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Feminspire | April 17, 2014

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Why Are Women Fleeing From the Skeptic Community?

Why Are Women Fleeing From the Skeptic Community?

Before I found my place as a feminist, I sought out community from those identifying as atheists and skeptics. Though I no longer feel comfortable associating myself with those labels, despite still being firmly non-religious, I felt welcomed for a while. The militant atheists (and I use that word with no intended connotation either way) I exposed myself to were usually far from the feminist ideal, but because they led me to believe that misogyny was at the root of every religion, I felt like an imaginary atheist-run secular society would be like a haven. By comparing themselves to the religious people who own women as property or marry them off to the highest bidder when they turn 12, I’m sure these atheist men felt like their non-religious ideology would solve sexism without any added effort. Richard Dawkins, a prominent atheist and famous evolutionary biologist, perfectly encapsulated the absurd mentality of “well, as long as you aren’t being mutilated, you have no reason to complain about sexism” when he made the following mocking satirical comment on the blog of a skeptic woman, Rebecca Watson, because she mentioned being come on to in an uncomfortable situation:

Dear Muslima, Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . .  yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with. Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . . And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.

Whether or not Richard himself is guilty of this I cannot say, but another alarming trend I’ve noticed among skeptic/militant atheist bloggers is that they only care about sexism when they can use it to justify their Islamophobia and/or racism, as seen in this graphic on atheistzico’s tumblr [trigger warning for ignorant bigotry].


These men use the image of an oppressed Muslim woman to conjure hate for Islam, not to motivate an elimination of sexism. As a matter of fact, they often do things to perpetuate smaller-scale sexism. When women are suffering from sexism and misogyny that they don’t think is ‘bad enough’ (read: female genital mutilation and complete lack of autonomy) many atheist men are quick to silence them and to tell them that they don’t understand “real” sexism. Which, incidentally, is exactly what Richard Dawkins did when the Internet exploded in his face, along with a healthy dose of “I know exactly what it feels like” and “words are just words.”

The skeptic movement is a big fan of logic. And rightly so; it’s pretty handy. You take a selection of facts that are known to be true and you use a set of provable techniques to construct other valid statements. But the way that many non-feminist atheists employ logic to discuss feminism is often faulty and nonsensical. I once had an atheist dude tell me I was “moving the goal post” when I said I wasn’t interested in what men thought women should do to heal from sexual assault. And even though it makes no sense, there seems to be the idea that throwing the name of any old logical fallacy at someone is the ultimate trump card in an argument. Another issue is that things like sexism, racism and the like can only be truly understood by those who experience it every day. Simply put, we have access to much more information on the topic just by living our lives as women or as people of color or both.

If they choose to, men can learn many of things that are needed to deeply understand feminism, but by default, they’re missing a lot of information. What good is novice-logic when you only have access to a small fraction of the information needed to create a sound logical statement? As an example, let’s take a look at Daniel Tosh’s logic concerning the seriousness of rape jokes.

This is how some men saw it:

-     Anything can be funny!
-     We all have to be able to laugh at ourselves
-     It’s just a joke, I would never actually rape someone
-     Humor shouldn’t be censored
-     Words can’t hurt

Ergo, rape jokes are OK.

And this is how a feminist woman sees it:

-     Rape is incredibly common
-     Rape jokes trigger painful flashbacks for survivors
-     Humor shouldn’t inflict pain
-     They normalize the crime and make victims less likely to report it and rapists more likely to commit it

Ergo, rape jokes are not OK.

Neither breaks any serious logical rules, but it’s obvious that Daniel Tosh’s understanding of the issue is seriously limited. His logical progression is sound, but because he uses incomplete and false premises, his statement isn’t truthful. He might as well be saying, “Because humans can breathe underwater, there is no need for me to use a submarine to explore the Titanic.” There aren’t very many issues like sexism and racism, where one group of people has a distinct advantage (if we can call it that) at understanding the issue, so most straight white men who don’t experience oppression expect sexism and racism to conform to their understanding of the topic. But their understanding is often wrong. Atheist dudes love logic, and that’s great, just as long as they don’t forget that they need to learn about an issue before they try to start arguments over it.


One of the largest sources of hostility toward women in the skeptic community is the vitriol received by any female atheist who is in the public eye to any degree (let’s not forget how difficult that alone is to achieve for women in this community), be that because they have a blog, a YouTube channel, or have written a topical book. This is what happens when women rise in the atheist community [trigger warning for literally everything]. I don’t know why women who become famous for their atheism are treated so much worse by fellow atheists than women who become famous through art or organic chemistry or athletics.

