Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Where are the Women of New Atheism?

Travel by rail is so civilised. I arrived at Barcelona perhaps 20 minutes before departure and had time for a coffee and croissant before having to board. No weight restrictions. No lengthy security checks. Comfortable armchairs, individual power points and a pleasant view of rolling Spanish countryside will be my home for the next five hours.

The only thing I lack is WiFi. I sit here with a Nexus, foldable Bluetooth keyboard and a vague memory that a friend on Facebook suggested an article to me entitled "Where Are The Women of New Atheism?"

Normally I'd read it. I can't. Still, it's an interesting question and stands on its own merit. I recently ran Twitter statistics on two different (male) atheist bloggers, covering how their followers described themselves, the breakdown of masculine and feminine first names, and the top 200 accounts most popular with said followers. (To illustrate with an example: those who follow @EmbarrassingBodies, a popular TV show, are likely to also follow @DoctorChristian, one of the hosts. I determine this by pulling a list of everyone's followers and counting the common elements, then ranking by popularity.)

I gave the stats to another blogger and will let you know if the material turns out to be strong enough to justify a story. I think the technique is interesting because it lets you judge the following:

How popular is the tweeter's message with women?

David Quinn holds strong opinions on the regulation of uteruses, yet his message seems to resonate most powerfully with men - over 70% of his followers seem to be male. It seems reasonable to conclude that being female is correlated with not welcoming his views on females.

What sort of person follows the tweeter?

I once contrasted the followers of William Lane Craig, a Christian apologist, and Stephen Law, a philosopher and author. Craig's followers were overwhelmingly interested in Christian apologetics, Law's preferred science and philosophy. Neither designation is a negative, obviously, but I found it interesting to be able to gauge followers in this manner.

How likely are the tweeter's followers to follow women?

In other words: does the tweeter attract a bunch of raging misogynists? Being highly unlikely to follow female tweeters may prove indicative. It could also show that the tweeter isn't making much effort to promote female tweeters.

I can congratulate myself on this excellent plan which would allow me to examine all sorts of prominent atheists and bring unique insight to the conversation, but as I gaze out on traditional Catalonian architecture, narrow stone streets, olive trees and windmills while my WiFi signal reads 0 I find it is one I cannot implement.

But let's give the question some thought, shall we?

I'm a white cis male. I have a naked lady fetish. There are no great numbers of folk out there who wish to oppress me, though I do experience a wrinkle of discontent from a small minority of Theists who don't welcome my absence of belief. (Only fair to add context - my interactions with Theists have been almost always positive.) I blogged exclusively about atheism for quite some time, back when I viewed the world's most pressing problems to be Muslim apologists copying Christian apologists, or Creationists lying about science.

I'm still an atheist, I still blog about atheism, and I still view atheism as something which should be talked about and advanced openly. There's quite a lot more I'd like to write on the topic. But right now the rights of my fellow citizens to expect lifesaving medical treatment seems more pressing. The hope that pregnant people might one day enjoy an unconditional right to health is more likely to occupy my mind than the prospect of reading another John Lennox book of apologetics. And while I write pro choice material from an atheist point of view, it's probably fair to say that this is now more of a pro choice blog.

I hear murmurs of discontent from the back. When, they wonder, will Geoff cease this self indulgent piece about the trials of being a straight white male? When will he answer the question posed in the opening paragraph? When will he stop referring to himself in the third person?

Maryam Namazie, atheist, is best known as a human rights activist and a campaigner against Sharia law in the UK. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, also an atheist, campaigns for women's rights, against female genital mutilation and against Sharia law. Her energies are mainly devoted to her political office theses days. Thinking back to the speakers Atheist Ireland has arranged over the years I remember Sinead Redmond, atheist, campaigner for abortion rights in Ireland, Deirdre O'Byrne, atheist, campaigner for trans rights, and Aoife McLysaight, atheist, who focused her talk on the importance of science and on plugging Alom Shaha's (rather good) The Young Atheist's Handbook. I gave a talk. It was on conversations I'd had with street preachers. I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to decide which of us were making the best use of their time, and I can't help but feel that being a straight white guy is the primary reason I had space to consider Hare Krishna cosmology so deserving as a primary area of concern while remaining blithely oblivious to issues facing others.

It's fair to say we need a conversation about making atheism less of a guy thing. And there are questions to be answered on whether Atheist women are being held back by the way things are done now. But I feel that at least part of the answer that should be given to those wondering at the absence of prominent female atheists is this: they're often working on something more important.

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