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Bruce Gorton

Fairly recently, a friend of mine deconverted. She is a black single parent with a column in the newspaper. She handled her SABC interview fine BTW.

Atheism is not a white male thing. It never actually was. It is a human thing.

But there is a problem with us: The atheist movement has relatively few faces everyone recognises and it is generally left to self-promotion.

And when that happens it is difficult to really control who the face of the movement is.

Our problem is not that the atheist movement is largely white first world males with money, it is that there isn't enough being done to show that it isn't.

So, there is a need to promote atheists we don't fit the stereotype. We need to expand on the out campaign, and give people safe places to land.

And to do that, we need to organise more. We need to unify on more than the odd occassion and start admitting that we are a movement.

That doesn't make us "as bad as the evangelicals", it just makes it more possible for us to adress issues like the racial issue that is plaguing us at the moment.


I'm glad that people are finally speaking up on these issues. What shocked me more than the instances of sexism I have seen (online and offline), has been the vicious ad hominem attacks on anyone who dares to comment when they think something is sexist. I thought the atheist movement prided itself on rational, evidence-based discussion.


Also seems like any time you get a hundred white men in one place, even if they are all the most wonderful perfect examples of non-racism and non-sexism, they will attract a hundred more white men who are horrible people from the surrounding racist sexist culture who figure the lack of women and people of color means they'll be safe to spout their bullshit. And since their bullshit doesn't directly affect anyone in the group, they are only weakly confronted or not at all, and rarely told to pack up and leave, because hey, other than that, they're not bad guys, amirite? But when the group is confronted by a woman or black person or whatever, they immediately look at the hundred good guys, announce the confronting party is delusional and there is no problem, since it's not like anyone is violent, right? ... And immediately attract another hundred horrible white men who notice they'll not only get a nice club to spout their awfulness, they'll get a pat on the back for being so not racist and not sexist too! Woo!

My experience, ymmv.


Superb post. I look forward to part 2.

I organize the Salt Lake City skeptics group. When we had our first meeting about a year ago, I was pleased that we had a diverse group, at least in terms of gender and sexuality. More than 50% of our attendees were female (and it continues to be around 50% at any given meeting), and we had (and have) a significant gay, lesbian and bisexual presence.

At that first meeting, we had one attendee who kept making "FAAAAABULOUUUSSSS" jokes every time a someone said or did something "gay" and it pissed me right off and made everyone a little uncomfortable. Later, he discreetly told me that I needed to reign in the conversation because talk had turned to RENT and not just, you know, about how the Mormon church sucked.

I was actually a little taken-aback by this attitude. I was flying-blind creating a group from scratch, and I guess I'd just assumed that everyone of the skeptical mindset would be forward-thinking and not just accepting of but EMBRACING difference. I didn't know how to react at the time, but I dis-invited him from future events.

Luckily, since then, it's been almost entirely awesome people.


Uh, As to why this (and other movements in the US) tend to be made up of predominently white males is pretty clear to me. It is just easier in terms of privilage, for a white man to go against the grain then a woman or a POC. Kinda like the post you did about atheists and exceptionalism--only this time it self selects for people who have the wherewithal and confidence to go against the grain and suffer the least in terms of social reprecussions.

also, the online communities tend to be mostly white men because, well, the english speaking world's internet is primarily made up of white males.


Don't be too sure, LisaG. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there are more middle aged women on the internet these days, from the mommybloggers on out.


Uh.. Sorry, I am not buying it. Its mostly white males for the same reason that 99% of the black community, and a larger number of women, than men, voted "against" gay marriage in California. You have two things working against it, one of which the women "in" the picture you have here presented about others in her ethnic group. You have a stronger tendency of non-whites to be attached to, and/or connected, community wise, to churches and superstition. That means that they are "less" likely to break loose, since most are, if anything, even more scared of doing so than white people are (it would, in some cases, virtually wipe out all connection they have to their own ethnic group).

