Culture

New Atheism's Gender Problems

Screengrab from Catherine Deveny's " Atheist Alphabet" (included in this article)

Can critical humorists help combat the sexism inherent to both religious and secular organizations?

Since the emergence of the so-called New Atheists in the early 2000s, generations old and new have felt empowered to both admit to and express their agnostic, atheist, and anti-theist orientations. Whether by coincidence or correlation, this public coming out has inspired a wave of comedians to use their forums to speak the new irreligion. At the same time, according to Pew polls on religion, non-believers are now the fastest rising designated constituency, amounting to almost a quarter of the US population. For those so (un-)inclined, such developments are encouraging; nevertheless, some have looked at the shifting of the tectonic plates that has led to this rise of the faithless and asked: where are the women?

In both atheist and comedy camps a rigid hierarchy is in place that appears to privilege (old) white (heterosexual) males in its highest ranks. As a result, almost all media attention has gravitated to the science and snark of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris or the scathing put-downs of Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher. So, why are women so seemingly under-represented in the upper echelons of atheism and its humorist subculture? And can the example of a secular humanist wit like Julia Sweeney offer a precedentary model for breaking those glass ceilings, while also ushering in a more inclusive style that might broaden the non-religious church?

Famed atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, 1983 in front of the Robert Ingersoll statue in Glen Oak Park, Peoria, Illinois. I don't know the name of the bearded man in this picture. Madalyn O'Hair was murdered in 1995 along with her son and granddaughter.

Alan Light - Flickr: Madalyn Murray O'Hair (CC BY 2.0 / WikiMedia Commons)

Where the women have been has not always been in the bosom of religion; in fact, some of the most trailblazing and renowned public atheists have been female—though their visibility has sometimes come at considerable cost. Madalyn Murray O'Hair was the founder of the American Atheists and served as its president between 1963 and 1986. It was she who fought the case in 1963 that ended Bible reading in public schools. For her efforts she was designated "the most hated woman in America" in a 1964 edition of Life magazine, and was persecuted thereafter throughout her life . Whether in comic defiance or for self-protection (or perhaps a bit of both), O'Hair often operated under the pseudonym of M. Bible.

Celebrities, too, count among the pioneers of atheist women, Katharine Hepburn, Ayn Rand, and Camille Paglia paving the way for contemporaries like Jodie Foster, Keira Knightly, Ellen Page, and Sarah Vowell. Today, some of the most significant scholars of secularism are women, such as Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (Henry Holt and Co., 2004). It has been from the ranks of comedy, however, where women (and men) have emerged as the foremost front-line warriors against religion, their jesting particularly targeted at its more sexist and patriarchal elements. Julia Sweeney, Sarah Silverman, and Janeane Garofolo are just a few that have courageously shared their comedic takes on religion from stages and screens in recent years.

Despite their presence and the trailblazers that preceded them, women still account for a disproportionately small part of the growing army of "open" atheists. There are various reasons and theories that account for this gender gap. One, as noted, is that it still takes courage to air anti-religious views in a society still dominated by the religious. It takes particular boldness for a woman to do this, especially from the potentially vulnerable position of a stage in a raucous nightclub. There, as Lenny Bruce often discovered, heckling is often the best one can hope for once you start weighing in on taboo topics regarding faith and religious affiliation. Female comedians face particular danger under these circumstances due to the stereotypes their gender face. For some conservatives, a female atheist has betrayed her traditional roles as mother and protector; unmoored from faith she is seen as a threat to the social order, a blight on "home and hearth" mores. During the French Revolution atheist women were often criticized for acting counter to their biological disposition; it was only religion—went the argument—that could support her against her innate frailty.

More insidious threats are closer to home for women who dare challenge their faith upbringing. For some, a break from their church will result in a simultaneous break from their family, as they are ostracized or cast out from the fold. Tragically, many such stories are increasingly being told, often by brave former Catholics, Muslims, and Evangelical Christians. Some have faced serious repercussions that have even forced them into hiding. In the workplace, too, women have decided that the cost of "coming out" is too much, so they choose instead to suffer in silence rather than in exile. (See "Woman who defied Islam forced to flee", Andrew Osborn, The Guardian, 14 Nov 2002.)

There are certainly good reasons why female atheists constitute a minority within a minority. One is sexism in a patriarchal society. The pattern that prevails is the more exploited and weakened women are, the more likely they are to be religious in that society. In a country like Saudi Arabia, you will find few open atheists; yet, in Scandinavian nations, where women have more money and power, thanks to their participation in the workplace, they are less overtly religious. Within the US the same trend applies, with wealthier women in the North-East having less connection to religion than their poorer counter-parts in the Deep South (Religious Landscape Study, Pew Research Center. Some argue that faith and church serve as consolation and sanctuary for people lacking both individual and institutional power.

Sweeney brings a cynic's eye-view to such security offerings, suggesting in her speech at the 2007 Freedom from Religion Foundation convention that religions are well aware that our society leaves women feeling isolated; they take advantage of the resulting needs and desires, sometimes exploiting these women as unpaid labor. She calls for secular groups to offer an alternative that can serve the same "tribal" functions—but without the supernatural and/or institutional baggage. Precedents for such an idea do exist in the form of The Sunday Assembly, a secular "church" launched in London in 2013 by two comedians. In the US, since 1974, Harvard University has also attempted to harness desires for community, contemplation, and communication with their Humanist Hub.

More controversial explanations as to why women are less inclined than men to atheism revolve around perennial debates over nature versus nurture. Some regard women as more naturally emotional than rational, hence they are more drawn to the feelings and beliefs religious faith depends upon. Some see the submissive roles of women in general within patriarchy as a primary reason for their increased religiosity. Socialized to be passive, serving, and relational, they are more easily indoctrinated—the argument goes—by the authoritarian religious edicts that perpetuate and sanction those submissive roles. And if women are less attracted to the logic and evidence most atheist arguments are premised upon, is this because women are less encouraged to take subjects like science and mathematics in school? Whatever the validity of such musings, the reality is that atheism, past and present. is a male-dominated terrain and as such has taken on a "masculine" form that many find delimiting and damaging to the cause.

Spearheaded by the "Four Horsemen", Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, New Atheism has become as noted for its tone and tenor as its points of argument. Snide, smug, and sarcastic are just a few adjectives frequently invoked to describe these scholar-jockeys, while egotistical, condescending, and offensive have been offered up by the especially unforgiving. With stakes so high and adversaries so institutionally entrenched and powerful, perhaps a combative style is necessary to chasten and de-rail such authorities. Perhaps it takes a thief to catch a thief, for the New Atheists, like many of their Evangelical opponents, are driven by a mostly older white male elite that traffics in a populist rhetoric of persuasion that has little time for modesty, constraint, and compromise. These High Priests of (Non) Faith, like most old boys' clubs, resort to attitudes and behavior that—whether intentionally or not—exclude females from their ranks. As a result, women are often left with a lesser-of-two-evils choice: either remain within the patriarchal constraints of the church or join up with the equally male-dominated atheists. (Or, of course, they may simply choose not to participate in either.)

The inflammatory language and strident tone displayed on many on-line atheist discussion sites have led women to turn away from their uninviting atmosphere. Sometimes they are turned off or turned away by a barrage of abuse after sharing a perspective deemed unacceptable by the hardcore, a faction some have come to tag "Evangelical atheists". As far as many otherwise interested women are concerned, they would prefer to spend their time fighting patriarchy elsewhere than with company that professes to -- but does not always practice -- egalitarianism.

This ostracism of women is more than just a rhetorical issue, too. Dawkins has found himself in hot water before after making off-the-cuff remarks deemed sexist or insensitive to women. After reports surfaced of sexual harassment against a female participant at a skeptics conference, Dawkins downplayed the incident now referred to as "Elevatorgate", suggesting that feminists should be more focused on—and less apologists for—more extreme cases of misogyny taking place in Saudi Arabia and other theocracies. Harris and Hitchens, too, while conceding that most New Atheists are male because of their more hostile, less nurturing approach, actually see the problem here as lying with the women, not the atheist movement! Ironically, these three horsemen all consider themselves supporters of women's rights, which perhaps reveals how entrenched "old fashioned" sexism can be within any male-centered group.

