Does Atheism Hate Women?

“The divine right of husbands, like the divine right of kings, may, it is hoped, in this enlightened age, be contested without danger. -Mary Wollstonecraft


There’s been a stir on the subject of misogyny within the atheist “community” lately, with predictable cracks and fissures between the male-guru caste of  new atheism and their anointed bloggers, and a number of outspoken atheist women who say, in a nutshell, Enough is enough.

Rebecca Watson

The origins of the latest tension are explored in an article by Julia Galef for Religion Dispatches.  In it she examines an “incident” involving Skepchick blogger Rebecca Watson and an unnamed man at a July Skeptics’ conference.

Watson produced a video on the episode which has become a point of reference in a larger discussion of the status of women in the atheist and skeptics movement.

New atheist hierarch Richard Dawkins and outspoken anti-religionist P Z Myers responded to Watson’s concerns, Myers with unusual tenderness, and Dawkins by suggesting that “zero harm” had come to her in the “elevator incident” (Watson was propositioned), suggesting that (a) her situation could not be compared to the indignities foisted on women in Islamic theocracies (small comfort if not irrelevant) and (b) the incident itself had no specific relevance to the atheist community, being part of much broader social patterns of marginalization (read: the genus of sexism is not atheism).

The remarks were interpreted as male thuggery and seemed to lend credence to Watson’s complaint:  Even atheist men are Martians. Many of us back on earth were unaware that the simple profession of atheism had taken us to equality-heaven.

I knew this was coming.  A-many years ago, when Madalyn “Murray” O’Hair was dubbed the most hated women in America by no less a cultural beacon than Life Magazine, atheism was closely identified with the ridicule of religion, a kind of cultural side-show that seemed strategically incapable of making itself sexy and appealing to large numbers of people.  Those who watched her did so for the same reason they watched other freak TV sensations like Tiny Tim and the Loud Family.

There wasn’t much more to it:  Try repeating the mantra “There is no God” fifty times, eyes shut.  Feel better?  Of course not.  It’s like saying the rosary.

Madalyn O’Hair

Now try lighting in to some of the absurd beliefs that religious people want to perpetrate on non-religious people (some of them lost or dormant battles, but not forgotten): there’s a better life after this one, if you play your cards right; prayer and Bible readings in school,  creation science, God on the currency, myths of the “Christian” founders, selective ignorance of the First Amendment, especially in political seasons, and a dozen or so social and even economic policy issues for which the  engodded public think the Bible has the answer–beginning with the “right” to life, death with dignity, and harvesting stem cells in medical research (the last, not an issue in 1972).

Strictly speaking, these issues are independent of the God-question and in some cultures where spiritual traditions and ideas of the divine flourish these issues are irrelevant.

But this is America, and to the degree that domestic atheism is at least as much about how religion expresses itself in real time as it is about metaphysics, women until very recently have been under-represented in the fray.

It did not begin with Rebecca Watson’s video, or a proposition in an elevator that could have as easily happened at a real estate brokers’ convention.  But the video has raised the spectre that big top modern atheism, as opposed to the atheism of the fringe solists like O’Hair, may have developed along hierarchical lines not altogether different from the religious structures it condemns: a community of bishops (like Dawkins), priests, and down-the-scale nuns with little to say about the agenda, the issues, or how the show is run.

It also raises the question of why God-denial requires or assumes any ethic at all, or at least one transcending what we expect of real estate brokers.


About the same time as Madalyn was doing the talk-show circuit in the seventies, another formidable presence, this one in England, was speaking out about atheism, sexuality, and secular values: her name is Barbara Smoker (b. 1923), and she presided with magisterial importance over various British humanist groups, including the National Secular Society, and at the post-biblical age of eight-eight is a current Honorary Vice Presdient of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association.

Smoker, with whom I was once associated through the Council for the Critical Study of Religion in Oxford, far outdistanced her male contemporaries as an advocate for euthanasia, non-religious marriage and naming ceremonies, and separation of religion and state (which, recall, are not officially separate in the United Kingdom).

Hardly any work being pursued in these areas today by secularist and humanist organizations does not owe something to Smoker.  Equally outspoken humanist advocates followed in her footsteps–notably Jane Wynne Wilson in England and June Maxwell in Scotland.  If their sex, in any sense, marginalized them in the movement it did nothing to impair their organizational abilities or distract them from their goals.

The difference between Smoker and O’Hair is, or was,  a difference of cultural contexts and métier, as the French say.  O’Hair’s battle–to the extent it was ever coherent–was uphill and almost hopeless in God-besotted America.  What it gained in media coverage it lost in influence.

Smoker, with plenty of help from her intellectual consort Harold John Blackham (d. 2009) and dozens of friends within the British Humanist Association–many of them academics–worked at a distinct advantage.  –Interestingly, both Smoker and O’Hair were army veterans, neither “highly” educated, but tactically smart and possessed of a certain battlefield savvy that made them both personally formidable and able to stand up for their unbelief.

