Women's experiences in secular groups can be uniquely divergent from men's

Women, the minority, dominate certain opinions on Secular Census

Imagine you are in a room full of freethinkers who've been asked to group themselves according to favorite color. The reds congregate in one corner, the purples in another, and so on until everyone has joined a color group. You survey the room and suddenly it hits you: there are tall people distributed throughout the room, but the green subgroup is decidedly taller as a whole than all the others. In fact, it is made up almost exclusively of tall people. Very few short or average height freethinkers have chosen green. You might wonder: what's up with that, and how can I use it to populate my atheist basketball team?

It's this kind of approach that we're taking with the American Secular Census for today's analysis, but with these substitutions: instead of favorite colors we're looking at people's experiences in (and opinions about) the secular movement, and instead of tall people, we're focusing on women.

We're "looking around the room" to see where women seem to be clustering in numbers that are out of proportion to their overall participation. Then we'll ask: what's up with that, and how can we use it to attract more women to secularism?

Why women? The secular identity movement has struggled to achieve diversity not just with gender, but in areas like race and age as well. As the American Secular Census registry grows we want to learn as much as we can about many kinds of minority groups. Right now, though, women and young people are the only minorities registered in sufficient numbers to provide useful information. For no particular reason we're starting with women, and because the genderqueer identity is still too small, for now we'll be comparing women's responses with just men's.

Gender participation

Current gender distribution on the American Secular Census:

  • 41.7% - female
  • 57.5% - male
  • 00.8% - genderqueer / non-binary


Responses that attract women in greater numbers than roughly 42/58, therefore, would be considered relevant to this analysis. Because this is a database snapshot rather than a random sample, though, we have narrowed our focus in a more simplistic, exacting way: we'll zero in on those responses where women actually outnumber men.

This highlighting marks responses where women outnumber men at least 2:1. Percentage ratios are rounded to the nearest whole number and may not total to 100%, particularly where genderqueer registrants responded. Ratios are formatted as women%/men% -- so 56%/44% means 56% of those choosing the response are women and 44% are men. Overall percentages will be published in a later analysis.

Demographics and related characteristics

In age, educational level, and income, women's representation is roughly proportional to their overall participation. But women outnumber men in these categories:

  • 49%/48% - students
  • 60%/38% - Blacks-African Americans
  • 50%/45% - Hispanics
  • 56%/42% - those who are cohabiting
  • 54%/46% - those who are divorced
  • 75%/25% - those who are joined in civil union


Primary secular identity

The American Secular Census offers the following definition before posing questions about secular identity:

Secular identity - a label used to describe a specific nontheistic or nonreligious position. Note that we do not provide definitions of individual labels below since we assume you would not be using a label whose meaning you did not know.

Without regard to gender, respondents prefer these primary secular identities, in order of popularity:

  • atheist
  • secular humanist
  • humanist
  • agnostic


Most of these identities showed no gender correlation, but women outnumber men 60%/40% in identifying as agnostic.

Participation in the secular movement

The American Secular Census offers the following definition before posing questions about the secular movement:

Organized secular movement - groups, generally non-profits, that serve the needs of secular individuals on a local, regional, national, or international scale; membership and advocacy organizations with a mission of advancing the interests of atheists, humanists, freethinkers, and similar populations.

When asked What is your relationship to the organized secular movement? women outnumber men in selecting these responses:

  • 60%/40% - I'm a former participant who is currently inactive
  • 55%/45% - None - I'm vaguely aware it exists, but have never explored further


[Other responses indicating a lack of involvement are "None - first I've heard of it" and "I'm aware of organizations and events but have not participated."]

Regardless of gender, all uninvolved respondents are asked: What are your reasons for not being involved in the secular movement? Check as many as apply. Women outnumber men in these responses:

  • 70%/30% - Bad experience with group, person, or event
  • 100%/0% - Can't get over my conditioning that religion is good and secularism is bad
  • 67%/33% - Health issues
  • 65%/35% - Lack of childcare


Regardless of gender, all respondents who are or have been involved in the secular movement are asked: Have you ever felt unwelcome, discriminated against, or harmed in the secular movement? Women outnumber men 62%/34% in responding "Yes." It is worth noting that women do not outnumber men when asked the same question about religious organizations with which they've been associated. It appears they are less comfortable in secular groups than in the churches they left.

Regardless of gender, all those who responded "yes" to the question above are then asked: Which of these factors contributed to this experience? Check as many as apply. Women outnumber men in these responses:

  • 56%/44% - Programs or positions taken by the organization itself
  • 72%/25% - Words, attitudes, or actions of other participants


And women are the only respondents to select these answers:

  • 100%/0% - Unwanted advances by other participants
  • 100%/0% - Not sure - I can't put my finger on it

Strategies for promoting secularism

Respondents are asked: Which of these do you feel is the single most effective strategy for improving the perception of Secular Americans? The three most popular responses:

  • Flying above the radar more (loud and proud)
  • Educational advocacy promoting scientific literacy
  • Educational advocacy promoting knowledge about secularism and secular figures


One response shows a gender correlation: Women outnumber men 61%/39% in deeming "Educational advocacy promoting knowledge about secularism and secular figures" to be the most effective strategy for improving public perception of Secular Americans.

