Jan 24 2013

Data! About secularism!

This American Secular Census thing is actually asking some good questions — insightful, even. It’s trying to get a fine-grained perspective on various factors in our involvement and sometimes comes up with some revealing data. This bit, for instance, about women’s perspective on the movement:

Regardless of gender, all respondents who are or have been involved in the secular movement are asked: Have you ever felt unwelcome, discriminated against, or harmed in the secular movement? Women outnumber men 62%/34% in responding “Yes.” It is worth noting that women do not outnumber men when asked the same question about religious organizations with which they’ve been associated. It appears they are less comfortable in secular groups than in the churches they left.

This is what a lot of us have been saying for quite some time. You have a choice of a few responses to reality: one is to deny it, one is to implicitly approve it, and one is to try and change it. Put me in the last category. Also note that I am shocked at how many skeptics/atheists are in the first, and disappointed at all the ones in the second category.

No matter your position, though, think about signing up for the American Secular Census (it does require registering and giving a valid email address). I approve of more information about the state of this movement…even if some of it does leave me shocked and disappointed.


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  1. 1

    Wow. I’ll be sharing this one around.

  2. 2
    Gregory in Seattle

    Registered, and like hjhornbeck, I’ll be sharing the link.

  3. 3

    Oh PZ, but you must know this is all lies and not a real problem. And stuff. Because, erm, I said so, that’s why.


  4. 4
    mouthyb, Vagina McTits

    I just love the smell of confirming data in the morning. *sniff* Smells a little like “we told you so, assholes.”

  5. 5

    It appears they are less comfortable in secular groups than in the churches they left.

    I’d be a little cautious about this particular conclusion… Obviously the type of people they are surveying are going to self-select for men who feel unwelcome in their previous religious groups. A better comparison would be to see if there is a gender gap in the same question asked to people who are still in their church.

    Nevertheless, even without that part of the comparison, this is pretty damning.

  6. 6

    I always felt that when the MRA’s come here to argue, ignoring the women commenters is their greatest crime. This data shows that the women here are not the exception. DJ Gothe take note.

  7. 7


    I’d be a little cautious about this particular conclusion… Obviously the type of people they are surveying are going to self-select for men who feel unwelcome in their previous religious groups. A better comparison would be to see if there is a gender gap in the same question asked to people who are still in their church.

    I wouldn’t be so hasty in rushing to caution, James. Historically and traditionally, the church, as far as the congregation is concerned, has been considered to be the domain of women. In the U.S., the reason there was a ‘muscular christianity’ movement was for men to be able to get away from the feminizing influence of church (this is still going on, under different names now), and throughout history, a moral influence has been assigned to women. We “civilise” men.

    It’s hard to ignore that historically and traditionally, the church is the one place it’s been possible for a woman to have power and control as well. Given that for many, churches have also acted as community focus and centers and social nets, it’s not surprising to find women being traditionally more comfortable within such constraints.

  8. 8

    even if some of it does leave me shocked and disappointed

    Disappointed, I’ll grant you. But shocked? Really? How could this possibly shock you now?

  9. 9

    I’m a woman in the secular movement, and have been to lots of conventions, and engage online a lot. If I answer the question “Have you ever felt unwelcome, discriminated against, or harmed in the secular movement?” strictly from my own personal perspective, then I’d probably answer “no.”

    But if I was asked “do you think women sometimes or often feel unwelcome, discriminated against, or harmed in the secular movement?” I’d say “yes.” And — more to the point — if the question is “do you think women have been made to feel unwelcome, discriminated against, or harmed in the secular movement?” then I’d also answer “yes.” And add “of course.” Obviously. Jeez.

    There is a problem, and I wouldn’t deny it or approve of it: I’m in PZ’s third category. That first “no” of mine would have to ignore or leave out the the sick sensation I get from watching people attack others, feminists like Rebeca Watson or Ophelia Benson. But if the question is supposed to reflect the experience of the individual themselves and gather additional stories of incidents and examples, then either I’ve been lucky, or clueless, or not engaging in the right controversy at the right time, or forgetful, or something else. I just know better than to extrapolate my happy little world of unproblematic welcome out into the community at large.

