At first blush, it would seem that an atheist movement would be exactly the sort of thing that would attract many women. After all, much of the oppression of women—from forced veiling to restricting abortion rights—is a direct result of religion. Unsurprisingly, then, feminism has a long tradition of outspoken atheists and religious skeptics within its ranks. Suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton preferred “rational ideas based on scientific facts” to “religious superstition.” Major feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir argued that belief in God exists in part to “repress any impulse toward revolt in the downtrodden female.” Modern feminist writer Katha Pollitt received the “Emperor Has No Clothes” award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 2001, where she said that religion is dangerous because “it connects with very terrible social energies that have lain in civilization for a very long time.”
But despite the natural and cozy fit of atheism and feminism, the much-ballyhooed “New Atheism” that was supposed to be a more aggressive, political form of atheism has instead been surprisingly male-dominated. The reason has, in recent years, become quite apparent: Many of the most prominent leaders of the New Atheism are quick to express deeply sexist ideas. Despite their supposed love of science and rationality, many of them are nearly as quick as their religious counterparts to abandon reason in order to justify regressive views about women.
Sam Harris, a prominent atheist author who has previously been criticized for his knee-jerk Islamophobic tendencies, recently came under fire when he added women to the category of people he makes thoughtless generalizations about. Washington Post religion reporter Michelle Boorstein interviewed Harris, and during the interview she asked him why most atheists are male. “There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree instrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women.” He added, “The atheist variable just has this— it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”
There was an immediate uproar among female atheists, and understandably so, as Harris didn’t even consider that it could be atheism that has a problem, instead immediately assuming that the problem is women themselves. His reaction to the criticism, which was immediate and probably a bit overwhelming was not, however, a demonstration of the tough “critical posture” he characterized as “instrinsically male.” Harris replied to his critics with a hyper-defensive and tediously long blog post titled, “I’m Not The Sexist Pig You’re Looking For.” His strategy for disproving accusations of sexism was to engage in more sexist declarations, in the time-honored bigot strategy of saying it’s not bigotry if it’s true.
First, he warmed up with the “women are humorless” gambit, declaring his “estrogen vibe” comment a joke that simply flew over female heads. He then moved on to produce an awesome cornucopia of sexist blather: Women’s value is their service to men. (“I was raised by a single mother. I have two daughters. Most of my editors have been women, and my first, last, and best editor is always my wife.”) Women’s inherent desire to serve rather than lead explains their second-class status. (“For instance, only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women…How much is due to the disproportionate (and heroic) sacrifices women make in their 20s or 30s to have families?") Putting women on a pedestal is better than treating them like equals. (“I tend to respect women more than men.”) Women who don’t defer to men are bitchy. (“However, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the mixture of contempt and pity my words elicited from this young woman.”)
Needless to say, for women who reject religion because it so frequently portrays women as mentally inferior helpmeets who exist to serve men’s needs, Sam Harris is not offering any hope that atheism will give them a meaningful alternative.
It would be nice to dismiss Harris as an outlier, but sadly, pompous sexism followed up by defensive posturing is the order of the day for the dominant male leadership of the loosely organized world of atheism. In a lengthy investigative piece for Buzzfeed, Mark Oppenheimer demonstrated that the problem extends beyond sexist condescension. Instead, the bros-before-hos attitude of much of atheist leadership is quite likely serving to protect actual sexual predators.
While Oppenheimer focused on a number of prominent sexists in atheism, such as Penn Jillette and now-deceased Christopher Hitchens (who also was a fan of the “women are humorless” trope), he focused most of piece on accusations against prominent skeptic writer Michael Shermer. Oppenheimer quoted two named women accusing Shermer of sexually harassing them. A third named women had a more alarming accusation: That Shermer had taken her to his room while she was too drunk to consent to sex and had sex with her anyway.
The reaction to Oppenheimer’s story was swift and did much to support the claim that the atheist community protects sexual predators, much like the Catholic Church did during the priest pedophilia scandal. Richard Dawkins, possibly the most famous atheist in the world, immediately went on a tear on Twitter, blaming victims for their own rapes if they were drinking. “Officer, it's not my fault I was drunk driving. You see, somebody got me drunk,” he tweeted, comparing being forced to have sex with the choice to drive drunk.
When called out on it, he doubled down by suggesting that rape victims are the real predators, out to get men put in jail: “If you want to be in a position to testify & jail a man, don't get drunk.”
For someone who is a supposed rationalist, Dawkins refused to even acknowledge the basic difference between making the choice to break the law and being the victim of a crime. But only for rape, of course. It’s unlikely Dawkins would think it’s your fault if you are standing there minding your own business, while drunk, and someone hits you for no reason. But if the assault occurs with a penis instead of a fist, in Dawkins' mind, suddenly the victim is the person at fault.
Again, this situation is no outlier. Dawkins has spent the past few years using Twitter as a platform to rail against feminists for daring to speak up about sexual harassment and abuse. He not only rushed to Shermer’s defense regarding allegations of sexual assault, but rushed to Harris' defense regarding allegations of sexism, even though Harris’ sexism is so off the charts it becomes downright comical. Dawkins used to cling to the idea that he was an outspoken critic against the oppression of women, but lately he’s more occupied with praising professional anti-feminist Christina Hoff Sommers.
There are many excellent feminist speakers and writers in the atheist movement, men and women who bring the same critical eye to sexism that they apply to religion. Most of them, however, are mostly known only within atheist circles. People like Dawkins, Shermer and Harris are the public face of atheism. And that public face is one that is defensively and irrationally sexist. It’s not only turning women away from atheism, it’s discrediting the idea that atheists are actually people who argue from a position of rationality. How can they be, when they cling to the ancient, irrational tradition of treating women like they aren’t quite as human as men?
Sadly, this contempt for women coming from the top trickles into the ranks, allowing everyday misogynists who happen not to believe in God feel justified in their hatred of women anyway. Subsequently, there’s a thriving online community of people who live to harass not just women, but female atheists in particular, trying to drum any women out of the movement who want to be included as equals instead of as support staff for the male stars. Feminists like Rebecca Watson and Greta Christina, who upset the image of atheism as a “guy thing," are subject to a relentless drumbeat of abuse through social media by people who prefer an atheism that’s a little more like fundamentalist Christianity, where women know their place.
It’s become so bad that artist Amy Roth created an installation where the walls and furniture in an 8 x10 room are completely covered by the abuse women receive online, currently on display at the Center for Inquiry in Los Angeles. (Full disclosure: I shared much of the online abuse I get with her.)
If atheists believed in the afterlife, they would have to assume that Simone de Beauvoir and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are looking down upon us in horror, wondering how the good name of atheism has been so poisoned by rampant sexism. But since they are no longer around to judge us, it’s up to living atheists to strive to be more than a bunch of people who simply don’t believe in God, but stand up to irrationality in all its forms, including sexism.