Meet the Feminist “Godless Congregation” Challenging Atheism's Bro-Culture

A Carl Sagan quote featured by Harvard's Humanist Hub, a feminist-minded secular community center. 

Across the United States, the number of people who don’t consider themselves religious is rapidly rising—one in five Americans is now religiously unaffiliated. Within this expanding group of non-religious folks, though, there’s a clear gender gap. According to the 2012 Pew study “Nones on the Rise,” while Americans who identify their religion as “nothing in particular” are rather evenly divided by gender, only 36 percent of people who identify as atheists and agnostics are women. 

Back in 2011, Victoria Bekiempis wrote a piece for Bitch called “The Unbelievers: New Atheism and the Old Boys Club,” which took aim at the gender imbalance in secular communities. In it, she noted that media coverage of new atheism—the outwardly anti-religious version of the movement that has come to prominence in recent years—skews male. Thinkers and authors like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins were being heralded as the face of skepticism. Women, like Jennifer Michael Hecht or author Susan Jacoby? Not so much. And this was long before Dawkins tweeted that victims of rape had better not be drinking if they wanted to see their attackers held accountable in court—before Sam Harris set off a firestorm of controversy with his remarks that being critical is “intrinsically male” and that atheism wasn’t attractive to women because it doesn’t have that “extra-estrogen vibe.” 

Clearly, many of the gender problems that existed in 2011 are alive and well today. Dawkins still has more than a million Twitter followers, Harris, more than 250,000. They remain two of atheism’s most identifiable faces, which doesn’t do much to dispel what Bekiempis called the movement’s “sausage party” image. But at least one group of unbelievers is actively trying to change secularism’s frat house reputation: The Humanist Community at Harvard, an organization that is to the area’s atheist, agnostic, and humanist population what a chapel is to Christians. Known affectionately as the Humanist Hub, this “godless congregation” (as they refer to themselves), meets weekly for a secular service in Cambridge's Harvard Square.

Vanessa Zoltan is the assistant chaplain of the Hub, and she’s not shy when it comes to criticizing Dawkins and his ilk. “I think that there is a problem in many atheist circles where dogma comes before nuance or compassion,” she says. “And I think that that version of atheism has more in common with religious extremism than it is different from religious extremism.” 

humanist hub staff

The staff of the Humanist Hub, including Vanessa Zoltan at far left and Greg Epstein, center.

To show that there are unbelieving circles where compassion is not secondary, Zoltan and her colleague Greg Epstein dubbed this year “The Year of Women in Humanism.” They’ve invited a star-studded crew of secular women to speak at the Humanist Hub, including Anita Sarkeesian and Orange is the New Black author Piper Kerman. Zoltan and Epstein are both ardent feminists, and both believe that their humanist goals are not just compatible with feminism, but are inseparable from it. When Zoltan identifies the reasons why a yearlong celebration of women is so essential for the unbelieving community, she explains that questioning social systems that create oppression is essential to humanism.

“By putting women front and center for a year, we are questioning a central assumption of our society,” she says. “Especially in atheism, which has this reputation of being so white, male dominated, we are confronting these issues head-on.”

As one of few female humanist chaplains in the world—she says she’s never met another one—Zoltan is in a unique position to understand the ways in which secular women are still treated as lesser-than.  She sometimes gets comments from men who are surprised to see her in that role. And while she says she can’t definitively determine why there is such an unfortunate overlap between self-identified atheists and vocal misogynists, her hypothesis is surprisingly sympathetic for someone who sometimes spends her work hours deleting hate mail. 

“I would say that most hate or concern comes from a fear of change,” she explains. “That’s really it. And I can empathize with that! Whenever my status or life is threatened by a new idea, that is definitely scary.”

piper kerman

Piper Kerman receiving the 2015 Harvard Humanist Heroine of the Year award last week. 