  10. 10

    Obviously the type of people they are surveying are going to self-select for men who feel unwelcome in their previous religious groups.

    uh… wouldn’t the same self-selecting bias apply to the women? I mean, the question was about how people felt about the groups they left

  11. 11


    That first “no” of mine would have to ignore or leave out the the sick sensation I get from watching people attack others, feminists like Rebeca Watson or Ophelia Benson.

    I think this a large category of people, Sastra, women and men. It’s an excellent point. It would be relevant to add such a question and category, because now I’m wondering how many people, who have witnessed the recent events and are sickened by it, are leery of attending cons as a result.

  12. 12

    I’m not eligible to participate in the survey (not a US citizen), but I do wish people would stop conflating “secular” with “atheist/skeptic/nonbeliever”. It is perfectly possible to be both religious and secularist. Most of the men who wrote the US Constitution were.

    The reason it matters is that it plays into the hands of the theocrats who want to portray secularism as the same thing as atheism. F’rinstance when Pope Ratzi speaks of winding back “creeping secularism” (aka “keep my church tax-free and immune from criminal prosecution but allow me to dictate legislation”), he is also blowing a dog whistle to all the anti-atheist bigots out there.

  13. 13

    I wonder if this would help my situation in my local secular coalition. The libertarian/conservative arm of our skeptic community has overtaken dialogue in many situations, to the point where I’m losing interest in participating in many activities. One of the coalition leaders expressed concern about how a casual meetup at Hooters would be perceived by the greater populous (despite the events of the group not being visible to non-members), and I agreed with her, pointing out that I have encountered a couple of other women who have expressed no interest in joining a skeptics community because of perceived anti-women motions, and Hooters would not help drawing those women to us. (I drew a parallel that there was no corresponding casual dinning experience where an objectified, all-male staff could serve us.)

    For my trouble, I was treated with a rant about how feminists, despite our claims that we only want gender equality, are clearly more interested in female superiority and punishing natural heterosexual male tendencies. Evidently the entire notion of “privilege” is just begging to be dismantled, there are so many cases of clear female priviledge in culture that we don’t acknowledge (like how breast cancer gets more press than prostate cancer), and all apparent anti-feminist activity in the atheist movement are just giant tantrums by women looking to be offended out of innocuous male behavior. This same individual also pondered on the notions that only moral argument that could be drawn from atheism is regarding the treatment of sex, despite having pushed very hard to ostracize a sex worker who dared to reveal her occupation during what she thought was a safe environment. I received other statements stating that since my hypothetical male-Hooters equivalent doesn’t exist, I should just get a male stripper for my home dining experience, and let the group have their fun.

    Honestly, I don’t think these people care if women don’t want to be part of the atheist community.

  14. 14


    (like how breast cancer gets more press than prostate cancer)

    *Sigh* This is still being used?

  15. 15


    *Sigh* This is still being used?

    Sad to say. I could dig up more tidbits from the rant, but I buried it in my email trash and have little desire to relive the emotional trauma of being completely and totally dismissed despite being a co-leader of the coalition.

  16. 16
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    *Sigh* This is still being used?

    My office. 8:40am. This morning. Yup.

  17. 17

    Why is it that I have yet to encounter a woman who doesn’t know about Movember, but most men don’t seem to know a damn thing about it?

  18. 18
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.


    Uh, wow. I was aware of the no-shave November/Movember movement but had never actually known what it is until, oh, 30 seconds ago. Thank you for your continued efforts to educate those of us who are willfully ignorant.

  19. 19
    Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle

    Honestly, I don’t think these people care if women don’t want to be part of the atheist community.

    Well . . . not quite. They don’t care if capable, intelligent, strong women don’t want to be part of the atheist community. but door mats, bigot-groupies and booth babes are always welcome. As long as they shut up and make sammiches, of course.

  20. 20

    despite being a co-leader of the coalition.

    Why aren’t there more women in leadership positions again? *sigh*

    We need some sort of all-male feminist shock troops to parachute into these douchebuckets’ meetings and flourish data in their faces. *plays A-Team theme*

    *because this level of douchebucket sometimes listens better to real people *cough* other men.

  21. 21

    Ogvorbis, no problem. Perhaps you could get the word out about prostate cancer awareness? There’s actually a lot of it going on. I don’t know why so many men aren’t paying attention. September is National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, the ribbons are light blue.

