Ms. Magazine Can’t Seem to Find Any Female Atheist Leaders November 3, 2010

Ms. Magazine Can’t Seem to Find Any Female Atheist Leaders

Ms. Magazine has an irresponsibly put-together piece about the supposed lack of women in the “New Atheism” movement:

Given the immense harm many organized religions inflict on women through outright violence and institutional oppression, it seems women may have more to gain than men from exiting their faith. Yet no women are currently recognized as leaders or even mentioned as a force within the movement.

Apparently, reporter Monica Shores didn’t have any time while writing her 750+ word piece to speak to anyone in the atheist movement who could have easily provided counterexamples to her claim.

But Jen McCreight is quick to respond with actual names:

Um… what? No leaders in the movement? How about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, highly successful author and woman’s right activist? Or Lori Lipman Brown, founding director of Secular Coalition for America? Or Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder and current co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation? Or Debbie Goddard, campus coordinator at the Center for Inquiry? Or Susan Jacoby, director of New York’s Center for Inquiry? Or Wendy Kaminer, Secular Coalition for America Advisory Board Member? Or Lyz Liddell, campus organizer for the Secular Student Alliance? Or Amanda Metskas, Head Director of Camp Quest? Or Ariane Sherine, creator of the Atheist Bus Campaign?

And those are just some of the “official” leaders. You just wanted forces within the movement? How about the dozens and dozens of female authors, journalists, bloggers, videobloggers, podcasters, and comedians who you just conveniently forgot about?

Ms. Magazine could always make up for publishing this lousy piece by commissioning an actual article on atheist women — who they are and what they’ve contributed to our movement. (A guest post by Jen is a nice offer… but they could offer something bigger than that.)

And Monica Shores could always apologize for not doing her homework.

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  • AxeGrrl

    Wow, that’s embarrassing.

    A 12yr-old could have spent 15min online and dug up the info that Jen had to provide for her.

  • “They could do better”?! I’m hurt, Hemant ;P

    Anyway, I’m be attempting to do just that – write a piece about who the atheist women are and what they’ve contributed to our movement. So, everything minus the commission part. Meh, reaching the Ms. audience after the previous piece is worth it.

    (Hemant says: Ha, that’s not at all what I meant. I updated the piece to clarify meaning. I like that they asked for a guest post… but why not have Jen (or one of their staffers) write a well-researched article about atheist women for the print magazine?

  • It just goes to show that ignorance is still a major problem with the perception of atheism.

  • Valhar2000

    Go get them, Jen! Go for the eyes!

    In a strictly figurative sense, of course.

  • This is such an irresponsible, half-assed approach to one’s craft that it is difficult to not see this as intentional. I’m not saying it is, but it wouldn’t strain credulity to see it as such.

  • Ted

    Can’t contact her. I would love to give her my piece of mind.
    Her twitter isn’t working.. can’t find her on FB.

  • Lauren

    Jen’s post was an amazing response. I’m glad to hear they offered her the guest post.

  • I think Monica just observed that 0% of the four horsemen were women and stopped her research at that point. She was probably a bit arrogant in thinking that she already knew everything there was to know about the atheist movement.

  • Claudia

    Amazingly, if you read the article she does mention Ayaan Hirsi Alí, but dismissively says that she doesn’t really count:

    Of course, atheist women do exist, as do atheists of color, and at least one (Ayaan Hirsi Ali) has written a best-selling book. Yet since the long-gone days of Madalyn Murray O’Hare (once the best-known U.S. atheist), none have the visibility and name-recognition of Hitchens and Dawkins.

    Who is it that’s dismissing women again? I’d wager that every single atheist who considers themselves a part of the “community” (as opposed to the, I suspect far larger, group of passive nonbelievers) knows who Hirsi Ali is. At the very least, I’m betting their just as likely to know about her than Dennett.

