Where Are All the Atheist Women? April 10, 2007

Where Are All the Atheist Women?

At the American Atheists convention, there were more women (at least ratio-wise) than I’ve seen at just about any other atheist/skeptic event. It was nice to have them there, but this convention, like all others, was short-lived.

It raises the question of why there are relatively few women in the secular movement. Why is it when I got to any atheist gathering (a convention, a local group, or a campus group), there are an overwhelming number of men?

It’s a strange question to ask, considering the presidents of American Atheists (Ellen Johnson), Atheist Alliance International (Margaret Downey), and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor) are all women.

What’s more, even the previous presidents for each organization (Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Bobbie Kirkhart, and Anne Nicol Gaylor, respectively) were women. O’Hair and Gaylor were also their groups’ founders.

(How many major Christian organizations can say all that?)

Plus, we have the always-awesome Skepchicks.

So where are the other secular women?

Here are some possible theories that were brainstormed at a bar with a group of guys over the weekend:

  • The men scare them off
  • Girls don’t enjoy philosophical discussions
  • There are too many gay men at atheist events… why should women bother coming?

That’s a short list that needs to be expanded. Perhaps you can help with that.

Regardless, I’d argue for the first one. Imagine an Atheist Meetup event (or any situation, really) with 9834823 men and one woman. She will be hit on by damn near everyone. It’s frightening. And it changes the whole dynamic of how the guys act. If there was a more even split between the sexes, this wouldn’t be so bad, but we’re nowhere close to that. And if the girl is cute, we’re all in trouble.

What are the solutions to this problem? Besides trying to tell men to stop being so damn creepy, I’m not sure…

One suggestion that was mentioned was that we should ban women from attending the conferences altogether. They’ll get mad, organized, and show up to the events to boycott. And that way, we’ll have some more women at the conferences 🙂

There must be a better way, though.

[tags]atheist, atheism, women, American Atheists, convention, skeptic, Ellen Johnson, Atheist Alliance International, Margaret Downey, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Skepchick, Atheist Meetup, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Bobbie Kirkhart, Anne Nicol Gaylor[/tags]

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  • I did read somewhere (I don’t recall where, exactly) about a study that showed a gender/religiousness correllation, and that women were more likely (the ratio 55:45 springs to mind, out of nowhere in particular) to be religious.

    I don’t recall if there was any significant analysis about why this might be, though, although I do recall, from possibly another source, that it was something to do with “women being more emotionally led than men”, or something to that effect. Not that I particularly agree with this sentiment even if I am remembering it correctly.

    Could I hedge my bets any more than this complete fluff-bag of a comment? I shouldn’t have bothered, methinks.

  • rachel

    new reader.

    years ago in college, i used to attend meetings of the campus atheist group and stopped not because they scared me off or because i’m not interested in philosophical discussion or because they kept hitting on me, but because the men were entirely dismissive of me and anything i contributed to discussions. i wasn’t interested in throwing a hissy fit every time it happened so i stopped going.

  • Hmmm, Atheism conventions sound a lot like engineering conferences.

    Rachel, that really sucks that they dismissed your ideas because of gender. At least in engineering, we don’t tend to be that way. We’re much more like #1 above, with the gawking and staring and awkward pick-up attempts. My wife was one of about only 5 women in her rather large electrical engineering class. She got sick of it pretty quickly.

    Just scanning the room whenever my wife drags me to church, it does look to be more women than men, but not overwhelmingly so. There has to be something more to it than just that. There certainly are female atheists that for some reason don’t want to go to the conferences. Anyway, if we can’t think of any good solutions, I’m voting for Hemant’s reverse psychology ploy.

  • I wish there was a place to go to meet other atheists here in El Paso, TX. I’m thinking of starting a group since I can’t find one on my side of town (or anywhere in town) and hope that people join. I’d welcome anyone. I love philosophical discussions. In fact, that’s one of the few things I’m interested in talking about.

    I’m a mom with 2 kids and I’m married to a US Soldier who is non-religious. I’m not sure if I fit the usual demographic, but it always seems to me that atheists really don’t have a demographic. We’re united only in the fact that we don’t believe in supernatural stuff.