Respondents are asked: Which of these do you feel is the single least effective strategy for improving the perception of Secular Americans? The three top answers:

  • Criticizing religion
  • Flying under the radar more (quiet and stealthy)
  • Quietly demonstrating our values in our everyday lives


One of these responses correlated with gender: Women outnumber men 51%/48% in finding "Criticizing religion" to be the least effective strategy for improving public perception of Secular Americans.

Messages for promoting secularism

Respondents are asked: Which of these messages do you feel would be the most effective in improving public perception about Secular Americans? (Only one response is permitted.) The top three selections:

  • We are good people who deserve respect
  • We are just like everyone else
  • We are more numerous than you realize


The three least popular responses:

  • We are open to other ideas
  • Religion has a history of violence and abuse
  • We are compassionate


Most of these responses showed no gender correlation, but "Religion has a history of violence and abuse" was chosen exclusively by men. Though it deviates from the female-majority requirement we imposed on this analysis, we report it here because it contrasts with women's lack of enthusiasm, above, for "Criticizing religion" as an effective strategy for improving public perception of Secular Americans.

Accomplishments and weaknesses of the secular movement

Registrants are asked: In what area do you feel the secular movement has been the most effective? The three most selected responses:

  • Building community among secular individuals
  • Calling attention to and reducing discrimination and bias against secular individuals
  • Educating the public about secularism, its principles, its contributions, and its heroes


Registrants are also asked: In what area do you feel the secular movement has been the least effective? The three most selected responses:

  • Influencing politics, particularly where religion has exerted power
  • Improving society's opinion of, and knowledge about, the secular population
  • Not sure


Women did not dominate any of these responses.

Secular women and religious affiliation / identity

The American Secular Census offers the following definition before posing questions about religious affiliation, identity, and belief:

  1. Religious affiliation - A relationship, often membership or participation, in a specific religious organization or movement, such as a local church or congregation, a national religious organization, or even a more informal gathering like a meditation or prayer group. ("I am a member of ...")
  2. Religious identity - A category indicating one's cultural faith heritage, usually stemming from ethnic, familial, or long-standing personal tradition, regardless of belief and affiliation. ("I consider myself a ...")
  3. Religious belief - Acceptance of, or agreement with, a truth claim made by a particular faith group or, more generally, acceptance of the claim that there is a god. ("I believe that ...")


All American Secular Census registrants agree to terms and conditions that they are "skeptical of supernatural claims including without limitation those which concern gods, miracles, and other claims generally associated with religion." Still, some nontheists identify as members of a faith group and / or retain affiliations with religious congregations. We were curious whether any gender-related patterns might emerge in these areas.

As it turns out, women dominate in both. Women with a religious identity outnumber men with a religious identity 50%/46%. Women with a religious affiliation outnumber men with a religious affiliation 50%/48%.

[Overall, without regard to gender, professing a religious identity is about twice as popular as maintaining a religious affiliation.]

What's up with that, and how can we use it to attract more women to secularism?

If the Secular Census registry is representative of the secular population at large -- and we believe it is growing moreso each day -- it wouldn't be out of line to arrive at this conclusion about women and the secular movement: If you encounter an atheist who attends church, a humanist who finds religious criticism counterproductive, or an agnostic who yearns for more accessible education about secularism: chances are she's a woman.

Women are a minority group in most secular circles, leading to speculation that many others are "out there" unaware of the existence of an organized secular movement. If so, insights gained from the experiences of women already involved could inspire more minority-friendly organizations and lead to overall growth.

Secularists value their individuality and women are no exception. Stereotyping secular women or any other subgroup is probably impossible and unwise, but we do see some trends that may be useful in drawing more women into the organized secular movement.

Women seem to want groups that do more than criticize religion. They are attracted to positive messages and education. They'd like their groups to share their values and take positions that reflect those values. They'd like their interactions to be positive; they seem quite willing to abandon groups where they have had to deal with problem behavior, including unwanted advances. They could sometimes use some help with childcare. And while they are atheists (the most common identifier among both men and women), they are more likely than men to attend church or use a religious identity -- so groups where there is hostility or ridicule about religious participation are probably not going to feel welcoming to women.

Not every organization and certainly not every meeting can be tailored to any one subgroup of the secular community. Not every group even cares about attracting more women. For those that do, some thoughtful changes in strategy might yield startling results.

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