207. congnisance

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1024px-Stanley_Kubrick_-_girl_in_classroom_cph.3d02345A few weeks ago at the Former Fundamentalists retreat that some friends of mine put together for our group, I made a troubling observation that I’ve been pondering.

The day was made up of a number of talks and workshops put on by members of the group. It was a wonderful way to spend a Saturday, in the company of like-minded people who are engaged in critical thinking and wondering about our world and our universe.

What troubled me though was how many women spoke up during discussion times — not many. Even during our bi-weekly meetings, the majority of the talking is done by the guys.

Gender variance among atheists is certainly male-leaning. Salon published a piece last year titled “5 reasons there aren’t more women in atheism,” citing things like:

  • “… women are more devout because they have to be. Women’s religiosity is directly related to economic security.”
  • “… sexism is real and has an effect on women’s participation and leadership within the atheist community.”
  • “… it’s no exaggeration to say that managing sexism is exhausting, depressing and distracts from work women could be doing as visible spokespeople of fighting for higher and equal pay, or immigration policies that include uneducated women, or ending sexual predation, or advocating for the right to control our own reproduction.”

One place I’ve noticed this tend is Bill Maher’s show, where he’ll sit a woman guest between two guys who will then proceed to talk over or even around her. The woman may be knowledgeable about her subject area but can’t get a word in before someone else starts jabbering.

Our little tribe is a microcosm of an ongoing conversation concerning women in atheism. Because atheism is still largely a boys’ club. It was born out of the male-dominated academies of the Renaissance and the Reformation, and largely retains the same mindset. It raises concerns for me that women are still being socialized to not voice their thoughts and beliefs. And if I’ve learned anything from the LGBT movement, it’s an appreciation for diversity and the uniqueness of others.

Part of it is, I think, the dynamics of male relationships. When a bunch of guys get together, posturing and competition begin almost immediately to establish a hierarchy. We love to spar, whether physically or intellectually, and learn from an early age that if you’re going to make it in any group of guys then you have to prove that you deserve to be there.

This once meant literal life or death for humans on the African plains. Each male had to contribute to the group, whether through hunting or fighting, or the tribe could perish. This is why you’ll see many boys do ridiculously dangerous stunts to impress each other. We’re still running that same evolutionary program.

Men constantly have their masculinity challenged, especially if you don’t fit into a “masculine” stereotype. If you don’t look, talk, and walk like a dude, you’re not a “real man.” Whatever that means. This is perpetuated in Evangelical Christian culture, with the notion that there’s a Divine ideal each sex should live by. If you grew up in that world or are familiar with the books “Wild At Heart” and “The Heart of a Woman,” you’ll know what I’m talking about.

The blog What Women Never Hear had about a post a year ago about ten ways that men and women differ. (It’s full of Evangelical, heteronormative generalizations, but how can a piece written by a heterosexual guy about gender differences not be?)

  • Girls ease smoothly into family life by anticipating what’s needed and what’s coming. Boys have to be taught to respect others’ interests by honoring their standards and expectations.
  • Girls unconditionally respect others regardless of sex. Boys respect males much more readily than females. They usually must be taught to respect authority-figure females such as mothers, grannies, and teachers.
  • Girls can easily respect others before others earn it. Boys tend to challenge others first and then respect them after they earn it.

There are massive generalizations here, along with the pathologizing of males, but there’s truth to be found here — as there is in all generalizations. However, we cannot lose sight of the fact that we live in the shadow of the Industrial Revolution, when gender roles and expectations experienced massive upheaval after people started migrating to cities. We’re still working out the details of mixed gender spaces that resulted from that shift.

For much of human history, the sexes inhabited different spheres—men, the field; women, the home. During the Industrial Revolution, centuries-old community structures dissolved almost overnight. The Victorian “Cult of Domesticity” called for the abolishing of traditional men’s spaces as the Powers That Be willed that men belonged at home with the family, and not in the company of other men. The decline of male friendship coincides with this as men started seeing each other not as brothers but as competitors.

… okay, this is getting too broad for a thousand words, so to bring it back to the former fundie retreat, I don’t think there was an intent to crowd out women in discussions because I don’t think anyone noticed it was happening. We guys tend to assume that if someone wants to say something that they’ll speak up, not knowing how intimidating it can be at times to enter into the discussion circle. There are some strong opinions in our group!

And I do think there is something to the claim that men respect other men more than they do women. This is not so much a criticism or indictment as it is an apparent inheritance of our bioevolutionary past. But so is tribalism, xenophobia, and aggression. Awareness is the first step towards changing any behavior. And part of the reason we all became atheists in the first place is we refused to ignore evidence that required action and change.

We’re (slowly) evolving as a species. These are the growing pains of leaving behind the African plains and graduating to something more than merely human.

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