GET OFF THE FENCE: Sexism in the atheist community.

By on June 5, 2013

In 1965, two women of Students for a Democratic Society, Casey Hayden and Mary King, wrote an essay bringing attention to the problem of sexism within SDS. In their essay, the authors cautiously raised the issue of sexism in the student movement (indeed, the subtitle of the essay, “A Kind of Memo,” suggested just how cautious they were), arguing that women engaged in movements for social justice needed to start communicating to both each other, and their fellow male activists about their experiences.  Deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement, Hayden and King went out of their way to be clear that they were in no sense equating the discrimination and oppression they experienced as women with the oppression experienced by African Americans in the United States. Nonetheless, it had become increasingly clear to them that sexism did not stop at the door of the radical meeting house – it was a very real problem in the New Left community, and it had to be dealt with.

Two years later, frustrated by the tepid and insulting response of many men in SDS to their call for gender equality, the women of SDS again penned an essay which attempted to explain why attacking sexism was so important to the overall struggle for social justice. As they wrote:

“We seek the liberation of all human beings. The struggle for liberation of women must be part of the larger fight for human freedom. We recognize the difficulty our brothers will have in dealing with male chauvinism and we will assume our full responsibility in helping to resolve the contradiction. Freedom now! We love you!”

The journal New Left Notes published the essay, but it ran accompanied by this image:

we want our rights and we want them now

I would hope that I do not have to unpack the implications that are evident here. Rather than respond to the women of SDS with respect, rather than listening to their concerns, the male editors of New Left Notes condescendingly ran their story next to an image which mocked the very idea that they were adult human beings with serious and legitimate complaints.

Unfortunately, this response was not an outlier amongst New Left men, nor did it merely represent the growing pains of an expanding movement, soon to be scorned by all and moved past. Over the next few years, New Left feminists encountered over and over against the condescension, disrespect, and often outright misogamy of New Left men. For many activist women, this was devastating. Here were the people that they were supposed to be most united with in fighting inhumanity, treating them as subhuman. Here were the people who spoke out articulately and bravely against racial and social injustice, perpetuating the ugly, violent culture of patriarchy. Here were people who had been friends and lovers refusing to listen to them seriously – and maybe, many wondered, their relationship with these men had never been about anything substantial, after all. Perhaps, they had been used.

So many of them left the New Left, and founded radical feminism. Many decided to never have anything to do with men again. Out of this break, we gained a lot – strategies for helping women unite around shared grievances, brilliant new critical theory, and an independent movement by women for women. However, a lot was lost, as well. Increasingly suspicious of anyone who deviated from what they considered the most revolutionary break with patriarchy, many of the radical feminists groups splintered and splintered, until there was very little left inside them or between them. A national political culture veering rightward, meanwhile, manipulated some of the more brilliant protest techniques of the radical feminists to argue that the essence of feminism was, in a word, “femi-nazism.”  Feminism certainly survived all this, and eventually, the routine sexist behavior in SDS would grow to be at least officially stigmatized amongst the majority of progressive social movements. However, the pain, disappointment, and lost opportunities for solidarity between New Left men and women would linger in the minds of SDS women, and continue to damage the ability for feminism to make cultural inroads in the broader society.

That is a long story. But I’m afraid it is also about to become a familiar one. The recent controversy surrounding Ron Lindsay’s opening speech and the Women in Secularism 2 conference has me remembering this history, and shaking my head. I remember the first time a prestigious member of the atheist community openly mocked Rebecca Watson – I wrote about it then, with a tone much calmer, and much less angry, than I feel today. The fact that two years later, this is still happening on a somewhat regular basis, is a certain type of frustrating difficult to capture. A few nights ago, I listened to two people talk about whether or not to identify as “atheist” – while one openly does so, the other, too familiar with the way some atheists respond to the concerns of women and minorities, could not bring herself to attach the title to her identity. For her, it was just too wrapped up in the ugly.

