Tobin Grant at the Religion News Service highlighted a startling trend in the recent unpacking of the 2012 National Election Survey. According to Grant's analysis:
The first answer is simple: women rarely consider themselves to be atheists. Gender problems well-known among those active in atheist or secular groups. The survey found nearly half of secular woman eschew both “atheist” and “agnostic” in favor of “spiritual but not religious.” Men are nearly twice as likely to identify as “atheist” or “agnostic”.Obviously, as a woman, a feminist and an atheist, I'm curious. My background as a Christian fundamentalist makes me want to explore this further also--leaving behind the misogyny of religion was one of the most freeing experiences of my life.
I am not exactly sure how this will shape up as I begin writing it. Today's post is a long overview of some of the issues, but we are going to talk about atheism's inclusion problem and reasons why women tend to be more spiritual than men in more detail in the future. Spoiler alert! No, I don't agree with this guy:
But we'll come back to that after a while.
It's not just that women don't want to identify as atheists.
Women overall tend to be more religious than men. A 2008 Pew Research Center poll showed:
Let's start by taking a look at atheism's gender inclusion problem.
When I say "highlighted a startling trend", I mean "highlighted it for me". As I began digging into the subject, it quickly became apparent that there are a lot of people writing about this subject, and they have been writing about it for a while. I think it would do well for us to look at the New Atheism movement first.
Victoria Bekiempis wrote for Bitch Media that the New Atheism movement can really be traced to Wired in 2006, when they defined the "New Atheists" as Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett and Sam Harris, all noted authors and controversial representatives of the movement. In a recent online discussion, someone posited that the reason that atheists face discrimination is because men like these have strong opinions. I disagree, but alas! I digress.
Our point here is that, in naming these men so publicly, the move solidified the avatar of atheism in the public mind: a white male in his fifties to sixties. Not exactly diverse. Bekiempis argues that this was a glaring oversight. Female voices were not lacking as she points out:
Yet though Hecht's and Jacoby's books both came out shortly before Wired bestowed its "New Atheist" designation on the likes of Dawkins and Harris (whose The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reasonwas published the same year as Jacoby's Freethinkers), neither woman is invoked in the mainstream media's anointing of atheist thought leaders. Is it that "rationality"—the bedrock of New Atheist doctrine—is historically gendered male, while women are considered more emotional? Is it that their books are too conciliatory toward religion, too well balanced, too, you know, womanly? Nope. Both women are accomplished, strong-voiced scholars, and are no more afraid than their male colleagues to call out religion's injustices in a public forum—that is to say, not afraid at all. And as for those whose knee-jerk response to the abundance of critical acclaim accorded male writers over female ones is the classic "Maybe their books just weren't as good/original/ambitious," nope again. Indeed, Hitchens recognized Hecht's influence on the bestselling God Is Not Great, writing in the acknowledgments section: "Jennifer Michael Hecht put me immensely in her debt when she sent me a copy of her extraordinary Doubt: A History."Indeed, Bekiempis makes a strong argument for the idea that women's contributions are consistently overlooked by those both participating in and talking about nonbelief:
These statements should sound ridiculous because, of course, they are. From Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the founder of American Atheists, whose 1963 Supreme Court lawsuit brought an end to prayer in public schools, to Sergeant Kathleen Johnson, who started an organization for atheists in the United States military, to Debbie Goddard, founder of African Americans for Humanism, countless women have worked as successful atheist activists. They've penned books, run organizations, and advocated on behalf of religiously repressed citizens. But you might not guess that from the popular portrayal and perception of atheism in America, which overwhelmingly treats the contemporary class of non-God-fearing freethinkers (also known as secularists, skeptics, and nonbelievers) as a contentious, showboating boys' club.Gender is not the end of atheism's inclusion problem, by far. Many feel that the movement, which has strong appeal for people from a variety of backgrounds, doesn't capitalize on its position in opposition to religion. It's not an argument that religion across the millennia has promoted gender and racial inequality. Even Christianity, whose Christ ministered to the most vulnerable around him, can be seen twisted to support the idea that poverty is a natural outcome of the human existence and people should be happy about it.
But today, we are discussing mostly gender. We are wondering, again, "Why are fewer women atheists than men?"
Do women possess innate characteristics that make them more prone to spirituality and religiosity?
