So, I was about sit down and write with a premeditated topic in mind: last week's sentiments on "evidence for God" as discussed last week at SI's. Problem was, I stopped by DaylightAtheism first, where I found the following interesting hypothesis: an inversely proportional relationship between religiosity and misogyny exists – at least – so suggests guest writer Sarah Braasch in her second essay there. I would've left it well alone, but she implied some things about San Francisco that I want to challenge from personal experience, and I feel any San Franciscan in their right mind would have to agree.
If you don't want to read her post first, it's basically a story about how some sailors took her on a cruise through the Neopolitan prostitution subculture, oddly juxtaposed against the religious beast that is Roman Catholicism. As I said, most of her post was easy to sympathize with. Sure, the moral indifference to the victims of prostitution she describes is deeply troubling, especially considering its close proximity to what is perhaps the world's leading religious superpower. Atheists aren't the only ones noting that the abject conditions of humanity ironically persist whether a culture is predominantly religious or not. Problem is, she starts to jump the gun and get a little bit preachy for atheism right about here if you ask me:
How can human beings be so inured to the suffering of their fellow creatures? As a human rights activist, I am sometimes awestruck by the absence of humanity in humans. And, how to account for the insensitivity? It is in our nature? Or, can we rise above? What is holding us back? I think religion is holding us back. It is all too easy to view human beings as unworthy of your sympathy and care if you think of them as the damned and filthy heathen hordes shunned by your Almighty.
I really enjoyed her first essay, and I really enjoyed 90% of this one. Still, I couldn't help but to nod in agreement with the many commenters who seemed to feel religion entered the discussion out of left field, and I would add a point most of the atheist commenters missed: this argument uses a ridiculously one-sided example of religion. The focus is near exclusively on the Judeo-Christian religions, whereas a larger number of religions exist that do not categorize people thusly, nor do the Judeo-Christian religions necessarily view the unrepentant as "shunned by [their] Almighty." Whether intentional or mere Freudian slip, this was clearly just another argument painting the Judeo-Christian religions as responsible for misogyny, lawlessness and callous indifference to human suffering, when in reality these unfortunate misgivings are caused by several interweaving and overlapping socio-cultural and economic factors, both religious and secular.
I'm not surprised Ebon let this one slip through the editorial cracks, because its a powerful rhetorical argument against religion, but the fact remains that Sarah gave "religion" as her singular answer to the question of "what's holding us back [from rising above our indifference to human suffering]" when I think it's fair to say a reasoned look at reality suggests the problems are more complex.
It's possible the more casual readers of her essay were equally impressed by the quality and eloquence of her writing, yet maybe didn't question the conclusion drawn for whatever reason. It would be sad to see them (or anyone) walk away with the impression that all atheists would be so selective and narrowly-focused as to suggest an inversely proportional relationship between religiosity and misogyny, lawlessness or callous indifference to human suffering. Nevermind the stinking corruption of secular politics! Forget all about the intrinsic fallibilities that have equally plagued humans for millennia regardless of their belief systems! Nevermind the evolutionary angles to the arguments, which we'd think might be more forthcoming from an atheist! It's religion, damn it!
Admittedly, I think all rational and honest people must agree that religion can and does have particularly negative effects in societies and families worldwide. Yet, like anything else, I think all rational and honest people must also agree that religion can and does have positive effects in societies and families worldwide, too. Lastly, all rational and honest people must also admit the same goes for atheism. That's why I couldn't help but resist when she suggested an inversely proportional relationship between religiosity and misogyny:
The more religious the society, the worse the human rights violations perpetrated against women, the less "moral" men behave towards women.
This is odd in theory and untrue in practice. In fact, just a few paragraphs earlier, Sarah also said her classmate's distant family members took her and her classmate "on a driving tour of all of San Francisco." If that's the case, they must've missed quite a few of the City's more flavorful neighborhoods that certainly don't qualify as religious or moral towards women, neighborhoods where things go down that are far more immoral than what she described in Naples – seemingly with police approval at that. What you don't see is the worse tragedy; many of these women simply disappear – and guess what? Many in the shadow of a City Hall in what's considered by many progressives to be the beacon of modern American secularism. Similar patterns exists in most all major American cities. Would she be so quick as to suggest an inversely proportional relationship between modern American secularism and misogyny? Drug abuse? Prostitution? Indifference to human suffering? What of the relationship between American neo-capitalist commercialism and misogyny? Why make religion the sole scapegoat for humanity's shortcomings?
Don't get me wrong: I'm not contesting the fact that just like any other expression of human authority, religion can beget moral hypocrisy up to and inlcuding the subjugation of women, and of course the sailors in her story were acting repulsively. Yes, it was also most certainly ironic that what she described took place in the Vatican's shadow, but to just blame it all on religion a la Dawkins and hoist that as a petard for atheism doesn't cut it.
The problem was the author's cherry-picked approach. As rationalists and freethinkers we need to remember that cold and impartial logic always cuts both ways: if the absence of religion does not necessarily entail immorality – as I feel confident most who consider themselves rationalists or freethinkers must agree, lest they concede the disingenuous arguments on atheists and morality – neither can the presence of religion necessarily entail immorality.
After about seven comments, Sarah joined the thread herself and asked a series of questions. Among them was this one, asked to the thread in general:
Why is it so easy for you to see that religion is an egregious obstacle to humanity's development in so many regards, but not when it comes to the subjugation of women?
I didn't get the feeling that commenters there would disagree that religion – like any other power structure – loans itself well to oppression. The problem is, Sarah conflates the entire category religion with her selective perception of its employment in a narrow range of the gamut. Like politics, religion can be an egregious obstacle to humanity's development in so many regards. It can also encourage humanity's development in so many regards.
We should not conflate the thing with what people do with it. The true catalyst behind the subjugation of women is the attitude of ruthless male dominance, which can express itself through any power structure – religious, secular, political, or otherwise. This attitude can be identified, challenged and successfully rebutted in nearly all of our cultural outposts, and religion is just one of them.
Sarah comes back again later and seems like quite the good sport, thanking people for their criticisms, and really, there's no other way to go if we want to get better. Earlier, she re-assured us that she was,
…fighting against religion and all dogmatic thinking.
..but I would say as freethinkers we should fight against dogmatic thinking whether it expresses itself through religion or something else. Not all dogmatic thinking is religious, and the errors of dogmatism can befall any belief system. Personally, I felt dogma's influence in Sarah's post, as the point it sought to establish was asserted dogmatically – that is to say, without evidence or even a reasoned case supporting its conclusion, a conclusion that needed to be considered against easily observable counterexamples from some of the very neighborhoods I walk in.