From the mailbox – “Sexism in atheism”
I recently received this request in my mailbox, and it’s particularly poignant given the furor within the atheist community over the past week or so regarding misogyny and sexism. The request was from my FaceBook friend Teresa Folds and reads:
I would be interested to see a man address the sexism within the Atheist community. That is something that I don’t see many Atheist men do. Just a suggestion. =)
Well, I thought I’d rather not venture into this territory since I haven’t been up to date with the whole Rebbecca Watson/Richard Dawkins/PZMyers/a-bunch-of-others conversation, but this request did bring up a few ideas I had that I’d like to explore. I won’t go into the whole debacle, but if you want to, check it out here at Pharyngula (comment #75 was purportedly by Richard Dawkins, and the shit-fight begins there).
On the topic of sexism in the atheist community, yes it exists, and yes it’s bad. That’s the simple short answer. But this is just a single example within a single community that points at problems on a much larger scale, on a worldwide-societal level.
Sexism rears its head in many ways, from the Western obsession with big-breasted women and the objectification of women, to the rights of women in Afghanistan, and at its roots it has one thing in common: control. Men like to feel in control of things, from money to possessions to business to sex. Men have historically seen women as objects, or as home-bound possessions, and have seen the women that they don’t already have control over as possible conquests to add to the notches on their bedpost. Of course this is not acceptable, but we still experience the hangover from the times when this was the norm, and the hangover cure is going to be a long and drawn-out procedure.
Every day women are subjected to acts of misogynistic thinking, from feeling the need to wear make-up to look pretty, to the average wage of women being lower than that of men. Men run all the top countries and the legal profession, men control the armed forces and the police, men run the majority of politics worldwide.
I’d venture to say this “women as possessions” attitude is a throwback from the territorial pissings of our ancestral heritage, and this is precisely why this problem won’t be fixed easily. But times have changed, and we, as men, need to be aware that our territorial obsession with women, and our perceived need to conquest is no longer acceptable in this day and age (if it ever really was).
As to the Dawkins comment, well, I can see where he’s coming from. However I think his comment was ill-timed, and the barrels of his anger are aimed at the wrong people. The fact that women have it much harder in Afghanistan does not excuse the “elevator guy” from his unwanted advances, and the implications of the act given the context of the situation are in very poor judgement. But Dawkins seems to be looking at the “bigger picture” on a world scale and forgetting the world we live in as Westerners which has its own problems to deal with. (I’ll admit, the scale of the wrongdoings in Western cultures is small compared to the scale of the atrocities metered out on women in Afghanistan, but it doesn’t make them any less real or important to those experiencing them.)
Back to the question at hand: Sexism in Atheism.
The atheist community is as much a part of society as a whole as is any other, so it seems to only make sense that there would be equal amounts of sexism within atheism as there is within education, politics, or the local badminton club. What strikes me as odd, and what I think the request is pointing toward, is the fact that atheism seems to project itself as a triumph of humankind over the antiquated beliefs and practices of the past, namely religion, superstition and societal ills. However in my experience I’d say that the atheistic movement is no different from society at large with regards to the attitudes toward women. Just because we rally under the banner of reason does not translate to everyone being reasonable.
I’m not sure of what else to say except that I hope that the Dawkins/Watson/Myers/whoever incident actually gets people to question on a daily basis what they are doing to uphold the stereotypes, or destroy them. I think that, as champions of reason and rationality, it would be nice for us to step forward as a movement of sexual equality as well as social equality, unfettered by societal shackles of the past and the accepted norms of religious inspired inequity.