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Early Women Atheists in the US

Early Women Atheists in the US

early women

The mid-nineteenth century in the United States was a time of turmoil. The Civil War, fought to end slavery, resulted in over 600,000 deaths of soldiers. Over 400 women served as soldiers, disguising themselves as men. Both men and women joined the abolitionist movement. Most notable of the women abolitionists were Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Tubman, Mary Todd Lincoln, Lucretia Mott, Clara Barton, and Susan B. Anthony to name just a few. Many of these women became the forefront of the fight for women’s suffrage after the war. What is perhaps less well known is the number of these women activists who were also atheists. Below are a few salient facts about some of these women drawn from Annie Laurie Gaylor’s book, Women Without Superstition: “No Gods-No Masters” published in 1997 by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. All quotes are drawn from this book unless otherwise indicated. These were brave women. Some were arrested, jailed, and ostracized from their families and communities. Just by speaking out, they were violating the tenets of the Bible:

“Let the woman learn in silence in all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” (I Timothy 2:11-14)

Anne Hutchinson

As Ms. Gaylor outlines in her introduction, the first “female heretic” in the “American” colonies was Anne Hutchinson who arrived in 1634. Remember that at this time in this Puritan colony, there was no separation of church and state: the church ruled. Hutchinson began by inviting women to her home to listen and discuss her critique of the male ministers’ sermons and ideas. People became more alarmed, of course, when men began to join her. It is not surprising that she was banished from the colony for “sedition and heresy in 1637.” What is perhaps most interesting, however, is that she and her followers established a community on Aquidneck Island where they adopted a secular government. What courage she had to disagree with virtually everyone in her community and at the cost of banishment! I strongly doubt whether I would have had her strength. Becoming an atheist in Western democracies can mean losing friends and family, but it is not a crime. I am always impressed with the pioneers of a movement. They risk everything, but they persevere. We always owe a great deal to the women who came before us, whether that is in expressing anti-religious beliefs or becoming the first woman scientist, astronaut, lawyer, etc. If they had not blazed the trail, we could not have followed. Other outspoken atheists prior to the Civil War were Anne Newport Royall and Frances Wright.

Ernestine L. Rose

Gaylor characterizes Rose as “nineteenth-century America’s most outspoken atheist.” Her early life must have prepared her to fight the battle of religion. She was raised by a rabbi, lost her mother at sixteen, made a legal case for refusing to marry an older man her father had chosen for her, appealed to the Prussian king regarding the restrictions of travel for Jews, and started a business. Whew! Any one of those things would have been considered difficult even for the men of her day. Once in the United States, she became a woman’s rights activist and was instrumental in achieving the passage of the Married Woman’s Property Act of New York passed in 1848. Part of that act reads as follows:

“The real and personal property of any female who may hereafter marry, and which she shall own at the time of marriage, and the rents issues and profits thereof shall not be subject to the disposal of her husband, nor be liable for his debts, and shall continue her sole and separate property, as if she were a single female.”

In a time when education was limited, especially for women, and society preferred the demure, obedient housewife, it is truly amazing that a woman such as Ernestine Rose could do what she did. She also worked with others to gain women’s suffrage and was an outspoken atheist. In a lecture entitled “A Defence [sic] of Atheism” she writes the following:

“But believing as I do, that Truth only is beneficial, and Error, from whatever source, and under whatever name, is pernicious to man, I consider no place too holy, no subject too sacred, for man’s earnest investigation; for by so doing only can we arrive at truth, learn to discriminate it from Error, and be able to accept the one and reject the other.”

We can only wish that our politicians today who want to curtail women’s reproductive rights, refuse to accept climate change, and cling to their Iron Age religions were as intelligent as she was.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

If ever time travel becomes possible, I would like to travel back and meet this woman. She is one of my heroes. I am using the following quote from her for the introduction to my next book.

