Atheist Alliance International publishes Gender Balance Report

In a project instigated by Atheist Ireland, Atheist Alliance International has published a Gender Balance Report.

It was coordinated by John Hamill, Atheist Ireland’s representative on the AAI Board, with input from Ashling O’Brien, Atheist Ireland’s Regional Officer, and Professor Sabina Brennan of the School of Psychology and Institute of Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin, among others.

AAI’s Atheist Census shows that, on average worldwide, 73% of respondents are male. This is not a scientifically precise measure of gender imbalance, but it is consistent with other research, including the World Values Survey, within which there is a consensus that nonreligiousity and atheism are more common among men. The Gender Balance Report suggests that this may be because of three factors:

  • Aggressiveness among men — a possible link between an aggressive risk taking tendency among males, and a willingness to adopt a public position opposing a deity. This can often be perceived as exclusionary for women and people with other gender identities.
  • Socialisation of women — many cultures have historically socialised women into deferential and dutiful roles. This context may not have arisen due to the actions of men within contemporary atheist organisations, but such organisations should be aware of it.
  • Selection within organisations — gender imbalance in selecting candidates for conference panels, working committees, management teams, etc. This bias may not even be conscious. However, this should not be a barrier to increasing gender balance at events.

There was no consensus in the area of remedial measures. For example, some respondents were strongly in favour of gender quotas while others preferred a more subtle gender-proofing approach, providing for fair selection on merit with explicit steps to ensure equal opportunity afforded to those of all genders.

The Gender Balance Report makes three recommendations for AAI affiliate groups, and gives examples of what Atheist Alliance International itself will do in these three areas:

  • Document and adopt a gender equality policy — the Board of Atheist Alliance International will bring such a policy to its next AGM, to add to the Women’s Rights Policy has already been adopted by AAI.
  • Adopt gender quotas for leadership structures and speaker panels — the level can vary based on the size of the organisation. For example, the AAI Board will propose that its future composition should not exceed fifteen persons and that a 40% gender quota should apply.
  • Raise awareness of gender equality issues — Atheist Alliance International will gender-proof all new activities, and will create an annual award titled Atheist Heroine of the Developing World, modelled on the Freethought Heroine Prize.

Atheist Ireland and Gender Balance

Atheist Ireland is pleased to have been instrumental in instigating this project. We already have a policy of seeking gender balance in our activities. In 2013 we hosted a very successful International Conference on Empowering Women through Secularism.

This Conference resulted in the Dublin Declaration on Empowering Women Through Secularism. We have promoted this with the Irish Prime Minister, the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Atheist Ireland has spoken at the Irish Parliamentary Health Committee supporting the right to abortion. We are members of the Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution to enable legislation to legalise abortion in Ireland.

Evolution of the Report

John Hamill, who coordinated the Gender Balance Report, describes its evolution:

“AAI’s Atheist Census shows that 73% of respondents are male. During 2015 at an Atheist Ireland committee meeting, Ashling O’Brien asked me to follow up at AAI level about this gender gap.

As I followed up on this, I became responsible for coordinating this Gender Balance project. We studied existing literature, and consulted activists, parliamentarians, academics, journalists and scientists who do not identify as having a male gender.

We observed much commonality in the responses across many countries and continents. We believe that we have captured the range of views that were expressed, without attempting to quantify where on the spectrum of sentiment the greater number of opinions were located.

While much scholarly work has been completed in this area, this is very much a heuristic analysis of the gender balance issue, and is not an attempt to draw scientifically defensible conclusions. The focus of our project was to make some recommendations to our affiliate groups and our own Board.

I’m very grateful for all the help I received from AAI Board members, especially Carlos Diaz. I also had a lot of input from participants, including Professor Sabina Brennan from TCD. I am confident that Atheist Ireland in particular will respond positively, having been instrumental in instigating the project.”

Religion and Atheism from a Gender Perspective

Tiina Mahlamaki is a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Religion in the University of Turku in Finland. In 2012, she published a paper on Religion and Atheism from a Gender Perspective. This was part of the academic research that informed the AAI Gender Balance Report. Here are some extracts from her paper.

“Why does religion attract women and atheism men?

Contemporary studies of religion seem to prove unvaryingly that women tend to be more religious than men. A stronger religiosity is found among women in all European countries as well as in the whole of the Western world. There are several different strands and approaches for explaining this phenomenon.

One suggested model of explanation is education. Historically women have obtained much less education than men, and more educated women tend to be less religious than their less educated sisters. Education could be seen to shield individuals from adopting supernatural beliefs, thus associating a lack of education with vulnerability. However, when women have taken the opportunity to educate themselves, the disparity is maintained, as educated women in comparison are also more religious than their male equals.

Another model of explanation has been socialisation. In the same way that women are taught to be more submissive, passive and obedient than men, they are also more religious… Most often the stronger religiosity of women is connected to the fact that women are more involved in bringing their children up, maintaining the chain of memory and traditions.., But statistics also show that women working outside the home are as religious as women who work at home. (Berger et al. 2008: 109–12; Davie 2000; Freese 2004; Miller & Hoffman 1995; Niemelä 2003, 2010; Woodhead 2007.)