Fortunately, today, we still have a lot of cause for hope. We have Watson, we have Skepchick, and dozens and dozens of other atheist feminists – including many men, such as PZ Myers – who in the last few years have been relentless in holding the atheist community responsible for its misogyny and bigotry. But I sense also that a lot of us are tired. Tired of having to explain the fundamentals over and over again – tired of being dismissed as dogmatic or close-minded when we point out all the myriad ways sexism infects our community. We speak out against sexist behavior at conferences, for example, and then get blamed for making women uncomfortable with going to conferences, as though we created the problem. Some of us get hate mail, a lot of it – indeed we get entire websites devoted to attacking us. Some of us get this treatment so constantly, we give up and attempt to retreat back into private life to escape it.

Meanwhile, a lot of people sit around in the middle and talk about “reasonableness” — and it is to these people that this post is primarily directed. You have to stop this fence sitting. It is not principled, nor does it reflect reality. Such fence sitting denies what is clearly a substantial problem, and engages in the discussion as though atheist feminists are not being viciously attacked every day by members of the atheist community, and therefore in some sense, are “overreacting” — it denies that the level of overt sexism and hatred being spewed out at atheist feminists more than overwhelmingly illustrates the reality they are speaking to. And it denies that even the much more quiet, clueless contempt they receive at conferences supposedly organized for them does not also, in a more subtle but very significant way, also speak to this reality. This, in other words, is starting to get exhausting.

I am not, however, planning on going anywhere. I don’t know what an independent atheist feminist movement would mean, and I do not believe that this community is composed of a majority of overt sexists or is past saving. But atheism itself has garnered itself a very shaky reputation amongst people who care more about social justice than explaining why religions make false claims – and it has this shaky reputation for good reason. The sexism problem is a huge one. The only way, it seems to me, to respond to this is to increasingly put pressure on fence-sitters – to continue to debate and relentlessly explain why no, it is not just a matter of a few bad apples and why yes, it is sexist to proposition a woman in the context of a conference for sex. There are “unreasonable” people all over the place, both men and women – but the story of the last few years cannot be explained by a few “dogmatic” atheist feminists overreacting to every little thing; the story of the last few years can only be explained by the continuing power of sexism in this community. This is a question, in other words, you need to take a side on. Which does not mean that henceforth, everything a woman says is right, and everything a man says is wrong – but if you are feeling more passionate about the “unreasonableness” of feminist members of the atheist community than you are about the sexists who attack them, there is a serious problem here. I implore all of us, then, to step back, recognize that there is more at stake here than our own guilt or innocence, and relentlessly attack this problem.

Because here’s the thing. While radical feminist groups undoubtedly bequeathed to future generations of feminists wisdom, hope, and community, in many ways they failed. Usually, social movements built on factionalism – on splintering yourself off from those who could hurt you or do not fall within a proscribed set of traits that separates ‘us’ from ‘them’ – do not usually succeed at changing the culture more broadly, although they do often exert pressure on it. But I don’t want the atheist movement, or the community of atheist feminists, to be some small, sectarian clique which makes a difference only by being able to change some secondary attitudes on the periphery of society. I want it to be a diverse, humane, constantly maturing community. I do not want to reach the point of the woman I listened to, explaining that, even if the majority of atheists are not sexist or racist, enough of them are for her to avoid associating herself with the label. I want her to know that we are better than that. And I want you to let her know it, as well.




As long as there are men and women as separate genders, there will be racism. It’s time to get over it and move on.


Let’s see, separate genders=racism=get over it=move on, have I got it right?
Brilliant work, you’ve done a magnificent job of reaffirming the authors point.

Great post Robin!


“…get over it and move on.”

Yea… Wouldn’t you just love that? Unfortunately for you, I have absolutely no intention of following that little pearl of wisdom you’ve graced us with. And it’s quite funny, because statments like that are what fuel all of us to fight harder. So, really, I should be thanking you. But…. I don’t think I’ll go that far.

Loved the article. :)


Adam, That which can not be eliminated may still be worth reducing.