    The worst part of the article is that it misses a precious opportunity to talk about a legitimate issue in the community. It is true that the movement, such as it is, is disproportionately white and male. The reasons for this are complex. To name a few:

    – The leasdership is made up of older intellectuals, which neccesarily means it draws from a population seeded in a time of MUCH greater sexism and racism. Women and people of color are going to be exceptional in this age group.

    – The community has a strong scientific bent, and the sciences skew white and skew male. Speaking as a member of the scientific community I can say that this is slowly getting better (though challenges remain, particularly on the racial side) and that younger scientists are more racially diverse and a hell of a lot more gender neutral than the older ones.

    – There is plenty of indication that women have a greater need for social contact (individual results may vary and I’m not going into the nurture vs. nature debate). One of areas in which we are still trying to catch up is in providing real-life (not just online) communities for nonbelievers and their families. As more communities are formed and solidify, I’m guessing you’ll start to see both more individual women and whole family units joining.

    – As uncomfortable as it may be, we can’t dismiss the notion that there are actual internal problems with sexism and racism in the community. I’ve yet to be on a female genital mutilation thread where no one has tried to redirect the conversation to male genital mutilation (yes, also barbaric, but not even close to FGM, which is more like castration). I’ve also seen lots of YT videos by female atheists and invariably a certain proportion of comments are “Tits or STFU” or “I wanna fuck you” etc. Usually it’s a small proportion, but on the other hand I rarely see it being called out the way homophobic comments are called out.

    It’s a legitimate issue, and it’s owed better reporting than this journalist has given it.

  • ErinM

    Not to rain on the parade of indignation because I’m marching a little myself, but does it matter that the article specified leaders in the “New Atheism” movement and not atheism in general? Fantastic voices for non-belief that they are, I don’t associate all of the women Jen mentioned with “New Atheism” as I’ve heard that movement defined. Hirsi Ali fits in pretty well, but not all of these women take the same outspoken hard line against all religion that Hitchens and Harris do. So are we being too broad in our scope to call all these women leaders of “New Atheism”?

  • ASD

    @Jeff P That and laziness, and gunning for a story. She’s a professional journalist. A ten year old could find all of the info that she couldn’t. It takes ONE GOOGLE SEARCH.
    It’s sheer laziness on her part. It’s not like she has to pore over bulletin boards or trawl through decades-old newsgroups with no search function to find these ladies. One Google search, and you’ve found them all and probably more if you’re willing to go more than five pages in.

    Monica needs to go back to high school essay-writing. It is not hard to learn how to research properly.
    But if this had been well-researched, it wouldn’t have provoked a reaction from us atheists or made it look like there was some sort of controversy among us. There’s no story. And it’s clearer from how she linked to Conservapedia – which doesn’t even qualify as a source, let alone a reliable one IMHO. That to me smacks of trying to stir the pot.
    Either we’ve got a clueless, lazy journalist who needs to go back to university, or someone’s trying to provoke a reaction here, and I’m willing to put money on the latter.

  • JD

    To be honest, I haven’t heard of those names before. I wouldn’t expect to see another O’Hare, but would be nice to have higher profile women in the cause. Back in the day, O’Hare was basically “the atheist”, as in, if someone can name one, it’s her, for better or worse. She seemed to be a lot more brash than Dawkins and generally unlikable.

  • Mr Ed

    none have the visibility and name-recognition of Hitchens and Dawkins.

    Seems like a nice bit of circular reasoning. To be a leader you have to be widely covered in the press, female atheist are not widely covered therefore they don’t rise to the level to be covered. QED

  • mel

    I will be writing to them, that’s for sure! Laziness and ignorance! A google search was all they needed to get solid information. Ugh! This irks me

  • froonium

    Her Twitter account seems fine – it’s the link to it that’s screwed up. My two cents says she’s trolling for page views from the amateurish attempt at an article.

  • We are told that despite laws to the contrary, women still earn something like 70% of what men do. Sadly, in a few cases, such women are overpaid.

    I suppose Ms Shores could always become a science reporter, where laziness and journalistic irresponsibility would not be so easily noticed.

  • Matto the Hun


    Wow, that’s embarrassing.

