I was batting emails back and forth recently with a Christian journalist – that's right, I know how to live it up – when, after I thought it critical to highlight the very blatant and very corrosive sexism in the Bible, the journalist told me that I had no right to “lecture” her on women’s rights.
Calling into question a book that contains countless injunctions to consider women an inferior creation, frequently one deserving of rape, is something we should keep schtum about now? I had no idea. I didn't get the memo.
To be that defensive, to wish to instantly shut down any discussion of such a weighty issue, seemed to me to betray a suspicious level of insecurity. If I didn't know better I'd say she knew I had a point.
My argument was, and indeed is, that women indoctrinated into a religion whose books are grotesquely discriminatory and misogynistic might perhaps be better off not hooking themselves up to a drip-feed of sexism. In making this claim I would have thought it fairly apparent that my motivation is the desire to see women emancipated rather than forced to adhere to scripture written exclusively by men doomed to be repulsed and mesmerised in equal measure by the charms of the vagina. It is alarming and upsetting to see that this fate is exactly that to which the journalist, and millions like her, would like to commit themselves.
My atheism, I would argue, makes me a feminist; or at least it does absolutely nothing to buffet me in my standing on equal treatment of the sexes. Religion by contrast can in my view do nothing but grave harm to the feminist cause. If you are a member of 'the fairer sex', I see no reason why you should wish to join such a chauvinistic boys' club full of sinister sanctions and ludicrous laws. Once you join the club you're doomed to spending a great deal of energy disagreeing with a large part of the club's in-house rules and regulations; why not dispense with taking out membership in the first place?
In many ways, society has achieved a vast amount in the course of history to level the playing field between men and women - but there remains, of course, a huge deal of ground to cover. If society is moving confidently forward like a lion, religion is often tottering along like a tortoise with a spinal injury. The distinction is a clear one and it is that without the confines of scripture, society is alert to where it needs to be heading, and attempts to employ the best methods in getting there; but with the confines of scripture, saddled to the discussion are heavy, cumbersome and irrelevant standards that are becoming increasingly so in a world that needs desperately to look forward rather than backwards. As soon as the feminist cause wishes to take a step in the right direction, religion invariably places a wrinkly hand on its shoulder and tells it to get back in line.
It ought for example to be glaringly obvious that the women and girls of Afghanistan and Iran wouldn’t live as inferior citizens in constant fear of harm if these countries were governed by the 'faithless'; by people to whom the equal treatment of women is infinitely more valuable than the barbaric customs passed down through a primitive text written by a man (plagiarised from other texts written by men), mediated entirely – quelle surprise – by men. Recently we were treated to the news that women in an Indonesian city under Sharia law were told that they couldn't straddle motorbikes because the position is “anti-Islamic”. Imagine having a worldview so fragile that it was in danger of being shattered by the sight of a woman sitting on a vehicle with her disgusting groin in your direction. I am not trying to argue that the way in which women mount motorbikes is an issue of Earth-shattering significance, but the story is a perfect demonstration of the degrading ways in which absolutely no part of women's lives is too trivial for religious authority to condemn. Is this an anomaly? Of course not. Wait only a few weeks and a similar story will break - then another, then another. Careful how you eat that banana; they could be coming for you.
Examine any major religious news story and all too often you will find at its heart an unhealthy and impoverished attitude towards women. The Catholic Church condemns condoms; why? Because it believes women ought to have no autonomy over their reproductive cycle. The Church of England refuses to conduct gay marriage ceremonies; why? Because it believes that gay sex is gross and that women need to be used for the apparent purpose for which they were created. The Church of England fails to instate female bishops; why? Because there are countless verses in the Bible that explicitly condemn the teaching of men by women. This is all too easy. But it really, really shouldn't be.
What is a feminist to do in the midst of such male-dominated prejudice? Fight it. Recognise the lunacy inherent in the belief that a celestial being would favour one sex over another. Shed the unnecessary load, the unnecessary burden; refuse to believe that you were put on this Earth to be 'subservient' to men, or simply to rear men's children. Rise up against religious spokesmen who tell you that there are 'degrees' of rape or that rape is something that “God intended to happen”. Look at the courage it took for figures like Malala Yousafzai and the Pussy Riot to resist and to question tyrannical regimes.
Atheism is in my submission (to use a loaded term) a liberating mind-set. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it an ideology, but in rejecting the ideology of religion it is already a substantially healthier and more emancipating framework in which to live one’s life. There are no rules nor absurd creeds to stick to. Anyone who believes themselves to value a woman's life on equal terms as that of a man has, to my mind, a duty to put this consideration at the forefront of their mind and to dismiss religion and its oppressive doctrines as being exactly what they so obviously are: man-made.