Do Humanists make the ‘best’ feminists? Would life be better for women globally if religion was abolished? I asked these questions and others to Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association.
[To the reader: A quick reiteration – the aim of the Faith In Feminism project is simply to represent the many diverse expressions of feminism that exist. For every interview representing one perspective, a counter perspective will follow in a future interview. The views we publish are those of our contributors and in publishing them we are in no way affirming nor rejecting their viewpoint, simply showcasing them.]
VB: Do you think feminism is a term and movement that would largely be embraced by humanists worldwide? Do you personally identify as a “feminist”?
AC: I don’t like labels very much but I am very happy to say I am a feminist. I want to see girls and women realise full human rights everywhere in the world on the same basis as they are enjoyed by boys and men and I want girls and women to have equal political, social, economic and legal rights. I don’t think any humanist or humanist organisation in the world would disagree with that.
VB: Is that commitment to gender equality reflected in the leadership structures of the humanist movement?
AC: It is. Even though women are statistically more likely to be religious than men in the UK and the rest of Europe, humanist organisations have a visible over-representation of women at the top. Most of the Chief Executives or General Secretaries of European humanist organisations are women. I’m the only man in the British Humanist Association’s five-person senior management team!
VB: As a humanist, do you feel this framework is more compatible with feminism than religions like Christianity or Islam?
AC: Yes, I think this is the case both in theory and in practice. In any scriptural religion, no matter how freethinking its adherents, there is always at least some small attention paid to the foundational texts. In the case of both Christianity and Islam, these contain implicit assumptions and explicit injunctions which are anti-feminist and I think that makes it harder for a believing Christian or Muslim to be 100% feminist than it is for a humanist to be.
Humanist morality places high importance on values such as the moral equality of human beings and individual freedom and it is distinguished by placing the end of moral action in the welfare of people rather than in fulfilling any divine commandments or obedience to any authority. There’s simply no basis in such an approach to morality in differential treatment of people based solely on the fact of their sex.
VB: So you think the two are not only compatible, but have shared origins?
AC: Yes. The three pivotal works of feminism – ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, ‘The Subjection of Women’, and ‘The Second Sex’ – were all written by humanists and there is no doubt that the modern phenomenon of feminism emerged at the same time and partly as a result of the emergence of a strongly humanist culture of thought in Europe at least. With its anti-authoritarian character, far from just being compatible with feminism, I think the humanist framework is one of the factors that contributed to the birth of modern feminism.
VB: Do you think the world would be a less misogynistic place if the Abrahamic religions ceased to exist and everyone followed humanist ideals?
AC: Yes, but I also think that the followers of Abrahamic religions have been influenced in the last few centuries by humanist ideas and that, in practice, much of their morality is grounded in them rather than religious thinking. Where this is true, it leads to a very positive cherry-picking from religious texts and a revisionism in relation to them which I think will reduce the misogynistic tendencies in religions over time. Obviously progress will be uneven, but I think it will be constant.
VB: Some have argued that Feminism is ‘divisive’ as a movement whereas Humanism is ‘inclusive’. On this basis it’s been said that Feminism should be dropped and Humanism adopted instead as a better umbrella term. Do you think we still need both movements?
Well, a humanist is someone who believes that the universe is a natural phenomenon without supernatural aspects, that the morality of an action is determined by its effect on people, and that meaning is created in life by human beings, not written into the universe waiting to be discovered. A feminist is someone who believes in equal rights and treatment for women. So I think that feminism and humanism are two different types of thing, even if they overlap in the sense that their concerns are this-wordly and material.
In terms of the relative importance of the two agendas, I think adopting a humanist approach is the best long term hope for the human species and I think that humanists – to the extent that they are participants in a movement – have a vital mission in encourage a more clear-sighted assessment by all people of our current situation and future prospects.
But I don’t think that the feminist mission, in a world where women and girls are so disproportionately exploited, brutalised and discriminated against should be seen as any less necessary. Eradicating inequality between men and women may be only one aspect of a broader humanist mission but it is certainly an aspect that is important enough to be considered exceptional, and that fact that it can be a matter of consensus between humanists and those with other approaches to life makes it a tactically sound aim to prioritise.
VB: Religion could be said to enhance feminism as it adds a dimension of Divine value to the human person who is made in the image of God. Within Humanism people could simply be seen as cosmic accidents. Does this not diminish the worth of people and therefore women?
AC: There are many children now living who were ‘accidents’ in the sense that their conception was unlooked for – but a great many of them are no less loved or valued for that. Conversely, there are people in the world today and were millions in past generations deliberately bred for the short hard life of a slave – their life is no better for their having been intended creations rather than ‘accidents’. I think the same reasoning applies to human beings – I see our ‘accidental’ nature (or not) as irrelevant to the question of worth.
However our species began, human beings now exist in relation to one another and I think it is those relationships that generate value and worth. It’s not the image of any god that I see in the face of another human being but my own image – I see the humanity I share with them. When I think about equality for women in the abstract I think of my grandmother: denied a university education because of her sex; my mother: paid unequally with make colleagues; my little niece to whom I want no door ever to be closed. I certainly don’t need any extra-human, immaterial, divine reference point to encourage me to value my fellow human beings.