A Pro-Science, Skeptical Woman Speaks by Kile Jones

Kile Jones, atheistIn my last post, “Feminism and Religion: Where Do I stand?” I talked about how I support an atheistic, secular, and liberal feminism that criticizes organized religion and certain religious beliefs.  After reading the comments and responding to them, I figured that having a brief interview with a woman who holds these sorts of views would be a good way to introduce them to this blog.  I met Anondah Saide at a course at Claremont Graduate University titled, “Evolution, Economics, and the Brain,” taught by the Executive Director of the Skeptics Society and Founding Publisher of Skeptic Magazine, Dr. Michael Shermer.  Anondah was the TA for the course, and I found her comments in class to promote science, reason, and skepticism towards religious and spiritual claims of all kinds.  So without further ado, here is the interview:

Anondah Saide, kile Jones, atheist woman speaks

1) Why is being an atheist important to you as a woman?

Philosophically, it isn’t. Does not believing in the existence of Atlantis shed any light on what it means to be a man or woman? Not really. Well, not believing in a supernatural force that can impact my life has no bearing on my feelings pertaining to my gender. However, the consequences of the social stigma attached to being a woman and an atheist is an entirely different story. Aside from the stigma, being an atheist isn’t important to me, it isn’t something I necessarily value, and in some respects (emotionally, existentially) it isn’t a position I’m very fond of. What IS important to me as a woman, a scholar, a human, is my scientific worldview. Being scientifically literate has had a profound impact on how I view myself as a woman socially, physically, and psychologically. The tools that science provides us to understand the world has aided me in understanding what makes men and women similar/different; and what makes women, similar/different among each other.

Looking at this question another way, practically speaking, when evaluating socio-political arguments, my stance on the legitimacy of religiously informed beliefs is relevant. For example, as an atheist, I find religious arguments, on their face, absurd. As a social scientist, I find them illegitimate simply because any argument brought into the debate must be able to withstand scientific scrutiny. In my eyes, religion does not have a privileged position on social issues, which include those that directly impact women’s rights (e.g., abortion, birth control, child rearing).

2) What problems do you have with the postmodern issues with science?

Well, a central problem is the counterproductive attempts of postmodern extremists to invalidate the most reliable method of knowledge attainment we have. But importantly, aside from that, I wonder if postmodernists are simply dismissive of the ways in which science has contributed to their goal of validating peoples from many different cultures.

It seems to me that it is not in the best interest of underrepresented groups or their allies to deny the objective reality science seeks to shed light on. Science, as a self-corrective enterprise, has in many instances, aided members of underrepresented groups by debunking unkind assumptions that served to dehumanize them. For example, the idea that a person’s physical traits (e.g., cranial size, skin color, etc.) bear on one’s intellect is now obviously false. With the development of new and improved tools, comes new and improved data on what it means to be human (e.g., the mapping of the human genome has been revolutionary).

Science has found that as a species, despite the numerous cultures in existence, we have more in common than not. In Donald Brown’s seminal work, Human Universals, he cited no fewer than 373 human universals; universals being “those features of culture, society, language, behavior, and psyche for which there are no known exceptions to their existence…” All the work it took scientists to gather such data in order to unearth the innate web that connects us, is something to be celebrated (especially by those who are activists for human rights), not scorned. This is not to say that science is infallible (lets leave the philosophy of science discussion for another day), but rather to make the point that the attack on science by postmodernists is often unhelpful and misguided.

3) Why is belief in a Goddess, spirit, or feminine vision of the divine troublesome to you?

I like this question a lot because it is something I’ve contemplated for many years in great detail. All the women I was raised around are very deeply intertwined—philosophically and socially—in New Age social networks, or what is often referred to as “New Age.” Although a social scientist and atheist myself, I’ve found that I have much more in common with the women who hold such beliefs than one might expect. On one hand, many of them are socially liberal and thus we differ very little when it comes to politics (though our reasoning for or against our positions often speak past each other). However, on the other hand, there are two central themes that I find troublesome, more so in recent years as I’ve learned more about the history, biology and sociology of our species. The first is the false dichotomy between women and men that is promoted. In other words, I often see an over valuing of “masculine” or “feminine” energy rather than a focused understanding of the similarities between the sexes; or even an understanding of intra- versus inter- variability.

The second theme that I find troubling on many levels is the idea of  “magnetism” in all of its forms; the idea that whatever happens to you (good or bad) is a result of you calling it forth. Not only is that idea asociological and egoistic because of its hyper focus on you as an individual; but it also unintentionally perpetuates the oppression of women by not laying blame where it deserves to be (not necessarily at the individual level, but at the societal level). It ignores all the other factors completely out of your control that contribute to your life circumstances. For example, if you are poor, a proponent of the idea of magnetism might simply say that the reason for your poverty is because you aren’t magnetizing wealth to your life (whatever that means in a literal sense I’m unsure, its a quite fuzzy concept to begin with). That response doesn’t account for all the other factors not of your choosing that contribute to poverty (e.g., what country or society you were born into, what ethnicity you are, whether or not your parents had a formal education, and what socioeconomic status they achieved, etc.) All of which have been found to factor into your socioeconomic status later in life. For those of you that would suggest that someone has any say in those demographic variables, I say, the burden of proof lies with you. Don’t oversimplify very complex situations.

4) What would you say to religious women who fight for feminism and women’s rights?

This is a very good question, a tough one because it must be highly contextualized. I suppose it would depend on the religion (e.g., Islam versus Buddhism) the woman belonged to, the degree to which she was religious, and her definitions of feminism and women’s rights. If her definition of women’s rights meant fighting to keep women fully covered by a burqa and/or within the control of their husbands, then there would be a huge discrepancy between our definitions. I would need to deconstruct the woman’s argument in order to understand where our views diverge. But let’s say that the woman believed in a woman’s right to use birth control at her own discretion, I don’t know that I would have much to converse with her about on that issue. Not all religions and not all religious women are mired in nonsensical arguments when it comes to women’s rights.

Anondah Saide has studied within the disciplines of sociology, education, and psychology for the central purpose of understanding spiritual and religious belief systems. She currently works as a full-time program coordinator for a graduate program, as an assistant to the editor for a peer-reviewed journal, and as a graduate assistant for a professor of evolution and paranormalism.

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Categories: Academy, Belief, college, Community, Contraception, Earth-based spirituality, Ethics, Feminism, Gender and Sexuality, God, God-talk, Goddess, Goddess Spirituality, Paganism, Politics, Reproductive Justice, Women's Rights

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22 replies

  1. I don’t know of a single person who is ‘stigmatised’ for atheism – absolutely the reverse.
    And please,could people stop conflating ‘New Age’ with all the other kinds of non-abrahamic religions out there.

  2. I resonate with this interview!! Thank you Kile Jones and Anondah Saide. Even if we practice a religious faith, I think the most creative position we can take, with the most potential, is simply to claim ourselves ultimately as agnostics, and the same in science also. How many times in history has a scientific theory been redefined, or expanded or turned upside down? We are these tiny little gnat-like creatures existent (whatever that means?) in a vast, vast universe. We can’t even imagine the infinite depth of the mysteries out there, or within ourselves for that matter?

  3. Thanks for the comment Ross: I agree!

  4. I distinguish feminist spirituality from the New Age. One big difference being that feminist spirituality is critical of notions of masculine and feminine and sacred masculine and sacred feminine taken directly from Jung whose views were based on cultural stereotypes.

    I couldn’t agree more with Anondah’s critique of the New Age view that “we create our own reality” and draw what we need or want to us. If we “create our own reality” then actually I am the only effective will in my world–a sad and solopsistic view. If there are wills in my world , then the most I can do is to influence reality, and probably much less than I might like to think.

    The obverse of this view is equally problematic–namely the view that everything that happens “happens for a purpose” because it is the will of the divine power. This implies that the divine power is omnipotent and good–a view many people think they have rejected. This view also denies that the world we know is created by multiple wills. If the divine power is omnipotent and sends us what we need for our education or spiritual development, then it is the only will in the universe, and we don’t even have a will of our own to respond.

