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A Theology of Disbelief: Women, Religion, and Atheism

2010 November 13

About two weeks ago, the Ms. magazine blog posted a piece asking “Will ‘New Atheism’ Make Room for Women?” It’s an interesting question because it shouldn’t be a question in the first.  It places an emphasis on gender in a religious movement [1], and while the Ms. piece by Monica Shores cites a study that found there may be fewer women atheists overall, the study is ten years out of date–arguably a time period in which new atheism has blossomed–and it found that 41% of those who responded “no religion” were women.[2]

I agree more with Ms. blogger Jen McCreight, who posted a response two days later saying, “Where are all the atheist women? Right Here!” She cites a large number of prominent women atheists who have founded national atheist organizations, who write and speak widely on the subject. She doesn’t have to dip into a website Shores cited showing semi-nude photos of attractive famous atheist women (it’s a funny blog post in and of itself though) or a dating site of single atheist women. [3]  McCreight blames the media–who else–for their portrayal of atheism as a movement of white men.  She names so many women atheists, why doesn’t the media notice?  I doubt that there are proportionally fewer female than male atheists than say, public intellectuals on the whole. [4]

Rather than to continue to look for women writing about, speaking about, and more importantly believing in atheism, which I think McCreight does a beautiful job of showing, I want to look at first the gendered idea of atheism posited by Shores and second at the role of atheism, and the potential of the women of the movement, in religious pluralism as an important theology in and of itself. In the remainder of this piece, when I use “new atheism” I mean it as the movement (defined below) as set out by those such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. When I simply say “atheism” I mean the disbelief in the existence of a deity.

“New atheism” as both a religious movement and a belief are somewhat difficult to categorize.  “Movement” implies more organization than the new atheists have, and that’s part of the reason most of its adherents like it: it isn’t real religion.  Shores’s article says:

There’s no official definition of New Atheism, but the general consensus is that while atheists were once content to not believe in God by themselves, “new” atheists are determined to proselytize so that others join their disbelief. They can’t abide by tolerance of religion, because religion is so insidious a force as to warrant constant criticism. Though they dare not hope for eradication of religion outright, they have expressed the wish that a belief in God become “too embarrassing” for most people to admit.

I generally agree with her definition, though I would add that new atheists tend to put their faith in science, some, though not all, to the extent of scientism (holding a doctrinal belief in the infalibilty of science), even more than atheists.  Again, trying to avoid too vast an overgeneralization, new atheists more frequently lump all religion into one category instead of just opposing Christianity.  Or there are some cases where they oppose Christianity but generalize their dislike to all religions.  Proselytizing, though, as Shores and others she cites point out, may be the defining characteristic, which is one of the reasons she and others speculate fewer women are involved in the new atheism movement. These people wonder if women lack the necessary agressiveness and zeal required to defend and proselytize the new atheism. I’ll point out that for most of history, and even to the present day, it has taken as much to defend Christianity as it does atheism, and that women have been very successful Christian missionaries and defenders of their faith, or lack thereof.

Shores also writes, “Given the immense harm many organized religions inflict on women through outright violence and institutional oppression, it seems women may have more to gain than men from exiting their faith. Yet no women are currently recognized as leaders or even mentioned as a force within the movement.”  When I posted the Shores article on facebook, Jesse Myerson responded saying:

For one, my ascription to the “new atheism” (as if it were some sort of doctrine, rather than just the position of believing what there’s evidence for and disbelieving what there’s no evidence for) is orthogonal to gender.  However, my aversion to and hatred of religion is largely animated by my regard for women.  To look at the various churches and theocracies around the world, the more important question inescapably becomes whether the “new theism” (or even the old kind) has room for women, apart from the whole Stoning Them To Death For Having Been Raped and the whole Relegating Them To Chattel and the whole Prohibiting Them From Church Leadership and the whole Banning Them From The Bima aspects.