“Take the snake, the fruit-tree and the woman from the tableau, and we have no fall, nor frowning Judge, no Inferno, no everlasting punishment – hence no need of a Savior. Thus the bottom falls out of the whole Christian theology. Here is the reason why in all the Biblical researches and high criticisms, the scholars never touch the position of women.”[1]

She was the person who wrote the text of the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women’s right to vote. As Gaylor explains, Susan B. Anthony gets most of the credit for women’s suffrage. Stanton was more well-known at the time, but her “outspoken criticism of religion” relegated her to a position below Anthony’s in the history books.

Women abolitionists, such as Stanton, had to suffer the fact that they were not the equal of men. Her honeymoon took her to the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London where the women were separated from the men. In addition, they were not permitted to speak. Isn’t it amazing that at a convention to talk about liberating the slaves, women were not seen as needing equal rights? At that time, men just couldn’t make the leap to human rights for all.

In a sermon in London rendered in an article in the Boston Investigator in 1901, she states the following:

“According to Church teaching, woman was an after-thought in the creation, the author of sin, being at once in collusion with Satan. Her sex was made a crime, marriage a condition of slavery, owing obedience; maternity a curse; and the true position of all womankind one of inferiority and subjection to all men; and the same ideas are echoed in our pulpits to-day.”

We all owe her a debt of gratitude for exposing the superstition of religion. If only her views had held sway, we would not be in the situation today, 100 years later, of still having a society whose dominate views center around a supernatural god who rules over the lives of its people.

This is just a small sampling of the women Gaylor portrays in her book. She does a short biography on each and then includes their original works if available. Great resource!

Karen L. Garst

The Faithless Feminist

Thanks God for Blaming Eve…Not

Thanks God for Blaming Eve

Dressed in my cotton print dress with two scratchy crinolines underneath, I hold my mother’s hand as we enter the gathering area for Sunday school classes. After an opening song, we split up by age group. Cautiously, I enter the first grade room. Fortunately, I know at least three kids. Thank heaven! The teacher, Mrs. Johnson, informs us that each week we will learn about a different story from the Bible. I’m just learning to read at public school and love it when someone reads out loud to me. Sunday school sounds like it’s going to be great! I shouldn’t have worried so much.

Both my mother and father have shared some of the stories from the Bible with me and I’ve seen my father open his black leather Bible every night. But coming to church seems different. I’ve been to church before and everyone is quiet when the pastor speaks. I don’t understand much of what he says, so I hope Mrs. Johnson will be easier to understand, just like my teacher at school.

After she asks us to calm down and sit quietly in our chairs, Mrs. Johnson explains the story of Adam and Eve. She skips over the creation of the earth and goes right to the garden part. Eve eats from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge and boy is God mad! She and Adam get kicked out of the Garden of Eden and now Eve becomes the cause of all the sin in the world!

All right, I don’t remember this episode exactly, but it probably happened in a similar manner. There I was, an eager young girl, ready to learn about my faith. And what was I hit with? Women are the cause of all evil. Seriously?

It is hard to underestimate the role that the story of Eve has played in the treatment of women in Western Civilization. She comes to symbolize all that is wrong with humankind. She represents disobedience, pride, arrogance, lust, and sin. While previous patriarchal societies, even those with female deities, had treated women as subordinate to men in terms of property ownership, the right to choose a spouse, and access to education, the portrayal of Eve brings that subordination to a whole new level.

Prior to Israelite monotheism, women weren’t always portrayed as the epitome of evil. Carved clay figurines dating from 25,000 years ago may have symbolized the awe and mystery of new birth. These figurines, mostly female, often with pregnant torsos and pendulant breasts, were found in the living spaces of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. These figurines represented, in all likelihood, the regenerative power of the female, who was responsible for giving birth to new members of the clan. These clay representations were probably used also to promote the fertility of the land when the tribes moved from hunting and gathering to simple agriculture. Referred to as clay pillars, similar female figurines have been found extensively in the area of the Israelites’ settlement in Canaan dating to the 7th and 8th centuries BCE.

