you're reading...
Activism, Atheism

Women in Atheism: What do they *really* talk about?

For many weeks now, I’ve been hesitant to comment on what has become known as “Elevatorgate.”  If you’ve been under a rock, here’s the synopsis.  Atheist blogger and feminist Rebecca Watson was propositioned in an elevator by a drunk guy late at night after a speaking gig at a conference.  “Elevator Guy” politely (but awkwardly) asked her if she’d like to have coffee in his room.  Rebecca took umbrage. Rebecca made a video.

In the weeks that have followed, Elevatorgate has become the biggest scandal in atheism since… well… I don’t know.  But it’s been a huge deal.  Men and women on both sides of the fence have lined up, swords drawn.  The more radical wing of “atheist feminists” threatened to boycott Richard Dawkins — THE Richard Dawkins  — because he used a little snarky language while admitting he didn’t understand why the whole thing was a big deal.  The more “mainstream” wing of female atheists have responded with more than snark while informing Rebecca Watson that her brand of feminism does not represent them or their views.  It’s just been ugly, and painful to watch.

One of the reasons I’ve waited this long to mention Elevatorgate is that I don’t want to comment on Elevatorgate.  I honestly don’t believe there’s anything to be said that hasn’t been said ad nauseum.  Those who side with Rebecca Watson, et al., and those who oppose them are unlikely to change their mind at this point, and that’s really just all there is to it.

Still, Elevatorgate has bothered me on a deep level, and I’ve found myself wanting to say something constructive about women in the atheist movement.  It pains me to see what religion does to women, and now that the dust in the elevator shaft is settling, we seem no closer to the original question.  If anyone happens to remember, we used to be very interested in figuring out how to attract women to the atheist movement, and encourage them to be actively and openly involved in secular causes.  Like practically every other person in the “atheist movement,” I’d like to see more women at conferences, more women on podiums, and more women getting involved in any way they would like.  But what is there for this one male atheist to say that hasn’t been said?  The answer came to me last week when I was helping a friend data-mine for a school project.

One of my favorite atheist bloggers, Greta Christina, has been saying it for months, and PZ Myers has been acting as a megaphone, spreading the meme all over the internet.  “Listen to women.”  If you want to know what women are interested in, and what will draw them into the atheist movement, listen to them.  What bothered me about that approach, however, was that the only women speaking loudly about women in the atheist movement were… Rebecca Watson and her stump-mates.  And while their opinions are certainly important, they are not representative of all women. I know that because I’ve listened to a lot of women say so.

I decided to listen to women by doing some data mining of my own.  For the past few years, I’ve been slowly accumulating Facebook friends, of whom, nearly all are atheists and agnostics.  (Most only knew that I was an atheist, and found me through atheist groups like “American Atheists” and “Atheists Networking” on Facebook.)  I’ve got over 2500 now.  This is what scientists would call a representative sample.  Since everything we say on Facebook stays on Facebook until five years after the earth is destroyed by our sun’s supernova, I also have a great reservoire of things female atheists have talked about.

I began my survey by selecting a hundred American female Facebook friends as randomly as I could.  I then examined each for frequency of posts, and “open atheism.”  I discarded any friends who either post very infrequently or did not have anything about atheism on their wall.  I was left with 48 female atheists to listen to.   I discarded all the mundane comments — “Hey, sweetie, haven’t seen you in a while, let’s have lunch,” for example.  I kept track of shared articles, original wall posts, comments on photos, and other miscellaneous items which had “serious content.”   I got a pencil and paper and made little scribbles for about nine thousand hours.  Or nine.  I can’t remember.  I spent another three hours parsing all my little scribbles with Excel and making them into a coherent set of categories.  The result is what I believe represents a very good sample of what women are talking about within the “atheist movement” over the last two months.  Here are the top three results:



5 thoughts on “Women in Atheism: What do they *really* talk about?

  1. Hey Hamby, I’m intentionally leaving this comment here so it won’t get drowned out by the noise elsewhere. 😉

    Something you or someone else said about trying to ‘mainstream’ the atheist ‘movement’ made me want to suggest to you two important books that might be of interest to you in regards to how to do accomplish that feat.

