Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Atheism and Feminism: Bristol AASS Discussion

Last Tuesday, discussion writers Caitlin G and Olly M brought us a challenging discussion on atheism and feminism. It covered a broad span of topics including sex, gender differences, the ethics of equality, religious sexism and sexism in secular society too. We started with definitions: what is sexism? What is feminism? What is the patriarchy?

The subject of objectification brought about some debate, what it was and whether pornography and strip clubs were more or less responsible than Page 3 and the media fixation on what female public figures wear. One member of our group told us about how she had worked at an estate agent in Texas which required women staff to wear make-up and how she had been sent home when she refused to comply one day. She was also required to dye her hair red because they already had blonde and brunette staff and wanted clients to be able to pick whether they did business with “the blonde, the brunette or the redhead".

The most contentious topic of the evening (which continued later on Facebook) was sex and gender differences, what they are, whether they exist and whether they are determined by genetics, culture or chance. This is a topic which suffers from terrible reporting, where gender biases are framed as “men are like X, women are like Y, therefore unpleasant behaviour, Z, is somehow justified”. This sort of thinking falls into two traps. First, gender biases tell you nothing about individuals. If it is found that 75% of boys prefer playing with trucks rather than dolls (controlling for culture, etc) then what can you infer from this information? It doesn't say that boys should never play with dolls, it doesn't say that any boy who does so is somehow disingenuously male. This leads into the second problem;  this sort of logic tries to make a statement about how the world should be from observations about how it is, breaching the is-ought gap. It is only possible to justify biological determinism for behaviour which negatively affects others if you deny rational agency as well. A disposition towards certain behaviour does not absolve us of the responsibility to negotiate rights and get the consent of others whom those actions are likely to affect.

Finally we looked at how atheism, humanism and secularism intersect with feminism. The link with secularism, seeking equality for all regardless of religion, is the most obvious one with religious organisations granted privileged exceptions from equality law and allowed to exclude women from their higher ranks. This leads to the outrageous outcome that 26 seats in the House of Lords, those of the Bishops or “Lords Spiritual”, are reserved exclusively for men. The link with Humanism is strong too, with a commitment to equality and human rights for all.

The next event is "Evan Harris: Secularism in 2013" tonight (Tuesday) at 6:30pm in The Frank Lecture Theatre, Physics

Don't forget to book tickets for the AHS Convention in London from the 1st March. Speakers include Polly Toynbee, Natalie Haynes, Robin Ince, Jim Al-Khalili Andrew Copson and Keith Porteus Wood!


  1. I think your account of the gender and sex differences is a bit misrepresentative of the discussion that took place. I would argue that looking to explain the observed differences between the sexes through biology, makes no assertions as to how things 'ought to be'; to suggest that it does, is a naturalistic fallacy. That human evolution might incline us to certain behaviours or preferences has no bearing on whether we should indulge in those behaviours or preferences.

    For example, it is widely acknowledged that our evolutionary past is responsible for our enjoyment of, and desire for, highly fatty and sugary foods. However, no one would suggest that for this reason, we should all eat nothing but steak and doughnuts, despite how much we might enjoy it. In the same sense, evolutionary psychology explains why we are (mostly) monogamous, but at times promiscuous, and under what circumstances. However, it makes no claims as to the morality of promiscuity.

    In my opinion, 'biological determinism' is a misnomer, a strawman even. It suggests that humans have no free agency, just as 'cultural determinism' does. However, no one (that I've met) advocates either position. Both biology and culture shape who we are but neither controls what we do in an absolute way. Instead they each, to differing degrees in different situations, incline us or disincline us to certain behaviours and certain preferences.

    1. Yes, so, my problem was with the way it is reported in the press (maybe I should have said "reported in the press" rather than just "reported") and how this leads to people justifying gender roles. We definitely did discuss the problems with this sort of thinking which is why I've written about it! Your examples on food and monogamy frame this well, but it's important that statements like "evolutionary psychology explains why we are (mostly) monogamous, but at times promiscuous, and under what circumstances" are not used to exclude those who deviate from the norm or deviate from identified patterns.

    2. I completely agree; all individuals should be free, and encouraged, to choose whatever career path they desire (assuming they're able to obtain the skills/qualifications necessary). There is, admittedly, a danger of people conflating 'how things appear to be (or how things were)' with how they should be, and also of people conflating general performance differences between different groups with the performance differences between individuals. There is, of course, the added problem of in-group bias, as well.

      Together, these things make it more difficult (much more in some cases) for people from outside groups to gain a foot-hold in certain 'arenas' (for lack of a better word), particularly politics and business.

      I'm not really sure what my point was here, so take it as you will.

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