And of course, Myerson and Shores have a point.  Almost every religion has abused women at some point in history.  Even today, modern religions continue to place women in lesser roles, diminish their worth, or encourage beatings for wrongdoing.  And I do find myself asking whether religion is right for women.  But does that mean that women should or would go running from religion in hopes of something better through new atheism?  I think not likely: even a secular society still punishes them for their gender.  Secular society doesn’t stone women to death for rape or adultery.  It doesn’t ban women from leadership roles, but it does discourage women from reaching top positions.  Women aren’t running from religion because there’s still nothing for them to run to; and I wonder how much belief has anything to do with it.

We do, though, think of new atheism in gendered terms.  McCreight writes, “People like to speculate that women are more inclined to supernatural thinking, hate to be aggressive or are more afraid of leaving community behind,” which may be true to some sense.  For the time being, I’m going to place some of the blame on Plato through the neo-Platanist Christian thinkers and the body-mind dualism entrenched in Western thought. [5]  The mind and all that is enlightened is considered masculine, while the body and all that is related to it is considered feminine.  Religion and anything spiritual was always considered the pursuit of men because they were already closer to attaining spiritual enlightenment through reason and faith.  As reason led men away from religious belief and toward atheism, I think the paradigm of spirituality shifted to things related to body.  In the history of Christianity, women could only attain religious status if they became like men (lived celibately).  Through the history of India and Hinduism, women were also considered impure and therefore unfit to perform rites or learn the Vedas. [6]  This is all to say that somewhere the tide changed and women went from being unable to participate in religion to being thought of the only ones emotionally attached enough to still believe in God.  That is what the new atheists claim, that those still practicing religion do so because they are too attached emotionally not to, that they should be embarrased to admit they still believe in God.  With the polarizing forces of the media–and Hitchens, Dawkins, et al are certainly a large part media–the drive towards a new reason through new atheism and science is even stronger.  To a certain extent, gendering new atheism is like gendering science, and look where the latter has gotten people.[7]

I’ve been writing for years now about the secular voice in religious pluralism.  In the past I’ve defined pluralism as “the active engagement of religious diversity,” but I want to add to that.  Pluralism is the public expression of religious diversity on a larger community scale.  There are forms of individual pluralism that are crucial to the formation of a diverse religious nation, but the larger scale interaction of religious groups is as, if not more, important.  With the mudslinging media which finds it easier to stereotype and generalize rather than investigate specifics feeding a media-hungry audience, the intereligious battle has burst into flames.  It seems nobody likes Islam anymore and the atheists and the Christians want to kill each other.  Except that there are millions of people, Christians even, who believe that Islam in most forms is fair and beautiful and if not deeply moving at least a possible expression of  a truth.  And When we speak of the “atheists” at the throats of the “Christians” and vice versa, we really mean a few new atheists are vehemently opposed to certain forms of fundamentalist Christianity (or in some cases are still nondiscriminantly angry at anything that has a 501(c)3 tax exemption).  Atheists are just as if not more crucial in the voice of religious pluralism as religious people.  That includes new atheists.  And it includes women of all faiths, even atheism.  They provide the voice without god, the mindful path that keeps us pointed towards science and progress, and remind us of the secular mindset required to function in American society.[8]

I recently read an article in Forbes on the Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy program about the case not for gender equality, but  “that women in greater than token proportions improve decision-making, improve shareholder value and lower risk-taking” when it comes to business.  It should go without saying that there are many brilliant women in the world who can contribute on a large scale to business, but also to public intellectualism and the atheist voice.  Is the woman atheist voice unique?  Of course, but no more so than say the white male new atheist voice (no matter how many times we hear it).  Each atheist, new or old, and each religious or even spiritual-but-not-religious person comes to the table with a different story.  More diversity in a more complex situation yields better results, says the Forbes article.  If this seems remarkably simplistic, that’s becuase it is.  It should be common sense that more diversity in a given situation, as long as it’s directed productively (as long as we avoid the “too many chefs in the kitchen” situation), can lead to better and more dynamic results.  And when it comes to pluralism, there are certainly a lot of problems to solve.