The second problem is a social one. Men, generally, tend to be less social, or at least less obsessive over minor details, the need to know what is going on with everyone around them, and less "needing" of strong ties. This is pretty well known, and is even backed by research. Its unclear how much of this is tied to biological differences, and not just how they are brought up, but the fact remains that losing religion for a man is less of a hassle. Moving on to find other friends isn't a huge issue, if they lose others coming out. For women.. this would pull the rug out from under their social system so fast they might feel seriously lost.

Now, this isn't to say that some women would suffer as badly, and couldn't make the transition. But, I can easily imagine it being "far" harder than it would be for me to make such a drastic transition.

Might there be some racism and other issues in atheist communities? Maybe. But, simply stating facts about how certain groups tend to bind their social order together, and that this may **inherently** undermine deconversion, isn't racist, even if some might try to call it such. Its simply stating a fact, and one stated *originally* by someone from the very same community. There is far more.. I am not sure what the correct word is, but.. if you are a member of such a group, you are trying to swim upstream, over a waterfall, to get out, since you are either in, or not, with even less middle ground than is "accepted" by society as a whole, when you are white, never mind male. Both are expected to be more "flexible" in their thinking, and thus no one freaks, as badly, when they make a huge change. Can you say the same is true with women? What about a black women, or even a black man, in some community where they are *barely* willing to separate the church from their lives enough to not just set up a sleeping bag on the pews, and the local shops make more business selling Jesus, and Saint, candles, for people's houses, than groceries?

Aware of the problem? Maybe we are thinking of a different problem, because I am quite well aware how much more some people have to lose than I ever did, by rejecting idiocy.

Greta Christina

Kagehi: You're actually making my point for me. Yes, it's very likely true that women and people of color have different reasons for not becoming atheists, or for not coming out as atheists, than white men do.

And the atheist movement is not addressing those reasons.

Instead, we're letting our movement speak largely to white men, and to the issues white men face when coming out as atheists. We are failing to speak to women and people of color, and to the issues we/they face with coming out. And we're treating this situation as if it were a problem with women and people of color... and as if there was nothing at all that the atheist movement does to contribute to it, and nothing at all that we could do to address it.

I'm not saying this is the result of overt racism. In fact, I went to great lengths to say that it isn't (or isn't entirely). The whole point of this piece is that there doesn't have to be overt racism in order for this phenomenon to play out, and to continue to play out and get worse as our movement grows. And there doesn't have to be overt racism in order for it to still be a problem. This is our responsibility... if only in the most limited sense that we have power to do something about it.

Oh, and P.S.: Your "99% of black people voted against Prop 8" line is grossly mistaken. Even the most wildly inflated figures put that number at 70%... and those numbers are probably wrong.


Kagehi, I think you are bringing up a similar point as LisaG in saying that currently being an atheist requires some form of social privilege, and women and POC don't have as much to spare. Plus... even Nietzsche, who "killed god" thought it crass for a woman to be skeptical. The sexism and racism in general society is very high, and while I think it's much better in the skeptical movement, enough of it spills over that it's not nonexistent. I'm personally of the opinion though that it'll be easier to fight where there's more of it-- society, and therefore end up with even less in our own group.

But it's odd and a complicating additional factor, that women have the most to gain by abandoning misogynistic religion, and religious arguments were once put forth to enslave POC, and still sometimes influence reducing public social structures to help the disadvantaged, because it interferes with religious selling points by tying it to charity.

so... to my mind, these factors should cancel out... and if we can get visible examples of out atheists who are non-white women, I think you can tap into that second aspect and free a lot of people.

Jim Lippard

To what extent *is* there an "atheist movement" or "atheist community," and what defines its core and goals? Lack of belief in God seems a rather weak basis for a movement or community.

It seems to me that atheists and agnostics are, at best, a loose group of people with diverse interests and beliefs, who will ultimately splinter off into different secular communities, such as the Humanists, which have a shared positive worldview that includes atheism as a component.