Virtually all religions prior to Judaism also had women in them: Greeks had Aphrodite and Artemis; Romans had Minerva, Venus and Diana; and the Babylonians had Ishtar and Ninlil just to name a few. Even the Canaanites worshipped the goddess Asherah along with the male gods Ba’al and El. But this new Israelite religion, the first strictly monotheist religion, is going to be different: no women. Just one god (for now) and he is MALE.

But let’s get back to Eve. Banishment from paradise isn’t the only punishment for Eve. In addition to putting her under the rule of man from this time forward, god tells Eve that she will also endure great pain in childbirth. Instead of venerating fertility as other religions had done, the Bible equates it with sin. In the 1800’s, this passage about punishment of pain for women was used by clerics to attempt to deny women any anesthesia during childbirth![1] What omniscient, omnipotent god would make the wonderful and amazing event of giving birth a painful punishment?

But how about the Christians? Did they carry this story forward? As the followers of Jesus were Jewish, they knew the Tanakh well. Tanakh became what Christians now call the Old Testament. Even though Eve is not mentioned anywhere outside of Genesis, early Christian leaders weren’t going to let go of that imagery or the opportunity to further subordinate women – in the priesthood, in her role in the new church, and in virtually all aspects of their lives. Tertullian, a prolific Christian writer (155-240 CE) in the Roman province of Carthage, was just one of many to expand upon the biblical account of Eve to further denigrate women:

And do you not know that you are Eve? God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. It was you who coaxed your way around him whom the devil had not the force to attack. With what ease you shattered that image of God: Man! Because of the death you merited, even the Son of God had to die…Woman, you are the gate to hell.[2]

Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in Gaul (modern-day France) in the second century (ca. 115 – ca. 202 CE) summed it up well, “Eve, having become disobedient, was made the cause of death both for herself and for all the human race.”[3] Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis in Cyprus (ca. 315 – 403 CE) noted ironically:

For Eve was called mother of the living after she had heard the words, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19), in other words, after the fall. It seems odd that she should receive such a grand title after having sinned. Looking at the matter from the outside, one notices that Eve is the one from whom the entire human race took its origin on this earth.[4]

19th century atheist and woman suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton commented on the pivotal role this story has played in the subordination of women.

Take the snake, the fruit-tree and the woman from the tableau, and we have no fall, nor frowning Judge, no Inferno, no everlasting punishment – hence no need for a Savior. Thus the bottom falls out of the whole Christian theology. Here is the reason why in all the Biblical researches and high criticisms, the scholars never touch the position of women.[5]

What has been the legacy of this portrayal of the first woman? Women in countries across the globe are still denied access to education and other rights based in part on this story. Remember that each of the three monotheist religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all support the books of the Old Testament as divinely inspired. Even in the United States, access to education for girls was not commonplace until the late 19th century and that still depended on race and class distinctions. Today, the most vocal opponents to women’s rights to birth control, abortion, and the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment use the Bible as the justification for their views.

Maybe it’s time for women to say no to religion and to recognize the Judeo-Christian tradition not as divinely inspired but as a means for men to dominate women, for men to secure property and power, and for women to keep their place in the private sphere. In the Western World today, women have an opportunity to be equal to men: in the workplace, in the public sphere, and at home. Times have changed. As women, let’s acknowledge the role religion played in the patriarchal society of old as we work to create a society that values men and women equally. Let’s acknowledge it’s time to let go of religion. As Sonia Johnson said after her excommunication by the Mormon Church in 1979: “One of my favorite fantasies is that one Sunday not one single woman, in any country of the world, will go to church. If women simply stop giving our time and energy to the institutions that oppress, they would have to cease to do so.”[6]

Karen Garst

The Faithless Feminist

July 27, 2015

P. S. I am always looking for contributions to my blog. If you are interested in writing, you can contact me here.


[1] Gaylor, Annie Laurie. (1981) Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So: The Bible, Female Sexuality, and the Law. Madison, Wisconsin: Freedom from Religion Foundation, p. 65.

