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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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Photo Credit: Roberto Bobrow (cc)

 
 
 
 

“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”
–I Corinthians xiv. 34-5

“New Atheism” is old news. Enter “New, New Atheism”: the next generation, with its more spiritual brand of non-belief, and its ambition to build an atheist church. It is an important moment for the faithless. Will it include women?

Several years ago, there was discussion of a “woman problem” within the Atheist movement. New high priests of non-faith announced themselves—Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Peter Singer, A.C. Grayling, Daniel Dennett, etc.—and they were men. And they were angry. Their best-selling works were important and essential. These authors helped reinvigorate the secular cause; they cast off the fog of political correctness to unapologetically lay siege to piety. But before long, these New Atheists were depicted as an old boys’ club—a clique of (white) men, bound by a particularly unyielding brand of disbelief.

Where were the women?

Why, they were right there: stolidly leading people away from the fold. They were irreverent bloggers and institution founders. And scholars. Around the time that the Dawkins-Hitchens-Harris tripartite published its big wave of Atheist critique, historian Jennifer Michael Hecht published “ Doubt” and journalist Susan Jacoby published “ Freethinkers“—both critically acclaimed. And yet, these women, and many others, failed to emerge as public figures, household names. “Nobody talked about [Doubt] as a ‘phenomenon,’” Hecht has noted. “They just talked about the book.” What gives?

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The lady Atheist has a troubled history—its European chapter rooted in the French Revolution, which otherwise cleared ground for a bolder irreligion.

In the 1770s, the French philosopher Baron d’Holbach observed a dearth of “incredulous women or female atheists,” reasoning that women were biologically more “disposed to credulity.”

Where they were found, female atheists were considered especially noxious. In his 1738 poem “London,” the famed British writer Samuel Johnson cast women as urban leeches:

Her falling Houses thunder on your Head,
And here a female Atheist talks you dead.

English poet Edward Young took note, satirically using a ‘she-atheist’ to herald earthly apocalypse:

Atheists have been rare, since nature’s birth;
Till now, she-atheists ne’er appear’d on earth.

In some cases, men simply could not conceive of a female Atheist (just as, for centuries, they rejected the possibility of a female homosexual). In 1806, an issue of London’s La Belle Assemblée magazine revealed such suspicion, in an essay entitled “Character of the Atheist Woman”:

How is it possible, for example to conceive that a female can be an Atheist? What shall sustain this reed if religion does not support her frailty? For the sake of her beauty alone, women ought to be pious. (The author goes on to imagine, in great detail, the death of an Atheist wretch, whom nobody would mourn.)

In a private letter written in the 1760s, the English essayist Bonnell Thornton was overwhelmed by disgust brought on by the “female atheist:”

Good God! A Female Atheist! … One is not half so shocked at the idea of a Female Murderer; A Female Murderer, in the worse of senses, of her own children, of herself.

In 1813, the famed doctor Thomas Cogan (founder of the Royal Humane Society) observed:

Men contemplate a female atheist with more disgust and horror than if she possessed the hardest features embossed with carbuncles.

 
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