Without that kind of shared positive worldview, is there a basis for a community attractive to women and minorities that can offer them something comparable to what they can get from religion?

Greta Christina

Jim, with all due respect: Can we please not turn this conversation into a tangential thread about whether the atheist movement should even exist at all?

Like it or not, the atheist movement exists -- and it has problems with race and gender that need to be addressed. "Is atheism even a basis for a community and a movement?" is a conversation we've had eighteen million times. "Why is the movement so predominantly white and male?" is a conversation we haven't had nearly enough. I really want to stay focused on that here.

Jenn Dyer

Jennifer Michael Hecht addressed this issue briefly in her Point of Inquiry interview on November 28, 2008 (

You make a good point, Christina, about not meeting the needs of everyone, specifically women and people of color. Community is definitely something that's lacking in the movement as a whole. I think it's recognized as a weakness of the movement that some people are looking to address, but it's not easily solved. Many movements formed at the grassroots and then became global, but atheism/skepticism seems to be gaining momentum the other way around. I think that may be why we lack the community other movements have.


My teeny tiny datapoint of one is that I don't feel a calling or a pull to join any kind of movement. I wonder if a bunch of people become atheists and are glad not to have to get up and go to some weekly meeting. Maybe the white guys you write about have more time on their hands than minorities and women do.


Very nice post; looking forward to part two.

It is worth remembering that we can disagree honestly about the *causes*, but still agree that a problem exists, and most importantly, still work towards solutions to that problem. The solutions, after all, may even be independent of the causes (a headache is not caused by lack of aspirin), and a common agreement as to the *problem*, if not the *causes*, still allows us to evaluate our interventions to see if they alleviate that problem.

And whether or not white males are a (or the) *cause* of the situation, it would be difficult to argue that they are not the ones in the position of having the most power to *change* that situation. Other groups wishing to make such change would be well advised to make allies, rather than enemies, of the group with power.


Thanks. Looking forward to part 2.

(The second half of this piece will appear tomorrow. I'm not going to turn off comments, but if you can hold off on commenting until Part 2 appears, I'd be much obliged.)

Well that worked well...


@ Ramel.

Oh. I guess I just don't read italicized txt do I?



I don't know if the atheist/skeptic movement in itself is sexist, but I have certainly run into several sexist atheists and skeptics, and yes there's sometimes a rather aggressive knee jerk reaction if someone points it out. I haven't encountered racism to the same extent, but that could be just me focusing more on some things than others.

I did point out once to a "fellow skeptic" in a discussion who had made a racist slur joke that he had done so, and he completely chewed me out for it. Most of the rest of the people in that discussion remained silent... so I got the distinct impression that at that particular time and place it wasn't popular to point such things out.

It isn't really the fact that some people are sexist or racist that bothers me the most, and for that matter no one is completely free from all kinds of prejudices and anyone can say something bad at times. But that the reactions when someone points it out, or wants to discuss it, or simply tells someone that what they said was not appropriate is so often of the kind mentioned.

It doesn't seem befitting at all of the ideals the movement claims to hold high.


It isn't really the fact that some people are sexist or racist that bothers me the most

Let me clarify that. Of course it bothers me! But what I meant was that you expect that there will be some idiots everywhere, and in some circles you expect that people will not care.

But in a movement such as this, who claims to be rational and tolerant, it bothers me more when it's not addressed, or that people who do address it are met with hostility from some people, and that behavior then in its turn is not more sharply addressed.

Bruce Gorton

Now, another element that needs to be pointed out here: Hutchinson talks like a theologian. She is overly wordy, and kind of full of shit.

Take this quote:

"[P]atriarchy entitles men to reject organized religion with few implications for their gender-defined roles as family breadwinners or purveyors of cultural values to children."

One of the major repeated arguments we constantly get, and I mean constantly to the point of it being about as tiresome as Pascal's Wager, is the argument from morality and she says that.