    The first is called Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore. It talks about how there is a big difference in the way you should market to the ‘technical innovator’ market vs. the mainstream market, and this big difference is like a ‘chasm’ as opposed to a continuous slope up a hill. IMO, this book, when read, should be closely followed up with his sequel, called Inside the Tornado, which gives a concrete strategy for achieving mainstream success after the ‘chasm’ has been crossed, which, it could be said, is possibly the case for the ‘atheist movement’.

    The second (well, third, I guess) is called The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen. It talks about the recurring pattern of how markets can evolve by overthrowing the previously dominant mainstream by a new innovation, seemingly out of nowhere. This could arguably be said to be the case in the ‘atheist movement’s’ threat of overthrowing mainstream American Christianity, seemingly ‘out of nowhere’.

    Although these books are ostensibly about high-tech (or at least technological) marketing, I believe they have legitimacy in a broader sense and probably (IMHO) apply well to our efforts in the ‘atheist movement’. I know that personally they’ve given me huge insights into how mass public changes can occur even when the odds seem overwhelming against it. Hope you get a chance to read them. I think you’d enjoy them.


    Posted by Wonderist | September 8, 2011, 8:11 am
  2. Thaumus, thank you very much for the recommendations. Those sound like precisely the kind of differences in marketing I’m trying to wrap my brain around.

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | September 10, 2011, 1:56 pm
  3. PG says:

    Indeed Wonderist!

    It’s obvious that Atheism needs Gorilla type Marketing to manipulate the public to “buy” its product since word of mouth and referral recommendations are a dismal failure to the movement! It would never occur to Atheist to first produce a high quality product before releasing it to the public, because right now the public aint buying any of it!

    Posted by PG | September 11, 2011, 11:50 am
  4. I don’t get this Rebecca Watson chick. Does she not know the wide range of reactions that men get when they make a pass? There are women that will agree to date us or even have sex with us when we proposition women like this, you also get the polite no thanks and the attitude that she has. So what does she expect men to do? We can’t read women’s minds ahead of time so we go for it.

    Also she should be glad that all of her parents, grandparents and ancestors for millions of years ‘sexuallized’ someone, otherwise she wouldn’t be here. This woman just needs to get a clue about how the world really works.

    I’m curious why the gender gap in atheism vs. Christianity. Anyone have a theory on why athiesm so less appealing to women. Is atheist woman kind of synonomous with ‘slut’ or ‘bitch’ in the Christian world?

    Posted by BOh | November 10, 2011, 11:48 pm
  5. Thanks for the comment, BOh. There are several theories as to why the gender gap in atheism exists. Also, the question you’ve asked really represents two different questions:
    1. Why in America are women under-represented in the population of atheists?
    One answer to this question is suggested by the question itself. In cultures that are primarily atheist, women are just as likely as men to be atheists. America is primarily Christian, and there is a gender gap. In American culture, women travel in groups. You seldom see women by themselves at bars, restaurants, or other similar social situations. Because women are more reliant than men on their social group, it is suggested, women are more sensitive to the peer pressure to be Christian.
    There’s another answer that I actually like a little better. In a recent survey, both men and women were allowed to self-identify with as many or few labels as they wanted, or to write in their own. These answers were then cross-referenced with answers they gave in the rest of the survey to find an accurate description of what the people believe. It turns out, if you let women explain precisely what they mean when they say they are “spiritual but not religious,” you discover that many of them are actually atheists. For women more than men, “spirituality” describes a set of sensibilities about life, not a belief in a metaphysical entity. So there might actually be much less of a gender gap than we are led to believe by the surveys.
    2. Why in the American Atheist Movement are women under-represented?
    That’s the $64,000 question. Lots of people have theories, and there is probably some truth to a lot of them. There is certainly a lack of topics and issues that appeal to women enough to go to the conferences or send in the membership dues. But I think this gap will begin to close over the next few years as secular issues become more and more directly relevant to everyone. With the current Republican assault on women’s rights, the secular movement is a natural fit for women. With joblessness, cuts in education, and so forth, families will be more directly affected by religion in politics. Historically, it’s been the case that when you start messing with children and families, women start becoming activists. It might not be politically correct to say it, but it’s a historical fact. And it will probably hold true again.

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | November 12, 2011, 2:54 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow Me On Twitter!

%d bloggers like this: