Women are God-fearing and don’t challenge institutions. Men, on the other hand, are skeptical and rational, and go out of their way to publicly call bullshit on faith and religion—which is why today’s well-known secular thinkers, especially in the ranks of the New Atheism movement, are all male.
These statements should sound ridiculous because, of course, they are. From Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of American Atheists, whose 1963 Supreme Court lawsuit brought an end to prayer in public schools, to Sergeant Kathleen Johnson, who started an organization for atheists in the United States military, to Debbie Goddard, founder of African Americans for Humanism, countless women have worked as successful atheist activists. They’ve penned books, run organizations, and advocated on behalf of religiously repressed citizens. But you might not guess that from the popular portrayal and perception of atheism in America, which overwhelmingly treats the contemporary class of non-God-fearing freethinkers (also known as secularists, skeptics, and nonbelievers) as a contentious, showboating boys’ club.
In November 2006, Wired magazine identified Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, and Sam Harris as a “band of intellectual brothers” whose bestselling books on atheism, published between 2004 and 2006, heralded an era of 21st-century nonbelief. The media quickly dubbed this “the New Atheism.” What differentiates this movement from more old-school atheism (besides the mainstream media’s everpresent need to anoint, brand, and categorize thought leaders) is that New Atheists take a vehemently zero-tolerance approach to faith, mysticism, and even agnosticism. Though the basics are the same—nonbelief in a god or gods—the new system also calls for pushing nonbelief on others, almost to the point of abject proselytization.
In a sidebar titled “Faces of the New Atheism,” the article profiled a few other notable nonbelievers—Greg Graffin of the band Bad Religion, illusionists Penn and Teller, and writer Warren Allen Smith, with short tidbits illustrating how their atheism plays out in their lives and work. (Penn Jillette’s cars, for instance, feature license plates reading “ATHEIST” and “GODLESS.”) Shortly afterward, CNN followed up with “The Rise of the ‘New Atheists’,” a web story on the subject, which added to the clubhouse British journalist Christopher Hitchens, whose then-upcoming book was 2007’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. And Victor J. Stenger, an author and physicist, joined the bunch with the 2007 publication of his book God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist.
Attention kept increasing—and arguably still holds steady—for these men, who’ve collectively become the Michael Moores of nonbelief, garnering notice as much for pissing people off as for convincing others of the rightness of their stance. Socially approved public antagonists, they’ve debated religious firebrands like Dinesh D’Souza on national TV, as the mainstream media (never one to quash the ratings-grabbing potential of a fiery-tongued polemic) goads them on.
So is new-style atheism the sausage party that media coverage would suggest? Without getting into an impossible intellectual debate—the kind dealing with pinpointing exactly who was the first to come up with or popularize a particular idea—suffice it to say no, not hardly. Consider: In 2003, the intellectual historian and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht published Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson. The book traces famous nonbelievers throughout history, and advocates atheism on the grounds that these thinkers’ skepticism toward religious institutions fostered innovation in philosophy, literature, and science. It garnered rave reviews from the Los Angeles Times, which called it “marvelous,” and Skeptic magazine, which described it as a “stunning chronicle of unbelievers.” In 2004, journalist Susan Jacoby published the extensively praised work Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, a book that drew on the history of United States—in particular, the significant role secular thinkers have played in reform movements—to make the case that staunchly nonreligious thought should be the main driver of public policy.
Yet though Hecht’s and Jacoby’s books both came out shortly before Wired bestowed its “New Atheist” designation on the likes of Dawkins and Harris (whose The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reasonwas published the same year as Jacoby’s Freethinkers), neither woman is invoked in the mainstream media’s anointing of atheist thought leaders. Is it that “rationality”—the bedrock of New Atheist doctrine—is historically gendered male, while women are considered more emotional? Is it that their books are too conciliatory toward religion, too well balanced, too, you know, womanly? Nope. Both women are accomplished, strong-voiced scholars, and are no more afraid than their male colleagues to call out religion’s injustices in a public forum—that is to say, not afraid at all. And as for those whose knee-jerk response to the abundance of critical acclaim accorded male writers over female ones is the classic “Maybe their books just weren’t as good/original/ambitious,” nope again. Indeed, Hitchens recognized Hecht’s influence on the bestselling God Is Not Great, writing in the acknowledgments section: “Jennifer Michael Hecht put me immensely in her debt when she sent me a copy of her extraordinary Doubt: A History.”
Nevertheless, a statement on Stenger’s website identifies Harris’s book as the bellwether of contemporary atheist thought. On a page promoting his own book The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason, Stenger writes that The End of Faith “marked the first of a series of bestsellers that took a harder line against religion than has been the custom among secularists.” In an e-mail interview, Stenger acknowledged that female atheists do exist—name-checking Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wendy Kaminer, Rebecca Goldstein, and Michelle Goldberg as well as Jacoby—but the “New Athiests” referred to in his book’s promotional materials include none of these women.