I can’t explain why there aren’t more women writing about new atheism in particular. We are writing about atheism.  Many women are atheists, and I expect there are many like me–I call myself an Episcopalian but often identify more with atheism when trying to explain [away] God–and there will always be many women who are relgious.[9]  I can say that there are more new atheist men getting publishing deals, and that the stereotype is to push women in the direction of Eat, Pray, Love which may be more marketable.  Monica Shores asks “Will ‘New Atheism’ Make Room For Women?”  Not unless new atheist women push to carve that space themelves.  Jen McCreight says “Right Here!”  Her list of women founders of national atheist organizations is impressive.  Many women have run away from religion because it gives them no rights, but women have also stayed with religion to challenge it to expand women’s rights.  And call me a fence-sitter, but I’m somewhere in between, still working through my own beliefs like many people.  The fact that the new atheists are all, seemingly, absolutely certain about their beliefs is something I’m not sure I believe.


[1] Feel free to argue with me until you’re blue in the face, but New Atheism is as much a religious movement as fundamentalist Christianity.   Even without a specific unifying doctrine of beliefs and a codified church law and no tax exempt status, new atheism is what scholars call a “quasi-religion” like Marxism.

[2] That’s fewer women that don’t practice a religion than men, but this particular study at least is asking about religious practice and not religious belief.  For those of us who study religion, there is a distinct difference between belief and practice, in fact we classify things in terms of orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  To the general population however, there may be less of a difference.  If I’m correct that there may be less of difference to the general public as a whole, but I think in some religi0ns there may again be more of a difference; Judaism versus being Jewish for example.  The cited study notes that “only Jews by religion are tabulated.”

[3] I shouldn’t poke too much fun at an atheist dating website. I know there are dating sites for Christians, and Indians looking for arranged marriages and love matches use similar sites breaking down potential spouses by religion (or so my Indian romance novels tell me; the websites seem to be the modern alternative to the matchmakers who know everyone). So it only makes sense there are atheist dating sites. I’m simply glad McCreight doesn’t have to use them to support her claims.

[4] I have no specific stats or studies to back this up, but judging from what I read on a daily basis in the media, I’d guess a roughly similar correlation.

[5] Despite the fact that I do study an “Eastern” religion, I’m not nearly as well versed Hinduism’s philosophy, other than knowing that much of it stems from the religious texts in a similar manner to Western thought.  And as I think I’ve said in other posts, I have no authority whatsoever to speak on far Eastern philosophy.  For all intents and purposes, my knowledge begins and ends Mencius.

[6] Buddhism arose as a rejection of the caste system, but it also allowed women a larger role in a religious community, allowing them to become monastics as well.  Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty writes about the history of women (of all castes) and of lower castes in The Hindus, which she calls an “alternative history” because women and lower castes were not allowed to play important roles at all.  It wasn’t until the later puranic age in India that women, through the story of Radha and Krishna, were a larger part of the religious landscape.  I wrote in my MA thesis that Radha essentially allows women a space to be the religious centerpiece.  They may still be essentially adoring (bhakti) a male g0d (Krishna), but Vrindavanan is Radha’s world and everyone takes on the role of gopi (cowherd women who worshipped Krishna).

[7] This has been an interesting personal dilema for me.  As someone who studied science and religion, I faced a choice when I graduated from college: go on in physics or go on in religion.  I chose to study religion in religion, in part because I wanted my work to be more transportable and not spend hours upon hours in a physics lab as a graduate student. (So I chose a field that has me lugging 50+ lbs of books around when I’m writing.)  As Larry Summers has since learned, there is little intrinsic difference in men and women’s ability to achieve excellence in science.

[8] This is NOT to say that there are not Christians, Buddhist, Muslims, etc who do not also push for progress and science.   I firmly believe religion and science can and do work together in many ways, and have written so in the past.  Atheists, particularly the new atheist scientists, are the loudest of the group, which is why I do conisder it an important opinion.

