Where Are All the Women Atheists? 6 Places You Can Find Them
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“Oh no, not again.” These were the words that rose up in many a non-believing woman’s mind upon reading Katie Engelhart’s recent piece in Salon, one in a long line of pieces questioning why women aren’t more prominent in the atheist movement. It’s not that Engelhart was wrong to note that white men have become the face of atheism in the mainstream media, but after a series of articles like these, many female non-believers are starting to wonder why not just highlight the female atheists who are, in fact, prominent, instead of perpetuating the narrative that the leaders of this leaderless movement are men. The first step toward changing that narrative is to start telling a different story, a story about the women who are already there, offering leadership, doing good work.
Of course, to do that, it might help to shift the image of what makes someone the face of “new atheism.” It is true that the belligerently anti-theistic activist who makes criticizing religion his primary cause is almost always male, but the world of writers and activists is actually thick with women whose secularist values motivate their work. For whatever reason, most of them focus on other issues besides attacking or criticizing religion, but their devotion to secularism should not be taken as any less important than that of someone like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. Here are some realms where you can find scores of female non-believers.
1. Skepticism. There’s a lot of overlap between atheist activism and skeptical activism, so much so that many in the movement treat them as one and the same. But they really aren’t, if only because a lot of atheists like Bill Maher have plenty of bad beliefs about science and rationalism. On the flip side, most skeptics are, in fact, atheists or agnostics, but prefer to focus more of their activism on fighting superstition and bad science, finding that to be a more satisfying realm of work than attacking religion. These are people who try to take the tools of critical thinking and rationality and inject them into popular discourse, asking people to think more critically about the news you read, claims your friends make, urban legends, and alternative health care claims. While they’re skeptical of religion as they are about many other fantastic claims, they tend to take a broad view when it comes to applying rational thinking, asking people to use it when questioning everything, not just religion. If you look to people who are doing more of the work fighting irrational claims in every day life, you’ll find the field thick with women:Rebecca Watson, Lindsay Beyerstein, and Julia Galef come to mind.
2. Science and healthcare. This category overlaps heavily with the skeptical world, but deserves a category all its own for all the women doing hard work in it. When it comes to religious assaults on the public’s understanding of science and medicine, plenty of women are at the frontlines pushing back. Many of these women disagree strongly with New Atheists that all religion is bad, but they fundamentally share the secularist goal of foregrounding science and evidence-based thinking over myths and woo when it comes to understanding the universe, our brains and our bodies. Think Eugenie Scott, Carol Tavris, Jennifer Ouelette.
3. Feminism. Feminism and secularism are natural allies, so it’s no surprise to find the world of feminism positively littered with women who are openly critical of religion’s impact on society. Somehow there are a bunch of feminist non-believing writers out there with high profiles who spend a huge chunk of their careers denouncing the religious right’s impact on politics—especially with regards to women’s rights—and they never get classified as atheist leaders. Soraya Chemaly, Katha Pollitt and Annie Laurie Gaylor focus on the battle between women’s rights and religion constantly, all without getting cited as exciting leaders in atheism in the mainstream media.
4. LGBT/sex-positivity. The world of people trying to promote a more holistic, inclusive, pleasure-centered view of human sexuality also happens to produce a bunch of non-believers. Little wonder, when the religious right is the most powerful force in the country trying to force anti-sex, anti-gay, anti-trans views on the public, often through legislation. For those who read freethinking blogs, then, there’s a world of wonderful writing about embracing sexuality and human diversity. Examples: Greta Christina, Zinnia Jones, Heina Dadabhoy.
5. Progressive powerhouses.These are women who take it all on, all the time: Sexism, racism, economic inequality, foreign policy, you name it. They view religious oppression as part of a larger constellation of oppressive forces, as do many activists, but they often put more of a priority on speaking out against religion than do many other similarly constituted activists. To read their work is to take in a wide-ranging scope of topics, but a skeptical eye toward religion is never far from the surface. These women should be considered leaders for their clear-headed view of how secular values fit into a larger progressive agenda: Jamila Bey, Maryam Namazie, Sikivu Hutchinson.
6. Philosophical sorts. Since atheism and secularism are rooted in asking questions and being skeptical, it should be no surprise that many of the women who write and speak about it are big-picture thinkers, who like to incorporate history and philosophy into their work. Indeed, while the atheists who get the most media attention for their big books of atheist thought are men, some of the most important people detailing the history of secularism and working out the implications of free thought in their work are women: Ophelia Benson, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Susan Jacoby.
Atheists are commonly accused of being “just like” fundamentalists, by which critics presumably mean singularly focused on non-belief in the same way fundamentalists structure their lives around religion. Actually engaging with outspoken atheists and secular activists, however, tells a different story. Most of them see themselves as atheists plus something else: Atheists plus historians, scientists, feminists, progressive activists, LGBT activist, public educators. In fact, most of the women on this list fall into multiple categories, and even the above categories are limiting. You have feminists who are also science educators, scientists who are also progressive activists, progressive activists who are also philosophers, and philosophers who are also feminists.
Unfortunately, for some reason, all these categories tend to obscure that fact that these women are secularists, atheists and humanist leaders in their own right and should be treated as such. So if you want to find out where the female atheist leaders are, just look for the ladies organizing gay pride events while writing articles about popular science and promoting the history of freethought. They’re there, once you start looking for them.