    I’m going to add that the reason breast cancer awareness and funding is higher than that than prostate cancer because women got tired of women dying and started fucking yelling about it. I don’t exactly see anyone preventing men from doing the same. It’s up to men to become activists about this – why in the fuck are women expected to do it? (Not yelling at you, Ogvorbis, just general yelling.)

  22. 22

    Why aren’t there more women in leadership positions again? *sigh*

    We are 50-50 now. I lead a book discussion group, another woman leads the humanist group, and guys lead the “conservative skeptics” group and casual dining/entertainment group. (There is also a parenting group, but we haven’t heard from them in some time…). There was another woman who co-founded the reading group with me, but she was the ostracized sex worker and left in protest. I left the casual group where the situation took place in equal protest of my friend’s treatment, but stayed in the coalition since they needed my book group to maintain the coalition at the time. I’m a commuting grad student in ecology, so I barely have enough time to organize and maintain my own group, and interact with the greater coalition when needed and if the activity is relevant to my group’s interest. Since I’m so busy and my group is less interactive than the others, I maintain a minor leadership position relative to the more social groups, but that’s hardly an excuse to dismiss my perspective. I try to bring more information to the table, and get swept off entirely. It’s bloody frustrating.

  23. 23


    I lead a book discussion group

    Hmmmm. Might I suggest two books I’m reading right now?

    Manhood in America: a cultural history, by Michael Kimmel.

    Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice, by Jack Holland.


  24. 24

    Manhood in America: a cultural history, by Michael Kimmel.

    This actually looks like a very good suggestion! Thank you!

    The Holland book might be asking too much, methinks. We are doing Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in March, so I’m a little bit apprehensive of what that will bring, but the Kimmel title might be an excellent compliment to it.

  25. 25

    Nerdette, you’re welcome! Manhood in America is fabulous and it’s enlightening. Misogyny isn’t as scary as it sounds, and the history of misogyny, how it came about and how it keeps its place in society is utterly fascinating. I do understand that the title alone would freak a lot of people out, though.

  26. 26


    Ogvorbis, no problem. Perhaps you could get the word out about prostate cancer awareness? There’s actually a lot of it going on. I don’t know why so many men aren’t paying attention. September is National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, the ribbons are light blue.

    I do know about that month (but that’s because I specifically searched for it before when someone bring out the prostate cancer/breast cancer thingy).
    Although the relative publicity of the two might have something to do with this…
    Quite simply, prostate cancer is very survival compared to breast cancer, if I’m reading the chart correctly.

  27. 27

    WharGarbl, survival rates have a *lot* to do with the level of awareness. That’s the reason so many women started yelling about the dismal survival rates of breast cancer, because there wasn’t enough awareness of it in the general population and women were finding out too late. Awareness campaigns have helped to change that quite a lot.

    For those who want or need it, there’s information about more Prostate Cancer Awareness campaigns and activity here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostate_Cancer_Foundation#Safeway_Awareness_Campaign

  28. 28

    Also, just gonna make the point that breast cancer happens to men too.

  29. 29

    Well, PZ, if it weren’t for people like you and Jen and Rebecca convincing women they’re victims, they’d have never noticed that they felt unwelcome. Or something. I don’t know, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the mra-speak.

  30. 30

    The lack of male supremacist trolls on this post is… telling.

  31. 31
    Emu Sam

    I don’t want to register for a census with the gender options allowed by Google or Yahoo, so I suppose I will not stand up and be counted at this time. I am sad.

  32. 32

    About that whole “Make me a sammich” thing. How can anyone not think through the risk potential of insulting someone and then asking that person to prepare your food?

  33. 33

    This whole post PZ seems a bit premature. Once they hit 10,000 responses they are going to post the full numbers. There is a lot we cannot tell from percentages alone.

    Particularly this part:

    What are your reasons for not being involved in the secular movement? Check as many as apply.
    70%/30% – Bad experience with group, person, or event
    100%/0% – Can’t get over my conditioning that religion is good and secularism is bad
    67%/33% – Health issues
    65%/35% – Lack of childcare

    The imbalance is important, but what are the totals? For example, why are women staying out due to health issues more? Is that total significantly higher than the other 3? What were the total responses? How systemic is this problem? Clearly women have had more bad experiences then men, but it could be statisticly irrelevant compared to one(or more) of the other options, or it could be the most significant issue by far. We just have no idea yet.

