The Gender Disparity in Atheism, How Can it Change?

It is clear to many members of the atheist internet blogosphere that there is a noticeable gender disparity among participants in atheist activities (fora, blogs, comments, readership) online.There are also indications that this discrepancy is continued offline as well, in self-identification on surveys and in participation in atheist community groups. There is a similar disproportion in popular published material and mainstream availability of women in outspoken positions. These areas, yet again, are dominated by men and the demographic is only slowly changing.

This is not to say that women are not involved in high positions of leadership within the atheist community, nor that their input is disregarded. To say so would be farcial. Women like Margaret Downey, president of the Freethought Society, Lori Lipman Brown, the founding director of the SCA, Lyz Lidell in the SSA, Debbie Goddard representing both the CFI and African Americans for Humanism, Susan Jacoby repping CFI, and so many others speak to, write about, educate and organize atheists across North America. And there are many more across the world. There are numbers of female atheist bloggers, authors, and thinkers all with as much to say, if not more, than their male counterparts. Yet the truth remains that the population of today's New Atheism remains heavily skewed toward the male, many places in ratios hovering near 3:1.

This topic has clearly been on the minds of many. Hemant Mehta (The Friendly Atheist), Jen McCreight (BlagHag), PZ Meyers (Pharyngula) and many others of note in the blogosphere have considered this issue in lengthy discussion. Much of this buzz was initiated by Carrie Iwan and Rebecca Watson of Skepchick when they podcasted about sexism and sexist remarks made at The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM), a conference for skeptics hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation, in 2009.

I am currently doing research with a professor at my school on gender and atheism. For us, discussion is great. What would make that discussion even better would be to have empirical data to help support the integration of more women (especially women of color, former adherents to non-Abrahamic faiths, etc.) into the New Atheist movement. It is not enough to hope that time will even up the ratios, they must be actively addressed and we will all benefit. We have the potential to create a survey that can reach an international population of atheists online. Our question to you then becomes this: what questions need to be asked of a large, trans-national population in order to help us get at the root of this issue? What do women need from the New Atheist movement? What keeps women who don’t believe in deities from identifying as atheist?

We have a decent idea of what female atheists now look like: they tend to be liberal, white, under 40, highly educated, from backgrounds of low religious orthodoxy. How do we provide welcoming environments for the women who may face different struggles it they came out as atheists? Many have noted that this issue is not only about being more inclusive to women, but also about being more inclusive to all diversity. New Atheism, at its heart, does not need exclusion or discrimination or hierarchy. It needs brothers, it needs sisters. It needs transgendereds and androgyne's. The long and short of it is that we need community.

Now, how?
EDIT: this is in the works, again. Up above is about three or four editions behind.... whoops. 

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Comment by Frankie Dapper on May 4, 2011 at 2:31pm

Sushi Q,

Take your high powered analytical insights and look in the mirror. You tow the party line perfectly never examining the veracity of its tenets.

And your understanding of my assertions is in accordance with your filters, not what I have written here. You would be hard pressed to find a white guy more vocal in support of women, and opposed to homophobia and sexism.

That does not change the fact that in general women are more emotional than men. You say that emotion is devaluing, not me. Emotion can translate into empathy and sympathy. Good qualities, no?  The absence of emotion makes one more likely to be a serial killer. Women are better with language, men with math. So what?

I learn about any subject I can. It is just that your reference seemed intended for a fifth grader or a troglodyte.

I am an allie. I swear to the highest sushi chef.

Comment by Sushi Q on May 4, 2011 at 2:07pm

Glen, you're really not getting it.  But more to my point, you're being absolutely predictable about all of it.  You blame men's disrespect for women on women, and think you know better than a woman does about what women are like.  You don't get that you only see what you were taught to see, and refuse to be educated.  You say you have "filters" but if you act like they're true it's just as good as not knowing they're there.  You are a perfect illustration of the very problems I'm talking about.  Learning about Feminism is, of course, not worth your time.  Don't you think we women could possibly expect better of our purported allies?  I sure do.


This is why I pointed you out - because your attitudes are so pervasive everywhere, we aren't going to be able to truly solve the issue of why women won't come to the atheist table unless we also get at the hidden attitudes we are all taught to have about women's voices.  Your responses to me are pretty typical actually.  I don't see a respectful person willing to learn or listen, just another guy who thinks he knows better - and knows me better - than I do.  Good illustration (though maybe not poster boy) of "if you're not part of the solution..."  Thanks for playing.


