Atheism, Race and Gender

Inspired by the always-inspiring Greta Christina and her two recent posts on the subject, I want to offer some thoughts on a topic I’ve rarely discussed on this blog: the intersection of atheism with issues of race and gender.

I haven’t discussed this subject much because I don’t feel I have any real qualifications to do so. As a white male, I haven’t often had to confront issues of racism or sexism, and I’m reluctant to speak about things which I don’t have much experience with. But it’s also true that silence can be taken as support for the current state of affairs, and that’s not necessarily an impression I want to give, so I’ll take the chance of speaking up. If I make any serious mistakes, I’m sure that my readership will correct me.

The first thing I’ll say is that, from my perspective at least, I’ve seen very little explicit racism or sexism in the atheist community, and when it does appear, it’s usually swiftly slapped down. Consider Larry Darby, the anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying atheist who ran in a primary for attorney general of Alabama a few years back – he complained that atheists, whom he had hoped would support his campaign, instead almost unanimously rejected him when he made his racist beliefs clear. Darby lost the race by a large margin, and subsequently announced his conversion to Christianity.

But while the atheist community doesn’t tolerate explicit bigotry, there are more subtle kinds of prejudice that are more difficult to notice and correct. It does give me a faint feeling of disquiet to realize that the four most visible and prominent atheists – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett – are all white men. And this trend tends to be repeated at skeptical conferences and gatherings: white males are overrepresented in the atheist community in general (at least in America), relative to their share of the population at large. As Greta Christina says, when a situation like this arises, it’s rarely an accident.

This isn’t to say that the atheist community is all white men; much the contrary. We have brilliant historians like Susan Jacoby and Jennifer Michael Hecht, who’ve written superb books (Freethinkers and Doubt: A History, respectively) highlighting the contributions of nonbelievers from all cultures throughout history. There are journalists and authors like Ann Druyan, Michelle Goldberg and Nica Lalli. There’s Julia Sweeney, whose “beautiful loss of faith” story is told movingly and poignantly. There’s the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which was created by atheist and feminist advocate Anne Nicol Gaylor and is still co-presidented by her daughter, Annie Laurie Gaylor, along with Dan Barker. There are people of color like Neil de Grasse Tyson, Reginald Finley (the Infidel Guy), Hemant Mehta, Taslima Nasrin, Irshad Manji, Salman Rushdie, and Ibn Warraq. And especially, there’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is both a woman and a person of color, and whose book Infidel I still consider to be the single most powerful, eloquent, and inspiring book on atheism that I’ve ever read.

Nor do we lack for diversity historically. Many pioneering feminists were uncompromising atheists, and freethought was a strong and lively element of cultural movements like the Harlem Renaissance. In my series on the contributions of freethinkers, I’ve done my best to feature women and people of color to show that atheism and religious skepticism have a far broader and deeper history than most people are aware of.

So, clearly, the problem isn’t that atheism is exclusively for whites or for men. Our message has the potential to appeal to people of all kinds. And why should that be a surprise? The positive values that atheism has to offer aren’t specific to any race or gender; they are human values that all people can share in and rejoice in. We offer liberation and freedom – freedom from the clinging cobwebs of religious dogma, freedom from the suffocating fear of hellfire, freedom from the locks and bars of archaic edicts and irrational laws, and in place of all this, an ethic of equality, a philosophy of happiness, and a morality based on empathy and human rights. This is a message that women and minorities, who know all too well how easily religion can be used to oppress, should be eager to embrace.

I’m not saying that white male atheists are doing anything wrong by speaking up. We need them too! Everyone who’s willing to come out as an atheist has a part to play in our movement, whatever your gender or race. Nor do I think that anyone, white or black, male or female, should be raised to a prominence that they haven’t merited by their own efforts. But I do think that white male atheists should be making more of an effort to learn about the specific concerns of women and minorities, to speak in language that addresses those concerns, and to extend a hand of welcome to members of these groups and invite them to join in our movement. It’s an effort that’s not only worthwhile for its own sake, but that will pay dividends down the line.

You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism!
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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Larian LeQuella

    Another contributing factor to the white maleness of the atheist face may be the slight correlation of atheism to education (particularly in the US). The “system” (for lack of a better word) afforded more opportunities to white males who are now in their late 40s and older. These are the folks who are regularly selected as talking heads on TV, or have accumulated enough academic credentials to get their works published, etc. While equal opportunity for all is an old concept, the reality of it still lags quite sadly in modern culture. There are still “glass ceilings” for people to break through. I am delighted to see that there are many more diverse people who are indeed making those strides.

    I can’t help but to alos ponder the stance of most religious institutions in all cases of equality. Sexism and discrimination really are incredibly intertwined with the doctrinal dogma of religion. Historically the majority of the religious institutions managed to find themselves on the wrong side of the debate.

  • Grimalkin

    If we look at British monarchies, I can think of two Elizabeths and a Mary right off the top of my head. How can anyone say that British monarchies are denied to women when I can think of examples of female monarchs?

    I think I’ve made my point. Just because there are some women who, through their particular strength and intelligence, have been able to infiltrate a boys’ club doesn’t make it any less of a boys’ club.

