One of the most notable traits of the white evangelical church today is the rampant, toxic patriarchal sexism. It is one of the many reasons that so many people, including women, are leaving the church. Notably, many women who leave their toxic churches stay religious or spiritual, but I’m not talking about them today. I’m talking about women, men, and atheism.
Being an atheist is an interesting thing. In secular communities, atheists and other nonreligious people are encouraged to critically examine the religious beliefs we were taught in church and by our families. For the first time, we are told we can actually think for ourselves. And for many of us, we tend to find that the religious beliefs we were indoctrinated with were baloney.
When we have this epiphany, we are rightfully angry. But this anger has escalated to the point that atheists have garnered a reputation as angry, ultra-logical know-it-alls who are convinced we’re smarter than everyone else.
Men are probably more likely to be atheist because stereotypical characteristics of atheists align with stereotypical characteristics of men. This alignment creates a “stereotype threat” condition for women. There’s a much great[er] social stigma for women to identify as atheist.Julie McVey
This was a comment shared in the chat during the Zoom webinar discussing the American Atheists and Secular Woman report on Nonreligious Women in America in March 2022. Julie’s short but brilliant comment gave me the realization of what may be a large cause of atheism’s gender discrepancy.
The masculine nature of atheism
Well, maybe Julie is brilliant or maybe she just read the report. It contained a similar line:
Stereotypes about atheists reflect perceptions about masculinity, meaning that there is a greater cost for nonreligious women, who are perceived as violating gender norms (Schnable [sic], et al., 2016). As one researcher explained, “men do not face the risk of seeming less masculine by embracing what is portrayed as an emotionless, scientific, masculine belief” (Miller, 2013).Nonreligious Women in America: A Brief from the U.S. Secular Survey
As it turns out, Miller’s paper also quoted the book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars by Sikivu Hutchinson where Miller likely got the idea from. I don’t have the book to pull from directly, but the paper shares the following quote:
Patriarchy entitles men to reject organized religion with few implications for their gender-defined roles… men do not run the risk of compromising their masculinity if they question, don’t participate in, and/or actively reject organized religion.Sikivu Hutchinson, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, p. 33
I fully agree with this great point from Hutchinson, Miller, Schnabel, McVey, and the writers of the Nonreligious Women report. When I first saw Julie McVey’s comment, I had an “Of course!” moment.
Atheism and men’s stereotypes
“Stereotypical characteristics of atheists align with stereotypical characteristics of men.” Think about it.
The (usually) unspoken rules of atheism are eerily similar to the values of toxic masculinity that men are often imbued with for their whole lives. The number one rule of toxic masculinity is “Don’t show emotion. Don’t even have emotions.” In atheism, it is not quite “Don’t have emotions,” but rather “Don’t be guided by emotions. Be purely rational.”
The two also share a rule of “Remember that you are smarter than everyone else. If you are ever doubting yourself, remember, you’re right and everyone else is wrong.” And “You don’t need anyone but yourself. You’re independent, not a follower of someone else.”
More simply, the similarities boil down to the fact that men are seen as the most logical, rational, smart gender. When society sees men that way, it tends to constantly reinforce the idea by always telling men that they are the smartest, most logical, and most rational. And atheists self-identify as the smartest and most logical, sometimes so much so that you end up with atheist leaders prompting their audience to “Discuss” trans people’s identities like it’s just another question at debate club.
Atheism provides a perfect space for men to speak their minds, be leaders, and swear off any and all emotional decision-making. Even if any given man was not in a position of power in church, he is more likely to have that opportunity in atheist online spaces. After all, if you’re a man who’s deconverted from religion but you didn’t start your own podcast to talk about it, then did you really deconvert?
Atheism and women’s stereotypes
Miller’s paper outlines the flip side of the toxic masculine coin: the innocent white woman and the religious Black woman, both of whom are betraying their gender by being atheists.
Directly following the previous Hutchinson quote, Miller explains that “women are faced with the possibility of being seen as not feminine, or worse, ‘fallen’ in the eyes of the religious culture around them.” Stereotypically, women are told by society that we ought to be moral, polite, and soft-spoken. If we’re not, then we may pass immoral behavior onto our children. The stereotype of the angry, outspoken atheist simply doesn’t match up with the stereotype of the moral, soft-spoken woman.
