Freethought & Women’s Rights by Kevin Courcey (March 1998)

Two items caught my attention recently. One was a cartoon by Tom Tomorrow–with Sparky the penguin. Sparky is talking to a Promise Keeper about the temptation of women in the workplace, and learns that an official Promise Keeper study guide recommends simply removing from your office the woman whom you find tempting. “Get yourself another secretary,” it suggests. “Don’t even put that stumbling block in front of you.” Who cares if she’s a single mom trying to support three kids, right?
The second item was an article on the Taliban of Afghanistan. The Taliban, it seems, share the same opinion of women as the Promise Keepers. The Islamic religion addresses this issue by insisting on a strict dress for women. They have declared that all hospitals in the capital city of Kabul should immediately cease delivering care to female patients. According to Physicians Without Borders, a woman with burns over 80% of her body was refused admission at an emergency room because the male doctor on staff would not have been allowed to remove her clothes. A comatose girl was refused admission. Two women were forcibly removed from a maternity ward while in labor.

This disparaging opinion of women seems to permeate organized religion. In Hinduism, the reward for a lifetime of being a virtuous woman is rebirth as a man. Last summer, Orthodox Jewish Rabbis went out onto their balconies and threw bags of excrement at women who had the audacity to pray at the “wrong” section of the Wailing Wall. The Mormons have God-ordained polygamy and a patriarchal family structure. Pope John Paul II recently asked a female UN representative, “Don’t you think that all irresponsible behavior of men is caused by women?” Clearly these statements all embody the same antipathy toward women that fuels the evangelical Christian Promise Keepers and the Islamic-based Taliban.

As American feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton noted, “The Bible and the Church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of woman’s emancipation.” According to the 1997 Encarta Encyclopedia, “The belief that women were naturally weaker and inferior to men also was sanctioned by god-centered religions. In the Bible, God placed Eve under Adam’s authority, and Saint Paul urged Christian wives to be obedient to their husbands.”

The Bible, it seems, is a virtual handbook on the subjugation of women. It is filled with passages that teach that women are evil, unclean, should be kept silent, should be submissive to their husbands, and may be raped, sold, or even sacrificed. Early Christian writer Tertullian said “each of you women is an Eve. You are the gate of Hell, you are the temptress of the forbidden tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law.” Not wanting there to be any question of the status of women in the new Pro-testant Reformation, Martin Luther decreed: “If a woman grows weary and at last dies from childbearing, it matters not. Let her die from bearing, she is there to do it.”

Fortunately, most modern societies shun this primitive view of women. And since the majority of the bias against women has come from religious teachings, atheists are perfectly suited to come to their defense. We can and should point out the religious basis of discrimination against women. We should advance a philosophy which considers women as equals in every way; a philosophy which calls into question the unspoken religious assumptions upon which discrimination, like that of the Promise Keepers, is based. We should remind the public that we need no longer pay homage to the 2000-year-old values of ignorant desert-dwelling tribesmen. We are more knowledgeable and more ethical than they were, and it is time to move on. When attempts are made to base laws on the bible, we must remind the public that women have and will suffer most under such laws.

A mere 300 years ago, women in Massachusetts were still being executed for being “witches.” It was in our current century that women finally obtained the right to vote. It is only in the last 60 years that it has been legal for a woman to even discuss how to prevent pregnancy with her physician. And only within the last 25 years have most women had access to contraception. Those of religious faith have fought all of these advances. Until we mature enough as a society to leave these stultifying religious creeds behind, Jefferson’s principle of maintaining a wall of separation between church and state is the only way to guarantee even the most basic rights for women.

Kevin Courcey, a Foundation member, is active with the Corvallis Secular Society, Oregon.

Freedom From Religion Foundation