    Just to be clear, I am not necessarily saying that the Atheist movement is a boys’ club, just that listing people who don’t necessarily fit the mold doesn’t mean that the “institution” is open for them.

    In my personal experience, I’ve found that Atheists on the internet tend to be pro-male and quick to devalue female experience. Atheists in person, however, are very warm and accepting (keeping in mind that I have only experienced Atheists in person in one geographical area).

    There’s an example I frequently give – when Atheist blogs talk about “why women aren’t deconverting” or “why there are so few Atheist women.” These discussions often spring out of the frustration of not being able to find a non-believer to date and invariably devolve into discussions of how women are so very emotional and therefore attracted to the irrationality of religion. These comments dominate the discussion. When I and rare others have said “hey, maybe women just don’t want to date guys who think that they are too emotional to think rationally!” we’re generally just ignored and the discussion carries on.

    Some of this is Nice Guy(TM) syndrome, some is an inability to understand the female experience (as you say, you’ve never been a female, so it’s very difficult for you to pick up on the subtleties of sexism), and some of it is socially acceptable assumptions of what women are and how they think. Atheists, whether they like it or not, are still products of their society.

    One final comment I want to make is about your idea that isn’t much explicit sexism going around. As a general rule, that’s true. “Sexist” has become a naughty word (thanks to some amazingly courageous feminists) and most people realize that going out and saying things like “all women are stupid and should just stay home and make me a sammidge!” is not going to make them very popular (even amongst those who agree, simply because they don’t want to be publicly associated with that kind of thing). But subtle sexism (and racism) is still very much around and, to a certain extent, is even more dangerous. The problem with subtle sexism is that it’s hard to spot – so individuals who point it out are often seen to be overly sensitive or even alarmist. This makes it that much more difficult to address and correct. From a woman’s perspective, it makes it difficult too because sometimes we aren’t sure if something we just experienced was sexism or if it was something else. If we don’t know how to think of it, we don’t know how to react to it – especially if we are afraid of being called overly sensitive or alarmist if we make a stink. This increases the likelihood that we will keep quiet, or even come to internalize it. So, again, just because you haven’t seen that many people going around being overtly sexist/racist doesn’t mean that it’s gone – we’ve only managed to chase it beneath the surface. We still have a lot of work to do.

  • Hypatia

    I have a theory on general whiteness and maleness of the atheist community and how it came to be. It’s well established that atheists are a disliked minority even today, a prejudice which was even more severe in the past. So, coming out as an atheist has a definite social cost. Women (who are not a minority) and members of ethnic minorities might be unable bear the social cost of coming out as an atheist as it pushes them down even further on the social scale. On the other hand, a white male, especially one from a higher socioeconomic status may be able to weather the drop in status without becoming a social pariah.

  • AnonaMiss

    I think it’s also worth noting the historical correlation of oppression and religion throughout history.

    The oppressed and wronged look to religion to lift them out of that condition, or at least to promise a lifting-out in an unknowable future. It makes sense that, in general, privileged groups would be able to more easily break away from that security blanket.

    Another possible factor is the strong community links that religion provides. Culturally, women are expected to participate in, and indoctrinated into, (many) (Christian) church communities, while men are expected to be more independent and thus are more rarely pressured to make strong personal links with the community. As for minorities, I don’t know about most of them, but in re: blacks at least, Wrath wrote a great post a long time ago which detailed how the church community IS the black community. Humans, social animals as we are, have a hard time breaking away from communities, to the point where we’re willing to lie to ourselves to prevent it.

  • Danikajaye

    I am a white, fairly young (23) female atheist and prior to stumbling upon this website about 6 months ago I was “searching for a religion”. I was in the process of trying to define/refine my world view and my thoughts on all life’s big questions. I had always thought almost all organised religion was a load of shit ever since I can remember but I hadn’t ruled out a God entirely. Considering I have held religion in very low esteem all my life I probably would have rejected the idea of a God entirely a long time ago if I had been exposed to atheist thought earlier. “Atheism” seems to be crap at networking. The only person I know who is openly atheist is my brother in law to-be who is *drumroll* a highly educated white male nuclear physicist. Atheism seems to stay in the same science/IT type of circles. I would love to meet with other atheists BUT I don’t know how to FREAKIN FIND THEM! Atheists are not visible enough and where atheism does prosper (labs, computer science wings etc.) it just doesn’t reach many females. I think exposure is a problem.

    I find it odd that there are not more female atheists as females have the most to gain by leaving religion. I have felt particularly liberated in terms of my sexuality as a female because once I started examining widely held standards of sexual morality through atheist eyes I realised that- well, most of its bullshit and its bullshit that has been spawned by religion. I have felt the “virgin/whore” complex at work in my daily life but previously I was never able to pinpoint what it was or where it had come from. Reading this blog and quite a few on the blog roll have educated me and allowed me to better spot sexism/racism/double standards/strange-but-subtle-effects-of-religious-dogma and pull people up on it. Not only pull them up but also point out the precise flaws in their thought process. I have to say that as yet I haven’t felt any sexism in the atheist community although my main contact has been here :-)

  • valhar2000

    Grimalkin wrote:

    These discussions often spring out of the frustration of not being able to find a non-believer to date and invariably devolve into discussions of how women are so very emotional and therefore attracted to the irrationality of religion.

