When the IDiots at the Discovery Institute can make a valid criticism of atheists, you know you’re in trouble. David Klinghofer tries to explain What the New Atheism's Gender Gap Tells You, and gets a lot wrong…but also points out some genuine problems, the same problems many of us atheists have also been complaining about.
What strikes me is the maleness of the "New Atheist" phenomenon. The stereotyped picture of a sea of ponytailed males at the atheist conference is not just a stereotype. As Green points out, survey information reveals a huge gender disparity. Of the U.S. population as a whole, women make up more than half, 52 percent. But according to Pew Research Center data, among declared atheist/agnostics, women account for only 36 percent. Whoa!
There’s a logic to all-male institutions, as to all-female ones. But show me a party to which women are invited but that they overwhelmingly choose to avoid, and I’ll show you a party to which I’d ask you to remember not to invite me.
By contrast, other faith affiliations reflect the overall population, or favor women slightly. For example, white Evangelical Christians are 55 percent female, Catholics 52 percent, African-American Protestants 57 percent.
Comparing atheists to religious groups is invalid; they have a tradition of familial engagement and a history of relative cultural uniformity, which gives them a leg up on membership. Atheists tend not to demand enrollment of family members, or to condemn apostates with quite the vigor of a religion. I agree that there is a logic to all-male institutions that tends to lead to deplorable behavior, but atheism isn’t all-male, while the Catholic clergy is. I’d also have to point out that atheism has not produced the equivalent of the Magdalene laundries or Boko Haram, so let’s not play the game of who hates women more, the godly or ungodly.
But yes, otherwise, atheism has a problem. I’ve been saying it for years. I’ve been fighting against it for a long time. It’s a fair cop — a lot of factors contribute to atheism being less welcoming to women and minorities than it should be. So let me explain what I see as the sources of the disparity.
Choice. Joining the atheist club is entirely voluntary — we don’t have many atheist grandmothers threatening to disown their grandkids if they marry a Christian, or deep family traditions that one would be excluded from if one left the non-faith. We don’t even make threats of imaginary hellfire if one fails to follow the dogma of atheism. With no force of compulsion anywhere, the only reason to be an atheist is enlightened self-interest…and women are fully capable of that. If an individual sees no advantage in joining, and there’s no social pressure to join, why should they? We even have a lot of atheist men who detest the idea of a social movement — they aren’t joiners — and refuse to identify as atheists.
In a sense, that’s not a problem, but a strength. You’re free to be an atheist or not. But the fact that more women than men choose “not” says we’re not doing a good job of appealing to their enlightened self-interest, and there are reasons for that, too.
Isolation. Go to any atheist meeting and talk to attendees: a majority of them are deconverts, and they will have stories about the difficulties of leaving their old faith, which in many cases fractured families and led to loss of friends (Greta Christina has a whole book on the issue, Coming Out Atheist). Becoming an atheist, for many, involves cutting ties and losing a social safety net, and who can do that? People who are already financially secure and independent. Women and minorities are economically less advantaged on average, and have more incentives to stay with the church, and may be honestly grateful for what religion does for them. The black church has a phenomenally good record of providing community support. When I lived in Salt Lake City, I knew working poor people who found the economic support of their local stake essential. Atheism doesn’t have that network of on-the-ground support, and also, way too many atheists look like stunned cows when you suggest small things, like that maybe meetings should offer child care, or there should be rules that discourage pawing the women-folk.
So as a newly emerging movement, we lack essential services, and the early membership is well-off enough that they don’t appreciate the need to offer support services, so we end up with a self-perpetuating division by class. It’s a cycle that needs to be broken, but much of our leadership is wealthy and oblivious.
History. Twenty years ago, you would have found that many of the prominent voices in atheism, and the people who attended atheist meetings, were focused on religious studies — there were a lot of old seminarians at these events! — and these were largely men because of the nature of religious bias. In the early 21st century, they were joined by, and the movement was largely revived by, an increasing focus on science. Dawkins, for instance, fired people up by examining religion critically from a scientific perspective (you know that The God Delusion wasn’t really a book of philosophy, right?), and that meant that a lot of the happy enlistees in the New Atheist movement were drawn from the science and tech communities.
And those communities suck.
