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What the New Atheism's Gender Gap Tells You


Emma Green at The Atlantic has an interesting article about the sociology of atheism, pegged to a newly published scholarly examination of the subject, Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America (Oxford University Press), by Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith ("The Origins of Aggressive Atheism"). This a fascinating and under-discussed topic.

9780199986323.jpegWhat strikes me is the maleness of the "New Atheist" phenomenon. The stereotyped picture of a sea of ponytailed males at the atheist conference is not just a stereotype. As Green points out, survey information reveals a huge gender disparity. Of the U.S. population as a whole, women make up more than half, 52 percent. But according to Pew Research Center data, among declared atheist/agnostics, women account for only 36 percent. Whoa!

There's a logic to all-male institutions, as to all-female ones. But show me a party to which women are invited but that they overwhelmingly choose to avoid, and I'll show you a party to which I'd ask you to remember not to invite me.

By contrast, other faith affiliations reflect the overall population, or favor women slightly. For example, white Evangelical Christians are 55 percent female, Catholics 52 percent, African-American Protestants 57 percent.

What does this tell you? For one thing, it helps explain the problem in atheist communities such as they are -- mostly online -- with truly repugnant sexual attitudes about women. No woman I can imagine would feel comfortable in a context like the popular atheist discussion forums at Reddit. If you don't mind getting upset, you can read atheist and Skepchick blogger Rebecca Watson's expos´┐Ż of one particular discussion about -- well, read it for yourself, if you like. It is disgusting.

As Emma Green notes, the atheist community also skews young, which should come as no surprise. Maturity, including marriage and family, often brings with it the realization that no, you don't have everything all figured out. The young, I think, are also less likely to have gained the emotional intelligence to realize that arrogant, braying mockery -- of faith or anything else -- may please your base but it does nothing to win anyone over to your view. If anything, to the contrary.

"It's definitely one of their strategies," said [Richard] Cimino. "There is this strong attempt to be kind of irreverent." This is a quality particular to "new atheism," he said, a term for Dawkins-style arguments against faith, which rely heavily on science and invocations of rationalism. "There's a sense that once you make fun of it, you can kind of demystify religion," he added.

Is that so? Considering aggressive atheism in sociological terms has this welcome effect: it reminds you that while these guys habitually "invoke" science, something else is going on as well. If their hostility to religion followed simply from the dispassionate application of science, I don't see why the gender gap, nor the sexism, the anger, etc., would plague the atheist contingent as it does.

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Photo source: Richard Masoner/Flickr.