    These two views, both popular in the New Age, are actually contradictory.

    There are atheists and there are atheists. And there are many different types of spiritual views.

  5. I am inspired that there are young women such as you,Anondah,that devote your energies to righting the blatant discriminatory positions in which women live their lives, aware or otherwise. Unfortunately, until the false chronology of History is not only corrected and passed on to the education of our youth as well as others,not much will change. There seems to be the need for a tsunamic educational shift, similar to the one that took place when it was proven the world was not flat, to wake up those who can help make this world an equal opportunity existence for all.

  6. Carol, you beat me to it. Pagans, spiritual feminists, mainstream metaphysicals and New Agers are not the same kinds of people. Although they’re all great borrowers (often from each other), they hold different beliefs about the divine. When people ask me if I’m an atheist, I always say no, I believe in lots of gods and goddesses. The singular god of the People of the Book (who are often monomaniacal) is one of many. I recommend a terrific book titled Zeus: A Journey Through Greece in the Footsteps of a God http://www.amazon.com/Zeus-Journey-Through-Greece-Footsteps/dp/158234518X/ref=sr_1_12?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1362243085&sr=1-12&keywords=Zeus

    • Barbara, I concur with your distinction and can appreciate that there are many traditions to contemplate here. I also understand that there are many people who self-identify in many different ways and that such identities are not always stagnant. At least that has been evident in my own journey. That is one reason (among many) why religious and spiritual beliefs are so fascinating.

  7. So, Anondah, you believe in science. Does that make your religion scientism? For me “knowledge attainment,” as you describe it, isn’t the be-all and end-all of knowing. There is wisdom as well, something that a woman can only attain personally through her experience of the world. That means that every one of us will have different wisdom. The objective reality that science sheds light on is important to me, but it is only one of the touchstones in my life. The scientific method is a self-corrective technique, but until it corrects itself there are many “facts” accepted as reality that turn out to be incorrect. For that reason alone, we need to trust our own understandings of reality.

    I think you don’t know the group of women (and men) that you are speaking to here. We are all feminist religionists. In particular, I am a part of the the feminist spirituality community. Feminist spirituality takes as its starting point that women are a group in our society that is oppressed (i.e. a sociological insight). We don’t oversimplify very complex situations. So it I think your comments about “magnetism” are off the mark for the people you are speaking to here. What you see as “individualistic” in “New Age” culture are within feminist spirituality anything but. Our rituals, healing, etc. aim to help women in their day-to-day lives, because we live in a patriarchy, i.e. these rituals, healings may help individual women, but the reason those individual women have problems is because they are a part of an oppressed group. And by the way, as a feminist I don’t use the word “seminal,” because it refers solely to male physiology and, therefore, is sexist.

    My husband is an atheist, and I sometimes hear a certain hubris from him that makes me take his comments with a handful of sand. Humility is something we all need, as the Hindus indicate with their allegory of the blind men and the elephant. One blind man thinks the elephant is a rope, holding onto its trunk. One thinks it’s tree, holding onto its leg. One thinks it’s a wall, touching its torso. You get the point. As humans our ability to understand reality is limited (even with science), and that’s the reason Hindus have so many gods — because of human limitations.

    • Nancy, thank you for your enthusiasm, I am open to having misinterpreted you but let me address some of what I reason you were trying to say.

      First off, “experience is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for having wisdom” (McCaffree). For example: Someone that lives in a given region of the world may not, in fact, understand the socio/political experiences of living in that region; at least not to the extent of someone that not only lives there (experience) but has also studied the country’s history extensively. Subjective experience is necessary but in order to have wisdom, I reason one must also have an intellectual understanding of the given phenomenon. I could be a tourist in many countries without having learned anything about what it is like to really be subjected to that country’s social climate. We experience many things without fully understanding or reflecting on them.

      Second, I’m not fully sure of the logic of your argument but it seems to follow as such:
      A. Science takes a long time to correct itself
      B. Therefore, we must trust our (humans) intuitions
      C. Humans are limited
      D. Therefore, we have gods (????)

