Why Ms. Magazine's Story on Atheist Women Misses the Mark

I was so hopeful when I found Ms. Magazine's piece "Will 'New Atheism' Make Room for Women?" It's exciting enough when the media covers atheism (and is nice enough to put "New Atheism" in the silly quotes it deserves), but media coverage of female atheists is a rarity. Ms. Magazine has the potential to reach oodles of women who aren't familiar with us atheist activists. If we want more women to be involved with secularism and skepticism and more atheist men to realize how many great atheist women are out there, we need coverage like this.

Then I actually read it.

To say it was disappointing is an understatement. It seems like this was the extent of the research the writer put into the article:

  1. Google "female atheists"
  2. Read titles on first page of results
  3. Play up posts that sound negative, downplay posts that are positive

Reading the articles you link to? Interviewing people? Pfft, what journalist does that? Writing a spin piece that will generate controversy and make atheists look bad will generate a lot more hits! Of course, I'm blogging about it... so congrats, Monica Shores, I guess you succeeded.

Just to prove I'm not some butt-hurt atheist afraid to acknowledge valid criticisms, let's take this piece apart bit by bit, shall we?

If you’ve been following the rise of so-called “New Atheism” movement, you may have noticed that it sure looks a lot like old religion.

A warning sign after one sentence! The "atheism is a religion" trope is so overdone - if you really want to hear a rebuttal,

go here


The individuals most commonly associated with contemporary atheism—Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Victor Stenger—are all male, white and, well, kinda old (69, 61, 68 and 75). Sam Harris, another popular figure who bears mention, has the distinction of being in his early 40s.

There’s no official definition of New Atheism, but the general consensus is that while atheists were once content to not believe in God by themselves, “new” atheists are determined to proselytize so that others join their disbelief. They can’t abide by tolerance of religion, because religion is so insidious a force as to warrant constant criticism. Though they dare not hope for eradication of religion outright, they have expressed the wish that a belief in God become “too embarrassing” for most people to admit.

Definite use of weasel words to put "New Atheism" in a negative light, but whatever, that's the least of this piece's problems. Let's move on.

Given the immense harm many organized religions inflict on women through outright violence and institutional oppression, it seems women may have more to gain than men from exiting their faith.

Yes, exactly! Wow, is Ms. Magazine going to argue that more women should be atheists? Is it going to talk about atheist women who have made those arguments? Is it going to highlight female atheists who deserve more attention from the media?

Yet no women are currently recognized as leaders or even mentioned as a force within the movement.

Um... what? No leaders in the movement? How about

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

, highly successful author and woman's right activist? Or

Lori Lipman Brown,

founding director of

Secular Coalition for America

? Or

Annie Laurie Gaylor

, co-founder and current co-president of the

Freedom From Religion Foundation

? Or

Debbie Goddard


campus coordinator

at the Center for Inquiry? Or

Susan Jacoby

, director of New York's Center for Inquiry? Or

Wendy Kaminer


Secular Coalition for America

Advisory Board Member? Or

Lyz Liddell

, campus organizer for the

Secular Student Alliance

? Or

Amanda Metskas

, Head Director of

Camp Quest

? Or

Ariane Sherine

, creator of the

Atheist Bus Campaign?

And those are just some of the "official" leaders. You just wanted forces within the movement? How about the dozens and dozens of female authors, journalists, bloggers, videobloggers, podcasters, and comedians who you just conveniently forgot about?

I think you get my point.

The lack of lady presence is so visible that Conservapedia commented on it by noting that Dawkins’ website overwhelmingly attracts male visitors.

Yeah, an article must be excellent when it's using Conservapedia to prove its point.

One study-supported theory is that there simply aren’t as many female atheists as there are male, while another is that new atheism is “off-putting” to women. Earlier this year, journalist Sarah McKenzie suggested that women aren’t socialized to defend their beliefs with the same vigorous and “militant” zeal expected of atheists, and proposed that the movement make space for traditionally feminine characteristics like “story-telling [and] empathy.”

