Speaking Out Against Hate Directed at Women

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

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.

  • Azkyroth

    I wonder if people will pay a little more attention to what you’re actually saying this time around.

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    I think the membership-fee thing is part of it, yes. Obviously, the leaders of atheist groups want their organizations to be as large and influential as possible, so on that level of reasoning they have an incentive not to attack or alienate their own members. On the other hand, they need to consider how many potential members they’re losing by permitting sexism to flourish in the ranks.

    Progress is being made, however. The group leaders did issue an open letter last month which wasn’t too bad. But what we’re all waiting to see is whether they’ll back it up with concrete action.

  • Azkyroth

    …I guess that’s a no.

  • GCT

    Check your religious privilege, no one is being insulted here. You do, however, support a religion that is misogynistic at its core.

  • 92JazzQueen .

    Its not about religious privilege but a holier than thou attitude about what you precieve my religion as misogynistic.Actually for all your cries about Christians being judgmental I really can’t see how your attiude isn’t that different.You look down on people who you think are not worth your opinion and don’t respect their beliefs.

  • GCT

    It is most certainly about religious privilege. You see an article about how atheists need to speak up more for equality for women and jump directly to offense at being insulted because someone correctly points out the misogynistic religious ideas that you support. It’s religious privilege 101.

    Actually for all your cries about Christians being judgmental I really can’t see how your attiude isn’t that different.

    Because you seem to be infused with religious privilege. Saying that religion (including your religion) is misogynistic because the teachings inherent within it are misogynistic is not being judgmental. It’s not insulting you. It’s talking about ideas, and no matter how much you try to equivocate, talking about or even making fun of ideas is not the same as insulting people. This is your religious privilege.

    You look down on people who you think are not worth your opinion and don’t respect their beliefs.

    Again, pointing out that your ideas are faulty is not the same as insulting or looking down on you. This is your religious privilege. And, no, I don’t respect your ideas. Ideas don’t deserve respect unless they are good ideas. Religion is not a good idea. The misogyny inherent in religions are not worthy of respect. Why should I respect your beliefs? Your beliefs are harmful. I will not respect harmful beliefs.

  • http://profiles.google.com/david.mike.simon David Simon

    With respect, how is the article above degrading people? It degrades certain ideas, but that’s not the same thing; people can change their minds about ideas.

  • GCT

    You talking about biases in others is rich. You may want to remove the log from your eye before trying to find the splinter in mine.

    Point of fact, it is harmful when atheist rights are trampled upon. Your beliefs directly lead to that. Your attempts at silencing us are harmful. We will not sit down and shut up simply because you have a martyr complex.

    Point of fact, I am degrading ideas. Your ideas are harmful, irrational, and worth denigration. I have not spoken of you, except to point out your biases, your privilege, and your atheophobia. You are not persecuted. You are not being bashed for being Xian. If I am bashing you at all, it is for trying to shove your bigotry down our throats. I will not apologize for standing up for our rights and standing up against atheophobic religious privilege and bigotry.

  • GCT

    It is taken as self-evident that misogyny is inherent in all religions.

    One need only read the holy books to see this is the case in virtually every religion. In Xianity, especially, this is the case.

    In the US women outnumber men as much as 2-1 in many religious congregations. From this premise, women must be delusional to willingly participate at a much higher rate in a system that is self-evidently misogynistic.

    Or, they are simply the victims of a patriarchal society that manipulates them into supporting things that don’t help them. Women also work for anti-choice efforts. Blacks sometimes vote Republican as do poor people. Some gays consider themselves Xian. There’s no shortage of examples we can find of people working against their own self interests. That we’ve found another case here doesn’t mean that Xianity is not misogynistic nor that women are especially deluded.

    From 92JazzQueen’s experience (and from mine too in that matter) women are treated very well in religious communities.

    Most religious communities now-a-days ignore a lot of the anti-women sentiment in their holy scriptures. Some of it is also simply waved away as part of the culture. It doesn’t change the underlying facts though.

    We may be delusional, but to counter a personal experience with the premise that religion is self-evidently misogynistic demeans the intelligence of women.

    It is misogynistic, period. Read the Bible: women are treated as property. It’s a pretty common theme throughout. Religion has been dragged kicking and screaming to accept equality throughout its history, especially in regards to women.

    Additionally, countering one person’s “personal experience” is not a statement about the intelligence of all women.

    So, let’s see more of your religious privilege, shall we?

  • Azkyroth

    By that logic, a wife beater whose wife refuses to leave him isn’t really abusive. Please tell me you’re not too stupid to see why it’s flawed in that case.

  • DavidMHart

    “women have a tendency to be more spiritually aware than men and maybe
    that is why there are more male atheists than female atheists.”

    As Spew note above (or below depending on your Disqus settings), this statement is either mildly misogynistic or mildly atheophobic (in that it’s either disparaging women for being more likely to believe in stuff that isn’t real, or disparaging atheists for mistakenly identifying stuff that is real as imaginary), and in order to figure out which, you’ll need to define ‘spiritually aware’.

    A fellow commenter on one of these sorts of threads, I forget who or where, observed that they had never yet come across any construction using the word ‘spiritual’ that could not be better expressed using one of the words ‘mental’, ‘emotional’ or ‘imaginary’. I’m sure you’ll consider that a harsh assessment, but I’d like to hear what your understanding of the spiritual, once you have concisely defined it, actually is.