      I’m not sure how this discounts science, if you are saying that sometimes science cannot answer all questions and therefore we must be “skeptical” for ourselves in evaluating our world, rather than wait for science, then I wouldn’t disagree with you. However, if we go to our intuitions first, then there is a problem because humans (and I of course include myself here) are clouded by serious biases and knowledge limitations. There are countless examples that illustrate how fallible our intuitions are and how hard it is for us to grasp certain concepts, as you so referred to a paragraph down, “humans are limited”.

      I wasn’t accusing everyone in your group of oversimplifying. You didn’t read my response because it stated who I would direct that accusation to; namely those individuals that would suggest someone has any say in the demographic variables which have made them targets for oppression, like being born a woman. Also, according to the Oxford English Dictionary “seminal” means “(of a work, event, moment, or figure) strongly influencing later developments”, which is quite obviously how I used the word. You are being overly zealous about a word choice, which was clearly not meant to contribute to the oppression of women.

      Finally, when I call “New Age” individualistic that does not mean to imply that women who identify that way do not help others. My mother calls herself a “raiki master” precisely to help others. I won’t defend this further as I believe Carol understood my point there.

    • Anondah —

      I don’t know how you deduced that I was speaking about intuitions. I was speaking about wisdom. And since I have a Ph.D. and taught Women’s Studies for years, you might deduce from those facts that wisdom for me is not purely a matter of intuition.

      The three paragraphs I wrote responded to three different parts of your essay. Your A/B/C/D schema is your own. I said that science takes time to correct itself. As a result, we need to rely on our own wisdom concerning it (and I would add — take a skeptical stance vis-a-vis science, because of this problem). Then in the last paragraph I talked about the need for humility, since we are limited as human beings in our abilities to understand. The story of the blind men and the elephant demonstrates the Hindu understanding of our human limitations. Perhaps the last sentence was a leap. Most people assume that Hindus have so many gods and goddesses because they believe in that many. But in truth, most Hindus believe that god/dess is one, but that we humans can’t see that because of our limitations. Instead we see only partial aspects of the interdependent web of life. Hence many god/desses.

      I use the word germinal instead of seminal. Seminal comes from semen. I don’t use mankind either. I use humanity. And as someone with a Ph.D. in the Humanities, I’ve spent many years looking at how words affect us.

  8. Love the elephant story you shared, Nancy, and support with all my heart, our faith primarily in healing each other as feminists. I am an agnostic, but within that unknowing, partly a Zen practitioner (many years of doing meditation in a group) and partly a Taoist (loving the humility of the Tao Te Ching), and with some interest in mysticism in all religions, especially when they connect with nature in poetry, as in haiku. The very idea that Science has some better hold on the meaning of existence, or the nature of nature, or the essence of being, or the mystical dimensions of the cosmos makes no sense to me at all. I think the human mind is too small to leap into conclusions about the big questions in science or religion. All I can say is, I am who I am, you are who you are, that’s huge though, without us having to figure it all out.

  9. I want to wait for Anondah to reply, so bear with us. June, Edgell et al, found that atheists are the least trusted group in America. If that doesn’t provoke stigmatization, I don’t know what does.

    • I didn’t know we were only talking about America !
      Apart from which, even in America (USA ?) I guess it would depend on who was asked: Young ? Old ? Educated ? East coast ? West coast ? The fact is, no matter what anybody says to the researcher, if you want to sell something you have either a pretty girl or a man in a white coat give the patter. Neither cars nor detergent were ever sold by a guy wearing a dog-collar.
      More to the point, (and again, regardless of what anyone said to the researcher) few people will go to a faith healer if they have access to a doctor. Which is maybe why you can get a Nobel prize for science (several categories) medicine, peace, and literature, but not for faith.
      The prestige of science is universal, and the prestige of its high priests underwritten by the money they can and do, earn -regardless of gender.