    You are absolutely right, that theme keeps popping up. In fact, I myself am very inclined to believe it, though I hesitate to accept something like that merely on the basis that it fits so nicely with my preconceptions.

    Greta made a very interesting point that Ebon did not touch on in this post. She said that the fact that people tend to be more comfortable being around other people like them makes it more likely that groups of white males will be more accepting of other white males, people who are not white males that approach these groups for the first time will feel more uncomfortable than they otherwise might. For this reason, if there is a meeting of atheist and it is comprised mostly of white men, a member of any minority that shows up will already feel uncomfortable irrespective of what the other attendees might do, for the mere fact that they notice they are the only ones “like me” among a group of people “not like me”.

    This means that whenever a member of a minority that is not well represented in a particular group of atheists comes along the already present atheists are going to have to make an extra effort to make them feel comfortable and accepted in order to overcome this initial handicap.

  • CSN

    Each group clearly has unique challenges to overcome. The black community in the US having a long history of religiosity and often a strong sense of community and family that (although good in its own right) inhibits individuals from breaking out. Women have made huge strides toward equality but it seems that one having a passion for a cause, especially one as unpopular as atheism, or a career is still stigmatized for not being docile and easily controlled. Not always blatantly but more in the undercurrent of opinion, that subtle sexism Grimalkin is talking about. So what real-world steps can be taken to encourage and call attention to the atheist “potential” amongst these under-represented groups? Of course outstanding atheist members of these groups can make themselves known with blogs, books, and speaking out in their daily lives. However, as a well-educated white male I’m particularly keen to hear ideas of how we members of the (white) boys’ club can be more inclusive and attractive to the under-represented, from the inside.

  • Alex, FCD

    There’s an example I frequently give – when Atheist blogs talk about “why women aren’t deconverting” or “why there are so few Atheist women.”

    Really? I think I know more women who are atheists than men. I suppose it might be just be me, but the last time I checked the campus atheists club was mostly women as well. Maybe it’s an American thing?

  • Modusoperandi

    It does give me a faint feeling of disquiet to realize that the four most visible and prominent atheists – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett – are all white men.
    Yes, but on the plus side, one of them looks like Santa Claus.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I would love to meet with other atheists BUT I don’t know how to FREAKIN FIND THEM!

    Try Atheists have been one of the most prominent groups on that site since its inception. If your locale doesn’t have an “atheists” group, check for code-words like “freethinkers” or “skeptics.”

  • The Nerd

    Women (who are not a minority)

    Actually, they are a minority. According to

    a. The smaller in number of two groups forming a whole.
    b. A group or party having fewer than a controlling number of votes.
    a. A racial, religious, political, national, or other group thought to be different from the larger group of which it is part.
    b. A group having little power or representation relative to other groups within a society.
    c. A member of one of these groups. See Usage Note at color.
    3. Law. The state or period of being under legal age: still in her minority.

    Note 1.b. and 2.b. apply to the demographic of women in most nations, even the United States to a degree.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Grimalkin wrote:

    But subtle sexism (and racism) is still very much around and, to a certain extent, is even more dangerous.

    This bears repeating. Although a rationalist freethinking outlook ought to put the kibosh on bigotry, it is of course still very much alive in our community as well as the larger world, and I think it has as mich to do with upbringing as it does outlook.

    What can we do about it? Call it out whenever it shows up — particularly in the subtle varieties Grimalkin points out.

  • Larian LeQuella

    “I would love to meet with other atheists BUT I don’t know how to FREAKIN FIND THEM!”

    There is also Atheist nexus: You can also go on Facebook and check out any of the atheist organizations. The Richard Dawkins forums are also a good place.

    But I also agree that it’s generally hard to find atheists. I think a lot of it stems from the fact that atheists are just a meaninless collection of individuals as diverse as the human animal can be, who just happen to not believe in a diety. Gatherings of atheists is like celebrating people who proclaim NOT collecting stamps as their hobby. Although, to complete the analogy, we’d need to have an overwhelming population of stamp collectors trying to force us to live our lives as they would dictate. ;)

    And the net is slowly and surely giving more atheists an upswing in an ability to express themselves and network more.

  • Archimedez

    The situation in Canada (where I live) may be somewhat different than in the U.S. There are some prominent women here who are non-believers of various sorts (and liberal/nominal believers who are secularists) who were strong and active in opposition to the introduction of sharia into family law in Ontario and Quebec around four or five years ago. The “No-Sharia” campaign in Ontario was organized by Homa Arjomand and included Margaret Atwood (famous author), June Callwood (late famous social activist), Sally Armstrong, Elka Ruth Enola, and many others. In Quebec, MP Fatima Houda-Pepin was a leader in opposing the introduction of sharia in that jurisdiction. In France, Michele Vianes opposed attempts to introduce sharia there.


    Tarek Fatah is also a Muslim secularist man who, like Irshad Manji, was (and still is) a major critic of Islamic fundamentalism and major advocate of human rights and opponent of sharia.

    In the U.K., prominent women atheists that come to mind at the moment include Polly Toynbee, Mina Ahadi (Iranian dissident and leader of an organization for ex-Muslims), Ariene Sherine (who originated and promoted the atheists bus campaign).

    In the U.S., Madalyn Murray O’Hair founded American Atheists. One of the most prominent and outspoken non-believers in the U.S. is Islam critic Wafa Sultan. (This is besides the other women already mentioned by Ebonmuse above).

    As for the actual percentages of males vs females and whites vs non-whites in the strictly-defined atheist category, as I recall in the general population males are more likely than females to be atheists. There are a variety of possible reasons for this that may have nothing to do with “sexism” or racism, conscious or not. I’m not sure what the figures are for whites vs non-whites, but I do know there are plenty of atheists in China, and plenty of ex-Muslims from South Asia. What may appear to some to be a relatively higher percentage of males as prominent atheists may be due to the availability heuristic bias, perhaps attributable to the recent fame of the “four horsemen.” Of course, until properly-collected data relevant to these questions is presented, this discussion is largely speculative (and I hope should be treated as such–charges of racism and sexism should not be made lightly).

    I should also add that the “four horsemen” themselves cannot in any way be faulted for this alleged problem. I know that at least three of them (and probably the fourth) have in some significant way supported atheists who happen to be women of color, and all of them have criticized the major organized religions on the grounds that adherence to these belief systems is bad for women’s rights.

  • Archimedez

    Note, above I erroneously associated Mina Ahadi with the U.K. (probably because she is involved with some organizations there), though last time I checked her bio she resides in Germany and is head of an ex-Muslims organization there.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I am often puzzled and troubled by atheists who seem to want to maintain the patriarchal power structure, which is really only possible through religion, while also attempting to reject religion.

    It really isn’t so surprising that it would be the most difficult for women to break away from the confines of religion, since it was designed to subjugate them specifically. Think about what religion inculcates in women from the time they are born — you are less than human, powerless, worthless.

  • Greta Christina

    First: Ebon, thanks so much for this. Like I said in my pieces (and thanks so much for the links!), I think this is an issue we need to handle now, early on in our movement, before patterns get entrenched. (Like I said in my pieces: The LGBT community screwed this up in our early days, we let our movement be dominated by white men and didn’t deal with our unconscious racism and sexism… and we are still paying for it today.) And it needs to not just be women and people of color talking about it. I have totally felt the reluctance to talk about race for fear of saying something stupid… but we can’t let that stop us. It’s too important.

    The other thing I want to say, re other comments here, is this:

    A lot of people are putting forth theories as to why the current state of affairs is the way it is — why the atheist movement is predominantly white and male, and why the leadership of the movement is very predominantly white and male, out of proportion even to the unbalanced makeup of the movement.

    I think it’s very much worth having those conversations. But I want to strongly encourage us to not — repeat, NOT — use those conversations as excuses for not taking action. “The atheist movement is predominantly white and male because (X,Y,Z),” should not get translated as, “This isn’t our fault, therefore we don’t have any responsibility for doing anything about it.” It should get translated as, “Here are some possible causes of this phenomenon — which may help us figure out appropriate ways to address it.”

  • Lynet

    There is a sort of atheist I couldn’t be, mostly as a result of being female. Among those atheists who are vocally sure of their position, there’s a spectrum of behaviors. Consider Greta’s way of arguing, for instance, which is calm and slightly personalized, and which, as a general rule, carefully considers opposing positions in a way that tries to be fair and then comes to a conclusion, which, oh, look, happens to be that atheism is the best way to go. By way of contrast, consider the stereotypical atheist in the comment section of some article or post, whose basic theme is “You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong, and by the way, you’re stupid.”

    I’m not sure where people get permission to behave like that stereotypical comment section atheist, but I’m pretty sure that whatever Santa Claus it is that hands out the permission slips prefers men to women. I certainly never got given one, and maybe it’s a good thing, too, because that way of arguing is boring and, I think, less capable of the virtue known as doubt. But I’m fairly sure that the the repulsion I feel for such a style of argument — even when I agree with it — is directly related to the behavior that was expected of me by my peers when I was a girl.

    I was lucky, because I was told as a child that I should reason for myself, and that I had a right to stand up for my conclusions (I got that permission slip). However, it’s one of the frustrations of the atheism/theism debate that even otherwise thoughtful commenters have been known to equate simple argument for an atheist position, no matter how polite, with the kind of rudeness that women are disproportionately punished for (by their peers as much as by their parents).

  • Chris

    I think the main factor is the one Hypatia identified: white males have the privilege to nonconform, and atheism is a form of nonconformance. (Assuming we’re talking about the US here – although Dawkins, for one, is English.) This suggests that extending the right to nonconform to groups other than white males will eventually even out the demographics of atheism, although it may take a generation or two.