Whether their Gibraltar-like advocacy excited onlookers or turned them off is anybody’s guess–the Church of England and the Catholic Church had at least one thing in common in 1970: their hatred of Barbara Smoker.  And while atheist advocacy does not have a strong record of success in über-religious America, unbelief in Europe has been the result of cultural forces (collectively, “secularization”) which nourished humanist advocacy but are not explained by it.  Smoker prided herself on a terse and effective literary style; O’Hair (who was five years Smoker’s senior and a dismal prose stylist) on stump speeches, “encounters,” and interviews.  The clear impression is, however, where the atheism of the era was concerned, there be women.

Barbara Smoker


And yet. The new atheism  and even its weirdly named predecessor “secular humanism” has primarily been a man’s movement with female contributors, financial supporters, and fans.

I can point to a dozen names of personalities–Margaret Downey, Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina, and a range of younger women such as CFI’s Lauren Becker and Debbie Goddard, and Watson herself–who were energized for unbelief before the current wave of atheism washed onto the scene, beginning roughly, if not exactly, with the publication of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion in 2005.

As other literati joined ranks the fan club grew.  That the team was half  British (Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens on the British side, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, though Oxford-educated, on Yankee Doodle’s) and highly intellectual situated its influence within the ranks of the university educated–especially young secularists,  the culturally disaffected, and those who were simply fed up with the nostrums of religion.  Its intellectual base distinguished it from the rough n’ tumble atheism of the previous generation, the names of whose promoters were conspicuously absent from the New York Times best sellers’ list.

Humanist groups, skeptical groups, and secular groups–whose edges often blur–were equally affected. And I think it would be fair to say that while the horsemen were men, the base included women and men in surprisingly equal measure.

Ophelia Benson

There are also some key women independent thinkers, who would probably prefer to be judged by their work rather than their political allegiance to a movement: Jennifer Michael Hecht, whose work on Doubt is a thoughtful exploration of the integrity of skepticism as an act of faith in human reason; Susan Jacoby (Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism), who is on record as deploring indiscriminate nastiness towards all religion; and, above all, Rebecca N.  Goldstein, whose new work of fiction (36 Arguments for the Existence of God) is an ironic and deflationary account of philosophical atheism (and thus also of  faith) quite unlike anything that has hit the market before now.

Not all women atheists were movement atheists, and some, just like their male counterparts, were squeamish  about the requirement to self-identify with an atheism that was simply about hating religion.

There is, bluntly put, now as then, no shortage of women writing and speaking out on the subject of unbelief, though in my opinion the most eloquent and creative ones are not necessarily the ones that get the most attention, nor are they the ones who feel entirely comfortable with the intellectual constraints imposed by “movement atheism” and labels like new atheism.  They are also the ones least likely to think that their nuanced approach to the topic is in any sense less deserving of credit than the flatfooted atheism of their activist contemporaries.


At least some of the blame for the constraints felt by women involved closely in atheist advocacy has to be pinned on the movement itself and on organisations like the American Humanist Association and the Center for Inquiry (CFI) with their almost unpunctuated history of men on top.


The secular movements that were founded after World War II included theorists like Corliss Lamont and Paul Kurtz, who absconded from AHA to found the constituent bodies of the Center for Inquiry.  Collectively, along with other groups, like O’Hair’s former bailiwick American Atheists, they laid much of the groundwork that made (an ungrateful) new atheism possible.

Secular sectarianism (seculatarianism?) emerged early on between these groups and became entrenched in the way the organizations competed with each other for supporters and did business.

While women’s and later gay and lesbian rights movements swirled outside the doors, for example,  the humanist  movement paid only glancing attention to them.  The recipient of the 1975 Humanist of the Year Award and a contender for the title most influential feminist of her generation, Betty Friedan, went so far as to question whether humanism was suited to pursue the feminist agenda.  Part of her concern, as expressed in a 1988 address to the International Humanist and Ethical Union,  was that movement humanism did not seem fully engaged in the social and equality- battles of the generation–that secular humanism was theoretical while women’s equality and civil rights issues were practical.

Scores of atheist writers, intellectuals, poets, artists, musicians and others declined to self-identify as “atheist,” not because their unbelief was tepid, nor even because the position was politically unpopular and even, sometimes, economically risky,  but because the whole style of American atheism–in particular its science worship, religion-bashing, and naive view of cultural intellectual history–made the option unappealing.  In fact, the degree to which American atheism was marked by contrarian impulses and a odd kind of humanistic anti-intellectualism has yet to be fully explored–and won’t be here.

But turf was turf:  Paul Kurtz, to take one example,  was determined not to have secular humanism identified with the the bold, brash, ridicule-based (and gaffe-prone) atheism of Madalyn O’Hair, whom he more than once accused of giving atheism a bad name.  Thus was born the “Let’s not call it atheism” form of atheism, a move that created further divisions between full-frontalists (“Atheist and Proud of It”) and fig-leafers (“Ethically Disposed Philosophical Naturalist”).

