Where, Oh, Where Are the Atheist Women?

Where, Oh, Where Are the Atheist Women? November 9, 2010

Last week, I noticed a pingback on my blog from a post on Ms. Magazine by Monica Shores, “Will New Atheism Make Room for Women?

There are some good things about this piece. I have to say that I’m glad to see the atheist movement making an impact in wider, more traditional media circles. The need to diversify the atheist movement and ensure that we encourage and fairly value the contributions of women and people of color is a valid one, and I’ve written about it before as well. I welcome more attention being paid to this issue and people being willing to point it out if we’ve fallen short.

However, Shores’ post isn’t written in the spirit of helping atheists improve on this issue. It’s more in the style of a hit job, taking the stance that we must all be sexists whom no woman would want to associate with:

If you’ve been following the rise of so-called “New Atheism” movement, you may have noticed that it sure looks a lot like old religion. The individuals most commonly associated with contemporary atheism — Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Victor Stenger – are all male, white and, well, kinda old (69, 61, 68 and 75). Sam Harris, another popular figure who bears mention, has the distinction of being in his early 40s.

Ironically, she spends all her time focusing on the white men who are prominent in the atheist movement, and then at the very end bemoans the fact that atheist women lack “visibility and name-recognition”! Well, Ms. Shores, why do you think that is? Could it possibly be because mainstream, traditional media outlets – even ones as allegedly progressive and feminist as Ms. Magazine – refuse to give atheist women the space and fair coverage they deserve?

What makes this even more bizarre is that Shores is clearly aware of the existence of many atheist women. She references Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and links to essays by Susan Jacoby, Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina and Jen McCreight, as well as a post by Sikivu Hutchinson right here on Daylight Atheism. Yet, again, she gives all these excellent writers and advocates only passing mention, so that she can continue to criticize us for the utterly inexplicable invisibility of women and people of color. (It kind of reminds me of this skit from the late, lamented Mystery Science Theater 3000.) To compound this, Shores writes that there’s “little indication that atheists are receptive” to the idea of diversifying – and to support this assertion, links to two posts arguing the exact opposite! This is clearly a case of the established media narrative driving coverage of the facts, rather than vice versa.

There are a few other annoying inaccuracies in Shores’ post I want to point out. She writes that atheists “can’t abide by tolerance of religion”, when what we actually say is that religion shouldn’t get special privileges or be immune from criticism. She writes that we “dare not hope for eradication of religion outright”, whereas many of us do hope for this (by victory on the battlefield of ideas, of course, not by coercion or violence) and have no fear of saying so. And she ridiculously and insultingly mischaracterizes this piece by my fellow blogger vjack of Atheist Revolution as “overtly sexist”, when it’s actually a thoughtful exploration of the reasons why women may not feel as welcome in the activist segment of the atheist movement as we’d like.

Thankfully, Ms. magazine gave a follow-up post to Jen McCreight, who corrected many of these inaccuracies and pointed out some of the atheist women who are making major, meaningful contributions to the movement. This was a much better piece that rightly highlighted the accomplishments of atheist women, rather than ignoring them and then inexplicably complaining that they’re nowhere to be found.

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