Recent studies indicate that gender differences in religiousness might be caused by biological and psychological factors – an explanation that is based on nature not on nurture (Berger et al. 2008: 111). What is it in sex difference that exposes or shields one from religion? What models could explain the differences of religiosity not only between the sexes, but also within each sex? Different studies show a significant relationship between gender orientation and being religious; masculinity and femininity are identified as important determinants of both women’s and men’s religiosity. Men with a feminine orientation share a greater religious involvement than men with a masculine orientation. The results also indicate that feminine women are more religious than women with a masculine orientation. (Miller & Hoffman 1995, Thompson & Rennes 2002, Freese 2004.)

Feminism, religion and atheism

Second wave feminism, in particular, views religion as highly problematic: as patriarchal, misogynic and oppressive. Many feminist women have found it hard to remain within their religious traditions (see, for example, Furseth 2009:210). Feminist texts and (second wave) feminist research join with the discourses of the new atheists in articulating, quite correctly, that religious traditions have in many ways legitimated the oppression and discrimination of women.

From the points of view illustrated above – bearing in mind of course that it is not the whole picture, but a picture second wave feminism and new atheism usually gives – it appears as a miracle that women have not left their churches and religions en masse and converted to atheism. The situation is quite to the contrary, as we have seen: even feminist women tend to be religious. Some of them have left their churches, some have tried to reformulate and reinterpret their tradition in woman-friendly directions.

What is significant here is that the arguments put forward against religion are quite similar, both of the new atheists and the (second wave) feminists. They resemble each other in many ways. Unfortunately, very little research has been done on the relationship between atheism and feminism. There are, however, exceptions, such as work by Christine Overall (2006) and Inger Furseth (2009). Furseth, leaning on both quantitative and qualitative data sets, illustrates gendered structures in worldviews. She shows that both feminist identities and masculine rationality lead away from religion – but not necessarily from spirituality.

The new atheist and feminist scholars who bypass the multidimensionality of religious traditions share a common attitude; an inability to discern between different levels and dimensions of religion and religiosity. They focus merely on levels of institutions, interpretations of the elite, and on holy scriptures and dogmas. As a result, the lived, everyday religion and interpretations and experiences of ordinary people are left out.”

These are extracts from the paper. You can read the full paper here.

Quotes from the AAI Gender Balance Report

As well as researching academic studies, the Gender Balance Report consulted activists, parliamentarians, academics, journalists and scientists who do not identify as having a male gender. Here are some quotes featured in the Report.

“It’s important that freethought and secular groups get credit for their historic support of women’s rights. It’s greatly to the secular movement’s credit that it wishes to draw more women in and cares about women’s participation, without overlooking the link between freethought and feminism.”
— Annie Laurie Gaylor (co-Founder of Freedom From religion Foundation)

“I have found that within online forums (and occasionally face-toface) atheism for some is about a competition around who can put forward the best argument or quote the Bible most extensively. It becomes like one-upmanship or a competition to find out who is the most clever person.”
— Dr Sabina Brennan (School of Psychology and Institute of Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland)

“Capable women can still be shy and may not wish to be public about their skepticism. It may be that atheism is – or seems – too bold, too strong, too confident, even too outrageous, to be consistent with women’s stereotypical gendered characteristics (lack of confidence, quietness, submission to authority).”
— Professor Christine Overall (Department of Philosophy and Gender Studies, Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada)

“I’m acting President of the Humanist Association of Ghana. We have fifty members with only eight being women and yet four of us women were elected as executives to our five-member committee. This shows how important the feminist agenda is to the group and the respect that our male counterparts have for us.”
— Roslyn Mould (Working Group Secretary, International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organisation, Ghana)

“Society generally treats women as second class citizens, which can drive them towards deities that promise to solve their problems. Such women may gain confidence from atheist organisations that have clauses in their constitutions, which enable women to be part of their leadership structure.”
— Namyalo Viola (Director, Humanist Association for Leadership, Equity and Accountability, Uganda)

“Research shows that women who advocate for equality can be penalised for doing so. We are engaged in a tidal process of awareness-raising that requires everyone to look at the role that sexism plays in their lives. Are you acknowledging it when it happens, and what do you do about it?”
— Soraya Chemaly (Director of The Women’s Media Centre Speech Project, Writer for TIME and The Guardian)

“It’s a matter of introducing into people’s consciousness the idea of gender equality as a norm, taking also into account that many atheists, like those who have had to deconvert, may still be dealing with certain patterns of thinking and of viewing gender and gender-related issues that may hinder equality.”
— Marie Bernardine Umali (Secular, Women and LGBT Rights Activist, Philippine Atheists and Agnostics Society)

The AAI Gender Balance Report

You can download the AAI Gender Balance Report here.

Join the Conversation

9 Comments

  1. I don’t really agree with your post. I am an atheist and live in a small town in West Cork. In my experience, at least half the women over 40 have no belief in god or church. It’s just a quiet thing, In my knit and natter group (average age 65) we occasionally discuss it but it’s seen as more of a private matter. I also worked in a nursing home and found that most questioned religion and only went through the motions. I think in small towns and rural areas, people just get on with life and don’t feel the need to express themselves in general. The internet would be the only way to express yourself.

