Suppose you start with the assumption that the atheist community is riddled with misogyny and sexism, that this is the explanation for the paucity of women atheist “leaders” and participants, then ignore the prevalence of gender imbalance and misogyny in other areas, and mix in some postmodern jargon, some “research” that consists of anecdotes and citations of other people’s data that simply show that women are less atheistic than men—what do you get? You get a new paper in the book Sociology of Atheism by Landon Schnabel, Matthew Facciani, Ariel Sincoff-Yedid, and Lori Fazzino, “Gender and Atheism: Paradoxes, Contradictions, and an Agenda for Future Research.” (Reference below and free access via Google Drive). The paper is also highlighted and summarized on Facciani’s Patheos blog (According to Matthew) in a post called “Sociologists begin to study the exism-found within the atheist community.”
Essentially, the paper is just a Salon article gussied up with academic jargon and some references, many of them blog posts. (The real citations to genuine academic articlse mainly document the higher religiosity of women than of men throughout the world). Here are the claims:
There are fewer women than men in “the atheist community”; this also holds for blacks compared to whites and gays and trans people compared to straight people. This is true for absolute numbers, but while there are about equal numbers of men and women in the world, indicating we need to study a cause for this differential representation, the authors simply mention different absolute numbers of whites compared to blacks and cis-gender men and women compared to “queer- and transfolk.” Well, of course there are fewer gays and fewer transfolk in the population as a whole, so differential numbers mean nothing here. What the authors need to show for their thesis (see below), but don’t, is that the atheist community includes lower proportions of black, gay and transfolk than among the population as a whole. They don’t do this, so we can immediately stop studying the issue with regard to those groups. What remains, and what the authors concentrate on, is the acknowledged paucity of women who are either vociferous atheists or in the atheist “community.”
The disproportionately low number of women in the atheist community is due to misogyny. While this is possible, the authors fail to document it with any data. Instead, they do what Salon always does: cite a few anecdotes that supposedly demonstrate misogyny in people like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins. Even Elevatorgate is dragged in, citing Rebecca Watson’s unsubstantiated complaint that a man asked her to his room for coffee when both were in an elevator during an atheist meeting. The quotes from Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins are well known, and hardly demonstrate that they’re misogynists (remember, that means “women haters”, not simple sexists). There is the misrepresentation that Watson’s comment “guys, don’t do that” ignited a firestorm of misogyny in the atheist community, while in reality what happened is that people strongly criticized Watson not for that mild comment, but for her subsequent videos calling out a critic in the audience of a later talk, and saying that men who objected to what she said could simply go copulate with watermelons.
What we have here are the usual anecdotes, not data, and those anecdotes, like Harris suggesting that the paucity of women atheists might be due to differential aggressiveness, don’t convince anyone but the already converted that atheist leaders—much less atheists in general—are ridden with misogyny.
Further, it’s long been known that women are substantially more religious and far less atheistic than men, and this holds even in countries without a substantial number of atheists. Below are the data for Americans given in the paper. The relative heights of the bars show the proportions of men and women within a belief category:
Note the substantial disparity for the categories “atheist” and “agnostic”. This self-categorization has no clear connection to misogyny. Remember, the thesis is not that women are innately less atheistic, but that they are, because of misogyny, less likely to be members of atheist groups.
Here’s what the authors say about this data, buttressing their preconceived notions:
Secular communities often argue that religion produces inequalities and marginalizes women, but within American atheism women are not far from being “tokens” by the standard proportion of 15% for a strongly skewed sex ratio.
The word “token”, of course, is loaded jargon that implies sexism. And the authors manage to find a sexist reason why women are more religious. (This is a suggestion, of course, but I could think of other reasons beyond sexism). I’ve cut and pasted their hypothesis because I can’t copy from the site or its pdf:
Well, that could be one explanation, but, as Facciani admits (see below), “it’s not a scientific study!”. It’s further unscientific because they lack controls for other groups and because the article is tendentious, determined from the outset to implicate sexism. No other explanations are seriously considered for a gender imbalance in atheism.