    Same point to the “feeling unwelcome”, without the raw numbers we don’t really have any idea how bad the issue is. I am glad they are doing the survey, but this post seems premature. If only (random small number, say 200 people) said they don’t feel welcome, yes it sucks that woman have a higher percentage of people who feel unwelcome, but we’d be looking at 124 women out of 4,170. Or it could be much, much higher. Simply put, why rush this out?

  34. 34

    Simply put, why rush this out?

    I suppose, because after two years or so of testerically unhinged male supremacist assholes screaming us that BITCHES BE LYING about the harassment, and WHERE IS THE EVIDENCE because they can’t just take a woman’s word for what happened to her, it’s nice to have something that backs up what hundreds (thousands?) of people have been saying all along.

  35. 35

    I am appalled. You, of all people, a scientist, ought to know that without absolute numbers this data is worthless. I will go further, the way the data is presented reaks of selective representation (also known as miss-representation) of the data to meet some othr agenda.
    Bad show old boy. This sort of crap hinders the cause not help it.

  36. 36

    But you don’t know if this is even evidence yet, you’ve dealt with it for 2 years? why not way another 30 days(random guess), so that we have a complete picture.

    I find it odd that they would release the breakdown in terms of gender of the people who have had issues within the secular movement, but not the breakdown in terms of have you/haven’t you. It seems pretty simple X% said they have an issue, Z% don’t. Of the X%, J% were women, which was significantly higher than i%(men).

    Basically, so far, we don’t know if this study backs you up or not. The percentage of people who said they’ve had a problem might be 4%, it might be 40%. We don’t know. Stop pretending its evidence for something when it isn’t, yet. What are you going to Sally, if it turns out that the total women who have had problems with the secular movement 124/4170 (to use my example from before)? Which would mean 3% of these women have felt unwelcome. What percentage of that is due to sexism or harrassment? What percentage is due to the demonizing of religious folk?

    I am sympathetic to your cause, but I don’t think rushing out without all the information helps you in the slightest.

  37. 37

    Thanks for the interest in the American Secular Census. This is Mary Ellen Sikes, its owner. (Nope, there is no “they” – it’s just me, a long-time secular activist with an interest in seeing more research into the secular community, and some web development skills.) I appreciate the coverage here and would like to answer a few of the (mis)perceptions I’ve seen in the comments. If I don’t answer your comment it’s likely that I missed it rather than deliberately skipped it, so please be patient and polite with me, with one another, and with PZ. This is, after all, his space.

    For a number of years I was either employed by or served on boards of various national secular organizations in the U.S. (the Institute for Humanist Studies, the Secular Student Alliance, and longest with the Secular Coalition for America). Frequently during meetings I would hear leaders voice assumptions about their/our constituency that seemed to have little basis other than a conversation at a convention or an email from a member. Most often, these assumptions led to groups taking the fewest risks possible for fear of alienating members and donors. In some cases I was pretty sure the real risk was holding back just to please what I felt was probably a small minority! but I had no proof of that, either.

    In one organization, someone kept raising the point that we shouldn’t be relying on outside surveys like Pew and ARIS to disseminate information about our population — that secular groups should become the authority on who secular people are and what they values. She would raise the possibility of surveys and data collection at every meeting. She was routinely ignored.

    In June of 2010 I began to work on the idea of a survey of my own and on Nov. 7, 2011, over a year later, I launched the American Secular Census. It began to gather some moss and periodically since then I have released what I call “snapshots” of the database: demographics, viewpoints, experiences in secular groups, military issues, etc.

    Is this a scientifically designed survey that you’ll find in a peer reviewed journal or laid out on the front page of the New York Times? Absolutely not. It is what one person, on her own dime and time, has been able to put together based on her knowledge of some of the issues in secularism, her technical skills, the occasional consult from a friend who is an epidemiologist, and a motivation to see more information come out about the secular demographic.