Personally, I don't fully agree or disagree that women possess innate characteristics--or that men do, for that matter. I saw, in the course of researching this post, someone liken it to a bell curve. If you put both extremes of a behavior on a graph, and you graph where individuals fall, you're going to find that most, regardless of gender, fall near the middle. You may have one peak a little in one direction, or a the other a little in another direction, but the peaks will be fairly close to each other. I'd argue that in many cases the difference between the two would be statistically insignificant.
What is relevant to our discussion of nonbelief and gender, however, is that women and men are perceived as having different innate characteristics. Here's a quick list I found over at PsychAlive in a piece called "Sex Stereotyping":
Common Sexual Stereotypes of Men:
Men are tough and powerful.
Men are unfeeling and insensitive.
Men are logical, sensible and rational.
Men are afraid to commit in a relationship and form an attachment.
Men are primarily interested in their careers or vocations.
Men do not have a primary interest in marriage and parenthood.
Common Sexual Stereotypes of Women:
Women are helpless and childish.
Women are sensitive and intuitive.
Women are scatterbrained, unstable and irrational.
Women can easily form deep emotional attachments.
Women do not have a primary interest in careers or vocations.
Women are primarily interested in a long term relationship and parenthood.Because society perceives that men and women possess these characteristics, gender socialization is proceeds with them in mind. Thus men--who are supposed to be more concerned with careers--are often socialized into a more secular mindset than women--who are supposed to be more concerned with home and hearth.
We can also see the difference in emphasis on emotional attachment and relationships. With most religions emphasizing a personal relationship with a deity, that the sex better socialized to adapt to relationship needs and prioritize them also is the more spiritual and religious should come as no surprise.
The emphasis on men as logical and women as irrational also causes issues. Women are less likely to enter STEM fields already, and they are less likely to be pushed to approach the world logically and rationally. There's still a strong belief that women are less talented in math and science, or less drawn to it at the least, persistent in our society today. Not to tell on myself too much, but I was shocked to find that the creator of Kevlar--which I trusted to keep both my father and husband safe during their service--was, in fact, a woman. Examining that feeling was not pretty. The internalized misogyny in it was painful to poke at, to say the least.
Men also argue that women are more emotional, and thus drawn to religion. On the flip side, spirituality welcomes men more now, as Vatche Bartekian explains:
In general, women tend to be more spiritual by nature than men. That probably has to do with the fact that women are emotional creatures, while men are more rational. Recently, however, rationalism and logic have been playing a big part in spiritual experiences. Therefore, men have become more aware of their spiritual side.This too points out that stereotypes about inherent characteristics of the sexes actually cause rifts within spirituality--with women naturally drawn to it supposedly but men only able to really connect with it once it became more rational.
Blogger April Cassidy pointed out the evidence in favor of women being "spiritually superior to men" in a really trippy piece:
We will talk more about Cassidy in a bit, but the differences between men and women--here highlighted by the negative behavior of males--are strong within spiritual communities. Women are consistently taught that they are, in fact, more spiritual by nature than the men around them. Caroline Kline, a Mormon Feminist, points out on her Feminism and Religion blog:
- boys get in trouble a whole lot more in school than girls do
- girls have higher grades in school than boys on average
- there are MANY more men in prison than women
- men commit the vast majority of violent crimes
- there are many more women in church than men in many places, and more women are willing to take on leadership/volunteer/teaching roles in church than men today
- dads are by far, are the ones who are the “deadbeats” in the court systems
- the majority of people with porn addictions are men – (although the women are gaining fast on this one)
In the Mormon tradition, women are often held up by Church leaders and members as naturally more spiritual and selfless than men. While it’s nice that Mormonism escapes traditional Christian conceptions of women’s nature being inherently deceptive, seductive, and sinful (these ideas stem from the Eve narrative in Genesis 2), this characterization of women as naturally spiritual and selfless does present problems for some Mormon feminists like myself.Others, like Jan Lundy, point out that the inward facing nature of women results naturally from our many changing roles:
As women mature, they inevitably question who they are. Our identities are always changing. We are single, then married; childless, then mothers; making choices between caregiving and working outside the home. Due to women’s changing roles, we are in a continuous state of change and growth, wondering and wandering from one stage to the next asking ourselves, “Who am I now?”
