Why are sexist white dudes the face of atheism?

An article in the recent issue of Bitch Magazine makes the case that although there are women atheists out there, they don’t seem to garner the same respect and visibility as male atheists in the community.

Why is the new atheist movement allowing old (and often misogynistic) white dudes to be its only visible spokespeople?

And perhaps a broader question: what are some strategies that new atheism could employ to get more women on board, or to raise the visibility of women atheists who are already out there?

Posted: May 20th 2011

brian thomson www

The magazine article talks about “the popular portrayal and perception of atheism in America”; that is, the way the media portrays atheism. The portrayal is not the reality, and while I know there’s a gender gap, that doesn’t translate to sexism on the part of male atheists, does it? Like the Bitch author, you’ve fallen for the media’s version of events, but the media makes its living from stoking up controversy for the sake of “news”.

Speaking as a single male, I will be more than happy when the atheism gender gap is closed, even if my reasons are partly selfish in nature! Is that sexist?

Posted: May 25th 2011

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Ophelia Benson www

I think the main strategy new atheists can use to raise the visibility of women atheists is simply to be women and keep arguing, talking, writing, posting, rabble-rousing, and making jokes. We’re doing that. Paula Kirby does it, Susan Jacoby does it, Greta Christina does it, Jen McCreight does it, Ayaan Hirsi Ali does it. Also Polly Toynbee, Katha Pollitt, Sikivu Hutchinson, Joan Smith, Maryam Namazie, Wendy Kaminer, Rebecca Watson, and many many more.

Posted: May 21st 2011

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Depends on what you regard the face of atheism is. If you think that some atheists who are really sexist (Blaghag has some very lucid posts on that reality) that pop up on the Web are the face of atheism, then you may have a point, but it would be hard to accept your definition of what the face of atheism is. If you regard the oblivious white male (coined by PZ Myers) as deeply and profoundly sexist and to boot, the face of atheism, then I would disagree with both your definition of sexism and the face of atheism.

To me, a woman, the face of atheism is Hirsi Ali (print media success), Christina, Skepchick, Blaghag, Kirby, Benson, Hale, Downey, Cornwall, Jacoby, Scott, Watson, etc. Sometimes I wonder where all the men are! Seriously, the accusation that the face of atheism is white male says more about the accuser than anything else. They seem to be defining domination and success by a very old standard—print media.

A couple of years ago, there were some animated and heated debate on this topic at prominent atheist websites—are they really more female theists than male, how to get women involved in decision making, to attend conferences, are there any special needs (providing child care), etc. Richard Dawkins (a big success in print media) took it to heart and started to link to many female atheist blogs and became much more receptive to censoring the real sexists that would post at his site. At the same time, there was a focus on minority atheists. If you check facebook, you will find many vocal, minority-group atheists, not to mention countless female atheists.

As I said, these accusations say more about the accuser as they are oblivious of the fact that this topic is on the front burner in atheist groups because the majority of atheists are not sexist including the various 'faces’.

Posted: May 21st 2011

See all questions answered by logicel

Tauriq Moosa www

This is a common question. There are a number of reasons that it is the case that women make up the visible minority of outspoken atheists (I’m starting to doubt this as a fact, though), but it’s a separate question of whether it should be or continue to be the case.

However, your question is put in a layered and combative way. Firstly, where is your evidence that these men – I assume their men – are misogynistic? You certainly can’t be speaking about Christopher Hitchens who constantly defends the rights of women, especially as the best way to combat poverty (an idea I share very strongly and which is backed by evidence. See the final chapter of AC Grayling’s Towards the Light if you want more information). Every one of the faces – using the Four Horsemen as a template – has defended the rights of women, using their oppression as a significant factor against religious authority.

Of course, you may argue that though they speak out against religious oppression of women they themselves could still demean women. However, this would be quite an extraordinary claim given the inconsistency of defending women’s rights but still thinking less of them (perfectly possible, as I say, but just quite strange). This extraordinary claim would require at least some evidence. I see no reason to take your word on this and have seen no evidence of their misogyny. We might also say that defending atheism can still be brilliantly done by the vilest of women-haters: take Nietzsche or Schopenhauer for example.

