I remember very vividly the moment I realised I didn’t believe in God.
When I was 11 I was rushed to hospital in unspeakable pain, which is a completely normal part of having a congenital heart condition. For days I was in and out of agony as doctors tried to figure out what was wrong, and I can remember the anger and frustration as those who held authority positions in my life – my doctors, my parents – began to fail me for the first time. All they could say was that it was connected, somehow, to my heart and/or pacemaker, neither of which appeared to be in good working order.
When angry, alone and afraid, I know many people turn to God. Hospitals are always full of chaplains and prayer, and I knew people were praying for me. But the idea that this unspeakable, unfixable pain was somehow part of God’s plan seemed utterly disgusting to me. I could never be part of any tradition that believed in a God who was somehow responsible for inflicting malfunctioning organs on an innocent person as a consequence of supposed long-ago sin. I decided I could spend my life angry and bitter at an invisible yet omnipotent being, or I could just accept that I had drawn a short straw and get on with my otherwise comfortable and privileged life. I wasn’t thinking about the status quo, or any community I may or may not belong to, or offending anyone. My atheism is political, but it is also deeply personal. It was formed in a dark and lonely place. I think many people fail to realise that atheism can be as personal and profound as any other religious conviction.
Outside of the endless production of flimsy paper trinkets for various Christian holidays at school, my upbringing was distinctly non-religious. My parents are Buddhists, but not especially devout. My maternal grandmother is Taoist, and most of us go along with it whenever we’re in Singapore. My Korean family has one of the longest extant written family genealogies in East Asia, and we still practice jesa, or ancestor worship.
Despite all of this, my parents raised me to be a sceptic. My parents talked about God – a single, omnipotent, male deity – in the same way they talked about Santa or the Easter Bunny. God was something other people believed in, but not us. This view is not especially incompatible with Buddhism – after all, there is no deity in Buddhism, because the Buddha is widely accepted to be a real historical figure. But for me, this sceptic worldview led me to challenge many of the religious traditions I go along with whenever we visit extended family. Regardless of my parents’ personal beliefs, I was always allowed to find my own way, and of all the wacky things I have sprung on them – including, but not limited to, radical feminism, bisexuality, a general disregard for all financially-viable career paths, and a proclivity for BDSM – my atheism was the most readily accepted. Because I only take part in religious practices when I am in Korea or Singapore, they have a greater cultural than spiritual significance for me – and I have a less-than-functional relationship with my cultural background. Religion has never really been a source of solace and belonging for me – it has always highlighted my otherness and my rejection from the fold.
In the end, my main issue with the religious traditions of my heritage is the deeply Confucian ideology that underpins them. In Chinese philosophy – which heavily influences Korean scholarship – Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism coexist harmoniously in the “Three Teachings”. Confucian teachings stress the importance of female chastity and a woman’s obedience towards her father, husband, and son – ideas that I see as deeply incompatible with contemporary feminism. Confucian gender roles are everywhere in contemporary Korean society: from the absurd gender pay gap (the largest amongst OECD countries), to the male-dominated jesa ceremony for which women do all the food preparation but very little of the actual worship. Even in death, male ancestors are venerated to a higher degree than female ones. I am also uncomfortable with the deep-rooted sex-negativity in Buddhism, which stems from the teaching that sexual desire is a hindrance in the path of nirvana and results in Buddhism being used as a means to endorse slut-shaming and villainise the queer community. Confucianism (and the religions influenced by it) reinforces the sexist and patriarchal structures that still endure in contemporary Asia, and I want no part in it. This is not to say that all Buddhists are homophobic prudes or that there isn’t some cultural value in Confucianism, but as someone who lives on the fringes of these communities I am particularly susceptible to the ways in which religion and tradition have been used to isolate and discriminate.
When you are an atheist and a feminist, you get used to being kind of counter-cultural, and therefore constantly subject to scrutiny and criticism.
For me, becoming an atheist has become an extension of my own personal feminism; I see it as an act of liberation from patriarchal traditions. Despite the intersection between my atheism and feminism, however, these two concepts are sometimes taken to be very contradictory. As an atheist, I notice I am often expected to be overtly deferential to religious beliefs, even when people of faith have social licence to be disrespectful of the beliefs of non-religious people, or attempt to correct and convert them. This deference is especially expected of me as a woman and as a person of colour; there is a stigma associated with being an outspoken, opinionated woman, and this stigma extends to being open about one’s atheism. Because religion is such a huge part of maintaining the status quo, a woman who is out of the fold is taken as a threat to the social order. Even when I write or speak about my atheism I feel the need to add caveats and to assure people that I am a normal person who respects religious freedom – and I really do, considering that the countries in this world that don’t have legally-protected religious freedom also happen to be the countries where atheism is a capital offence.
