I keep feeling like I’m really struggling here, trying to explain a fairly complex concept in a concise way. I don’t think that I’m completely off-base, since there are other people who understood immediately what I was trying to convey, but I’m also (obviously) not being as clear as I would like.
After much discussion with my partner on the topic of atheism and privilege dynamics, I’ve realized that maybe I’ve been going about explaining it all wrong, so I’ll try to explain again in the way that helped him to understand what the heck I was talking about.
What I think it really comes down to is that in atheist groups, unlike in any other social justice group, white men aren’t the oppressor. It’s not that anyone is joining a group in order to be oppressed or to feel oppressed. I think that on the whole, atheist/skeptical spaces have been, are, and will likely continue to be dominated by white men because they are spaces in which those men aren’t at risk of being seen as part of the problems trying to be addressed.
In feminist groups, for example, men in general (white men in particular) are generally only conditionally welcome–contingent upon their ability to check their privilege at the door and to understand that they themselves are likely part of (or at least beneficiaries of) the societal ills that feminism attempts to address. And this tends to go for pretty much any social justice group; white men, as the most privileged members of society are welcome conditionally only if they are willing to do their best to no longer be part of the problem. This is an incredibly humbling position to be in.
As a person of no small privilege myself, I can certainly sympathize. No one likes to be the bad guy. I don’t think many people like to be not just aware of, but constantly mindful of and alert for, the ways in which their own privilege clouds their thinking, twists their perceptions, and interferes with their ability to interact in healthy and helpful ways with marginalized people. It’s uncomfortable. It’s hard. It’s easy to fuck up, and in many social justice groups you will be called out when you fuck up. It requires a level of humility that I know I find hard to muster at all times, and which many people just seem incapable of achieving at all. The men who dominate the atheist movement have managed to create spaces where they can avoid the unpleasantness of ever being the bad guy.
I think it’s less that men find atheist activism/community appealing because they want to feel oppressed and more that it’s appealing because it offers them a way to not be reminded that they are themselves often oppressive.
By, for the most part, avoiding addressing things like sexism, racism and the like, atheist and skeptical groups seem determined to pretend that everyone in their group is on an equal footing, united under the shared experience of being atheists but without any recognition or appreciation whatsoever of differences in experience, even within the movement. I continue to see that any attempts by women or minorities to point out problems within atheist and skeptical groups aren’t even ignored, but instead bring out all the worst of the men in these spaces. Even otherwise “nice” men tend to trivialize and gloss over any complaints or criticisms by women.
The problem that I have with atheist groups and spaces is not about any particular instance of sexist behavior, but rather about what I consider to be a structural fault in the hierarchy of the atheist movement that leads to a pattern of nastiness towards women especially, but also toward various minority groups. As long as men (especially white men) are the driving force behind atheist thought, politics, philosophy, and activism, atheist spaces will continue to be safe spaces for men and uncomfortable and unpleasant spaces for many others.
Unfortunately, years of leadership by men has created an atheist movement that doesn’t require them to examine their privilege and in which they are able to say and do mostly as they please when it comes to the treatment of women–creating an environment where not only do men get to avoid recognizing their roles as oppressors, but where they can be actively oppressive without being called out on it very often.
This is starting to change, and the habit of calling out sexism and other -isms seems to be catching on in certain segments of the atheist blogosphere. It seems like at least some atheist conferences and such are making at least a nominal effort to include women and minorities and to discuss issues that are unique to those groups. At the same time, however, my observation is that there has been quite a bit of backlash to this. More women participating seems to have served largely to make more visible the problems within atheist groups, as women continue to be taken less seriously than men while also continuing to be treated as if they exist primarily to be objects of male lust. Some male atheists are just incorrigibly sexist, while others are more actively unpleasant toward women. Others content themselves with acting as apologists for the poor behavior of others.
Regardless, it’s clearly (to me, anyway) more than just a few bad eggs that are ruining things for everyone. The comments on blog posts pointing out sexism regularly turn ugly, and several notable atheist ladies have reported receiving some pretty vile hate mail. Just since Hemant Mehta posted about my Tumblr comment, I’ve gotten a couple of particularly nasty anon messages and one commenter on my original post who popped in to tell me I’m a dumb bitch (plus the guy who had to try and explain to me how much men are oppressed, too), and I’m, frankly, an internet nobody.
As far as whether or not all these sexist douchebags are true misogynists (as Hemant Mehta seems to think they are not)? Well, I’m honestly not sure what difference it makes. Even if it really, truly is the case that sexist atheist men aren’t really and truly haters of women, they certainly hold hateful opinions of women, do and say hateful things towards women, and defend other men who do and say hateful things towards women. And there seems to be a woeful lack of any real desire on the part of most men to improve matters much.