Secularism and the Status of Women

Women's lives are better where secular culture prevails

Posted Nov 21, 2014

In societies where religion is strong, the status of women is lower, the power of women is diminished, and various life options for women related to career, family, education, personal style, sexual expression, reproduction, athletics, politics, etc. are narrower.

But in societies where secularism is strong, the status of women is higher, the power of women is enhanced, and various life options are much wider and varied.

Consider the recent data from the United Nations’ Human Development Report and Gender Inequality Index. Those societies which have the lowest levels of inequality between men and women are among the least religious/most secular countries in the history of the world: The Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Slovenia, France, etc. And conversely, those societies that have the highest levels of inequality in the world today include the highly religious nations of Yemen, Niger, Liberia, Sierra Leone, etc.

Here in the USA, being secular translates into a greater likelihood of supporting women’s rights. Decades of research reveal that secular individuals are much more supportive of gender equality than their religious people, less likely to endorse conservatively traditional views concerning women’s roles, and when compared to various religious denominations, “Nones” possess the most egalitarian outlook of all concerning women’s rights (see Zuckerman, 2009, “Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions” in Sociology Compass for all sources/citations).

Even in those societies where secularism was forcefully (and immorally) promulgated by the bayonet and gun – the former Soviet Union, for example – they, too, placed an unparalleled emphasis on women’s equality.

Indeed, there seems to be no greater friend to women’s empowerment than secularism.

Think of it another way: look at any religious tradition and you will quickly see that the more devout/fundamentalist form always hinders women’s choices, roles, and power to a far greater extent than the more liberal, secular forms. So, for example, in Hasidic Judaism, women cannot be rabbis, nor can they get a divorce if their husband will not comply. But in more liberal, secularized forms of Judaism, women can be rabbis and they can get a divorce. Devout Mormon women are expected (commanded?) to be stay-at-home moms and not work outside of the home, but less religious, less devout Mormon women have much greater choice/freedom on how they want to live their lives. Fundamentalist Islam forbids the use of birth control, but secularized Muslim women have much greater autonomy over their bodies and when they want to reproduce, if at all. And so on.

Or compare the following religious/scriptural teachings to that of the modern secular Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

* “Thank you, God, for not having made me a woman…or a slave.” – Judaism (daily prayer said by devout Jewish men)

* “If, however the charge is true and no proof of the girl’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death.” – Judaism/Christianity (Deuteronomy 22:20-21)

* “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have any authority over a man” – Christianity (I Timothy 2)

* “Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband's] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance - [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them.” – Islam (Qu’ran, Sura 4:34)

* “If any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him…And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified…But if one or either of the ten virgins, after she is espoused, shall be with another man, she has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed.” – Mormonism/LDS (Doctrine and Covenants 132:61-63)

* “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” – Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1

* “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” – Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 2

The first five of the above offer a small window into the intrinsic misogyny of the major Abrahamic faiths. The last two offer a small window into the intrinsic equality of modern secular humanism.

Of course, there are many passages in many religious scriptures of all faiths that certainly celebrate gender equality; but they do not cancel out or make any less bitter the many patriarchal and sexist scriptures that do not. And of course, there are certainly many religious individuals who support women’s rights, just as there are many secular individuals who are quite misogynistic. The former should be celebrated, the latter condemned.

But even when acknowledging these things, the facts still remain: 1) women’s status, power, wealth, and life choices are stronger/better in the most secular societies on earth today, and weaker/poorer in the most religious, 2) secular men and women are – on average – more likely to support women’s rights and equality than their religious peers, 3) within every religious tradition, the more fundamentalist/pious versions are the most oppressive/restrictive for women, while the more liberal/secular versions are the most open/egalitarian, and 4) the scriptures of major world religions contain explicitly misogynistic passages that cannot be equated to any similar such sentiments in modern, secular-humanist manifestos or declarations.