Scientific communities are struggling right now with the issues of women in STEM careers, and the way systemic sexism discourages women from success. We have the Yet Another Mostly Male Meeting problem, where organizers are completely blind to the existence of active women researchers, and build whole meetings around a grossly biased speaker list. It takes conscious effort to overcome that. And the scientific community is a paradise of egalitarianism compared to the tech/engineering community, which is a thriving hotbed of vocal libertarian assholes with an abiding contempt for women. When that’s the talent pool from which you are drawing a lot of your new members, it’s not surprising that the atheist movement has a contingent of horrible people who make the movement unwelcoming to women. Women are smart to be reluctant to join that crew.
Media bias. The New Atheist term was popularized by Gary Wolf, in an article titled “The Church of the Non-Believers” back in 2006 (in a tech journal, Wired, of course), and it enshrined a trinity of men as the leaders of atheism: Dennett, Dawkins, and Harris. Later, Hitchens would join them to form the Four Horsemen. Right from the start, the media promoted a group of men to be the leaders of what was really a leaderless movement. But at the same time, there were women doing great work: where were Susan Jacoby and Annie Laurie Gaylor on the list of informal leaders? We’d be in far better shape right now if the media hadn’t been biased in their promotion of exclusively men as our “leaders” (you should know that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens have zero status as actual, working leadership in any organization, other than their own foundations, and their only authority comes from their popularity. But they get all the press.)
Furthermore, modern atheism is an emerging online phenomenon, and much of our recruiting arises via tools on the internet. And what tools are those? The biggest are Reddit and Youtube. Unfortunately, these are conduits forged by the tech/engineering community (see above for the problems with that group), and they promote a malignant cult of Free Speech (meaning virulent hatred is A-OK) and anonymity that allows the very worst and loudest to flourish. When women get on Youtube and discover that two of the most popular atheist vloggers are misogynists like The Amazing Atheist and Thunderf00t, while women like Laci Green distance themselves from atheism because of all the hate that flows from the atheist groups there, is it any surprise that they don’t find atheism appealing? Enlightened self-interest again.
But wait! What atheist communities are you talking about?
The reason women aren’t flocking to atheism is simply that they know what they are doing, and are wise to avoid groups that don’t appreciate them. But Klinghoffer is missing the real story: there is no one atheist community. Rifts have formed over precisely this issue of women and minorities in atheism, and they’ve been widening and deepening over the years. This is a good thing. It means that there are groups within atheism that are far more open and tolerant.
There is Skepchick, a group by and for women, and openly atheist and critical of the atheist establishment. Klinghoffer even cites them, but you know, if you’re looking for any atheists who aren’t interested in pandering to the Richard Dawkins Foundation, there they are.
You can pick your meetings. I just got back from Skepticon, and there was no
sea of ponytailed males. Quite the contrary; half of the speakers were women (more than half, including workshop leaders), the topics were broader than “I hate religion” and “I love science”, and the audience was diverse with respect to sex, race, and class.
As a racially polarized nation awaits the grand jury decision on the officer who killed unarmed teen Michael Brown, some atheists and Humanists are still hating on “mission creep,” intersectionality, and the “corruption” of white bread secularism by so-called “social justice warriors” who apparently just don’t get why the U.S. is the world’s greatest beacon of freedom and justice.
Expecting nonbelievers of color to hew to a limited secular agenda that fetishizes creationism and the separation of church and state, they seem to ask, “Why aren’t you people who come from woefully religious ghettos content with our table scraps?”
That’s a much clearer and far more succinct summary of the problems atheism face right now than anything I’ve written in this post. But she’s an atheist, too. She and Rebecca Watson and Maryam Namazie and Annie Laurie Gaylor and thousands of other women are the future of atheism, so when a creationist sneers at atheism’s gender gap, I can agree with him that it’s there, and it must be fixed, but that there’s also a New New Atheism emerging, one with a stronger, broader foundation in diversity, equality, and justice. Those are my people. And I see that gender gap shrinking within that community, even as it may be expanding in the Old New Atheism.
Journalists, there’s an opportunity here. Maybe you can write a popular article for Wired that declares a new kind of atheism, that features profiles of Rebecca, Maryam, Sikivu, and Annie Laurie with ominous photos of their faces emerging out of the shadows. There’s a bandwagon waiting to be leapt upon!