When men become famous in the atheist community, they do not always create a sexism-free environment. TheAmazingAtheist titles a rant video about laziness and stupidity “Everyone’s a Teenage Girl Now.” Famous author Christopher Hitchens is asked why women can’t earn money for a household and responds, “I won’t have any woman of mine going to work.” And of course, it wouldn’t be an atheism video without the 90% of commenters seeing no issue with his statement.

Sam Harris, another famous author, felt it was necessary to include the line, “There’s nothing more natural than rape” in his explanation of why religion is a greater evil than rape. Though there are feminist-friendly male atheists like PZ Myers, the only ones who have any chance of name recognition all hold horrifying beliefs about women’s issues. In what way can women feel safe and welcomed in this environment? Even the men who aren’t as unapologetically sexist almost certainly greatly respect these prominent figures.

When I look at religion, I am not blind to the way misguided religious teachings restrict the freedom of many women in Saudi Arabia. I see the mutilated genitals and the people at risk of contracting HIV being told to not use condoms. But is the skeptic community the panacea to society’s ills? Far from it. If the skeptic community wants me back, they can start by making their space welcoming and safe for women who just happen to like science and aren’t religious. Until then, I’ll put more distance between myself and them than I do myself and the various friendly churches, mosques and synagogues.

Written by Sara Wofford

  • Elizabeth M

    I think the Hitchens thing isn’t quite as bad as it may sound here: I did watch the video, and he seems mainly silly and old instead of hateful and degrading. Still sexist in that he claims women aren’t meant to and shouldn’t have to work, but a far cry from the people in the comments. Let’s not even discuss those.

    This speaks to me as an atheist because in my head I like to assume the best about groups I associate myself with: clearly they are all filled with nice, justice-seeking, fair-minded, empathetic, intelligent people. As such, these various groups must have respect for each other, even if they don’t always agree (and everyone lived happily ever after with ice cream and pixie dust). Hah. It looks silly now that I think about it, but nothing ever forced me to think about it until very recently.

    I’m a little torn between trying to stay involved with the skeptic community and giving up on it (like so many other things) as a thing mostly made by and for angry white men. Ultimately, it comes down to whether it’s possible to separate a movement from its members. There are similarities between this and my feelings towards things like reddit–nice in principle but run by a lot of assholes. In the context of skepticism, all I want is to have the freedom to live a life free from discrimination on the basis of my lack of religion. This separates me from those that believe all religion is terrible and should be eradicated: I have actually had a lot of positive interactions with religious people and groups. After taking a look at Rebecca Watson’s “Page o’ Hate”, I don’t think I’ll be voicing those opinions anytime soon.

    • Maria

      I think Hitchens was an unreconstructed sexist, but he also was a provocatuer so it can be difficult to work out what he actually meant and what was just provocation.

  • EllenBeth Wachs

    I have been viciously targeted by a cybermob known as the slymepit. They justify their actions as parody or satire. There is nothing funny about what they do.

  • Ophelia Benson

    Well we’re working on it – by “we” I mean mouthy atheist women. It’s definitely an uphill battle right now, but there are a lot of us and we’re pissed off and we’re NOT LEAVING.

  • Safiya Taif

    While I can see the problems within the Western (i.e. christian-background) atheist community (online especially), please do NOT use your internal problems with the MRA types to give weight to the misnomer “Islamophobia” and please do NOT dismiss the problems ExMuslim atheists face even in the West.

    • Improbable Joe

      “Islamophobia” is a misnomer? Would you prefer “Islam-focused religious bigotry”? Because that’s certainly a real thing, and a real problem.

  • Improbable Joe

    Why are women fleeing the skeptic community? That’s a feature, not a bug. The skeptic “community” such as it is has always been a place for upper-class white Western academic men to sit around and feel superior to everyone who is not them. If you’re a woman, you’re welcome to enter as long as you accept that you’ll never be quite as equal as the men. Otherwise, they’re happy to send you running away as fast as you can from their “community”, so that you don’t taint skepticism with the notion that maybe upper-class white Western academic men might need to do a little of the self-improvement they seem to expect from everyone else.