Anyway, Rikka:


One of the things I have seen work pretty well on a small scale (like local Meetups), even though I'm ambivalent about the principle, is gatherings of women-only atheists.  (I am so not a fan of the cutesy term "chick" though.)

It might be worth asking If there were a gathering in your town of women who are questioning religion, would you attend?


Comment by Frankie Dapper on May 4, 2011 at 11:05am


Questions to ask in your survey:

Your gender, race and ethnicity?

When did you first question religion?

What prompted you to question God(s)?

If there were multiple factors, weigh those factors?

When did you first become aware that others questioned?

How quickly did you come out once having deconverted?

Which factors dissuaded you from coming out?

Did you attempt to deconvert others?

Which factors did you key on to achieve other deconversions?

Do you feel more at home in your atheism if you know you are part of a community?

What do you hope to achieve in the atheist movement?

Are you discouraged by the disproportionality of white males in the atheist movement?


Comment by Dystopic Fiction on May 4, 2011 at 10:24am

Just my 2 cents worth:

1. Atheism is a good fight, and men like to fight.

2. Men created the monotheistic god to begin with (often by fighting), so they'd better try to get rid of him. As a male educated by and in feminism, I certainly feel compelled to overthrow a vindictive deity who is particularly disparaging toward women.

3. Men like to fight.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on May 3, 2011 at 10:05pm

Sushi Q,

Self-hate is never irrelevant. Dont expect disrespectful men to change when women hate themselves. Your analogy is not irrelevant but it is not on point either. My comment means no more than it purports to. While I am opposed to sexism and support feminism, racism is a greater evil.

Not all atheists on this site are aware of the evils of religion. When you were discussing patriarchy and failing to get at its roots, I thought it worthwhile.

I see why you might be offended by the different species comment. But damn if it is not true. It might be the beginning of sexism for some men, not me. What is wrong with acknowledging our differences? Social darwinists, for instance, were coming at it with preconceived VALUES. I value equality. Agree completely with your most people criticism. Was aware when I did it.

I was not intending to trot out stereotypes. It is just that certain observations are stereotypical. As I say, those observations are no more than generalizations. Plenty of characteristics identified as male or female are shared. Your under the influence comment is a non sequitur.

I started to read feminism 101. Stopped cuz it seems banal. Thanks for the othering reference-was not familiar with the term, was familiar with the concept. You know the funny thing is you are stereotyping me. And I aint prototypical white male jerk.

Comment by Sushi Q on May 3, 2011 at 9:24pm


The self-hate of some women is completely irrelevant to a discussion about men openly disrespecting women in the public square where we are supposedly all "equals."  The point is that men often act like we don't matter or as if we don't even exist, because our only meaning for them is when they're looking for you know what.  My analogy about racism is very apt, sorry.  Your comment about racism being worse shows that you've decided we don't merit equal courtesy.  On what basis should we accept that kind of ill treatment?  Nevermind, I'm not going to listen to how I should be ok with being insulted and disrespected.


I still don't understand why you felt a need to tell me to make sure I keep the evils of religion in play.  Did you forget we're on an atheist board here?  Awareness of the evils of religion here, as I said, is a given.


Wowww.  "Women and men are like a different species. Some of the differences are innate and others are cultural. If that is not accepted as a given by some feminists, it is by most people."  You really don't understand Glen.  NO, women and men are not like different species.  Thinking we are that different is the beginning of sexism right there.  Look up Othering and find out what it means.  As an atheist you should also know a whole lot better than to support any argument by insisting it's what "most people" believe.  Like I said already, just because atheists are able to let go of religious orthodoxy doesn't mean they will let go of gender orthodoxy.  You are proving my point.


The last thing I will say is that yes, some stereotypes are accurate.  And some are NOT.  I guess you didn't get my point that the stereotypes you trotted out are not accurate.  Or that they were also of the typical dichotomous type favoring what is believed about males (rational, critical).  I'm not a man.  I'm pretty darned rational.  Just because you're not aiming to be purposely mean-spirited doesn't mean you're not under the influence of harmful and inaccurate stereotypes.  How about some critical thinking on YOUR part?