    A 12yr-old could have spent 15min online and dug up the info that Jen had to provide for her.

    Well maybe Monic Shores didn’t have a 12 year old on hand.


  • inmyhead

    We are out there. I agree that she should have done a bit more research.

  • What about Julia Sweeney and her hilarious “Letting Go of God” show/CD?

    The reason that there is no famous atheist women is because folks feel that attacking male atheists is more justified. Chivalry is not dead when it comes to attacking women atheists. Or maybe the religious males know their scripture and know they shouldn’t listen to women.

  • Hitch

    There are plenty of atheist women who are prominent, it’s just that many of them are not prominent for being an atheist.

    Emma Thompson for example isn’t shy to express views that we’d actually call new atheism.

    In a way I like this. We don’t really have a proper profession of “atheist” the way we have monks, priests, theologians and all that stuff. But yes we do have advocates.

    Take Ellen Johnson, 13-year presidency of the American Atheists. By no means a lowly position. It’s just that atheists don’t get much pop-cred unless you get your face on talk TV semi-regularly, which is why more people knew O’Hare, and why people know Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins. They do the evening talk TV book circus and have short discussions on news channels.

    But it is a mine-field too. Some stick their heads out for a bit then move back to other things, like Natalie Angier.

  • muggle

    This is why I have let my subscription and my membership in the Feminist Majority drop. In the last few years, it’s all pop culture stars and fluff instead of meat. Frankly, as a woman, I’m deeply insulted. This is what they think I want to hear about? I used to look forward to my issue because they not only tackled women’s issues in the US but informed of worldwide issues.

    Now this. They aren’t exactly luring me back.

  • Bill

    It took twenty comments before Ellen Johnson was mentioned? I agree Hitch, the women don’t play the media circuit, but they’re running our organizations, filing lawsuits, and educating the masses the same.

  • kat

    I’m with ErinM above — the article isn’t saying there AREN’T atheist women; she’s pointing out that the loudest, fightinest ones (the New Atheists) are all old white dudes. Even our dear Hemant wouldn’t say he’s a New Atheist, although he definitely makes headlines and he’s definitely not an old white guy. And it’s not as if Hemant isn’t fighting for atheism. He’s just not one of the angry loud guys at the top of the list. The point of this article is not that there aren’t atheist women doing good work; it’s that even in the world of atheism, where there exists no reason to hate on women the way religion does, the loudest, most recognized folks are still old white men… which is the same issue Ms. has with literature, politics, film, art, business, etc. I don’t think she’s even saying the problem is within the atheist community as much as she thinks it’s how the outside world decides to portray us. In spite of everything, we as atheists still come across as a group of folks led by old angry white guys… which is the perception of the Tea Party, too. Except they have crazy Palin on the front lines…

  • Myself and, well, actually, most of the commenters on that page were quick to set them straight, but for whatever odd reason (hmmmmmm, I wonder) none of the posts showed up until the administrators realized that they would have to drop virtually every comment that had been posted. They eventually posted all the comments with a nice little apology that said something like “None of your comments were against our terms of conduct, proving atheists can be a level-headed group, so we’re posting them all.”

    She still tried to blame it on a glitch in the system.

  • Vas

    I wonder has Monica publicly stated her religious affiliation if any? Could she be willfully painting atheism in a poor light using the cover of “new atheism” to bolster her claims? Is this a thinly veiled attack piece, a deliberate act and not negligence? just wondering. I have no time to research it just now as I have work to do, but my curiosity is piqued.

  • Aj

    These people aren’t feminists, it’s not about blindly and ignorantly accusing others of sexism. It’s disappointing to see Jen joining with the the meaningless name calling and perverse response to male expressions of sexuality. Repression of sexuality isn’t progress, it’s been used against women for so long, plenty of times with a religious nature, it’s not helpful to burden men with it too. The response to the list on Common Sense Atheism shows that despite Monica Shores complaints, their are plenty in the atheist community who subscribe to her lunacy, even PZ Myers who should qualify as one of the so-called “leaders”.