    I like to think that there are all kinds of atheists. There are republicans, democrats, llibertarians. There are non-politicals. There are soccer moms, like “Atheist in a Minivan.” There are foxhole atheists and grandparent atheists.

    Heck, even some forms of Buddhism might be considered atheist since they do not believe in souls or gods. I’m not sure. I’m just kind of airing my thoughts. 🙂

    As another aside, I think women tend to enjoy hanging out with gay men. All of my male friends have been gay. I’ve always enjoyed going places with them. One of my friends took me to a drag show and it was great! 🙂

  • Who doesn’t like hanging out with gay men? Male, female, gay or straight, it’s always a good time!

    Anyway, I blogged about a Digg article called, “Why Are Geeks Often Atheist?” You can read much more in detail there, but that may have something to do with the large amount of males present. Also, could more men be science minded, in scientific fields? I know there has been a big push to have more women in scientific jobs, and women are great in science in school, but for some reason, don’t continue with it in college. I think it goes beyond creepy guys ogling them and offering to show them their mint Star Wars action figures.

    Check out the digg article though, there are over 900 comments. While not scientific, you can get a good feel about how certain people feel regarding atheism and belief. The demographic is primarily males, ages 12 to 22. You’ll seem some pretty dumb comments from both sides, and good arguments from others. One funny one, “Albert Einstein was a Christian.”

  • It raises the question of why there are relatively few women in the secular movement.

    Seems like it would be hard to answer that question without gender stereotyping.

  • Sandra

    I’m right here. I was also at the convention (at the Canadian table), and much enjoyed your presentation. Oddly, I didn’t even notice the gender disparity this time – maybe I’m just used to it. What I did notice was that there were more young people than I’m accustomed to seeing at an atheist function. Perhaps the Blasphemy Challenge is bringing all the godless youth out of the closet. Whatever the reason, it made for a lively and thoroughly enjoyable weekend.

  • Darryl

    Following up on what Null said, I have noticed that religion, at least of the Christian variety, always attracts more women than men. Many churches could not function without the volunteer work of its women. I can’t say why this is. It’s almost counter intuitive: Christianity is a religion dominated by men, skewed toward men, and to this day still has misogeny embedded within it. Perhaps it’s all the talking. I heard (don’t know the source) that the average man speaks 7,000 words a day; the average woman–20,000. Most men would rather you shut up (trying to hear the game); most woman enjoy a conversation.

  • Good reflections. I hate to try to shamelessly steal men away from the secular/athiest movement, but there are a lot of women in my church looking for eligible men (attractive or not). If age isn’t an issue for you (most of my church members are 70 or above), you should check us out.

  • severalspeciesof

    Michael Shermer touches upon this phenomenon in one of these books “How We Believe” or “Why People Believe Weird Things” (Sorry I can’t remember). And it does come down to ‘gender typing’. Women tend to be more emotionally driven than men do. And religion speaks to the emotions (at least superficially) better than secularism.

    But I must add it’s only stereotyping if one doesn’t allow for individual differences.

  • Maybe it’s just me, but the emotional side of me is partly what led me *to* atheism…in that I can get quite upset at the thought of a supposedly benevolent deity allowing so much evil in this world. As a mom especially, I get pissed that the suffering of children should somehow be necessary in some god’s sacred plans.
    I don’t get religious/christian women, how they can ignore violence in the bible. I don’t get christian men either, although more are trying to distance themselves from the “be lovey-dovey with jesus” vibe in churches now.

  • In a lot of churches, the progressive churches with the singing and happy messages that are popular with women and families, you don’t hear all that misogenistic at all, nor do you hear about all the violence in the OT or any of the freaky stuff. The pastors will even cherrypick a quote to discuss in the sermon and the very next line will be something horribly sexist, and rarely do they notice. It’s all glossed over and to find it, you would have to read your bible. And guess what: bible going women are atrocious at actually sitting down and reading the damn thing. My wife is part of a bible study group of women of various ages, teens to fifties, and they meet once a week. In the past month, they’ve been trying to read all of John. In practice, the average amount of reading among them is 2 chapters.

    From what I’ve seen, volunteers for both genders are very important to church functions, but, unsurprisingly, the volunteering seems to fall along very strict gender roles.