  2. Amanda, that’s good to hear about. For some people, there may be a difference between being an atheist and publicly self-identifying as an atheist. The more people who publicly self-identify as an atheist, the easier it becomes for others to do so. Also, I assume conditions are different in different places, depending on the type of community you live in and the attitudes of your neighbours etc. The 73% figure is based on an online Atheist Census in which people self-select in order to register, so it will be biased in favour of people who are happy to be public about their atheism.

  3. Hi Michael

    Is the census dataset available online?

    I’d be interested to see how it dealt with the issue of China, for example (i.e., Chinese people possibly – likely? – underrepresented in a self-selecting online survey in comparison to the 1.37 billion population of China, but they are disproportionately likely to be “atheist” – if that term really makes sense at all as a catch all given wide cultural differences – which means any departure from the 73% figure on the part of Chinese respondents, notwithstanding the whole self-selecting & self-identifying aspects, is potentially disastrous for large claims about worldwide gender ratio).

    Also, I’m assuming, even given this sort of issue, that the 73% figure wasn’t derived just by totting up male and female responses, but rather it’s a randomly drawn sample of equal numbers of men and women from the whole dataset, and then you’re looking at how many of those identify as atheist (as opposed to theist, etc). (Yeah, it must have been done the second way, because otherwise you’d have no way of knowing what proportions of men and women hit the census in the first place, which would render the figures hopelessly flawed).

    Anyway, I’d just be interested to see the data if it’s available!

  4. Jeremy,

    The Atheist Census is online at atheistcensus.com. I don’t know about the availability of information that is not on the website. You would have to ask the people who run the project, who you can email at info (at) atheist census (dot) com.

    My impression when it was launched was that the Atheist Census was a mix of a political solidarity project, to enable atheists to collectively self-identify as atheists, and a collection of questions to broadly compare and contrast information about people around the world who have self-selected as being atheists.

    So I agree that the 73% figure is not scientifically robust, other than as an indicator of a general imbalance, whatever the precise figure, of men over women. I’ve now added that point into the article after the first mention of the figure.

    I’ve also added the following counterbalance, which the Gender Balance Report says after first referring to the Census figure: “This is consistent with other research, including the World Values Survey, within which there is a consensus that nonreligiousity and atheism are more common among men.”

    I had already quoted the Report’s author John Hamill as saying, and this is also in the Report itself:

    “While much scholarly work has been completed in this area, this is very much a heuristic analysis of the gender balance issue, and is not an attempt to draw scientifically defensible conclusions. The focus of our project was to make some recommendations to our affiliate groups and our own Board.”

    With regard to the Census, you mentioned China in particular. There are 624 respondents from China. 79% were male, 21% were female. Their preferred identification titles were 49% atheist, 17% rationalist, 11% freethinker, 11% non-religious, the rest either agnostic, secularist, humanist or other.

    China has far fewer respondents than the highest responding countries, which are (in rounded figures) USA 95,000, United Kingdom 20,000, Brazil 18,000, Turkey 15,000, Canada 12,000, Australia 12,000, Russian Federation 9,000, India 6,000, Poland 5,000 and Germany 5,000.

  5. Hi Michael

    Thanks for your response, and for the link to the atheist census, which I’ll check out in due course.

    “AAI’s Atheist Census shows that, on average worldwide, 73% of self-selecting atheists are male.”

    This wording is still misleading. The census doesn’t tell us anything at all about what’s true of the world, because it’s not representative. It’s not just that it isn’t scientifically robust, though it isn’t, it’s that the sample is wildly skewed towards English speaking countries, which means there’s no justification for supposing it tells us anything about what’s true of the world on average.

    In other words, it’s not about the 73% figure, which could be right (though I doubt it, once you factor in China, and anyway, given cultural divergences, it’s likely not going to be very meaningful, anyway), it’s about what it’s reasonable to claim about a survey, and in this case it isn’t reasonable to claim it tells us anything about the world as a whole.

    And saying that something is a “heuristic analysis” doesn’t make the issue go away. Atheist organisations, which are presumably committed to the tenets of rational inquiry, shouldn’t be using flawed data to support their social justice efforts. Not least, it’s strategically naive, because it makes it much too easy for opponents to score rhetorical – and non-rhetorical – points.

  6. Jeremy, I agree with your main point, because, obviously, you are correct. I’ve changed the description to “73% of respondents”.

    I think that it is going too far in the other direction to say that it “doesn’t tell us anything at all about what’s true of the world”. I’ll try to respond in more detail later.

  7. Hi Michael

    Cool! 🙂

    I’ve had a very quick look at the census. It looks like it is just somewhere online where people can register they’re “atheist”.

    That really is disastrous in terms of the representativeness of the data set. Chinese rural workers, for example, would probably be somewhat under-represented!

  8. Many women who hold no religious beliefs often claim they do because of religious discrimination in schools. They will claim to hold beliefs they dont to get kids into “good schools”, or even just for the sake of leeping the path open for children they may have in the future.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *