes it that much more difficult to be clear.

Zach mentioned his son’s bib with “Damn Atheist” embroidered on it. Like Zach, I get the joke and in private it’s relatively harmless. But Christians aren’t the only ones who have public image obstacles; atheists come in all shapes and sizes and colors and don’t always agree on everything. To brand oneself is one thing. To brand someone who can neither live up to nor fail to live up to the branding is another. We want our kids to think for themselves! However right we think we are, we don’t do any service to our kids by stunting their intellectual growth. Not only that, we set ourselves up for parental anguish if we over-anxiously set an intellectual course from which they could later diverge.

And lastly, evangelicalism and company have done a terrible job with branding anyway. As a fan of good comedy, sharp design, and well-thought expression, I think Christian shirts and stickers suck (www.randomshirts.com being a notable exception to the rule.)

An Atheist in Heaven

John’s post about Universal Salvation got me thinking about Heaven. And that even if I were to hope that all people are ultimately saved, maybe I don’t really want to be if Heaven is the destination.

“Heaven” is one of the most ubiquitous religious concepts, yet remains nearly as nebulous as the concept of “Hell.” In the Western tradition, Heaven served simply as the domain of the deities, which mortals were unable to access unless they were particularly pious or virtuous (e.g., Elijah, Herakles, the Mahdi). As an optional (positive) destination within the afterlife, Heaven was linked more closely with the underworld than the mystery beyond the clouds, such as the Greek concept of the Elysian Fields. Eastern versions of Heaven were mysterious realms full of supernatural agents, the spirits of ancestors, and the source of divine rule.

The Bible mentions Heaven infrequently, and provides the only clear description in the 21st chapter of the Revelation of John. There, Heaven is presented as a new version of the city of Jerusalem, except constructed almost entirely of gold and jewels. The Revelator further describes the New Jerusalem as being centered on worship of Jesus Christ:

I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. In the daytime (for there will be no night there) its gates will never be closed; and they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it; and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

The conception of Heaven that most appeals to me is what C.S. Lewis imagined for the completion of his Narnia series, “The Last Battle.” Lewis’ Heaven is really nothing more than a rebooted version of the world we already know, minus all pain and suffering.

And that sounds nice to me, admittedly. I suppose that if there is a God who exercises his prerogative to extend universal salvation, that’s the best possible outcome that I could imagine. But I doubt that I could extend my appreciation, least of all my worship. For if a version of the world we know now without pain and suffering is within the control of a God, why not just reboot the system now and install the upgrade? If universal salvation is truly a viable option, then any delay is unnecessary cruelty.

As an atheist in Heaven, I can imagine my shock and surprise giving way not to a deep and abiding sense of gratitude, but rather to a bitter disappointment. Perhaps the more humane option really is something like Annihilationism, which would at least spare virtuous atheists the agony of an unending moral despondency.