Brazen sexism is pushing women out of America’s atheism movement

The atheist movement leaves many women feeling on the outs.
The atheist movement leaves many women feeling on the outs.
Image: AP Photo/Akira Suemori
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This post has been corrected.

I was eight years old when I decided that I didn’t believe in God. The realization occurred to me after my Methodist pastor reduced my queries about God and the universe to the same kind of “just because” reasoning my mother used for questions like why I couldn’t run around outside without a shirt on.

Since then, I’ve been an atheist. I do not believe in a God, and I do not live by the dictates ascribed to any god figure. I do not need a paternal figure to tell me how to act like a moral human. Rather, I cultivate an ethics of interpersonal and community engagement with other people based on principles of civic-mindedness. In this way, my atheism directly informs my feminism. I reject society’s demand that I submit to men. I reject the objectification of women. The ethics of choice—a person’s right to decide what they believe in and what they do with their body—unites the two philosophies.

This correlation between atheism and feminism for me, and for many other women, is why we are so dismayed by the misogyny rampant in today’s atheist movement. Writing in Salon, Katie Engelhart ascribes the misogyny in New Atheism to the movement’s exclusively male leadership—who also happen to be men notorious for their sexism. “Despite their supposed love of science and rationality,” Amanda Marcotte agreed in a post for Alternet, “many of them are nearly as quick as their religious counterparts to abandon reason in order to justify regressive views about women.”

The latest high-profile example of this hypocrisy is Richard Dawkins’s recent Twitter debacle, in which he tweeted a video mocking feminists and Muslims and then got called out by Lindy West. Then there was neuroscientist and New Atheism leader Sam Harris’s declaration back in 2014 that the movement’s supposedly hard-hitting, critical approach is “to some degree intrinsically male,” as if to confirm that atheism has always been a “boys’ club.”

Yet while there has been a fair amount of online discussion about the fact of the movement’s misogyny, few have attempted to explain why it exists.

There are two predominant reasons that can explain why sexism exists in the atheism movement. The first reason is the influence of social Darwinism. Philip Kitcher, professor of philosophy at Columbia University, wrote in The New York Times in 2012 that the first tenet of social Darwinism is the belief that “people have intrinsic abilities and talents (and, correspondingly, intrinsic weaknesses), which will be expressed in their actions and achievements, independently of the social, economic and cultural environments in which they develop.” A concept such as “men are from mars, women are from Venus” is one version of such gender-essentialist, social Darwinist ideas.

In the atheism movement, social Darwinism has played out as the justifiable assault of women by (naturally) aggressive men. Buzzfeed’s Mark Oppenheimer detailed many accounts of alleged sexism, sexual assault and coercion in his excellent exposé on the atheism movement. “Some women say they are now harassed or mocked at conventions, and the online attacks—which include Jew-baiting, threats of anal rape, and other pleasantries—are so vicious that two activists I spoke with have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder,” he writes.

Oppenheimer also writes that James Randi, chair of annual atheist gathering The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM), used biological essentialism to rationalize alleged sex crimes and sexual harassment. Randi’s comments were in response to accusations made by multiple women against Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic magazine. “[Shermer] had a bit too much to drink and he doesn’t remember. I don’t know,” Randi muses. “I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk.”

The idea that sexual harassment and violence is just “what men do” is the 21st-century atheist’s interpretation of the laddist maxim that “Boys will be boys.” The same logic is manifest in statements that justify sexual violence on a woman’s behavior or style of dress.

The second explanation for why the atheism movement foments sexism can be found in what Dawkins himself said during a 2002 TED Talk called “militant atheism.” Instead of practicing atheism as a kind of absenteeism from religion—which is how I approach it—Dawkins presents the case for an atheism that aggressively attacks other religions. Even more pernicious is the way he argues for a moral and organizational structure on par with orthodox religions. “We need a consciousness-raising, coming-out campaign for American atheists,” Dawkins said. “When a critical mass has been obtained, there’s an abrupt acceleration in recruitment. And again, it will need money.”

As a capitalist-fueled institution, New Atheism has established itself as a mirror image of religion, with Dawkins & Friends situating themselves at the pinnacle of the movement–in the role of God. Feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz put it this way: “God is dead; long live man! Nietzsche said it all, and Dawkins [and the male leaders of the movement] have resurrected man as god,” she told Quartz in an email.

The mirroring of religion is apparent in the movement’s structural hierarchy. White men are at the top, serving as featured speakers at events and figureheads of the movement. Everyone else remains in the pews and balconies. This social stratification is both sexist and racist. Take Dawkins’s contention that Islamophobia is a “non-word,” or his “Dear Muslima” letter, or the “Feminists Love Islamists” video he tweeted last week. Dawkins’s general argument is that his attacks are religiously—not racially—motivated. “If ‘race’ is real,” he tweeted in 2014, “it should never be a criterion to decide anything. If Islam is a ‘race’ it’s the only ‘race’ you can convert to or from.”

New Atheism’s element of sexism is both cause and consequence of the movement’s demographics. According to 2015 Pew research, atheists in America are mostly young white men. Harris suggests that atheism’s emphasis on criticism just isn’t attractive to women: “The atheist variable … doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.” Women are excluded from the atheist movement because its leaders seem to believe women are not “rational” creatures–in keeping with the demoralizing history of Western thought.

No wonder atheism is not attractive to women. As Katha Pollitt wrote for the Nation, “Why would women join a movement led by sexists and populated by trolls?” Like other forms of liberal misogyny (the Bernie Bros are a recent example), atheism engages in a type of social Darwinism that objectifies women just because they’re women. For these men, misogyny is not based in religion at all, but in biology. They claim to be about liberating people from the shackles of religion. But in importing sexism into the movement, they’ve brought religion’s biggest problem with them.

Correction: This post originally mistakenly attributed a quote about Lindy West to Richard Dawkins. The quote, which has been removed, should be attributed to Penn Jillette.