Jacoby sees a systemic problem within the secular movement, one in which the recruitment of sympathetic right-wing libertarians is prioritized over that of women ("Jefferson, Hitchens, and the failures of atheism", WhyEvolutionIsTrue.com). The rhetorical correlative attending such an aim is an uncompromising style full of testosterone-driven bluster and chest-pounding. The victors of such a strategy are, inevitably, the churches themselves, which in the midst of the ensuing inter-movement in-fighting, can ironically claim the high ground in the genders wars, thus encouraging non-believing women to join and/or tolerate their more community-friendly patriarchal congregations.

Can women offer an alternative trajectory of style and conduct for atheists? If so, what might that look and sound like? Perhaps the feminist movement, with its traditions of consciousness raising, listening to others, and seeing the personal as political, can offer pointers for a more inclusive and appealing movement. Paglia, a feminist some might consider to have none of these above listed traits, is particularly critical of the sneering voices that characterize much modern atheism. She calls the New Atheists "adolescents" and "juvenile", and regards their cynical and blanket dismissals of all faiths as "an ethical atrocity". For her there's no inconsistency in being an avowed secular humanist while still having "great respect for religion". Like those currently forming secular churches, she argues that atheists cannot continue to just trash and burn; they need to offer more inviting alternatives to conventional religion (Salon.com, 29 July 2015).

A seasoned comedian, Sweeney also appreciates the virtue of community building, both within and across genders. Like Paglia, she's turned off by the more unyielding and caustic language of New Atheism, as well as by its unwillingness to learn from its adversaries. Her work recognizes the appeals of religion—manipulative though they may be—and promotes the personal, humble, and conciliatory conduct necessary to win over people of faith. To achieve such an end, empathy must be an ingredient in the comedic recipe.

An irony of the marginalization of women within the atheist movement is that women, as history has shown us, have the most reasons to reject religion and repudiate the Church. Sexism and subordination are the gospels according to most denominations and their scriptures, these entrenched attitudes played out in church hierarchies where men rule and women serve. Such traditional gender roles are reflected in the politics of religious-conservative citizens who prioritize rolling back any advances made by the women's movement (Psychology Today, 30 March 2011). Whether it be Fundamentalist Christians incrementally chipping away at the rights afforded in Roe vs. Wade, or the de-limited power of nuns within the Catholic Church, or the denial of women's basic human rights under Sharia Law, the war on women is as alive today across the major religions as it has always been. That New Atheism often squanders the opportunity to win over such victims, which speaks as much to their own failings as to the indoctrinatory successes of organized religion.

The rhetoric of those women that have declared themselves non-believers reveals what a more gender-balanced secular movement might offer. Learning lessons from the '70s Radical Feminist movement, some secular women have given up their often futile attempts at inclusion within atheist groups and chat rooms; instead, they have established their own sites around more assertively egalitarian and non-sexist principles. Secular Women, The Center for Free Inquiry, and the Women in Secularism conference are just a few examples of women forming their own forums, ones where equal pay, reproductive rights, and female representation have become top-of-the-agenda concerns rather than afterthoughts. And in The Friendly Atheist and Pharyngula we see the emergence of non-believer blogs addressing the rights and plights of women and other minorities.

The prospects for progress are not wholly bleak, even if perpetual male dominance has constructed a solid ceiling to crack. The recent explosion in women's comedy offers optimistic signs, for as all boats rise many female humorists will feel empowered to venture into previously taboo areas of their own subjugation—such as religion. Sweeney and Silverman are contemporary trailblazers in this development, but they build from a foundation constructed in harder times by the likes of Dorothy Parker and Fran Lebowitz. They are currently being followed by neophyte upstarts like Chelsea Handler and Catherine Deveny. The latter's "Atheist Alphabet" is must-viewing for any fans of female-styled atheist comedy. More presence and support for such women within the various outlets of the modern secular movement could usher in a much needed New New Atheism better equipped to combat those institutional religious forces currently content to keep women silenced, sidelined, and within their own ill-serving sanctuaries.

Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2018 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.