The Women of ‘New Atheism’ Are All Around Us

For whatever reason, Salon loves to take digs at the New Atheist authors and the atheist movement in general.

The latest salvo is Katie Engelhart‘s piece asking, “Where are the women of New Atheism?

It’s not a bad question — we know that one of the problems in our movement is that it’s predominantly men who are involved and who get most of the publicity. There are individuals (men and women) and groups working to change that and we shouldn’t stop discussing how to make things better.

But that’s not really where Engelhart’s piece goes.

First, she tries (and fails) to coin a term to bring together some of the things atheists are doing in certain parts of the world:

“New Atheism” is old news. Enter “New, New Atheism”: the next generation, with its more spiritual brand of non-belief, and its ambition to build an atheist church. It is an important moment for the faithless. Will it include women?

Ugh. This is just lazy reporting. The “atheist church” idea isn’t what the next iteration of atheism will be; it’s just one way to build the type of communities some atheists want to have. Most atheists, I think it’s safe to say, are perfectly happy without them.

Then, Engelhart laments the fact that, even though there are many women making important contributions to the freethought movement, they’re just not as famous as the men. (Ayaan Hirsi Ali is notably absent from the entire article.)

“… these women… failed to emerge as public figures, household names.”

I don’t doubt that for a moment. There are female atheists well known in atheist circles, but not many who are known outside of them. The questions that need to be asked are: Who’s responsible for that? And what can we do to change that?

We never really get a solid response from Engelhart to the first question — she just throws a lot of possibilities in the air — maybe because there isn’t just one clear answer. Is it the movement’s fault for not elevating women to higher status (whatever that means), or is it society’s fault for not more strongly embracing (or even rejecting) outspoken atheist women?

There’s barely an attempt to answer the second question.

Here’s a question I wish she would have answered: At what point does a prominent female atheist become prominent “enough”? Her article names (or links to) bestselling women authors, popular women bloggers, and organizations headed up by women… but she basically dismisses them because they aren’t well-known enough. So when will she be satisfied?

I’m not asking that to be a jerk, but because I think we need to know what standard she’s using. Madalyn Murray O’Hair had name recognition (though she wasn’t well-liked) but she isn’t mentioned by name anywhere in the piece. Jennifer Michael Hecht and Susan Jacoby both wrote popular history books discussing famous freethinkers, and have been interviewed a number of times in the mainstream media, but… but what? Still not enough?

Are we looking for number of weeks spent on a bestsellers list? Amount of money given to atheist women in a book deal? Number of hits to their websites? Number of female speakers at a particular conference? A 50/50 split in our demographics? An equal number of women (as men) leading atheist organizations?

Maybe she just wishes a woman would be automatically linked to “atheism” in everybody’s mind. (Which, again, we’ve had with O’Hair.)

Whatever the answer is, I can offer one suggestion to Katie Engelhart that would actually help the cause she’s fighting for: Write articles about female atheists. There’s no shortage of atheist women who are doing fascinating things, have interesting ideas, and make for compelling stories. We’d all benefit from that. (In fact, it’s something I’m working on right now.) Need help? Start here.

(It probably doesn’t help anyone that Salon has published three separate articles about the late Christopher Hitchens just in the past few weeks…)

The “New Atheism” idea is, and has always been, an invention of the media. Same with calling the bestselling male authors “the Four Horsemen.” It’s not like atheists everywhere gathered together one day and decided, “Okay, we’ll embrace four atheist men and then stop.”

But if a media construct helped these men rise to prominence, there’s no reason the media — and Engelhart — can’t help women do the same.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.