Atheism and misogyny

Mark Oppenheimer has a long article titled Will Misogyny Bring Down The Atheist Movement? that uses as his starting point the accusations leveled against well-known skeptic and author Michael Shermer for being at the very least a sexual predator.

The short answer to Oppenheimer’s question is ‘no’ because the movement is far bigger than a few individuals but of course that is not the main point of the article which is to really to explore how the broader skeptical community in the US, that originated in groups that were predominantly male and used to one form of behavior, is having trouble coming to terms with the increased presence and visibility of women at these gatherings.

After World War II, groups like American Atheists drew from university faculties, particularly philosophy and science departments, and from libertarian and objectivist political culture — all heavily male. Scientific skeptics found each other in universities and in amateur science clubs — for astronomers, coders, rock collectors — that were very male. Magicians — mostly men — became interested in scientific skepticism, which, like magic, deals with the question of how people are deceived. Freethought also drew from geek subcultures, like sci-fi, gaming, chess, and Dungeons & Dragons, that value rational thinking and computational skills — and which are all, of course, traditionally boys clubs. There were women involved, including the famous Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who in fact founded American Atheists, but they were exceptions.

What really bothered me in the article were the stories of the vitriol that is aimed at those women like Rebecca Watson, Melody Hensley, Jen McCreight, and Amy David Roth who speak out against being sexually objectified and call for better standards of behavior at skeptical gatherings. It must be emphasized that they are not relics of a Victorian era who are fainting and reaching for their smelling salts because their sensibilities are easily offended. They are asking for a greater recognition of the fact that even among those with very liberal views about sexuality, there are still standards of behavior and that liberties should not be taken.

There really is no excuse for such behavior and the response that everyone on the internet, male and female, gets hate mail and death threats (for the record I don’t, but that may be due to me being far down the prominence rankings) and has to learn to suck it up does not persuade me in the least. Yes, the internet has a lot of people who seem to enjoy periodic bursts of two-minute hate aimed at someone or other and are only satisfied when they draw blood but that is no excuse. That should not be the norm and its existence elsewhere does not justify it within the skeptical community.

This issue reminds me of how women were treated during the counter-cultural revolution and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, where male-dominated movements treated women in demeaning ways until the latter fought back in now what is referred to as the second wave of the feminist movement.

This article is bringing to the surface what has been around for some time and I suspect is going to generate a huge amount of discussion. Other bloggers on FtB are much more aware of all the people and issues relating this topic so those interested in getting more should go to the FtB home page and check out the postings there.


  1. floosh12345 says

    As a physicist, skeptic, that’s the part of the article that most sticks out in your mind?

    Empiricist heal thyself.

  2. electrojosh says

    Here’s my answer to “Will Misogyny Bring Down The Atheist Movement?”

    Well it hasn’t brought any of the religious movements to date.

  3. Matt G says

    Most of the science and atheist websites and blogs I visit are run by liberals, and I often forget how many atheists are either libertarian or, more rarely, conservative. Some topics bring them out of the woodwork, and all too often there is male and/or white chauvinism just below the surface.

  4. leni says

    It makes me wonder what those people who are sending the death and rape threats to other atheists have been doing to their previous foes (creationists, mostly) in the years before elevatorgate.

    It’s incredibly creepy to think that those same people might have been the first introduction to atheism that many religious people had on the internet over the last decade or two.

  5. electrojosh says

    @5 Leni

    Having been a fundangelical since I was a child and only recently coming out of my faith I can confirm that those people were very happy threaten the religious. In fact it was one of the reasons I didn’t care explore the arguments of atheists for a while -- their online representitives often came across as angry, unreasonable and nasty (despite claiming to represent some sort of tranquil rationality). Being a guy I didn’t experience the misogyny first-hand but I did see it aimed at others and was unimpressed.

  6. leni says

    …their online representitives often came across as angry, unreasonable and nasty (despite claiming to represent some sort of tranquil rationality)

    It’s sometimes hard to parse “angry, unreasonable and nasty” from “unpopular”, people are pretty regularly all of those things, especially when they feel strongly about something. But threats and targeted, senseless abuse for lulz are a different matter. I’m sorry if you experienced that, and I’m glad it didn’t stop you.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    … hate mail and death threats (for the record I don’t…)

    You live in Cleveland; clearly you suffer enough already.

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