If you mean the whole movement is misogynist then again you’d have to provide examples or evidence. What faces are you referring to are being misogynist? What do you mean by misogynist? Etc.

To address your actual question, I think it’s largely how the world is as unfortunate as that may be. There’s good reason to think that you are more successful and get more notice if you are a male writer, than a female (consider the Nobel Prize in Literature). This may appear misogynistic and might certainly be; I’m not sure. I think our species is still trying to shake off the template of male as the universal entity. Why is god automatically made out as “He”? It might just be a collective attitude we have, that still has hints of misogyny or unjustified vilification of males. I have little doubt that women are regarded still as secondary people. I don’t like it one bit but we can work to change that.

Should it be the case that old white men are the face? Certainly not. Again, it just is for whatever political or psychological reasons. I think that’s largely uninteresting to the discussion. The question is what arguments they make and whether they are sound.

As to strategies, I will leave it up to my colleagues at ATA to provide that. Two of the top faces of atheism are on this panel: Paula Kirby and Ophelia Benson. They also happen to be female. I’m sure they have engaged with recruitment strategies that can better address your second question.

By the way, we might ask where all the black, Indian, physically-handicapped, Australian, etc., atheists are too. I understand why we shift to ask where the women are, but we should ask where these other folk are, too, and where their prominent representation is. For example, there aren’t many ex-muslim atheist/antitheists/nonbelievers who speak out publicly about their lack of faith. And, obviously, this urks me personally quite a lot.

Posted: May 21st 2011

See all questions answered by Tauriq Moosa

Paula Kirby www

Funnily enough, I’m speaking on a panel about this very topic at an atheist conference coming up in Dublin in June.

I’m not very sympathetic to your premises, though. Are the prominent male atheists misogynistic? Really? Are you sure? I haven’t seen any sign of it myself.

They’re certainly male and they’re certainly white but so what? Atheism is about a move towards greater rationality, and so what matters is simply whether the arguments being put forward for it are rational and sound, and not who is putting them forward. Do you really think women are so feeble that we can’t understand or relate to arguments if they’re not put forward by another woman? Do you really think we’re so overawed by men?! If so, I would challenge you on who is the real misogynist here! (Likewise on your comments about their being 'old’ – what? Sam Harris? Christopher Hitchens? Old? Good grief! – and white. Really – who cares? Is a sound argument less sound because put by a white man over 40? Do you really think their target audience is so prejudiced and blinded by trivia?)

Sure, the 4 leading names in the atheist movement are men, but that’s based purely on the people who’ve written the mega-bestselling books on the subject. It’s natural that the people who’ve written books that have sold in their millions around the world should become the most prominent names in the movement that springs up as a result of those books. But that makes 4 people in total: it’s a pretty small sample size to be drawing conclusions about sexism from! Writing a bestseller is something that many people dream of doing and very very few achieve. If there had been 20 globally bestselling atheist books, and none of them by women, I might begin to think that was odd, but not with a base set as low as 4.

But I would also challenge the premise that it’s only the men who are visible in the atheist movement. Just check out the speaker lists at atheist conferences. Think of authors like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ophelia Benson. Think of the many prominent female bloggers out there: Greta Christina, Blaghag, Skepchick. Think of the women in leading roles in campaigning organisations: Liz Cornwell, Eugenie Scott, Margaret Downey. I myself write regularly for the Washington Post on the subject. So does Susan Jacoby. If you look at the total number of people involved, I doubt you’ll find a greater disproportion of prominent women in this environment than you would in any other. What makes you feel we’re less respected than our male counterparts? I certainly don’t feel that, unless it’s the Big Four you’re talking about and their huge success as writers and thinkers accounts for and justifies that.

I absolutely reject the notion that women need a special helping hand in order to do whatever they want to do. The very notion reinforces misogynistic ideas of women being somehow weaker and less able than their male counterparts, and unable to achieve their goals in life unless men go out of their way to let them. As a woman, I have no truck with such attitudes.

Posted: May 21st 2011

See all questions answered by Paula Kirby


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