In our survey of British feminists, more than half said they were either atheist or had no religion. Here’s why that might be
Where religion’s concerned, maybe Robertson was right. Maybe feminism does lead women to reject traditional religion.
For our book about the resurgence of feminism in 21st-century Britain,Reclaiming the F Word: The New Feminist Movement, Catherine Redfern and I surveyed nearly 1,300 British feminists. We wanted to find out who the new feminists were, what inspired their engagement with feminism, which gender issues they were concerned about, and so forth.
One of our questions was: “Please describe your religious or spiritual views (including none/atheist/agnostic)” (the wording is worth mentioning, since how you ask questions affects the results, as debates on the religion question in the census reveal).
The results show that, when compared with the general female population, feminists are much less likely to be religious, but a little more likely to be interested in alternative or non-institutional kinds of spirituality.
When the 2001 census asked “What is your religion?”, more than three quarters of women said they belonged to a major world religion. In the smaller 2007 British Social Attitudes survey (which asked the question more openly), 60% of women said they regarded themselves as belonging to a religion.
But in our project, only one in 10 identified with a major world religion (mostly Christianity). Just over half the feminists said they were either atheist or had no religion. One in six was agnostic. One in 12 considered themselves spiritual but not conventionally religious and the rest answered in other ways (there were a couple of pagan atheists and Buddhist Christians, for instance).
It seems, then, that feminism does inspire women to reject religion.
Robertson was worried that feminism was challenging traditional Christian values – at least, values he considered Christian. Many liberals and feminists, concerned about the rise of fundamentalism and its erosion of women’s rights, conclude similarly that feminism and religion have little in common. As Cath Elliott put it:
“Whether it’s one of the world’s major faiths or an off-the-wall cult, religion means one thing and one thing only for those women unfortunate enough to get caught up in it: oppression. It’s the patriarchy made manifest, male-dominated, set up by men to protect and perpetuate their power.”
Sidestepping the arguments about whether or not religion is irredeemably oppressive to women (Christina Odone has refutedOphelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom’s recent claim that it is), it’s important to ask why feminists think like this. Is it that they have all undertaken a rational examination of the claims of different religions and found them wanting?
Some of them will, no doubt, have done this. But there are other possible explanations for this feminist antipathy towards religion.
The first is secularisation – in other words, the process of religious decline evident in much of Europe, especially from the latter half of the 20th century. Rates of churchgoing are falling, and younger people (who made up most of our survey participants) are especially unlikely to be religious because fewer of them were brought up to be so. Combine this with the gendered nature of secularisation – secularisation confines religion to the private sphere and the family and squeezes religion out from public life – and the reasons why feminists are less likely to be religious than other women become clearer.
Feminists challenged the traditional Christian discourse that associated femininity with service to family and church. Feminists argued for women’s right to decently paid employment in the public sphere. Feminists argued that marriage wasn’t the be-all-and-end-all of a woman’s life and she should be able to choose whether and when to have children. In other words, feminists are unlikely to be among the groups of women who are catered for by traditional religious institutions, which operate principally in the private sphere: women married with children who are not in full-time employment. There is no “natural fit” between feminists’ public, activist lives and traditional religion.
The proportion of feminists in our survey who were not heterosexual is high (40%). Given the tendency of many religious organisations to condemn homosexuality, it’s unlikely that these gay or bisexual feminists would feel at home in them.
Second, feminism’s intellectual public voice has largely been a secular one. As the philosopher Rosi Braidotti has argued, European feminists are heirs to the Enlightenment rationalistic critique of religion, and socialist feminism (with its dismissal of religion) was one of the major strands of British feminism in the late 1960s and 1970s. Even today, feminist academics tend to dismiss religion as unimportant and not worth of studying. It is likely that this secularism has influenced today’s feminists, perhaps without them noticing. (Whether this secularism has much to offer the millions of women who are, by socialisation or choice, religious, is a prescient issue that is being raised especially by postcolonial critics.)
Third, feminists’ lack of interest in religion is joined by a somewhat increased attraction to alternative or holistic forms of spirituality, from yoga, Reiki and Zen meditation to Paganism and Wicca. These forms of spirituality set themselves up as gender-equal, and this is probably why feminists like them.
In contrast to the perceived devaluation of women’s bodies in traditional religion, holistic spiritual practitioners have created female images of divinity, developed positive rituals around menstruation and childbirth and given women positions of spiritual authority.
We need to know far more than a survey can tell us about how religious attitudes are formed to tell whether these hypotheses are accurate.
In the 21st century, religion has become visible again. Around the world, state approaches to religion and secularism have significant repercussions for religious women’s wellbeing, so it’s vital that feminists consider carefully their approaches to religion – for other women’s sakes, if not for their own.