This post is a little old so not expecting a response. Maybe just asking questions to the ether.
Not in any atheist movement (don’t attend TAM, etc.) so I don’t quite feel like a fence-warmer but since reading this post, I’ve been unsettled by the fact that this is happening.
–Why are there so many sexists in the atheist community? Are there more there than in religious groups, bowling leagues, book clubs, yoga meetups?
–What are they doing that’s sexist? I’ve tried to find out for myself but I’m just getting lost down rabbit holes of post hoc mudslinging. Can you direct me to data/specific incidences (other than Lindsay)?
–I’d take issue with you saying that hitting on someone at a conference is sexist (context depending). If that’s what you’re saying. Bad judgement, idiocy, annoying, offensive depending how tone deaf the guy is, but sexist? Is that really where the bar is set?

The links you provided — the responses that the blogger was getting: death threats, being called horrible names, other ad hominem attacks — that’s what was most disturbing. Who does that shit? Is what I’ve been asking myself. Such vitriol being roused. I mean I know sexist guys but they’re not what I think of as over educated, nuanced, never mind having even heard of atheist, feminist bloggers. Weird. Just weird and unsettling.

Robin Marie

Hi Mike — what great questions. I’ll try to answer them as best as I can.

1. Why are there so many, and are there more than other groups, say religions?

No, there are not more. In fact, my guess is that there are probably less. However, other communities — especially religious ones — probably lack as many open, assertive *feminists,* and I think this is why you see more overt sexist activity in the atheist community than other communities because we have more women challenging this stuff. This makes the sexists angry, and even makes people I would not so simply describe pretty uncomfortable.

2. What are they doing?

First, as you mentioned, they are attacking feminist atheist bloggers on a daily basis. To find direct evidence of this, just venture over to Twitter and type in Rebecca Watson, or another atheist feminist blogger, and you will find them.

Second, there have been numerous incidents of sexual assault at conferences, in addition to inappropriate or creepy behavior. Here are some links on that, starting with one where a woman gives a personal account:

Third, many people who I do not think it is helpful to label, in a holistic way, as “sexists,” have been dismissive or condescending towards feminist women in the community, especially when they come forward with accounts of incidents at conferences. DJ Goethe, the president of JREF, blamed the lower attendance of women at conferences on atheist feminists who scared off women, rather than the oft-reported incidents of harassment, etc. Richard Dawkins mocked Rebecca Watson for gently pointing out how *not* to make a pass at a woman at a conference, telling her, more or less, that since Muslim women have it much worse (and all of them do, apparently; also a hugely problematic generalization) than her, she has no right to complain. Does this make Dawkins sexist? I don’t think that’s the most helpful formulation — as I talk about in the upcoming podcast, sexism is not something one is or is not, but a discourse we all breath in and are impacted by in varying degrees — *I* am sexist (towards women!, I mean) in certain regards, so I am pretty sure Dawkins has some issues, at the least. But the way he has behaved since then — with no apparent attempt to be self-reflective or take women in the community seriously who he disagrees with — has pretty much spoiled him for me, as far as I am concerned.

The DJ Grothe response is covered by links in this post and the above link chronically his mishandling of sexual harassment reports; the Dawkins incident is likewise covered by links in this post. If you’re still looking for more, I am sure women who often go to these conferences, like Greta Christina or Watson, could supply you with a plethora of links. However it is important to keep in mind that with something like this, it is less matter of concrete “outrageous acts” — although those certainly exist, as the past week has illustrated — but an attitude of dismissal, small experiences at conferences, and a torrent of hate mail that show up in the inboxes of feminist atheists from men much less ambiguous about where they stand. That is partly why it is so easy for people to dismiss the seriousness of the situation — for more on why it is mistake to do so, see Greta Christina on the difference between denialism and skepticism:

3. Is hitting on a woman at a conference sexist?

No. It does, as you said, depend on the situation. I myself have been hit on at a conference and I did not mind. But often, women do mind, and they do nothing to invite the behavior and make efforts to discourage it, and yet, it continues. Again, I would avoid thinking about things in terms of black and white — what the man who propositioned Watson in an inappropriate situation sexist? I don’t know, and in a sense, I don’t care. What’s clear is that he didn’t think about how his behavior would make someone feel belittled and uncomfortable — and he didn’t have to think about it, because men enjoy a certain privilege of ignorance where they do not have to consider the realities women have to deal with on a daily basis. So he partook in a problem created by sexism, yes, but it is less interesting and not terribly important to label him a sexist or not.

