Recently within the atheist community, sexism has become a hot-button issue–or more accurately, a molten-lava/center-of-the-sun issue. Whether it’s the religious Right’s push to restrict women’s reproductive rights or internal debates about sexual harassment policies at atheist/skeptical conferences, sexism has become the topic. And this has left a lot of atheists scratching their heads. “Why are you talking about this?” is not merely a hypothetical question, but one I frequently hear as an atheist activist. “Can’t we leave feminism to the feminists?” There seems to be a longing for the good old days where men were men, women were women, and atheism was simply about poking holes in religious arguments and defending the separation of church and state.
Those standard atheist causes are by no means obsolete. We still have a long road ahead of us; when a recent Gallup poll shows 46 percent of Americans are young-Earth creationists, this evolutionary biologist wanted to turn in her pipette in despair. But we don’t need to limit ourselves by excluding feminist issues. We can’t limit ourselves.
If we claim to be good skeptics and rationalists, there is simply no good reason to frame sexism as atheist “mission drift.” What point is there in throwing out one irrational belief but keeping another? We may have tossed the garbage bag of religion, but the trash of sexism is still stinking up the room.
So why are some rationalists and skeptics reluctant to address sexism? I’d argue that it’s for the same reasons that evidence-appreciating theists (yes, they exist) have a blind spot for religion. And until we recognize the similarities between religious beliefs and sexist beliefs, we’ll continue to have our blind spot for sexism.
The most fundamental point is that religious belief and sexism are both irrational. They’re simply not fact-based. Scientific studies repeatedly falsify the most common sexist tropes, like women being worse at math or better at empathy. Slight physiological differences certainly exist: on average, men are stronger and have larger canine teeth. But more variation exists within genders than between them, and these differences are hardly enough justification for ethical or legal decisions.
Religious belief and sexism have less obvious similarities. One example is that the little things still matter. For example, we can generally accept that some issues are more important than others. If we had to choose between getting rid of “In God We Trust” on money or enforcing regulations on religious child-care operations so they’re not negligent toward children, I wager we’d pick enforcing regulations. “In God We Trust” seems like a minor nitpick in comparison. The same thing goes if we had to choose between encouraging people to stop saying phrases like “throws like a girl” or ending female genital mutilation. Obviously we’d end the latter.
That doesn’t mean that the little things don’t matter. These micro-aggressions add up over time and reinforce the bigger problems. People in the United States can (and do) say things like “We’re obviously a Christian nation! Look–we have ‘In God We Trust’ on our money. Therefore we don’t have the separation of church and state, so quit your atheist whining.” When we say Mild Sexist Remark X, that reinforces the greater sexist culture and makes it more difficult to address the important issues. We don’t have to look far back in our history for a perfect example–the stereotype that women were “too emotional” was one of the key arguments against allowing women to vote.
But if there’s one similarity that should illustrate why so many atheists have a blind spot for sexism, it’s that both religious beliefs and sexist beliefs are incredibly difficult to give up. When I speak on atheist topics, I frequently ask the members of the audience to raise their hands if they were formerly religious. Most hands in the room shoot up. I then ask how many were converted from religion by a single rational argument, and the hands wither away.
We understand this phenomenon when we’re discussing religion. It takes time and effort to get rid of irrational religious beliefs that are ingrained in your way of thinking and your culture. Sexist beliefs are just as hard to buck. But one thing sets sexism apart. While some of us (like myself) were lucky enough to be raised in a secular family and never considered themselves religious, we all grew up in a sexist society. None of us are born exempt from that way of thinking.
Atheists often consider themselves exempt because they get the important issues right– the cases of sexism that are most egregiously harmful or irrational. But often they stop there, much like the Christian who rejects a six-thousand-year-old Earth or justifications for slavery but who still believes in the divinity of Jesus or the existence of God. The belief in God alone may not be particularly harmful, but it’s foundational to the kind of thinking that supports viler beliefs. Casual sexism is no different.
We atheists know how difficult it is to remove irrational thinking. We know that it takes constant challenges, a delicate combination of patience and forcefulness, and a whole lot of time. But we must think critically about all aspects of our lives, not just the most obvious, or the most convenient, or the most self-serving. Not only will it make us better skeptics, but it will strengthen our organizations and our movement. With sexist micro-aggressions appropriately placed in the category of irrational thinking, more women will feel comfortable becoming atheists and participating in our communities. Throwing out gods is not the final victory in the war on unreason.