The rifts in recent years between some mostly American atheist and skeptic bloggers, that have recently been misrepresented as affecting the atheist movement globally, can be dated to events arising from the 2011 World Atheist Convention in Dublin, organised by Atheist Ireland.
Some mythologies have since evolved about some of those events, and I am going to write a series of posts about what actually happened and how some events have come to be misremembered and misrepresented.
In this first post, I am going to describe the panel contributions at the session on women in atheism at the 2011 World Atheist Convention.
Grania Spingies, founding Secretary Atheist Ireland, opened the session by noting that, looking around at the audience, it was somewhere between 30% and 35% women. She said we will ask why more women don’t get involved in atheism. Do they not identify as atheists? Do they see no need to get involved in activism? We will also ask how do we attract women to atheist groups?
Grania introduced the panel of four women who are comfortable with being out atheists and who are no strangers to activism: Paula Kirby, British writer and promoter of reason; Bobbie Kirkhart, past President of Atheist Alliance International; Ann Marie Waters, Irish campaigner for equality; and Tanya Smith, Australian incoming President of Atheist Alliance International.
1. Paula Kirby, British writer and promoter of reason
Paula said she was skeptical whether this topic deserves a place on the programme. She would like to feel, as a woman, that women have moved beyond this discussion. But it is a question that keeps coming up. She recently saw a question submitted to Ask the Atheists dot com, headed ‘why are sexist white dudes the face of atheism?’ It said an article in a recent edition of Bitch magazine made the case that women atheist activists don’t seem to garner the same visibility and respect as male atheist activists.
Paula said she is completely out of sympathy with the question on many levels. She is an out atheist, but it is not the most important thing she is campaigning for. She sees atheism as a subset of reason, and if we promote reason, atheism will get caught up along the way. And because she values reason, her priority is whether the reasons being put for arguments are valid, and she is indifferent as to whether good arguments are put by a man or a woman, or someone who is black or white, or able-bodied or in a wheelchair. She would like to think as a reason-oriented community we could move beyond such trivia. (this got a round of applause from the audience).
Paula said that we hear this idea that women are being put off atheism, because the faces we know are male. She said that this may even be true, and she would like to see evidence of the extent, but she feels that is an insult to women as it conjures an image of terrified nervous women overawed by men. She is not interested in breaking up men and women, but in dealing with people. When she writes articles, she doesn’t write for women, she writes for readers, and she wouldn’t want anyone reading her articles differently because she is a woman.
Paula said she would be arguing differently if she had seen anything to suggest that women are actively deliberately held back by the men in the movement, but in her years involved she has seen nothing to suggest that. On the contrary, because there is a perception that there are not enough women, sometimes women can reach greater prominence simply because they are a woman. If the evidence was there that women are put off atheism because of this perception, she would have to accept it, but her opinion of women, which is currently high, would drop.
Paula had racked her brain to think how the topic might not be a non-starter, and had found two. The first is a marketing issue: if it turns out that we are failing to get our message across to women, then we would need to address that. The second is that women suffer disproportionately at the hands of religion, with issues like FGM, reproductive rights, men owning women, and the role of women in the Irish constitution, so it is valid to ask why women are not more visible in trying to counter it, and freeing more women from religion would increase wellbeing and human rights across the world.
Paula said she was speaking from the point of view of a woman based in the United Kingdom, where women have had their rights enshrined in law for a long time. Not every country has that luxury, indeed decency. She said there are clearly places where it is very difficult to be a woman, but she doesn’t think that the atheist movement is one of them. Women are often reluctant to speak up in conferences and meetings, and as event organiser she knows it can be hard to get women involved, but she thinks women just need to take a deep breath and do it, and not be shy, and not hold back. If women feel they are being ignored, then they should work on making sure they can’t be. She doesn’t think women can claim equality and then ask for special treatment. The suffragettes didn’t wait for permission.
Paula concluded on the issue of activism. She said we need people who are recognisable as figureheads, but that we should not undervalue grassroots day to day activists, dealing in their communities with religious indoctrination in their children’s schools, or writing to their local papers, or lobbying their local councillors, and simply speaking up at work and with friends. As a movement, we’re not going to get major social change until we get lots more people being brave in their everyday life, so let’s not just pretend it is people who are well-known who have a really important role to play.