I hope this has cleared some things up; thanks for this thoughtful comment.


Yup, after reading links/listening to podcast I see I’m late to the party and I appreciate the patience it took to write your response. Thanks for that.

Ok enough with the sincerity, lets crank it out, see if we can’t make it fun.

I’d like to offer two words — the lynch pins I feel are missing, as I have not heard or read use of them yet.

Ugly. And Poor. As we strip the social dynamics down to an eyeball-to-eyeball gender scenario, these two words factor in. A lot, I think. I happen to be both. Oh, and I’m stupid too. Well…of mediocre intelligence anyway. Definitely ugly. And pretty poor. Poor, ugly, mediocre intelligence. Pumi, we’ll call it.

So imagine my surprise when I found out all this time I happened to be harboring this male privilege. News to me. I’m fascinated. So as a Pumi I have more social power than a well educated, attractive, financially resourced, articulate woman? Please, continue. So I will have doors opened for me that remain shut to you? Did I’m mention I’m short too?

And what’s crazy is that I have a huge constituency. I’d say in America, there are millions and millions of Pumi’s, just like me, longing for a mere glance from any of the hundreds of women we see driving around our cities in BMWs and Mercedes Benzes while we sit in our A/C broken, muffler dragging Ford pickups. Hey guys! We’re doing something wrong. We have privilege!

So…I’m definitely not speaking to all the sexism that exists. (And I’m assuming it goes without saying that I am sexist and racist to a degree in which is in need of constant investigation) and I’m definitely not speaking to the need for (relatively) non sexist men to understand that it’s the subtle forms of sexism they remain clueless to which is causing the death by a thousand paper cuts.

No, I’m speaking to the wording. I don’t know how many men will stop feeling antagonized by the decreased use of words like male privilege and social power. But I have an idea how many will stop being dickheads if they don’t get put out of use, or at least get used very cautiously.

As I’m sure you know a strong argument can be made for this broad statement: Things are getting better for women in the United States. Things are getting worse for men in the United States. Or is this a privilege of ignorance enjoyed by women?

Maybe the whole sale, unfettered and extremely generalized use of these words are as antiquated as a guy justifying drunk-rape by blaming the victim’s booze intake.

As a Pumi, I feel many things in modern day America. Ignored, dismissed, marginalized, invisible, largely unemployable. Privilege and social power are not on the list. Please, as you carry on the fight that I know you must, please, with a few simple acknowledgements or the refrain from the use of a couple of words, you will mitigate what I’m suspecting a lot of those guys (Pumi’s, the lot of ‘em) feel who are writing all those horrible things: fear and confusion. Did I mention I’m also bald?

Robin Marie

Mike — I hear what you are saying, but I feel it is unfortunate that you take certain lessons from that rather than others or, seem to; I’m not sure.

Without a doubt, our society discriminates against people who do not measure up to ridiculous standards of beauty and this is especially the case if they are not wealthy. “Beauty” privilege is real. Class privilege is real. Combined, they are particularly nasty. There are actually lot of people talking about the former, now, (also the latter, but that shouldn’t be news), and often, they are from feminist and queer communities, actually, but they are not arguing the discrimination is limited to women. See, for example:

That being said, I wish, when people look at how they are wronged, instead of comparing their plights to others and saying “your standing up/speaking out alienates me because I have it bad too/worse” that they would instead see each other as comrades in the fight against all this bullshit. A lot of men — and I don’t mean you — end up hating women rather than criticizing the materialistic, shallow consumer society that women are surely wrapped up in just as much as men are. But that shouldn’t make them targets in general, just as the existence of sexism should not make men in general targets, and no feminist in the community right now is arguing this.

