Still a problem

Chris Stedman did a piece on this question of homophobia in atheism at Religion News Service after that Twitter exchange I quoted.

Discussions around sexism among atheists have been gaining momentum for years, but it’s clear that sexism is still a problem in certain segments of movement atheism. I’ve seen manifestations of it, and I am far from alone. And regarding anti-LGBTQ attitudes: I’ve heard from atheists who say that I’m too “effeminate,” that my being gay makes atheists seem “like freaks,” or that my “obvious homosexuality” makes me an ineffectual voice for atheists.

To paraphrase Clay Shirky for the thousandth time: if the voice of authority is always male, people will think the voice of authority is supposed to be male – and not just male but MALE; hyper-male, exaggerated-male, stereotypical-male. Poofters and bitches need not apply.

Much of organized atheism has a frat house or locker room or comedy club atmosphere. That doesn’t help.

The bottom line is this: Atheism is not an inoculation against prejudice. Being an atheist does not prevent you from being influenced by the homophobia and misogyny that permeate our culture. It may seem like an obvious point but it’s important to remember, lest we operate under the false idea that atheists are somehow immune.

No, it’s not, and in fact it can be an encouragement to certain kinds of prejudice. It’s sad but it’s true.


  1. Katherine Woo says

    There maybe something about the aspiration to a purely rational basis of non-belief that encourages such displays. As in, a person can out-alpha another with pure intellect instead of with muscles or money. Men, whatever the root of the behavior, tend to exhibit that type of personality considerably more than women.

    Articulating the value of emotions relative to rationalism is always tricky. I tend to describe myself as a humanist rather than other labels because I do leave space for emotional awareness and understanding, even if they are ‘irrational’ from a purely epistemological standpoint.

    I further think it makes sense to tackle homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny as a package of related prejudices. It is no accident I see the bulk of venom targeting trans women and ‘effeminate’ gay men.

  2. Timothy says

    Very respectfully, can you please give some examples of what you describe as, “Much of organized atheism has a frat house or locker room or comedy club atmosphere. That doesn’t help.”?

    To be clear, I’m neither challenging you nor demanding proof. I’m seeking to learn from you. Please.

    I’ve read many of the inappropriate locker room responses to the Elevatorgate situation, so that much is clear to me.

    I’d be grateful for other more specific examples.

    Thanks much,


  3. Dave Ricks says

    For example, a Google search on Richard Dawkins locker roomy (Ophelia’s adjective) turned up this page on the old site (in 2010, before Elevatorgate, 2011) where Dawkins supported Ophelia specifically and wrote

    No, is not ‘one of those sites’. Or if it is, I wish it were otherwise. I’m afraid the symptoms are all too common, all over the web. Speaking personally, I would like to make this site stand out as a shining beacon to others, in NOT being ‘one of those sites’.

    And a commenter epeeist wrote

    We have lost some excellent female posters in the past due, in part, to both unthinking and deliberate sexism by other subscribers.

    You can read up and down that thread to see what they were talking about.

  4. sailor1031 says

    “I’ve heard from atheists who say that I’m too “effeminate,” that my being gay makes atheists seem “like freaks,” or that my “obvious homosexuality” makes me an ineffectual voice for atheists”

    He’s heard all that? From whom, I wonder. I’ve never actually heard anyone mention him at all – not in any context whatever. Guess I don’t move in the right atheist circles…

  5. says

    Katherine, yes, I think there is. I’ve been noticing it more and more, which is one reason I disagree with Chris on the flaws in gnu atheism a lot less than I used to.

    Also yes about rationalism (or rationality) and emotion. I talked about that at the CFI summit last fall. I don’t think emotion is necessarily irrational, by the way. Rationality doesn’t work very well if emotion is totally absent.

  6. says

    Thanks, Dave. That’s the kind of thing all right.

    Timothy – it’s also things like Dawkins’s performances on Twitter and his bros applauding them. It’s Ricky Gervais. It’s Seth McFarlane. It’s other atheist standup comedy.

    sailor – aw come on, that’s not fair. Of course you haven’t heard the same people as Chris has! Of course he’s heard things that were said to him that you haven’t heard.

  7. Wylann says

    If we elect Hillary for president in 2016, then all this will be over. We’ll be totally post-feminism. Just like electing Obama made racism totally go away……

    (I don’t need a sarcasm tag on that, do I?) :p

  8. Pieter B, FCD says

    If Hillary runs in 2016, there are a helluvalotta mainstream journalists who should start out their coverage with abject apologies for horribly sexist things they said during the 2008 primaries.

    What? A guy can dream, can’t he?

  9. TheGreatGodPan says

    @ #4

    I think Stedman is claiming to have been told these things personally. I will file his stories under “Conveniently Unverifiable Anecdotes,” alongside all the stories right-wing columnists write during slow news weeks about the things they supposedly heard liberals say at dinner parties.

    It may be worth noting than Imam Suhaib Webb–who described Stedman as a “good friend” on Twitter, and whom Stedman has sent friendly tweets to–has described homosexuality as an “evil inclination.” I guess Stedman doesn’t feel the need to call out his Muslim friends with names on their homophobia. He prefers to focus on unnamed and/or dead atheists (*), 20% of whom (as opposed to 80% of white evangelicals) oppose gay marriage!

    (*) Did you know that Madalyn Murray O’Hair wrote a nasty letter to a gay man at some point when she was still alive, which would mean at least 19 years ago? That’s the EXACT SAME THING as churches spending millions of dollars to prevent gays from getting married this century! Wait, no. It’s not the same thing. It’s WORSE!

  10. Timothy says

    Thanks to both Ophelia and Dave Ricks. I check out the sources you both suggest.



  11. says


    Yeah…this gives me a whole new perspective on Chris. I was always bother by the accommodationist approach with religion. But why not if you put up with near as much crap with atheists as you do with the religious? So atheists have perhaps a bit better understanding of how the world actually works, but if that understanding doesn’t produce positive results, then who cares? What, really, is the big difference? There may not seem to be one.

    On the other hand, I must remember Kavesh’s post that atheism doesn’t promise a utopia. I would hope that things would still be better in an atheist community, though.

    Might there then be a problem of perspective? If, for example, you expect the religious to be bigots, do you then not notice their bigotry as much as you would from someone you would not expect it from? That goes to points that I think were being made on the previous post on this topic as well as somewhat to TheGreatGodPan’s point.

    To put this another way, could there be a problem of setting the bar too high, leading to disappointment when the bar isn’t reached? Yet, for others, the bar is set correctly, albeit lower. But this ends up not leading to disappointment because the expected result was observed?

  12. Steve LaBonne says

    If you expect the religious to be bigots you have a remarkably limited view of what religious people are, to put it politely. I disagree with liberal Christians and tend to lose patience with their intellectual evasions, but they bear no more resemblance to Southern Baptists (not to speak of even worse) than Ophelia does to Thunderfoot. There are words I can think of to describe crudely sorting highly disparate people into boxes for the purpose of disdaining them, but “rational” is not one of those words.

  13. brucegorton says

    As much as I agree there are homophobic atheists (heck, I know one or two) I don’t really trust Stedman.

    From say, Josh or Greta Christina, I would trust this sort of anecdote a lot more.

  14. ewanmacdonald says

    Chris Stedman used to bug the piss out of me but over the last year I think he’s done a lot of excellent things for atheism. That he’s done so in the face of discrimination like this makes me like him even more. Of course it would be far better if he didn’t need to put up with it.

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