Is there a new face of atheism?
In tone at least, Malachewitz and Hilliard seem to represent a departure from the New Atheists, the sharp-tongued, all-male troupe of writer-activists led by Richard Dawkins. What might be called the newer atheists are not only more diverse but perhaps slower to judge and quicker to turn the spotlight inwards.
Such introspection has triggered no small amount of debate in the atheist movement internationally, a lot of it focused on the issue of gender. Last August, a new online forum, Atheism Plus, or A+, was launched by Jen McCreight, a Seattle-based blogger and secularist. Backed by a number of prominent women atheists, it seeks “a new wave of atheism” aimed at “promoting social justice” and “working against bigotry, hatred and discrimination”.
Her biggest concern is what she sees as deep-rooted misogyny in the atheist community. Whenever she speaks in a light-hearted way about sexual issues, she says she receives obscene propositions, while posts about feminism are usually met with abuse.
Likening atheism to a “boys’ club”, she wrote to fellow secularists: “I don’t feel safe as a woman in this community – and I feel less safe than I do as a woman in science, or a woman in gaming, or hell, as a woman walking down the f***ing sidewalk.”
McCreight was not the first woman to make this complaint. In a notorious incident, dubbed “Elevatorgate”, blogger Rebecca Watson alleged she received an inappropriate late-night proposition in a lift during the World Atheist Convention in Dublin last year. She wrote about the episode online, drawing a critical response from none other than Dawkins, who sarcastically contrasted her situation with the plight of women in Islam.
McCreight spoke on the issue on a visit to Dublin last June, describing Dawkins’s response as “totally inappropriate”. Because atheists “are so hyperrational and hypersceptical”, if a woman among them says she felt harassed, “if you don’t have photographic evidence that it happened, it never happened,” she told an event hosted by Atheist Ireland.
Malachewitz agrees “there is a misogynistic streak” in the broader movement, but stresses, “on the whole I do feel welcome as a woman”. She adds that organisations such as Atheist Ireland have done a lot to combat prejudice, adopting a new policy on diversity and inclusion last year, and speaking out strongly on the issue. Its chairman Michael Nugent says he believes the misogyny identified “is not a specific atheist thing. It’s a societal issue and it’s an online issue. People are willing to say things about each other online that they would not say face-to-face.”
He is also keen to defend Dawkins, saying, “Richard is the opposite of the uncaring dogmatist his critics unfairly caricature him as.” He is, rather, “a sensitive, caring man.”
But what of the new emphasis being placed on ethics as an atheist concern? “I would not see it as a departure,” says Nugent. While there is a “mini-dogma” that says “atheism only means non-belief in gods, in practice we have already moved beyond that.”