Six obstacles standing between American women and the secular movement

Ten or fifteen years ago, a conversation about gender diversity in the secular movement was a bit like a 1970s encounter group minus the folk music. We agreed on the problem and collectively lamented it, but solutions were so remote we barely imagined them, let alone anticipated disagreements. Today, it's impossible to read an atheist blog or attend a freethought event without a head-on collision with terms like "misogyny," "harassment policy" and "feminazi," or hashtags like "#mencallmethings" and "#FTBullies." Let the games begin, it appears.

In some ways the controversy is a positive thing: it's a sign of growth and change, greeted by some as an opportunity for a stronger, more vibrant secular community. But this is also an emotional, subjective conversation rarely punctuated by objective facts. At the American Secular Census, we hope to contribute a few.

In May we published statistics related to the Census question Have you ever felt unwelcome, discriminated against, or harmed in the secular movement? Responding "Yes" were 11.4% overall and 14.4% of women.

For this more detailed analysis of women's experiences in the secular movement, we zeroed in on information provided by those who described themselves as either "aware of organizations and events but have not participated" or "former participant[s] who [are] currently inactive." We hoped to learn why women stay away (or go away) from the secular movement.

For more nuance we also looked at how women on the Census compare with registrants overall in terms of their secular self-identity, their "out" status, and their assessment of the secular movement's strengths and weaknesses.

Note that women represent 40% of American Secular Census registrants in this snapshot, up from 29% on June 7th and down from 41% on February 3rd. These statistical variations highlight the ongoing, dynamic nature of the American Secular Census as new registrants create accounts and record their demographic and viewpoint data.


  • Most women respondents not currently active in the secular movement are aware of groups and events but do not participate. A smaller percentage were involved at some point but are now inactive. For both of these subsets, insufficient time is cited most often as the main obstacle to participation.
  • Other obstacles named by women outside the secular movement are inconvenient events; insufficient money; bad experience with group, person, or event; not a joiner; and lack of childcare.
  • A non-trivial number of women respondents admitted they are not really sure why they haven't participated in the secular movement.
  • Although not the top response, lack of childcare was the one factor to emerge as a disproportionately women's concern. Just 39.1% of all registrants submitting this Census form were women; yet women represented more than 61.1% of the "lack of childcare" responses. No other selection showed a gender imbalance this marked.
  • Women are more selective about revealing their nontheism to others. Fewer women described themselves as "completely open" compared with Census registrants overall, while more women acknowledged being closeted in certain situations.
  • Most women Census registrants consider atheist to be their primary secular identity, followed by secular humanist and agnostic. Almost 3/4 of those who chose agnostic were women, suggesting a gender preference not seen with any of the 20+ other identities offered.
  • Both overall and among women, Census registrants say that the secular movement's most effective work has been facilitating friendships and a sense of community. Both overall and among women, the secular movement's weakest impact is felt to be in the sphere of political influence.
  • Women currently involved in the secular movement and those with a history of involvement were just as likely as Census registrants overall to see no disadvantage to participation: a little over 53% for both groups. This trend suggests that involvement in the secular movement can be as satisfying for women as others, once obstacles to participation are overcome.

In keeping with our culture of privacy, the information below was calculated from values queried directly from database tables which do not contain visible identifying information such as name, username, or e-mail address.

I realized that I can be a free spirit without religion and without supernatural beings by this creed: be yourself, because the rest are taken already. - A Louisiana teacher

The more detailed figures below relate to women's responses to the question, "What are your reasons for not being involved in the secular movement?" Multiple responses are permitted, and this question is visible only to respondents who indicate that they are aware of the secular movement and do not currently participate.

Aware of organizations and events but have not participated

This subgroup represented 70.2% of all women submitting the form.

  • Insufficient time (60%) tops this list, with insufficient money (38%) in second place and inconvenient events (34%) in third.
  • Not a joiner (26%), lack of childcare (22%), and not really sure (20%) were also cited.
  • Notably, lack of childcare was the one and only response chosen more often by women than by other respondents.

Former participants currently inactive

This subgroup represented 7% of all women submitting the form.

  • Women pointed to insufficient time (75%) more than any other factor, and twice as frequently as overall.
  • Inconvenient events (50%) came in second, with only women selecting this reason.
  • In third place at 25% were bad experience with group, person, or event and not a joiner, also selected only by women.

Women's openness about their nonbelief

  • 35.1% - Completely open (vs. 46.5% overall)
  • 42.6% - Mostly open except for a few situations or individuals (vs. 33.2% overall)
  • 14.9% - Sometimes open and sometimes private, about evenly divided (vs. 12.6% overall)
  • 7.4% - Mostly private except for a few situations or individuals (vs. 7.7% overall)

Women's primary worldview identity

  • Atheist (67.5%) is a very clear first choice.
  • Secular Humanist (10.6%) is a distant second place.
  • Agnostic (4.2%) is a weak third, but with an obvious gender connection: 73.3% of those selecting this label are women.
  • Other primary identities chosen by women: Humanist, Freethinker, Pantheist, Secularist, Nonbeliever, Pastafarian, Humanistic Jew, Empiricist, Spiritual Not Religious, Universist

I think that it is essential that the American Secular community take a larger, more active role in social justice movements, community organizations and human rights causes. We must demonstrate that humanity and its needs are not strictly the purview of religion. We must create and support systems that give women, minorities, families and society's most vulnerable a space and a voice in our community and this country in general. - A Montana agnostic

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