An Atheist on Modesty

I’ve often seen that Christians, particularly young Christian girls, feel pressured to believe certain things about culture and about people in general. Don’t be friends with atheists, don’t participate in LGBT weddings, don’t drink like everybody else does. Probably the most common example I see, though, *cough cough* Girl Defined *cough cough* is that girls ought to be modest, and they should have a problem with immodesty.

One nice thing about atheism is that we aren’t expected to judge people in ways like this. (I know “judge” sounds harsh, but at bottom, that’s what it is.) There’s nothing compelling us to be friends only with atheists or to think there’s probably something sketchy about people with tattoos. But, surprisingly, I have found that being secular does come with an expectation that is such a polar opposite of the Christian’s conundrum that it works in about the same way.

It’s a popular opinion these days, especially among atheists, that people should be allowed to wear whatever they want, no matter how modest—and I agree, so far. But it seems to me that I often see my fellow women going out of their way to show off what they’ve got, which is entirely their choice, but what I can’t understand is… why?

I feel out of place having any second thoughts on female atheist YouTubers wearing low-cut tops, because as an atheist I have no reason or place to dictate or have an opinion on what people wear, and I know that I don’t. I just want to express that I can’t understand what motivates people to dress provocatively on the Internet. I personally would feel unbelievably self-conscious and uncomfortable doing so.

This contrasts with the idea of Christians being pressured to judge others because I feel as though, as an atheist, I’m almost silently pressured not to be judgmental. I know there’s nothing wrong with female YouTubers making videos in camisoles, or even in bikinis, but when it adds nothing to the content and isn’t necessary, I can’t help but feel personally annoyed. At the same time, I feel like my annoyance is some sort of an atheist sin, and I’m not supposed to feel that way.

There’s a good chance that this subconscious judgment of scantily-clad women comes from my religious upbringing. I’ve never really been one to dress provocatively, so I don’t have many memories of my mother trying to get me to cover up, but the modest Lutheran culture probably caused me not to think twice about it in the first place. I guess this is something that comes with being a Christian-raised atheist that people don’t expect; sometimes the traits that were ingrained in us from our religious days stay with us. I know that it’s caused my unpopular opinion on atheists and modesty, but hey—atheists are a diverse group and each and every one of us can have different beliefs.


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22 Replies to “An Atheist on Modesty”

  1. I think that this is a really interesting topic. Like other readers, I do agree that your point does not have much to do with your atheism and much more to do with growing up Christian, your experience of womanhood, and growing up in Western society in general.

    That notion your brought up is one that I’m all too familiar. Feeling that you don’t have the right to judge other people’s choices either because you associate judgement with your former religion or feel guilty for judging someone while they could just as well judge you for being an atheist. I feel like this “atheist guilt” is a whole different topic in and of itself. I’m not sure if many others experience it, but it is quite a weird phenomenon. I wonder if any other minority cultures feel that way, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I guess I don’t see the connection to atheism here. Christians might feel pressure from other christians to dress modestly because of their beliefs and I can see that connection. However, how a person dresses or how you feel about how another person dresses has zero connection to atheism. There is nothing about being an atheist that says you have to like everything that everyone does. Would you feel the same way about music? I don’t listen to dubstep, hardcore rap or country music. I don’t get it but I don’t think my atheism makes me feel pressure to not say something to someone that does listing to those kinds of music. Because in the end just because it’s not for me doesn’t mean its wrong or bad. Its just not for me. I think the bigger question here is why does it bother you so much you feel like might want to say something? Maybe a carry over from you upbringing? Maybe yes or maybe no.

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  3. I would say you are more bothered by atheists in bikinis on the internet as a feminist and not as an atheist. Although I reckon you are thinking to yourself “this person adds value to the conversation about the validity of secular thought, too bad her message will be lost as most men stare at her cleavage.” It might also make you question their motivation. Are they looking to add value to the conversation or just be popular? We might also ask, if a bikini gets a good message out to more people, does the end justify the means? I suspect though, given the anonymity and the misogyny that exists in our society such women are bringing on more pain for themselves than need be. But maybe part of what they want to justify is the level of misogyny that is out there. It’s hard to understand the motivations of such people. As you are clearly an analytical person when asking the question “why?” you desperately want to find an answer. I am the same way. But when of things I’m learning as I get older is that judgement usually begins when you try to answer the question. The truth is there are many possible answers, and unless you sat down and had a conversation with that person you aren’t going to understand, so why not leave it at “I don’t understand why.” No judgement necessary. You already have right ideas:

    1) Women should have the freedom to wear what they want. This is not a license to objectify them.

    2) Women have different ideas of what is appropriate for a particular venue/environment/situation. This is normal in a society in which women are free to make their own choices about themselves.

    3) A woman’s choice of clothing might be a mistake, but women are empowered enough to be able to deal with the consequences and smart enough to learn from those mistakes.