And I know a few atheist men who have gotten divorces only to find their lack of faith counted against them in the custody hearings. It is why I don't date Christians.

While there is a need to deal with the racial and sexual divide that is developing in atheism, the fact of the matter is that this is not going to be dealt with by creating differences where they don't exist.

Greta Christina
...this is not going to be dealt with by creating differences where they don't exist.

And it is not going to be dealt with by pretending that differences don't exist, when at least sometimes they do.

I hesitate to speak for Hutchinson here. But I think you have misunderstood her point. She's not saying that there are no consequences for men who leave religion. She's saying that there are fewer consequences in some areas. She's saying that the consequences are different... and that in some areas, the consequences for women are greater.

Now, I happen to think that's a valid point. In our culture, preserving religion and passing it on to children is still commonly seen as a female role. On a day to day level, being a purveyor of religion is more deeply tied into women's identity as female than it is to men's identity as male... making it harder in some ways for women to reject religion.

If you don't agree, please make that case. But please argue with the actual nuanced case that Hutchinson and people who agree with her are making... and not with the "all or nothing" case you're accusing her of making.

The point is not that men have no consequences to leaving religion. Obviously. The point is that the consequences are often different for women than they are for men... and that the atheist movement needs to recognize that and address it if we're going to be truly inclusive. This issue is not going to be dealt with by pretending that differences don't exist, when at least sometimes they do.

Bruce Gorton

"Greta Christina
She's saying that there are fewer consequences in some areas."

One of which happens to be as: "purveyors of cultural values to children." Which is clearly rubbish - as my point on custody hearings raises.

There are problems, but part of the issue is going to have to be honestly identifying them.


Being an educated white male, mostly atheist, find this absurd, get over it... BTW has anyone noticed the United States has a black president? The years of the white supremacy are over in America, although you obviously haven't been keeping track of white-racism around the globe. Take Africa for example, where whites are being attacked due to the color (or lack there of,) of their skin.


Bruce... you're saying atheism counts against men during custody hearings.

How is this anything BUT evidence that society views passing religion on to children is a "female's role"?

If you want to show it's rubbish, show out atheist women fair better in custody hearings with christian men, than atheist men do with christian women, as compared to the normal sex distribution of winning custody cases. You're not going to find that. Because out atheist women are penalized more for their atheism than men.

Especially women in highly fundamentalist environments have very little power compared to men, much less agency, and it takes a lot more gumption to get out. Men, even then, are expected to work and therefor can raise enough money to get out. Women? Many more rules, much closer scrutiny, much more courage is necessary to "break away." Mainstream religion is really only a difference of degree than quality from the extremists, so that a slight differential in ease of coming out still remains seems logical to me.

But still, all that means women have much more to gain, and if we as a movement can leverage that, and offer a "safe place to land" we are going to see an explosion in the numbers of out atheist women. And we're going to need to address the material needs of women coming out of fundamentalism-- the denial of education and the purposeful closing of every door but housewife to these women, give them not only a community, but a stepping stone out. We also should do that to the teen sons of FLDS who are tossed out to make the demographics of polygamy work, but over all the country, more women are abused this way then men, and we should be there to help.

plus... cue the trolls who say "get over it." Racism against blacks (or sexism against women) doesn't somehow "equal out" whites getting attacked in Africa. Human experience isn't something you integrate over the globe, that's idiotic.


In case you hadn't noticed Tom, most of one entire political party seems to be running with the, "We are not racists, but we hate like hell that a liberal black man, who we are sure had to grow up under a rock on some foreign country, is telling us what to do!", stance on everything the man proposes.

Oh, and Greta, Jim does have a point. Should such a group exist? Yes, but we need to be clear what we mean by group, and frankly, not every atheist is *necessarily* going to do so. There is a reason why religions tend to call people that follow them sheep, while more than a few prominent atheists have described their own side as "herding cats". People that think have different opinions than each other, and its hard to make them all do one thing at a time. Its actually, sometimes, dangerous when you "can" get them to all move in the same direction, because they will do the most absolutely stupid things imaginable, as a group, which they would never do as individuals. One needs to take great care in such "movements".


Shorter Tom: "We have a black president now, so racism's all over."

Greta Christina

It's not rubbish, Bruce. In the U.S. at least, the job of passing religion on to children is most commonly a woman's job, and the phenomenon of mothers bringing the kids to church while Dad is off somewhere else is extremely common. This is well documented -- I'm actually somewhat surprised that we're debating it at all.

And the fact that atheist men are discriminated against in custody cases doesn't disprove this point. There are any number of possible explanations for this: a bigoted belief that atheists are immoral being one, a bigoted tendency to prefer religious parents over atheist ones being another, a general hostility and fear towards atheists being yet another.

(Besides, "I know a few" is hardly a careful statistical sampling.)

Greta Christina

Oh, and I'll echo what others have said to Tom: The idea that the Obama presidency somehow proves that racism is over in this country? It's completely laughable. One swallow does not a summer make, and one black President does not make for a post-racial country.

Bruce Gorton

Posted by: Tom | September 10, 2009 at 07:05 AM

I live in South Africa. Where racism comes into play in South Africa isn't the crime stats but political manouvering in order to do anything about them.

Even the degree of violence in the crimes suffered crosses racial lines. A home invasion with two infants burnt to death? The two infants were black.

And we have white people who defraud black people without a blink of conscience.

And before you raise affirmative action, whites in South Africa are still over-represented amongst the working population, mainly due to the inherited inequality you get from one sector of the population getting better educations than another (Meaning that there are more whites working because more whites have in-demand degrees because more whites got a chance to get those degrees.)

And aside from that, there is the basic point of "Well they do it too" being a four year old's excuse. That other people do things too doesn't make it right, and if it is wrong for them to do it, it is wrong for us to do it.

Bruce Gorton

Posted by: Greta Christina | September 10, 2009 at 11:05 AM

However, that women are expected to pass values on to children is exactly what the problem is for atheist men - men are already not expected to be nurturing, or as capable as parents as women are thanks to traditional gender roles.

This isn't a matter of the white man's whine here, I am not saying men suffer greater consequences, it is a matter of how the consequences aren't "lesser" or even "fewer."

A lot of the issue with sexism and atheist is that you end up with two or more disadvantaged groups that overlap.

There is real sexism in the world and it has consequences for both genders, with women getting the worse of that, then you have racism which has consequences for all racial groups, with minorities getting the worse of that, and the atheism issue with atheists getting the worse of that.

But it isn't atheists get worse consequences if they are male or female, it is that the consequences begin to add up.

My consequences for being an atheist are the same as your consequences for being an atheist, but I don't get the consequences of being LGBT, or female.

And of course you get atheist racists, and atheist sexists, and atheist homophobes. That is part of the struggle against racism, sexism and homophobia, and we can't ignore that.

But we also can't in the long run act like men have a special priveledge to be atheists - white men have a lot of special social priveledges, but atheism isn't one of them.

We all have the right, legally, to be who we are, but we also have to struggle for that right socially, and do it together.

Tessa Kendall

In the UK at least, the secular movement (if it can be called that) is predominantly run by white men, (that is slowly changing, but slowly). Not all secularists are atheists but pretty much everyone who is active is.

A lot of them are gay. I think this may be partly because they have campaigned for gay rights in the 70s and 80s so they are already campaigners by nature and partly because religion and homophobia often go hand in hand. Of course, not all religious people are homophobic but the most vocal religious groups demanding privilege and exemption from equality laws tend to be the more extreme and fundamentalist ones.

Another reason may be that gay men rarely have kids so they have more time.

There is little overt sexism but there is a definite way of doing things and of thinking that is male, hierarchical and clubbish. It's male oriented by omission rather than by intention. It can also be quite aggressive, competitive and combative - sometimes this is needed but not all women feel comfortable with this. Different approaches and different ways of thinking are not always acknowledged.

