Why Women Avoid the Atheist Movement (It’s Not Our Feeble Lady Brains or Hormones)

If you poke around most atheist communities on the Internet or take a look at the attendees at atheism conventions, you’ll probably notice that the crowd is overwhelmingly male. Is this because, as some of the biggest names in the movement have suggested, women don’t have the intellectual curiosity or logical capability to arrive at the conclusion that there is no God? (Spoiler alert: NO.) Or is there something within the atheist community that drives women away? Yes. Quite a few somethings, actually.

The most recent uproar in the atheist community follows a rather dim assessment of the female intellect by Sam Harris. During a recent interview, when Michelle Boorstein asked the author “why the vast majority of atheists — and many of those who buy his books — are male,” Harris first joked about his “overwhelming lack of sex appeal” (because religious leaders are so sexy? and that’s all we care about?), then went on to say:

I think it may have to do with my person[al] slant as an author, being very critical of bad ideas. This can sound very angry to people. People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women. The atheist variable just has this – it 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.

Lord. First of all, as Greta Christina points out, the premise of the question is wrong when you look at beliefs around the world. Globally, slightly more women than men (14% vs. 12%) in a 2012 poll* said they were convinced atheists. A different poll in the US from the same year did find that only 2.4% of adults said they were atheists, with 67% of them being men, but unless he’s claiming that American women have somehow evolved more delicate brains than other women around the world, it’s pretty clear that cultural forces are at play here (possibly including respondents being hesitant to admit to being atheists even if they identify as such). If women are less visible in the movement, it’s probably about something other than our beliefs.

*Clarification: Apparently the poll she cited was a bit of an anomaly. More on why male atheists might outnumber female atheists (without it having anything to do with “innate differences” here. Sorry!

One of the biggest reasons women may avoid the organized atheist movement is the way its self-declared leaders see us. Sam Harris clearly thinks we aren’t mentally tough enough to deal with atheist communities, but his sexist statements in the interview (and in a smug follow-up defense titled “I’m Not the Sexist Pig You’re Looking For”) pale in comparison with some of the horrible things that other leaders have said and done. Richard Dawkins has started multiple fights with women on the Internet, from Rebecca Watson to rape victims (several times), and frequently manages to be Islamophobic while doing so. The late Christopher Hitchens was proudly anti-feminist and misogynistic. Hemant Mehta, who goes by “The Friendly Atheist,” recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for a book that jokingly compared God to an abusive boyfriend (he, at least, quickly cancelled the project instead of mocking his critics, though he did still say that he thought he had a valid concept). The examples go on and on. Is it surprising that women aren’t terribly active in a community with so many leaders who don’t respect us?

The fact that most atheist Internet communities are predominantly (or at least, loudly) male also drives away many women who would otherwise be interested in the conversation. Google any of the above scandals and you’ll be hard-pressed to find the criticisms buried under a deluge of supporters who think women are over-sensitive and should just shut up. Atheists on Twitter frequently gang up on women who call out sexist statements. Even sites run by or incredibly supportive of women get invaded by trolls; most of the prominent women in atheism whose blogs I follow have taken breaks when the constant threats have gotten to be too much. Sound familiar? It’s the same thing that happens to women who talk about gaming, geek culture, politics, or pretty much anything else that we could possibly be interested in that men want to keep for themselves. It’s not surprising that atheist online communities fall into the same traps, though it’s disappointing coming from a group that prides itself on logic and reason.

And about that logic and reason: My God is there a lot of smug mansplaining and playing devil’s advocate. Which isn’t to agree that women need an “estrogen vibe” to embrace atheism, but it does get tiring to listen to a bunch of wannabe-Spocks bust out dictionary definitions as if those are more valid than our lived experiences or tell us that we’re being too emotional when we call out rape jokes. Look, I can bust out logic bombs and win arguments with science or math like nobody’s business, but there’s a time and a place for that. It’s frustrating to have every statement dissected by people who are missing the point, which isn’t at all the same thing as not liking criticism. I fucking love criticizing bad ideas! I just seem to have a different definition of “bad ideas” than a lot of atheist men do.

Fear of retaliation also keeps women from actively identifying as atheist. Lots of Americans aren’t terribly fond of atheists, and given how we’re treated within our own community, it’s understandable that women are afraid to openly declare that they aren’t religious. I’m still going back and forth about whether to publish this under my real name because having it in my portfolio could hurt my chances of getting future jobs, not to mention that quite a few of my deeply religious friends will likely distance themselves from me. (At least, the ones who haven’t already hidden me from their Facebook feeds for being a filthy liberal.) Some men probably also feel pressure to conform and hide their atheism, but as with most things, women are judged more harshly because we’re “supposed” to be nurturing moral compasses, and a hell of a lot of people think morals are incompatible with atheism.