[9] My understanding of divinity continues to evolve, but I consider myself a “post-theist,” or one who rejects theism.  I’m “religious-but-not-spiritual” in some ways.  But that’s something more for another time.

16 Responses
  1. November 13, 2010

    I should like very much to argue until blue in the face about the content of your first footnote. How about a diavlog debate of the resolution: “New atheism is itself a fundamentalist religion?”

    • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
      November 13, 2010

      As would I. I always feel that this claim addresses the similar fervor of new atheism to fundamentalism without regard for the incredible differences in how and why that fervor is acquired. I feel it is those discrepancies that are the most telling. Passion and conviction alone do not make fundamentalism. It is when those attributes are connected to unshakable and unadaptable (very important, this) faith (meaning specifically steadfast belief accompanied by a complete disregard for overwhelming contrary evidence) in the sacredness and infallibility of one or a few specific texts that fundamentalism begins to take its shape. Let us not cite Darwin’s work in this case, either, because no serious ‘Darwinian’ would ever defend its ‘infallibility’. The (understandable) shortcomings of his work are well known and have been amended by over 150 years of new scientific understanding. It is precisely this kind of adaptability that distinguishes fundamentalism from anything spouted by new atheists.
      It’s a shame our barefooted friend below doubts your integrity because you have conviction. It seems to me that your brand of ‘conviction’ (which I feel is akin to mine, that of Mr. Dawkins and the like, in that it maintains its place only until it is usurped by some other worthy position) – the kind of conviction I wrote about above – is precisely the kind that makes for such rigorous and important debate. I anxiously await this diavlog.

  2. November 13, 2010

    “Feel free to argue with me until you’re blue in the face, but…”

    I’m not nearly as forgiving as J.A. Myerson. As far as I’m concerned, you have in a single clause completely undermined your essay and displayed your complete lack of intellectual integrity. You state clearly that Mr. Myerson’s request would be a complete waste of time.

  3. November 13, 2010

    Pity too, because up until that moment, I found your essay interesting and while I disagree with some of your conclusions, you seemed like an honest person, worthy of debate. I can conclude only that while you happen to have some good opinions, they seem to be an accident, not the result of a process of rational deliberation, since you obviously have contempt for that process.

    • November 16, 2010

      Astounding, Mr. Bum, that you are capable of gleaning from a sentence-long footnote that what up until that point had duped you into believing they were interesting points were actually the ravings of a person who 1) lacks intellectual integrity, 2) has contempt for rational deliberation and 3) does not even merit a debate. How little self-respect you have, to be interested in all but one thing such a person would write.

      It’s enough to make a body wonder why on Earth you’d go to the trouble of commenting at all, much less posting your response to it on your own blog. I have to say, the innuendo, the wild conclusions and the refusal to debate all strike me as evidence that contradicts the claim I gather we would both like to make: that new atheists, unlike fundamentalists, don’t take those tacks. Pity.

  4. Jacqueline Moss permalink
    November 15, 2010

    I really appreciate you writing about this topic. I am also torn when it comes to atheism. I have an almost Pavlovian reaction against organized religion, because I feel like as a body, religious institutions are more interested in preserving their own interests than in helping people. I could elaborate on that, but it is not the reason why I am commenting. When asked to describe my personal religious beliefs, I say I am a doubting agnostic Jew. I identify as a Jew, but when it comes to doctrine, I am much more solidly in line with agnosticism. But I also doubt that, and lean towards atheism. I believe in science, but science is not without its flaws either. I agree with many of the points that Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris make, but I shy away from identifying as an atheist because the dogmatic style of Dawkins and Hitchens in particular turn me off. Their absolute faith (funny, huh, faith) in their beliefs is exactly what turns me off about many religions, and all fundamentalism. I wish atheists weren’t as vilified as they are, but I don’t think the “new atheism” is right way to push atheism further. Also, the barefoot bum guy is an intellectual snob. Ignore him.

    • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
      November 16, 2010

      A quick comment, Jaqueline, in defense of the Dawkins circle: I think ‘absolute faith’ is something that distinguishes fundamental religious folks from scientists and thinkers like Dawkins and Hitchens. Dawkins explicitly claims whenever he can that on a scale of 1 to 7 (one being absolutely certain that there is a god and 7 being absolutely certain there isn’t) he is a 6, and Hitchens and the rest will always claim something similar. This is due to the nature of the argument – of course, there’s no way to wholly disprove god’s existence, though it is my opinion that science has given us a pretty fair idea. You’re right to doubt atheism. The paradox of atheism is that every true atheist knows there’s no such thing. I wouldn’t want you to hold yourself up over a linguistic technicality, is all. I also cringe to hear you use the word ‘dogma’ to describe new atheism, because it seems to me that dogma is precisely what new atheism seeks (to my mind, successfully) to get rid of. I could go into this at far greater length (perhaps I will in a future post…), but for now here’s a video which includes Sam Harris making that very point (I can’t recall the exact time at which he makes it, so it might take some searching):

      • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
        November 16, 2010

        Ugh, misspelling of your name depressingly noted. Sorry, Jacqueline. If you respond, here’s a free pass to call me ‘Brain’.

      • Jacqueline Moss permalink
        November 16, 2010

        No worries about the the name typo, there are a lot of letters, and frankly, I didn’t even notice it until you pointed it out. Your points are well taken, and I think it may just be the way that Hitchens in particular comes off. I’ve read Hitchens and seen many of his interviews, and while his points are well reasoned and to the point, he comes off (sometimes) to me as a bit of a snob about what he believes, and that provides fodder for those who delight in attacking the rationale behind atheism. Maybe its just the way he is edited, or the way the media portrays him, but this is how he strikes me. Dawkins strikes me as less so, and Harris even less than Dawkins. Of the three, Harris is most definitely my favorite. I like how he approaches the topic of religion and atheism, he doesn’t come off as belittling those who do believe. Maybe its just an issue of style that makes me favor Harris over the other two. My father’s deep loathing of organized religion–as well as his complete condescension to those who did believe–was instilled in me at a young age. But as I have grown older, learned more, met more people of diverse belief, I have maintained by distinct dislike of organized religion, but I have learned that looking down your nose and belittling those who do have faith doesn’t get anyone anywhere. And from what I have read/watched/been exposed to, the “new atheism” differs from the old in that is more dogmatic. I can’t tell you how many atheists have jumped up and down upon me because I said that while there is no proof that god exists, there is also no proof that god doesn’t exist. There is substantial evidence that suggests there is no divine creator, but its not definitive. Maybe I’m just projecting my personal experiences/discussions with young “new” atheists onto the group as a whole, but the ones I have met have done nothing to endear me to their cause, because they seem to be more interested in making me look stupid and convincing me that they are right than in having a thoughtful discussion.

      • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
        November 16, 2010

        Hitchens is incredibly fierce. I tend to enjoy this about him, but I understand how it could easily have the opposite effect. My absolute favorite on the subject is a predecessor of all those we’ve mentioned: Bertrand Russell. Russell is even more devastating than Hitchens and this is directly due to his cordiality. He manages, with perfect politeness and brevity, to completely obliterate not only the arguments for god’s existence, but also those for his goodness. ‘Why I Am Not A Christian’ is perhaps the best book written of its kind and one that, after reading your concerns, I think you’d greatly appreciate.

      • Jacqueline Moss permalink
        November 17, 2010

        I have heard of Bertrand Russell, but haven’t explored his work. Though based on my googling, he seems really fascinating, and I’ve added ‘Why I’m Not a Christian’ to my enormous pile of “to read”. Fierce is a good way to describe Hitchens, and while I can appreciate that, I find it a bit counterproductive. I do find that demolishing someone’s flawed logic is so much more effective when done with cordiality and politeness, and I adore people who can do that.

