A Theology of Disbelief: Women, Religion, and Atheism
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 , 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 piece by Monica Shores cites a study that found there may be fewer women atheists overall, the study is ten years out of date–arguably a time period in which new atheism has blossomed–and it found that 41% of those who responded “no religion” were women.
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.  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. 
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.  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.  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.
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.
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. 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.
 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.
 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.”
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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).
 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.
 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.
 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.