    Also – how many Popes are not white males? Zero out of the whole history of the Church, I believe. The most prominent anything are usually white males, in societies in which white males are trained, groomed, and positioned for prominence. Indeed, several religions explicitly marginalize women or forbid them from positions of importance. Males also seem to be more likely to seek prominence (at least in our present society), which suggests that looking only at the prominent members of some group can give a misleading impression of its actual demographics.

    The prominent spokesmen you mentioned are also fairly old, which means they represent not the demographics of atheism today, but the demographics of atheism a few decades ago. People who just deconverted are unlikely to immediately become prominent spokespeople (although Ayaan Hirsi Ali may be an exception).

    Since all of these are reflections of problems with the broader society and its history, I don’t think there’s much we can do to overcome them other than try to promote more justice in that greater society, and try to ensure that what non-white-male voices we do have aren’t silenced or made to feel unwelcome.

  • CSN

    Thanks for your perspective Greta. I think a push for diversity can only be a good thing, even if some want to believe there isn’t a problem to begin with. If it’s viewed as “what can be gained?” rather than “who/what’s at fault for X problem” then accusations of racism or sexism don’t even come into it and we can try to improve the makeup of our community as an end in itself rather than as a reactive response to guilt. No one loses, except those who want to stay safely in their comfort zones.

  • D

    …I’ll take the chance of speaking up. If I make any serious mistakes, I’m sure that my readership will correct me.
    - Ebonmuse, OP

    Wow! That takes balls! (Pun intended, but the compliment was in earnest.) It’s so easy to feel awkwarded into silence on this stuff when you hear the reverse-bigotry line of, “ZOMG U R JUST A WHIET MANG WTF R U TALKING ABOUT THIS?” The more inclusive we want to be as a movement, the more we need people like you – y’know, prominent, eloquent, moral atheists – to speak up. The fact that you have a penis is immaterial; as long as you confine your points to what’s defensible, you can’t go wrong, and anyone who says you’re not qualified to talk about these issues because of how you were born is… well, that’s just as bad as saying women can’t join the priesthood ‘cuz menstruation The End, to my mind. (Saying, not enforcing – to tread on the latter ground, they’d have to come after you and shut you up and get violent for your “presumption” – just for clarity!)

    So write on, we’re proud of you!

    Now please humor me while I talk out the other side of my mouth. Minor quibble, and I’m aware my philosopher’s undergarments are showing, but you titled your post “Atheism, Race and Gender” and then wrote about “Atheism, Race, and Sex.” You see, sex is a biological characteristic that refers to anatomical and genetic traits, and is mainly divided into “male” and “female.” Gender, by contrast, concerns a mixed bag of social characteristics with wildly varying correlations, which we typically divide into “masculine” and “feminine.” It’s your soapbox, so I won’t harp on it, but that’s my technical quibble. “Sex” could also make people think you were talking about the act of intercourse, so if you’re prioritizing titular clarity, I suppose that’s also a perfectly respectable approach.

    Love and kisses,

    As for the Big Four, we got all kinds of diversity! They are, by turns, a public educator, a lifelong student, an alcoholic, and a properly-bearded denizen of the ivory tower! I, for one, am tragically unable to grow a beard; but other than that, I’m able to identify with every one of those gents, regardless of what they’re packin’ or the color of their skin. Oh, wait… maybe that’s ‘cuz I hang around a college town and like to keep my nose buried in books. Is there such a thing as… educationism?

    The oppressed and wronged look to religion to lift them out of that condition…
    - AnonaMiss, #4

    That’s certainly a confounding variable, but that only explains our demographic slice of the pie, not our media representation as “people who think like those four white dudes.” I have an off-the-top-of-my-head hypothesis, though – let’s see if it pans out. I’ve heard of Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, Susan Jacoby, Julia Sweeney, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Hemant Mehta, Salman Rushdie, Ibn Warraq, and about one-fifth of the people you [Ebon] educate me about in your Contributions of Freethinkers Series. By contrast, I had heard of Hitchens first by watching Penn & Teller: Bullshit! I only knew of Dawkins because I read The Selfish Gene – oh, I’m gonna take flak for this – after hearing it mentioned while playing Metal Gear: Solid as a teenager (the main villain abuses the good doctor’s position with alarming eloquence, but he’s a gun-haver and not a philosopher so whatever). I learned of Dennett in philosophy courses, and I saw Harris’ The End of Faith on a shelf in Borders the week it was released, so I picked it up because it looked neat.

    What I’m sluggishly gesturing at here is that I think “The Four Horsemen” are a stupid, snappy invention brought to us by McMedia, Inc. It’s OK to yell at white guys with educations for “defying the respectable traditions of their culture” (shudder); it’s not so OK to yell at a victim of the despicable practices of a foreign religion for escaping its wicked, wicked grasp and coming to play the civilization game with us. In other words, Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris may only be “the most prominent atheists” because the media brought them to the fore and pronounced them to be so; we – you know, the actual atheists who they supposedly represent – never voted for them. And even if they’re the four best-selling anti-theistic authors (which would be a sense in which we’d have voted for them), why on Earth only four?! Why not the top ten, or the top hundred? Or the best-selling man, the best-selling woman, the best-selling immigrant, and the best-selling apostate? Because then women and immigrants might be alienated, and that would change the issue from, “Let’s gawk at the infidels and then shun them,” to, “Gee, I guess unbelievers are people, too.” That doesn’t sell in the Bible Belt (or Vatican City, for that matter!).

    So what do y’all think: are The Big Four just an artifact created to make atheist-bashing safe? Or am I being a conspiracy wingnut who needs to fact-check before posting from work?

  • Leum

    Since I think one major thing we can do to reorient the movement is to celebrate the non-white-male atheists out there, I’d like, if Ebon has no objections, to give a shout-out to Lovingdoubt. She was raised Catholic, became an atheist at a young age, then converted to Pentecostalism, and then became an atheist as a result of spending several months researching religion.

  • Polly


    “You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong, and by the way, you’re stupid.”

    I got a belly laugh out of that!
    That sort of claptrap is way more likely to come spewing out the wagging, bearded chins of my gender, sorry to say. Fortunately, these types seem to be in the minority.

  • Bob Carlson

    Ron Aronson should have been mentioned as an important atheist of color.

  • Yahzi

    I agree with Hyptia: it’s easier for white men to be non-conformist. Also, much of religion is about social groups, and women are far more likely to place a value on social grouping than men are.

    Also, it’s an American thing. I had to go 9,000 miles to find my atheist darling. :D

  • Alex Weaver

    These discussions often spring out of the frustration of not being able to find a non-believer to date and invariably devolve into discussions of how women are so very emotional and therefore attracted to the irrationality of religion.

    I wonder how many of the participants in these discussions are familiar with the phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy?”

  • pplr

    I would say you do and don’t have atheists with biases.

    Many atheists in the US lean left politically and thus tend to (not always) support the idea of active efforts to combat discrimination. Not that I’m saying all or even most GOP voters are bigots (many are the opposite), just that in the list of things many of them think government should back off of is official attempts to combat discrimination-such as affirmative action (put forward to combat a legacy of discrimination).

    In this regard atheists here are free of many types of bias and would actively combat it.

    However when one labels his views alone as “freedom” from others’ irrationality (or another general good thing such as “justice”) that is all the freedom of thought one can find in a mind control organization/cult. Sorry if that was a harsh way to refer to it but It is one thing to disagree on a view/topic/issue, it is another to dress your particular take on a topic as the only “free” or “rational” one out there. That is a problem atheists here in the US sometimes have (though by no means all or even most of them).

    Being atheists elsewhere hardly freed one from ethnic bias, the atheist government of earlier Russian Communism repeatedly treated minority ethnic groups with what can be readily viewed as bigotry/discrimination. Not very egalitarian.

    Atheism is, at its core, how you feel about 1 topic. It alone doesn’t make one immune to all the other isms of humanity.

    If you want to add to a particular take human rights, good treatment of others, and so on in addition to how you feel about that one topic then great-but for better or worse that doesn’t define everyone who agrees with you on that one topic (or has in the past).

  • Alex Weaver

    Also – how many Popes are not white males? Zero out of the whole history of the Church, I believe.

    I seem to recall reading that there was one pope who was either suspected of being a female in disguise, or confirmed after death to be, and they started checking the genitals of pope-elects after that. I don’t recall the details, though the phrase “the low seat” comes to mind in relation to the genital-checking. Though, with the “in disguise” part, it arguably doesn’t count for the purposes of the argument.

  • Greta Christina

    Since all of these are reflections of problems with the broader society and its history, I don’t think there’s much we can do to overcome them other than try to promote more justice in that greater society, and try to ensure that what non-white-male voices we do have aren’t silenced or made to feel unwelcome.

    No, no, no, no, no, no, no.


    I can’t say this clearly enough: No.

    There is plenty we can do about these problems within our movement. Part 2 of my piece that Ebon linked to goes into detail about many specific, practical things we can do… and many of the commenters offer still more suggestions.

    And in fact, the way these problems get addressed in society at large is by addressing them in the smaller communities and subcultures we move in every day. Promoting justice in the atheist movement is promoting justice in the greater society. We have to work in the communities we’re involved with.

    Saying “We can’t fix this in our movement, we have to try to fix it in society at large first” is a terrible excuse for inaction. If we wait until racism and sexism are handled in society at large before addressing them in our movement, we’re going to wait a long, long time.

  • bbk

    So far Hypatia wins my vote. As a white male atheist, I feel an enormous amount of pressure to conform to religious social norms. I can only imagine that women and minorities feel even more of that pressure. There are gender issues to be dealt with in the atheist community, but I really don’t think we can blame gender itself or use the traditional theories of Patriarchy to explain it.

    In my day to day existence, even though I am a member of the Patriarchy, I encounter far more bigotry from religious/spiritual women who have made it abundantly clear to me that to them I am a second class citizen. When you take the religious affiliation of women out of the equation you’ll find that atheist men are far more likely to be on the receiving side of bigotry from women than on the giving side of it. It’s just not fair to accuse atheists of being exclusionary because of some Patriarchal male traits but then to divide women into two distinct groups and say that we should only take into consideration how the innocent group feels until everything conforms neatly to the Patriarchal views of gender.

    At this point I know that some must be thinking of examples to counter with. For example, the civil rights movement. If racist white women oppress black men it doesn’t excuse black men who still oppress black women the same way as white men oppress white women. But things are different because if you take the average atheist male, he is much more likely to be a supporter of women’s causes than a religious man. And atheist males don’t actually want to exclude women from their groups. The discussions are always about how to include them, even if the conclusions that the all male groups come around to don’t always please some female observers. Our fault may lie in the failure to come up with viable ways to do so, but not with the lack of trying. Atheist males do not shun women leaders, either. While religious institutions were shunting women, atheists were following Madelyn O’Haire. And by the way, that lineage of the New Atheist stance that everyone attributes to the four horsemen, it came right from that woman. I would think that it’s derogatory of women to argue that a blunt, uncompromising, impeccably well informed position is somehow inherently male and therefore women don’t feel welcome in male circles.

    And there is one more thing I want to say. It’s a little campy but I’ll still say it: black women stood by their men, even if they were being oppressed. In fact, black families are extremely matriarchal as a result. I really don’t see anything like that from atheist women. There is no allegiance to atheist men, there are only complaints. In fact there is a strong resentment for atheist men who just want to find a relationship and be in love. Black women did recognize the fact that white women oppressed black men and they fought for the rights of their men no matter what faults those men had. Atheist women, I believe, are simply too privileged to care. If they don’t want to walk down the road and march for atheist rights until someone rolls out a red carpet for them, then that is their loss. We (atheist men) will keep trying to include the women, but in the end the women have to make it happen for themselves.

  • Johan

    I think what we atheists – like Michel Onfray suggests – should work for the establishment of post-Christian ethics, values etc. And as he says, the post-Christians can learn much from the pre-Christians.

    The oppression in many cases has been reinforced by religion. To some extent is existed before, but religion institutionalized it.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    People to watch:
    The African American Agnostic
    More accomodationist than suits my taste.

    The Black Atheist
    Doesn’t seem to have gotten in the groove of frequent blogging. Most recent post is from February 2009.

    Greydon Square
    Black, atheist, and musically talented.

    Out of the Closet – Black Atheists by Sikivu Hutchinson
    (hat tip Richard Dawkins site)

  • KShep


    And in fact, the way these problems get addressed in society at large is by addressing them in the smaller communities and subcultures we move in every day. Promoting justice in the atheist movement is promoting justice in the greater society. We have to work in the communities we’re involved with.

    This is my approach, and I think it’s the most effective way to do it. I’m a white male, and I’ve been, *ahem* “blessed” with two lovely daughters to raise. Nothing else in the world could have better prepared me to understand the institutionalized sexism in our culture than attempting to look at the world through the eyes of those two little angels. I eventually concluded that the best way to combat sexism/racism/etc. is to raise kids that aren’t sexist/racist/etc, so I have gone to great lengths while raising my girls, now aged 26 and 22, to teach them about the sexism they’ll encounter in their lives and how they should respond to it. I’m proud to say I got through with the oldest quite well; the younger one is still a work in progress.

    I’ve also encountered friends, co-workers and other acquaintances who are apparently blissfully unaware of the sexism in this culture, and I’ve made attempts at educating them about what’s out there. I’ve noticed how difficult it is to get through to those who are religious—their beliefs are so ingrained they can’t even see how those beliefs are putting their own daughters a step behind (and this is something that can be dangerous, too. A co-worker recently had to deal with a probable pedophile who was a trusted member of his church blatantly pursuing his 15 year old daughter. The girl, sadly, had no idea she was possibly in any danger, something that can be directly attributed to her parents’ religious beliefs.).

  • Nikki

    I am a black, female atheist. I think that part of the reason that black people and black females don’t embrace atheism is because black religious groups tend to differ from white religious groups greatly. There are a lot of churches in the black community with female pastors and black churches tend to be the only place where we can get a sense of community and solidarity. If there were atheist outlets for these needs it might be a different story. Also black families tend to be more strict than white ones,(in my personal experience) meaning the cost of considering atheism is a bit higher for those that come from black communities. I also think that knowledge and access to it is key for someone to become atheist, whether it be a biology teacher in school or just the wealth of information on the internet. Lots of black kids had way more to worry about 30 years ago than whether or not there was a god, and they may have “depended” on god more because of the hardships they were facing. Nowadays the chances are good that black kids have access somewhere to this type of information, but they are still faced with many everyday problems that take the place of higher thought. That’s my small opinion based on personal experience.

  • KShep

    Nikki—–thanks for your perspective. I think you absolutely nailed it, and let me tell you—-your opinion is anything but small. I can’t think of anything to add to it.

  • Aerik

    The atheist community doesn’t allow any explicit bigotries? Are you sure? Because I see misogyny everywhere I go.

  • Modusoperandi

    Don’t trouble your little head about it, toots.

  • Ebonmuse

    What are some examples you’ve witnessed, Aerik?

