( This piece was first published on the Huffington Post )
There are few arguments more pointless than the on-going battle between religious groups and so-called ‘new’ atheists trying to ‘out-atrocity’ each other. “Call yourselves moral? What about the Crusades?” “Ha! But your side has Stalin!” Kerpow. The whole thing is reminiscent of ‘Godwin’s Law’, the truism that states that all altercations on the Internet, no matter what their topic, invariably end up with someone being compared to a Nazi.
This game of ‘war-crimes Top Trumps’ that constitutes much of the current debate about religion sheds little light on the real, more subtle issues at stake. Given the fact that most people, in my social circle at least, aren’t genocidal maniacs, the more pressing concern about the role of religion in public life is the very real threat that religious influence poses to equality between men and women.
Matters of faith have been high on the agenda on both sides of the Atlantic in recent weeks. In the US there have been the bitter wrangles between religious organisations and the government over President Obama’s Birth Control Mandate, a law requiring health insurance companies to provide free contraception. Meanwhile, back in the UK, Conservative peer Baroness Warsi has been firing off odd editorials in the Telegraph attempting to stem a force she is calling “the rising tide of militant secularisation” and arguing that in order to create a more just society, “faith should have a seat at the table in public life.”
I am, at least nominally, a religious person. I was married in a synagogue, observe religious holidays and even once, in a weak moment, attended something called ‘rock and roll Shabbat.’ I am certainly not anti-religion and believe that at its best, it can offer a combination of community, comfort, tradition and awe that is hard to find elsewhere. As a matter of private conscience, religion has a lot to offer, but when faith finds its way into politics, the results usually don’t look good for women.
Take employment law for example. In both the US and the UK, religious groups have secured a sweeping exemption from anti-discrimination laws. In short, this means that they are not required to abide by the laws of secular society that guarantee equal treatment for women in the workplace. As a result, there is no major organised religion in either country in which women are permitted to hold the top jobs.
This isn’t just bad luck for the individuals concerned. Religion carries vast influence in society generally. Religious groups run a third of all Britain’s schools and a significant proportion of other state-sponsored services, and the current government are pushing hard for this to expand. Religious leadership roles are positions of moral authority and faith leaders are role models who shape conduct and societal norms. The exclusion of women from positions of power within religion lessens our status in society as a whole.
This legally sanctioned sexism is a particular problem in the Church of England. In the House of Lords, the highest legislative body in the country, there are 26 seats reserved for Bishops. Seats which, by default, can be filled only by men.
In the US, the religious objections to Obama’s Birth Control Mandate are another case in point. The mandate stipulates that health insurance companies be required to provide free contraception. The controversy comes when religious groups, not just churches and their equivalents, but also faith-funded schools, hospitals and the like have to provide health insurance for their staff, but don’t want it to cover birth control. Yesterday the Senate voted against wide-scale exemptions for religious groups by a margin of just 3 votes, but lawsuits by religious organisations have already been filed against the government. It looks likely that eventually the administration will cave and make concessions of some sort.
A woman’s ability to choose for herself whether or not to get pregnant is a basic condition of equality. Her boss’s religious views (which she may well not share) shouldn’t determine whether or not she can afford to go on the Pill. If religious interests are allowed to steer policy-making in this area, it will be a serious blow for women’s rights.
The same goes for abortion. Last week, in deference to religious campaigners, the State of Virginia passed a law requiring any woman who wants an abortion to submit to an ultrasound and an ‘opportunity’ afterwards to view pictures of the foetus (they should count themselves lucky that they weren’t forced to have the ultrasound performed by vaginal probe, part of the original legislation, but discovered to be prohibited by sexual assault laws) Similar, or even sterner abortion laws exist in twenty-one other states.
Baroness Warsi’s idea that an increased role for religion will lead to a more just society is simply not borne out by the evidence. When religion enters the murky world of politics, all too often, women are the losers.