It is quite natural for us, then, to be drawn to the stability of a system that consistently defines our behavior at every level.
Women are also socialized to avoid conflict, something that may put them off of secularism in its current form, as Katie Engelhart points out in a list of potential causes for this statistical difference:
Writers have suggested that the doggedness of New Atheism tends to turn off women—and that, for social reasons, women don’t muster the same militancy when defending their (non)beliefs. Others have looked to sexism within the Atheist community (read:Elevatorgate). A few have made unconvincing references to biology. And some academics blame the fact that churches have pulled a retroactive fast one on history: falsely claiming credit for progress on the women’s front.All told, society--and religion in particular--encourage women to be spiritual through socialized norms and behaviors.
Does Christianity in particular encourage women to remain faithful?
I am unsurprised by the idea that women are more religious, personally. Although the idea that women would cling to a system that is so flagrantly and inherently misogynistic may seem counterintuitive, it matches well with my own experiences with Christian fundamentalism.
This section draws a good bit from personal experience, and so I will focus on Christianity. If there are any readers that would like to add in information about other religions, I truly would love to read it in the comments. I am interested to see what others have experienced. I am not a religious studies expert, however, and since this is a personal blog, I can only draw from what I know.
Christianity taught that women were the moral guardians of their homes. It was a call to mothers to guard their children and husbands from immorality. John W. Ritenbagh champions this way of thought:
In the United States, women have traditionally been the guardians of moral standards. In general, women have had high standards, while many men have held double standards. Amos, however, shows that the women of his day had slipped so far that they were "leading the pack" in immorality. And in America, the same is true: Women are becoming just as immoral as men. Between 1990 and 1991, according to the Uniform Crime Reports for the United States, the female crime rate increased 15.2 percent while the male crime rate increased by 17.4 percent.This may not jive well with the concept of women is immoral, flawed and weak because of the Curse of Eve, but it is nonetheless a foundational doctrine on gender roles. Women are the nurturers, and as such, they have a duty to impart the morality standards of their religion to their children. It is women that keep doctrine pure in the minds of the next generation of believers. A preacher that I once heard recounted, time and again, coming to Jesus at the knee of his beloved mother, who read stories from the Bible to him and his siblings every day. This is the quintessential picture of the Christian woman.
Women also bear the brunt of the Genesis story of the fall of man. We were the ones that listened to the snake--that listened to doubt. Christianity encourages all believers to maintain vigilance against doubt, but it applies this to women in particular.
For Christians, doubt itself is particularly powerful. As Jennifer Michael Hecht pointed out in Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson:
Jesus spoke of doubt as a force that could erase the support beneath one's feet...belief is set up here not as a matter of belonging to a group but in terms of winning the battle against one's unbelief.Christianity at its most basic defines belief in terms of conquering doubt. It may be strange to think of Jesus in these terms. Obviously he believed in God; he claimed to be his son. But the role of doubt in Christianity is important to any discussion of gender in Christianity and nonbelief. The simple fact is, religion appeals to women who are socialized to believe in community and relationships more than nonbelief does. Religion also teaches that doubt and questioning are wrong. It was the Apostle Paul who pointed out most fervently that it is not for us mere mortals to ponder divine justice. Justice is God alone. And yet, it is pondering the innate justice of the world--or lack thereof--that can be quite foundational to doubt.
Does the Christian view of feminism contribute?
Yes, there actually are Christians that believe this. You'll remember I said we'd come back to Cassidy? Well, here is what she has to say about feminism:
Feminism looked at the world and saw the atrocities that some men were committing against women and identified that:
Men are the problem. Men are evil.
Women are good. Women being in charge is the answer to the world’s problems.
When we talked about the "Cover Your Boobs" blogger, I pointed out that many Christian women believe feminism is their enemy. This is a common message from pulpits around the country, and you can hear a full breakdown of it if you'll attend any holiday dinner with my dad's side of the family. In fact, I'll give you my seat...
Cassidy also enumerates that beliefs that she thinks feminists hold:
Among other things, the first and second waves of feminism taught that:
God is whoever you want “her” to be.
The God of the Bible was made up by “evil men”.
You are a goddess.
The Bible has no authority because it was “written by men” and “men are evil.”
The authorities God has established in His Word have no authority.
We can decide for ourselves what is right or wrong.
