Julia Burke, of Secular Woman, asked me what I thought of Katie Englehart’s Salon piece asking where the women of New Atheism are. My first thought was the article suffered from a certain disjointedness that made it difficult to have much in the way of coherent thoughts about it, but I went back and read it again to give it a fair shake.
I still think it’s badly disjointed (which, admittedly, is sometimes an editing fault rather than a writing fault), but now my main complaint is that Englehart skimmed so lightly over the topic. I understand the reasons for working at a surface level in a piece like this. It’s rare that journalists cover atheist-related topics in any depth, because we’re still not a large part of their audience. When most of an audience is believers, a mainstream media narrative can take years to go from “Atheists exist” to “Atheism is growing” to “Here are some interesting details about atheism”. The vast majority of reporting about any minority group suffers the same way.
Englehart’s piece at least falls in the last camp. “Hey, look, atheism as a cultural phenomenon has a gender problem!” What’s weird is that Englehart herself knows that this isn’t the first time this has been written about. She linked to most of the articles that have been written on the topic in the broader media. She linked to people who have written in more depth about one particular facet of the problem. She linked to women who should be household names in atheism.
If she’d stopped there, her article might have been viewed as a tidy summary of an ongoing topic of discussion. That’s not what she did, however. Englehart pointed fingers. Some were vaguely pointed at the media, but those were borrowed from the women who have been ignored. Englehart’s own fingers pointed into history or, where they pointed in the present tense, at women. Atheist women “failed to emerge as public figures, household names.” While atheist churches, as a collective “should be active in their inclusivity, aggressively seeking out diversity in leadership and attending directly to issues of women’s rights”, atheist women who think such churches might be a good idea should know “now would be a really good time to stand up and be counted.” We were exhorted to “be wary not to give up the pulpit of non-belief too.”
Look, I’m the last person to tell you that women shouldn’t jump up and down and scream if necessary to get equal treatment, but there’s something missing here. It shouldn’t be hard to see, because what’s missing is half the human race and a majority of self-identified atheists.
Imagine, if you will, someone writing an article on this same topic actually interviewing the men involved and asking them what they’re doing about the problem.
“Professor Dawkins (or Dr. Harris or Dr. Dennett*), I’ve seen it mentioned elsewhere that the Four Horsemen bit was an accident, that the project wasn’t meant to be all men or all white. It’s still had an effect on the public face of atheism. What do you do to raise the profile of atheist women and people of color who write books and give talks as you do?”
“XYZ religion journalist, you cover the work of white atheist men fairly frequently. Which atheist women and people of color have you covered? What are your plans to cover more in the future?”
“Chris Stedman, what makes the Harvard Humanist Community appealing to sexual minorities? What is it doing to recruit or groom women and ethnic minorities for visible leadership roles in your organization?”
“XYZ conference organizer, Dan Barker is a frequent speaker at your events. Why do you not have Annie Laurie Gaylor talk about what the FFRF is doing these days? How about the female leaders of these various organizations? How about the leaders of these organizations for people of color?”
“Prometheus Press, your religion section overwhelmingly consists of white male authors. What are you doing to reach out to female and ethnic minority writers on the topic to make sure they know you’re interested in seeing their work?”
“Center for Inquiry, you have a good recent track record having women and queer people in leadership positions. To what do you attribute this? What are you doing to extend this to people of color?”
“Katie Englehart, what are you doing to make sure that when you’re writing about an atheist organization founded by a man and a woman, you focus on both of them equally in the article? Thank you for attending to the relative lack of female atheists in the spotlight. Do you plan to focus on people of color as well?”
I don’t necessarily blame Englehart for not asking the questions (even, perhaps, those of herself). People who have covered this issue before her haven’t either. People participating in the atheist movement only rarely ask these questions, despite the fact that these are our problems to solve.
Still, these are questions that need to be asked if we’re going to get any further than “Well, we’ve been talking about these problems for a few years now.” Anyone who wants to claim they have a good grasp of the situation needs to know the answers. Those of us invested in movement atheism need to see the questions asked for several reasons: so we understand that these questions and issues are important, so we set the expectation that we are all responsible for solving these problems, so we know where we can and can’t find help, so we know which solutions are working and which aren’t.
It’s okay to run a piece that says, essentially, “Yep, inclusion is still a problem”. Really, it is. Those article don’t advance the situation, but they at least keep it from falling off the radar. What you can’t do–without well-earned criticism–is diagnose the problem as a matter of women not, shall we say, “leaning in” to combat historical inequalities. It didn’t work so well for Sheryl Sandberg, at least among the feminist press; it won’t work here, where so many atheist women identify as feminist.
In both cases, framing the problem this way only adds to the burden of excluded women. It skims over the fact that women are already doing most of the work to fix those inequalities. It elides completely the campaign to push atheist women trying to create change out of the public view. And it treats everyone else involved in the situation as institutions and forces of nature instead of individuals with the agency to do better, to make decisions that actively include women instead of holding up the status quo.
I can’t help but think that Englehart sensed this, even if she didn’t realize it outright. If she really thought that atheist women were their own worst enemies in this regard, she’d have had a single narrative thread that could have pulled all those disparate pieces of an article together. It would have been wrong, but it would have been more coherent than what we were given.
So here’s to hoping she–or the next journalist to pick up on this situation–digs further than she did here. That would make an article worth reading.
*Hitchens being dead, no one can ask him, but I don’t think anyone had to. Hitchens was hardly shy about his contempt for the talents of women.