I was once accused of being brainwashed.
I was discussing the existence of God with a male classmate during one of the lulls typical of high school classes at the end of the semester. He knew I was a Christian, while I knew he was an atheist. I wouldn’t call him a close friend, but we were used to exchanging pleasantries and questions about homework. At first, our conversation was lively and pleasant.
Things took a turn.
He wagged a forceful finger at me and declared I only believed in God because I had been brainwashed by old white men. He was a white man—though not yet old — telling me what to believe, so his assumption was rather ironic.
“Why would you say that?” I asked, frustrated with the patronizing tone edging his words.
He shrugged. “Religion oppresses women. As a woman, you know, you’ve obviously been taught what to believe by men.” Then he rattled off something about how women who ascribe to mainstream faiths are forced into their beliefs.
As the conversation was replaced by the roar of the lunch bell and we were both swept into the business of exams and papers, I could never articulate how dehumanized I felt by his comments.
My faith was not borne out of oppression from my father or male pastors. Most of my spiritual role models were, and still are, strong women. In the end, I had decided to follow Jesus independently, not because I was forced to or taught how to think by some male dictator.
Although I admired my classmate’s intellect, I was surprised he would suggest women cannot form their own opinions and are instead indoctrinated by the men around them.
Why are there more religious women than men?
My classmate’s comments reflect the large body of sociological work seeking to understand why women are generally more religious than men.
The gender gap in religion is especially pronounced in “Western” populations, such as North America and Europe. As of 2014, a whopping 68% of atheists were men in the United States. In European countries, women are also more likely to follow religious traditions. According to my classmate, this would mean millions of religious women are willingly oppressed.
In trying to explain the religious gender gap, sociologists and academics have produced some interesting theories. Some suggest women possess certain personality traits, such as agreeableness, which lead them to conform. However, this hypothesis seems overly simplistic in scope.
When discussing religious women, the late Christopher Hitchens said the following:
Well obviously, this is not decided by God, it’s designed by man. By men, to be exact… so that they can keep women in their place. That’s easy. Only a fool can’t see that. God did not decide this. Men used religion to own women. However, the impulse of men to own women would be there if they believed in God or not. It’s just that it might be a bit harder to persuade female babies that they should be owned by men if they were not told that God wants it to be true.
Although I agree some less well-meaning men and others in positions of authority have historically used religion to subjugate women, I emphatically disagree with the notion all women of faith are owned or frightened into belief.
Other narratives have dismissed the agency of religious women in more tangible and painful ways.
In my home country of Canada, the highly contested Bill 21 prevents people working in Québec’s government — including teachers, police officers and judges — from wearing symbols of religion. For Muslim women in particular, this law is extremely harmful.
Support for Bill 21 is often grounded in the misogynistic stereotype that Muslim women are forced to wear veils and other religious coverings. In other words, proponents of this “forced secularism” law believe they are protecting women by preventing them from peacefully practicing their religious traditions.
Laws seeking to enforce secularism also perpetuate the untrue notion that religious women do not practice their beliefs freely. The official French secularism policy states:
Hostility or reservations are linked to a feeling that a symbolic attack is being committed through religious expression perceived as proselytism in the public space. Where women’s clothing is concerned, the rejected symbol is deemed to jeopardize women’s freedom, their right to equality, or even their dignity, and to contradict the principle of gender equality.
In mistakenly believing religious women who choose to wear hijabs are oppressed, these secularism laws subsequently restrict women’s freedoms — accomplishing exactly what they were against.
Misogyny beyond religion
In hindsight, I realize my conversation partner was referring to the many times various religious traditions have been used to oppress women. In my opinion, which would be better relayed in a four hour long Ted Talk, these instances are not usually representative of the faiths they claim to represent.
While the history of abuse enacted by those wielding often warped interpretations of religious traditions deserves extensive recognition, I take issue with the notion all religious women lack agency.
The idea religious women are completely incapable of forming opinions without being influenced by men is both outdated and sexist. Such a view implies women lack intelligence and denies them the agency to make their own life choices.
Women of faith are often denied the privilege of having our views examined for their intellectual merit because of our identities as women. Instead, we are repeatedly derided as mentally weak for holding said beliefs. I am not certain religious men receive the same treatment.
In this narrative, women of faith are portrayed as the intellectual pawns of their male relatives, friends, and husbands. By representing all religious women as coerced into their beliefs, one dismisses their human ability to think for themselves.
Obviously, not all male atheists think this way. I have found female atheists who echo these views. There is also still prevalent sexism perpetuated in religious circles. However, since most of the world is still religious, there have been fewer mainstream criticisms of the treatment of women in atheist discourse, which is why I believe this topic warrants discussion.
Overall, the paternalistic dismissal of religious women within many atheist circles — often based upon the idea women are less intelligent than their male counterparts — proves sexism pervades all communities, religious or otherwise.
Women of every religious background or lack thereof should not be spoken down to because they are women. Men deserve the same. We don’t need to agree with another person’s religion, but we ought to respect them.