Pursuing Real Empowerment: Freethought’s Women Leaders Close Out Day One


The last formal presentation for the first day of Women in Secularism 4 was a panel discussion with women leaders from five different freethought organizations, and what was incredibly striking to this writer how it showed that women leaders now span the full spectrum of the movement’s organizations. From major secularist institutions to vital smaller groups, having women in the prime leadership roles in freethought is now wonderfully normal.

It’s remarkable, too, at a time when the next President of the United States could very well be a woman, and yet there remains so much friction to general acceptance of a woman leader among the broader population. Robyn Blumner, CEO of the Center for Inquiry and the Richard Dawkins Foundation, mentioned a recent dig that Donald Trump made at Hillary Clinton about not “looking presidential,” pointing out how absurd it is to be attacking Clinton for not looking like the 44 men, and only men, that have gone before her.

But that prejudice about women in leadership is still part of the atmosphere. Relating the Trump slight against Clinton to the challenge of being a woman leader for any organization, Robyn said, “If you’re a man and you look distinguished … you have instant credibility to speak for an organization.”

“Women … have to be cognizant of that and prepare for it” when speaking to donors and supporters, said Robyn, adding that women had to be sure to assert themselves as being fully “in command,” which of course comes with its own problems. Again relating to the challenge faced by Hillary Clinton, Robyn noted that strong women face the risk of seeming “shrill.”

One recurring theme of the panel was how intertwined secular activism is with feminism. FFRF’s Annie Laurie Gaylor said that our movements were “on parallel courses,” noting that “we owe a great debt to the women freethinkers” of our own history who worked so hard to free women from the strictures of the Bible. “Feminism is taken [as] granted” at FFRF, Gaylor said, and likewise, Robyn said, “I would not work with someone who is not a feminist.”

Hypatia Alexandria of Hispanic American Freethinkers noted how cultural expectations can be incredibly burdensome on Hispanic women, as identity and community is wrapped up in faith, which leads to an expectation that women have kids (plural) before they’ve had a chance to advance themselves, “to move forward” as Alexandria put it, focusing first on their education and realizing their full selves.

Sarah Haider of the Ex-Muslims of North America pointed out how women can often believe that their religion, and even the restrictions it imposes, is empowering. “Women [in Islam] see the hijab as empowering,” she said. “They can be wrong, but that’s how they feel.” And this is an idea passed down not only through religious texts and clergy, but from mothers to their daughters, perceived as tools for success.

And Robyn laid out plainly what was at stake for women when it comes to religion. “When the rubber mees the road, there’s no room for leadership for women, women’s bodies are conrolled by men, women are seen sometimes a chattel, sometimes as property.” If women aren’t allowed to control their reproduction, she said, “they can’t control their lives.”

But if empowerment through religion is an illusion, it’s not enough to wave away the mirage. Alexandria said that there must be purpose to the secular movement beyond championing atheism. “How can I make the world better?” is the central question.

“It’s important that we give this culture and this society something else to hold on to,” said the American Humanist Association’s Rebecca Hale. She was quite adamant that secularists not leave the job half-done. “There’s a lot of talk in this movement” about having a positive impact on the world. Mentioning her own organization’s work on social justice issues, she said, “We need to get our hands dirty.”

Maryam Namazie: “Your Refusal to Disappear is an Act of Dissent”

Photo by Josiah Mannion
Photo by Josiah Mannion

Maryam Namazie came to take down the veil.

At a time when the wearing of burqas and their beachwear variants is an incredibly heated topic, Namazie wasted no time, and withheld no ire, lambasting the enforced veiling of women in Islamic societies.

“Many feminists,” said Namazie, as well as other progressives and secularists, “defend the right to be veiled, but never the right to be unveiled and then live to tell the tale. What a betrayal.”

Namazie said that what those outside the Muslim world often don’t understand is that “culture isn’t homogeneous,” that there is a disconnect between what might be a well-intentioned defense of the “right” to wear the veil. But Namazie says this is not a right, it’s a forced disappearance.

“The veil, and the segregation that follows, are merely the most public manifestation of putting women in their place,” said Namazie, also saying, “Your refusal to disappear is an act of dissent.”

The veil is part and parcel of the larger marginalization and containment of women in Islamic societies, that emerges in countless other ways, among them being segregation, the absolute power of husbands over their wives, the rules about what size of rock is appropriate for stoning a woman, and the notion that the veil is really for the woman’s own protection.

