« Anacreon | Main | Allegation that Atheism Is a Male Thing? -- 2 »

June 12, 2006

Allegation that Atheism is a Male Thing? -- 1

There is something, of course, absurd on the face of it about such a claim -- just ask your friends. This argument depends on a rather old-fashioned gender stereotyping. (Revived, most recently, by David Brooks in the New York Times.) But I want to use this rather pedestrian work out of those stereotypes by Steve Kellmeyer (Okay, I've been Googling again) to get at (in part 2 of this discussion) a question about my cast of characters:

You see, men and women both get distorted understandings of the world, but when we do, we do so in different ways. The way a man distorts the world is this: he embraces just the facts of a situation and fails to understand the human element, the element of the sacred and the mysterious. This is why atheism tends to be a male phenomenon.
When we encounter a society that equates sex with fast food, that treats women as objects, we have stumbled upon an essentially atheistic (male) error. Women might embrace this way of thinking, of course, but men are much more likely to. Women, by and large, understand that atheism's response to sex cannot be true. Because women embrace the relational, they know instinctively that sex is holy, that women are to be treated as goddesses for they are made in the image and likeness of God.

This bumps into a number of issues: The "human" the same as the "sacred and mysterious"? Sex "holy"? Lovers gods? Then there's the gender claim...

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at June 12, 2006 10:06 AM


The notion that women or men know anything "instinctively" is wrong; and the claims that sex is holy for women, that women are to be treated as goddesses for they are made in the image of God and thus that they are less likely to be atheist are, of course, ridiculous. To the extent that most of your sources--since, like a good historian, you go waaay back in time--are men says less about women's atheism and more about whose knowledge/expertise gets preserved and published.

Still, there is a way to make the question interesting. Is it possible that women, looking over the long course of history, have been less inclined to give up on God? Let's posit that, IN GENERAL, the people who can be rational and atheist are ones with a sense of power and self-determination, people who can afford to doubt in, and express doubt about, other-worldly power. Women have lacked this authority, this sense of power. If the speculation is true, so, women might be more inclined to take comfort in the notion that their abuse, subordination, powerlessness (including with respect to sex, I can't help adding)is divinely ordained.

Again, it's not instinctive. And atheism is not a "male" thing. But, hypothetically, perhaps it's been men's thing.

Posted by: george at June 12, 2006 12:47 PM

After reading Brooks's column yesterday I seriously questioned my own gender, going for Camus and Vonnegut any day over the Brontes and always coloring with black, grey and blue crayons. (GOSH). Add being an atheist to the mix and voila, I must be a guy. Cruel world!

Something deeper here to contemplate? yes, but not in Brooks's silliness or Kellmeyer's, either. I agree w/ George, who makes a valid point about the role of power in one's relation to atheism; certainly the configuring/experiencing of power, constantly in flux, happens in gendered (and other) ways. But I guess I could see this producing at least two kinds of responses:

That questions of belief have been typically posed as rigid hierarchical either/or's -- you believe or you don't; theist or atheist; goddesses engaging in holy sex or -- definitely invites a focus on one's relation to power. For much of western history, women's only avenue for visibility-and power-has been to stand with the value-laden side of those various oppositions, thus 'belief' in all kinds of things, including 'god.' This is, as I read it, George's basic point.

But isn't it also true that women 'in general' might be more open to different ways of understanding the mysterious and sacred, i.e. to stand with the 'less visible' side of the binary, precisely because of the ways that they have, 'in general', experienced institutional effects of power, whether that is exercised through the state, the law, the church, etc.? In other words, seeing/experiencing the negative effects of power, may enable one to contemplate alternative ways of constructing one's knowledge of, and relation to, the world, even at great cost (think of those burned at the stake because they valued different constructions of knowledge and reality, which was twisted into 'devil-worship' etc.).

Posted by: JM at June 12, 2006 5:09 PM

Atheism is closely related to level of education and prosperity. Women have traditionally had less education than men, and have been the "poorer" (in economic and related senses) sex, so that alone could perhaps explain the imbalance of atheism between the sexes.

Posted by: Kristian Z. at June 12, 2006 7:24 PM

Follow-up to the last comment. I have recently on public message boards argued that the causality of the atheism-prosperity correlation could be atheism->prosperity, opposite to what most people think. I will not extent my line of reasoning to the topic of gender, and claim that atheism will turn women into men. :-)

Posted by: Kristian Z. at June 12, 2006 7:28 PM

Up early this morning. Climbed out of my foxhole. Reading my favorite site for meaning bombs. Better get my helmet.

Is there any gender inbalance towards religious thinking? Does it matter? I'm told there are 299 million people in the USA.

What would you call a person who never thinks about God or Not-God or religion at all?
They surely would not be visiting this site.
Gona go make the coffee.

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 13, 2006 8:26 AM

> What would you call a person who never thinks about God or Not-God or religion at all?

Implicit atheism.

Posted by: Kristian Z. at June 13, 2006 9:05 AM

If we limit thought about God, not-god, religion, etc. only to categories/degrees of atheism, real or implied, do we not also foreclose possibilities for thinking about 'meaning' ? too bad that the person Jay postulates above gets shunted off to the binary opposition, even though s/he may be very much caught up in thinking 'big issues' that have, consequently, come to be territorialized under 'religion' and the whole god-or-not debate.

Posted by: JM at June 13, 2006 3:35 PM

True free-thinkers are tortured just as much by atheists as by theists. Boxes are boxes.

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 13, 2006 6:24 PM

(AS if I know what true free thinkers think!)

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 13, 2006 9:50 PM

Excuese me? Who is it that reduces women to breeding objects? Commands soldiers to kill all but the virgins girl-children when they conquer a city in his name? I believe that's the MALE God of the Desert Monotheism...

Now there may be some truth to the claim that men and women see sex differently, but it isn't atheists who reduce women to objects (as opposed to the religious, I mean).

Posted by: The Ridger at June 14, 2006 7:53 PM

I need to grow a dick to be an atheist?
Nah, I don't think so..

I find it amazing that so many women are believers when it is obvious that the majority of religions are designed by men for the benefit of men.

The hierarchy of the major religions translates to the hierarchies in societies.

Posted by: beepbeepitsme at July 20, 2006 11:03 AM

I think you miss something when you say designed by men for the benefit of men, where the truth is religions are for the benefit of the ruling class (mostly men) and part of the trade off is that in the home women are likely to use religion as a stick to keep their men in line. Joe Smuck gets his coming and going.

I think it is a mute question; very few humans of either gender are likely to disbelieve in superstitions. Things could change--knock on wood! :o> And Democracy could spread like grass in the springtime across the Middle East.

Posted by: Jay Saul at July 20, 2006 12:35 PM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)