Secularism: Where Are the Women?

As I watch the relentless, well-organized and increasingly effective national onslaught on reproductive freedoms across America I find myself asking: "What's secularism doing about all of this?"

In theory, secularism should be doing a whole lot. For, whether we are speaking about Personhood Amendments in Missisissipi and around the country, preposterous trespasses on patient privacy in Virginia abortion clinics, or last month's congressional vote on prohibiting abortions after 20 weeks in the District of Columbia, the assault always emanates from the exact same quarter: religious conservatives who wish to impose their doctrinal convictions on every woman (and man) in America.

This, my friends, is secularism's beat, for secularism encompasses a range of political positions that all share a deep skepticism about any and all undue entanglement between religion and government. Insofar as church-state issues are women's issues, one might assume that we'd be seeing intense synergies between the secular and women's movements.

This has not come to pass, for very complex reasons. American secularism's inability to partner on this issue has a lot to do with the fact that American secularism is in a state of disrepair. How far it has fallen from its glory days in the 1960s!

With each passing decade, secularism has lost ground in all three branches of government, this election year representing the nadir of the movement (witnessed in the House, the Supreme Court and -- yes -- the executive branch as well). That this decline overlaps almost perfectly with the resurrection of the religious right (which re-emerged in the 1970s largely in part over social conservatives' horror at the 1960s) is another point I am often at pains to make.

Secularism has not only lost political clout, but personnel as well. The once-mighty mid-century secular coalition housed under one tent religious minorities, like Jews and liberal Catholics; doctrinal separationists, such as Baptists -- yes, Baptists; professional guilds, including public school teachers and civil servants; as well as the very small but always formidable cohort of American non-believers.

Only the non-believers remain as energized, card-carrying "secularists." With the exception of the Baptists, none of the others really slammed the door on the way out, they just lost a good deal of their energy and passion for secular activism. Much of this is the fault of an asleep-at-the-wheel leadership, which in the Reagan, Bush I and Clinton years failed to recognize and strategize the threat from the religious right while mobilizing the base.

With this mention of nonbelief, we are now ready to get to the women's side of the equation. As I noted in this column a while ago, American secularism has become increasingly confused with American atheism (which, to be fair, was the one actor from the mid-century coalition that never abandoned ship).

For reasons that social scientists have yet to definitively unpuzzle, atheism and agnosticism are overwhelmingly staffed by men. This doesn't mean that there aren't any intelligent, influential women of non-belief, but their numbers are relatively small.

My guess is that women, particularly progressive, religious women, see secularism more as having to do with atheism than it does with the gender-based church-state issues of interest to them. Their political loyalty is understandably to the women's movement.

Maybe it's a question of communications and outreach. American atheist groups do place an emphasis on reproductive freedoms. The Secular Coalition of America, which is clearly a group for non-believers (as opposed to religious secularists), lists access to contraception among its concerns.

The potential is there for a strong alliance between secular atheists and secular believers on the issue of reproductive rights.