    What else really needs to be said? Now as a female atheist you feel it is important to talk about issues in a different way for women, and I tend to agree. Perhaps it is still a sign of a double standard that if women have something important to say they must also meet certain physical criteria, but this should simply not be the case and this is a cause worth fighting for. A better message can be promoted without tearing other women down. And I’m not saying that’s what you are doing, just saying we don’t need to judge, we just need more women like you speaking your mind. I am glad I live in a time where women have a voice. That is something to celebrated. And I hope the future brings more people paying attention to what they say and not as much about how little they wear when they say it.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Very interesting read. I think ingrained in our biology is a need to “judge” new people we encounter. We have to know on a basic level if this person is a threat or not. The only way to do this is by their look. Are they dressed for battle? Are they smiling? Can I see their hands? Do they look like the people I know or completely different? Can I read facial cues on a face like none I’ve ever seen before (hello Xenophobia). So the fact that you “judge” somebody is as involuntary as wanting an ice cream or dreaming about ice cream (I really want ice cream right now). What you do with that judgement is what defines you as a human being in my mind. If your first instinct is not engage with somebody because they triggered some ancient alarm bells based on their looks, I’m sorry but that’s petty and you are missing out on some great interactions. However, if you can ignore your first instinct and insist on finding out more about the person before making up your mind, that’s when, no matter what you belief in, you are a decent person in my book.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The island culture of the South Pacific, including Hawaii, shocked Christian missionaries who simply could not condone bare breasted women going about their daily chores in the public arena! As a result, a main goal was to convince the native female population that they were being wanton and flaunting their upper bodies was sacrilege and sinful. (Note: It has been duly recorded by linguists that in many of those island cultures, a word for rape did not even exist.) But back to clothing.

    Our clothing culture is not uniform, excuse the pun. 🙂 Clothing norms on the beaches of L.A. are less restrictive than say, the beaches of Alabama. Nevertheless, in a broad sense, socially acceptable dress codes are changing whether we like it or not. My guess is that in another hundred or so years, if we make it that far, an American woman may well be able to walk bare breasted in her front yard without being harassed or arrested or raped. But as of 2018, female dress is still connected more with notions of female morality rather than a desire to be stylish or independent

    The issue of modesty, to be truthful, is a patriarchal throw-back. It’s okay for a young man to rip off his shirt and proudly reveal his bare breast. But for a young lady to do so is sinful and depraved. It’s the old rag: men want to control women’s bodies.

    Remember, in 2002 when George W. Bush’s AG, John Ashcroft had curtains installed to block the Spirit of Justice statue from view while he gave speeches. The statue is of a woman with her arms lifted over her head, wearing a toga draped over her left shoulder baring her breasts. Ashcroft also held daily prayer meetings in his office.

    My mother was not an overly religious person. We went to church more as a social norm rather than a religious affirmation. When my sixteen year old little sister, on one particular Sunday, wore a mini skirt, mama was mortified. It had nothing to do with religion. Mama was furious that my sister was attracting a bunch of horny old men and was thus “making a spectacle of herself.” In short mama objected to the mini skirt on two levels: one, it reflected on her as a parent–that was about as moral as it got. And two, it attracted the “wrong” kind of attention, sexual attention, e.g. the male gaze. In other words, the mini skirt was provocative, hence bad. My mother reflected the patriarchal view that regarding clothing, women must be controlled lest they lead good, healthy, lusty men astray.

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    1. It’s also more complicated than that, isn’t it. It’s not that she was leading them astray, it was that she was dressing that way deliberately (and yet relatively unaware of how astray some of them would go).
      The patriarchal view, in my mind, has nothing to do with it. It has to do (especially these days) with dressing provocatively and then screaming bloody blue murder if someone reacts to it. Or responds.

      Men are far more suggestible than many women realize, and it often doesn’t take much at all to stir ’em up. That ain’t sin, that’s hormones. =)

      Liked by 3 people

  6. Don’t feel bad about feeling conflicted over such things. That’s normal given your upbringing. There are things I’m pretty old fashioned about too. As you say, atheists are a diverse bunch. It’s always important to remember that being an atheist is nothing more than to declare that you fail to see compelling evidence for gods of any kind. That’s it. Of course, it’s a huge place to get to. It was for me too,

    An atheist’s position on ethics and other matters has to come from elsewhere. That’s one thing philosophy is good for. For me, consequentialism, utilitarianism, existentialism (the mandate to choose and create myself), humanism (which doesn’t really go far enough since it tends to be species-biased) are appealing. Increasingly, I’m casting the net wider and worrying much more about our treatment of other species (e.g. ethics of food choices etc) and the environment.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. When it comes to judging, I look at it like this. We all judge all the time, whether we want to or not. But I guess it becomes ‘judging’ when we judge from a place of ignorance, or if we act like we know what’s best for someone else; the latter I definitely don’t agree with.
    You mention that these women are Youtubers. Well having spent way too much time on that website, they’re probably dressing that way to be a little provocative, to try and get more views and attention. That seems to be the norm on YT, and I can understand why someone might be a little annoyed at that. But I haven’t watched the atheist videos in question, so I’m happy to be wrong on that.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Being an atheist is all about being your own person, believing whatever it is you want to believe. Judge others if you want, or don’t judge others if that is your choice. Just don’t say anything if you think it will hurt them. Atheist or theist, I think it is our responsibility to do no intentional injury to anyone. Life is hard enough already without us making it even harder…