Tom Flynn, editor of the secular humanist journal Free Inquiry and executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, agrees that there’s a strong gender skew in the atheist movement. Though organizations like his have worked to recruit and retain female members—with mixed results—he’s aware that more men are recognized as atheist leaders. That said, he won’t necessarily concede that there’s sexist intent behind that recognition, saying, “The numbers [of atheist authors] are so small, it’s largely coincidence that these authors who are all men emerge as superstars.”
Felicity, however, doesn’t fully explain female atheists’ undersung presence. Writing on the dearth of visible women in New Atheism in a November 2010 blog post at Ms., Monica Shores found that a “quick [Internet] search for female atheists will pull up such depressing fare as ‘Dating Atheist Single Women’ and ‘Top 10 Sexiest Female Atheists’…the loudest complaints about the absence of atheist women [seem] to come from atheist males who want nonbelieving girlfriends.” Though atheist thinkers and bloggers like Ophelia Benson and Jen McCreight summarily stepped up to counter Shores with lists of prominent female atheists—science writer Natalie Angier, author and blogger Greta Christina, comedians Kathy Griffin and Julia Sweeney—the ensuing pileup of names only brought the issues identified by Shores’s post into sharper relief. If all these smart, clearly respected women are in the mix of loud-and-proud atheists, why does the face of New Atheism still look like that of a curmudgeonly, sixtysomething white guy?
In interviews, atheist leaders of all genders floated the theory that women might be less comfortable with the staunchly antiestablishment subtext of identifying as atheist because they are more likely than men to be brought up to to think that social standing, as well as serving their families, is of utmost importance. It’s embedded in so many female upbringings to collaborate with peers, to think of others before they think of themselves, to be openminded and listen to everyone fairly. Male upbringings, say these atheist leaders—even in our contemporary, supposedly postfeminist time—allow more leeway to indulge one’s individualism, be it in solo tinkering with cars, guitars, and chemistry sets, or simply in the pursuit of brooding teen rebellion. According to the 2006 CNN piece that helped coin the “New Atheist” designation, “What the New Atheists share is a belief that religion should not simply be tolerated, but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises”—language that, in its aggression and moral surety, may buttress the idea that nonbelief goes hand in hand with bullheaded confrontation. Amanada Knief, government relations manager for the Secular Coalition for America, which lobbies for atheist rights, believes that childhood socialization, in concert with factors such as family income and access to education, is a big part of what keeps many female skeptics from making atheism a more central, vocal part of their lives. She and others also point out—Wired articles and CNN reports aside—that atheism is still not considered mainstream in the United States. A national study conducted by the University of Minnesota and published in the American Sociological Review, for instance, found that atheists are the “least trusted” group in America.
But other female atheists are blunt in their assessment of why the face of atheism doesn’t necessarily reflect the gender makeup of its adherents. Annie Laurie Gaylor, who founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation with her mother, Anne Nicol Gaylor, in 1978, sums it up succinctly: “One word—sexism.” Gaylor’s husband, Dan Barker, who helms the organization along with her, is usually the one invited to speaking engagements, despite her longer tenure as the organization’s leader and her numerous books on atheism. Doubtauthor Hecht, too, identifies basic chauvinism in the persistent lower profile of female atheists, stating that in her own experience, the work of female atheists tends to be individualized, rather than contextualized as part of a watershed scholarly movement. “Nobody talked about [Doubt] as a ‘phenomenon,’” she notes. “They just talked about the book.” Finally, when well-known atheists also happen to be just as well known for their misogynist statements—like Hitchens, as well as fellow skeptic Stephen Fry, who once theorized that women “don’t really like sex”—it just adds to atheism’s existing public-relations problem.
Representation matters, and when various media reports combined to create the “New Atheist” meme without mentioning the contributions of the women involved in the movement, the result was that the meme itself became masculinized. And because contemporary atheism has become so synonymous with this initially identified group, women atheists may well continue to be overlooked by the mainstream (or will, as some female skeptics have, reject inclusion on principle). It’s a state of affairs very much in line with the history of women in other fields in which battling continued institutional neglect—as opposed to intrinsic hostility—is an ongoing theme.
So let’s reframe. For every mention of Hitchens, counter with a mention of Hecht. For every theory that male atheists are purer or more confrontational, let’s ask why we gender the philosophy of nonbelief to begin with. The ranks of atheists who don’t fit the popular profile are increasing, and with more attention paid to who isn’t a white male author with a fancy-pants book contract, the public face of nonbelief may begin to look as diverse as atheism’s adherents actually are. And if the work of women like Hecht, Jacoby, McCreight, and Gaylor indicates anything, it’s that there’s a need for atheist voices from all genders and sexes to—very rationally—make themselves heard.