Sexism in the atheist community: not rational, not reasonable, not funny

Those who are familiar with my comments on this site will know that I am highly critical of religion. This is mainly due to a lack of evidence for a god or gods. However, the misogyny contained within most holy texts, which I feel is endemic in the three major monotheistic creeds, is one of the reasons why I am so vocal in this criticism.

Today, though, I’m posting about the opposite problem: misogyny and sexism within the atheist community. I wish it didn’t exist, but it does, and I want to add my voice to that of Skeptifem, who flagged up this issue in November last year.

Atheism, as a movement, prides itself on being freethinking, educated and enlightened; however some of the most vocal proponents of this white male-dominated scene display disgraceful misogynist attitudes which are rarely publicly criticised by other atheists. Christopher Hitchens, a man who was recently very eloquent in his criticism of the Catholic Church at a recent televised debate, also wrote this Vanity Fair article – a ridiculous woman-hating salvo containing some disturbingly predatory language – and has referred to comedian Wanda Sykes as “the black dyke”. Bill Maher, star of the film ‘Religulous’, has also made plenty of nasty sexist comments, including “jokes” about domestic violence.

It doesn’t stop with the ‘famous’ atheists. Like any person subscribing to a particular worldview, I seek like-minded people. This is why I joined the forum at*. I was open about my feminism, thinking it wouldn’t be a big deal within a community of enlightened freethinkers; this was a mistake.

Last year, I started a thread asking users whether they had experienced sexism on the forum or within the atheist community generally. It was a simple enough question, and boy was I unprepared for the torrent of vitriol that was about to flow my way. I was told that I had a chip on my shoulder; I was pointedly asked, apropos of nothing, what I planned to do about the lack of male primary school teachers (?!); I was told I was oversensitive and overreacting, that if I found anything offensive on the forum then that was my problem, and that as I was openly feminist my posts couldn’t possibly be ‘innocent’ (!) and I should expect a hostile response (asking for it, perhaps?); I was also targeted by some female users who said that they weren’t offended, so I obviously needed to ‘lighten up’. Put simply, most of the replies I got wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Daily Mail or on an MRA website.

Eventually, drained by constant arguing, I ditched the thread and left the forum. Interestingly, I received a few private messages from female members who said that they had also experienced sexism, but didn’t want to post publicly about it for fear of the hostility turning on them. Some freethinking community, eh?

The presence of misogyny, sexism-apologia and anti-feminism within atheist circles makes me feel very let down and disillusioned. I feel that to be a sexist atheist is to be a hypocrite; as far as I am concerned, belief in the inferiority of women is as much a faith position as belief in all-powerful supernatural entities. It seems to me that while all atheists are happy to apply rationality to the idea of a god, some can’t – or won’t – turn the spotlight of reason onto their own presumptions and prejudices about our human life on Earth. That, in my opinion, shows weakness, cowardice and selfishness. How many people are being put off joining the atheist community by attitudes such as these?

For me, freethought is about questioning all assumptions about our world. I would like to see more women rise to greater prominence within the atheist community (such as Ophelia Benson, editor of Butterflies and Wheels, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Annie Laurie Gaylor, for example), I would like to see well-known atheists who do not make a habit of spewing misogyny, such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, be more openly critical of those who do, and fundamentally I would like to see debunking of all prejudices as standard within sceptical thinking.

The evidence for this happening is not encouraging at present – perhaps I will just have to ‘have faith’?

*I should point out that Richard Dawkins himself does not moderate or endorse any of the comments on the forum, and that is actually in the process of closing the forum I am referring to, in order to replace it with a more editorially-controlled version.

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