Feminist atheist skepticism

by Amanda Marcotte

Hey, feminist, skeptics, atheists!  Or feminist skeptic atheists, and their allies.  If you want something fun and amazing to do in November, check out Skepticon.  It’s awesome in general, because not only are they about promoting science and skepticism, they tend to hang out the atheist flag as well. And not only that, they’ve invited me to speak this year about the intersection of feminism and atheism---how religion is used to oppress women, and why atheism activism and the promotion of critical thinking help feminism.  And how we can do a better job of it, of course.

They plant this conference in Springfield, Missouri, which is in the thick of a super-religious area where atheists can often feel isolated.  This sort of thing reduces that sense of isolation.  The conference runs November 19th through 21st.  To get this done, they have to fund raise, so if you have some extra money, feel free to give here.  This helps keep it free for anyone to attend. And if you want to come, please register hereThe speakers are listed here, and they’re soon going to advertise the hotel for the conference.

It’s always been my sense that feminism, skepticism, and atheism are a natural fit.  Woo-based feminism that engages in wishful thinking about a non-existent matriarchal past and non-existent goddesses has never appealed to me.  I think feminism is strongest when it’s feet are planted firmly on the ground.  Moreover, skeptics and active atheists actually go after two of the biggest weapons used to abuse women: pseudo-science and religion.  On the former, I like to give the floor to Jill from I Blame The Patriarchy.

Science is a process by which one discovers actual truth. Have Pinkfaced Captains of Industry and their Dude Nation minions subverted the scientific method for evil? Sure. Does their having done that invalidate the method itself, to the extent that goddessy ladies should pooh-pooh the whole idea in favor of some kind of magic lady-worship cult, the centerpiece of which is faith in “feelings”?.....

Patriarchy is the problem, not science. Science does not oppress women. Dude culture oppresses women. I’m not advocating “science equality,’ either. I’m advocating — as always — liberation from oppression. Is anything more liberating than truth-n-beauty? I ask you.

If you’re ready to get your butt hurt on about that, please read her follow-up post that explains beautifully how concepts like “intuition” were invented by the patriarchy to other women

Anyway, despite my sense that the ideas in the skepticism/atheism movement should make it a cozy place for women, the sad truth is that the whole shebang is sadly male-dominated.  I blame the stereotype of The Geek for this.  Geeks may be considered interesting, sexy, and funny nowadays, but they’re still mostly considered male.  In fact, there’s a tendency to treat geeks and women as mutually exclusive categories, especially when you’re younger and still sketching out your life’s interests.  The result is a vicious cycle where few women are seen in leadership roles, so few women feel welcome, so the whole movement gets more male-dominated, therefore the sense that women can’t be geeky about this stuff is reaffirmed.  You all know the drill.  But all this also suggests why the folks who put together Skepticon are great people, too.

See, I bore witness to a feminist revolt after the TAM conference last year.  I felt it was going to happen the second that the fatal words dropped from the mouth of the producer of that show “The Big Bang Theory”, who was speaking at the conference, since I’ve seen similar things go down in the netroots.  I don’t remember his exact words, but during his speech, he kept treating geeks and women---at least the women whose existence was being acknowledged, aka someone that you the audience member would like to fuck---as discrete categories.  The Twitter feed was getting restless about this, and then he actually had the temerity to say that a guy who is trying to win a woman over should never talk about science or skepticism, because women find that stuff boring.  You can imagine what happened next---women spoke out in anger, some men tried to smack them down, other men minimized with jokes about how they want more women around to improve their sexual odds, etc.  We’ve all seen situations like this. 

But what also happened was heartening.  A lot of male allies with power reacted not defensively, but with an eye towards inclusiveness.  Once you’re in the place of accepting that there’s a problem of sexism in your community, and that there’s not enough women in the ranks or in leadership roles, there are two basic ways to fix the problem---the bad way and the good way.  The bad way is to try to get women into leadership roles, but make it contingent on checking your feminism at the door.  This strategy, unsurprisingly, ends up creating a situation where an emphasis is put on women’s sexuality when they do get leadership roles.  This strategy produces some effects, but not enough, because it sends the signal that women aren’t welcome if they don’t fit this very narrow idea of what a woman’s role should be. 

The second strategy is to embrace feminism. This can be scary, because you get a lot of blowback from some outspoken men, but if your goal is getting women to get involved beyond the tokenism level, embracing feminism is the better strategy.  Women feel way more welcome in places where they feel the broad range of women’s issues are respected and validated as important.  And while I see both strategies in play to address the issue of gender imbalance in the skeptic/atheist movement, the latter has really been winning out in major ways.  I’ve seen a dramatic uptick on skeptical blogs of discussions about reproductive rights, sexism in hiring practices, pseudo-science used in service of sexism, and the way religion is used to control women’s lives and bodies.  Plus, you know, they invited me to speak at Skepticon, knowing full well that I’m not afraid to point out how the anti-choice movement is the strongest weapon of modern American theocrats.  Which is all the more reason to go---I suspect it’s going to be an interesting conference, because they don’t shy away from talking about controversial but important topics. 

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