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Atheism Has a Women Problem

From Hitchens to Dawkins, the most prominent faithless are white men. The movement needs to take a look at itself — and church history

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In his excellent book on Samuel Johnson, Northwestern University professor Lawrence I. Lipking reasons that Johnson’s poem was a reaction to the rise of a controversial female preacher in the 1730s. She was also a shovel-ready stand-in for a degenerate modernity.

In the end, a female atheist was more than a walking blaspheme. She was a tear in the social fabric—and a menace to all.

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By most statistical accounts, women are more devout. In countries like Britain and the United States, irreligion is spreading—but women are less likely to be Atheists. According to data from a recent World Values Survey, while 3.6 percent of American men identify absolutely as “Atheist,” just 1.2 percent of women do the same. Those numbers rise to 11.6 percent and 9.3 percent respectively in Britain.

But this demography is not sufficient to explain the relative dearth of prominent female Atheists. These missing women have been discussed at length: in publications like Freethinker and Ms. , at the Center for Inquiry’s 2012 and 2013 “Women in Secularism” conferences, and by countless local organizations.

Writers have suggested that the doggedness of New Atheism tends to turn off women—and that, for social reasons, women don’t muster the same militancy when defending their (non)beliefs. Others have looked to sexism within the Atheist community (read: Elevatorgate). A few have made unconvincing references to biology. And some academics blame the fact that churches have pulled a retroactive fast one on history: falsely claiming credit for progress on the women’s front.

Or perhaps it’s all a mirage? In a 2011 article in Bitch, journalist Victoria Bekiempis made the provocative claim that the “showboating [Atheist] boys’ club” is a media construct. She notes that around 2006, several news articles were published describing Dawkins et al. as a “band of intellectual brothers”: Atheism’s bullheaded bro-elite. That image—with its tidy narrative and ready stock characters—stuck. Bekiempis’s advice: “Let’s reframe. For every mention of Hitchens, counter with a mention of Hecht.”

Susan Jacoby, author of “Freethinkers,” has pointed to a kind of inter-movement antagonism. In an attempt to win over right-wingers, she argues, Atheists have been too timid in their assertion of women’s rights. Of course, history teaches that movements for change, even when they conceptually overlap, don’t always hold hands. Too great are concerns about alienating supporters and diluting the cause brand.

Will things be different in a church of “New, New Atheism”? Over the last few months, several secular churches have broken ground in Britain, North America and elsewhere. The Sunday Assembly ( which I profiled for Salon in April) was launched in London by two comedians—to much fanfare. With new branches in Melbourne and New York, the Assembly has plans to open 40 American outposts this autumn. The guiding tenet of the Assembly is that Atheists have something to gain from the structures of a traditional church (or mosque, or synagogue): a sense of community, thoughtful lectures, periods of respite and occasions for moral contemplation.

Other secular churches have been opened by philosophers, former Pentecostal preachers, and reformed Christians. Centers like Harvard University’s Humanist Community have also garnered international attention.

The Sunday Assembly was started by a male-female duo of stand-up comics. But the other secular founders are men, as are Harvard’s two Humanist chaplains. The sample is too small to be conclusive, but this early paucity of women is something to keep an eye on.

Let Atheism have its waves, and secularism its churches. But if Atheists are going to use “church,” as a word and an organizational model, they should pay heed to the long legacy of women’s oppression and torment that the Church represents. New Atheist churches should be active in their inclusivity, aggressively seeking out diversity in leadership and attending directly to issues of women’s rights. In addition: If you are a woman and an Atheist, and the idea of a secular church appeals to you, now would be a really good time to stand up and be counted.

 
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