      Now, the fact is that while no-one need to declare themselves an atheist to do science (to join the privileged caste) a person of faith (any faith) who works within a scientific establishment will have to defend their position vis a vis the science/faith debate. Among scientists, atheism is the default position, and as such attracts no stigma at all; while science itself is so prestigious that it is absurd to talk of scientists being stigmatized. Thus the success of science has contributed to the strengthening of the atheist position, and has largely removed any ‘stigma’ which might have once attached to it. Who, I should like to know, is doing the stigmatizing ? And what if any are the consequences of being so stigmatized ? For a stigma is hardly a stigma if it doesn’t result in exclusion of some kind.

      The irony which seems to have wholly escaped Anondah is that, when it comes to the social issues to which she refers, it is science which is privileged over faith (rightly in my opinion.) Thus, for example, a Christian Scientist who wants to prevent their child having a vital operation will be overruled by judges taking advice from doctors. That there may be social pressures from faith groups is undeniable,but the fact remains that in a law-court, a thousand Christian Scientists will not overcome the opinion of a single doctor.
      Anandah clearly sees her science and her atheism as inseparable: the one underwrites the other, and as such she finds herself in a position of considerable strength rather than stigma. I think she would encounter real stigma if she were, for example, a Muslim or Fundamentalist Christian, trying to deny evolution within the scientific establishment.

      Further, I find her total belief in science self-congratulatory and rather scary. Science is NOT a ‘self-corrective’ enterprise addressing the needs of ‘under-represented groups’. The history of science is littered with example after example of the deepest inhumanity toward not just people but animals as well. Simply because cranial measurements or eugenics or Malthusian economics have become unfashionable, doesn’t mean we should forget that they were originally propagated by scientists. And of course, experiments on live animals continue to this day in the name of science. So much for under-represented groups.

      Finally, I find Ananda’s representation of ‘religion’ patronizing and ill-informed.
      First off, to millions and millions of people all over the world, faith is a good deal more than having a view about (or even over Atlantis).
      Secondly; the broader spectrum of pagans (among whom I would count myself) would in no way identify themselves as being remotely ‘new age’ and would find it offensive to be called so.
      Thirdly, the majority of pagans would never value ‘masculine’ over ‘feminine’ (or vice versa), but on the contrary, would want equality for each. (Ananda might do well to remember that it was scientists who spent the whole of 19thC and a considerable part of the 20thC trying to prove that women were inferior to men (less intelligent because of their brain size, for example).
      Finally, I find her idea of ‘magnetism’ very peculiar indeed. I have heard of some odd 19thC ‘scientific’ doctrines of magnetism, and mesmerism, but I understood these to be entirely discredited (as many scientific ideas eventually are, no matter how many animals get killed). Such ideas are certainly not current in contemporary paganism. Perhaps she is confusing ‘magnetism’ with Karma; however that, of course, isn’t New Age at all, but an extremely ancient Hindu belief. I would very much like some evidence and context (in the best scientific tradition) for this ‘magnetism’ – but then nothing that human beings find themselves capable of believing would surprise me, not even that women are stupid because they have small brains or that the truth about our condition can be reached through statistical analysis.

      • June, I find a lot needs unpacking here so I’ll just respond to address a few of your premises. 1. First off, by calling myself stigmatized, I am in no one intending to diminish the stigmatization you have encountered in your life. I am also not placing a value on my experiences of oppression in comparison to yours and never would.
        However, your tirade on the stigmatization of atheists is a non-argument. The study conducted that Kile refers to makes the case well enough for their social status among a representative (key word here) sample of Americans in the United States. I might also add that most Americans are not scientists or atheists and that I am far more likely to run into a religious person outside and even inside the academy (according to a study by Gross and Simmons among the professorate only 9.8% say that don’t believe in a god and 13.1% say they don’t know—hardly the majority), than an atheist. Science may be privileged but atheism is not. Those two things do not always go hand-in-hand. Since I live in the United States I am clearly referring to the stigma that exists for a female atheist here, which is relatively less hostile than many other places where I could have been born. I am a woman, as are you, living in a man’s world. I am also an atheist living in a social environment that privileges “faith” even just by sheer numbers (also see the work by Sean Faircloth for more information on how legal codes privilege religion in law). And yes, even among most atheists, I am still a woman in largely male social circles. If you do not believe that women atheists are stigmatized, you do not need to take my word for it. There are plenty of woman bloggers that can share their personal stories. Check out the Skepchick site for a look into hate mail, rape, and death threats those woman are subjected to by men.

