It is fairly obvious that women are a minority in the atheist community. The high-profile atheists tend to be men, even though there are many women who are making important contributions to atheist thought. This naturally raises the question: Is the atheist movement sexist? Is the atmosphere at atheist gatherings hostile to women? Are female atheists overlooked when it comes to providing high profile platforms as conference speakers?
I ask this because of a long simmering controversy that began when Rebecca Watson, who writes at Skepchick, posted a YouTube video where she recounted her experience, as a woman at atheist gatherings, that male attendees at these gatherings tend to unduly hit on women. She had been on a panel at an atheist conference in Dublin in 2010 and gave an example of an encounter with someone in an elevator late at night after her talk who invited her to his room for coffee. She declined. It was a minor incident and she treated it as such but used it to give generic advice to men to not too readily assume that women at atheist gatherings welcomed such advances, especially if they had given no prior indication that that was the case. The segment that deals with this starts at the 2:45 mark.
What happened next was astounding. Watson received an enormous outpouring of vitriol, presumably from members of the atheist community who form the readership of the blog, calling her names and accusing her of all manner of things. The comments quickly crossed the border from sexism to outright misogyny. What was worse was that Richard Dawkins heard about her post and also chimed in, belittling her concerns, in the form of composing a sarcastic letter to a fictitious Muslim woman in an oppressive country like Saudi Arabia telling her that her dire situation was nothing compared to the hardships that American women faced being propositioned in hotel elevators. And Watson says that she still continues to receive abuse and that people devote entire websites to attacking her.
Dawkins’ response to Watson’s comment is remarkably obtuse but illustrates the danger that always exists when you start thinking that you are fighting ‘big battles’ and that ‘lesser’ battles don’t count. The fact is that different people are immediately affected by different things and thus may be aroused to action by different passions and comparing them is generally not productive. For example, the battle for wage equality for American women does not cease to be a valid cause merely because women in many underdeveloped countries experience enormous hardships. My own approach is that as long as you are fighting for justice and equality and basic human dignity and rights, one does not gain much by belittling the efforts of those who are not fighting the same specific battles as you are. We should avoid the temptation to give too much weight to ranking social justice struggles in terms of importance. Instead we should support each other in our different struggles, though we obviously have to choose where we devote our own energies.
For example, I think male circumcision is wrong because it violates the bodily integrity of a child and should not be allowed until the child is old enough to give informed consent. But I am well aware that female circumcision is a much worse practice and is given the more graphic but accurate label of female genital mutilation. Now there are some who would argue that people who oppose male circumcision and try to abolish that practice are wasting time on a relatively minor problem as long as the bigger problem of female circumcision still exists. There are others who are offended that people who oppose female genital mutilation are not equally vocal about abolishing male circumcision. Both these attitudes seem to me to be wrong-headed because they make the assumption that other people should care about the same things that you care about, and with the same intensity. The fact is that people who see a wrong done anywhere are perfectly entitled to take action against it and try and recruit others in their cause without having to justify why that cause is more worthy than other causes. My suggestion is that we should devote our energies to fight for what we believe in and not undermine those who believe in other causes, as long as they all promote justice.
But this still leaves the question of whether sexism and misogyny is commonplace in the atheist community. It is hard for me to judge because I am not a very sociable person and do not hang out much with groups of any kind to notice these things first hand. I do occasionally attend a few freethinkers groups in my neighborhood and though the crowd has slightly more men than women, I have not noticed any overt sexism. I am also the faculty advisor for my university’s Center for Inquiry student affiliate. In the early days of that group I was a little concerned because the leadership and membership seemed to be almost entirely male but that has changed in the last year with two women taking leadership positions and doing a great job. But just because I have not noticed anything obvious does not mean that sexism or misogyny does not exist.
There is nothing intrinsic to atheism that would warrant sexism so any that exists must arise because for some reason the atheist movement tends to attract sexist males. This is disturbing and merits investigation. Is the level of sexism the same as in other sectors but that we notice it more and think it should be less because of the heightened social awareness of the community? One recalls a similar situation during the civil rights and antiwar struggles of the 1960s when those movements were also accused of rampant sexism, treating the women in the movements as either support staff or sex objects. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that just because one is fighting one form of discrimination that one has immunity from the charge of discriminating against others.
Whatever the cause, we should work to eliminate sexism and misogyny from the atheist community, as part of the effort to eradicate it completely.