McKenzie’s article garned much less backlash than a similar piece by Stephen Prothero, who irritated female unbelievers with his call to promote the “friendly” and “gentler” voices of faith-abstaining women.

Or maybe Prothero was more criticized because his piece was published in USA today, which is the widest circulated newspaper in the United States, and Sarah McKenzie's article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald, which has 2 million fewer readers than US Today. I simply hadn't heard about her piece.

Atheist Ophelia Benson criticized Prothero’s assertion that women are “more apt to tell stories[...] than to argue” as being dangerously close to relegating women to “weakness and passivity.” In the Washington Post, Susan Jacoby tackled a few myths about atheism while expressing unhappiness with “Prothero’s view [that the movement consists] mainly of Angry White Men.”

Holy crap, the author finally mentions some female atheists! ...Except she only does so in the context of them defending female atheists and rebutting sexist remarks, not all the other wonderful writing they're known for. Because you know, the atheist movement doesn't have any female "forces." Just females who feel isolated for being female.

But the predominance of white male voices is one point Jacoby couldn’t and didn’t refute.

Um, maybe not in that particular article, or maybe not Jacoby... but the issue has been discussed endlessly. Yes, there seems to be a predominance of white males, but many of us have suggested ways to improve diversity, and it seems to be getting better, whether you're looking at demographics of local groups or panels devoted to women's issues at conferences.

A quick search for female atheists will pull up such depressing fare as “Dating Atheist Single Women” and “Top 10 Sexiest Female Atheists.” (There is also a list for atheist males.) Unfortunately, such an overtly sexist mentality is in abundance; the loudest complaints about the absence of atheist women seems to come from atheist males who want non-believing girlfriends. In one unintentionally hilarious and cringe-inducing post, a blogger’s musings on the small pool of atheist women devolve into racy pictures of actresses with helpful points like “I happen to like petite girls, but a lot of guys are into more curves,” and “I don’t know who this girl is, but she’s redheaded and hot” alongside a picture of a paid model clad in a “Thank God I’m an Atheist” t-shirt.

This isn't even an accurate representation of her "quick search." The first link is just some dating site, nothing that has to do with the atheist movement. The second list is pretty skeevy, but it's also years old. When Common Sense Atheism made a similar list a couple months ago, there was an internet shitstorm of men and women alike calling him out for the sexist post. And you know what? He actually apologized and took the original post down. If that's not progress, what is?

The third link about wanting non-believing girlfriends actually links to a dating-related post I wrote, and the rest of his discussion was asking how to make women feel more welcome. Not exactly a "wanting non-believing girlfriends" themed post.

And the fourth link? Congratulations for finding someone's anonymous, personal blog that no one else reads as your example of a sexist atheist. You're right - there are some atheists out there who are sexist, or shallow, or assholes. But there are also Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Scientologists that can fit in that category too. Maybe if that blog had belonged to one of those male "leaders" or "forces" of atheism and went uncriticized by the movement, then you'd have a point.

The rest of the links that a "quick search returns" are all pieces defending, promoting, or wondering how we can be more welcoming to female atheists. But that doesn't fit her theme of "atheists are big fat sexist jerks," so she apparently didn't feel like including those.

Progressive bloggers have pointed out that prejudice is a major problem within the movement, but few mainstream articles have gone as far to suggest that sexism, let alone racism, among atheist males might be a factor in keeping women away. One rarely addressed aspect online and in print is the preponderance of scientists, particularly evolutionary biologists, whose rhetoric can occasionally become reductionist and cliched. (Daniel Dennett, one of the aforementioned movement luminaries, implied that women’s “biology” is the reason for their exclusion from church hierarchies, as opposed to the churches’ stigmatization of that biology.)

That progressive blogger? Greta Christina, who is very popular within the atheist movement. Why not mention her by name, call her an "atheist blogger," or acknowledge that she's a woman? That piece on racism? Rant from a random Christian blogger, rather then the recent panel discussion about Science and Faith in the Black Community that actually discussed what it's like being an African American atheist. That third link? Random people on an internet forum. Again, apparently random people posting anonymously on the internet are a representation of "leaders" and "forces" of the atheist movement, but published female writers and leaders of organizations are not.

