I regularly have a problem when trying to fix problems with physical objects that do mechanically things[1]. In attempting to solve the problem, I learn that the problem I thought was the problem is not the problem and discover what the actual the problem is. Not that I then necessarily have any idea how to solve the new the problem, but at least I know what the problem is now.

Its like an episode of House, without the erroneous suggestion that it might be lupus[2].

Or, maybe its like Atheism[3].

One of Atheism’s major problems is that not enough girls are showing up to their parties. Recently, there was a great deal of attention focused on the issue of sexism in Atheism after a dust-up erupted around the reporting of events during a predominantly male “women in atheism” panel. Briefly, a female audience member took vocal issue with some of the panel’s statements and left in some distress feeling that the panel’s responses to her concerns were condescending and mocking.

I’m not sure there is much to learn from this event. There is a lot to learn from the response.

A great deal of blood and tears have been spent arguing over exactly what happened. You can watch video.

What actually happened? Irrelevant.

Is Atheism sexist? Not very, but irrelevant.

Should the women have been offended? Probably, but irrelevant.

The concern over the facts of the case, as if we can sit back and adjudicate who was right and wrong, misses the point. To even debate whether the facts support the legitimacy of an emotional response to a person’s perception of events is ludicrous. The discussion has wandered from blame to self-doubt (did we do something wrong?) to self-defense (we didn’t do anything wrong).

This misses the key element for both this event and the struggles of atheism as a whole – the failure of community.

Community is not social events. Community is not the number of butts in pews. Community is asking what does your neighbor need from you.

The navel gazing response to this event contrasts sharply with my own experiences of real community. During my PhD work, my family attended Compton Heights Christian Church in St. Louis, MO. This congregation is a particularly diverse group, which occasionally resulted in emotional situations, not dissimilar from the events at this atheist meeting.

In the case of Compton Heights, the universal response to such situations was not to ask, “What does this say about us?” “Why did this happen?” “Whose fault was it?” “Is this person nuts?” “Can we just go back to what we were doing?”

Instead, the response was to ask “What does this individual need from us?” and, then, to act on that need. And, afterward, the focus remained on understanding how those needs could be met, without that individual having to experience the emotional crisis that first brought those needs to our attention.

Communities are made of individuals. As a result, the comfort of each individual is important. The needs of each individual are important. The individuality of individuals is important.

Part of the problem for women in atheism is that its not about “women” being uncomfortable in Atheism. It’s about Jane being uncomfortable in one way. And, Karen being uncomfortable in a slightly more different way. Hell, I’m slightly uncomfortable in unique ways that may not be entirely dependent on my Y chromosome and genitalia[4].

Now, ask yourself: did any of that community happen in the two months since that “women in atheism” panel?

When you can move past the fear and concern that you are being judged. When it is no longer about what can this person do for the group or what does the group do for me. When it is about what can I do for the community and what can that community do for those who need help, then you are ready to replace culturally entrenched communities like churches. If you are still having problems with the ladies after that, maybe try deodorant.


  1. Primarily caused by me not knowing what I am doing, but remaining unreasonably brave in the face of my ignorance.
  2. If your vacuum cleaner is not working because it has lupus, you are beyond the help of mere mortals, my friend.
  3. Big “A” Atheism – attempts at an organized community of atheists – has issues. The personal philosophy of belief – small “a” – is just fine.
  4. Conference panels may not be the best way to address these concerns, unless you schedule really, really long sessions (or have vanishingly small attendance).

Author: Josh Witten

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