By the same token, even the erstwhile “Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism” (now the Council for Secular Humanism), wasn’t very “democratic” when it came to women.  I can remember any number of all-male meetings where the principals around the table wondered why more women weren’t signing on, why more women didn’t accept invitations to speak at CFI conferences, or why, if they did accept,  sometimes changed their mind late in the game.  When, in 2004, I organized a conference on the topic of religious violence which included eight women, all experts on the subject, out of a dozen speakers, a senior CFI operant at the opening cocktail hour asked, in all earnestness and simplicity, when the scholars  (already all present) were going to arrive.  No one savoured the moment more than the women.


And so, the question lingers, why have things not changed more quickly?  Why is organized humanism more like the Catholic Church than a big tent?

I have two answers.

One is that the primary targets of movement humanism and atheism were, in the early days, men–and the battle, like all battles, was joined (mainly) by other men.  It’s easy to forget that beginning with the unctuous born-againism of Billy Graham and the faith-healing Oral Roberts, America’s repetitive Great Awakenings in the latter part of the twentieth century were associated with protestant prophets: Graham himself, Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell, John Hagee, and spit on the floor and call it polish charismatics like Jimmy Swaggart, Peter Popoff, Benny Hinn,  and countless others.

Some, like Bakker, were merely crooks; the majority of others a Crayola box of charlatans.  The threat of extreme forms of evangelical protestantism in political terms (which was real then and real now) seemed to call for a response that was not “mere” atheism but mobilization of large numbers of  smart people who (before the rise of the “Moral Majority” and its lineal descendant, the Tea Party) thought that protestant fundamentalism existed only on the fringes of American Christianity.

Evangelical Fright

To their credit, Kurtz’s organizations rejected that premise and actively sought to combine a critique of religious dogmatism with education in the  democratic and secular values that the Christian Right regarded as un-American.

Women were certainly part of the demographics of the disaffected, the escapees, but ex-born-again protestant males formed a significant majority of converts to the secular humanist form of unbelief.  Former Roman Catholics, adrift from the dogmatism of their church and its sexist politics (since unmasked as a pedophile paradise) were the second largest demographic, with secular Jews coming in at a healthy third–and increasing numbers of ex-Muslims at the dawn of the new millennium.

There were women within each group–talented, engaging, brilliant women.  But the “authoritative” voices–the teachers–were still almost exclusively male.

The circumstances surrounding the disappearance of O’Hair and her family in 1995 and subsequent (2001) discovery of her chainsawed remains on a Texas ranch was the conclusion of a sordid chapter in the history of American atheism.  O’Hair’s estranged son William testified that his mother had a tendency to hire “violent atheist criminals” because “She got a sense of power out of having men in her employ who had taken human life.”  The net benefit to secular humanism, which had always seen her as a PR problem,  may have been minimal, but the damage to atheism in America, and perhaps also to large-scale women’s involvement in movement atheism,  courtesy its female prophet, was enormous.

Studies of religious cults in my own tendentious field are instructive: while women often form the backbone of support for the leaders of religious-social groups, the “authority structure” normally consists of a charismatic leader who achieves prophetic status and beta- and gamma- followers who perform secondary services, the value of which is determined by the prophet himself. (Think Jesus-disciples-women attendants.)  It’s easy to overstate the relevance of this sociology, but what Rebecca Watson experienced was at least a vestigial form of secular tribalism.

In my opinion, it used to be far worse–though to the extent prophets remain males, the potential for abuse will always exist.  If anything, the new atheism reasserted the primacy of male opinion about God, while at the same time elevating the discussion in a way that made the atheist “option” intellectually respectable, as it had not been under O’Hair.  Doubtless the male leaders do not (cannot?) see it this way because their status  depends on the willingness of women to acquiesce in their authority.  It’s an old pattern.

The second reason for the implicit misogyny of the atheist community is more complicated, more directly explanatory, and might be instead a reason why women have often bypassed atheism in favour of other, more pragmatic,  struggles.

As a graduate student at Harvard in the ‘seventies, there was never a time when I sensed that women were  “underrepresented” or voiceless.  The professoriate, still largely male, was changing–but the student body of the Divinity School, where most Godtalk was analyzed,  was equally or about equally divided between men and women.

Harvard moreover was a microcosm of the secularisation of liberal religion in America during that era, and also expressed the fact that in most Christian denominations the carriers of tradition and the demographic majority of adherents are women.  And while male voices still tried to dominate the discussion professionally (as in published books and papers), women had seized the conversation.

While O’Hair did what she did, hundreds, if not thousands, of women were radicalized–in the positive sense of that word–in the liberal divinity schools of North America in the seventies and eighties, which were more closely in touch with radical trends in European universities and European feminist theology and philosophy than any equivalent groups in America.  By contrast with the generation of women theologians concerned with questions of religion and secularization between 1970 and 2000, the contributions of women associated with movement atheism was, to be kind,  unimpressive.

