When Feminism Becomes a Religion

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That’s how this reader frames his criticism of contemporary feminism:

Beginning in my late teens and for many years later, I would have called myself a feminist. This was partly due to my passionately left-wing friends, and in part due to the effect of reading literature like Taming of the Shrew and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. I saw the ugliness, the way society had utterly refused to recognize the humanity of women. I saw that gender has been a cage that stunts a woman’s individual life rather than the piece of identity it is and should be. I saw the contempt, the fear, the condescension and repression, and I strongly felt it had to change and has to change more.

So I don’t think Feminism is a dirty word or should be gotten rid of. But I no longer care to describe myself as a feminist. It doesn’t have anything to do with language, and little to do with ideas.  

The feminist movement today has startling similarity to religious fundamentalism. There is the same dogmatism, the same zealous fervor, the same fear, the same clinging to certainty and the absolute conviction in one’s own correctness. Dissenters are marginalized, castigated, even cast out. The psychology is identical; all that differs are the goals.

Another striking similarity is the hostility towards science.

One of the cardinal sins is to disagree with the feminist doctrine that gender is entirely a social construction. Anyone the least bit familiar with evolutionary biology and the nature/nurture debate can see that it is not an either/or, and neuroscience has found subtle but interesting differences in the brains of men and women. [See this piece from Olga titled “Male and Female Brains Really Are Built Differently” — C.B.] But for some reason, ideas from the humanities (mostly critical theory) have been pitted against empiricism, and since the former must be correct, the latter can be dismissed.

It’s a shame, since it is due to progress in science (and not to Foucault) that society no longer believes that women have smaller, inferior brains and other such nonsense. But just as with religious extremists, feminists are fearful of what science might do to their perfect tapestry of beliefs, and what it might lead to in society, even if this doesn’t make any sense. It saddens me that friends I grew up with who were negatively affected by this mindset in the context of religion have traded that in for a different version.

What many feminists don’t understand when they complain about people refusing the “feminist” label is that it’s not about the ideas or the history. Most people don’t know much about feminist theory. It is everything to do with the feminists themselves. There is in feminism a tone of relentless grievance and antagonism. (Many feminists would tell me I’m a misogynist—a term bandied about so casually it has become self-parodic—despite the fact that I’d likely agree with them 75 percent of the time.) It is such an insular and dogmatic movement that, as with any similar milieu, people inside it can’t sense what is immediately apparent to others.

Look at the furor that erupted over Women against Feminism [see above for an example via Twitter — C.B.] There were some especially nasty responses to it, but most were the familiar spiel that if only these women knew what feminism actually meant, they wouldn’t say they were against it. What feminists didn’t see were the consistent patterns in what those women were saying.

Common reasons for being against feminism were they had been treated poorly by feminists and did not share the negativity towards men that they felt feminists were full of. They often qualified that their responses were to “modern” feminism, so as to differentiate it from earlier versions. These young women actually knew far more about feminist ideas than the average person, either from college or the internet, and they for various reasons disagreed with it. But the problem must be that they’re ignorant, because if people understood everything about feminism, they couldn’t possibly disagree with it.

Update: A reader pushes back:

The reader critiquing feminism used the fact that male and female brains have biological differences to back up an unfounded claim that citing science of any kind is a “cardinal sin” among feminists. Says who? His letter is full of weasel words—“modern feminists,” “most feminists,” “many feminists”—and these are gestural referrals to a feeling he has, as though it’s observed by evidence.

Then he says he knows feminists will call him a misogynist! What is this, Reddit? It’s not even a good critique, and “gender is a construction” isn’t only feminist territory! (Radical Feminists, proper noun, think men and women are an unchangeable biological binary and that transgender women aren’t women or feminists.)

It’s irresponsible to fuel the fire of something like the debate over feminism without questioning the claims or lack of evidence in such a long reader letter.

Another reader absorbs the debate thus far:

Reading through responses to Sophie’s note, it seems the main issue here is simply one of miscommunication. It sounds like there are mainly two distinct understandings of what you focus on when you talk about “feminism.”

The first camp talks about it like a tribal identity marker. The reader described as “firmly siding with Sophie” talks about wearing feminism as a badge of honor and traces her affiliation to the word itself to a long and continuing history. This is a textbook example of an “imagined community,” similar to nationalism, where people identify with a broad family of people they will never meet based on an idea that they have a common history and a common future destiny. To people thinking this way, identifying yourself as feminist is less about your concrete beliefs and more about a general declaration of fealty and respect to the tribe. It sounds similar to when people identify themselves as Jewish because the community identity matters more to them than the concrete theological underpinnings of Judaism.

A second camp talks about it like an ideological descriptor. This was exemplified by the summary of Charlotte Proudman’s comments, where she lays out the philosophical positions and whether she agrees or disagrees with them. In this sense, it sounds more like being a Utilitarian or a Modernist. The focus isn’t on the people who hold the belief; it’s on the details of the beliefs themselves.

The disconnect seems to be that people in the second camp are making what they believe to be innocuous statements about which values they prize more highly, and people in the first camp are interpreting these as explicit rejections of a deeply held part of their identity.

See anything important missing from this debate? Drop me an email and I’ll post.