Where are the women of New Atheism?

Katie Engelhart tells us that New Atheists have a woman problem:

“New Atheism” is old news. Enter “New, New Atheism”: the next generation, with its more spiritual brand of non-belief, and its ambition to build an atheist church. It is an important moment for the faithless. Will it include women?

Several years ago, there was discussion of a “woman problem” within the Atheist movement. New high priests of non-faith announced themselves—Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Peter Singer, A.C. Grayling, Daniel Dennett, etc.—and they were men. And they were angry. Their best-selling works were important and essential. These authors helped reinvigorate the secular cause; they cast off the fog of political correctness to unapologetically lay siege to piety. But before long, these New Atheists were depicted as an old boys’ club—a clique of (white) men, bound by a particularly unyielding brand of disbelief.

Where were the women?

Engelhart offers up some explanations:

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.

Or perhaps it’s all a mirage? In a 2011 article in Bitch, journalist Victoria Bekiempis made the provocative claim that the “showboating [Atheist] boys’ club” is a media construct. She notes that around 2006, several news articles were published describing Dawkins et al. as a “band of intellectual brothers”: Atheism’s bullheaded bro-elite. That image—with its tidy narrative and ready stock characters—stuck. Bekiempis’s advice: “Let’s reframe. For every mention of Hitchens, counter with a mention of Hecht.”

Why not counter with someone else?

What’s funny is that while the entire article is about woman and atheism, there is not the slightest mention, nor the slightest hint, of the existence of the woman who founded American Atheists, brought secular change to America, and was perhaps the truly first Gnu atheist – Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Why do you think she always seems to get air-brushed out of Gnu history?

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9 Responses to Where are the women of New Atheism?

  1. Jon Garvey says:

    Are you kidding? A Baptist Minister and Christian lobbyist for a son? No true atheist would do that, and so Madelyn was probably actually a religious agent provocateur, lying for Jesus. You’ll be telling me next that Stalin and Hitler were atheists rather than Christians, as any fule gno.

  2. I was wondering about this same thing recently, and just chalked it up to the fact that women hold a minority representation in scientific academia and the like.

  3. The Deuce says:

    Why do you think she always seems to get air-brushed out of Gnu history?

    Good question. Heck, why does every generation of atheists seem to air-brush its connection to all previous generations of atheists out of history?

  4. TFBW says:

    You’re over-generalising, Deuce. They only air-brush out the troublesome ones. Granted, this makes for some conspicuous holes in the landscape of history, but the likes of Hume (let’s not quibble) and Russell remain. If I were an atheist, I’d probably be happy to call John Stuart Mill one of my own.

  5. Crude says:

    but the likes of Hume (let’s not quibble) and Russell remain.

    The problem nowadays is A) they’re philosophers, and the modern Cult of Gnu is terrified of philosophy, and B) like it or not, it’s possible to quibble with both. Russell in particular is poison because he was at the end of the day anti-materialist, and Hume’s relationship with science is tenuous to say the least.

    There are atheists who celebrate both, particularly Hume, but I really think most just have little time for them.

  6. TFBW says:

    You make some good points there, Crude. On the other hand, the Gnus are very ready to cherry-pick from those philosophers in support of their position. Russell’s teapot gets trotted out at every opportunity, as does Hume’s formula for justified belief in a miracle. The arguments are somewhat mangled in the re-telling, precisely because of the state-of-denial relationship that the Gnus have with philosophy, but they at least embrace these caricatures of atheists past, rather than air-brushing them out entirely.

    Faint praise, that.

  7. Crude says:

    Yeah, the arguments I think they’d endorse, if not the individuals. That’s the funny thing – the Cult is frantic about individuals, but arguments another matter. No matter how shitty they are, they’ll use them if they like the conclusion.

  8. TFBW says:

    I’d have to concede that point. I’ve seen New Atheists cite an ex-creationist Christian of no particular significance simply because he went on record saying that the scientific evidence does not support Young Earth Creationism. So they endorse favourable arguments, not people, but we all do that to some extent, don’t we? I really admire C. S. Lewis, for example, but I can’t give unqualified support for everything he said. Do you think there’s a qualitative difference between my attitude to Lewis, say, and a typical New Atheist attitude to Russell?

  9. Crude says:

    Do you think there’s a qualitative difference between my attitude to Lewis, say, and a typical New Atheist attitude to Russell?

    I think a Cult of Gnu member would have trouble really admiring (or saying they admire) someone who lived in the 20th century and who was a critic of materialism, if they were aware of it. At the very least they’d need some kind of excuse, and for an individual like that it would have to take the form of ‘It was totally reasonable to believe what they did at the time, but since then things have changed’ – I’m not sure that can be pulled off with Russell. One of the CoG markers is tremendous pettiness. Take a good look at everything from Atheism+ to Elevatorgate to ‘accommodationism’ and I think you see the ability to take a single point of disagreement and blow it up into the disagreeing party being an absolute moron or coward, no matter how much they otherwise agree.

    Other atheist leaders are exceptions: see Coyne and Myers. For a while, Coyne regarded ‘the ability to cite what evidence would convince you that you were wrong’ as practically THE key ingredient of being a rational person… right up until Myers said nothing could ever convince him. Coyne wasn’t about to start a turf war, so suddenly that became something people could agree to disagree about (as long as you were already an atheist or something.)

    Anyway, that’s my take on it all.

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