[Blog Series] Not for Girls? Gender and Researching Nonreligion

In the latest contribution to the SSNB/NSRN Methods Blog, Marta Trzebiatowska explores how we need to structure our methodologies to take account of gender – and how our methodologies may themselves be structured by gender.


A study of the intersection of gender and atheism (or nonreligion, secularity and similar, frequently related phenomena) poses complex methodological challenges. From the very outset – the point of research design – we need to decide on the issue to be explained. Take, for example, the striking gender imbalance in the atheist movement – one of the most prominent gender issues in the field. Why so few women? Journalists and bloggers have offered several explanations, the most common of which is the rampant misogyny that pervades atheist organisations (e.g. Marcotte, 2014). In responding to the accusation of sexism among New Atheists, one of its leading lights, Sam Harris, has argued that women simply dislike the movement’s critical posture, which ‘is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women’. He further proposes that the‘atheist variable’ lacks ‘this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe’ that appeals to women.[i] Clearly, Harris views women as fundamentally different from men. Needless to say, his argument can be viewed as reductionist and divisive. It paints women as uncritical, a soft glue which binds communities, driven by a predominantly female hormone. Needless to say, Harris felt the need to defend himself on his blog, saying that he is ‘not the sexist pig you’re looking for’.

But if we ignore the inflammatory rhetoric, Harris’s basic message merits some attention. Studies have shown that statistically (or as Harris puts it ‘as an aggregate’) women tend to be attracted to particular social activities, while men prefer others (e.g. Craig and Liberti, 2007). This is nothing to do with hormonal differences, but a lot to do with gendered socialisation, and what we could call ‘the feedback loop’. Individuals are generally more likely to choose activities and groups they feel an affinity with; for example, walking into a room filled with people very different from us does not encourage most of us to remain. In other words, if an atheist setting is a priori defined as male, complete with the characteristics and types of behaviour we as a culture associate with masculinity, then women, regardless of their personality and convictions, are less likely to feel they belong. This in turn reduces their participation and strengthens the purportedly masculine flavour of the setting. So Harris has a point in that women’s atheism can differ from that of men’s, in this social sense at least. This difference is what often makes everyday female atheism, and non-belief more generally, invisible.

Another possible explanation for the gender imbalance among the nonreligious is linked to commonly held misconceptions about nonreligion and atheism. If statistically women are more religious (and spiritual) than men, the assumed lack of beliefs and rituals associated with nonreligion can be off-putting.[ii] As one of my female (and nonreligious) undergraduate students said: ‘it’s so sad that [atheists] don’t believe in anything’. These are possibilities we can explore scientifically.

But certainly the initial gendering of the field matters too, and maybe even more than women’s inherent preferences. The more we can understand about the highly gendered construction and promotion of nonreligious discourses and activities, the clearer the reasons for women’s reluctance to get involved. Gender is not the property of individuals. We ‘do’ gender, and more often than not we do it as difference, thus a lot of the time individuals perform gender in ways that create and reinforce inequalities. This in turn means that women, more often than men, enter social situations in which they feel judged and restricted because of their female status. If an atheist space (real and virtual) is defined as masculine by the sheer fact that more men are present, a certain version of hegemonic masculinity, and by extension symbolic violence, is enacted on those who do not fit the model.

It may then be the case that women do not differ from men in their initial attraction to atheist activities, but the gap widens as a result of women’s direct experience of the atheist milieu. The initial gendering of the atheist movement, through the high profiles of its male figures and marginalisation of their female counterparts, sets the tone for the subsequent patterns of participation. In powerful illustration of this, we might note that Jennifer Hecht, Susan Jacoby, or Greta Christina – all significant figures in the Atheist movement – do not receive a fraction of media exposure that Dawkins, Harris, or Hitchens have enjoyed. The process is part of ‘gender priming’, a psychological term referring to ‘the power of environments to signal to people whether or not they should enter a domain’ (Cheryan et al. 2009: 1058). Harris identifies the problem, then, but he is wrong to blame it on the shortage of estrogen. The atheist setting is continuously presented as stereotypically male, and thus becomes inhospitable to women.

This point can be extended to those of us who study nonreligion. Our research methodologies themselves are highly gendered. We focus on the immediately visible public expressions of atheism (e.g. New Atheism), not on the mundane and largely private actions, many of which are difficult to categorise and quantify. For example, a woman who teaches her children to say ‘LOL’ instead of ‘oh my God’ clearly practises a form of non-theism in her objection to cultural Christianity, but cannot be placed in a neatly pre-defined category, nor identified through studies of organised nonreligion. Her experience is therefore invisible when compared to a male member of an atheist movement.

The focus on atheism in studies of nonreligion is also inevitably gendered because the term ‘atheist’ tends to appeal more to men than to women who prefer ‘agnostic’ or ‘not religious’ (Schnell, 2015). In many ways, despite the strong feminist influence on social science methodologies, traditional notions of rationality and empiricism continue to define scholars’ approach to nonreligion. It can mean that researchers adjust their lens to the existing parameters and consequently block out phenomena that do not fit in.

This is why methodology and methods both matter enormously because they inevitably shape the findings and the eventual conclusions of our study. For many years sociologists of religion focused on the problem of leadership and gender in religious institutions but ignored the experiences of ordinary women who, by that point, constituted the majority of Christian churchgoers. This was a serious omission which negatively affected our understanding of gender and religiosity.

A similar mistake is being reproduced in the study of nonreligion. Obviously, female atheists who are vocal, active, and visible in the organised movement are worth studying (see Schwartz, 2013). We can learn a lot about the systemic barriers to women’s participation, as well as the dynamics of the interaction which set the tone in a way that may be hinder women’s activism. However, just like in the study of religion, we need to pay more attention to what goes on under the radar. There are plenty of female ‘nones’ out there who do not join a movement, or share their views on a public online or off-line platform – whether because they don’t want to or because they are prevented from doing so if they do. And yet their convictions inform their daily lives in ways we are only just beginning to realise, and to understand. We know that women ‘do’ religion differently than men, so why wouldn’t the same rule apply to nonreligion?


Cheryan, S. VC Plaut, P.G. Davies, and C.M. Steele. 2009. Ambient Belonging: How Stereotypical Cues Impact Gender Participation in Computer Science, Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, no. 97: 1045-1060.

Craig, M.L. and R. Liberti. 2007. “‘Cause That’s What Girls Do”: the Making of a Feminized Gym. Gender & Society, vol. 21, no. 5: 676-699.  

Marcotte, A. 2014. Atheism’s Shocking Woman Problem: What’s Behind the Misogyny of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris? Salon, Oct 3.

Schnell, T. 2015. Dimensions of Secularity (DoS): An Open Inventory to Measure Facets of Secular Identities. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 25:4, 272-292.

Schwartz, Laura. 2013. Infidel Feminism: Secularism, Religion and Women’s Emancipation, England 1830-1914. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

[i] See https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/im-not-the-sexist-pig-youre-looking-for

[ii] See http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/23/qa-why-are-women-generally-more-religious-than-men/



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