Namazie impressed upon us that in these societies, “It is a crime to be a woman, and a woman who refuses to be disappeared.” Those women need us as allies.


Being an Ordained *Person* – Linda LaScola on the Women of the Clergy Project


The Clergy Project is one of the most fascinating things to emerge in the past ten years of secularist thought — at first a small academic study, and now a crucial support community for current and former clergy who no longer believe. Linda LaScola, who brought it into being with Daniel Dennett, came to Women in Secularism to tell some of the individual stories of women who came through the project.

Women make up a small portion of the Clergy Project’s members, just 13% out of 728 members, and noted how pay gaps exist for women clergy, but nonetheless are more often found in clergy leadership roles.

The core of LaScola’s presentation was three dramatic readings from the transcripts of her original interviews with those who would be Clergy Project members. LaScola played herself, of course. One interviewee, who went by the name of “Caitlin,” was read by CFI–Northeast Ohio’s Monette Richards, and had a fascinating observation about being a nonbelieving Episcopal priest. “I think there is a place for me as an ordained person.” Just not an ordained priest, professing a religion she didn’t believe in.

The Clergy Project member known as “Candace” was particularly stirring, a Catholic seminarian who was taken aback by the way the role of women was explained to her, and then horrified by the way a sexual abuse scandal was handled, the child-victims being blamed for the crimes committed against them.

“Candace” also described what she called a “cop-out” of progressive believers who justify the nature of God’s existence in contorted ways, and likening it to “peeling the stickers of a Rubik’s cube to make it work.”

Atheism Isn’t Enough: Ashley Miller Talks Class

14444780_10154552298994868_3943766114310666976_oIt costs money to attend a conference. Hotels, travel, food, and then of course the tickets. But as Ashley Miller reminded us today, there is a great deal more about organized secularism and atheism that prevents participation for those without the means.

Miller discussed class as it relates to our movement, and talked about some uncomfortable truths about the community of those of us who can afford to take the time to attend lectures and meetings, and how we look at those who don’t. Many of us are lucky enough to have lifestyles that allow us the time and psychological space to think about things like secularist activism and arguments about theology, but others simply don’t.

“That doesn’t make them worse people,” said Miller, adding that our community might agree with that intellectually, but we don’t act as though we believe it. “That disdain we have for people who are not educated…undermines our ability to reach out.” She says that the scientific method and atheism are not in themselves a form of liberation or necessarily ethical on their own. We need to bring those things ourselves to this movement, and include in our outreach efforts not just women, people of color, and other marginalized groups, but also those of different socioeconomic backgrounds.

The central message of her talk was for us to muster more compassion with those with whom we disagree, people who have jobs that are alien to us, who support politics we don’t like, and with those who simply can’t afford to be a part of our movement as it currently exists. Right now, Miller says they don’t matter to us, or at least, “we don’t treat them like they do.”

Melanie Brewster on the Lazy Assumptions about Women and Atheism


Photo by Josiah Mannion
Photo by Josiah Mannion

Melanie Brewster, an assistant professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, clearly needs to be featured at more conferences, and what a great choice she was to present first at Women in Secularism. She come armed with loads of facts and data, but engages with the audience in a very personable way, using humor and candor to make her subject feel very accessible and understandable.

Case in point, the way she introduced her topic: why there aren’t more women in atheism? Before delivering any of her own information, Brewster instructed the attendees to turn to each other and take a few minutes to chew on the question themselves. After a bit, she had them shout their thoughts back to her.

She then examined the question from the other direction: Why are women more associated with religion than men? And as she pointed out, those differences are not what they seem.

She cited many older studies that asserted some kind of biological or psychological traits of women that prime them for religious belief, but then revealed that these studies were done with no actual examination of the biological components, and often they came from sociologists working from explicitly religious universities such as Baylor, Brigham Young, and Holy Cross.

But these dusty studies still serve as the foundation for popular understanding of these perceived differences, even among seculars, and she cautioned us to bring our own prized critical thinking to this question. “It’s lazy,” she said, for our own community to glom on to these incomplete studies, and we can do better.


Also incredibly important, Brewster noted that the media only presents an extremely narrow view of atheist thinkers and leaders, almost all male, and the vast majority are white. “We need to start asking people in power to start forcing representation in the media,” she said, asserting that those who have that kind of leverage should insist that women and people of color get the air time they might have gotten themselves.