        It is also important in dialogue to remember that just because you may not know someone personally that has experienced prejudice based on a certain position they hold (or physical trait they were born with), does not bear on whether or not that person has experienced prejudice. There are a lot of people, even in the United States, that do not have a Jewish, African-American, or Muslim friend (among others). Does that mean that members of those groups are not oppressed in certain contexts? Of course not! That same principle applies to being an atheist.

        2. In response to your comment that, “Science is NOT a ‘self-corrective’ enterprise addressing the needs of ‘under-represented groups’”

        Many Social Scientists would find the latter part of your statement on its face, false, and highly insulting. Not all but many. As for many, most of their life’s work has been towards such a goal. There are a lot of kinds of science being conducted by many different academic traditions, although it is difficult, I implore you to remember that when you feel compelled to lump all science and all scientists as being in bed with big business and/or their own unsavory goals. I invite you to explore the American Sociological Association’s code of ethics; as well as, the American Anthropological Association’s 2012 statement on ethics (just for starters).

        As to for the former aspect of your argument, it is simply untrue, science is always being improved and has many processes (e.g., mandatory peer review for publishing, presentations, tenure, etc.) built into its culture to ensure good science and the ethical treatment of others. Not perfect, but always improving. I’ve never called science or scientists infallible, nor would I. But one lesson from the examples you provide pertaining to mistakes of scientists in the past is that science does change and other scientists (and the public) hold their colleagues accountable. Such things are looked at in disgust hence the creation of the Institutional Review Board and the National Research Act of 1974. Also keep in mind that while religious institutions have been around for millennia and are notorious for perpetuating the oppression of the out-group and even their in-group members; modern science with all its evolving regulations for the ethical treatment of others, is only a few hundred years old.

        3. I never once equated paganism to New Age. In fact, I don’t even mention pagans or paganism in the post. Your outrage seems unfortunate, because in other circumstances, I would have welcomed to hear your thoughts on the distinction(s) you make between your paganism and New Age.

        4. When you mention how scientists spent the whole of the 19th and majority of the 20th century trying to prove woman inferior, please cite your sources, I would be interested in reading them. I find it interesting because during that time in our history, women began entering universities. It was the rise of woman entering the university, a revolutionary time for woman, in fact. A time in some sense to be celebrated. Helen Horowitz is a scholar that researches the history of women in higher education.

    • In academic circles and even among my intelligent but not academic British, German, and Australian friends in Lesbos, atheism seems to be the default position, with those who are not atheists being asked to explain themselves. Many feminist academics feel no compunction in dismissing spiritual feminism out of hand. This is not exactly conducive to dialogue. Not all academic feminists are like this, but dismissing religion and spiritual feminism certainly is not rare among academics.

      I agree with you that in parts of rural or suburban America, this might not be the case.

  10. Science has always been, for me, a process for engagement with the Universe. My spirituality is the same. In Science we take several silent oaths: to remember that all things are possible (although not all possibilities are equaly probable), that we are fallible and need tools such as the double-blind test to make sure that we see what we see rather than what we want to see, and that science is an endless dialogue (not an omnipotent force). Nowhere does spirituality preclude empirical engagement with the Universe, nor does science exclude an appreciation for the mystery and beauty of it all.

  11. I never said I was stigmatized. I don’t do stigma, not my own or anyone else’s.

  12. If someone… anyone… can prove to me, that life can arise spontaneously and mindlessly from non-living matter, and, that all matter in the universe mindlessy came from literally nothing, and, that intelligent life evolved from pond scum, then, I’ll become an atheist. Until that happens, I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.

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  1. Grief Beyond Belief and Rebecca Hensler by Kile Jones | Feminism and Religion
  2. “We Are Atheism” and Amanda Brown

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