    • Clem Burke

      Then why as a gay man do I feel welcome ? I have been beaten stabbed an lost an eye due to a hate crime and I am lacking 1700 state and federal rights and I am a white man of privilege ? LOL

      • amycas

        Intersectionality. You have some privilege for being a white and being a man, but you lose much of it by being gay. Much like I have some privilege for being white, but I also am under-privileged in some areas: I’m a woman, I’m bisexual (and fairly out about it), and I’m an atheist.

        • EllenBeth Wachs

          Clem Burke is an MRA and a proud feminist hater. He hates this feminist so much he follows me around the internet defaming me.

  • Maria

    “feminist-friendly male atheists like PZ Myers”

    Nothing feminist-friendly about PZ Myers – he’s a pseudo-feminist bullshit-artist and agitator who has lucked into a fight against loudmouth atheists and a bunch of trolls.

    His entire schtick for years was bullying people and making them cry, with commentators like “Janine, Mistress Of Foul Mouth Abuse” and articles claiming that they should be allowed to “say anything they liked” and if *you* were offended then it was on *you*

    Source (

    They used insults and threats like:
    “find a splintering stick and fuck yourself up the ass”
    “go fuck yourself. And then die in a fire”
    “Go. Fuck. Yourself. With a Hefty Bag full of rottweilers”
    “Go fuck yourself with a chainsaw in that festering pustule of an asshole of yours”
    “You can fuck yourself with a razor-bladed stick and go die in a ditch, you pompous, lying, gutless, disingenuous fuck” (link)
    “Take your gun, lube the barrel and fuck your self in the ass.
    “you should be fucked sideways with a rusty knife”
    “Do us all a favor and kill yourself before you have a chance to have children”
    “you can go fuck yourself. Do it deep, long and hard.”
    “Go die in a fucking fire. The world will be a better place without you in it.”
    “I will, however, say that this fuck up here is a complete asshole and needs to die in a fire”
    “Go and die painfully, okay?”
    And just for kicks: “Go fuck yourself sideways with a rusting chainsaw, you vapid, godbotting wank”
    And more kicks:”fuck yourself up the ass with a splintering cross”

    Even to the survivor of a brutal rape attack (Sheril Kirshenbaum)

    He claimed that THIS was acceptable, because ‘they aren’t rape threats really’ – but NOW demands people use only *acceptable* insults – because words like “bitch” have a (undocumented, asserted but not proven) negative affect on women.

    What kind of negative effect did his ANTI-FEMINIST abuse for this WOMAN SCIENCE COMMENTATOR have? When did he apologise for the misogynist shit-show he ran?

    But he changed his mind. And down the memory hole went his vitriol and attitude, and he pretended he’d never been a part of any of this.

    PZ Myers is a liar and hypocrite, and no friend to Feminism.

    • amycas

      If you’ve been to his site in the last 6 month to a year, you would notice that the commenters there actually had a long “sit-down” about insults such as the “rusted chainsaw” and “porcupine” variations of “go fuck yourself,” and for the most part (as far as I can tell) people have stopped using them for the very reason that they are problematic insults-not threats per se, but close enough to wishing rape on somebody as to be terrible. They realized this, and most of them for the most part, have made an effort to change some of their imagery.

  • Maria

    Is PZ Myers really a feminist? If so why did he allow people to ATTACK the survivor of a brutal attempted sexual attack (word may be censored) with insults equivalent to:

    “Go die in a f-cking fire. The world will be a better place without you in it.”
    “Go and die painfully, okay?”
    And just for kicks: “Go f- yourself sideways with a rusting chainsaw, you vapid, godbotting wank”

    All of which were also used proudly on his site by people like: “Janine, Mistress Of Foul Mouth Abuse”

    Did he ever apologise for allowing that kind of violent rhetoric and victim blaming (it’s *your* fault if you are upset or offended, they’re *only words*)?

  • David Adams

    I think it would be a good idea to demonstrate that women as a group are in fact fleeing the skeptic community before offering an explanation. From the numbers at conferences like TAM it seems that women are maintaining their numbers both in attendees and in speakers. And these numbers are up dramatically from very small numbers years before.

    • amycas

      “And these numbers are up dramatically from very small numbers years before.”

      Do you think this increase happened because women’s issues were being ignored? No. I’m pretty sure the skeptic/atheist community spent about 2 years asking out loud: how do we get women involved? And women like Ophelia Benson, who commented above, responded with some answers. The conventions I have attended made a conscious effort to bring in more women speakers, and they made a conscious effort (such as having a harassment policy) to make the environment safer. There is still a lot of work to be done, but you can’t ignore the fact that many women are joining the community precisely because of these open and public conversations.

