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more on religion and atheism from a gender perspective, and damn statistics

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While reflecting and doing some googly research on women, woo and religious belief, I came upon an article, ‘Religion and Atheism from a Gender Perspective‘, by Tiina Mahlamäki, a lecturer in Comparative Religion at the University of Turku, Finland. The article got my back up after only a couple of paragraphs, so I’ve decided to explore my irritation here.

Two early comments immediately got me offside. First, there’s this, from the first para: ‘both (second wave) feminists and atheists consider religion from a relatively narrow point of view’. Note the moderator ‘relatively’ here. It has no real meaning, its function in the sentence is to soften the punch, an old academic device. While I can’t speak for feminists, the ‘narrow’ focus of atheists is generally upon truth, which I suspect Mahlamäki is going to tell us is boring, à la Alain de Botton. We’ll see. Next, this, from the second paragraph:

As an ideological statement and a form of irreligiousness, atheist discourse provides interesting data for the study of religions. Although atheism and secularity are not institutionalised forms of religion, they can be seen as ideologies because they are not merely describing the world; they also want to change it (Davie & Woodhead 2009: 525). For my part, I do not position myself as an atheist, nor as a member of any religious community.

The bullshit antenna is trying to yank itself out of my head here. An ideologue is someone who wants to change the world? You mean, like a researcher who wants to cure cancer, or a neurologist who wants to tease out the mechanisms of consciousness, or a physicist who wants to solve the mystery of dark matter? Or anyone who wants to make a difference in the world? For to change our understanding of the world is most certainly to change our world. These are ideologues? And here was me thinking that an ideologue was someone whose fixed notions of the world were impervious to evidence. Gee, am I dumb. As to Mahlamäki’s potent point that ‘atheism and secularity are not institutionalised forms of religion’, I’m so glad she set us all straight on that one. And then she finishes off by telling us that she isn’t so limited as to position herself anywhere, or maybe she positions herself everywhere, or whatever.

By this time I was wondering who this woman was, where she was truly coming from. Flipping to the end of the article, I noted that her interests included the nexus between religion and Finnish literature, as well as gender issues. Some of her recent writings have been on the literary influence of Emmanuel Swedenborg in Finland. Swedenborg was an eighteenth century Christian theologian, philosopher and ‘mystic’, once very influential. Oh dear. Certainly nothing remotely sciencey in Ms Mahlamäki’s background.

She goes on to point out the overwhelming maleness of the new atheist movement, a not unreasonable point, but her treatment of the ‘war between science and religion’ is wholly inadequate. Take this, for example:

Evolution is, of course, a biological fact, but for the new atheists it ‘has become a power­ful quasireligious myth by which atheists such as Daw­kins confer meaning on the world’. It has become ‘a powerful folk-tale about human origins’. (Beattie 2007: 12, quoting Mary Midgley.)

Of course, no explanation is given by Mahlamäki or Tina Beattie [the book quoted from is The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason­ & The War on Religion. Oh dear again] or the redoubtable Midgley as to how a biological fact can also be a powerful folk-tale about human origins, or how we can learn about human origins without evolution. It’s quite preposterous.

Mahlamäki goes on to treat us to a lesson in the aforementioned science-religion war. Her account starts off reasonably enough; religion and science began to separate in earnest, at least in the minds of some individuals and within certain limited circles, during the Enlightenment, and proceeded during the nineteenth century when separate scientific disciplines began to be more fully mapped out and professionalised. However, her description of the sharpening of the struggle as we move towards the modern era invokes power struggles and the tools of rhetoric, but says nothing whatever about truth, or evidence, or even such staples of the philosophy of science as coherence, explanatory power, or the way a  scientific theory’s effectiveness is consolidated by the rich research programs it gives rise to. Take this little piece of complacency, for example:

Similarly, the concrete conflict between science and religion at the end of nineteenth century was not born, according to Tina Beattie, from ‘a struggle between religious and scientific ways of explanation’ but merely from a struggle of power and authority between men of science and men of God. ‘The triumph of science over theology required the total discrediting of theological knowledge.’ (Beattie­ 2007: 20.) This active discrediting is still being continued by the new atheists.

Again, Mahlamäki uses the polemical Beattie and seems reluctant to speak for herself. And what she quotes is rubbish. The triumph of science has consisted in its ability to generate further knowledge, much of which, in applied form, has transformed our world. Theology has discredited itself in making no headway, that’s to say in generating no further knowledge of how the world works, in almost 2000 years, in its Christian form. Few scientists have bothered to engage in discourse with theologians, positively or negatively. Why would they? Atheists, on the other hand – some of whom are also scientists, and many of whom are philosophers, like Dennett, or naturally combative types like Hitchens – are often interested in discrediting theologians and their ‘deepities’, generally by pointing out their massive hidden assumption, that the object[s] of their often interminable discourses and analyses  have actual existence. Similarly, we seek to discredit belief in reincarnation and astrology because they’ve taken us nowhere in several thousand years, whereas ‘belief’ in, say, the photoelectric effect has taken us into a digital age that was unimaginable a mere century ago. Science works; it’s applicable [because testable]. I can’t imagine what an applied theology would look like.

By this time you might be wondering what all this has to do with gender. Well, Mahlamäki does write about this, but very inconclusively. She emphasises the appeal of religion to women, and she trots out a few of the more familiar possible explanations, without wholly endorsing any of them. She supports the feminist movement in its attack on the patriarchalism and misogyny of much established religion, and wonders aloud at why so many women are supportive of this oppression, but forty years on from the heights of second-wave feminism, she has no new insights to offer on the issue, leaving me wondering about the point of the exercise.

It seems at least partly an excuse for attacking so-called ‘new atheism’, and I’m not sure if it’s an attack ‘from within’, since Mahlamäki refuses to position herself [or rather, refuses to be explicit about her position, which of course is a different thing]. She dwells on the maleness of the current atheist movement, and its problems in attracting and accommodating women. This is a valid point, but somewhat exaggerated. There are prominent female atheists, and the atheist/sceptical movement is growing among women as it is among men, but again the percentages always seem to be higher for males, and this is a conundrum that needs to be explored through the tools of science, most notably experimental psychology and its connection with neurophysiology. To describe the gender difference here as biological is too simplistic. We are biologically social creatures, with nature and nurture operating interdependently. All of this isn’t to say we shouldn’t be working always on a pragmatic level to encourage more women into the movement.

I’ll end with another bone of contention. Mahlamäki makes some statistical claims, limited to Finland, about the percentage of people who claim to be non-religious versus those who claim to be atheists. She quotes the World Values Survey, 2005, which apparently found that between 3 and 5% of Finns identify themselves as ‘convinced atheists’. I don’t know if any other category of atheists is mentioned, or how this identification was made, but Mahlamäki’s main purpose here was to look at the gender breakdown: 2% of females and 5% of males. The same survey found that 36% of the population identified themselves as non-religious. No comment is made about the extraordinary finding, to me at least , that something like 90% of these non-religious people don’t claim to be atheist, or ‘convincedly atheist’. What do they claim to be? Then she quotes another survey  by the International Social Survey Programme (2008) which found that ‘Approximately 8 per cent of women and 15 per cent men have no belief in God,
Spirit, or Life Force.’ This sounds like convinced atheism to me, and the figure, cutting the gender division in two, comes in at about 11.5%, maybe three times the figure for the other survey. And these figures should be seen in the context of a nation whose figures for religiousness regularly come in well below those for Australia. They just further indicate how statistics can be heavily skewed by survey methodology and interpretation. I should also point out that the gender findings of both these surveys, with more than twice the number of men being non-religious as women, don’t fit with the findings from other countries, including Australia. The gender gap is there, but it’s generally not so wide.

I could chase up these different surveys and check out their methodologies, as far as I’m able, but I have better things to do. Suffice to say that, with these widely varying results, it’s highly unlikely that any of these studies will be definitive. In the end, what people think on these matters is personal and complex, and box-ticking questionnaires are unlikely to enlighten us about the answers. Perhaps we should just accept the crudity of these figures however skewed one way or the other, and take them all with a grain of salt.

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Written by stewart henderson

August 17, 2012 at 11:58 am

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