Does organized unbelief have a sexism problem?

That’s the question that launched the first “Women in Secularism” conference three years ago and one that will be closely re-examined at the third annual iteration of the event, being held this weekend (May 16-18) in Alexandria, Va.

“I don’t think much has changed,” said Melody Hensley, executive director of the Washington branch of the Center For Inquiry, a humanist organization that organizes the event. “I think things are very divided.”

Hensley, a longtime feminist and secular activist, speaks from experience. About 18 months ago, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after a vicious flood of online and social media attacks that included threats of rape, murder and photographs of dismembered women.

Many of her harassers, she believes, are men in the secular community. They feel threatened by the inclusion of issues that go beyond the central pillars of the secular movement, such as protections of freedom and conscience and church-state separation They want to silence activists, like Hensley and others, who want secularism to address broader issues of social justice, economic equality and racism.

Many in the movement — both men and women — say those are, or should be, secular issues.

“Atheism is not the most important issue in a state that is trying to outlaw abortion clinics or limit contraception coverage,” issues that disproportionately affect women, said Debbie Goddard, director of African Americans for Humanism and a speaker at previous Women in Secularism events. Those issues, she said, are frequently taken up by conservative religious groups, and that makes them of concern to nonbelievers.

“If we are not talking about a secularism that is concerned with these issues, then we are not talking about secularism,” she said.

Women in Secularism was organized after a sexism scandal rattled the community in 2011. Eventually dubbed “Elevatorgate,” it erupted when Rebecca Watson, a young atheist activist, complained on her blog, Skepchick, about unwanted sexual advances in an elevator at an atheist conference.

Her post prompted comments from scores of women who said they, too, felt uncomfortable at atheist gatherings. But it also led to a now infamous string of put-downs from Richard Dawkins, arguably the world’s most prominent atheist, and others — all men.

“Stop complaining,” Dawkins quipped in one comment. Many nonbelievers — not all of them women — saw this as an attempt to silence women. One year after the scandal, the first Women in Secularism Conference was held, with Watson among the speakers.

There has since been change for the better, many activists say. For one, women are equally represented in leadership positions at the major secular organizations. In 2012, lobbyist Edwina Rogers was appointed executive director of Secular Coalition for America, a Washington-based umbrella group that represents all the major atheist and humanist organizations. There are also women at or near the helms of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, among others.

They also say the inclusion of formal anti-harassment policies at major conferences is a positive step. Some (mostly male) secularists worried that such policies they might interfere with free expression — which is something of a sacred cow for nonbelievers — but they’re now fairly routine.

And more women speakers are included at major conferences and meetings. Women made up about half of the featured speakers at the recent American Atheists convention in Salt Lake City, and they make up a large portion of the speakers roster at next month’s American Humanist Association’s national conference.

The real hostility to women in secularism seems to have moved online, as Hensley’s experience attests. Adam Lee, who blogs at Daylight Atheism, recently wrote about atheism’s “MRA problem,” referring to “men’s rights activists,” who congregate online. A recent survey showed that the vast majority of Reddit’s MRA community, which counts more than 90,000 subscribers, identify as atheist or “religiously indifferent.”

“There is an unreformed contingent of anti-feminists, that even though the broader secular movement is not in step with them, are not willing to be silent and they can make women’s lives miserable with their harassment if they choose,” Lee said.

So what can the secular community do to fight sexism in its own ranks? Hensley said more should be done to increase women’s attendance at conferences, where attendees are still predominantly male, while Goddard feels the movement’s agenda must be expanded.

“We tend to think that other people’s issues are fringe,” she said. “But if we include more women in leadership positions, include women’s voices at conferences and listen to women, then I think some of what we are now calling women’s issues will be seen as something the secular movement should be interested in, aware of and doing something about.”

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