    Liked by 2 people

  9. “Don’t be friends with atheists…”

    The Christians who say such things must have forgotten that Jesus spent time with all kinds of people, to the consternation of religious authorities. (Matthew 9:11)

    “I just want to express that I can’t understand what motivates people to dress provocatively on the Internet. I personally would feel unbelievably self-conscious and uncomfortable doing so.”

    Your feelings of discomfort and self-consciousness show that you recognize you are more than one body part or another, and demand to be treated accordingly. To put it another way: Shame is nothing to be ashamed of.

    Which, perhaps, is where these feelings you have towards these women are coming from.

    Perhaps subconsciously, you are concerned that a woman who, say, wears a bikini on the Internet, is implicitly saying “The most important aspects of me are what this bikini is covering,” and you know that to not be the case — you know that one’s dignity as a human being can’t be boiled down to their butt, breasts, or hips.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Interesting post. I find that we are provided with a basic moral grounding, that we all share. You site your Christian upbringing as the reason you may feel the way you do, but it goes much deeper than that. For the record, Christians aren’t perfect, but they should not be judging others if they are truly following Christ. They should be sharing the reason for the hope that lies within them with gentleness and respect when asked.

    Liked by 4 people

  11. I suspect a lot of these women are tailoring (get it!) their appearance to what they’ve seen in the (social) media without necessarily realising the message they’re giving out. People are easily led. But then there’s nothing wrong with the human body, and in my opinion people should be free to reveal as much or as little as they want to. The problem is, there are a lot of people out there who don’t understand this, and won’t treat them with the respect that’s owing.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. As a Christian woman, I am saddened by the fact that you feel so judged by us in general. I will speak only for myself when I say that the Way that I follow makes it very clear that I am to judge no one. I am encouraged to be modest, to be kind, to be loving, forgiving, and much more, but nowhere am I taught to enforce that code on others, or to look down my nose at anyone who lives by a different code. God’s love is unconditional, and when I am most like Him, I love others in the same way. I too choose to dress modestly, bc what I have and what I am is not for public consumption. But that is my decision, and others are free to decide as they wish. This was an interesting discussion, thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. I agree, a complex topic. For the YouTubers, it might be “because they’ve realized that they can”. If they came from a background of overwhelming pressure to be modest, it might be part of their enjoyment of their newfound freedom to dress in ways they weren’t allowed to before. But there also may be a clickbait aspect to it, at least if they are reasonably young and attractive. (If I were to dress like that, I don’t think very many people would want to watch!)

    But the way we dress is part of our overall communication. Different outfits may say “I’m a rebel”, “I’m trendy”, “I want you to take me seriously”, “I’m practical”, or maybe “I’m too old to give a crap about style any more”, etc etc. Although I try not to judge the worth of a person by what they wear, their choice of clothing is often telling us how they want to be perceived at the moment.

    Liked by 4 people

  14. I personally avoid using the phrase “as an atheist” for several reasons. As you said in your last sentence, we have diverse opinions. Also, most of my opinions have nothing to do with my god conclusion or anyone’s. However, as an older male who has learned a few good lessons, I try not to react to, or to comment on, how women dress. Even more true in a society where saying, “nice outfit” might be grounds for litigation. I enjoyed reading this. Thanks for writing it. I see no harm in admiring “god’s handiwork,” should I get smacked for a raised eyebrow or slight grin.

    Liked by 3 people

  15. Ah, this is a complex subject. The persons most responsible for how women dress are other women. (Shocking, I know! But mothers want a variety of things: to protect their daughters … or to get them married off.) Provocative dress has at its heart the desire to attract a mate. Girls see provocative dress as a sign of maturity, of “growing up.” Unfortunately, there are so many people now living in very small spaces that instead of a targeted message getting through to a selected male, dress today is broadcasting and can attract unwanted attention.

    There is a general assumption that dress correlates with function. So, we have Dress for Success, but also “Dress like a hooker and people will think you are a hooker.”

    As a person who thinks that beauty comes from within I am more interested in character and intelligence, but as a human male I respond to the outward presentation as much as any other male, so this is a very complicated topic.

    Liked by 4 people

  16. Hard to escape judgement and pressure to conform, no matter where you go or what you believe! People being judged about how non-judgemental they are, quite strange. Interesting and honest piece 👍

    Liked by 3 people

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