This post originally appeared on Skepchick. Since the Women in Secularism 2 conference is this weekend, it seemed appropriate to repost it.
There’s one thing that just about every atheist activist agrees on, which is that religion has always treated women as inferior. Whether it’s demonizing them as evil temptresses who brought sin into the world, demanding their silence and subordination, or treating them as male property with no desires of their own, every major church has a litany of shockingly sexist teachings. And yet, even though men are the faces and the voices of organized religion, even though they wield the power and set the doctrines, they still depend on women. In order to perpetuate themselves, the churches need women’s attendance, women’s unpaid labor, and especially women’s willingness to have children and to raise them in the faith.
This is a vulnerability that’s crying out for atheists to exploit. If we could offer religious women a better alternative – if we could invite them into a secular community where they’d be treated as equals, where there’d be no more of the hateful prejudice and the blatant double standards they’ve so often been subjected to – then they’d have every reason to flock to our banner, draining the churches’ vitality in the bargain. This could be such a devastating blow, it seems to me, we should be bending all our efforts toward it. We should be doing everything possible to reach out to women; we should be throwing the doors wide open to welcome them in.
But this isn’t happening. Women aren’t turning away from religion en masse, and the atheist movement still has a majority of men. And while there are undoubtedly multiple causes for this, over the last few years we’ve seen one very obvious and glaring reason: the sexist hate and harassment that atheist women far too often encounter in our online and real-life communities.
Most of us became atheists for intellectual reasons, because we find the arguments for theism unconvincing, or for moral reasons, because we find its teachings intolerable. But it seems to me that there’s a small number of men (and a smaller number of women) who are atheists purely because they delight in being offensive, because they believe no one has the right to tell them what to do. They think this community is a place where they can indulge those impulses: where they can be as crass and boorish as they want, where they can leer at or hit on women in any way they want, or cheer on those who do. And too often, we’ve seen that when women object to this treatment, however politely, they become the targets of a campaign of violent threats, abusive hate mail and dehumanizing filth.
This isn’t a brand-new phenomenon or one unique to atheism; other communities are grappling with it as well. But I wanted us to be better than that, and it disappoints me profoundly that so many atheists aren’t. And I’m even more upset that the insults and epithets these sexist skeptics use to dismiss women who speak out – professional victim, whiner, thin-skinned, troublemaker – so perfectly echo the arguments used against atheists by the religious when we speak out. These people are low and despicable bullies, and if I thought for even a moment that they were the future direction of atheism, I’d long ago have severed my ties with the atheist movement.
But the sexists are not the future of atheism. No matter how much noise they make, they’ll never be anything but an ignorant, resentful minority. I’m confident that most atheists are good, decent people who don’t condone harassment. But to those good and decent people, especially us atheist men, I want to say this: This isn’t just a women’s fight, it’s your fight too. We all have a stake in the future of this movement, so raise your voice, speak out, make yourself heard! Call out the trolls and the harassers; tell them that their behavior is wrong and unacceptable. Don’t sanction them by your silence. They do what they do because they believe that it’s socially condoned, that people who don’t speak up must approve of their behavior. They get agitated and defensive when confronted with evidence that this isn’t true, which is why we need to do it more often. As with other kinds of predators, the way to stop them is by taking away their social license to operate.
On the surface this fight is about the treatment of women, but ultimately it’s about what kind of community we want atheism to be. Do we want it to be an insular and impotent subculture, where we do nothing but complain that the world doesn’t understand us? Or do we want it to be a mass movement that fills streets, that strikes fear in the hearts of theocrats, that shifts the course of history? If we’re willing to do the work necessary to broaden our appeal as much as possible, to make the atheist community a welcoming and tolerant landing place for all kinds of people, it can be the latter. If we divide ourselves and chase away allies by allowing prejudice and hate to spread unchecked, it can only be the former.
Image credit: One Thousand Needles