Women’s Reproductive Rights are an Atheist Issue

“Atheism is simply a lack of belief in god. That’s all. This is not an atheist issue.”

Enter my favorite pet peeve: the unwillingness to invest any energy  in social justice issues that are directly related to religion, but which one doesn’t find any particular interest in – and the justification of this by arguing that atheism doesn’t obligate any such investment.

There’s a certain logic to it, to be sure – individuals who don’t believe in any particular higher power aren’t responsible for the problems created by those who do. Nothing in the definition of “atheism” requires any sort of action at all. That’s true.

But the larger atheist movement has come to represent something else – not merely a lack of belief, but also (and just as importantly) advocacy for non-believers. Though we tend to focus on the obvious issues – coerced prayer sessions in schools and workplaces, religious monuments built with public money, and so on – this is a much broader mission. It encompasses every area of life that religious organizations have sought to control; among them sex, marriage, and child-bearing.

How does religious belief affect abortion politics? A 2009 report by the Pew Research Center sheds some light:

Among those who said religious beliefs had the most influence on their thinking, 82% said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. 72% of those who cited education as their primary influence said abortion should be legal in all or most cases.**

It’s really no surprise, then, that most religiously “unaffiliated” individuals support abortion rights. Nor should it shock anyone that there is a strong positive relationship between education level and support for abortion rights (and an even stronger negative correlation between church attendance and support for abortion rights).

Thes results echo the findings of a 2002 Gallup review:

Abortion is often thought of as a women’s issue, but polling data suggest, to the contrary, that the depth of one’s religious beliefs, not gender, is what drives attitudes on abortion. The overwhelming majority of people who say religion is very important in their lives believe abortion should either be illegal or legal in only a few circumstances. Similarly, most people who say religion is not very important in their lives believe abortion should be legal in most or all circumstances. Gallup finds some differences in abortion attitudes according to respondents’ age, education level, region of the country, political ideology and political party preference, but these patterns largely overlap with the underlying religiosity of these groups.

If we really believe that we have a right to live our lives free from the control of religious organizations and the whims of their adherents, surely we can agree that pregnant women have the same right.*

So why don’t grassroots atheist/freethought groups get more involved in promoting reproductive rights? This is what I’d like to see:

  • Newly-built partnerships with local pro-choice (and LGBT) groups. This is especially easy for on-campus groups to accomplish. Connecting with social justice groups will help your members find opportunities for local activism, and it’ll help you reach out to secular-leaning individuals who might be interested in learning more about your group.
  • Knowledge-sharing. If your group has a few members who are particularly interested in women’s rights, LGBT rights, or other social justice issues, encourage them to share information about current events pertaining to those topics. Occasionally make time during meetings – perhaps during the announcements or group discussions – to bring these current events to light.
  • Participation in pro-choice events and efforts. You don’t necessarily have to bus your group out to the state capital to fight the latest abortion restrictions – just encourage your members to get involved in whatever capacity they’d like. Letter-writing, protesting, and other activism can help draw media attention to your group and build alliances with seasoned activists.

* I think this must create an interesting dilemma for the pro-life atheist. (S)he may feel that secular reasons are sufficient to outlaw or heavily restrict abortion, but the reality of the situation – that an increasingly secular world is also an increasingly pro-choice one – may weigh heavily.

** UPDATE: Pew data was originally misrepresented.  I wrote that 82% of those who are pro-life cited religious reasons for that belief; the data showed that 82% of those who cited religious reasons as their primary motivation are pro-life.

  • strange gods @pharyn

    Thanks for this. I particularly appreciate these points:

    But the larger atheist movement has come to represent something else – not merely a lack of belief, but also (and just as importantly) advocacy for non-believers. Though we tend to focus on the obvious issues – coerced prayer sessions in schools and workplaces, religious monuments built with public money, and so on – this is a much broader mission. It encompasses every area of life that religious organizations have sought to control; among them sex, marriage, and child-bearing. … If we really believe that we have a right to live our lives free from the control of religious organizations and the whims of their adherents, surely we can agree that pregnant women have the same right.

  • Doug

    @ambidexter

    Of course, atheism itself means just a lack in belief in god. But something that every atheist brings to the definition are the reasons they are an atheist. Naturally, the reasons for this are different for every atheist, but they often have something in common: the skeptical line of thought that one should not believe things without evidence, and that it is harmful to do so.

    I therefore challenge you to show that the atheism movement (see what I did there? I took away the ability to use just the dictionary definition of atheism so you have to address what the article is actually about) has NOTHING to do with women's rights. If a group opposes religion in any form it necessarily supports women's rights, even obscurely. Religion and religious thinking have as a matter of course historically been anti-woman, from the almost benign (eve tempted adam) to the outright violation of their rights (hijabs for everyone!).

    Atheists identify with feminism and LGBT groups because we oppose religion and its cruel and pernicious use of sexual guilt to enlarge itself and eliminate opposition (see Daniel Dennet's The God Virus). If you don't personally want women to have equal rights and have non-religious reasoning for that; by all means speak up. But so far the only "reasoning" encountered for that kind of bigotry is religious dogma or sexist axioms; therefore being an active atheist means speaking out against that kind of bigotry, and being an atheist means being opposed to it.

    You don't have to be liberal to be an atheist, you don't have to hate women to be a conservative, and you don't have to be religious to be conservative, but it seems you do have to be either religious (or a horribly misinformed sexist with no regard for evidence whatsoever) to support the religious and conservative position on women's reproductive rights.

  • Ambidexter

    While many atheists are also liberals, there are others who are not. Attempts to hijack atheism to promote other agendas is counterproductive. Atheism is a disbelief in gods. End of discussion. Being an atheist may lend one to be supportive of womens’ reproductive rights but the two have NOTHING in common.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    Thanks for writing this. While atheism just means not believing in God, I definitely think that being an atheist makes me sympathetic for the situations other people are in, when religious groups treat them unfairly.

    @Ambidexter: It's not hijacking atheism to encourage those who agree with another social cause to contribute to it. No one's suggesting that atheists should be forced to support other causes or that someone who's not supporting those causes isn't a "real" atheist.