Black women are told the same thing as white women in terms of the instruction to be quiet and polite, but as in most parts of life, they’re burdened with even more stereotypes and rules. They also ought to be wise and spiritual, and they must bring their children to church or else the children will miss out on what is one of the staples of many Black communities. Miller quotes Hutchinson again:
“Insofar as atheism is an implicit rejection of both black patriarchy and authentic blackness, those who dare to come out of the closet as atheists are potential race traitors.” On the other hand, white people do not face the threat of seeming “less white” by rejecting belief, nor do men face the risk of seeming less masculine by embracing what is portrayed as an emotionless, scientific, masculine lack of belief.Ashley F. Miller, The Non-Religious Patriarchy: Why Losing Religion Has Not Meant Losing White Male Dominance
Atheism in a patriarchal society
Obviously, a lack of belief in a god or gods is not a gender-specific concept. But our society is structured in a way that tells men to be logical and women to be innocent and quiet. It so happens that atheists usually value logic over emotion, and many atheists see their newfound freedom from religion to be a chance to finally shout their disdain for religion from the rooftops, earning themselves a name as brash intellectualizers. For gender-based, rather than religion-based reasons, men are socialized to be more comfortable being these outspoken, tactless geniuses than women are.
Thus, men rise to the top of atheist spaces like fat on water. The church is intentionally structured by men to put men at the top, and women leave the church just to find themselves in another space that is also predisposed to have men on top. Sexism, like racism, is woven into the fabric of society.
It’s a shame that atheist spaces end up taking this shape. Living in a patriarchal society means that men tend to dominate most spaces anyway, and the atheist space is no different. However, we shouldn’t see this as a coincidence. It would be a coincidence if men actually were, by nature, more logical than women, but they’re not. Men just so happen to be socialized to see themselves as more logical which helps them to become leaders in atheism. And they just so happen to be more holy and connected to God when the setting is a religious one, and that’s coincidentally the traits the leader needs in that space.
Men create structures that always somehow work “best” with men at the top, not unlike how white racists created race in order to have a hierarchy to put themselves at the top of.
Atheism for all genders
Atheists claim to be more progressive than the rest of society, but often it is only to set ourselves apart from the church rather than because it is unequivocally the right thing to do. When white atheist men are asked to center someone other than themselves, they refuse, kicking and screaming. The latest evidence of this is the many responses to this photo of a single slide of a presentation by Black Nonbelievers president, Mandisa Thomas, at the April 2022 American Atheists Convention.
Even though that “controversy” (read: white supremacist outrage) was focused primarily on race more than gender, the fact that the speaker was a Black woman and the dissenters were all, or almost all, white men, means that in cases like this, the power dynamics of race and gender are inextricable.
How atheists can be better
Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to the problem of toxic masculinity expressing itself in atheism when that atheism lives inside a patriarchal society. We can work on ourselves as atheists, and go to work in atheist spaces, but the effects of male dominance and society’s implicit hatred of women permeates every part of society. For example, the Nonreligious Women’s report suggests some interesting ways to address its findings.
The report urges secular organizations to give women the freedom to attend events by making the events child-friendly or by providing childcare. More surprising to me, however, was the survey’s result that
Nonreligious women surveyed were more likely than other participants to engage in social, volunteer, or advocacy activities and less likely to attend debates or lectures. This data may reflect the observations of researchers during the focus groups conducted prior to the U.S. Secular Survey, where gendered expectations during mixed-gender focus groups resulted in women being more frequently interrupted and talked over.Nonreligious Women in America: A Brief from the U.S. Secular Survey
The epidemic of men interrupting everyone is rampant in society and will not be solved overnight. This problem is not exclusive to atheist spaces, of course, but the omnipresent habit that men are socialized to have, does have an effect on atheist spaces. Maybe if atheist men, specifically, can work on this, then women can see that atheist groups are the one place they will be heard.
Furthermore, I suspect that women might be more interested in advocacy activities than lectures not because we are less intellectual but because we are generally treated worse by society and may have more of a stake in the issues we advocate for. Some of us simply do not have the luxury to sit around and pontificate about the origin of morality or the evolution of birds when we are fighting for survival and reproductive justice.
But until men stop interrupting us and we have universal reproductive justice, neither of which I imagine will happen very quickly, the survey report suggests steps that that atheist organizations can take:
- Be responsive to the needs and interests of nonreligious women in terms of your activities and opportunities for engagement
- Disrupt sexism and create a welcoming environment
- Understand that access to reproductive services, discrimination, and other issues that have a disparate impact on nonreligious women are secular issues
Strength in diversity
Historically, atheism has been a space best suited for men. And when women speak up, it’s dubbed “woke” atheism, or Atheism Plus. But a feminist framework for atheism is none of these things. When the atheist space prioritizes men and their identities and voices, that space is severely limited and weaker.
When the atheist space amplifies the voices of women—especially women of color—and gender-expansive folks, that doesn’t mean we are sacrificing intellect for political correctness. All it means is that we are stronger when atheists of all backgrounds and genders are fighting together for freedom from religious bigotry.