Does the Atheist Movement Have a Sexism Problem?

So, anyone in the atheist movement has certainly heard about the whole kerfuffle that at least came to light a few years ago with “Elevatorgate” and is continuing to today with Atheism+, and the latest issue over Ron Lindsay making a speech at Women in Secularism 2 that has polarized commentary among atheists yet again. I can say that I was here and vigorously straddling the fence from the start, mostly because as someone is not an atheist and who is not an activist I have no personal attachment to any of the people involved; they are the people I argue against on a regular basis. However, the people involved in this happen to be most of the sites that I most love to dislike, and so I see the comments about this. A lot. And most of the time, it seems to be a group of people getting quite worked up over what, when examined, are mostly superficial, but which they, well, act like jerks to each other over, mostly because the most vocal people are indeed people who act like jerks towards people they disagree with, and are proud of that. To start a trend that I hope to continue throughout this entire post, I’ll say that I’m not going to say whether they are right or wrong to do that, just that they, in fact, do that.

Now, the fundamental question and point of debate here, I think, is this: Does the atheist movement have a sexism problem? Answering this, I think, from what either thinks is the case will go a long way towards understanding what’s at stake and, perhaps, settling this issue so that the atheists can get back to yelling at theists and providing me with blog post fodder [grin].

So, here, I’m not going to start from Elevatorgate, but instead from the issue between Rebecca Watson and D.J. Groethe. I won’t put links here since everyone should be able to do the Google search as well as me, but the summary is this: Rebecca Watson in an article was quoted as saying that she didn’t think that TAM (The Amazing Meeting), was a “safe space” for women. Groethe, a main organizer of the event, took umbrage to that, saying that they had a harassment policy that hadn’t been heavily used, and that it was indeed safe for women at TAM. And the whole issue, then, exploded. Now, note that I didn’t say in the second part that Groethe said that it was a “safe space”, even if he might have used those terms. And the reason for that is that when Watson said “safe space”, she didn’t mean that in the sense that, say, being in a warzone or walking around alone late a night isn’t a safe space. She meant it in a specific technical sense, in the terms of TAM not being a feminist safe space. Groethe, on the other hand, interpreted her as saying that it wasn’t safe in the more mainstream, everyday sense of the term, and defended his event on the basis that it, in fact, was indeed safe in that way.

So why is this the most interesting event to start from? Because the disagreement, to me, seems clear. Watson is complaining that the event is not, in fact, significantly less sexist than everyday life is; Groethe, on the other hand, is replying that the event is at worst no better than everyday life is, and is likely a bit better than everyday life. Thus, at TAM, women are treated at least as well as they are outside of the event, and likely slightly better, and Watson is saying that that isn’t good enough and Groethe is saying that it is.

So, in order to examine if the atheist movement has a sexism problem, we need to look at the question from two angles: the descriptive and the normative. The descriptive asks the question: is it the case that the atheist movement really is no worse and may be slightly better in terms of sexism than the rest of the world is? The normative asks the question: ought the atheist movement work to be better in terms of sexism than the rest of the world? Note that we should analyze these in terms of saying that if we answer “Yes”, then we can say that the answer to the question of whether the atheism movement has a sexism problem is indeed “Yes” in a way that would make sense to the average person on the street.

I think that almost everyone, even those who are pushing for Atheism+ and for sexism to be dealt with in the atheist movement, will agree that the answer to the descriptive question is “No”. The atheist movement, in general, is not more sexist than other movements — outside of, say, explicitly feminist ones — and is likely slightly better. The only arguments against this conclusion are: the number of white men among prominent atheists, and the harassment campaigns against feminist atheists. For the former, it seems clear that for movements like atheism they tend to be, in fact, male-dominated. The atheist movement doesn’t seem particularly bad for that. There may be many reasons for this, but for the most part this is how it tends to work out. And Groethe could reply that TAM had made a successful effort to change that percentage, and have it be less male-dominated. Thus, no, it’s no worse and is likely better than the equivalent groups (note that asking if this should be changed is not part of the descriptive question, but the normative one, which we’ll get to later). For the second question, again most people will concede that the Internet blowback — yes, even the rather nasty drawn picture of Rebecca Watson is, rather sadly, what happens when people say things on the Internet that other people don’t like, what happens to women in particular when they say things that other people don’t like, and what happens to people who say things about feminism that other people don’t like. So the harassment seems to, again, be pretty much what happens in these cases, and so the atheist movement, as a whole, isn’t any worse and still might be slightly better, overall, than other movements. Again, I’m not arguing that this is right, but won’t examine that in this post, instead I’ll make another post asking if the atheist movement has a “jerk” problem.

