Saturday, 14 December 2013

Is Atheism Sexist?

A few weeks ago I had a very enjoyable dinner with a small group of Atheists. Well, technically one of the ladies there described herself as a Pantheist. I had only come across this philosophy in passing so we enjoyed a conversation where she explained more about this viewpoint. During the course of this conversation this lady said (almost in passing) that she felt that Atheism was sexist. I didn't have the opportunity to pursue this further with her at the time but it got me thinking, is Atheism as a concept sexist?

We are all aware that there are fewer women than men who become involved in what could crudely be called ‘active atheism’. By this I mean attending events such as conferences and seminars, social gatherings or politically advocating for a secular agenda. This is supported by the Atheist Census (http://www.atheistcensus.com/), in Ireland currently 2,456 people have registered and 74.5% of these are male (in the UK 77.7% are male and in the US 67%). My reasoning for the lower rates of atheist activism among women was always along the lines of “women tend to become less politically involved anyway” and “women are probably under more social pressure to conform to expected religious (and cultural) practices such as having a church wedding or christening their children”. I also think that women are more likely to be dependent on supports from family members (particularly other female family members) and so are less likely to ‘rock the boat’ at the risk losing that support. But what if that is not all that we are observing here, what if the very definition of Atheism is off-putting to women.

Ok, so Atheism is the belief that there is no god(s). In Western countries gods tend to be depicted and worshiped as male, so one would imagine for a woman to turn away from the belief that an all-powerful, omnipotent male was her one true ruler and master would be incredibly liberating. Indeed the sexism inherent in religions is probably a major motivating factor for many women who begin questioning their beliefs and has definitely been used by many an Atheist as an argument against religion. But the definition of Atheism goes beyond a rejection of a belief in god(s). I’ve done a quick trawl through some of the websites of Atheist societies, advocacy groups and communities and have had a look at some of the definitions and goals they use to describe their groups looking for clues as to why Atheism might be considered to be sexist:

Atheist Ireland: promote(s) atheism and reason over superstition and supernaturalism, and we promote an ethical, secular society where the State does not support or finance or give special treatment to any religion. (http://www.atheist.ie/information/about/)

American Atheists: fights to protect the absolute separation of religion from government and raise the profile of atheism through public discourse (http://www.atheists.org/)

Atheist Alliance International: (its) vision is a secular world where public policy, scientific inquiry and education are not influenced by religious beliefs, but based upon sound reasoning, rationality and evidence (http://www.atheistalliance.org/about-aai)

Sydney Atheists: our goal is to promote a positive representation of atheism and to enforce the separation of church and state (http://www.sydneyatheists.org/p/about-us.html)

International League of Non-Religious and Atheists (IBKA): non-religious people have joined forces for human rights in general - and enforce the strict separation of state and religion - particularly the freedom of belief. We stand for individual self-determination, want to promote rational-led thinking and inform about the social role of religion (google translate) (http://www.ibka.org/infos/ibka.html)

Atheism UK: (our) ultimate goal is the end of faith – the false and irrational belief that God exists – and of religion, the social manifestation of faith (http://www.atheismuk.com/about/)

It could be argued that some of the language employed above could be considered masculine, but I would have hoped we have moved beyond thinking that women aren’t ‘rational’, ‘reasonable’, ‘scientific’ or are more prone to superstitious behaviours (haven’t we?). However, perhaps it is our use of more forceful language which is off-putting to women? Taken from the above examples; the use of fighting to protect the absolute separation of church and government, the call for absolute separation, to enforce the separation of church and state, that people have joined forces to enforce the strict separation of church and state and an ultimate goal being the end of faith. I am not a linguist (but perhaps someone who reads this is and could expand further on this point) but there are differences between the language used by men and women, for example women tend to use more social, psychological and emotion-based language. Could the type of language employed by Atheist groups be (unconsciously) interpreted by women as sexism? (I would definitely welcome more information and research on this if any readers have some).