Even if we could somehow fix all of the above issues, there’s still the fact that women have bigger issues to fight for. Yes, it’s bullshit that people think atheists are out to destroy America and cancel Christmas. Yes, it’s terrible that kids get bullied for not wanting to pray at school (and I speak from personal experience there). But honestly, there’s not much to get together and talk about. Not counting all the discussion about Harris and Dawkins’ statements, the only recent stories I can think about are the decision by the Air Force to make the “So help me God” portion of their oath optional (yay!) and the cheerleaders who defied their school’s decision to have a moment of silence at football games by leading the crowd in the Lord’s Prayer (eyeroll). Meanwhile, I frequently have 50 or more stories per week to cover in my posts about misogyny. I can’t find any statistics about the percentage of atheist women who identify as feminists, but from all the blogs I’ve seen, I suspect it’s pretty darn high (and that the atheist women who don’t call themselves feminists do so out of a misconception that “equalism” or “humanism” is somehow different/better or because they take issue with mainstream feminism’s lack of intersectionality). Of course we’re capable of caring about misogyny and discrimination against atheists, but the former is so pervasive that it’s hard to have energy left over to fight the latter, especially since it means overcoming misogyny within atheism.

Of course, there’s comfort in numbers, so it can be nice to know that you aren’t alone as an atheist woman. Fortunately, there are several blogs that address atheism/skepticism and feminism. I’ve been a big fan of Skepchick for ages, and there are several awesome ladies who write at Freethought Blogs, including Greta Christina and Heina Dadabhoy (PZ Myers gets a shoutout as well for being consistently on our side and calling out other men when they mess up). As hard as it may be to feel unwelcome in the movement, it’s important to keep atheism from turning into an echo chamber where misogyny goes unchallenged.

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[E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

5 thoughts on “Why Women Avoid the Atheist Movement (It’s Not Our Feeble Lady Brains or Hormones)”

  1. When you think about it, is it any shock that any group outside the “mainstream” becomes dominated by men? It’s as if we’re a herd, and as soon as one area becomes unpalatable (Oh no! Women!), we shuffle on to the next, always hoping to find surcease from the continual bombardment of those who wish to take our manhood. Atheists, gamers, geeks, golfers, hunters… men gravitate to places where they don’t have to think about the feelings of others, where they can revel and wallow in their dominance for a while, untroubled and unaccountable.

    I dabbled in atheism but found it not to my liking. It tended to attract a vein of intellectual snobbery which reminded me too much of my younger self, who was always sure he was the smartest person in the room and could not help saying it to anyone who didn’t want to hear it. Until women compose a larger portion of the atheist diaspora, it shall tend to reek of beer, cigar smoke, and testosterone.

    1. This is a really interesting subject, and although I have other reasons not to be a fan of organised atheism (that is to say I am deeply suspicious of anything organised, especially religion, so I like the a-part of atheism and see it as a reason not to get organised at all), those examples are very off-putting. Who knows, maybe they are even the real reason I avoid the movement. Icky.

    2. Not really sure why non-mainstream automatically equals male. Particularly in a society where women’s issues are considered “special interest.”

      Plus, and correct me if I’m wrong, but if atheism is about not caring about the feelings of others, then why does Sam Harris think it’s OK to imply that women are not as critical as men, but then doesn’t want to be called sexist? If one is “not caring about the feelings of others” then why is any critical response of HIS ideas dismissed as, ‘you guys are just calling me a sexist pig and that’s totes unfair’?

      1. It was not my intent to intimate that atheism is, strictly speaking, about not caring about others’ feelings, only that men seem to gravitate toward places where they can dominate and then apply their standards in such a way as to maintain that domination. After all, very rarely is an atheist someone who starts out as such; usually, such a person has been exposed to various religious traditions. As most religions tend to be patriarchal in nature, it stands to reason that men who move away from them tend to seek to maintain that same patriarchy, but dress it up in new rhetoric.

        As to the “mainstream” comment, again it was not meant to imply that all such groups ARE male-dominated, only that where such groups may arise, it should come as no surprise at such male domination. Reading what I wrote over, I don’t think I did that well. I can see how the confusion comes about. I hope this clarifies what I was getting at, to some degree.

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