Judith Plaskow 

With its visceral tendency to dismiss theology as intellectual chintz, both men and women atheists have habitually overlooked the fact that the best and the most scorching critiques of religion in the last third of the twentieth century were produced by theologians, many of them women.  Furthermore, they did this not just against the odds but within structures, both ecclesiastical and academic, where male authority had predominated for centuries.

For many, the question of God’s existence was yesterday’s news; it had been soundly laid to rest in the nineteenth century.  The burning questions were now about the social implications of that death for systems still governed by male privilege based (directly or indirectly) on metaphors of male sovereignty over women.

To name only three of dozens of these women: Mary Daly, who died in 2010, was one of the first Americans to bring the discussion of repressive patriarchal structures based on biblical and other religious images to English speaking readers.  Trained in Europe, her first book, the Church and the Second Sex (1968) drew on the feminist philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir, and her more popular book, Beyond God the Father (1973), challenged the authority structure of the Catholic Church directly as being an antiquated system of privilege based on outdated images drawn from tribal societies where God is an alpha-male who dominates others through physical stength, abuse, sexual dominance, and the demand for obedience:

“Patriarchy is the homeland of males; it is Father Land; and men are its agents…. Women who are Pirates in a phallocentric society are involved in a complex operation. First, it is necessary to Plunder — that is, righteously rip off — gems of knowledge that the patriarchs have stolen from us. Second, we must Smuggle back to other women our Plundered treasures. In order to invert strategies that will be big and bold enough for the next millennium, it is crucial that women share our experiences: the chances we have taken and the choices that have kept us alive. They are my Pirate’s battle cry and wake-up call for women who I want to hear….• The fact is that we live in a profoundly anti-female society, a misogynistic ‘civilization’ in which men collectively victimize women, attacking us as personifications of their own paranoid fears, as The Enemy. Within this society it is men who rape, who sap women’s energy, who deny women economic and political power.”

Rosemary Radford  Ruether, who along with Daly (in Gyn-ecology, 1978) styled herself an eco-feminist, was one of the first women theologians to apply the Reformation idea of freedom of conscience to the early debate about abortion in the United States, challenged traditional ideas about God, and implicated the Church (in her 1974  book, Faith and Fratricide) in the pepetuation not only of anti-Semitism (which, she alleges, it virtually invented) but in the modern  political plight of the Palestinian people.

As to Christianity’s record:

“Christianity is riddled by hierarchy and patriarchy… a social order in which chaste women on their wedding night were in effect, raped by young husbands whose previous sexual experience came from exploitative relationships with servant women and prostitutes. . . . Modern societies have sought to change this situation, allowing women education, legal autonomy, paid employment and personal freedom. But the sexual morality of traditional puritanical patriarchal Christianity has never been adequately rethought.”

The critique continues in the work of countless women theologians and religious studies scholars; Ursula King (Religion and Gender, 1995); Hedwig Myer-Wilmes (Rebellion on the Borders, 1995); Judith Plaskow (Standing again at Sinai), Luise Schotroff (Lydia’s Impatient Sisters, 2000), Elisabeth Schuessler-Fiorenza (In Memory of Her, 1983, 1994), Phyliss Trible (God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, 1978).

Almost every issue the religious right considered “pivotal” and defining for their understanding of Christianity is explored and deconstructed in these works,  perhaps most memorably in the work of my former Harvard classmate Daphne Hampson who was one of the first writers to use the term “Post-Christian” to describe the critical work in religion that future generations of theologians needed to do:

“I am a Western person, living in a post-Christian age, who has taken something with me from Christian thinkers, but who has rejected the Christian myth. Indeed I want to go a lot further than that. The myth is not neutral; it is highly dangerous. It is a brilliant, subtle, elaborate, male cultural projection, calculated to legitimise a patriarchal world and to enable men to find their way within it. We need to see it for what it is. But for myself…I am not an atheist.”

For many observers of the current crisis about women’s voices, the question has to become, Where are you looking, and what are you hearing?  Are you aware of these voices? Or is half a century of women’s thinking and writing about the very structures that atheist women are only beginning to consider irrelevant to your analysis of religion?  Does the fact that their battles were fought with the Church or within the repressive institutions they tried to change nullify their critique or make it incomplete?

If the complaint against their writing is that they did not go far enough, the question then becomes How far is far enough?  And since when is mere polemic a worthy substitute for profound analysis of religious belief and hardcore scholarship in history and anthropology?  What additional weight is achieved by self-identifying as an atheist when the concept and images of the biblical and koranic god have already been carefully and systematically dismantled and when the conversation has, frankly, moved on to questions about values and ethics ?

That is what the atheology of the Dalys, the Hampsons, the Tribles and dozens of others has provided, with intellectual rigour and sophistication.  Furthermore, there are virtually no male voices here to distract us from their project–no one to say, “Come up to my room and we can compare notes.”

