Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How can religion change to adapt to a modern world in which women are increasingly educated?
Sarah Mills: As people become more educated, they are more likely to identify as atheists. It’s a product of scepticism and reason-based thinking. This is not to say educated people cannot also- for cultural, familial, or personal reasons- hold spiritual/religious convictions that run parallel to their evidence-based ones, but organized religion generally demands a level of dependency while education liberates and encourages independent thinking. Having said that, I’ve always believed that people make of religion what they choose. Religion, in order to survive in a world of scientific hegemony in which there is no basis for the belief that females are inferior, must loosen its grip on the public sphere and shift to the personal realm. Religious authorities must favour teachings that exalted women and reinterpret those that legitimized misogyny- or dismiss them as fallible altogether. They must either do the gymnastics (and many scholars have) to come out and say misogynistic teachings are metaphoric or explain them in a historical context while clearly conveying that they are no longer, in any way, appropriate. For us atheists, it may seem like apologetics and wouldn’t be as ideal as eschewing the whole thing as the mythology we see it as, but it’s the next best thing.
Jacobsen: Hypothetically speaking, would change come from within faiths or from the outside?
Mills: One of the best tools for change we have at our disposal is the work of progressive reformers. They are the ones seeking to reconcile religion with modern, progressive values. It is unrealistic to assume everyone will simultaneously and willingly embrace atheism. Very devout persons are less inclined to listen to someone on the outside telling them how they should practice their religion. Progressive reformers and persons of faith for whom a spiritual and personal connection with something beyond the physical is deeply important are those who will shift what it means to be Christian, or Muslim, or Jewish, or Hindu. Following the development of the gay rights movement, for example, Christians of various denominations sought to reconcile their faith with their sexual orientation through linguistic and contextual reinterpretations of Bible verses that seemed to condemn homosexuality. We are seeing similar developments with the Muslim reform movement.
Jacobsen: Where can women’s rights and religion find common ground?
Mills: In minority rights. If religions want to avail themselves of the right to freedom, they cannot deny it to others. The biggest religions today were once minorities.
Jacobsen: What are some subtle areas of religion empowering women?
Mills: I would hesitate to say that religion empowers women, or anyone not at the very top of the religious hierarchy for that matter. There have been very few people, historically, who have benefitted from organized religion and those were precisely the people who called the shots. Organized religion seeks to control, like any other system of power. Women are empowering themselves, and religious women are empowering themselves by reconciling their faith systems with the feminist (and just plain decent) stance that they deserve to be their male counterparts’ equals. Perhaps a woman of faith might be more qualified to answer this question, but when I was growing up in a religious organization, I certainly did not feel empowered as a woman. It is, in fact, one of the main reasons I left. I could not accept the mental contortion it took to believe that ‘the husband is the head of the wife’ is a loving or respectful arrangement.
Jacobsen: The future is only as bright as we make it. What are your objectives for that bright future?
Mills: If there’s one thing I have faith in, it’s the human spirit. We are intensely and insatiably curious; it’s one of the traits that led us to search for answers in the first place. The power-hungry will always receive competition from the independent-minded. Some people do like the comfort of not having to think for themselves, but the loudest voices- the ones who bring about the sort of change that leads to freedom- are the ones who question and who do not accept contrived authority. Extremist strains will die out. It is inevitable. They are not sustainable. The human spirit is one that always tends, ultimately, towards freedom. My objective as a writer is to effectively convey the senselessness in robbing each other of the freedom to live and prosper, all in the name of uncertainties. My objective as an atheist is to encourage scepticism and evidence-based thinking.