  5. November 17, 2010

    Everyone – I want to take the time to respond to all your comments, and will do so as I get the chance, I just want to do them all justice. I appreciate all the feeback!

  6. December 8, 2010

    How is one an Episcopalian and an atheist? That is nonsensical. Not to be too blunt, but if you can’t watch a race, you’re probably not a NASCAR fan. If you can’t pray the BCP, you’re probably not Episcopalian. I just found that an odd turn of phrase.

    You’re right to point out that the only really “new” thing about the New Atheists is their evangelical nature. It is a relatively new thing in the West for anyone to claim to be totally a-theist. It is quite new to be so excited about atheism as to want to share that ‘good news’ (or “gospel”) with the rest of the world.

    Two factors are commonly ignored: 1) there is nothing new about the actual arguments of “new” atheists. Science has done nothing to disprove the God that Christians worship, because something that deals only with natural phenomenon is simply not capable of disproving what super-natural. 2) despite modernity’s claims about the “death” of religion/God over the last couple of hundred years, most of the world keeps right on worshiping. It is too easy for us educated Westerners to overlook how much atheism (especially it its “new” form) is a phenomenon of elite Western culture. Most of the world has not heard of Christopher Hitchens, and is quite satisfied to worship something other than human reason or the scientific method.

    I am interested in the intersection of women and Christianity, though. I suppose my own view is to say that religion will probably never be anything more than a hobby or a means to an end for those who place women higher than, or in place of, a deity. It seems odd to judge the validity of all religions based on how they treat women (which is itself an immensely complicated question); it seems more likely that feminism has become the religion, at least in the sense of women and women’s issues being that which is of ultimate concern. That is not to say I am not sympathetic to the ways in which my own faith community has mistreated women. I have a certificate in gender studies in part to show that – but more importantly, I know every day that my church (and all the others that I know of) would simply not function without the women with whom I am privileged to be in ministry.

    • Brian Fabry Dorsam permalink
      December 8, 2010

      ‘Science has done nothing to disprove the God that Christians worship, because something that deals only with natural phenomenon is simply not capable of disproving what [is] super-natural.’

      It has long been my feeling that in a natural world it is the supernatural that must prove its vitalness. You are surely right that science is incapable of affirming the non-exitence of anything, but this used as a detraction against science is rather impotent, because it suggests that any proposal is valid by nature, which of course is untrue, as I’m sure you’d agree. In fact, science has done a great deal to render the god hypothesis unhelpful and irrelevant, though I suppose this is where we disagree.

      • December 8, 2010

        I’m not sure we are justified in saying that the world is primarily “natural” simply because the best tools we have at our disposal can only reveal that world. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning Said, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes – The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”

        And I wasn’t trying to “detract” from science in any way, but merely to point out its limitations. I think that the God vs. science mantra has been overplayed ad nauseum. The truth will vindicate itself. Neither God, nor my faith in Him, have anything to fear from science. This is especially true if, as is usually the case, the ‘god’ in question is a only a hypothesis, an uninterested clockmaker, an abstraction, and not the living, active, loving God revealed in the Bible and in the lives of the saints.

        Unfortunately, what I know all too well is that it is some of God’s followers, much more than science, that has harmed belief in God. I lament that I myself have likely been the cause of atheism, to some degree or another.

  7. Jeremy permalink
    January 5, 2011

    Two points:

    “When I simply say “atheism” I mean the disbelief in the existence of a deity.”
    Atheism is not a negative non-belief. Atheism is a positive belief in the non-existence of a deity. “I don’t believe in God, or a god,” is not the same as saying ” I believe there is no god.” The first defines atheism in the terms of a god-believer, the second on its own terms.

    Checking off “no religion” shouldn’t necessarily imply that one is an atheist, nor should it be inferred. I know plenty of people who believe in a god, or are at the very least agnostic, who do not participate in a religion per se.

    Madalyn Murray O’Hare, anybody? Possibly the most influential American atheist, at least from a legal standpoint, and certainly the most prominent female atheist (although she has been dead for around 20 years).

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