Existentialism – “Truth that is true for me”
We can redefine masculinity, femininity, marriage and family however we would like to.
Men and women are the same emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
Marriage oppresses women.
Motherhood oppresses women.
Children are a burden
Men oppress women.
The Bible oppresses women.
Church oppresses women.
Women need to have a career to be truly fulfilled as a person.
Marriage is “just a piece of paper.”
I am certain that there are feminists out there that believe these things, but to portray the entire movement in these terms? Well, that's just silly.
And yet, feminism is constantly under attack based off of similar faulty arguments in churches across the nation. Does this play a role in women's desire to remain spiritual? I believe so. By painting feminism--a secular cause--as an enemy, the church casts significant doubt on the ability of secularism to advance women's causes. It paints secularism as a less than desirable alternative to religion, which has a few verses that say men should treat women right.
The future of atheism has to be inclusive.
There's been a slight trend towards denial in secularism. We are most definitely not exempt from the concept of sexism and misogyny, and many female atheists encounter such in their interactions with the movement. Personally, I find this disappointed. As I pointed out in the intro, one of the draws to secularism for me was that it promised me egalitarianism. Without a gender dichotomy created by religious traditions, I would be on equal footing, with equal opportunity to my male comrades.
However, there is hope, as Chris Hall points out:
Greta Christina, the author of Coming Out Atheist describes the changes in organized atheism: “[T]he movement has become much more diverse — not just in the obvious ways of gender, race, and so on, but simply in terms of how many viewpoints are coming to the table. The sheer number of people who are seen in some way as leaders… has gone up significantly…. And the increasing diversity in gender, race, class, and so on are important. We have a long way to go in this regard, but we’re doing much, much better than we were. And that’s showing up in our leadership. It’s absurd to see Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris as representing all organized atheism — it always was a little absurd, but it’s seriously absurd now.”
Jamila Bey, the communications director of the Secular Student Alliance, summed up the concerns of many in a recent interview: “There are people who say, ‘Why are we talking about racism? We would rather argue that Chupacabra are fake.’ And fine, that is their right. On the other hand, I don’t get to divorce my critical thinking from my blackness, from my femaleness, from my position as a mother. So when I see the only affordable child care in my community being offered at churches, that’s an issue for me that makes me say ‘Wait a minute, there’s a problem here. Why am I not being afforded the opportunity for my child not to be indoctrinated just so my kid has somewhere to play and meet other children?’ I can’t divorce my whole life from my skepticism and for anybody who says, well , talking about female issues or talking about issues that impact black people, oh, that’s taking away from skepticism, I go, well that’s really easy for you to say. This is my life. I can’t divorce the issues. You can choose to not care about them or whatever, but don’t tell me I’m diminishing skepticism because I’m talking about the reality of what my life is.”Religion has a lot going for it. It's figured out the answer to most of our Big Questions™ and has millennia's worth of tradition on its side. It has well established and respected communities. It encourages relationships between people. It addresses the idea of social justice, and while many of us may not find that explanation satisfactory--I don't--it's at least something.
As atheists, we too have to find a solid common ground on which to build. Our nonbelief is one thing, but it is crucial that we begin to develop a true vision of what a secular world looks like in America. It's important that we begin to define that. How do we fill the gap that faith-based services currently fill? How do we help our most vulnerable? How do we show people that atheists are every bit as kind and caring as religions people? These are questions that are being addressed, and that should continue to be addressed.
Hall also said:
We are social creatures, and racism, misogyny, classism, and other prejudices affect our lives in ways that are just as solid as the earth orbiting the sun or our immune systems’ response to a vaccine. The activists who insist that atheism address matters of social justice are not distracting the movement from its purpose or being divisive; they are insisting it deliver on the promises that attracted so many of us to it in the first place.I very much agree. We want to say "atheism isn't a belief system", but it should be. Nonbelief is a belief in and of itself. And yet, we don't treat it as such. Belief systems address large swaths of social structure. What does that look like in the context of nonbelief?
We also need to address women and nonbelief in a cultural context, taking into account the programming women receive that encourages us to be spiritual or religious. Until we start doing this, we'll continue finding that women don't accept atheism. They don't want to identify with it when spirituality encompasses such a huge part of their identities.
These are most certainly the questions that will be at the forefront as we discuss inclusiveness in atheism. Hopefully we will see more women involved in answering them.