The Skeptic movement in London was almost entirely male when I joined years ago. The first meeting I went to, I was pretty much the only woman and the men were mostly the nerdy sort with few social skills. I stuck it out, made a point of talking to any women who did come, and now there are a lot more women there. There are also an increasing number of men who respect and understand women (and even have girlfriends!).

But there is still sexism, which comes as a shock when you think you're all on the same page - it's mostly just little comments, laddishness and a nerdy inability to interact with women. There is also an assumption that feminism has done its job so it's OK to be laddish. I guess that the large nerd/atheist/skeptic cross-over doesn't help.

I sometimes find too, that there is a mentality that atheism and the fight against undue religious influence is more important - a hierarchy of battles, if you like. True, religion in some aspects is misogynistic, but there is often a single focus. It often seems to be that any movement (workers' rights, communism, anti-racism, atheism etc) sees women's rights as something secondary to be fought for once the bigger battle has been won - which it never is.

Anyway, that's an early and slightly sleepy Sunday morning thought from the UK.


I'm white and male. Should I become a christian to help the atheist movement?


@ Drew.

In what way did that make any sense??


Drew's just helpfully illustrating the problem for the rest of us...

Marcus Ranum

I've become a nihilist, specificaly so as not to be associated with any movements. But people look at my skin color, gender, and education and make inferences - what should I do to prevent that?


It doesn't help that Greta Christina herself has compared with "creationists" those who call out sexist researchers as sexist. It's actually the likes of Simon Baron-Cohen who are intellectualizing a Biblical patriarchal worldview. When usually feminist atheists such as Greta or Nina Hartley promote sexist bullshit or the crap notion that disagreeing with reactionaries makes one "politically correct," that's acting on gender alright, but very much in the WRONG way. Drink the patriarchal kool-aid that women just aren't as wired to be good engineers or computer scientists and there's no leap to adding atheism to the list of the inevitably male-dominated.

Moreover, it is disingenuous and hypocritical when Greta Christian, Nina Hartley, et al. act open-minded wrt sexist "sex research" but never act the same way wrt comparable "race research." There are also numerous studies finding differences in racial intelligence, so if you buy the reactionary bs on sex, you might as well buy the crap regarding race, too. Hell, it's often the exact same scientists putting out the race bs as sex bs.

The "it's just natural for women not to be so systematic" crowd ignore a great deal of data which contradicts their stereotype, er, oh-so "daring" theory which simply reflects half of corporate "pop culture." One is that the proportion of female engineers is NOT consistently miniscule. In some countries (like Bulgaria) the proportion of female engineers ranges from a third to a half. Another problem is that women are not unrepresented in biology, yet biological organisms require as much and more systemizing as non-biological machines. Biochem requires just as much and more a rigorous and systematic approach as inorganic chemistry. The sexist "sex scientists" don't even acknowledge these problems because they are liars.

Trying to dismiss critics as "liberal creationists" and the like is a cowardly cop-out. We don't reject evolution at all, we reject the way reactionaries and their allies in the media misinterpret evolution to fit their cartoonish Leave it to Beaver and Flintstones vision of human beings.

Again, if women (esp. American, as these studies are mostly Americentric) being unrepresented in hard science indicates inherent sex difference, then by the same logic we should conclude black inferiority from the GREATER under-representation of black American men in the same fields.

Yes, atheists do need to act now on gender and race.

Greta Christina

Sophia: What on earth are you talking about? When have I ever said the things you're accusing me of saying?


Sophia: Non sequitur.

where the heck did that come from? Your comment is the first use of the word "creationist" on this page. What usage are you quoting?


I'm an atheist, and I'm Asian and female. I'm also 14, not a grown up.


hi there iv goto say well done jane ,you allways make intelegent blogs here, you could make serious money for your services.
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