[2] Steffanelli, Al . (2012) Free Thoughts: A Collection of Essays by An American Atheist. UAF Publications at Smashwords, p. 17

[3] Miller, Patricia Cox. (2005) Women in Early Christianity. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, p. 292

[4] Ibid., p. 293

[5] Daly, Mary. (1973) Beyond God the Father. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, p. 69.

[6] Gaylor, Annie Laurie. (1981) Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So: The Bible, Female Sexuality, and the Law. Madison, Wisconsin: Freedom from Religion Foundation, p. 132.

The Controversy over the Mythicist Milwaukee Conference

The Controversy over the Mythicist Milwaukee Conference

When I got enraged at the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, I wrote a book about why women should leave religion: Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion. I started this blog and named it Faithless Feminist. I had always defined feminist as gender equality between men and women. Three years ago, I had never heard of third wave feminism, intersectionality, social justice warrior, atheism plus, or elevator gate. Needless to say, I have learned about all of them and more since then.

Last spring I was contacted by the folks planning the Mythicist Milwaukee Conference (MMC) and asked to help advertise it by giving out free tickets to some of my blog subscribers. I had been on their podcast and did a presentation for one of their meetups and was happy to help out. In exchange, I was given two free VIP tickets for the Saturday, September 30 event. I called one of my best friends in Wisconsin and she was interested in going with me. Cool! I will admit I didn’t pay much attention to the line-up of speakers. I did notice the movie preview of “Batman and Jesus” which looked interesting. I made my airline and hotel reservations and didn’t give it another thought.

Then a few weeks ago, the shit storm hit. It turned out that David Rubin, The Rubin Report, who was initially scheduled, had dropped out and a substitute had been made – Carl Benjamin, also known as Sargon of Akkad. I had watched a couple of his videos and some debates people had had with him. He is controversial to say the least. Several people point out the problems he had caused in the past and others called on the organizers to not put him on stage. I did attend and would like to make this report.

Freedom of speech

If the organizers of MMC wanted to invite certain people to their conference, that is their business. I can choose to be interested and attend or I can choose not to. Yes, there was an expectation that they would focus on atheism and skepticism. Their vision is “a world free from religious oppression and bigotry” and their goal is to promote “dialogue about culture, religion and freedom of thought.” But like most people, I hadn’t paid much attention to the change in speakers until I saw the Twitter and Facebook posts. I still intended to go to the event. I had non-refundable airline tickets and was looking forward to seeing my friend. I also thought it would be interesting to see what happened at the conference. Controversy can lead to the growth and advancement of a movement. We shouldn’t want to spend our time in echo chambers of only people who agree with us. Some attendees, especially well known ones, decided not to attend. I appreciate their reasoning and support any individual’s decision not to attend. There were some very good speakers at the conference including Melissa Chen, Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar, and Asra Nomani – all well prepared, interesting, and with differing views. I would in particular suggest watching Chen’s talk about what happened to the values brought on by the Enlightenment. A video of MMC will be posted here. I am going to concentrate my remarks on the debate between Sargon of Akkad and Thomas Smith as it was one of the biggest mash-ups I have ever seen on stage. Most of the opposition to the conference involved Sargon’s presence.

Sargon of Akkad and Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith was originally chosen as an interviewer of David Rubin. When Rubin pulled out, he was asked to “debate” or “interview” Sargon of Akkad. I am not going into all the criticisms of Sargon because you can find them easily enough online and even on his own channel. It is also pretty clear that MMC organizers knew all about him. They mentioned on an earlier podcast that people are tired of “god is dead” debate so they went in another direction. They also called Sargon an entertainer. I am not at all sure that he would appreciate being characterized as such. I think he sees himself as an intellectual commentator on social issues and politics.