2. Bobby Kirkhart, American past President AAI
Bobbie noted that she had been asked to speak on women in American FreeThought with Annie Laurie Gaylor, the preeminent expert on the subject, in the audience, and she looked forward to hearing her views later. She said that Bitch magazine (which Paula had referred to) was not original. A similar theme had been covered by Ms. magazine, when a reporter named Monica Shores selected a group of men she considered the New Atheists, then asked what was wrong with us that she (the reporter) chose only men?
Bobbie said that when she first joined the atheist movement, the first leader she saw on television was Madelyn Murray O’Hair. Her first national influence, who she wanted to be like, was the then President of the American Humanist Association, Betty Chambers. When Bobbie became President of AAI she succeeded Marie Castle, and was succeeded by Margaret Downey. Madelyn Murray O’Hair founded American Atheists. Annie Laurie Gaylor founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Madelyn was succeeded by Helen Johnson.
Now all of these offices are occupied by men, with the exception of Annie Laurie Gaylor. So there has been a change. When Bobbie looks back on the history of the American FreeThought movement, she sees a slow-turning pendulum. America’s founding fathers excluded women, and the people who gave and maintained a secular government in the first years of the 19th century were men: Madison, Jefferson, Paine. In the latter part of the 19th century, there was a revival in active secularism with a heavy feminist influence, closely tied to the abolitionist and feminist movements, as well as anti corporal punishment in schools.
Bobbie continued that in the early 20th century, the big issue was the scientific one of teaching evolution in schools, a debate mostly dominated by men. Women had just gained the vote. Then came the 1947 Supreme Court ruling on separation of religion and government, and the early 1960s ruling that outlawed prayer in American schools. Most people in the audience would say that was the O’Hair case, but her case was actually attached to one by a man named Ellery Schempp. He was the major litigant, but Madelyn was much better at and more eager for publicity, and she started a new period of atheist women leaders.
So Bobbie came into a movement that was an exact mirror image of the church. Mainstream American churches today have a lot of women, mostly older, in the pews, and usually a man in the pulpit. The atheist movement was men in the pews, and women in the pulpit. Is there a reason for this? Bobbie thinks there a couple. The most important is that, while organisational and management styles vary from individual to individual than sex to sex, there are some generalisations we can make.
Bobbie said it is well established that men tend to organise by alliances. They tend to find people they trust, and everyone has his own area and is responsible for his own area, and they stay out of each others’ business, and their loyalty is to their allies. Whereas women tend to organise holistically. When a women comes into an organisation in a leadership position, she tends to feel that she is responsible for the entire organisation, and can sometimes offend people by getting into something that doesn’t look like her business. Men do criticise women for this, for trying to take over, for being busybodies, and women accuse men of being an old boys’ club because of their alliances.
Bobbie thinks that both kinds of organisation are needed, and the pendulum swing has been corrected. We have been described as an organisation of herding cats, or herding butterflies, and maybe it is time to have men come in with their loyalty to alliances, and get us going in the same direction. That said, a pendulum seeks equilibrium, and that is what we need.
Bobbie concluded by agreeing with Paula that we don’t need to seek equilibrium by choosing a woman here, and a person of colour here. But we do need to be aware of the importance of variety in our management structure, look at individuals and ask how does he or she manage, and make sure that we have the full complement of organisational skills in our groups.
3. Ann Marie Waters, Irish campaigner for equality
Ann Marie said she also doesn’t care who makes a point as long as it is well made. Some of the greatest campaigners for women’s rights throughout history have been men, and she doesn’t see a problem with this. She is more concerned with the advancement of secularism, than who is making the arguments for it.
Does Ann Marie think atheism is sexist? No. She thinks religion is sexist. Most of the sexism she has encountered in her life has been from religious people and from religions. Atheism doesn’t have women as famous as Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris, but we do have Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maryam Namazie, and we have four women on this stage, so there are women atheist activists. There aren’t as many women in this audience, that is true, which brings up a few questions, and she thinks it is reflective of society as a whole.
Ann Marie said she doesn’t think there are much less female atheists, but that there are less female atheists willing to speak out, but that there less women willing to speak out than men in society. And part of the reason for that is religion itself. Women tend to have less self-confidence than men, are therefore a bit shy about speaking out, thinking what i have to say isn’t as important as what he has to say, and religion is a great reason for that.
Ann Marie said that, throughout history, from the minute she is born, a girl is told she is inferior. And when you are told something over and over and over again, you will believe it. Ann Marie used to find herself thinking a point, and then a man would make the same point and get rapturous applause, and she would think, that’s what I thought, why didn’t I say it, and it is a lack of self-confidence that women tend to have, partly because of religion.
Ann Marie doesn’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg? Was religion used as a tool to run women down, or is religion the actual thing that runs women down? It is irrelevant really, but it is a tool to beat women down. More recently they have changed the language. Women are no longer told they are inferior, now they are told they are different.
Ann Marie remembered asking a heavily veiled Muslim woman about the misogyny in religion, and the Muslim woman was convinced that women are not considered inferior, just different. Ann Marie said, fine, but the difference is that you have far less rights, far less power… are you not suspicious? You are different, but you are different in a way that you have nothing, your husband has everything, but we are not running you down, you are just different? If a cleric is telling you you are different in a way that you are inferior, they do not have your best interests at heart.
Ann Marie concluded that she is not an atheist campaigner, or even a specifically anti-religious campaigner, she is an equality campaigner. It just so happen that religion gives her so much ammunition. It couldn’t be any more sexist if it tried. It couldn’t be any more imperialist if it tried: we’re going to heaven, you’re going to hell. But she is an equality campaigner. She wants equality between people. That’s why she speaks out against religion, and it also why she doesn’t really like this differentiation between men and women.
She would like to see more atheist women speaking out, but she would like to see more women speaking out generally, not just about this. So we need to keep doing this, and to keep encouraging people to speak out against religion and misogyny and hate. We keep doing this, we keep trying to get Mr Dawkins onto television to speak some sense, we need to encourage people, men as well as women, to stand up for other people.
4. Tanya Smith, Australian incoming President AAI
Tanya began by asking all of the women in the audience to raise their hands, and keep their hands raised if they thought there should be more women activists, but they couldn’t do it or wouldn’t know where to start. Most hands stayed raised. Tanya said she had become an active atheist in the past few years, partly deliberately and partly through a series of coincidences.
Tanya said she had always been an atheist. From the moment she learned about religion as a child, she thought it didn’t make any sense. But it wasn’t a big deal in her life. Her family wasn’t religious, nor was her schooling. One of the few times she thought about God as a child was when she was eleven, and she wanted to be guide. The guide oath included the words ‘to do my best to do my duty to God,’ and she knew she didn’t believe in God. She concluded it wan’t possible to have a duty to a non-existent being, so she was promising to do nothing.
Tanya said that was how she saw religion until she was in her thirties – as something other people took seriously. She would argue about if it came up, but she usually pragmatically avoid it. When living in London in the 2000s, influenced by the London bombings, discussion of immigration, and the release of books by high profile atheists, the topic was much more prevalent than in Australia at the time. So she started reading more, and thinking about the privileged place religion has in our minds, and how it is translated into laws and attitudes around the world.
The tipping point for Tanya was the atheist bus campaign in the UK before she moved back to Australia, with the slogan ‘There’s probably no god, so stop worrying and enjoy your life’. Following that success, the Atheist Foundation of Australia tried to run bus ads with the slogan ‘Atheism – celebrate reason, and sleep in on Sunday mornings,’ and the slogan was rejected. It was completely contrary to the principle of freedom of speech.
In Tanya’s home town in Victoria, the Atheist Foundation took a case with the Equal Rights and Opportunities Commission. Before that, Tanya had not heard of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, and she saw a group of people actively campaigning against the privilege she had developed a dislike for. She decided to join, because it can’t always be someone else’s responsibility. She sent an email saying she can write and organise and would be happy to help. They had enough people working on that campaign, but they asked her to join their public relations team, which answers emails.