You aren't able to see what you're doing because of your filters, so I'm trying to lend you some awareness.


Know what...this is all old hat to feminists.  If you have any interest in learning more about the deal and actually helping us solve the problems, check out Feminism 101.  Thinking on that level is not easy for most people and they just don't want to go there.  They just want to stay on the surface because it's what they're familiar with.  If you think you're so smart, then go ahead, get past the typical.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on May 3, 2011 at 8:32pm

Sushi Q,

I was only saying that all humans have filters. I do not understand your second and third sentences.(TAM?, sex class?) I agree that we all should avoid anti-female insults. You are correct that there is a tendency among men to express negative sentiments concerning women in front of women. That tendency is deplorable. Apparently there is self hate too. Women are constantly referring to each other as bitches and beeotches. That is just stupid. Your analogy to racist jokes is not equivalent. Racist jokes are worse by degree.

I would not describe it as a commandment. However it is my hope that all of the oppressed groups can wander away from the fold when the real evil doer is exposed. Knowing you as well as you know me and not seeing any attribution I thought it prudent to "command."

Women and men are like a different species. Some of the differences are innate and others are cultural. If that is not accepted as a given by some feminists, it is by most people. To me the question is more why women are not atheists then why they dont attend atheist gatherings in larger numbers.

My point concerning stereotypes is that we should not be precluded from an assertion simply because the assertion is stereotypical. There are stereotypes about men that are largely accurate. I would not have you avoid those stereotypical assertions re men. Certainly concede that it is a delicate issue. And we all should avoid stereotypes when mean-spirited and uttered by the offender and directed against the offended.

By the way whites are people of color. White is a color, no? I would readily argue against theism regardless of race or gender. On the subject of fewer blacks being atheists I would say that their cultural anathema of atheism is the reason. Of course it is deeper than that.

I stand by my original point that behavioral differences between the genders explains the reluctance of women to break away or even consider the possibilities. That is why I think it is important that all theists get a solid dose of history of religion. That history is inextricably linked with discrimination in its myriad forms.

Comment by Sushi Q on May 3, 2011 at 6:56pm

Glen, I'm glad that you are willing to be critical of your filters.


Couple of points: you should realize that sexist jests might not be taken as funny by those who are precisely not ok with being forced into the position of sex class.  One of the problems with TAM, I gather, is that male speakers made sexist comments/jokes/whatever without being conscious of how offensive and alienating they could be.  They were not watching out for our sensibilities, but then, our culture teaches women to accept openly anti-female sentiment and it doesn't cross some people's minds that we'd ever object to such insults.  Doesn't that seem odd to you?  Why should we put up with that?  But it is not an isolated incident.  There is this weird tendency of men frequently to speak and act as if women were simply not there, as if the world were just a big men's club.  Can you imagine how that feels to us?  Would you be making racist jokes in response to a person of color?  Maybe you should ask yourself honestly why you're making these kinds of jests in response to the airing here of a serious issue.


I'm curious about your commandment to me to make sure I expose theism along with feminism.  As an atheist/anti-theist I am 100% aware that religion is one of the worst perpetrators and perpetuators of anti-female culture.  For me, condemning religion is a given.


However, as for givens, I disagree that "To point out cultural, biological and behavioral differences between the sexes is to point out a given..."   You may be unaware of the fact that feminism has dealt for decades with the unresolved juncture between nature and nurture, and that when it comes to "differences," very little is a given.  Many of what are now general behavioral differences have been enforced from without, indoctrinated from within, and those that are *actual* biological differences are pretty much irrelevant when it comes to why women don't attend atheist gatherings etc., as you'll see when you think about it.  Why shouldn't you avoid stereotypes?   We're just not worth the effort?  (Thanks!)  Again, consider racism.  Would you be arguing with a person of color why it's ok for you to talk like that about them?


I understand that the question Rikka is framing is based on what pans out as a behavioral difference, but you will not find the reasons in a mass stereotype of, yes, devaluations (such as that women are "emotional" or less "critical" than men) that are seen as utterly integral to the character of anyone who is female.  I'm sure the problem has practical components as well as what I noted - open hostility and insensitivity among supposed allies, which is pretty unpleasant and betraying.  Anyway, we're here to figure out how to address the problem, which I'm pretty sure has solutions.  And painting the meeting house pink isn't one of them.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on May 3, 2011 at 5:01pm

Sushi Q,

How dare you slander a male!

Go ahead, slander away. But I should point out that the bazooka gum, fortune cookies and atheist strip bars were in jest. Not for any good reason, however, perhaps evidence of my incipient mental break.

Should we refrain from making assertions when those assertions are associated with stereotypes? I think not. Let truth fall where it may. To point out cultural, biological and behavioral differences between the sexes is to point out a given that ought to be addressed when contemplating Rikkas' questions.

These are broad generalizations only. There is endless crossover between the sexes. I certainly do not devalue and dismiss contributions made by women any more than I do contributions made by males.  I have a filter but who does not? Humans have preconcieved notions. It is part of being human and necessary for survival. As an atheist where I am proven incorrect in some preconcieved notion I am more likely than a theist to flush the notion.

I do believe there is merit in your observations regarding patriarchy. But of course there are endless exceptions just as there are in men and women. When you are condemning the patriarchy make certain you expose theism. The church has coupled with the political structure since the time of the Egyptians to reduce the role of women and to make women tractable to the will of men. My idea for an encylopedia of religious history could be a real blockbuster. It sickens me to see groups who have been oppressed by the church support the church. But I do not think it will happen.

As for my personal views I despise sexism, racism, homophobia and bad sushi. Suspect as a group that white male atheists are more supportive of feminism than any other group of white males.

Comment by Sushi Q on May 3, 2011 at 2:11pm

You can see part of the problem in Glen's post below.  He is stereotyping women and essentializing us, and because he views women through pre-conceived beliefs about what all women are like (which do not describe me much at all by the way), he is actually unable to see us for who we really are.  It is really offputting for women like myself who are aware that the reception of our entire being is filtered through viewpoints like Glen's, which allows men to preclassify, dismiss, and devalue our contributions a priori.

It has been a huge disappointment to discover that male atheists tend to do this just as much as men of any other philosophy, because I wanted to believe that they were real freethinkers. Because patriarchy poses as a set of benefits to men (these are not real benefits but are sold as such), they are unwilling to give it up.  They may have thrown off the mental shackles of religion, but they still tend to be absolutely orthodox in their intentional and self-serving misreading of women.

Do you see how Glen thinks that "atheist strip bars" would be a helpful institution to have?  He doesn't get it.

All liberal and liberation movements have turned out to have mixed results for women because of the tenacious hold on privilege men keep.  Men are fine with overthrowing the establishment until it is THEM.  Glen says "Atheists wont achieve meaningful improvements in civilization without challenging the status quo."  Well, patriarchy is CERTAINLY the status quo.  Let's challenge the patriarchy, Glen, and see how you like it.  When we feminists do just that, we get a lot of pushback.  Instead of trying to keep us subjugated, it would be so awesome if men would wake up and team with us rational, atheist, feminist women.  They can't even IMAGINE what the benefits of that could be, because they are so focused on making sure women continue to be stuck with being their live-in maids and consumer sex product.

So - I contend that we need a very vocal, rational feminist contingent in the atheist community, and stop acting as if we have to make nice with sexist society while we battle theist BS.  Unfortunately, because so many women have been brainwashed by the patriarchy, they are used to having no voice and being judged on EVERY public thing they do or are.  It is tiring as hell to deal with that all the time.

I will note BTW that at my house, my husband and I are the opposite of John D and his wife.  My husband is just as atheist as I am, but he doesn't join groups or do anything particularly atheist on the internet.  Both of us are "argumentative" to use John's term - that is, we both enjoy debate, but I'm the one who actually engages with people on these subjects.

We do have to bring more women into the conversation I think, but we MUST be careful not to stereotype or essentialize women while doing so.  One point John D makes that I think is very useful is that we have to demonstrate the *benefits* of joining atheist causes to prospective members.  Because women are so harshly judged in everything we do, say, or are, it can be really difficult to take the type of risk we are asking, especially in the US today.

At the very least, we are going to have to create an environment that is not hostile to women.  Think about it...if you were going to join a cause that can be socially risky to be out about, what kind of community/environment would you want?  Certainly not the kind of environment that exhorts you to accept second class status.

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