Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sexism among Atheists

The question of sexism is an open controversy among atheists. There are those who claim and cite examples of the kinds of sexism that they are exposed to within atheist communities and how it discourages female participation. There are those who claim that the complaints are overblown and that atheists are if anything more likely to oppose sexism as irrational. I've seen an argument that goes a little something like this: any idea ought to stand on its own merit without regard to gender and if atheist communities are mostly male that is the fault of women for not being more rational.

Look. I come down squarely on the side of those who complain that there is indeed sexism among atheists. No, it isn't everyone nor is it always overt nor is it as bad many religions, but it is present. I am male but that does not mean that I am immune from observing the kinds of behaviors that strike me as at best rude and all too often as hostile. Moreover, though I think I can parse the arguments that deny the magnitude of the problem, that does not mean that I agree with them, especially when they are themselves examples of the problem. See above.

Recently, a young woman posted on the Atheism forum at Reddit a picture of herself holding a book by Carl Sagan that she had received from her religious mother for Christmas. This ended up becoming a flash point for the ongoing controversy about the prevalence of sexism among atheists. A controversy I should note that has been boiling to some extent for much of this year.

Some feminist, atheist bloggers have expressed their disappointment in the atheists who posted sexist, demeaning things in response to that young woman's picture. They've cited this as yet another example of the kind of hostility women face that discourages involvement in the atheist community. This has sparked replies defending the community as a whole from the charge of sexism, arguing that the problem is contained in only a few bad apples. And the debate kicked off anew.

What I do not think those who are denying the severity of the sexism problem seem to understand is that whether it is a few bad, but vocal, apples causing the problem or not -- by giving them a pass on their behavior we are as a community giving tacit approval of their unwelcoming stance towards female involvement. This creates a feedback loop that reduces the gender diversity of our community, which in turn emboldens the sexists to think they can continue to get away with being hostile, which makes our community seem hostile to women even if the majority of us aren't, which keeps gender diversity low, and so on.

I happen to think that overt and hidden sexism are both an impediment to our community. I think that women have valuable contributions to make, not the least in a chance to promote self reflection regarding sexism and male privilege in ourselves and in our communities. Some of those who refuse to examine potential sexism or refuse see it in themselves are pushing back against women, but they do not represent my views on this matter. I would be happy to see that as active, female participation grows in our community that the sexists get pushed further to the margins as unwelcome social pariahs.

There is some karmic justice in that, given how they insist on treating women now. But as more and more young women like Lunam on Reddit get involved, our community will change, for the better in my opinion. So my advice to the old guard with misogynist tendencies is to be aware that the demographics are shifting. Things are going to be different than what you've grown accustomed to and you are going to have to adapt to remain relevant.

To young women who want to be more involved: I'm sorry that it can sometimes seem like too many atheists are sexist. It isn't fair but I do think it will change -- slowly. And a major driver in that change will be young people like you. So please hang in there. Your presence and contributions to the community are actually valued by most of us. As you and other young women get openly involved, we can all push the sexists further to the margins of our movement.

[edit:  As was pointed out by my perceptive wife, my use of "young women" could be construed as sexist in itself. I do mean women in general ought to be made more welcome, not just young women. Though what inspired this post was the treatment by atheists of a young (fifteen year old) woman and my last paragraph was meant to be read as though addressed to her and other young people.]


Liza said...

Young women only? How about us old ladies? ;-)
It's not just the atheist community where being a woman means putting up with stupid sexist jokes and whatnot. It's also in the geek/nerd community, the scientific community, and probably every job or career which has been predominantly male.
You're right though; the demographics of all of the above are changing, and the guys who insist on demeaning women (or judging their worth by how young and pretty they are) will hopefully soon be the minority.

Billtannica said...

Fair enough. I've made an edit to the post. My intention was not to exclude women of any age, but in that paragraph to specifically reference the example I had used earlier in the post.

Billtannica said...

Oh and you are absolutely right about this kind of sexism being present in more than just the atheist communities. There is a link in the sixth paragraph to an article written about the nerd/gamer/comic book community. "Male privilege."

Nandy said...

This conversation can get really depressing--especially when a prominent/respected figure decides to weigh in, and you learn that even they just don't get it.
Thank you for lending your voice, and a little dose of hope.

Billtannica said...

You're very welcome, Nandy