      • kiiski

        But this totally contradicts the claim that women are “fleeing” the skeptical community. It’s also possible that the status quo wasn’t driving women away in the first place and the increase is due to the greater visibility of skepticism and atheism in society making it accessible to more groups than before.

  • Ariaflame

    Oh dear, sounds like a pitter has arrived Maria. Yes. Those are nasty insults. Most of them however weren’t sexist, and I defy you to find one written by a regular within the last few years. Most of those die in a fire memes were retired by the agreement of the regulars ages back. So, cupcake, do you have actually something to say to the actual article or are you merely going to continue on your obsessive rant about PZ?

  • DuMonte

    Bwaahhaa this is such a stupid, evidence-free article. Not a single stat showing women are leaving skepticism.

    • Skepticat_UK

      If the title was ‘why some women are or might be fleeing the skeptic moment’ would you be able to get past it and read the arguments? Please try. It’s a great piece.

    • Sara

      The titles are not always chosen by the author, such was the case with this piece.

  • Flying Free

    You feminazis love to whine about invented persecution, you really should be Christians you act exactly the same way.

    • Nathan Hevenstone

      Why do you misogynistic morons insist on Godwinning a movement fighting for equality? I don’t see any death camps for men, sponsored by feminists. I don’t see women calling for the death of all men everywhere. I don’t see labor camps for men. I don’t see feminists working to take over and force men into positions of slavery.

      When that starts happening, *then* “Feminazi” will be a legitimate thing.

      Until then, screw off with that crap, jerk.

  • D’sern

    There is an interesting line here between thought and action. The Venn diagram intimates that understanding is required in order to treat women in a fair, equitable manner. The fact is that it is really hard to completely empathize with a group or a member of a group that is not your own – foreigners, nerds, jocks, etc.

    It does not take understanding, however, to ensure everyone is treated fairly. Forget understanding. Require ethical treatment – i.e. do unto others. Do not engage in or tolerate on your various websites, tumblogs, etc hazing, hate speech, aggressive antagonism, cyberstalking, or other forms of malicious targeting, as Ms. Wachs below relates.

    If the stamping out of this type of activity is not a priority of the skeptic community and the organizations that forward the skeptic point of view, then we are all culpable.

    The skeptic community must exhibit better behaviour than the alternatives in all respects. Skepticism, atheism, agnosticism is on the rise, but these movements are vulnerable to political, social, and cultural criticism. Do we not think that religious movements are always looking for reasons to take us down?

    For me, the political implications of unhealthy sexism are not as important as the personal ones. I think as skeptics we generally abandon morality as a tool or (as is seen in many religions) a weapon. We must then turn to ethics to police our own behaviour.

  • Don Barbera

    I see no reason to flee from the concept as the concept is valid. However, as in any group, audience or party there will be those oblivious to their own bias, insults and tunnel vision. Being out of the group only isolates you from the very people you could influence from the inside. Mysogynists, ignoramuses and just plain idiots exist in all groups and will continue to do so. Leaving only removes the immediate group, but the issue remains.

  • swatbot

    “The way that many non-feminist atheists employ logic to discuss feminism is often faulty and nonsensical.” Bingo! As a man and an atheist, I’d be the first to say that the male claim to logic has misogynistic roots.

    I also run into atheists who seem to assume that merely by virtue of not being religious, they are logical. The ‘debates’ I’ve had with MRAs who cry out ‘logic’ make me realize that many of these people are no more ‘logical’ than the religious (say anti-evolutionists) they claim to criticize.. they employ straw man after straw man rather than engage in honest debate and get wildly emotional when the straw men are pointed out. Or like in your case, a man with a coles-notes knowledge of ‘fallacies’ called out ‘moving the goalpoast’ completely fallaciously. Guys. Are. Not. Inherently. Logical. Not at all. That they think they are, is misogynistic.

    It just goes to show that misogyny goes even deeper than religion. Sometimes when I get depressed I look at the history of female mathematicians and scientists. There’s not nearly enough opportunity, but that’s a goal to strive towards.

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  • hopy

    Im glad I came across this. Im glad I took the time to read on past the first paragraph. Youve got so much to say, so much to offer. I hope people realise this and look into your page.

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