Christianity, Women, and How Atheists Avoid the Facts That Matter
I’ve spent an awful lot of time over the years helping atheists understand Christianity. Too often I find I have to help atheists understand themselves, too. They claim to be the party of reason and science, facts and evidence, but frequently atheists avoid the facts that matter. They need to take a better look in the mirror.
I was at the first atheist “Reason Rally” on the Mall in Washington, D.C. five years ago. Pretty much all I heard all day long was that atheists believe in science. Richard Dawkins headlined that event. He had long been the world’s most popular promoter of atheistic evolution, and by then he had also become the leading cheerleader for militant atheism, largely through his best-seller The God Delusion; also through his “Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.”
Another leading atheist author, Sam Harris, was heading up “Project Reason.” Top atheist organizations like American Atheists and the American Humanist Association put “evidence” and “reason” at the top of their lists of values. They trumpet them so loudly you’d think they’d act them out. Instead I frequently find them using evidence selectively and self-servingly to draw unreasonable conclusions. They avoid most of the real facts.
More Evidence of Unreasoning Atheism
A scientific, reasoned, fact-based approach — the sort atheists claim to follow — would take all the relevant evidence into account. Hicks chose six words.
I saw the latest sign of that last week in a news item from WTVR in Virginia, about one Tom Hicks. Hicks had painted a Bible verse on the back of his pickup truck: “Women shall be silent and submissive,” 1 Cor. 14:34, adding, “God said it, believe it,” and “Read your Bible.” Apparently this has gone viral recently.
Hicks wasn’t trying to preach Bible truth. According to WTVR, “Hicks said the reason behind the verse is because he is an Atheist, and he is driving home the message that the Bible itself is offensive.” Hicks added, “[The Bible] is a hateful, hateful piece of work which Christian try to turn around and they talk about love.”
Is he right? A scientific, reasoned, fact-based approach — the sort atheists claim to follow — would take all the relevant evidence into account. Hicks chose six words.
What would he have to work with if he took a broader view? A lot.
The Bible was written in a period when women were routinely, severely, subjugated.
- Aristotle wrote, “the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.”
- Hebrew men routinely thanked God they had not been born a Gentile, a dog or a woman.
- Abortion in those days was a matter of the man’s choice, not the woman’s, and was often highly injurious or even fatal to the woman.
- Newborn girls were often left exposed to die. We have a record of one Greek man who wrote to his expectant wife, “If it is a boy, keep it, if a girl, discard it.”
- Women’s legal status in many places was equal to a male child’s, or worse.
Jesus broke the pattern.
- Jesus surprised his male followers — and the woman herself — by spending time respectfully talking with a Samaritan woman (John 4).
- His followers included many women; see for example John 11.
- The first persons to see him alive after his resurrection were women.
- Never in the Gospels do you see him talking down to women as inferior. Never.
The apostle Paul broke the pattern.
- The first convert to Christianity in Europe was a woman, Lydia, in Acts 16:6-15.
- Paul ministered with Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth (Acts 18); later he greeted them with the order reversed: Priscilla and Aquila (Rom. 16:3, 2 Tim. 4:19). It’s a small thing but strongly symbolic.
- One-third of the people he named in his long closing greetings to the church in Rome (Romans 16) were women. One of them, Junia, he described as “outstanding among the apostles.” There’s room for debate over what that meant, but there’s certainly no way to take it as demeaning.
- Paul preached radical equality in marital physical relations, in 1 Cor. 7:3,4.
- He taught male headship in marriage, yet that potentially hot doctrine has to be taken in context, too: He taught men that their role was to give themselves up for their wives as Christ gave himself up for the Church, and that men are to love their wives as their own bodies (Eph. 5:22-33).
The early church broke the pattern.
- Rodney Stark writes in The Rise of Christianity, “Christianity was unusually appealing [to women] because within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large.”
- Using solid archaeological data, Stark documents that women likely outnumbered men in the early church at large, and the Christian woman “enjoyed far greater marital equality and security than did her pagan neighbor.”
- He shows further that the early church “attracted an unusual number of high-status women.”
The Church has continued to break that pattern.
- Among all major world cultures and religions, women have never attained anything approaching equal status to men except in regions heavily influenced by Christianity. In China, young girls were crippled for life by “foot-binding,” for the sake of men’s sexual pleasure later in life. In India, widows were required to throw themselves alive onto their late husband’s funeral pyres.
Both those practices were put to an end largely through the work of Christian missionaries.
I need not remind you how much better off women are in historically Christian lands than in historically Muslim ones.
- There are exceptions, certainly: Christians have not always treated women well. A reasonable person would admit, though, that it’s at least possible that it’s not Christianity’s fault. It could be (and I think it is) because men still fall to the temptation to use their physical power to dominate women, rationalizing it through selective use of Scripture — just as Hicks did.
Meanwhile, Atheists Continue the Pattern
Religious skeptic Rebecca Watson paints a dark picture of sexual harassment in the atheist community: “I spoke out about sexual harassment among atheists and scientists,” she says. “Then came the rape threats.” Both Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are credibly accused of having a “misogyny problem.”
Atheism claims to be reasonable and fact-based, but it doesn’t live up to it.
Now, just as Christianity may not be to blame for some men’s treatment of women, atheism may not be to blame for what atheist men do. The fact that its two most prominent living leaders are named here, though, does raise tough questions about the movement as a whole.
Drawing a Conclusion
From this we can safely conclude two things. First, Christianity is certainly not the “hateful, hateful” religion Hicks says it is. A reasonable, fact-based view shows it’s reasonable to think that, in Sue Bohlin’s words, Christianity is “the best thing that ever happened to women.” You might disagree with that, but are you taking all the facts into account?
Second, Hicks jumped to an unreasonable conclusion — and he’s trying to sell that conclusion — based on a self-serving, biased, misleading, and ridiculously small sample of the relevant evidence. You’re free to disagree with that too, but if you do, you’re making the same mistake atheism makes over and over again.
This is just one small sample illustrating something I see repeatedly. Atheism claims to be reasonable and fact-based, but too often atheists avoid facts that don’t serve their own purposes.
Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream and the lead editor of True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism (Kregel Publications, 2014), which refuses to avoid facts, and provides a much more complete case for the point about atheists illustrated here. Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.