That didn’t hurt as much as I thought

Salon has another article on those sexist atheists, and I braced myself for yet another garbage dump — they’ve been on an anti-atheist jag for a while. But this one wasn’t so bad — it actually brought up the issues we’re struggling with in the atheist movement, and made it clear that there is a an effort to correct it, or at least didn’t condemn atheism.

It list 5 real problems we face.

  1. Lack of community support within atheism, which religion is well-practiced at providing. More women are in economic peril and can appreciate the safety net church provides.

  2. Endemic sexism, not just within atheism, but everywhere. And as we’ve been learning, labeling yourself a rationalist and embracing atheism is perfectly compatible with otherwise acting like a privileged pig.

  3. Media bias: the media treat men’s voices as more authoritative than women’s.

  4. This is related to #2, but it’s a common trend in social movements that men gravitate towards taking power.

  5. Fighting against sexism in atheism may take a back seat to fighting against sexual predators, sexual discrimination, or for reproductive rights.

I can agree with that list, and am always happy to accept valid criticisms of the paths we’re taking. Now let’s go fix them.


  1. Algernon says

    “Also,atheism and feminism are inherently contradictory. Atheism is build on intellectual honesty, truth, rationality, science, opens and Egalitarianism. While feminism is built on irrationality, emotionality, false history, pseudoscience, dogma, political correctness and gynocentrism. Feminism is libertarian in theory, progressive in action, but totalitarian in outcome. So, we don’t want you !!”

    Well here is your problem. No, really. This comment sums it up. (I just realized I will have to say more because most likely no one here remembers me)

    So long as this is what enough people in atheism think, then this is what atheism will be. Now this argument doesn’t actually seem intellectually honest, rational, open, or egalitarian to me. But then again, I’m a feminist. It is a lot easier to be a feminist who just happens not to believe in a deity than it is to be an atheist without compromising my own ethics.

  2. Tethys says

    I just realized I will have to say more because most likely no one here remembers me

    *waves excitedly*
    Hi Algernon. Not only are you remembered, you have been missed. Good to see you. :)

  3. anuran says

    Short, insightful, to the point. It’s a good article addressing some of the important problems.

  4. Algernon says

    Actually I think that the first point should be expanded also. It should encompass the whole weight of the word “opportunity” in fact. You have to sit back rationally and ask what specific, real, concrete, and immediate GOOD is atheism going to do in a woman’s life. Because women are actually logical and rational in general, they are going to gravitate to the things that bring them the most clear opportunity.

    Women, even in very traditional churches, can often hold a sort of power, or at least something they see as power. It may be a ruse, or only granted through proper subservience; but power is power and everyone makes their bargain with it in their own way. They may feel respected for who they are. In conservative and Evangelical circles I see a lot of women who are doing well in business and in life, for instance, by making traditionally feminine crafts, or who are participating in frugal living. So long as this environment is more inviting to women who aren’t as religious, they’re going to feel more comfortable there. Not to mention, again we come back to money. Not just through charity, but through helping women provide, learn skills that save money, etc. Who are you going to feel better about being with? The three women who love Jesus more than you seem to, but who helped you save 240 dollars a month, chip in when you need a babysitter, taught you how to sew your own menstrual pads, and actually believed you when you said hormonal birth control made you depressed? Probably. When you throw in the fact that not all religious groups are opposed to homosexuality, or may be populated by more people of the same ethnicity, you see why they become a more appealing ally.

    In more “New Age” types of religion women often find one of the only areas where they are encouraged to be openly feminine, even to the point of discussing their bodies and life experiences openly. Hence a lot of them will gravitate there. It is not just a matter of charity, though that’s an extremely good point. It is also a matter of social acceptance and relationship building. Where I live most of the women I know outside of actual atheist meetups, are not really very religious. They may practice some kind of spiritual tradition, meditate, study Kundalini, engage in some kind of nature based faith, attend UU, or even go to a more traditional church to see their friends, etc. They tend to describe themselves as “seekers” because they are actually looking for a place where they fit in and feel accepted, and while they have recognized that this place isn’t in mainstream religion they have not found atheism to allow the kinds of experimentation and introspection that, ironically, it would take to come to terms with admitting one is an atheist.

    Actually, this ties in with another area where there is just going to be a difference in cultures between various atheists. After all, these women I just described are actually atheists. I mean, if you sat down and really got to it they are. They are afraid of the repercussions they face by admitting that, and they are afraid of having no social network where they feel accepted. Those aren’t small things to give up.
    Since some atheists are just always going to be less empirical and more fuzzy, this problem isn’t going to go away and so long as religion and woo remain more inviting our “seeker” atheists both men and women are going to find it easier to politely ignore some idiotic rant about vaccines from a well-meaning friend than what seems like an outright chilly environment. Some people will just need a different kind of personal journey than others. There are different ways to challenge and deconstruct religion, and one of them is actually through practice. By creating what almost amounts to a personal religion, one really actually does subvert any claims of ultimate Truth. All that is left is to confront the fact that this personal belief system is a psychological process, perhaps personally necessary, but with no actual meaning outside one’s emotional state.