  • Darryl

    I think it could be argued that religion, in general, is more appealing to the emotions than to the mind. Perhaps this is why it is possible to believe things for which there is no rational evidence. You’re wasting your time trying to talk with a believer that believes because of what they have “felt in their hearts.” Most religious people have these feelings–that’s the emotional pay-off. Without that a religion is merely a philosophical scheme, not a way of life. Look at devout Muslims with their pilgrimages and holy sights and festivals and their sharia law–that’s a way of life; it’s all-encompassing. It touches their emotions, which is why they keep coming back. Never mind that it makes no sense; it feels right. Any developed religion does this.

  • Perhaps part is that women are somewhat conditioned, still, to feel that it is not their place to get involved with such things. Sort of a “seen and not heard” gig.

    If there was a fear of philosophical debate it would have to tie in with the presense of men, as Rachel said, because it is only in our gender roles that women might feel out of line.

    I think that this problem will resolve itself shortly, as more girls are raised to feel like active members of society. 🙂

  • Karen

    Perhaps part is that women are somewhat conditioned, still, to feel that it is not their place to get involved with such things. Sort of a “seen and not heard” gig.

    Oh, absolutely. This is particularly reinforced for women raised in evangelistic and fundamentalist Christian backgrounds.

    I used to get so bored with the nice (but vacuous) conversation at the “women’s table” in Sunday school or bible study! The standard topics were kids, husbands, home, evangelism, hearth, missionary work, decorating, bible. (Rinse, wash, repeat.)

    Though I risked labelling as an oddball, I used to lurk on the edges of the men’s conversations at such events. At least they were talking current events and politics most of the time, and while I typically disagreed with their conservative viewpoints, the conversation was more stimulating.

    I think that this problem will resolve itself shortly, as more girls are raised to feel like active members of society. 🙂

    Let’s hope so, though I fear the problem will persist when it comes to girls and women indoctrinated in conservative religious dogma.

  • I’d guess married women with kids are less likely to have the time to attend something like the convention. Not that married men are more likely to be working and have kids but they seem more apt to take time for themselves.

    Single women with kids probably can’t do it at all, or wouldn’t see it as a priority.

    Also, yes, women are statistically more religious.

  • Gretchen

    Hmm…we seem to have a lot of female members of our Chicago groups, like the Chicago Center for Inquiry and the Chicago Skeptics–>which I, a female, founded.

    But this is good to hear–gives me that much more incentive to go to the national atheist gatherings. So I can, y’know, meet a Nice Atheist Boy! ;-P

  • I’d guess married women with kids are less likely to have the time to attend something like the convention. Not that married men are more likely to be working and have kids but they seem more apt to take time for themselves.

    This is a major factor in the gender ratio at Christian conferences too. That’s why the ministry conference I’m planning for this summer (which Hemant will be speaking at) will offer free babysitting for families. We want to encourage more moms to attend.

  • Shevon

    Well, there’s me! 😉

    Found your blog today, was glad I did.

  • Nica Lalli

    Hello Friendly Atheist,
    I am a woman, and a non-believer. I call myself a PINK Atheist, I also call myself NOTHING (the title of my book, a book about being a WOMAN and not believing in anything of a religious nature). I wonder whythe numbers of women seemed fewer than the numbers of men at the conference. I was not there, so I can only say that one atheist woman was missing. For anyone interested in the woman’s voice, come here me at one of my book signings – NYC or Chicago in the next months…

    Nica Lalli

  • Tina

    Well I agree with Slut. And I do agree that it’s probably not top on their priority list. In the near future I see more and more atheist’s “coming out” and it will be the younger generation that questions everything. I agree also that maybe the Blasphemy Challenge gave some people the courage to come out. (although some video’s seemed pretty crazy.)

  • Richard Wade

    I think I’ve found a big reason why so few women attend atheist conferences. You can see it demonstrated here on another discussion started by Hemant. If the women are intelligent, articulate and well informed, lots of luck being actually listened to if they’re also cute, pretty, or “God help them,” beautiful. Check out the main reason Hemant posted this young woman’s video, and the main focus of most of the comments. As a man, I find it embarrassing.

  • Gretchen

    Ooooh Richard–ZING!! haha

    But all this tells me is that male atheists can be as silly as any other kind. Of male, I mean.