I very much doubt that the paradigm for women in the atheist movement will be greatly enriched by simply accepting the bluff and underanalyzed paradigms of the male atheist polemicists–who, by the way, based on more than a glance at their bibliographies and footnotes, are equally unacquainted with this strand of feminist thinking about God.  Why am I not surprised? Forgive us our debts.

54 thoughts on “Does Atheism Hate Women?

  1. I think I can add two points which may be worth considering; the first lies fairly and sqarely in the social history of science in England and goes some way to explain why Richard Dawkins is the way he is.

    Back in the mists of time, when he was studying biology, it was a truth universally recognised that only cissies did biology.

    Mathematicians were gods, and although manly men could aspire to real science like physics, or, possibly, chemistry if the physicists were in a good mood, biology was a ‘soft’ science, and we all know that soft does not cut the mustard.

    Dawkins has spent his life trying to prove he’s not a cissie, and can cut the mustard; simple charity suggests we not dwell overly long on that.

    Dawkins had the added disadvantage of being wholly incapable of the real science which had overtaken him in his chosen subject decades ago; he has been reduced to the pitiful level of a character in evolutionary biology bingo.

    Once you grasp that point then you begin to understand the reasons behind his apparently random swipe at Rebecca…

    • Interesting Stevie: thanks for this. In the long run, it doesn’t say anything ultimately damning about RD and I think Rebecca deserves a lot of credit for calling attention to the incident.

      • As do I; Rebecca has been vilified and has responded with great courage and dignity. As she has noted she expects that RD will continue to make cartloads of money, and I am sure she is right.

        There is, after all, a large market for people who believe that buying a particular book will demonstrate their intellectual superiority without ever having to do anything which requires intellectual ability. But that takes us back to the dumbing down of atheism, and I’m pretty sure you are bored by that.

        I think the important question is whether playing evolutionary biology bingo is simply perpetuating Victorian stereotypes of male and female. Of course, I think the answer to that one is in the affirmative, but then I’ve spent too much of my life being told that I think like a man to have much confidence that those stereotypes are going to go away once the dinosaurs of RD’s generation fulfil their biological destiny by dying…

      • And no, I want atheism to be as sophisticated and global and sexless as we have a right to expect it to be.

  2. It’s a very interesting, and very sad, post. I always preferred stairs to lifts. I like running up and down hills anyway and I always find small places and closed doors claustraphobic. I’ve only ever really belonged to protest ‘movements’ such as anti war, peace and greenie type things. Theatres and wineries have been the only ‘organisations’ that I’ve been employed by. Religion and sex has been irrelevant. In any case these movements and organisations were in a country where, during the last decade, the four most powerful positions in the country were held by women, and it was the first to give women the vote. In my opinion RD is deluded about many things, including the history of religions and what ‘god’ can mean. He seems very naive about these things, as do many atheist scientists. I have noticed ‘enough is enough’ being employed by atheists in America where they are a minority. It stands out to me, because it is the same mantra used by the patriarchal fundamentalist Destiny Church in New Zealand, which is an American import, but small and insignificant (unlike MacDonalds which is equally damaging and regrettably more influential). The male members, dressed in black, chanted ‘enough is enough’ indignantly, as they marched all the way to parliament a decade ago, in protest at our legalisation of civil unions and prostitution. Oddly I always associate that phrase with them – they shouted it so angrily and loudly.

  3. You know, it occurs to me as I read this, that one big reason why America is “God-besotted” is that religion fills a void left by the maniacal individualism constantly promoted as the real basis of the “American Way.” Curiously, the American version of religion strongly reinforces this “lone hero” approach to…well, everything. I suspect this is a strong component of its continued survival as a political and cultural force. I don’t know that it is intentional…I merely note it.

  4. “For many, the question of God’s existence was yesterday’s news; it had been soundly laid to rest in the nineteenth century.”

    I’ve heard this before, but I’m confused by it. Is this common among religious believers in America? Or is this only something that theologians and others involved in divinity schools know?

    On the ground, belief in god seems to be strong. If god’s existence has been accepted since the 19th century, why does religion, particularly Christianity, still exist in America? The religion is based on a god, so I don’t see how it would have survived god’s death.

    • I could have been more clear, I think: I am arguing for an atheism that builds on what radical theology and feminist theology had explored in the last part of C XX. A lot of these theologians had no wish to bring religion down with God, and that may seem like a fatal inconsistency (though not all religions have gods). There are certainly points where feminist critique of patriarchal god language and concepts of God is useful to atheists, and others where it looks a little anemic. Yes, it is true that liberal theology, esp in the works of Strauss, Feuerbach, and even theologically trained Marxists like Bauer (who believed Cty was a myth) gave up thinking that the word God meant anything, and I still find their reasoning and historical work valuable.

