And it's about fucking time.
Finally, atheists are no longer just old white men
The Barna Group, a Christian polling firm, recently released their 2015 State of Atheism in America report. Based on a year of research on the non-religious demographic, Barna found not just that atheists and agnostics’ numbers are growing rapidly, but that they’re very quickly becoming more diverse.
The most important finding in Barna’s report is that women are joining the atheist community by the millions. In 1993, just 16% of nonbelievers were women, but in 2013, that number was 43% - representing a nearly threefold leap. And this shift isn’t because men are leaving the community, which would bring the gender balance closer to parity. Barna found that the absolute numbers of both male and female atheists have increased in the last twenty years, but the number of women has grown far faster.
The atheist community is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse as well. In 1993, people of color made up just 20% of nonbelievers. The change in these numbers hasn’t been as dramatic, but there’s been change nonetheless, with the number rising to 26% in 2013. Many of these religious skeptics have come from the Hispanic and, especially, Asian communities.
Rapid diversification of the secular community debunks the spurious claims by prominent white male atheists that the lack of diversity had biological reasons. The libertarian skeptic Michael Shermer said that atheism and skepticism are “more of a guy thing”, while Sam Harris infamously attributed the under-representation of women in the atheist community to its lack of an “estrogen vibe”.
The real reason for atheism’s monochrome public image has nothing to do with the subtle effects of testosterone on the brain or natural selection. The fault lies with past generations of leaders who didn’t address the issues that matter most to women and minorities.
Conferences like CFI’s Women in Secularism and this year’s Secular Women Work spotlight the too-often-overlooked contributions and achievements of freethinking activist women. Other large skeptic conventions have sought out and invited feminist groups like the Ada Initiative for ally training in topics like harassment, unconscious bias and microaggressions. We’re increasingly emphasizing the convergence of interests between feminism and humanism, such as when the Humanist Community of Harvard named Anita Sarkeesian its 2015 Humanist of the Year. It’s only in the past few years that major atheist and humanist organizations have started to make a collective effort to reach out to women and people of color, to include them, to listen to them and to take their concerns seriously. And despite the inevitable backlash, tantrums and harassment from atheism’s regressive faction, this effort is bearing fruit.
Atheists of color, too, have made strides in the past few years, as the broader community realizes the importance of supporting projects like First in the Family Humanist Scholarships to help youths from underprivileged communities go to college, or New Turn to assist former inmates to reintegrate into society. Secular student groups have taken more of an active role in Black Lives Matter and other civil-rights protests. In the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting, national humanist organizations issued strong statements on racial injustice and marched with protesters in Ferguson.
America is changing and the atheist movement needs to change along with it. As women gain social and political power and the US becomes a majority-minoritynation, it’s vital that the secular community sends a message of welcome and inclusion to all kinds of people. Doing anything less is a sure path to irrelevance and demographic decline. Fortunately, if Barna’s findings can be believed, atheists are hearing that message loud and clear.