When you are an atheist and a feminist, you get used to being kind of counter-cultural, and therefore constantly subject to scrutiny and criticism. I don’t necessarily take it as an offence anymore, and I encourage others not to either. Criticism does not profane the sacred, nor detract from its value. As feminists, we should know that criticism often comes from a place of love and from a need to make the world a better and fairer place. As a feminist and a rookie academic, it is immensely frustrating that religion seems to get a pass on racist, sexist and queerphobic rhetoric that would never be tolerated in progressive circles in a secular context.
Feminism is a beautifully weird, nebulous, contradictory thing. Feminist thought and theory thrives in academia, yet academia as an institution systemically favours men over women and is extraordinarily dismissive of feminist studies. Atheist feminism is certainly not the only valid kind of feminism, but it is very important, especially as the world becomes increasingly secular.
Yet atheist spaces are famously hostile against women.
Mainstream atheist communities claim to value a logical and scientific worldview – which sounds good on paper, until you realise that both “logic” and “science” are overtly coded as male. Throughout history, women have typically been viewed by patriarchal powers as too feeble-minded and irrational to be a monarch, or a religious leader, or to hold political office, or to have any position of authority or autonomy. So, it is not surprising that women are too irrational to be proper atheists. Science, for all its cool impartiality, has a long and sordid history of being bafflingly hysterical about science by or concerning women. This is particularly evident in the medical field, where female reproductive health has been increasingly politicised, and doctors systemically refuse to take women and ‘female-specific’ diseases seriously.
Like humanism, atheism’s cultural predecessor, atheism is heavily invested in the idea of the ‘rational’ – but rationalism in an imperialist and patriarchal social order is simply whatever version of events best suits those who are invested in whiteness and maleness. In my experience, any attempt to disrupt the status quo – even with such innocuous, research-backed statements such as “there is a gender pay gap” – were met with vicious hostility and cries that the “social justice warriors” were being too “irrational”. For atheist feminists, atheism is a social justice mission of refusing to allow religion to prop up inequalities inherent to the social order. The main appeal of atheism to MRAs, however, is a question of authority; if one preserves the current status quo but takes God out of the equation, then male authority can be wholly unchallenged. Atheism is seen as a means of liberating men from the oppression of a higher order and the obligations of a moral code dictated by a religious tradition; the idea that atheism may also be liberating for women is absolutely terrifying.
Standing at the intersection of atheism and feminism, I feel like I have no community.
I was very briefly a member of a university atheist and sceptic society when I was a wide-eyed, bushy-tailed, 17-year-old fresher. I made my first university friends at club meetings, but I quickly learned that I only felt safe interacting with them outside of ‘atheist’ spaces. Along with meeting fascinating, interesting and deeply thoughtful people, I also met a lot of confronting entitlement to my body and a great disregard for what I said or thought, simply because I was a young woman who showed up to these meetings alone. I was usually the only woman and/or person of colour at these meetings, and I felt more like an exotic zoo animal than an equal participant. My inbox became filled with messages from men demanding my time and attention, and any attempt to set boundaries was met with righteous indignation. One of the men I met at these meetings – a graduate student 10 years my senior – indulged in some emotional manipulation and stalking in an attempt to get me to replace a recent ex-girlfriend, with the oh-so-comforting assurance that nothing would “happen” until I was “legal”. I discovered, to my great disappointment, that atheist men are not immune to the nonsensical logic of patriarchy, slut shaming, and the like. Atheist spaces are a hive of resentment and entitlement towards women from men who feel liberated from whatever moral code religion can claim to preach, but who are deeply threatened by liberated, opinionated women.
Standing at the intersection of atheism and feminism, I feel like I have no community. Feminist circles generally do a laudable job of being inclusive of everyone’s sensibilities, but atheist feminists are always the last to be considered, because we do not have a god that can be insulted and we are not seen to come from a tradition worth respecting. Australian society is still deeply suspicious of people who live without faith. It is very difficult to engage in vital and necessary discussion on the role of religion in feminism and society when atheists are always forced to walk on eggshells, and speak in caveats and euphemism while everyone else is free to insult and ignore. At the same time, it is impossible to be taken seriously in the mainstream atheist community as a woman, let alone as a feminist.
It’s easy to feel angry and frustrated when it seems like nobody is listening and nobody values your opinion. Despite this, sometimes I am glad that I am not firmly rooted in one community or another; whenever I try to join a crowd, I am always uncomfortably aware of the inevitable compromise of personal values necessary to existing in a collective, and of how difficult it is to go against the general consensus. Existing outside of a community, living apart from the fold, means that all my opinions are my own; I am free to change them at will.