    Conservative religious folks know this, which is why they discourage that kind of thought. Eventually it will lead people to reject the external control of religion. Atheists ought to know it also, and perhaps should try seeing this as people working through their shit rather than clinging to the idea that the emotional or psychological is simply “stupid” and “weak.” While not on par with the outright suppression of independent thought that the former engages in, this kind of thinking is actually quite insecure, as if there is a perfect mind somewhere unclouded by any emotions.

    Personally, I am fine with atheism taking a hard line against the whole “spirituality” thing, particularly where it trails off into utter woo. However, that will define what atheism is. And thus you will have a lot of women saying “I’m not an atheist, but…” for the same reasons they say “I’m not a feminist, but…”

    One of the other areas atheism could grow is by actually encouraging this process instead of writing it off. It would spare people some time, money, and even life wasted due to predatory hucksters who are all too happy to oblige. However, people who have not been won over by religious people telling them what to think are, believe it or not, no more likely to let you tell them what to think: even if you are ultimately right. What they will have to do is figure it out for themselves. What you are actually controlling is their access to resources.

  5. Algernon says

    “Good to see you. :)”

    Hello and thanks! It’s been a long long time. No idea how the “New Pharyngula” functions, but I read the articles from time to time through facebook.

  6. vaiyt says

    Atheism is build on intellectual honesty, truth, rationality, science, opens and Egalitarianism.

    Where’s the Mission Police to deal with that last one? Oh, wait, it only comes out to bash women. My bad.

  7. beardymcviking says

    Algernon: I mostly just lurk & read, but I remember you!

    Welcome back :)

  8. Happiestsadist, opener of the Crack of Doom says

    Oh hey, it’s Algernon! Nice to see you.

    Your whole comment at #4 is excellent.

  9. DLC says

    Hello again Algernon !
    of course Atheism as a movement will have issues. Every political or social movement* will.
    I personally wish to weed out the “I’m an Atheists an wimmens should stay home and make me sammiches” types, unless they can be brought around to the rational point of view. Frankly, they sully the movement, and will not be missed.

  10. brucegorton says

    I think the problem is paradoxically that atheism is quite a natural fit for feminism – after all while it doesn’t have anything in favour precisely, it doesn’t have all the things against feminism that religion does.

    And because of that, there is a bit of an attitude of ‘Why are you criticizing me when these other people are so much worse?’

    The trouble with that sort of thinking is, it is what I call the American disease. It isn’t specific to America, but it is illustrated by America’s history.

    America’s founding principles were a natural fit for the abolition of slavery yet America was not the first country to ban slavery – heck there were worse countries when it came to slavery America would convince itself, and it would continue the practice right up until those countries released their slaves, and suddenly America was behind the curve.

    You see the same thing with privacy violations – there are countries which are far worse in that regard (China for example) and so America will continue spying on its own citizens right up until those countries stop.

    This means America can only ever really be average when it comes to respect for human rights, because it will always convince itself that there is someone worse out there, right up until there really isn’t.

    And currently the atheist movement is suffering the same thing. Sure, we have our sexists but have you looked at Islam or Christianity? And so long as we keep convincing ourselves of this, we end up falling that little bit behind while religious groups grapple with their issues over gender and pull that little bit more even.

  11. says

    I think the problem is paradoxically that atheism is quite a natural fit for feminism – after all while it doesn’t have anything in favour precisely, it doesn’t have all the things against feminism that religion does.

    Varies by the religion, really. There are Liberal Christian groups that don’t suck at it, f’rex. Liberal anything groups, if you actually look. And given that, I’m inclined to say that atheism does have the same problems against feminism that religion does. It’s just more apt to pick up feminism just long enough to use it as a cudgel against the religious, until it’s time to put a harrassment policy at a con. It’s really unfortunate.

  12. brucegorton says

    Rutee Katreya

    Kind of my point really. So long as we convince ourselves “Well these religious groups we oppose are so much worse” – we end up stuck in place while liberal offshoots improve, eventually overtaking the atheist norm on these issues.

    And lets face it, there are examples of religious groups that handle gender equality issues better than the atheist mainstream already. They tend to be on the fringes, but they are becoming more and more mainstream.

    Meanwhile, look at feminism in atheism, how much progress have we really made?

  13. says

    Oh my Madogoddess, I hadn’t actually read the comments to that article until now. I still haven’t, I stopped after the 10th atheist flailing that Feminism is JUST LIKE A RELIGION guys.