Where were the women?

Salon just woke up and rubbed its eyes and realized it had forgotten to publish an article asking why all the New Atheists are men, so a mere five years late it has now done so.

“New Atheism” is old news. Enter “New, New Atheism”: the next generation, with its more spiritual brand of non-belief, and its ambition to build an atheist church. It is an important moment for the faithless. Will it include women?

Wait wait wait. New, New already? No I don’t think so. We’re really not through with the Old New yet. Also – the atheists I know are not “more spiritual,” nor do they want to build an atheist church. Mostly. Maybe Chris Stedman and James Croft do, a little, sort of, in a way. But mostly, no.

Several years ago, there was discussion of a “woman problem” within the Atheist movement. New high priests of non-faith announced themselves—Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Peter Singer, A.C. Grayling, Daniel Dennett, etc.—and they were men. And they were angry. Their best-selling works were important and essential. These authors helped reinvigorate the secular cause; they cast off the fog of political correctness to unapologetically lay siege to piety. But before long, these New Atheists were depicted as an old boys’ club—a clique of (white) men, bound by a particularly unyielding brand of disbelief.

Where were the women?

Why, they were right there: stolidly leading people away from the fold. They were irreverent bloggers and institution founders. And scholars. Around the time that the DawkinsHitchensHarris tripartite published its big wave of Atheist critique, historian Jennifer Michael Hecht published “Doubt” and journalist Susan Jacoby published “Freethinkers“—both critically acclaimed. And yet, these women, and many others, failed to emerge as public figures, household names.

It’s complicated. It’s so, so, so complicated. It’s the most complicated thing there is. It’s more complicated than genetics, or the human brain, or quantum physics, or building a bridge.

I kid. It’s not. It’s just laziness and habit and more laziness. And it’s not really true about the not emerging. I mean come on, nobody’s going to be a household name here – household names are people like Justin Bieber, not Richard Dawkins, let alone all the other atheists. But some of those people – those women – are…not household names, but maybe tiny niche names. Hecht and Jacoby certainly are.



  1. says

    You know though? I used to get more angry at writers who would say things like “New high priests of non-faith announced themselves—Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Peter Singer, A.C. Grayling, Daniel Dennett, etc.” because we don’t have priests.

    A couple of years later? Yeah, there’s enough atheists who A) actually treat some of those people, and other “leaders” as a sort of priesthood, and B) they are the sort of assholes who seem most likely to get themselves inside the radar of someone who writes for a living. That, and within that same bubble the only people who matter are the ones who get on TV most often.

  2. Al Dente says

    While it may be Alain de Botton’s ambition to build atheist churches, most atheists of my acquaintance would rather not be involved in those fantasies.

  3. John Phillips, FCD says

    Al Center #2, QFFT.

    I have nothing against community building, but I find the idea of atheist ‘churches’ nauseating.

  4. John Phillips, FCD says

    oops, sorry, thought I had disabled the bloody auto-spell checker, Al Dente #2 obviously, not Al Center #2

  5. jflcroft says

    The atheist church issue is, I think, more one of terminology than substance. The media loves to slap that label on the growing trend toward building atheist communities and it does tend to help some people understand what’s going on.

  6. Bruce says

    The whole premise of the Salon article is messed up, because it implies that it was certain men (not women) who were vaulted out of nowhere into fame and stardom or the priesthood or whatever. And it names Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris. [And other than writing two nicely provocative books at that particular time, Harris has not really done that much to make himself a household name.] [And I agree that Hecht and Jacoby should have gotten better coverage from the mainstream press, which I note is mostly not run by atheists.]

    But the rest of the premise is essentially asking why it was Dawkins and Hitchens who became famous overnight, and not the equally deserving women. But that premise fails because these two men did NOT get famous overnight. They were well-known writers for decades, before they became an overnight success out of nowhere.

    Essentially, Salon picks its “point”, then looks for how to spin the facts to “support” that point, even though they have to do it by picking and choosing. They might as well be writing a “bible,” as much as some news commentary website. Give me a break.

    There’s plenty of genuine discrimination against women, both inside and outside the atheist community. There’s no need to make stuff up.

  7. James Howde says

    Bruce, thanks for your comment. It never occurred to me reading the original piece that these people had important lives before I heard of them; suggesting a certain amount of stupidity or egotism on my part (and those qualities aren’t mutually exclusive) .

    I suppose you could knock it back a level and ask why when the time was right the people in position to take advantage were men but, as they used to say on playschool, that’s a story for another time.

  8. A Hermit says

    I guess finding photos of Jacoby or Hecht to post with the article was just too complicated…

    (Hecht is the best writer mentioned in the article IMNSHO)

  9. cuervodecuero says

    If use of names in the atheosphere is any indicator of fame for ‘lady’ atheists, I would have thought Rebecca Watson would take the ribbon. She has the weirdest bloody PR provided by the Flying Monkey Marketing firm.

    Personally, this past weekend, I got to watch a whole swack of atheist speakers who are women. Amazing what happens when you take down a few barriers like cost and childcare.

  10. Claire Ramsey says

    Shit !!

    I am reading the posts backwards and here is another complication to add to my list of things that are the most complicated things there is. . .

    Soon I will be overloaded with complexities.

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