I’m not sure why this male/female difference in religiosity exists, but it’s acknowledged repeatedly in the Schnabel et al. paper. Did they not consider that perhaps this could account for some part of the paucity of women in atheism, because fewer women are atheists? Depending on the shape of the frequency-of-religiosity curves of men and women, and the threshhold of nonbelief it takes to get you to participate in “the atheist community”, a small difference in religiosity could translate to a larger difference in participation. Or there could simply be a sex difference in innate preference, which is what Harris meant when he implied that atheism is an in-your-face, sometimes aggressive movement that might appeal to men more than women.
The anecdotes are just that—anecdotes. There is no random interviewing or surveying of women to see if they’re staying out of atheist organizations because of sexism, nor any controls about the pervasiveness of sexism in atheism versus other endeavors like antiracism or politics. In fact, Facciani, in the comments to his blog post, admits that:
As I said above, this paper is descriptive and provides an agenda for future research. It’s not a scientific study! The only data we have is from interviews from atheist women describing the sexism they have experienced within atheist circles.
So yes, there could definitely be other factors that create sexism in this space that is not caused by any unique aspects of the atheist community. And that is why I specifically said future research should try to find if this is the case. It’s an open ended question. We are definitely not assuming that atheists are more sexist than the general population. Again, atheists tend to be more pro-feminist according to several surveys. However, we do see instances of misogyny in atheist spaces so it would be interesting to see if there is some unique factor that allows for it to occur. But yes, it’s very possible that the sexism we see is not indicative of any unique factor and simply a product of a male dominated environment.
Yet the assumption that atheists are sexist (if not more sexist) than the general population pervades the paper. My general impression is that atheist meetings tend to be less sexist than other meetings I’ve gone to, like scientific meetings. Read the paper if you want to see their thesis. Further, they couch their “research” as if it were scientific, noting gravely that:
. . . . we draw on both previous research and original ethnographic data to explore gendered beliefs, interactions, and contradictions within atheist communities. In the ethnographic research that helps inform our discussion, field notes and interview transcripts were supplemented with a purposive sample of textual data collected from well-known atheist activist blogs [JAC: read “cherry picked accusations of sexism”], online new media, and popular atheist literature.
Atheists are ridden with misogyny as a byproduct of their love of science. I find this risible because of the reasons they adduce for a scientific attitude producing sexism. Here are two examples:
This explicitly implies that women are either innately or socially programmed to be less rational, objective, or value neutral than men, and implies as well that there are other ways of getting knowledge than through science. The “other ways of knowing” claim is, of course, bogus.
At any rate, I don’t recognize any of the thesis here: that atheists regularly use science to buttress sexism. Have we seen this happening, not just occasionally but all the time in atheism?
There are no controls for the amount of sexism and misogyny in comparable groups, or in society as a whole. Now the authors don’t explicitly admit that atheism is more sexist or misogynistic than other groups or society in general, but they still claim that it is deeply permeated with these issues. Here’s one bit:
(The “expertise” claim is straight out of Pigliucci, who is cited). Yes, there is sexism in atheism, as there is sexism in any movement that contains men, for some men are sexists. The important question is this: is atheism more sexist than other groups, or society as a whole? While I don’t know the answer, my lived experience suggest that the answer is “no”. But we’ll need data to answer one way or the other. And if atheism turns out to be less sexist than society, won’t that largely invalidate all the articles that implicitly claim that it is? Wouldn’t we then want to work on society in general instead of the “atheist community?” Granted, atheist meetings should be welcoming to women and minorities, and strive for some gender parity in who speaks. But there’s little doubt that this article, and all its antecedents in Salon and other places, call out atheism for being ridden with sexism, and, like this article, adduce “reasons” why this is so. The bogus accusations that Dawkins and Harris are misogynists sets the tone for the article. (They also snarkily drag in Dennett, patting him on the back by saying that “Dennett speaks with more tact”. Note that they don’t exculpate him of sexism, but simply say that he’s more tactful.)
Frankly, in the absence of data rather than anecdotes, I don’t accept the authors’ claim that sexism in the atheist community needs intensive study, for we don’t know its degree. If it’s minimal, we needn’t write a gazillion articles about it. And if it’s less than in other “communities,” I’d like to see articles praising atheists for being less sexist, and analyzing why nonbelief fosters acceptance of gender equality.
L. Schnabel et al. 2017. Gender and Atheism: Paradoxes, Contradictions, and an Agenda for Future Research. pp. 75-97 in Sociology of Atheism. R. Cipriani and F. Garelli, eds. Brill, Leiden/Boston