Susan Jacoby has a long and thoughtful article on why so many atheist, humanist and secular groups have a far higher percentage of men than women. After pointing out that part of the answer is that women are more likely to be religious than men, she then suggests some other possible reasons.
I’ll also note that the very question of why women are more religious than men often elicits a prejudiced, sexist response. When I first began writing for the “On Faith” section of the Washington Post, one of the earliest questions asked for an explanation of women’s greater religiosity. An amazing number of men on my blog answered baldly, “Because women are stupider than men.”
I think most of us can agree, without parsing SAT and IQ scores, that this is not exactly a reasonable, evidence-based answer. It represents the so-called thinking of a group of modern-day social Darwinists who make up one component of the secular movement. These were the same angry white guys who would often call me “Susie” in their comments. Interestingly, the religious right-wingers on the blog simply referred to me as an “ugly old atheist.” (Apparently the former were under the impression that using a diminutive would make any woman burst into tears, while the latter group thought that calling you ugly or old was the worst possible insult.) I don’t want to make too much of this, in part because I place about as much value on anonymous opinions expressed on blogs as I do on professions of eternal love after drinking the night away in a bar. However, I don’t think it can be denied that the idea that women aren’t as, shall we say, tough-minded as men has long been held by an element in the secular movement, including the twentieth-century movement as it developed after World War II.
This misogyny sometimes shows up as a distinction between “soft” and “hard” atheists, describing people like my friend Sam Harris as a “hard” atheist because he argues that so-called moderate religion is even worse than fundamentalist religion, because moderate religion provides a respectable cover for fundamentalism. Speaking only for myself—and certainly not for womankind—I don’t agree with Harris about this. The job of the secular movement would be much easier if religion in the United States consisted only of liberal Protestantism, along with the liberal Catholicism that tells its bishops just where they can stick their doctrines, and Reform Judaism.
So does that position make me a “soft” atheist? A kinder, gentler atheist, as the religious historian Steve Prothero once described me? Such distinctions merely reduce a genuine, reasonable disagreement—one as much about tactics as principle—to a difference between the sexes. Because what’s really being said here is that in disagreeing with a male colleague on an intellectual issue, a female is “soft”—a word that’s synonymous with flabby and weak-minded. And she’s soft because, well, she’s a girl.
She also offers some suggestions:
Of course there is also a need to tap more women for positions of responsibility in secular organizations. Women have played a very important role in grassroots battles—say, the teaching of evolution in public schools—but they’re not as well represented at the organizational level. Again, I think part of this is generational and is about to change, but experience in other social movements shows that such change doesn’t happen automatically.
Finally, it’s time for women’s rights to be seen not as a “special” issue but as something integral to our larger mission of freeing society from anti-rational, supernaturally based restrictions.
Exactly right. Fighting against sexism (and racism and homophobia as well) is — should be — automatically part of the mission of anyone who seeks to do battle with the influence of religion in society. It should go without saying that the web of ideas and institutions in society that have long conspired to deny equality to women are largely a product of religion; it does us little good to argue against religion without also combating the myriad of ways it justifies inequality in nearly every form.
Where does that leave me on the whole Atheism + issue? Given that I clearly believe that fighting for social justice is an indispensable part of being an atheist and a humanist, the answer should be fairly obvious. I’m not the least bit interested in playing any game involving whether we are the Judean People’s Front or the People’s Front of Judea — meaning I really don’t care whether you want to call yourself an atheist, an atheist + or a humanist — I am in favor of almost any effort that makes questions of equality a central part of the atheist/secularist movement. And I am frankly very happy that the whole thing started on this network through the efforts of Jen McCreight, Greta Christina and many others.