An important distinction: Humanism and atheism are not identical philosophies. Atheism is a lack of belief in any higher power, while humanism, in its simplest terms, is a belief in human-derived knowledge. Many atheists and agnostics are also humanists—not all are. But all three camps rub shoulders at the Humanist Hub, and Zoltan interchangeably refers to herself as a humanist chaplain and an atheist chaplain because she works with both groups. And, unfortunately, the anti-women attitude of some unbelievers isn’t limited to those who identify as atheist.

The Hub saw the misogyny present in humanism firsthand back in February, when they invited Anita Sarkeesian to accept the 2014 Harvard Humanist of the Year award for her work on the Tropes vs. Women series. Epstein and Zoltan expected that there would be backlash against the award, given the harassment Sarkesian has faced in the past and the unfortunate Venn diagram overlap of secular and misogynist circles. But they weren’t prepared for the volume and intensity of that reaction. Epstein found himself embattled in Twitter wars with atheists and humanists who objected to their selection. 

“MRAs R the REAL humanists,” argued one. “I love humanism,” Tweeted another. “I hate sexism and worthless professional victimhood like Anita Amway.” Epstein fired back: “Men owning their privilege & processing their struggles=Humanistic. Men calling their struggles ‘sexism’=…sinister.”

“I was shocked by the level of vitriol and by the amount of work that needs to be done to remind people… not the majority of atheist men, by any means, but some men, that humanism requires feminism,” says Epstein. “We got a Facebook message yesterday giving us backlash about Anita,” Zoltan adds. “This event was, what, almost two months ago now? And we got this message telling us that we were idiots, and were ill-informed, and that she’s a liar.”

Epstein and Zoltan put a lot of work into keeping award ceremony attendees safe, and in the end, Sarkeesian’s talk went smoothly. Still, a handful of people did try to sabotage them. In the days leading up to the ceremony, Epstein and another coworker sifted through the email addresses of each of the hundreds of people who had registered to attend, Googling names and plugging them into Facebook to see if any belonged to misogynist groups. A handful did. They were promptly removed from the guest list. 

But Zoltan and the other members of the Humanist Hub aren’t letting a fear of backlash dictate what their organization does and doesn’t do, and they’re quite happy to introduce potentially threatening new ideas to their community. Just before the Anita Sarkeesian event in February, Zoltan organized an anti-Super Bowl party at the Hub. “I think the Super Bowl manages to glamorize cheating, violence, drug abuse, sexism, over-eating, and drinking to excess all at once,” she said in a statement before the event. Looking back, she holds up that gathering as an example of the ways in which making room for diverse perspectives—feminist perspectives, especially—benefits men and women alike. After all, it’s men, for the most part, who are victims of brain trauma associated with the sport.

To see an organization hold an anti-Super Bowl party and actually have people show up—especially in New England, whose Patriots won this year’s big game—is a testament both to the open-mindedness of many in this group and to their willingness to accept new ideas. To Epstein, it also demonstrates the ways in which the members of his organizations can benefit from encouraging and prioritizing progressive thought; he says the party gave him a new perspective on something he’d loved “rather unquestioningly” until this year. (He adds that, ironically enough, while the party was largely Zoltan’s idea, media outlets that reported on the event reached out to him for comment. Boston magazine even spelled her name wrong.)

There’s no denying the sexism present in certain secular groups, but it’s heartening to see organizations like the Humanist Hub work on building an inclusive, feminist atheist community. As more people nationwide start to consider themselves non-believers, here’s hoping we see less of Hitchens and more from folks like Zoltan. 

Related Reading: The Unbelievers — New Atheism and the Old Boys Club

Emily Cassel is a Boston-based journalist, feminist, and cyclist. You can follow her on Twitter. All photos are from the Humanist Hub website and Facebook. 

 
by Emily Cassel
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Emily Cassel is a Boston-based journalist, feminist, and cyclist. Her interests include short fiction written by contemporary women, emo bands from the Greater Philadelphia area, feminism, and food.

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