You might not see that you have any privilege, but that is exactly how privilege works. And in some regards, yes, I have privileges you don’t — this doesn’t all cut one way or the other, right? Privilege is like playing the easiest level on a video game, in one particular regard, without ever playing the harder levels. In regards to what you’ve talked about here, it sounds like you’ve been playing the very hard level along lines of beauty/class, and that is fucked up and unfair and I don’t dispute that for one second. But along lines of gender, not so much; but you can’t know, until you do a lot of self-educating and start noticing subtleties in social interactions, what a woman in your same position would have experienced. So you focus on the challenges you *do* have — that makes total sense, and human. But that doesn’t mean that every type of bullshit that can be thrown someone’s way has been thrown yours. Imagine a woman in your position; not rich, not “pretty,” and not even granted the assumption of relevance and competence (and you do not, from all this, seem stupid to me) that is usually granted to men. It is different. Am I going to say it’s worse? I don’t see where that gets us — because discrimination against one person doesn’t cancel out or make irrelevant the discrimination against other people.

I agree that a lot of these men are afraid and confused. But I won’t stop using the terms that explain what is happening to women because those are the terms that accurately capture the dynamic, and I’m not going to alter these terms because we all need to take responsibility for the reality of them. The left, unfortunately, has done a horrible job ever since the 1960s at explaining to the public that these terms are not meant to stigmatize someone with a black mark that obliterates their humanity and the complexity therein; some people do, moreover, use them in this way and this is very upsetting for me. But if you listen to how this group of feminists in particular talk about this stuff — like the video I linked to where the woman was assaulted — they don’t talk about this like they are talking about Nazis. (And actually, Nazis also, were complex human beings; banality of evil, and so forth.) They just wanted to be treated decently and taken seriously. It really is that simple. But because of this fear that you talk about, so many men find this so threatening. And even if these men suffer from other types of discrimination, that doesn’t change the fact that they participate in something harmful to other human beings. We need to stop comparing our grievances and instead of attacking each other, attack the social norms and cultural lies that perpetuate all of this bullshit. Above you said, I think sarcastically, that you guess you are racist and sexist in a way that needs to be constantly examined; I couldn’t quite catch your tone. But I think this is true, of all of us, me included. I would add that we’re also prejudiced against people not considered good looking. This really is a huge problem.

I do not know what it is like to be you, Mike, but I think more of us ought to try to understand it. And I think you would say the same for these women.


Hey Robin,
Thanks for the response. My example was hypothetical as I am not now, nor have I ever been someone that could be thought of as a Ford pickup truck owner.

No! Was not being sarcastic about the racism/sexism investigation. Racism, in each person, is on a spectrum and I am obsessed with ironing out my deeper biases in regards to race, and now – thanks a lot – in regards to gender. So there’s much to dig through on the sexist front, as there is on the race.

My main beef was (and still kind of is) with terms being used. And my main interest is why such a vitriolic response from a subset of people (the atheist ingroup men) who are prided as being open-minded, tolerant, understanding of nuance, and at the very least, civilized.

That is to say, I agree mostly with you though I think its harder to parse out gender from other social variables: class/looks. As you believe it’s hard to isolate and deride violent religious extremism from other social/eco variables. Though, of course, there is an actual history of actual male privilege, so not quite a fair comparison, I admit.

And I could still be wrong even beyond that. I don’t know. I’m looking into it. There’s a lot of goddamn material to wade through: Books by women who dress up as men for a year as an experiment, ranting blogs, ranting way-too-blinded-by-confirmation-bias feminists, ranting way-too-clueless nutter men who think feminism ruined their chance at a happy marriage on the other end. And, as usual, not enough people questioning what they believe and why they believe it and what they would do if faced with conflicting data.

So give me time as I question my own damn self!

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