Welcome to installment eleven in my series on speaking out against hate directed at women.
Today, I bring you the words of Dan Barker. Dan is a minister turned atheist who is co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. He, along with Annie Laurie Gaylor co-host Freethought Radio, a national weekly talkshow on the Air America network.
Dan speaks specifically about sexism, male privilege and how it directly affects our community. He also speaks out about why we need harassment policies at events.
Dan’s comments after the jump.
A few years ago, one of the female speakers at a Freedom From Religion Foundation convention complained to us that she had been harassed by one of the male speakers we had invited, an author who was well-known in skepticism, humanism, and atheism. He had been drinking, and she was shocked when he totally crossed the line. She was uncomfortable enough to bring it to our attention. Anne and Annie Laurie Gaylor quickly confronted the man on the phone, telling him that this reflected badly on FFRF–and besides, women should never feel harassed. When he called back to try to repair the damage, he asked to speak to me, not to them. “It didn’t happen,” he insisted, claiming that they were just hysterical women. I was not convinced, because I had heard the same man make borderline sexist comments and not-so-borderline jokes in the past. We never invited him to another conference.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has an explicit Anti-Harassment policy for employees and volunteers, and we announce and reiterate that policy in the worker’s handbook. To my memory, there has only been one time when we have had to invoke it. This involved a volunteer who was acting inappropriately to one of our female employees. We immediately told the volunteer about the complaint. He denied it, said he could not remember doing anything remotely wrong or imagine how anyone might interpret his actions as harassment, but we said we had no choice but to ask him not to return, since our employees have a right to a safe working environment.
Having worked for freethought and state/church separation since 1984, after 19 years in Christian ministry, I am convinced that a woman is much safer in a secular group than a religious group. She is not completely safe from harassment or insult, but I’m sure the risk is much lower. After all, nonbelievers reject the sexist and patriarchal authority of the Bible and Christian tradition, and most of us embrace fairness and equality. As a group, freethinkers are more likely to respect individuals on merit rather than identity. The vast majority of freethinking men that I know are feminists, or at least they respect feminist principles.
However, there are still some sexist men in the freethought movement. I have met them, I am sure you have too. It doesn’t follow that if you don’t believe in God you are necessarily a liberal, progressive, or feminist. Or that you are not a jerk. Although nonbelievers certainly drift toward the fairness-and-equality side of the curve, some of them are conservative in their politics and social attitudes. Some of them are still “old boys.”
A subjective rough estimate: at least a third of Christian men are openly sexist, and those will vary across a spectrum of obnoxiousness. (I think most Christian men, certainly much more than half, are philosophically, theologically and biblically sexist, but many of them are nice people and pose no immediate threat or discomfort to women.) By comparison, I think no more than 10% of freethinking men are openly sexist. Maybe it is 5%. I am sure some women will disagree with that estimate, and I might be wrong, but whatever the percentage, and however better than religion, it is still a significant number.
If my numbers are right, then a woman sitting in a mixed crowd of 200 believers will be surrounded by more than 30 men who are openly sexist. The same crowd of nonbelievers will have 5-10 such men.
Some of those men have come out of a religious background and will likely have inherited their sense of male privilege from their churches and families, but that is not an excuse. They should keep growing, keep learning. As allegedly intelligent thinkers, those men now have a responsibility to apply their sharpened reason and secular ethics to the question of fairness and safety. They should stop acting like Moses, the apostle Paul, the pope, Muhammad and Joseph Smith. They should stop treating women like property.
Let’s remember that the freethought/secular/humanist movement owes a huge debt to nonbelieving women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, and many other brave individuals who confronted the patriarchal bible head-on. (You can read about more than 50 of these women in Annie Laurie Gaylor’s book, Women Without Superstition, and about biblical attitudes about women in Woe To The Women: The Bible Tells Me So.)
So even in the secular community, the problem of sexism and hatred of women is still present, even if attenuated. Most of us men, not having had to deal with the real threat of harassment, will be sitting in the audience with no “sexism radar,” and might be blind to the reality that women are facing. While natural human sexuality is good, and “makes the world go ‘round”–and there is nothing wrong with wanting to hook up, an instinct and impulse that brought my parents together–adult mutual consent means that each person is an equal participant, and that human love and affection is freely and willingly offered, with no sense of coercion, discomfort, or power imbalance.
People can disagree. Maybe the line that should not be crossed is fuzzy. Maybe it varies from person to person, depending on our individual sensitivities. Maybe I might see harassment where you don’t. But since we cannot deny that some women, many women, actually do feel threatened in a society dominated by patriarchal attitudes, it makes sense for us to adopt the safest policy.
My advice to those 5 or 10 sexist atheist men in that audience: “don’t.” Please, let’s go out of our way to make everyone feel safe, welcome and respected. We have left the church behind–let’s also leave behind the church’s attitude of male superiority and privilege.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, Dan and thank you for speaking out against sexism.
Earlier posts in this series can be found here:
More to come.