Women are God-fearing and don’t challenge institutions. Men, on the other hand, are skeptical and rational, and go out of their way to publicly call bullshit on faith and religion—which is why today’s well-known secular thinkers, especially in the ranks of the New Atheism movement, are all male.
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.
In November 2006, Wired magazine identified Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, and Sam Harris as a “band of intellectual brothers” whose bestselling books on atheism, published between 2004 and 2006, heralded an era of 21st-century nonbelief. The media quickly dubbed this “the New Atheism.” What differentiates this movement from more old-school atheism (besides the mainstream media’s everpresent need to anoint, brand, and categorize thought leaders) is that New Atheists take a vehemently zero-tolerance approach to faith, mysticism, and even agnosticism. Though the basics are the same—nonbelief in a god or gods—the new system also calls for pushing nonbelief on others, almost to the point of abject proselytization.
In a sidebar titled “Faces of the New Atheism,” the article profiled a few other notable nonbelievers—Greg Graffin of the band Bad Religion, illusionists Penn and Teller, and writer Warren Allen Smith, with short tidbits illustrating how their atheism plays out in their lives and work. (Penn Jillette’s cars, for instance, feature license plates reading “ATHEIST” and “GODLESS.”) Shortly afterward, CNN followed up with “The Rise of the ‘New Atheists’,” a web story on the subject, which added to the clubhouse British journalist Christopher Hitchens, whose then-upcoming book was 2007’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. And Victor J. Stenger, an author and physicist, joined the bunch with the 2007 publication of his book God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist.
Attention kept increasing—and arguably still holds steady—for these men, who’ve collectively become the Michael Moores of nonbelief, garnering notice as much for pissing people off as for convincing others of the rightness of their stance. Socially approved public antagonists, they’ve debated religious firebrands like Dinesh D’Souza on national TV, as the mainstream media (never one to quash the ratings-grabbing potential of a fiery-tongued polemic) goads them on.
So is new-style atheism the sausage party that media coverage would suggest? Without getting into an impossible intellectual debate—the kind dealing with pinpointing exactly who was the first to come up with or popularize a particular idea—suffice it to say no, not hardly. Consider: In 2003, the intellectual historian and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht published Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson. The book traces famous nonbelievers throughout history, and advocates atheism on the grounds that these thinkers’ skepticism toward religious institutions fostered innovation in philosophy, literature, and science. It garnered rave reviews from the Los Angeles Times, which called it “marvelous,” and Skeptic magazine, which described it as a “stunning chronicle of unbelievers.” In 2004, journalist Susan Jacoby published the extensively praised work Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, a book that drew on the history of United States—in particular, the significant role secular thinkers have played in reform movements—to make the case that staunchly nonreligious thought should be the main driver of public policy.
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.”
Nevertheless, a statement on Stenger’s website identifies Harris’s book as the bellwether of contemporary atheist thought. On a page promoting his own book The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason, Stenger writes that The End of Faith “marked the first of a series of bestsellers that took a harder line against religion than has been the custom among secularists.” In an e-mail interview, Stenger acknowledged that female atheists do exist—name-checking Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wendy Kaminer, Rebecca Goldstein, and Michelle Goldberg as well as Jacoby—but the “New Athiests” referred to in his book’s promotional materials include none of these women.
Tom Flynn, editor of the secular humanist journal Free Inquiry and executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, agrees that there’s a strong gender skew in the atheist movement. Though organizations like his have worked to recruit and retain female members—with mixed results—he’s aware that more men are recognized as atheist leaders. That said, he won’t necessarily concede that there’s sexist intent behind that recognition, saying, “The numbers [of atheist authors] are so small, it’s largely coincidence that these authors who are all men emerge as superstars.”
READ ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE----> (as well as COMMENTS under the article)
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This is a very important article Jeanie. Thanks for sharing this. It's so funny how this society always favors the actions of males over females. When Ms. O'Hair was around, they demonized her, but Dawkins and the rest are seen as "intellectuals". It's like that with just about everything. (SN: I like Bitch magazine. They usually have some pretty good stuff.)
I was watching Book-Tv on C-span a few weeks ago, and there was an author on there discussing her new book about the history of female writers. She spoke about how many women have taken on masculine aliases in order to do well in book sales. She said that women read more than men but purchase books written by both genders, but men tend to buy books written by other men. She also said that most people don't expect women to write about things pertaining to politics or history, and think that if they do, they'll write from a "womanly" perspective.
So, looks like the same thing is happening in regards to atheism. I'll never forget, when I first started questioning religion, and I told one of my male friends about it, he told me that I MUST have been talking to a guy about this stuff. He was right! It was my friend, now husband who first exposed me to freethought. But it was insulting because he said that it's usually men who think more rationally and that's why he figured it was a man who probed my thinking.
We really do get a bad rep when it comes to rational thinking. I often wonder if it's that we really ARE more emotional, or if it's that we're "allowed" to be more emotional whereas men are not. You know, the society teaches boys that they shouldn't cry, but we don't really say that to girls (at least not in the same context).
oh, thanks for reply. i was just coming to delete the article entirely, thinking this article wasn't good idea to post. i was just trying to stir up some conversations or thoughts.
it is a good thought provoking article, not that one sided, i didn't think, more trying to explore if it is true, a perception, or if it is true, what factors would have this happen, etc.
i also enjoyed the comments under the article, which were all over the place. Some are from famous, well respected atheists, who wrote thoughtful replies and they did not post articles about silencer tools....(?)
oh, i don't mind if i post something and no one replies, not at all!! nope. that happens, and sometimes, articles go by at good clip. I just found one this week, so interesting, i'd missed it entirely. Easy to happen.
i must have misinterpretted the article posted underneath my post, about how to silence tools...see, i think tools means dumb people. lolz, it means that here where i live!! rolf!!
so i thought it was a hint it was dumb article...BUT i do misinterpret ppl now and then! ha. i have oatmeal brains now. My brains need to do sit ups i guess!!
ha. when i get replies like that, i usually delete entire thread, thinking, i must be posting something not very smart or something, i've deleted a few now. Honestly, sometimes i really can't tell anymore what is interesting to other ppl. ha.
//"I often wonder if it's that we really ARE more emotional, or if it's that we're "allowed" to be more emotional whereas men are not. You know, the society teaches boys that they shouldn't cry, but we don't really say that to girls (at least not in the same context)."//
NIka, that is a hard one to tease out, what is nature vs. nurture vs. perception/reality. (lol, can you imagine if Pelosi had behaved like Boehner? they'd have crucified her)
well, wait, they still tried to crucify her, with a gusto and relish, come to think of it.
yes, although i do think *most* atheists are wayyyyyy more free of the poisonous isms than the general population, we atheists are diverse, and there are indeed, racist atheists, a few scraggler rightwing atheists, homophobic atheists, atheists who eat animals,
and gasp! (shhhhhhhhhhhhh) there even exist some sexist atheists....... even some or even a few atheists can have ignorant ideas, dispite being independent enough, and rational enough, to notice there is no evidence of gods.
goes to show.
plus *some* of the recognition given to some male atheists is coming from the theist world, isn't it? not neccessarily always just from us atheists, right...??