Evangelicalism, Atheism, and Womanhood
I think my upbringing is a bit atypical for an evangelical. My mother was the main breadwinner for the family, due to my father’s health issues. She is a bit of a feminist herself in the sense that a woman can do anything a man can, though she totally disavows the label. I think she ignores, overlooks, and reinterprets the bits of the Bible that are degrading to women. I remember reading a book called “A Woman’s Place” that she had explaining why it was ok for women to be preachers, despite all that Paul said about women being silent in the churches. She got her ordination, but then decided to stick with lay ministry anyway. I have no clue exactly why, but I do know I’ve never seen a Nazarene church with a woman in the pulpit at the regular pastor.
It took quite a bit of doing for someone in a women’s studies class I took at UofL (for a gen ed. requirement) to convince me that the Bible devalues women. First I wanted to argue with her, but then she provided me with a list of references I just couldn’t refute. The realization was devastating, and one in a series of blows that caused me to question the Bible. I remember railing at God at home about how he could haveallowed such injustices to be in his book.
The main source of stereotypes of about women I encountered growing up was Focus on the Family. I swallowed lots of their materials while growing up—Dobson’s radio show, their children’s video series called McGee and Me, the children’s radio series Whit’s End, and, as I was nearing the teenage years, Dobson’s book Life of the Edge. Oh, I forgot to mention their magazine for teen girls: Brio. I once participated in a writing contest explaining how a girl who has lost her virginity could become a renewed virgin in the eyes of God. I won an honorable mention and had my essay printed in the magazine. It’s all totally embarrassing now. I can’t remember all the details, but I remember the vision of godly womanhood that Focus on the Family always pushed: the Jesus loving, chaste teenager who is a virgin until marriage, and she does marry, and then becomes a woman who teaches her children to be good Christians.
Sadly, Focus on the Family was also my main source for sex education. This is a joke I heard by Dobson on his radio show: “What do you call people who use condoms to prevent pregnancy? Parents!” Haha. Their idea of sex ed was to have a woman on their show who had become sterile from HPV infection to explain how devastating the effects of premarital sex had been for her. Valuable information about STD’s to be sure. But when it came to sex this is the only kind of information they deemed proper for young ears to hear. And of course, to a woman whose primary function in life was to be a mother, losing the ability to become pregnant is the worst possible thing that could happen. I filled out a little pledge sheet from their magazine stating that I would be abstinent until marriage and mailed it in, and took to wearing a chastity ring to the delight of my parents. Basically when I was ready to know about sex, the sources I had to rely on were internet search and Cosmo. Not the best sources, in my opinion. I always have the feeling that the lack of information could have turned out very badly for me if I’d been more of a social person as a teenager.
Here are a few things I learned from Focus on the Family that I unlearned either though personal experience or though learning the stories of other’s personal experiences:
• A woman who has sex before marriage will feel used and guilty like she is “used goods”. And this will make it harder for her to accept herself and find a good husband.
• If a woman ever gets an abortion she will become suicidally depressed and be at risk for other psychological and physical damage.
• Women must desire to marry and have children. It’s not stated explicitly, but alternatives to this life path are just never mentioned.
• Homosexuality is just an immoral lifestyle choice—and it can be cured.
My Dad also attended a male only conference in Washington DC called “Promise Keepers” while Mom and I listened from home. The whole big assumption of the conference was that man was the head of the house and that he is responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of the home. Far as I could tell there was no difference at home after the conference. But at any rate it was further reinforcement of the notion of the man as the chivalrous protector and provider, and of the woman as the domestic and motherly tender of the home and children. Even if that ideal didn’t exactly pan out in my house for practical reasons, it was still an ideal held up in front of me. At any rate the man was supposed to be the head of the family, and it was unnatural and against God’s plan for a woman to have this role.
My first exposure to alternate views of womanhood came from the woman’s studies class I mentioned earlier. I read stories out of an anthology about different types of women from a large black woman who learned to love her body to a butch lesbian who would cause kids on the street to wonder if she was male or female. The point of all this is that it got me to see them for once as real people. I would see the world for a few moments though the eyes of people I’d only heard talked about as degenerate sinners. It was interesting, and mind opening.
It’s taken a while longer for me to accept, much less embrace, the idea of a freethinking atheist woman. I’ve heard it mentioned how the new atheists are very masculine, and it’s taken me a while to figure out what in the world people meant by that. Is it because Dawkins and Hitchens are abrasive, offering logic and reason and combativeness but showing little tact? I’d long seen myself as more masculine then feminine. I like the hard edged, scientific approach, at least most of the time. Somehow it offends me that these are considered masculine traits. Then what is feminine? Is that what I’m expressing when I more value the experience of life and don’t care about the scientific explanation? Maybe. Is it being soft and passiveand irrational? Sometimes I soften my approach or conciliate if I value a relationship more than I care about winning an argument. This is not irrational, I hope, nor passive.
If Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris represent masculine atheism, who are the role models for feminine atheism? I didn’t know of many until pretty recently when I picked up an anthology by Annie Laurie Gaylor called Women Without Superstition: No Gods No Masters. As it turns out, there have been women atheists and freethinkers at the forefront of most if not all social movements in the United States, from the fight to abolish slavery to the struggles for the rights of women to vote and learn and own property and control when and how they will have children. It’s just that I’d never heard of so many of them. The only women I’d ever been told about were the ones involved in Christian religious organizations. Most definitely no one who openly criticized religion, and the role of the Christian churches in perpetuating women’s inequality. These women are hardly soft and passive and irrational—in many cases they were demonized from the pulpit and in the press for not being those things. The religious authorities had taught that women should be passive and silent both physically and mentally. These particular traditional ideals of femininity just didn’t work with these passionate and outspoken freethinking women. They were, however, often guided by other traditionally feminine traits such as compassion and kindness. Maybe that is what feminine atheism looks like—valuing and defending logic and reason, but not at the expense of the rest of the person. People are, after all, more than their beliefs. I’m still working out exactly what feminine atheism means to me, and I think I’ll be working on this for quite some time to come.