Tanya carefully constructed her first email before sending it to the President for review, then it was out there and she was part of the team. She is still part of that team, getting emails ranging from ‘you’re all going to hell’ to people looking for information for school assignments, to people who are really struggling with the process of their own faith. It is fun and interesting, as well as being important that people who are interested in atheism receive proper answers to their questions.
That was how Tanya started. Then In 2009, the Atheist Foundation of Australia was approached by Atheist Alliance International, to host a convention in Melbourne. Richard Dawkins was the headline speaker. The convention sent out a call for volunteers for a committee. Tanya said no. She was busy at work, and had no experience in event planning. A few weeks later a work colleague said his daughter was at Oxford and had seen Richard Dawkins speak there, and she decided that she wanted to be part of making the convention happen. So she joined the team.
Tanya had no idea what she was in for, which was probably a good thing. But she also had no idea how good it would be to stand there, months later, with the other committee members, and see what they had put together. She expects it is what Atheist Ireland is feeling this weekend. It really brought home to her that FreeThinkers can be a community, and being part of that community feels good. Through that convention, she met Stuart Bechman, then the President of Atheist Alliance International, and she ended up on the board, and here she is now.
Tanya is proud to be the President of Atheist Alliance International. When she looks back at the events, and the series of coincidences and opportunities that got here here, she can see how easy it would have been for her to not be here. How easy it would have been at any stage for her to say that she couldn’t do something, just because she hadn’t done it before.
That could be true of most people who end up in leadership roles, but studies have shown that women are worse than men at putting themselves forward for leadership positions. On average, a woman will put herself forward for a job when she meets over 90% of the advertised criteria. Men will apply when they feel they meet about half the job criteria. One of the reasons she didn’t say no over the past few years was thinking about that statistic.
Tanya then went back to her question at the start, if you think you couldn’t do anything like that, or you would like to but wouldn’t know where to start, and she gave a few suggestions. Get in the flow. Help your local organisation with something really easy, like keeping membership list or posting Facebook updates or answering emails. Your help will be appreciated and you will get comfortable. Then put your hand up for things that resonate with you.
For Tanya it was the bus campaign. Maybe for you it is a census campaign, or helping with a convention, or something about schools. If you want to help, don’t wait to be asked. Volunteer groups can be hesitant to impose on people, and the best way to find something to do is just put your hand up. Tanya added that there is nothing in what she said that isn’t equally applicable to men who want to get involved in atheism. As we all agree, atheism needs both men and women, its just that the women sometimes seem to need more of a push to get involved.
Tanya then talked about how the groups themselves operate. How to make existing groups who don’t have many women, more attractive to women, will vary from group to group, and it may or may not be something that individual groups need to address. She wanted to make one point about what she called ‘accidental discrimination’. She has seen it in her professional career, which was in a male dominated environment, and is borne out by research as well.
Tanya said it is simple. We are humans. We like people who are like us. We like people who like the same things we like. So in a group that is dominated by men – and she is generalising here to make a point – you might have a social conversation about sports or cars, or the guys might catch up for a beer at the pub. And, again to generalise, some women aren’t all that interested in sports or cars, so they don’t participate in the social side of the organisation, so they are less engaged. Or maybe they miss out on decisions that happen over the beer at the pub. So they contribute less. So people don’t see them as potential leaders.
You can get a spiral of disengagement, and ultimately nothing changes. It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault that this happens, but it can be a real shame. And the basis of that, which is human nature, is not going to change. People will still like people who are like them. She is not suggesting that people shouldn’t socialise in their groups any way they feel like, but if you are in the dominant group, which is male in this context, please be aware of this point. Please make an effort to not accidentally exclude women, because ultimately it is your organisation that is going to miss out.
Tanya concluded by saying take a deep breath, and jump in. You will find things to work on that you care about. If you just say ‘I can do that,’ you will wake up in a couple of months and realise that you are doing that. You might not be quite sure how you got there, but that’s okay.