    There are no leaders, just popular authors that people enjoy reading. Monica Shores cries about no woman being as popular as Hitchens and Dawkins, as if that’s somehow indicative of a sexism within the community. Dawkins and Hitchens are popular outside their writings on atheism, that gives them exposure and it’s also reflective of their talents, I’d love for there to be female equivalents of them but there aren’t, that could very well be due to sexism outside the atheist community. Shores then moans about scientists being reductionist, as if that’s a criticism, of course they’re reductionist, it’s science, it works. At this point I think Shores just wants an excuse to bash reason and men, and the article is just a pretense to do so.

    The guy who wrote the “cringe-inducing post” has written an update and a response.

  • I loved the way Shores not only engaged in massive causal misattribution, but then proceeds to bolster this claim by positively quoting McKenzie’s article saying “women aren’t socialized to defend their beliefs with the same vigorous and “militant” zeal expected of atheists, and proposed that the movement make space for traditionally feminine characteristics like “story-telling [and] empathy.”

    Really? Storytelling and empathy? Ms. Magazine really needs to work on its gender stereotyping.

    This whole thing reeked of a hit-piece on Atheism disguised as pseudo-feminism.

  • On twitter I have a list of female atheist bloggers, Some are “small time” with others are big hitters like Valeria Torico. Sounds like the author didn’t do any homework. If you don’t look for something, then of course you will never find it. Of course, you did and do your homework. great work, yo. Kep it up.


  • Margaret Downey

  • Sean

    It’s disappointing to see Jen joining with the the meaningless name calling and perverse response to male expressions of sexuality.

    Wut? Jen’s pretty sex-positive. Given that she only mentioned the lists in passing when discussing something else, maybe you don’t actually have any idea what her reasoning is? Just saying.

  • Aj


    Wut? Jen’s pretty sex-positive. Given that she only mentioned the lists in passing when discussing something else, maybe you don’t actually have any idea what her reasoning is? Just saying.

    That’s why it’s disappointing. Monica Shores seems pretty sex-positive in other posts too. Yet, and this was a theme in the response to the Common Sense Atheist list, male expression of sexuality is wrong, “skeevy”, and sexist. I have an idea on what her reasoning is by her choice of words in describing these posts, the responses from others she referred to, and the lengthy apology and explanation she referred to as “progress”.

  • inmyhead

    I just read the rebuttal. Very nicely done.

  • Sean


    If I understand you correctly, you are saying that because people believe that expressing sexuality by compiling “top ten” lists of sexy atheists is wrong, therefore in general they are saying that

    male expression of sexuality is wrong, “skeevy”, and sexist.

    In the context of their other writings (Jen, for example, being a clear supporter of porn), is this not a clear fallacy of exclusion?

    Furthermore, I’ve seen (off the top of my head) at least three different types of arguments being used on the atheist-list thing, and there are probably many more that differ in the details, so I doubt it’s so simple to guess what someone’s exact reasoning is. Instead of guessing, you could go talk to her, or just not worry about it until she makes a more explicit statement?

    For the sake of completeness, the three arguments I was thinking of:

    One is the generic and unqualified “objectification” argument, which is that any time a woman is shown as being sexy at all, she’s being portrayed as merely an object of male desire, therefore erotic pictures and porn in general are wrong. This is occasionally propped up with the assertion that porn causes rape. I have occasionally been confronted with this, and basically I think it’s pop psych woo. I’m sure it’s a very serious concern for people who really think that porn causes rape, but from what I’ve seen the data do not show a causal link there, and until it does, the point is moot.