  • Steve Bowen

    The atheist community doesn’t allow any explicit bigotries?

    The “atheist community” such as it is does not have have a prohibitive creed against anything (or ant creed at all for that matter) That being said, if the contributors to atheist forums are anything to go by misogyny is not a common trait among us (now religions on the other hand…)

  • Rollingforest

    I have to agree with Hypatia and valhar2000.

    The atheist community, like many Progressive communities, often has a “blame white males” bias when it comes to anything regarding race and gender. This despite the fact that, as progressives, they often go out of their way not to include women and minorities.

    Compare this to the feminist movement. While the grand majority of feminists are sincere and well-meaning individuals, the movement as a whole does seem to have a tolerance for bigots who would rather spew their hatred of men than contribute to gender equality. Yet in many Progressive circles, pointing this out is taboo.

    So I think if we are going to work against discrimination, we should do it for everyone, not just the select groups.

  • Rollingforest

    Wow! I didn’t proofread that one :) The third sentence should read “This is despite the fact that, as Progressives, they go out of their way to be sensitive to the needs of women and minorities”

    Sorry about the confusion.

  • Mema

    Just a quick question. Nikki your writing style suggested to me that you wish to express your perspective but are not sure if it will be valued. I don’t know if this is bigotry on my part – that is, a false assumption. However if this is true, may I ask if this has anything to do with being a woman of color? For example as a woman I sometimes feel like everything with men is a competition but I don’t want to compete, and somehow this means my ideas get ignored, so why would I bother, you know, I’m not wanting to be an “ego-maniac” – I just point out flawed thinking when I see it. But I don’t know what it’s like being of a color other than my own, so what do you think? Does racism add another layer on top of the sexism with the feeling valued issue?

  • Velox

    I’m a woman and an atheist. I often post defending evolution or atheism, but I very rarely reveal my gender. There’s a few reasons for this:

    The strictly religious and very conservative say that I am a closet lesbian unhappy with the place god made for me (ie to be subservient to men).

    I’ve had a few say that I will never be able to get married with such an attitude.

    The arguments deteriorate into sexist comments such as “your mouth is only good for cocksucking so stfu” or “you’re nothing but an immoral cumguzzling whorebag!!!1!” (actual comments!)

    The number one reason: Everything almost always deteriorates to “tits out for the lads” and/or “boobs or stfu!”

    Trying to call one on their ad hoc attacks or sexism often leads to the labels of “feminazi”/”feminist”/”manhater” being tossed around.

    That’s why I don’t post videos of myself my Youtube. It’s really enough to cause one to lose hope for humanity, which is why I’m glad for this post. :)

    I realize also that perhaps my experiences may not apply to everyone. I pick odd places to post and mostly out of boredom, on sites such as Youtube and Facebook where one is not exactly likely to encounter an intelligent audience.

  • Velox

    Real quick, wanted to provide an example of what I was talking about:

    “don’t talk so much in your videos. it’s distracting my titty watching” is the highest rated comment.

    There are others like “You what would be a better guide? You sucking my dick…” and “I’m an atheist, and I would like to squirt atheist jism on dem tittaes.”

    Few, if any, respond to these disgusting comments. I dunno, maybe they are just not feeding the trolls?

    Still… damn but humanity depresses me.

  • Steve Bowen

    Yeah Velox way too much talk, not enough tits. Keep trying though…

    Eeeech now! Have I been around here long enough to have accumulated sufficient irony creds? If not…

  • Ebonmuse

    Thanks for posting these comments, Velox. It’s important that people who don’t experience sexism on a routine basis understand what outspoken women often have to deal with – not just from the religious community, where misogyny is the norm, but also from the atheist community, where prejudice is tolerated far too often. As another example of the former, consider this post. Outspoken female atheists like Annie Laurie Gaylor routinely receive hate mail that insults them on the basis of their appearance, something that never happens to male atheists no matter how abrasive they are.

    I tend to think sites like YouTube are especially bad, because the commenting community is so huge that it’s almost impossible to apply the kind of moderation standards that would keep out bad behavior. And when bad actors aren’t punished, that just encourages more of them – similar to the “broken windows” theory that crime flourishes in a community when there are obvious signs that no one is in charge.

  • Andrew T.

    I no longer have an active YouTube account, but when I did I tended to be heavy-handed on the “delete” and “ban” links when comments came forth. I’m no fan of censorship, but there wasn’t much alternative for keeping the signal-to-noise ratio positive (though I was troubled more by spam than anything else).

  • Leanne

    I’m a working-class woman of Asian and Asian-Hispanic (my mother is a Japanese-Argentinian) heritage. I guess I’m a rarity.
    It does baffle me that this is such a huge deal. Personally, I could not care less about such trivial things like race or gender, and it would not bother me a bit if 99% of atheists happened to be intersexed Afro-Hispanic minarchists. I’m speaking from personal experiences, but most white atheists I’ve came across, in general, certainly did not come off as racists or sexists. If an atheist of a minority background feels unwelcomed in the movement due to the high percentage of a certain racial group or gender, then he/she has his/her own biases and prejudices to sort out.