This Female Atheist, and Where She Is

[Content Note: Misogyny.]

Even before I identified as an atheist, back when I was a teenager going to church every week and was ostensibly a god-believer, I was, in truth, an agnostic at best. Once, upon confessing my lack of faith, the minister told me, "Even Jesus had doubts." But I did not have doubts. I had no sense of god.

The closest thing I ever had to a sense of god was a fear of getting in trouble, whether that meant karmic retribution from a god who would not reward a naughty child or eternal damnation. And it felt pretty much the same as the fear I had of disappointing or angering my parents. It wasn't a feeling of the infinite; it was as small as worrying about being grounded.

I knew I was supposed to believe in god, so I tried to look into the glorious sunsets and sweeping landscapes in which the god-believers around me saw his handiwork and find him there. Sometimes I pretended I had. But the truth is, all I ever saw was the sun and the earth.

So there were never any tormentful rejections, no dramatic fist-shaking rebukes, at god when I came to atheism. I just slid into it, like a new pair of shoes.

There were, however, conscious rejections of my religious indoctrination, which had shaped me in a way that belief in god, or the lack thereof, had not.

The religious community in which I'd been raised did not allow female ministers, did not allow female presidents of the congregation, did not allow female elders, and did not, for most of my childhood, even allow female lectors to read the selected Bible readings during the service each week. Women were for teaching children—and for cleaning: Communionware, the kitchen, maybe a vestment.

I started asking questions about this disparity at age 7, possibly earlier. I got the usual bullshit answers that are used to justify these things. I was good enough to be an acolyte (especially since there were precious few teenage boys willing to do it) and scrub the toilets—both of which I did countless times—but not good enough to be ordained. I was less than.

Further, my objections to being told, on the one hand, that we are all equal in the eyes of god, and, on the other, that my gender nonetheless rendered me incapable of serving god in every capacity available to men, were greeted with contempt—and sometimes outright hostility. One minister told my mother that I needed to stop asking questions. Another told me I was "divisive," at an age that required my looking up "divisive" in the dictionary when I got home from church to understand his meaning. Another told me that my rebellious attitude would find me pregnant or dead by the time I was 16.

Even then I found the conflation of the two…interesting.

This was a community of which I did not want to be a part—and I left it, even before I knew, with clarity and certainty, that I am an atheist.

More than a decade later, I found movement atheism online. I was never one to evangelize my lack of god-belief, nor broadcast hatred of religion or its adherents, so that part of the movement was not a draw. But I did fancy the possibility of community around something that has been an axis of marginalization for me in some parts of my life.

I found the same inequality, manifesting in different ways.

There were precious few visible atheist leaders: The most prominent male atheists were very enamored with one another, and not particularly inclined to offer the same support to women, via recommended links and highlighted quotes and inclusion in digital salons about Important Ideas. They wondered aloud where all the female atheists are, and women would pipe up—"Here! Here we are! We're right here!"—only to then go back to the status quo, with explicit or implicit messaging that women just weren't working as hard as they are, just aren't as smart as they are, or else they'd be leaders, too.

There was the exclusion from conferences, the sexist posts, the sexual harassment, the appropriation of religious and irreligious women's lived experiences to Score Points and the obdurate not listening to those women when they protested.

In fact, female atheists' protests were greeted much the same way with which my protests had been met in my patriarchal church. Silencing. Demeaning. Threats.

All of this felt terribly familiar. A bunch of straight, white, male gatekeepers pretending there's no gate.

Whether it was "god's will" being used to justify my marginalization, or gender essentialism cloaked in garbage science, didn't make a whit of difference to me. And it doesn't still.

Not every woman raised in a religious tradition had the same experience I had. There are many different religious traditions. And not every woman who has explored movement atheism has had the same experiences I have had. There are many different ways to participate. And even the women who have had experiences similar to mine do not necessarily share my reaction to either or both.

But a lot do. Enough do.

That should be a concern to the men in movement atheism who fancy themselves a superior alternative to retrograde patriarchal religious traditions.

I would say I felt exactly as welcome in movement atheism as I did at my Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, but that would be a lie. No one at St. Peter's ever called me a stupid cunt because I disagreed with them.

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