Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Question Is Who Is To Be Master

I just read Katha Pollitt's new book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights (Picador), and I recommend it strongly to anyone who's concerned about reproductive justice.  It's Pollitt at her best: lucid, rational, informed.  Since I've so often criticized her when she wasn't at her best, I'm glad to see her back in form.

Since I largely agree with her arguments, I'm not going to say much here.   This passage caught my attention because of what she didn't say:
Anti-abortion conservatives cannot admit out loud that they have basically abandoned mothers and children.  Churches and charities, they claim, will get them on their feet, with no red tape and no burden on the on the taxpayer [159].
If anti-abortion conservatives really felt this way (and I agree that they do say some version of it), then why was there a fad under Republican administrations, including Republicans-Except-In-Name like Barack Obama, for government support of "faith-based" charities?  This wasn't universal, to be sure; I believe that Pat Robertson himself warned that taking government money would open churches to government surveillance and interference.  But a believer who argues against government social programs on the ground that churches and charities can take their place should oppose faith-based charities on principle.

Pollitt falls into a familiar secularist mistake, unfortunately:
Secular people may believe abortion is wrong, they may even think women who have abortions are sluts and worse, but they don't have a divinely approved worldview that officially defines women in terms of wifely, domestic, and maternal duties and makes abortion the key to modern downfall and depravity.

Perhaps this is a good place to point out that most mainstream Protestant denominations, as well as reform and conservative Judaism, are at least moderately pro-choice, although they hardly shout their position from the rooftops.  Their quiet on the subject gives the misleading impression that "faith" itself is hostile to reproductive rights.  Be that as it may, if you want to understand why there is so little significant organized resistance to legal abortion in France, Germany, Britain, and Scandinavia, the lower level of religiosity, and the much smaller role religion plays in national life, is much of the answer [169].
Wow, "divinely approved"?  Really?  If that were true, that worldview would have to be taken at least a little more seriously than Pollitt does, or I do.  And I know that Pollitt, who like me is an atheist, doesn't really think that the male-supremacist worldview is divinely approved; I presume she was being snarky here.  But she repeats the blunder more seriously, when she asserts that there's less organized resistance to legal abortion in certain other countries because of "the lower level of religiosity, and the much smaller role religion plays in national life" there.

I think she has it backwards, as so many of my fellow atheists do.  Why is there a lower level of religiosity in those countries?  Why is there an association -- and I agree that there is -- between male supremacy and reactionary religion?  But it's not always so; there's also an association between Western science and male supremacy, both historically and in the present.  In both cases, I think that men who want rigid sex/gender differentiation will create rigid, patriarchal "worldviews."  Pollitt is not unaware of this, since she spends some time on eugenics and its role in twentieth century efforts to keep middle-class white women well-shod but pregnant, and dedicated to the service of the male.   She's also aware of the male atheists who continue that tradition to the present day.  (The title of that column focuses on the leadership, but Pollitt acknowledges the "grassroots" misogyny that female atheists contend with.)  But she's a devout believer in the power of Science to make sense of the world, and I think that's why she finds it convenient to put the primary blame on Religion.

As for "divinely approved," Pollitt shows that the Jewish/Christian Bible doesn't actually forbid abortion or say anything about it, and that even such reactionary churches as the Southern Baptist Convention came to oppose abortion only relatively recently.  I was wasting time the other night looking at some old blog posts, and came across a debate in which I disagreed with someone who claimed that "Religion starts from the assumption that an ancient text or tradition is true, and seeks to reconcile observed reality with the text."  When I pointed out that this was not in fact the case, that most religions historically have not had sacred texts and that Christianity for example began with the cult of Jesus and only produced its scriptures later on, my opposite number protested that she'd meant that religion today starts from the assumption that an ancient text etc.  That's not true either.  Texts play only a limited role in American Christianity; people who are drawn to religion are looking for something else, though the illusion of ancient tradition no doubt has some appeal.  They feel "the attraction of religious services and styles of worship (74%), having been spiritually unfulfilled while unaffiliated (51%) or feeling called by God (55%)."  "Most said that they first joined a religion because their spiritual needs were not being met. And the most-cited reason for settling on their current religion was that they simply enjoyed the services and style of worship."  And, as we all know, most Christians are biblically illiterate.  Believers don't submit to Scripture, they read their opinions and prejudices into the text and get them back endowed with authority.  The question is who is to be master, that's all -- and the answer is not Scripture, but the interpreter.

If it seems that I'm nitpicking, I reply that if we want to know how to change people's minds, if we want to know how to address people with opinions we dislike, then we're not going to get very far by supposing them to be servants of a god we don't even believe in ourselves.  Religious opponents of abortion (or of gay people, or of women's autonomy generally) don't hold their positions because their sect or its sacred text tells them to. They ignore the parts of the Bible that don't suit them, and interpret the rest so as to conform to their prejudices.  If their pastor or priest is too liberal or too conservative, they'll pick up and find one who suits them better.  Christians in those European countries Pollitt mentioned have the same sacred text as American Christians do; why don't they have the same attitudes to abortion?  Why does religion play a lesser role in their national life than in ours?  Divine approval can hardly be the answer.