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. 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. 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. 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.” 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.
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. 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.” 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.”
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 www.womenbeyondbelief.com. 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