The “debate” ended up being about feminism, social justice warriors, and intersectionality. Sargon claimed that gender equality now exists and that any difference in outcomes for people “is an indication of freedom.” He stated that “95% of CEO’s are men because they wanted to be a CEO.” In response to a question from Smith, he added that “affirmative action is discrimination.” He stated that you can’t focus on the group, you must focus on the individual. Now this is a lot to unpack in a short blog post. But it reminds me of the myth of Horatio Alger. Alger was a prolific 19th century author who wrote about how hard work and determination as an individual could get you anywhere. It is now often referred to as “the myth of Horatio Alger.”

But let’s take a look at women’s rights. Did women win the vote because they individually went to the voting booth and asked to vote? No, winning the right for women to participate in the US democracy took the combined efforts of many like-minded men and women who believed women were the equals of men. It took an amendment to the US Constitution to bring it about. How did we defeat the terrible Jim Crow laws in the US? Martin Luther King was a powerful leader, but he could not have won the civil rights battle by himself. Many, many disparate people came together to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed. If you want to assert your rights as an individual, you must have some rights in the first place and virtually all of these rights are gained by collective action usually for a group as a whole.

Sargon likes to brand everything he disagrees with as Marxist collectivism. Marxist collectivism is defined as “political theories that put the group before the individual.” In other words, socialism and communism. Just because people come together to achieve equal rights does not make the effort Marxist collectivism. Sargon also claims he is a “classical liberal.” If anything, he’s a libertarian. Do it on your own. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Don’t complain about the ghetto, just get out of it. How naïve. For him if one person has a mountain of barriers to climb and another can just step off the curb, he calls that freedom. If we care about equal opportunity, then let’s look at what it takes to achieve equal opportunity. It’s not Sargon’s version of Horatio Alger.

I was the first person to ask a question about this debate and stated the following: “I am the Faithless Feminist. I believe that religion is the last cultural barrier to gender equality. We need to get more women to give up religion. And it’s not going to happen if there are no women on a panel that talks about feminism and intersectionality.” Sargon responded that he would try to come next time as other than a white male, thus making fun of my comment. I guess he is just an entertainer because his groupies all applauded him and laughed. I think a woman should have debated Sargon with a moderator in between.

What bothered me most about his presentation was the response of the audience. In 2016, Sargon had commented “I wouldn’t even rape you,” to a British member of parliament who had been a victim of sexual assault earlier in her life. When Smith asked him if he thought his comment was immoral, Sargon said he didn’t care. The audience cheered and clapped. Sargon had also admitted to harassing women online and to laughing at a report that a woman atheist had been murdered. The people who clapped in the audience were mostly men – young men, white men. It is this which made me the saddest. Ironically, they were doing exactly what they complained about feminism – playing the victim card. Poor us, women are taking over. Is this what an atheism/skeptical conference has come to? Next time, I’ll be more careful when I make those airline reservations.

Karen L. Garst

The Faithless Feminist

Journey of a Bangladeshi Woman from Islam to Atheism

Guest post by Zerin M. Firoze

Bangladeshi WomanI never believed in religion, not even as a child. Religions, particularly Islam, never made sense to me. However, I used to believe in Allah—The Almighty God who created the whole universe. After all, just like most Muslim kids, it was drilled into my head that there is no god except Allah and the prophet Muhammad is his only messenger. My imam told me to write “There is no god except Allah and the prophet Muhammad is his only messenger” hundreds of times every day and to learn it by heart. There is no way I could doubt or deny the existence of the All-powerful, Omni-potent and Omni-present Allah.