    The most recent data about women in the secular movement has received a lot of criticism, primarily that no numbers are given and that it’s probably been “stacked” in favor of a feminist point of view. But the Census asks about many, many things — not just gender experiences in secular groups. There are 12+ forms in all. Registrants are asked their views on sex ed and abortion and government grants for faith groups, how they voted in November, what they mean by “atheist” (if they use that term), their parenting experiences (if any), and scores of other questions. The only way it could be stacked in favor of feminism is if feminists somehow “sensed” that I would be looking at that specific data next, and flocked to the site to record their disapproval of the secular patriarchy. We may disagree about a lot of things, but I hope we can all rally around our extreme skepticism of that possibility.

    It interests me that the issue of scientific validity is only being raised now, with data about women. I’ve been publishing analyses for over a year about demographics, political views, military experiences … all kinds of things. Science never mattered for those. Suddenly, when I suggest that there are some “hot spots” for women regarding their experiences in organized secularism, it’s become hugely important and the data “useless.” In a private forum secular leaders are criticizing the methodology and the analysis has begun to receive blog comments for the first time.

    OK, so why not wait till the 10K mark is reached before publishing data? For almost 8 years I did all the technology work for the Secular Coalition for America. It took that entire 8 years for the action alert database to reach 10K, and that was with a staff and a budget. I don’t want to wait years, perhaps a decade or longer, for this information to be shared. If you need scientific certainty about questions like What secular identity do you use? or What do you think is the most effective strategy secular groups can use to improve public perception of atheists? … then you should ignore the data. You’ll never get the perfection you seek even when the 10K mark is reached, because this is a self-selecting online survey. Its greatest potential may, in fact, be followup questionnaires to subgroups like secular parents, people with certain voting patterns, or whatever. I think of it as a case study, a marketing survey, or some other type of instrument that can provide value in different ways depending on the topic.

    Sample size is complex. It’s not as simple as saying, “this percent of the total number of women” There is the largest group: registrants. There is the subset of women. There is the sample size for a particular form or forms, depending on what data I’m analyzing; not everyone chooses to complete every form. The women’s data used 3 forms. And in some cases a particular question’s sample size may differ from its form’s sample, since some questions only appear when a previous response has been recorded. (You don’t get to indicate HOW you were made to feel unwelcome till you’ve 1. said that you’ve been involved in secularism AND 2. said you felt unwelcome at some point.)

    Is it less than scientific? Sure. Is it useless? Hardly. There is no other data being collected right now in a systematic way about the secular population — and some of these results, if acted on, pose very little risk even if they’re totally off the wall. I don’t believe they are, because sometimes I’ve done a quickie query on a response months before I do a formal analysis, and despite overall growth I see the % has not changed significantly. If numbers mattered so much on a question that it was flip-flopping with overall growth, I’d hold off rather than publish. BTW, it costs hundreds of thousands to do a “proper” survey of the scale we’d need for a scientifically valid dataset of freethinkers in the U.S. One group is now, I believe, just starting to talk about raising the funds for that. I have no idea how long it could take to get the money, design and conduct the survey, and analyze the results. I would guess years.

    Someone mentioned gender identity. The latest analysis compares only women and men, but I do mention that non-binary choices are available on the Census and are simply not yet being analyzed until there is more participation in that choice. I am very committed to seeing non-binary information come out for our community and have been fortunate to receive the help of a registrant who has been very instrumental in making the forms more inclusive.

    This has gotten long, and I hope it manages to touch the surface of many concerns. Thanks again for your engagement on this. Please feel free to register!

  38. 38

    Wow, Mary Ellen Sikes! I think you are one of my new secular heroes. And what a coincidence, wouldn’t you say, that it was a woman’s suggestion for collecting data that was routinely ignored?

    Anyway, thanks so much for your comments and the explanation. I really appreciate it and I’m sure others will too.

  39. 39

    Thanks much, @SallyStrange – I hope you are right!

  40. 40
    Emu Sam

    Thank you, Mary Ellen Sykes, I appreciate the information.

  41. 41
    Emu Sam

    Sikes, many apologies!

  42. 42

    No problem, Emu Sam – I get that a lot. :)

  43. 43

    For those of you still watching this thread, Secular Woman has now incorporated statistics from the American Secular Census (including some previously unpublished ones) in a very meaty report on gender in the secular movement: Opportunity and Access in the Freethought Movement

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