Of course there are alternative explanations. Perhaps it is that women are not progressing through the stages of moving away from religious beliefs in the same way as men. I don’t think that women are less likely than men to question the religious faith they have been indoctrinated into, so it is reasonable to think that we are ‘loosing’ women somewhere along the line. In my own personal experience when I began to question Catholicism I spent some time exploring the possibility of god as a female deity, a nature god if you will. I made what I see as a natural (and somewhat speedy) progression away from this notion, but I can see why it might be appealing. Nature-based and goddess based belief systems, such as Wicca are empowering for women and they include built-in small collectives/support networks (covens) and tellingly they are belief-systems which are experiencing a surge in those who identify with them. If we imaging a continuum with traditional religious beliefs at one end on through alternative belief systems and then with Agnosticism and Atheism at the other end is it possible that women are getting ‘stuck’ at this point in the journey from religion towards Atheism?


Personally, I’m not at all convinced that Atheism is sexist. However, I do think we need to explore ways in getting women more involved in Atheist activities and we may need to consider ‘rebranding’. By this I am not at all suggesting that women aren’t rational, reasonable or capable of scientific thinking, rather I think that Atheist groups need to play more to their strengths. Atheist groups tend to base their ideologies around ethical secularism and human rights and perhaps emphasising how secularism empowers may make Atheism more appealing to women? Or it may mean we have to look at ways of setting up support groups for women Atheists, for Atheist mothers or simply make more of an effort to bring women Atheists together to socialise. Women have a pivotal role to play in bringing secular change to society. They are the ones who will drive the campaign for secular education, they will make the decision whether or not to give in to cultural pressure and have a child baptised and they will be less likely to challenge the status quo if they feel isolated and unsupported.

7 comments:

  1. I see no case to answer here. Atheism is far from sexist. Even the definitions and goals cited above are quite well crafted. If there is a problem then it's a subjective interpretation of ordinary - and valid - phrases. The fault is not with the English employed in those statements. This is probably a root cause of many misguided attempts at political correctness, and can only lead to convoluted English at the expense of the original message.

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  2. Hi Tony, would you agree that there are fewer woman who engage in ‘active Atheism’? If so, what reason would you posit for the phenomenon?

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  3. Atheist Ireland certainly has some high-profile women representatives but the census does seem to confirm there are fewer overall. I wish I knew the reason but it may be an echo of the fewer women in fields such as science, maths, IT, and engineering. I've worked/studies with some women superstars in most of these fields but it is sad that there are fewer overall. I am also a genealogist and the opposite may be true there. Again, I do not really understand the reason though.

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  4. Part of the reason, at least in the case of US atheism, is the way women are treated within atheism as a movement. I've heard from a *lot* of women who have abandoned it for that reason recently. It's depressing but true. Some people are trying to improve this situation, but many others are trying to make it even worse. It's not at all easy to guess how things are going to go in the future.

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    1. Maybe the root isn't atheism itself, but you're seeing a microcosm of women's position in the US overall. Men do generally seem to be more belligerent and confrontational in areas such as business, politics, and any type of cause. This doesn't make them any better -- of course -- but a bullish attitude probably makes up for some inadequacies in many of those positions. (IMHO)

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  5. I guess in my optimism I was looking for possible reasons and answers other than “because some Atheists are sexist” but Atheists are just as prone to all the prejudices that the rest of the human race is. Yes it is depressing. Is it wrong that I have higher expectations for Atheists than everyone else? Oh, I think I’ve just stumbled onto my next blog, thanks Ophelia!

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  6. The blog has generated quite a bit of debate particularly on the AI Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/atheistireland/ ), which is brilliant. Thanks to everyone who has contributed.
    One very salient point which has been raised is that a lot of Atheists struggle to name even a few well-known outspoken female Atheists. One of the reasons this might be is because women speakers are just not being invited to speak and conferences and other events. The following links might be of interest:
    http://www.michaelnugent.com/2012/08/29/1000-women-speakers-worth-listening-to/
    http://www.alternet.org/belief/where-are-all-women-atheists-6-places-you-can-find-them
    http://www.secularwoman.org/atheist_women_not_hard_to_find

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