  • Geena PsyStudent

    Hi David (and Spew),

    I am genuinely sorry, I should have phrased that differently. I didn’t mean to be disparaging to atheists (or to the largely male atheist community). My comment did come across as sexist and I should have caught that before I posted it. I apologize.

    I meant to respond to this quote in the article:

    “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.”

    With the idea that:

    There are plenty of options already for people who are spiritual but not religious (by spiritual I mean sensing or believing in the human spirit/soul and other energies beyond our five senses): these options include the content produced by the likes of Oprah, Doreen Virtue, Neal Donald Walsh, Wayne Dyer, etc. The demographic for this audience over-indexes on women, so it is entirely possible that women who are not comfortable with religion have already found another path. I think religion is separate from faith and spirituality (or from imagination and myth as you call it – no offense taken).

    Again, I am really sorry that my comment came across as dismissive of men and atheists, especially when Adam’s article was clearly written to be inclusive and tolerant.

  • Geena PsyStudent

    Hi Spew – I’m really sorry, you’re right.

    That comment sounded awful and I really should phrased it differently. I typed to quickly and I didn’t mean to offend men or atheists. Please see my response to David M Hart for a full explanation – apology =)

  • David Simon

    disparaging atheists for mistakenly identifying stuff that is real as imaginary

    Hold on, I don’t think this is disparaging at all. It’s just simple disagreement.

  • jack


    It’s neither sexism nor a disparagement of atheism. It’s just an empirical fact. Women are more religious than men (this is probably the single-most robust finding in the psychology of religion), and women are also more spiritual than men, even after controlling for differences in religiosity. Take a look at this paper.

    And Geena, I for one took no offense at anything you wrote.

  • DavidMHart

    Jack said

    It’s neither sexism nor a disparagement of atheism. It’s just an empirical fact.

    …but I am replying to you, Geena, because it’s your subthread. The point was not that you claimed that women were more religious than men, but they were more ‘spiritually aware‘. The use of the word ‘aware’ implies that women are on average correct in identifying a spiritual dimension, and that men/atheists are (on average) wrong in failing to identify it. If the claim had simply been that women were ‘more spiritual’, that would be a valid way of saying that women were more likely than men to believe in such things without presupposing such things to be true or false.

    Obviously this is a situation in which one or other side has to actually be wrong, and there’s no way to call one side right without calling the other wrong – and I over-reacted a bit, but I hope you can see why, when there was a value-neutral way of expressing the claim available.

    And thanks for explaining a bit more about what you mean, but I’m afraid your definition is still a bit fuzzy. What exactly is the human spirit/soul, in your definition, and how is this different from the human mind? I think a lot of the confusion could be cut through if you could answer this question:

    Do you believe that there are supernatural forces operative in the universe, in Richard Carrier’s definition of ‘supernatural’ as things which have the properties of minds but are not reducible to the interactions of simpler units that do not have the properties of minds? And if so, what evidence do you present in favour of that hypothesis?

    I’m driving this point because the supernatural hypothesis is behind pretty much every religion – particularly the idea that humans have ‘souls’ that are in some way independent of the physical structure of the brain – and it is this hypothesis, which we seem to have an intuitive bias towards, but which always breaks down into nonsense when you really try to scrutinise it or look for ways of testing it, that we ought to be as skeptical of as the other widespread religious proposition that the universe was created deliberately by a sentient being.

  • Geena PsyStudent

    Hi David,

    Thanks for including the link to Richard Carrier’s page, that was actually quite fun to read. I identify with what he describes as paranormal in that I have experienced things that could be supernatural or natural and maybe I just don’t know how to categorize some of them.

    To answer your question, I believe the soul or spirit to be independent of the mind. I also think it exists after we die though I don’t assume any particular religion is right about what happens afterward. My belief in the supernatural is based on personal experiences with mediumship, though I could be wrong about what I think I experienced. Or wrong about some things and closer to the mark on others.

    There are loads of guys who are mediums and a lot of them are very good. So as mentioned earlier, I apologize for making it seem like women are more aware than men.

    Maybe our differences of opinion are down to the burden of proof we all require (I am guessing yours is higher) and the fact that you have never come across a medium that satisfied your requirements for proof? Or had a “spiritual” experience that passed the test?



  • Spew

    Hi Geena – For what it’s worth, I wasn’t really offended, just pointing out what I perceived as an unintended implication. :)

  • DavidMHart

    Sorry for the long delay in replying – I let this thread go off the boil :-)

    Anyway, now I know where you’re coming from. I hope you’ll understand that yes I do have a fairly high burden of proof for supernatural claims, and this is because we should be extra-skeptical of magical claims that flatter human vanity or pander to our wishful thinking, and until someone can come up with proof that would satisfy the majority of scientists, such claims should not be part of our rational worldview.

    (Note, I’m not saying that scientists are automatically entitled to be the arbiters of reality, I’m just saying that if the people who make it their life’s work to honestly examine reality and to submit their hypotheses to the most rigorous tests have been overwhelmingly of the opinion that a phenomenon has not been proven, then the most rational position for everyone else is to provisionally conclude that such phenomena are unreal, and that the people who think they are real are probably misinterpreting the data).

    It is well known that professional media (that is technically the correct plural, though it feels weird) are able to do all sorts of non-supernatural techniques and tricks to fool people, including themselves, into thinking they are in touch with the dead, or angels or what have you. Given this, the people who claim that some media really are in contact with the dead really need to submit that claim to rigorous, repeatable testing before we should take it seriously.