Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sexism in the Atheist Movement

I started attending meet-up groups within the atheist movement back in 2007. Almost from the very beginning, I met men who would often tell everyone about how we need more women in the movement. One person in particular has made mention of this at just about every gathering he's been at, typically to anyone that talks with him. It's always frustrated me that his remarks (and those of many others) usually are accompanied by references to how women will make atheism more attractive, how he'll finally be able to date again, and so forth. In other words, atheism needs more women because women have sex appeal.

Well, women have started to become more prominent in the atheist movement. Ayaan Hirsi Ali joined the voices of the 'New Atheists,' Susan Jacoby has taken to defending church-state separation, Valerie Tarico has published some excellent works on the psychology of religion, Eugenie Scott is a potent thorn in the side of creationists, Rebecca Watson and the women at Skepchick are doing wonderful work promoting skepticism, Julia Sweeney is drawing attention to atheism in her comedy acts, and the Atheist Experience streaming live show often features Jen Peeples and Tracie Harris as rotating hosts. In short, these men got their wish; more and more women are participating in the atheist movement.

Over the last year or two, some of these atheist women have begun to speak up about the things that make them uncomfortable in the atheist movement. There are too many stories to recount here, but sexual propositions, misogynistic statements, and generally crude and thoughtless behavior are recurring themes. Much of this conflict has come to a climax around "Elevatorgate," an incident in which Rebecca Watson found herself alone with a man in an elevator at an atheist convention, and this guy felt it appropriate to invite her to have coffee with him in his room at 3 o' clock in the morning. Rebecca's polite and cordial request for men not to do this sort of thing at conventions unleashed a firestorm of insults and threats. Jen McCreight expresses her frustration with it all in a recent blog post.

I personally know some of these women in the atheist movement who have received threats of rape and been treated like dirt for sharing their honest feelings. In general, a lot of the vitriol against them tends to revolve around their support for feminism. I noticed this especially when interacting with other people in the comments section of my video defending feminism and equality from mischaracterizations of it made by imbeciles like TheAmazingAtheist. The video wasn't up for five hours before other atheists were accusing me of being a self-hating male, a homosexual, or having ulterior motives, like wanting to get laid. I imagine some of these same people are quick to criticize religious believers when they dismiss an atheist by accusing them of "just wanting to sin" or being "blind to the truth," and yet they're quite comfortable with making such wild presumptions about anyone who supports feminism.

For the most part, I do my best to educate myself on a subject before I form an opinion that I will debate with anyone. But conversing with some anti-feminists has never given me the impression that they know what they're talking about. The claim is frequently made that feminists are man-haters who vilify male sexuality, want to control men, and seek to abolish all pornography. Although some of these attributes may fit certain women, I'm never given examples, and it really wouldn't say anything about feminism anymore than citing Stalin or Mao tells us anything about atheism. There are always those fringe nuts who take things to an extreme, but it would be ludicrous to assume the extreme is the norm. I have read Stanton, Anthony, Steinem, Goldman, and other well known feminists, and I've found nothing akin to misandry. Many of these historical feminists advocated the rights of men while they fought for their own rights.

These women of the atheist community are being attacked for the terrible crime of asking for common courtesy. They don't want to be invited back to your hotel room. They don't want to be hit on by every guy they meet at a gathering. They don't want to be objectified just because they title an awareness campaign "Boobquake," as a jab at a sexist Muslim cleric (it's pretty sad that some of these men didn't recognize the hypocrisy in behaving like a misogynist at an event designed to speak out against misogyny!). But most outrageous of all is the unwillingness of conventions and organizations to adopt anti-harassment policies. Though many have, the fact that there's also been a backlash is depressing. In her blog post mentioned above, Jen McCreight notes that she no longer feels safe in the atheist community, and she calls for a new wave of atheism to root out the sexist element.

Some will argue that atheism is not an ideology, so it can have no "waves," perhaps no movement either. However, a movement was initiated through the efforts of the New Atheists circa 2006, and being that it centers around atheism, I find nothing wrong with calling this what it is - a movement of atheists. Likewise, the different waves of feminism did not depart drastically from their overarching concern for women's liberation, though they did each focus on distinct goals that were relevant to their time. Atheism is not an ideology, but neither does it need to be one to have "waves" within the movement revolving around it.

But whether a new wave of the movement begins or not, it is clear that things need to change. If women are beginning to feel unsafe or uncomfortable participating in events and hanging with other atheists, then something is wrong. This is not just the complaint of a few man-hating feminist bloggers, but is a story I'm hearing from more than a few atheist women. I understand that common courtesy doesn't come naturally to everyone, and I think these ladies understand it too. Yet when someone asks you nicely not to proposition them, or when they specifically tell you they feel unsafe, you need to pay attention and respect their wishes. It's not an infringement on your "rights" to be considerate for the feelings of another person. In fact, I'd venture to bet it will get you in much better standing with women (and men) than the alternative will.

I am not a freethinker because I reject religion. I'm a freethinker because I value reason and critical thinking above faith and prejudice. Part of that means seeing past the irrational and misogynistic nonsense of anti-feminists, just as it means seeing past the irrational nonsense of religion. I count myself among the true freethinkers like Robert G. Ingersoll, who understood the full implications even when blacks were not free and women could not vote. If you have deluded yourself into believing there is some conspiracy of man-hating feminazis out to spoil all the fun for men - and these feminazis have infiltrated the atheist movement too - you may still be an atheist, but you can hardly call yourself a freethinking atheist.

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