As a child, endless doubt and questions used to arise in my young mind when I used to read outdated Sharia laws and Bronze Age moral stories in the Qur’an and other Islamic textbooks. However, I quickly used to reassure myself by saying, “Maybe religions are man-made but Allah is real.” How can I or this planet exist without Almighty Allah’s grace and power?  There must be a god called Allah. My mother and imam used to scold me every time I used to doubt and ask too many questions about religion. My mother and imam used to warn me not to use the devil’s tool—critical thinking skills, that Allah is testing my faith, and that I must have faith in all-powerful Allah.  I used to feel guilty for doubting the existence of All-powerful Creator Allah. I quickly used to pray and ask for forgiveness when a bout of seasonal doubt used to attack me.

My maid and mother constantly used to threaten me about Satan and eternal hell-fire if I did not behave like a pious, modest Muslim girl.  I could not sleep at night because I literally used to believe in the existence of Allah, Satan, jinns (genies), angel Gabriel, and other superstitious mythical characters. Between age seven to ten I was extremely superstitious. My mother used to hang showpieces with Arabic writings in the living room, dining room, bedroom and everywhere in the house. I used to feel extremely guilty every time I used to stretch my legs while lying down on a sofa and my legs used to point toward “holy” Arabic writings which mention Allah’s name. I used to feel as if I were pointing my legs to god. I used to feel guilty if I accidentally used to keep my science or history textbook on top of my Islamic textbooks. I used to believe that the divine Qur’an and other Islamic textbooks were holy and should always be placed above mere science books. In fact, all the furniture in my house and at most Muslim houses are arranged in a way so that our feet never point toward the holy Kaaba in Mecca. After coming home from school, I used to watch Dr. Zakir Naik’s videos on Peace TV and at that time I used to consider him the most logical preacher.

I lived my childhood and teenage life with superstitious fear in my heart. However, I was also exposed to science and my family was pretty much secular compared to an average Pakistani/Bengali family. My parents enrolled me in the most expensive private high school of Bangladesh. My father is a scientifically literate person and is a free-thinker as well. My father always encouraged me to think critically and taught me math and science. Unlike my mother, my father never forced religion, the hijab, or the burqa down my throat. My father gave me more freedom than is ever granted to an average Bengali Muslim girl.

However, everything slowly started to change as I grew up. My parents told me that I no longer had to study and that I should drop out of high school. Even when I was in kindergarten, my dad used to constantly taunt me about my high tuition fees and used to threaten me that he would pull me out of school. However, I never thought this would actually happen.

Around 2012-2013, many of my high school friends were forced to quit high school and later were forced into arranged marriages. While in the western world, men and women alike normally use dating apps, in other parts of the world this is still common. My parents no longer wanted to educate me either. Back in 2013, a film called “Innocence of Muslims” was released on YouTube. The Bangladesh government decided to ban the entire YouTube platform just because of that one particularly anti-Islam video on YouTube. The Bangladesh government is notoriously famous for banning Facebook, YouTube, and even the whole Internet because the Internet contains atheist bloggers, cartoons of the prophet, and other anti-Islam content. I used to be very angry at my government for shutting down social media and anti-Islamic film makers and cartoonists for making anti-Islamic content. After all, I was raised in a conservative society and I was always taught that religion is a good thing. It is a holy thing and is above criticism. I deeply believed that I must respect others’ belief even though I was not religious. I folded my sleeves and aggressively logged into Facebook to give a piece of mind to white people who are insulting my birth religion Islam. I encountered many atheists on random anti-Islam pages and they spoke very rudely to me and opened my eyes.

The last time I read the Qur’an was when I was in seventh grade. Even during my grade seven days, I could not take religion and outdated verses seriously. However, I firmly believed that religion should be respected and Allah did exist.  I kept making excuses and went back to reading the Qur’an again for the first time after becoming an adult. I shook my head in disbelief. My adult mind simply could not take in the garbage in the Qur’an. I dug deeply for truth and did my own homework and research. I was also taking my A-Level exams during that time and I studied evolution for the first time in class. I was agnostic from 2013 till July 2014 and then I fully came out as an atheist on 2014. Initially, I called myself agnostic because I just could not give up the idea of an all-powerful creator. Later, I realized that the silly, sadistic gods described in the scripture cannot exist in reality. Islamic preachers’ speeches, like those of Zakir Naik’s, are full of anti-science nonsense.