  5. ‘There are certainly points where feminist critique of patriarchal god language and concepts of God is useful to atheists, and others where it looks a little anemic.’

    One possible reason for the apparent anemia is that the feminist critique of the patriarchy finds it difficult to discover much in the way of any meaningful distinction between patriarchal god language and patriarchal atheist language.

    As Rebecca has discovered, to her cost, criticising the latter leads to very direct threats to her physical safety; if you take a look at those screenshots of the people who think she should be raped and tortured and killed for, say, failing to denounce male circumcision, it is pretty obvious that there are quite a few guys out there whose notion of reasoned discourse falls a very long way short of anything involving a synapse or two.

    And yet no-one is calling them on it,…

    • The New Atheism seems to be very much invested in the idea that misogyny is largely the result of religion (which is why Dawkins jumped straight to be-burqa-ed Muslimas), and therefore, via rational self-interest, all women should be atheists.

      Then, when women don’t show up in “the movement,” it’s seen as a sign that women must be irrational–and therefore deserving of the sort of ladder theory, ev psych, “nice guy” sexism you find all over the “skeptical” blogosphere.

      They aren’t going to look in feminist circles for female atheists, despite the fact that MOST female atheists I know are feminists, because that might expose a sort of nasty truth–that the female atheist community avoids them.

      Occasionally, you run across a male atheist that figures this out. Generally, it results in a conversation where women swear fealty more to feminism than movement atheism, are Part of The Problem. This never gets connected to the “rational self-interest” that atheist women aren’t supposed to be acting on.

      They can’t see how weird it is that they totally feel entitled to state that a woman that is both an atheist and a feminist has a Holy Obligation to identify primarily as an atheist, or they’re harming the Glorious Cause. And, they can’t conceive of sexism as something that might be more a product of social structure than “irrationality” and religion.

      • This is very familiar; it seems strange that so few people can grasp that a woman’s rational self-interest would inevitably result in her strongly objecting to the presence of a guy who appears to be trying to put the moves on her in an otherwise deserted hotel lift at 4am…

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  7. Seems to me that we buy ourselves a problem when we conflate the consideration of the religion hypothesis/es with gender relations. If I choose to accept the existence of a god, I may be deluded, but I am intellectually bound to accept that female and male persons are equally worthy of respect as human beings. If I am rational and reject the religion hypothesis, I am still bound to acknowledge sexual equality. There are two different narratives here, and bundling them together, particularly as one is an ethically neutral line of scientific enquiry,whereas the other involves real people and is intensely ethical.

    The overt quasi-religiosity of ‘The New Atheism’ and ‘The Atheist Movement’ does not have any relevance for me, because if there is no god one does not need to bury her with enormous carbon footprints every few months. The energy and treasure expended on such activities would be more fruitfully applied to legally reducing religion’s influence, surely? This would not preclude our best efforts to improve the field of ethnic or gender equality.

    • @Franklin: yes, I agree that the question of sexual equality and the question of the existence of God are two different narratives. They are bound together, however, in history, text and imagery, which are concrete expressions of the conception and in the “power structures” that such imagery supports. I think it is perfectly legitimate therefore for women, theologians and secularists, to conduct the discussion at that level. It is also interesting to consider whether any perfectly abstract philosophical construct of God (God minus attributes of power and authority) bears any meaning. The theologians perhaps erred in thinking that “God” could become gender neutral, and that thus/therefore the concept could be remodeled, spared and retrieved. I don’t think that that project is useful and some of their discussions look dated and naive.

  8. Rebecca Watson made a very valid comment about “the incident.” Dawkins made a very ham-handed and stereotypically Oxbridge Male response to her. I agree completely with you about that.

    However, during the later back-and-forth on the issue, Rebecca Watson herself, and much worse from some of her fans, stepped way beyond the bounds of rationality, and even beyond offended victim of sexism. Her attack on Stef McGraw (“ignorant of feminism”?) was at least heavy-handed. Worst was the insistence that SHE SAID SHE WAS SLEEPY was some sort of gospel message that should have eliminated any possibility that she would ever do anything else. And the people who are saying it are saying it so intensely that it almost sounds like stupidity, instead of the disingenuous crap I suspect it is.

    It was a good issue to raise. It’s part of very, very complex social negotiations that we make all of the time, and a lot of people obviously need to learn and be able to communicate better, and especially not intentionally isolate a woman. The atheists in the world are still negotiating sexual mores in a way that’s completely unsettled right now. And there are many, many people among the “thought leaders” of the atheists right now who are VERY sexually active and VERY sexually aggressive, both men and women. This is going to make an already very complex social negotiation much more complex, even if you’re not one of the sexual butterflies of the movement.

    This is what irritates me the most: Rebecca’s insults against anybody who would doubt that her intentions are always crystal clear to everyone. And ESPECIALLY when she actually seriously added “But I said I was tired and going to bed.” I can believe she would say that, as we often tend to prioritize things we say ourself, but the number of people who have repeated those words as gospel is a little disturbing.

    At best this guy was a clueless nerd who felt threatening to Rebecca through the alcohol-4am haze. At worst he was a predator who makes a habit of isolating women like that. But some of Rebecca’s attacks after her initial comments have been more about bizarre personal power (“BUT I SAID”) that serve only to keep her fans inflamed and distract from the good point she was making.

    • The point Rich makes is interesting, above. I don’t think that there is an “atheist” context for this incident–at all–shoot me, but what you say is poignant: “The atheists in the world are still negotiating sexual mores in a way that’s completely unsettled right now. And there are many, many people among the “thought leaders” of the atheists right now who are VERY sexually active and VERY sexually aggressive, both men and women.” As a cultural subset, does this make the atheist community any different from say a secular society that is sexually confused between the mixed messages conveyed in media, music, you name it??

      • Shooting you would be too kind; I expect more of you than the ‘we are all confused’ gambit.

        My daughter was an ardent fan of the Spice Girls, which certainly freaked me out at the time; I dealt with it by enrolling her in a martial arts class, on the principle that girl power has to be more than a marketing tool. She proved to be rather good at it, and in a fair fight I would back her against around 80% of the population, male and female.

        In an unfair fight I would back her against around 95% of the population, male and female, since no one who wants to win fights fair. And they don’t give you the nice gold embroidery on your black belt if you haven’t grasped the point that you fight to win; if you are not going to win then you run.

        So, anyone stupid enough to intrude upon her personal space would almost certainly regret it, but very few people do intrude on her personal space; people have to be pretty dumb not to realise that she is predator, not prey. Rebecca does not have those skills…

  9. Atheism doesn’t hate women. There are, however, certain atheist males who think the domain belongs to them. If atheism belongs to anyone, it belongs to the atheist.

  10. the incident itself had no specific relevance to the atheist community, being part of much broader social patterns of marginalization (read: the genus of sexism is not atheism).

    I dated a couple of engineers while in undergrad. I’m not sure of the stats, and I’ve never been to an atheist/skeptic conference, but I would wager to guess that the male:female ratio is pretty heavily skewed towards the male at these conferences much like the classes that my engineering girlfriends attended. Especially since, across all societies, women seem to be more religious than men (

    While not as blatant as the elevator guy incident, I did hear complaints from those girlfriends of mine about similar marginalization; mainly being oogled at unashamedly by potential male colleagues or clumsy propositions by classmates.

    So I think the elevator incident had more to do with a sort of “sausage party” effect than some latent atheist sexism.

    • I think many of us want to think that atheism has an implicitly superior moral position because it rejects the gods patriarchy. But translating that assumption into practice isn’t all that easy. Dawkins’s comments were, at least, clumsy on this score but also suggest that the sources of sexism are more entrenched in behaviour than non-believing males might want to think. No one is surprised; even a free love advocate like Russell was egregiously sexist, though his atheist credentials were pretty impressive.

      • Why should any of think anything of the sort? Atheism is the non-belief in deities. It has nothing to do with “superior moral position[s].” Why put such extra baggage on a very simple idea. You are talking about something else, give it a different name.

  11. I would like to see some evidence that atheism/skepticism/secularism is more sexist than any other similar group/organization. I am certain if you polled the membership of such groups you would find near unanimous agreement on womens rights issues that surpass the US national average.

    I would like to see some evidence that atheist/skeptic/secular conferences are more sexists than other conferences. It is not the possible for conference organizers to regulate member behavior after conference hours in bars, hotels, or online, such areas are the domain of the police, hotel/bar owners and online moderators.

    The evidence I see paints a the opposite picture. Attempts at gender balance and actively recruiting female speakers, as well as extensive anti-harassment policies imply that atheist/skeptics/secular organizations are better than many (most?).

    The suggestion, without evidence, that atheist/skeptic/secular conferences are unsafe for women is irresponsible and damaging to the movement.

    To many, it seems like RW, with her various boycotts and free use of generalizations, has used her position in the atheist/secular community to promote a divisive form of feminism that blames men for all the problems of women. In this case skeptic/atheist men.

    • @Adam: I share most of your view of this, actually. Finally atheism, secularism, humanism, and the other ism will have to negotiate a solution, but the special needs and interests are very firmly entrenched.

  12. On the other hand, when I read women being criticised for behaving in a way which is “damaging to the movement” I wonder why a supposedly rational human being would do anything other than press the delete button.

    It’s 2012, in case you hadn’t noticed, and believe it or not women are entitled to express their views without being lectured about their need not to damage any movement, regardless of what that particular movement is.

    Equally I would expect some evidence beyond your personal belief and your pictures. Perhaps you could provide some evidence in support of them?

    • Making accusations against a whole movement without evidence, isn’t “expressing your views”, at best is irrational at worse it is lying.