    And, okay, I’ll admit, we females can be just as bad. I admit to panting in my own blog over the likes of Penn Jillette. ;-P

  • Richard Wade

    Penn Jillette? Ewwww. The only reason he’s so big is he’s so full of himself. He’s the atheist version of Rush Limbaugh.

  • kay prell

    I’m a little late in joining this discussion. I guess i just take my atheism for granted and don’t feel the need to get together with people to discuss atheism (and militant atheism is as big a turnoff as militant religionism). On the other hand, rubbing shoulders daily (in the course of work or just getting around) with the majority of people who are either at least mildly religious or who just live in la-la land is pretty irritating too.

    in the past i have affiliated myself with libertarian party get togethers but have decided that there’s an unpleasant amount of whining and bickering and in-your-face-ism going on there over every little detail; and the guys all seem to think (except for the religious ones – and they’re a whole different story!) that if a woman wants to have a child, that’s her problem, she should feel lucky if a guy is willing to give her a *** once in a while.

    My daughter got herself a mildly religious guy, and I’m inclined to think it (at the present time) not a bad deal. I have actually developed some sympathy for that that bumper sticker i’ve seen on the freeway: “Real mean love jesus” (not just their wallets or their obnoxious self images).

    Hey, let me know if you are aware of any ag- to a-theistic people in the seattle area who are interested in discussing books and movies and just having fun, etc. thx – kay


    PS – my younger sister Ke, who is an emotional mess, says that when our mother – lo these many years ago, declared herself an agnostic, Ke figured it gave her the freedom to do whatever she felt like doing.

    My own experience with accepting my a-orientation (first agnosticism, and then atheism – after having grown up in the methodist church) was quite different. As maddening as my mother could be, i knew that i loved her, she loved me, and i loved my sisters, and not believing in god didn’t change that. But i have found that a lot of atheists do in fact believe and behave in ways that indicate a-morality as well; and of course the christian/religious view is how can people possibly behave morally without big old great-grandpa in the sky waving his stick, ready to spank and with explicit text explaining exactly how you should and should not behave.

    i’m willing to look further than Ayn Rand for descriptions of how atheists accomplish morality; but have a strong feeling that a large part of it is parents teaching their kids that they (both parents and kids) arent the center of the universe, and that you can’t expect other people to treat you any better than you treat them (or to paraphrase the book title – we learn most of what we need to know about morality by the time we enter kindergarten). Thanks for letting me blow off some steam.

  • Trish


    I think its quite simple and staring us in the face why more women arent Atheists. Most of us go through and have to find a way out of, the indoctrination process. This process is designed towards the subservience of women, it is considered highly unseemly to have a dsifferent opinion, especially within Church dominated communities as we are the holders of much of the responsibility for the nurturing of children to perpetuate the dogma.

    Woman is assigned the role of nurturer from a young age and to defy the precepts of whichever religion in this matter, elicits much disaprobation within said communities. The whole thing, right from the Adam and Eve story, is designed to keep women in their place and has been most effective for quite a long time.

    Generations of women have lived in subservient fear and Atheism is one of the biggest taboos, or rather, fears, of organised religion. If they lose this stranglehold on women then how else are they to continue the process of indoctrination from the cradle onwards? especially since the improvements in the education systems whereby bias is becoming increasingly removed.

    The cheif weapon, as I see it, of the fundamentalists, are us women, they keep us cosseted and on pedastals for the most part, and this, in the guise of ‘protection’ and ‘for our own good’ and ‘there there, dont worry your pretty little head about it’ or ‘dont let the neighbours hear you saying that, the priest/pastor/vicar/mullah/rabbi – et al, will throw us out of the congregation’.

    Something which has been so painstaking inbred for centuries isnt going to be overcome overnight. I am heartened to hear that there so many men getting involved because as sure as night follows day, the women will be making their way over – it is the human condition (as opposed to conditioning haha).

    Keep up the good fight people and simply – Thank You………………

  • Zapster

    There are plenty of atheist women, but this one has never even heard of an atheist convention 😛

    That said, there are always problems with being a lone female in a large group of men. Men tune women out. It’s next to impossible to get a word in edgewise in a group of males.
    Or in a group of geek males–they stammer a lot.

    This is a pretty good illustration of the problem:

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