My friends’ forced marriages, my parents’ refusal to educate me and their desire to marry me off, and numerous terrorist attacks and gross atrocities committed in the name of Islam forced me to seriously question my birth religion and culture again. I read the Quran and Hadith again and I found out that it contradicted my secular upbringing and scientific education that I had received at my private English high school. I first heard about the term “atheist” on 2014 and finally I found a label that suits me well.

I became more confident and independent after becoming an atheist. I stopped believing in supernatural power and took complete charge of my life. I was able to stand up against a forced arranged marriage and I demanded my right to receive an education. Atheism has truly freed me from the dangerous shackles of Islam.

Zerin M. Firoze is now a nursing student in New York. If you would like to support her efforts, check out this link –  Zerin M Firoze | Patreon  Zerin’s escape and journey to the United States will be featured in next week’s blog post.

Why aren’t there more women atheists?

Why aren’t there more women atheists?

We all know that the movement called the “New Atheism” was promoted most importantly by the “Four Horsemen.” These men-Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens-all became very outspoken after the tragedy of 9/11. Each of them published seminal books in the first decade of the 21st century. A survey of the 100 best-selling books on atheism on Amazon shows each of them still in the top ten today. The number of women on that list of 100 on May 8, 2017 was two. YouTube debates between Christian apologists and atheists are dominated by men, usually on both sides of the issue, including the men mentioned above. Women atheists who take to debates about religion are few and far between. Why?

If we look at the men listed above, Dawkins was a renowned scientist with many books to his name and Dennett was a philosopher with works published as well. Both of these fields, if indeed these fields gave rise to their work on atheism and I would argue they did, have been dominated by men. Data from 2011 show that slightly over 20% of faculty teaching philosophy in the United States are women.[1] Currently, even though women make up 47 percent of the total U. S. workforce, they comprise much lower percentages in the fields of science: from a high of 39 percent of chemists to just 12 of civil engineers.[2] Hopefully the new emphasis on STEM education will bring more women into the field by encouraging girls to explore the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Sam Harris is a philosopher and neuroscientist combining the fields of both Dawkins and Dennett. His first work criticizing religion was written while he was still working on his PhD. Timing is everything they say. Finally, the late Christopher Hitchins was a well-known author and columnist on a wide range of issues. He wrote over 30 books in his lifetime including a strong critic of Mother Teresa. It is fair to say that each of these authors was well positioned to write about religion. It is also fair to attribute the renewed emphasis on atheism in the 21st century to their work.

In the United States, women atheists have been around for centuries. Annie Laurie Gaylor, in her seminal book, Women without Superstition: “No Gods-No Masters,” chronicles the contributions of 51 women freethinkers from the 18th century to the present.[3] Thus, one cannot argue that there are no historical precedents for women standing up and declaring their atheism. Elizabeth Cady Stanton is one of the more well-known 19th century women who not only supported the abolition of slavery, but also the women’s suffrage movement, all the while opposing organized religion. She once said, “Surely the immutable laws of the universe can teach more impressive and exalted lessons than the holy books of all the religions on earth.”[4] Suffice it to say that she received a fair amount of censure for her views on religion but probably not as much as Madalyn Murray O’Hair who was portrayed in a Life magazine article in 1964 as “The Most Hated Woman in America.” She was the head of American Atheists and was murdered along with her son and granddaughter in an extortion scheme.

Today, Annie Laurie Gaylor is the co-president of the important Freedom from Religion Foundation based in Madison, Wisconsin. She joins other women heads of organizations such as Margaret Downey, former president of the Atheist Alliance International and founder and president of the Freethought Society, Debbie Goddard, director of African Americans for Humanism, Rebecca Hensler, founder of Grief Beyond Belief, Maryam Namase, an ex-Muslim activist in London and many others. Women atheist authors and bloggers include Sikivu Hutchinson, Greta Christina, Candace Gorham, Susan Jacoby, Rebecca Goldstein, and Valerie Tarico. And the list continues, but the problem remains. A recent Pew Research study cites that 68% of the people who identify as atheists are men.[5]

I believe that they are many reasons why there are not more women atheists. The most important involves the sense of community. When a woman participates in a church, she usually does much more than attend services. She volunteers to teach the children’s classes. She volunteers to help with events. My mother-in-law is 95 and she is STILL the volunteer for potlucks for funerals at her local Catholic parish, which means they are still depending on women to volunteer to get the work done. When my father was elected deacon of my home church, Trinity Evangelical Lutheran in Bismarck, North Dakota, he came home and informed my mother that “the wives” of the deacons, because of course the deacons were all men at that time, were responsible for the flowers on the altar each Sunday. Bless my mother, she said, “I didn’t run for deacon of the church, you did” and refused to do it. She was the exception. She was, however, a Sunday School teacher and part of the Ladies’ Aid. With volunteer work come connections. Other women become your friends. Your kids play together and know each other. You live in the same community as most religious institutions are neighborhood based. And it’s not just about Sunday. You may sing in the choir. You may attend Bible Study. For some, the church is the center of their entire social life. Marsha Abelman, one of the essayists in my first book, Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion, said that once she and her husband decided to leave the church, NO ONE in the congregation remained their friends. That’s a tough blow that many are unwilling to take. They may have lost their faith, but they are not willing to lose their friends.

Another factor is the ability to be on the outside, to be the one who is different, and to be the one who most people, at least in the United States, aren’t comfortable with. If you are an atheist sitting in a pew and have never told anyone, you are hardly going to convince another woman to leave the church. You are even less likely to take an active role in an atheist organization. It’s not easy getting the stares and comments when you announce you are an atheist. For some atheists, like ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali, there are even threats to their lives. It is also not easy to take on the role of an outspoken atheist if you don’t already have a platform. When I wrote my first book, I had never participated in an atheist organization and had never published a book. I can assure you that it is an uphill battle.

Leadership also plays a role. Let’s face it, with only 5% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies headed by women and no woman president… yet, women are not always seen as the ones to stick their necks out and take the plunge. I remember an incident that occurred when I was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The Teaching Assistants were an organized local of the American Federation of Teachers when we went on strike against the University. During the strike, the women teaching assistants announced a meeting of women TA’s. During that meeting, a woman stood up and said, “We need to pick a spokesperson to represent us at the membership meetings.” I was astounded and answered, “Do you think the guys are picking spokespersons? We ALL need to speak up at the meetings and share our views, just like the guys.” Here was a highly-educated set of women who just didn’t get it. Yes, it was a long time ago, but life hasn’t changed that much.

Finally, many church communities provide a social safety net for members of their congregation. Sikivu Hutchinson has written extensively about this issue in her book, Moral Combat, as well as other works. According to research by the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation, 87% of African-American women said that religion was “very important” in their lives. That compares to 79% of African-American men, 66% of white women, and 51% of white men.[6] When the parents of an African-American decide not to take their children to church, Hutchinson notes that “female relatives and neighbors often volunteer to escort children of non-practicing parents to church.”[7] Stressing the support the church communities often provide to families, she states, “With blacks comprising 25% of the nation’s poor, only economic justice can truly redress the cult of religiosity in African American communities.”[8]

These are just a few of the reasons that men outnumber women in the atheist “movement.” But we can overcome these obstacles and create a more balanced voice for atheism. Wendy Marsman has started a podcast, Women Beyond Belief. She interviews women who have left religion. If you are a woman atheist, please consider speaking to her. She can be contacted at The more voices we have the more likely we are to attract more women. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day.


Karen L. Garst

The Faithless Feminist