      Pointing that out, especially in the atheist/rationalist/skeptic movement, that such accusations are lies, certainly isn’t suppression of views nor is it sexist. Maybe some women claim an exception from dishonest accusations and wild generalizations.

      • Still no evidence; we are back to your conviction that there is a movement, sorry, a whole movement, which needs protecting from women expressing views you don’t like.

        You appear incapable of grasping that reasoned discourse involves both evidence and reasoning; so far you have provided neither.

        If you want to contend that someone is lying then you have to identify the lie in question and demonstrate, by citing evidence, that it is a lie.

        Frankly, if you haven’t grasped the fundamentals of reasoned discourse by now you would be better off canning the conferences and going back to school to learn them. This is called rational self-interest and if you do it then someday you may be employable…

      • @Stevie Gamble

        What a strange argument. The atheist/secular/skeptic movement is the collection of authors/scientists/speakers, the interested people in such subjects, and the many conferences and organizations associated within these subjects. Such a ‘movement’ obviously exists.

        Second, concerning the damage being done. Specifically, accusations have been made that TAM (a major skeptic convention) is unsafe and unconcerned about women, this is patently false as shown by a complete lack of sexual harassment complaints at the conference. Additionally, TAM has gone to great lengths to maintain equal billing for men and women speakers and actively recruits women.

        Third, the evidence that it is damaging to the movement (specifically to TAM in this example) is the drop in female attendance because of women citing these alarmist accusations. Additionally, there has been a year plus flame war across blogs and even in the media about these accusations.

      • Checking the TAM 2012 website, it seems that of 35 speakers listed, 15 are female.

        This is not to say that there isn’t an issue regarding sexism in atheism. Personally, I would say that there is, but that it’s somewhat overstated at times, IMO.

        As in ‘implicit misogyny in the atheist community…’ for example. 🙂

  13. Nice post. I wouldn’t want to say much, since nearly everything has been said in comments above. I’d be willing to take a punt that ‘atheist communities’ are a tad more egalitarian than, say, an ‘average community’, but nonetheless, this does not warrant a pat on the back, since any degree of sexism (personally I’m very careful about reserving terms like ‘mysogyny’ for actual women-hatred) is regrettable, and Dawkins was generally criticized by atheists generally for his ‘midlife/older man’s gaff’, albeit it may not have been as clear cut or the ensuing kerfuffle as one-sided as reported.

    • This isn’t about ordinary atheists living peacefully in mixed societies with people of other mild faiths and origins, under secular egalitarian governments where society reflects egalitarianism, like Northern Ireland or New Zealand where, last decade, the five most powerful positions in the country were held (coincidentally not design) by women. The Prime Minister (happens to be a quiet atheist), leader of the opposition (liberal Christian), Leader of the House (probably agnostic), Governor General (not sure), Chief Justice (who knows), and Attorney-General (don’t know and obviously completely irrelevant as with all). It’s not even about ordinary quiet atheists living in America or Canada or anywhere. This post is about atheists in particular movements and ‘communities’ where atheism is central (and there are prophets, heroes and messiahs).

      • Jolly good. Then you’ll realise that egalitarianism is a reflection of the standards of a secular society (whether or not the leaders and teachers are religious or not), and not the atheists in it. Taking punts and speculating about particular groups in social contexts other than yours, is not sufficient compared with experience

  14. Your entire first paragraph is a classic straw man argument; at no point did I suggest that ‘the whole movement’ does not exist. The fact that you are reduced to inventing non-existent statements to refute says a great deal about your inability to find something rational to contribute to the discussion.

    The sun is shining, and I am therefore departing to the garden to enjoy the English summer while it lasts. In my absence you could try putting together a rational response, hard as that may be for you, which replies to what I did write.

    As a general guide, however, strive to bear in mind for the future that kicking off anything with an obvious straw man means that nobody with an iq above 100 is going to bother to read any further…

  15. On a tangental note, mentions of atheism being ‘quasi-religious’ and talk of it having messiahs and prophets generally raises a smile from me. 🙂

    Oh, I get the analogy, but I think it’s more than a bit stretched.

    Which political/social ‘movement’ is not at least somewhat like religion. Which religion is not at least somewhat somewhat like a political/social movement? What cheese isn’t at least somewhat chalkish? 🙂

    • I don’t eat cheese, but no camembert or brie is the least bit chalkish. People are not consistent. People vary geographically according to social and political context. We are not talking about Belfast. It is not a ‘stretched’ analogy in view of the particular movements and ‘communities’ being discussed. Personal belief in atheism or a religion is certainly not ‘somewhat like’ a political movement or even necessarily a social one.

    • Religion/Politics/Atheism are the same three corners of a point, it appears to me – all about survival, power and agrandisment (we won’t argue spelling here, thank you).

      My proposition is that once something becomes a ‘movement’, it ceases to have any rational base.

      Care to argue?

      Luv, f.

  16. Atheists are misogynistic garbage. They only try to convert women to atheism because they think it will attract more men. Disgusting.

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