Sociologists Begin To Study The Sexism Found Within The Atheist Community

Sociologists Begin To Study The Sexism Found Within The Atheist Community December 1, 2017
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Image via Charlotte Cooper under Creative Commons 2.0

An article published in the Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion investigated sexism within atheist spaces. The article was titled Gender and Atheism: Paradoxes, Contradictions, and an Agenda for Future Research and was written by Landon Schnabel, Ariel Sincoff-Yedid, Lori Fazzino, and myself. I’ve written on this blog before about sexism within atheist spaces, but we wanted to address this problem from a sociological lens in hopes of inspiring future research.

Our paper begins by discussing how atheists are actually more likely to have liberal attitudes about gender than theists. Also, the greater proportion of atheists in a country the greater the gender equality (Schnabel, 2016). Despite these findings, we also see instances of misogyny within atheist spaces. Our paper addressed this contradiction with a few major themes that I’ll summarize in this blog post.

Despite atheists having these more positive views about gender, women are much less likely to be atheists. Research from the General Social Survey (2014) reports that men represent 73% of the identified atheists in America. Consequently, the atheist community, a loosely knit group of atheists connected by social media, blogs, and conferences, is still male dominated. Despite atheist men being more pro-equality in surveys, it doesn’t mean they are completely immune to internalizing some of the sexist messages in our society.

Sexism is found in many areas in our culture, but there also may be certain aspects of the atheist community that allow for it to spread in their space. Atheists do not have any theological basis for sexism like theists do. However, many atheists are science-minded and may use a scientific explanation to justify their sexism. We can observe examples of atheist men in comment sections across the internet stating how there is biological evidence that women are not as smart as men (of course no such evidence exists in peer-reviewed articles). We can also observe very hostile comments against women and feminism in these online atheist spaces.

Beyond random internet comments, we also see popular male atheist figures using pseudoscience to argue that women are not as capable as men. For example, Christopher Hitchens proclaimed how evolution explains why women are not as funny as men. Sam Harris has stated that atheism doesn’t have the “estrogen vibe” that attracts women.

These sexist remarks do seem to impact women who have been involved in the atheist community. Data from the American Secular Census (2013) reports that atheist women are less likely to be active in atheist events because of sexism and harassment they have experienced. One of our authors, Fazzino, conducted interviews with atheist women and also found that many of them experienced sexism within atheist events. In addition to sexism, Miller (2013) has argued it may be easier for men to be outspoken atheists as their social status can better protect them from any stigma of atheism.

Our article is a descriptive piece and hopes to inspire scientific research in the area. Can we scientifically examine any links between atheism spaces and the sexism reported? Is the sexism a product of general cultural bias or does the atheism community possess some unique aspects that helps it spread? Are there subgroups of atheists that are more sexist than other groups? Does selection bias or other methodological problems explain why atheists are seemingly so pro-gender equality? What techniques can help reduce sexism in this space?

We are seeing more women identifying as atheists (Pew, 2015) and more women invited to speak at atheist conferences (Hassall and Bushfield, 2014). But atheist spaces are still disproportionally male. What we know now is that sexism exists within atheist spaces and there are a variety of approaches that social scientists can use to empirically study why this is the case with future research.

PS: I now have a Patreon if you’d like to support my writing and podcasting.

UPDATE: I respond to some of the comments below as well as Jerry Coyne’s blog post here. 

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