So, anyway, from that, I think we can come to the rather uncontroversial conclusion that the atheist movement does not have a sexism problem from the descriptive perspective: while it does have some sexism, it is actually slightly better than average, which means that at best it has the same problem that the rest of society has, and so not a problem itself per se. Unlike what one might expect and what one sees in, say, some religions, it doesn’t seem to be holding some kind of sexist line against the burgeoning non-sexism of society, but instead seems to reflect it in a slightly distorted for the better image. So, with that out of the way, we can ask the normative question: ought it be clearly better than society and better than it currently is?

The atheist movement is clearly not a feminist safe space and still has some sexism in it, so it could definitely improve. But the counter to that is that it is unreasonable to expect a movement dedicated to a lack of belief in gods that contains people from all walks of life in society to be that much better than the society represented in it. Being an atheist does not mean that one is not sexist or that one is less sexist than the average in society. There is a correlation between atheists and liberals, and liberals tend to be less sexist on average (it can be argued, at least) so you might see the movement being less sexist because of that, but one has no reason to rely on it. So, then, to answer the normative question we have to ask if it is to the benefit of the atheist movement to become less sexist than it already is. And there are two main ways to argue for that position.

The first is that the atheist movement doesn’t want to be a movement of old white men. It wants to be a diverse movement, attracting people of all ages, races and genders. That means making people of those ages, races and genders feel welcome, and that then means being undeniably better in terms of racism and sexism than the opposing views, generally religion in this case. The counter to this is that to get the participation of all races and genders doesn’t seem to require this, as all races and genders will participate in other movements that are no better or are even worse than the atheist movement currently is. Many religions, for example, are more sexist than the atheist movement currently is and yet do draw women. You can even point out that casting the atheist movement as being “not better enough” as the atheist movement having a sexism problem is actually hurting diversity, because it gives the impression that the atheist movement is particularly bad when the atheist movement is, in fact, likely particularly good. It makes it look like the atheist movement is worse than the alternatives when it’s actually at least slightly better. So you wouldn’t want to claim that the atheist movement has a sexism problem. That being said, nothing says that you can’t work to try to make the movement more welcoming and diverse, and perhaps things like harassment policies are something that is necessary to do that. Or maybe not. But you really shouldn’t claim that if they aren’t there or are opposed that it’s a problem of sexism in the movement, and you shouldn’t insist that the only way to be diverse is to have something like a feminist safe space, because that’s clearly not the case.

The second is one that is being stated outright more often lately, which is that liberal values follow from atheist values and so the atheist movement, then, should be more liberal. Being more liberal means that it should be less sexist, and so only having a minor improvement over the average sexism in society is a problem. The counter to this is that the atheist movement is trying to recruit people from religions, and religious people tend to be more conservative than those who are not. For some — like P.Z. Myers and Adam Lee and others — it seems likely that they became liberals first, and then discovered that their liberal views didn’t align with their religion, and so dropped their religion. But a lot of new (not New) atheists won’t become atheists that way. Instead, they’ll read the books by the New (not new) Atheists and become convinced that theism and their religion is false … but contrary to Myers’ argument they may not abandon their conservative and/or sexist worldviews. And if they don’t do that, insisting that those who do not accept liberalism should be somehow shuffled off to the side because it’s embarrassing to have those people in the movement or because they’re wrong is not going to provide a welcoming environment to those the atheist movement really needs to win over: people who are religious and are trying to escape their religion. Thus, if the main goal of the atheist movement is to convince people to abandon religion, then making the movement too liberal will make the leap that much harder for those who have a non-liberal and radically different worldview, and will impede the achievement of that goal. This counter holds regardless of whether the liberal views are right or wrong, and whether the distinction is official or only implied through attitude.

Thus, it also isn’t clear that atheism ought to be significantly less sexist than the rest of society. At best, it might be neutral, and at worst it might be detrimental.

My hope is that if this post does nothing else, it at least clarifies the debate and separates out the descriptive from the normative. Those who do think that the normative question should be answered “Yes” can then argue for why it should be, and those who think it should be “No” can argue that, and all can agree that answering these questions with a “No” doesn’t mean that atheism shouldn’t try to be welcoming to all regardless of race or gender. At which point, hopefully both sides can hammer it out and figure out what they want to be, in a rational fashion … like they claim to be.

And yes, there will be another post taking the “accomodationist” debate on directly.

3 Responses to “Does the Atheist Movement Have a Sexism Problem?”

  1. Héctor Muñoz Says:

    Enough attention given to narcissistic attention seekers.

  2. Does the Atheist Movement have a “Dickishness” Problem? | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] as promised last time, I’m going to talk about the great accomodationist debate … or, rather, the great […]

  3. Sexism in the Atheist Movement | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Unless the atheist movement is worse than the average religion when it comes to sexism — and I’ve argued in the past that it seems like it clearly isn’t — then surely even referring them to the current atheist movement would mean an improvement […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: