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As a former Religious Studies major who is now attaining her Masters of Divinity, I am always interested in the role that sexism plays in precluding women from attaining positions of prominence and power within spiritual communities such as churches, mosques, and synagogues. Recently, however, I became aware that the same sort of patriarchal ideologies and praxes that relegate women to the sphere of silence and subordination within spiritual communities is also prevalent within atheist circles. In a telling (and very compelling) article published this Monday entitled "5 reasons there aren’t more women in atheism," Soraya Chemaly provides her readers with a very clear and cogent explanation for why we don't see the ostensibly weaker sex taking a more active role in atheist discourse and activism: sexism.

Although Chemaly drew attention to a plethora of social realities that give rise to the ostracization of women within atheistic circles, I found her identification and analysis of intersections between the worlds of atheism and religion to be the most interesting and informative commentary she offered. In addition to discussing several other junctions between the worlds of religion and atheism, Chemaly drew attention to the fact that patriarchal value systems that engender the feminization of poverty are a primary factor that drive women into churches (and, perhaps indirectly, away from atheistic thought and practice.) In discussing this reality, Chemaly stated:

"...women are more devout because they have to be. Women’s religiosity is directly related to economic security. The lack of a social safety net means that women, who are still responsible for the bulk of elder and child care, often need to rely on religious organizations to support themselves and their families..."    

In addition to making this important (and importunate) observation, Chemaly noted that:  

"...it’s no exaggeration to say that managing sexism is exhausting, depressing and distracts from work women could be doing as visible spokespeople of fighting for higher and equal pay, or immigration policies that include uneducated women, or ending sexual predation, or advocating for the right to control our own reproduction. All of which, by the way, would probably contribute to the growth of secular and non-religious culture."

Like her previous statements, this observation by Chemaly demonstrates the fundamentally interconnected nature of the secular and spiritual realms as they pertain to female existence. Here, Chemaly notes that the cultivation of a society in which women are socioculturally and economically empowered-through measures like lobbying for reproductive rights and challenging sexual assaults-would engender the growth of atheistic cultures. In short, this statement reiterates the point Chemaly made earlier: women often immerse themselves in religious communities because they are disempowered rather than to express and/or cultivate reverence for God. I think this argument is accurate and could become the point of departure through which a slew of sexist arguments about women are debunked, such as the notion that we are innately more spiritual (and-implicitly-less logical) than men.

While one might argue that the secular and spiritual spheres never overlap or intersect, Chemaly (perhaps inadvertently) proves that this assessment is false by showing us all how efficacious religious and atheistic communities can be in failing women. It's all very disgusting, disappointing and-in a world still dominated by androcentric ways of being and knowing-unsurprising.  

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Originally posted to This Week in the War on Women on Wed Jul 31, 2013 at 11:34 AM PDT.

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