    Then there’s the argument that women are mostly involved in atheist community for the same reasons that men are, and not, for example, in order to be enrolled in some kind of beauty contest. If some teenager made a public list of the top 20 hottest women in his high school class of 400, isn’t there something rude and/or immature about that? (For completeness’s sake, I feel the same way about sophomoric popularity contests in general; this is just an egregious example.) There’s some iffy-ness about this objection in general, in that clearly some women do want to appear in sex symbols and are effectively engaged in such contests as celebrities competing for the public’s fickle attention. But that’s clearly not the case with atheists, and so such contests are rather an imposition on them. If atheists compete for anything, it’s in presenting the best arguments. (An exception here would be the naked skeptic calendars; the various people pictured therein clearly want to appear as sexy skeptics, and there’s no pretension that being a model for them is winning some kind of competition involving all skeptics.)

    Then there’s a more specific type of objectification argument, which is that it’s condescending to say that you like someone’s work primarily because they look sexy while doing it (at least, if “looking sexy” is not a goal of the work in question). Frankly, I find it unsettling (even as a man) to have someone I don’t know well comment bluntly on my sex appeal after I’ve done something unrelated to sex. (“I want your babies!” comments and such I can dismiss as satirical or hyperbole and actually kind of funny, but I’ve gotten more ambiguous or serious statements.) I’ve actually had people (both sexes, and I’m bi for reference) be really creepy over the internet towards me because I wrote blogs about philosophy and physics derivation and fiction and crappy poetry. One woman went so far as to issue an ultimatum (three times) and then “break up” with me when I made my lack of interest apparent. It didn’t make me feel appreciated; it made me feel as though someone had developed a weird intellectual fetish about me, and so instead of giving legitimate praise, they were basically using “appreciation” of my work as justification to want to mate with me (without knowing me all that well on a personal level). It’s a version of the “halo effect”; someone provided with this kind of “compliment” can’t know whether they are really that sexy or really that impressive of a writer/speaker, only that some combination of traits endeared them to a fetishistic audience.

    In fact, when I started writing poorly-selling fetish-y erotica (no details; I do that under a pen name), the problem was even worse. When someone says “I found your story really hot”, that’s decent praise (vague, but still satisfying). But sometimes it has turned into a comment about how hot I am, from someone who’s barely met me, but who probably identified me with one of my protagonists (pro tip: good protagonists are rarely like their authors). Then I have the “potential stalker” alarm go off very loudly in my head, and at the same time feel some degree of awkwardness about being sexually pursued by a stranger who thinks s/he knows me (often aggressively, and once or twice in person when I’ve appeared at certain events). None of mine have turned out to be crazy stalkers (socially incompetent and horny, but not dangerous), but some crazy stuff has happened to some of my colleagues.

    Having gone off on a tangent, my point is that calling someone a “sexy atheist” can mean “I respect your atheism, and incidentally you’re sexy.” Which isn’t a terrible sentiment. But it can also mean “I have some kind of fetish regarding my stereotype of atheists (and maybe minor celebrities), and you make a good target for satisfying that.” Which puts the target in a very awkward position; they probably would like feedback on their actual work, not “I’m drooling over you because you fulfill one of my fantasies.”

  • Aj


    The first argument is the type of response I read, and it is clearly against male sexual expression. There are rationalizations and reasons behind it, many farcical in nature, but they’re not important. The apology that was commended by Jen accepted this pop psych woo. I don’t see how calling it “sexist” and “skeevy” can’t be interpreted as supporting this view.

    The second argument isn’t about sexism at all and while you could have problems with that type of behaviour on other grounds, the word “skeevy” doesn’t relate. It doesn’t follow social rules, it’s “immature”, and shallow, people can be if they want to be.

    Is the third an argument? It doesn’t seem to be about sexism. Seems like a very long whine about other people doing things you don’t appreciate, some things may even warrant criticism of those people. People can have fetishes and fantasize over others if they want to, even if I don’t understand it. I’m sure you’d like people to love your work and to get reliable feedback, but it’s not owed to you.

  • Someone took to me the other day because I suggested that the Atheist movement even had ‘leaders’ – I realise it’s slightly off-topic, but you seem to not have any bugbear against using the term here?
    As a matter of interest, to gague general feelings about the term I made a quick scratch poll (here), but as yet it hasn’t had much response..

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