Of Ponies and Patriarchy

Women in Secular webpage screenshot

Image Credit: Center for Inquiry's Women in Secularism 2 Conference Website

Controversies over sexism have recently embroiled the online and in-real-life spaces of the gaming, fandom, and atheist communities. The sexist behavior that has sparked controversy and the backlash facing those speaking out against harassment are too hateful and ugly to discuss at any length here. I'll link to two examples with trigger warnings for threats of sexual violence: Rebecca Watson and Anita Sarkeesian. The controversy in the organized atheist community, however, has also seen an act of resistance and some levity in the face of abject misogyny by repurposing a visual trope well known to the community.

Since the early 2000s, the "new atheism" has attained prominence in the wake of outspoken and sometimes polemical writings. The most prominent of these writers are known as the Four Horsemen of New Atheism: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett.

The New Atheist Four Horsemen

Image Credit: Paul O'Flaherty

The Four Horsemen name alludes to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation, and it attempts to play off religious beliefs that the atheists criticize and evoke the emotional fervor that all sides invest in religious debate. Images like the one above cast the four authors in an arrangement that speaks to a serious, knowing demeanor, but it also evokes a somewhat forbidding feeling as well with their faces partially obscured in shadow. The fact that all four atheists are horsemen hints at the trouble with sexism in the organized atheist community. (The presence of all-white horsemen also speaks to atheism's trouble with racial diversity, but that's an issue for another time.)

Despite the role of women in the history of freethought, as documented by Annie Laurie Gaylor, and the presence of women writers and activists working today, women remain marginalized at various levels of organized atheism. Attendance at conferences often has a gender imbalance, and the leadership of some advocacy groups resist engaging with criticisms about sexism in the community.

The visual markers of patriarchy in the atheist community are not clear to those unaware of the operation of male privilege, though a critical appraisal raises red flags. For example, artist Saejin Oh published the drawing below of famous atheists who had influenced his thinking.

Illustration of famous atheists

Image Credit: Saejin Oh

The atheists stand on a rocky rise against a threatening sky in confident poses befitting superheroes in a panel of a comic book. They are exclusively men. Those commenting on his work remarked on the absence of women, to which he replied, "I couldn't think of one that influenced me as a person of reason, unfortunately." At the time, Jen McCreight, a prominent blogger and advocate for feminism in the atheist community, remarked that she found his explanation "sad," suggesting that this was yet another example of gender imbalance in atheism.

atheist collage

Image Credit: Unknown Author

Other images ostensibly serving an epidiectic function of building atheist community demonstrate similar sex biases. Both the images above and below circulated in the popular atheism subreddit. Each carries the text message "Fear not hell, for if it exists, you will find yourself in good company" embedded over or around the faces of famous people who are also atheists. While these collages do contain some women, the imbalance is still noticeable, and these images are only a small part of much larger problems in the community.

second atheist collage

Image Credit: joebbowers

The backlash facing those standing up against sexism has been brutal. Jen McCreight recently suspended her blog due to stress from online harassment. Pteryxx, commenting on a blog entry about sexism in atheism, jokingly suggested that "Perhaps we now have our Four Horsewomen of the Feminist Apocalypse," referring to four prominent women bloggers. The commenter immediately after asked, "Is it terrible if I envision them riding out on My Little Ponies?" Soon, another commenter names embertine sketched out that vision.

Greta Christina on pony

    Natalie Reed on pony

Sikivu Hutchinson on pony

         Ophelia Benson on pony

Image Credit: embertine

More than four bloggers were eventually immortalized on ponies at Jason Thibeault's blog. In all the images, the bloggers bear weapons befitting an apocalyptic rider: whip, sword, daggers, mace and more. Oddly enough, in the first four images, the expressions of the riders contrast markedly with the expressions of the ponies. The riders' faces seem happy, while the ponies show grim determination and displeasure. These pictures hardly make up for the indignities the bloggers and other women in the community have faced, but they begin to push back on the sex imbalance in atheist visual rhetoric.

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