She also had some fascinating insights into nonreligious women, or women who are “nones,” and why surveys show them to be more inclined toward religious practice than nones who are men. Take prayer, for example, where she suspects women “can feel it,” the more meditative components of prayer, “but not necessarily buy it” as an actual communication with the Great Beyond. And in talking about her own mom, who despite her own atheism still must have it as part of her life as she cares for her own religious mother (Brewster’s grandmother).

But, Brewster tells us, if her mom were of a younger generation, “She would probably be a troll.” Good to know.

“They Are Mighty” – Debbie Goddard on the Impact of Women in Secularism

Photo by Josiah Mannion

CFI’s VP of Outreach, Debbie Goddard, made an excellent point in her opening remarks for Women in Secularism 4, that even though these conference have not been enormous events packed with thousands of attendees, their reverberations are always felt well beyond the events themselves.

These conferences, says Debbie, “have been mighty,” adding, “They have been some of the most challenging, exciting, and impactful conferences that the freethought movement has seen in many years.”

The reason for this is the conversations that these conferences spark, conversations that happen both on stage and off, and that don’t happen anywhere else. She cited examples of some of the movement’s larger debates and discussions, and even changes in organizations’ policies, all as a result of the exchange of ideas that happen at Women in Secularism.

We’re pretty confident that this one will be no different.

Putting it Together, Bit by Bit

The conference is about to get started, and the great Melanie Brewster is up first. Before the formal beginnings of any event like this, however, there is of course a great deal of setup.

Here, the tireless Stef McGraw makes sure everything’s in place for the podium and dais.


Cody Hashman assures us that all these wires are for a purpose, and we of course believe him.


In the lobby, Suzi Hansen of CFI Canada is ready to answer your questions about her group’s work in the mystical and exotic foreign land to the north.


At the main registration table, Nick Little, our legal director, may or may not be helping. We’re never sure.


And of course, at the empty podium, the eyes. Always watching, those eyes.


More (actual conference stuff) to come!

May the 4th Be With You


It’s a beautiful day in Arlington’s Crystal City, where enormous structures of glass send every glimmer of sunlight bouncing here and there. And it’s almost time to get started with Women in Secularism 4.

We always knew that when we held the first Women in Secularism conference back in 2012 that it would be something deeply meaningful for the freethought community, confronting issues and addressing concerns that simply weren’t getting the air time they needed in other venues. What we couldn’t know (not being fortune-telling psychics) is just how meaningful they would be, creating a demand for additional conferences.

It’s 2016 and we’re holding the fourth in the series, after taking one year off in 2015. It’s no small thing to be holding an event like this now. There’s so much going on this year for “skepto-humanists,” with the second Reason Rally, CSICon Las Vegas coming next month, and of course, all the hubbub and hullabaloo over the presidential election.

And that’s why there’s no better time than now for the fourth Women in Secularism conference. In the midst of major rallying events for nonbelievers and skeptics, and as the first woman nominee of a major political party faces off against a man who is, well, let’s just say not entirely friendly when it comes to women’s concerns, the voices of the women of secularism could not be more crucial. And since the conference series took a year last year off, there’s a palpable eagerness for an occasion like this.

It’s going to be a great event. Check back here regularly for updates and personal thoughts about what transpires, and we’ll also try to bring you a flavor of what’s going on in between the main talks and discussions.

Come Back to CFI Live September 23 for Women in Secularism 4!

In June, the Center for Inquiry debuted CFI Live at the Reason Rally, a new way to help as many people as possible get a taste of the experience of being at important CFI events. The CFI Live team brought insight and analysis of all the goings-on in real time, along with some of the sights and sounds of from speakers, activists, and attendees.

Now we’re doing the same thing for our next big event. Starting September 23, CFI Live will be your central hub for Women in Secularism 4.

This series of conferences, launched in 2012, has provided some of the most meaningful moments in all of freethought, tackling crucial and controversial topics that must be addressed: How religion curtails women’s rights; what issues women need the secular movement to address; the debate between safe spaces and free expression; the lessons that can be learned from other social justice movements to improve our own; and so much more.

The speakers at Women in Secularism 4 are going to be some of the most courageous activists and thinkers from across the disciplines, women like Rafida Bonya Ahmed, Katha Pollitt, Yvette d’Entremont, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Sarah Haider, Maryam Namazie, Kavin Senapathy, Emily Willingham, and other luminaries sharing their insights and passion. Visit WomeninSecularism.org for more.

So bookmark this site, and come back September 23, and keep checking in as the weekend goes on for more on Women in Secularism 4 in Arlington, Virginia.