Back in March, in honor of Women's History Month, the New York City Atheists held their weekly discussion group on the topic: "Why Aren't There More Secular Women?" The group, a band of 60-plus white men who gather weekly to verbally spar over relevant philosophy and literature in the dark and dusty back room of Stone Creek Inn in Kips Bay, were overwhelmed with the newfound diversity as a handful of women trickled in. And what happened next was something none of the old-timers could have expected: The 20-to 30-year-old women who came lashed out about feeling unincluded and overrun within the atheist community, and the 60-year-old men reacted like rabid dogs backed into a corner, first tip-toeing and obviously uncomfortable and then attacking, if for no other reason than that they felt attacked themselves.
As a particularly unapologetic brand of "New Atheism" has risen in recent years, women are entering into the discussion with their guns blazing. Atheism boasts a basis in science, logic, and reason, yet age-old gender wars remain relevant within the atheist and skeptic community, with sexual harassment and exclusion of women at the forefront. They are the exact problems that most traditional religions attempt to deal with by way of restrictions on women's opportunities — to join the priesthood, to pray equally at holy sites, to wear what they want, to have sexual freedom, to have reproductive rights — and for the sexism within its ranks, atheism does not have a logical solution.
In a Huffington Post Live discussion on the subject last week, atheist author and activist Sikivu Hutchinson explained just that: "Atheist organizing is no different from other power structures that deeply inform the ways in which women are subjugated — within secular context and within the context of organized religion," she said.
For example, at an atheist conference in Dublin in 2011, Rebecca Watson, founder of Skepchick.org, a website devoted to the intersection of secularism and feminism, gave a speech on women's inclusion. She was subsequently hit on, and made a video blog using the encounter as an anecdote on the exact problem she was speaking out against. Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins commented on the video, dismissing her qualms and sparking vicious internet backlash.
Hutchinson said that women are already represented in smaller numbers in the atheist community because many without disposable income rely on social services provided by faith-based organizations, such as daycare. This is reflected statistically as a 2008 survey on American religious identification by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life concluded 60% of nonbelievers are men. Hutchinson said female atheist activists have made it a point to bring their perspective to the atheist community, as there are good reasons for women to be drawn to nonreligiosity and push back on the aspects of the skeptic community that are unwelcoming for women: "All of us have really been frontal in trying to push back on, critique and deconstruct these kinds of dehumanizing and policing behaviors that emerge within the web context and in real-time," she says.
Kim Rippere, founder of secularwoman.org, said the rifts can be partially attributed to the nature of skepticism and the lack of belief in anything at face value. "A lot of the problem has to do with hyperskepticism, which is the idea of 'how much evidence do you need to understand something?' Skeptics are someone who uses critical reasoning skills and how much evidence do you need to make the decision about something, whether it's accurate or not?" she said. She admits, "There is also a pervasive underlying issue of sexism, which is to a large degree the mirror of what we see in society."
Because of the eruptions over how to handle women's presence in the movement, at the New York atheists' meeting and in other circles, the idea of having a separate group and movement for women has been proposed, and almost universally shot down. The community compares the separation to Jim Crow's "separate-but-equal" laws, or norms in Orthodox Jewish and other religious communities in which women "choose" (as the result of overwhelming social pressure and oppressive gender norms) to dress modestly and stay in the home.
But Rippere said it's flawed to think the atheist community is progressive enough to look past gender boundaries. "Assuming we're in some post-gender society is fundamentally flawed, because we're not post-gender. Self-segregating with like-minded people is sort of what everybody does. I mean that's what atheist groups do, right? Or else we'd just have a group called humanity."