That final link "criticizing" biological and evolutionary arguments? Doesn't actually refute or critique any of the things Dennett or Dawkins say, other than just generally being uneasy about evolution. As a feminist atheist evolutionary biologist...you're going to have to do better than that.

Christopher Hitchens, the only non-scientist of the high profile bunch, is notorious for inviting accusations of misogyny and racism by alleging that women are fundamentally unfunny and referring to Wanda Sykes as “the black dyke.American Atheists, an organization founded by a woman, appears to have entered an era of leadership primarily provided by white males. They also overwhelmingly favor white men for their magazine covers and everyone with a picture on the website, male or female, is white.

Follow the link. Apparently currently having a female VP and 4 females on a 18 member board is entering "an era." 4 out of 18 is far from perfect, but it's hardly entering some patriarchal regime. I guess Shores has psychic abilities to predict what American Atheists' leadership will look like for the next ten years. That or she's just conveniently ignoring all the organizations who do have diverse leadership (see above) and finding the worst possible example to further her own viewpoint.

Of course, atheist women do exist, as do atheists of color, and at least one (Ayaan Hirsi Ali) has written a best-selling book. Yet since the long-gone days of Madalyn Murray O’Hare (once the best-known U.S. atheist), none have the visibility and name-recognition of Hitchens and Dawkins. Sadly, there’s little indication that atheists are receptive to the suggestion that they might benefit from diversifying in color or gender. But unless they commit to fostering true inclusivity, they may continue to invite “deconverts” with one hand while pushing many away with another.

I find it incredibly ironic that she links to

my long list of awesome female atheists

, yet doesn't make the connection that

it means there are awesome female atheists who are active, appreciated members of the atheist movement


The post on color? Adam Lee invited Sikivu Hutchinson, a well-known female atheist of color, to write a post to raise awareness for his blog readers. The post on gender? One of PZ Myer's many posts pointing out how we need to make atheism more welcoming to women. Yep, that's really "little indication that atheists are receptive to the suggestion that they might benefit from diversifying in color or gender."

Do you really have any evidence of that, or is that just what you think from a cursory Googling? How about the Science and Faith in the Black Community panel I mentioned? Debbie Goddard's

talk on diversity in the freethought community

? Greta Christina's

piece on what atheists can learn from the GLBT movement

? How about

PZ Myers


Hemant Mehta

(a very well known non-white atheist you somehow didn't include) who defend atheist women so frequently that I can't even link to all of their posts that do so?

The community has reacted overwhelmingly positively to these pieces. I may get some trolls when I talk about feminism, but the vast majority of the responses are positive. Hell, I've been asked to speak specifically about women and atheism for at least four upcoming conferences so far. That's not being receptive?

Sure, there are some atheists who are sexist. I just wrote

a massive post about it

, though I clarify that I think atheists are still less sexist than other groups. There's room for improvement, but the movement is only getting more and more diverse.

But you know what I think is part of the problem?


Not just you, Monica Shores. But all of the media. You love to write pieces that spin atheism in a negative light to generate controversy. A schism or disturbance in a movement is news, isn't it? Or maybe it's more personal biases that make you create a rotten, distorted image of atheism. I can only guess. But you know why female atheists aren't as well known?

Because you don't talk about them, even in a piece about female atheists.

If you ask "New Atheists" who are actively involved in the movement - bloggers, writers, student leaders - who their favorite atheists are, their lists are quite diverse. We don't just ramble off the names of the Four Horsemen like drones. I'd tell you how much I love Friendly Atheist, and Skepchick, and Greta Christina.


are the ones who are only reporting about the men.

Maybe people would start associating female, or racially diverse, or younger people with contemporary atheism

if the media actually started mentioning

female, or racially diverse, or younger people. We've already published the books, given the talks, written the blogs, and garnered attention within our movement.

It's your move to develop the association.


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