I’ve been writing since the beginning of Daylight Atheism about the unique ways that religion harms women. Although men have also suffered innumerable harms from religious beliefs, they’re not singled out, treated as an underclass uniquely deserving of condemnation, the way that women are in almost every major religion’s sacred texts. That’s why I wrote in posts like 2006’s “Religion’s Harm to Women“:
There is only one realistic way to end religion’s harm to women, and that is to cut it off at the source: every feminist should be an atheist.
I still stand by this. But over the past year, I’ve come to the realization that, if we’re ever going to make progress rolling back the advance of fundamentalism, this equation also has to flow in the opposite direction.
The feminist cause has made enormous strides over the past century, both in law and in fact, but we have to face up to the fact that our society is still far from true equality for men and women. There’s still a persistent pay gap between men and women, and CEOs and other captains of industry are overwhelmingly male. Women are still judged on their appearance to an enormously greater extent than is true for men, and rewarded to the extent for which they’re willing to conform and act accordingly. And then there are the direct threats to women’s health and lives, including forced prostitution, domestic violence, honor killings, genital mutilation and rape, which are persistent in the West and endemic in the developing world.
And as atheists, we ought to have a particularly easy time recognizing the harm done to women in the name of God. Since our vision isn’t clouded by theological biases that excuse sexist treatment as God’s ineffable will, we can see the systematic degradation of women in the world’s religions: barring women from positions of authority, forcing them to wear dehumanizing clothing, teaching that their proper role is to obey men, and more.
But for all that, the atheist community isn’t completely free of sexism either. There’s still too much tolerance of sexist insults, in a way that would never be countenanced for racist or homophobic language. There are still too many notable instances of women being demeaned as less intelligent or less capable of skepticism than men, or in some other way inferior. And then, of course, there are the atheists who are just flat-out stupid bigots, like this one who thinks that the only reason women wanted the right to vote was so they could take away men’s right to drink:
Feminism has its roots in the Suffrage movement, which was a movement of radical Christian women who thought that giving women the right to vote was a necessary step in removing men’s ability to buy alcohol.
All these things individually may seem subtle or trivial, not worth our time to address. But the overall consequences are obvious and readily visible: the atheist movement has a significant imbalance of men, and the most prominent and visible atheists – the ones who get the lion’s share of media attention, the ones who are most often assumed to represent atheism as a whole – are all men. As Greta Christina says, when a situation like this arises, it’s almost never an accident.
And there are plenty of people who’ve noticed this, even if they’re not completely clear on the causes. Consider columns like this one, from Sarah McKenzie, calling for greater female participation in the atheist movement (HT: the always-incisive Ophelia Benson). Most of the column is excellent, but where I think she goes astray is this:
After all, girls are taught to be sensitive and emotional, to not cause trouble or be particularly forthright with their opinions. Women who dare to be aggressive or outspoken are often labelled as hysterical harpies, not worthy of being listened to and impossible to take seriously. We should hardly be surprised that some women might be reluctant to come out as atheists.
While I agree that women are underrepresented among prominent atheists, I don’t think it’s the case that it’s because women are put off by confrontational skepticism (though her point about women being attacked for being outspoken is well-taken). Rather, I think it’s because there is sexism, and tolerance of sexism, in the atheist community, to a greater degree than I’d like to admit – and women are quite capable of sensing that. It’s small wonder that they don’t always feel welcome. And what makes it worse is that this problem is self-perpetuating: often, men who notice this gender gap assume it to have some biological basis, as if women were “naturally” more prone to be religious than men – and this kind of baseless, unfounded just-so story exacerbates the problem still further.
This, of course, isn’t to say that there are no female atheists. There are many – I’ve linked to some of them in just this post – and they span the spectrum from peaceful and nurturing to assertive and ass-kicking. It’s not as if would-be female atheists are lacking for worthy role models. But more needs to be done, which is why I believe that atheists need to be feminists, both within our own community and in the wider world. We need to learn to recognize sexism, both overt and subtle, and to call it out wherever it appears. We have to be more diligent in recognizing and promoting the contributions of female freethinkers. And most importantly, we need to stop tolerating those among us who make ignorant remarks that stigmatize women and discourage them from participating.
The diversity of the atheist movement is its greatest strength. There will never be a council of elders or an infallible text dictating what atheists must believe, nor would I want there to be. But I think the atheist community can and should act collectively, by unanimous consent, to make it clear to sexists and other bigots that they are not welcome and that we don’t want them associated with us – similar to the way Larry Darby was collectively cast out after he revealed his racist, Holocaust-denying beliefs. We should do this not because it’s a decree imposed on us from above, but because we all recognize, using our own reason and best sense, that it’s the right thing to do, and that we stand to gain many more friends and allies than we stand to lose.