A few nights ago, I was at a party for an atheist friend of mine. A contingent from the Hampton Roads Heathens (an atheist group from the Virginia Beach area) were going to be there as well as a few people from the Elizabeth City Freethinkers group, of which I am a member. I had been excited about this party for weeks-you see, my fiance and I recently moved to a tourist town where we know next to no one and this seemed like a great way to meet some like-minded people and maybe organize some other activities between the two groups. The party itself was loads of fun, and we met plenty of interesting characters, but shortly before we left there was an incident that left a bad taste in my mouth and made me do some thinking about feminism and the atheist movement.
A small group of us (me and four other men) were talking to the hostess's 15-year-old son about the theoretical possibility of laying down one's atheist beliefs for a girl. They were all more or less telling this kid that chances were good that he would meet a Christian girl and wind up losing, if not his atheism, then at least his conviction. That, according to this group of men, was what happened to everyone and it would happen to him. I chimed in and said that I was raised atheist, and neither I nor anybody I knew had ever had any such moments, and that the young man we were speaking to (or, at this point, about) was very smart and reasonable and I felt it was likely that he would be able to keep his head in spite of his hormones. At this point, one of the men turned to me, and in a very patronizing voice, said "honey, you just don't understand". This was followed later by calling me sweetie in the same tone of voice.
Not surprisingly, this situation has several parallels with the last time I experienced a moment of blatant, condescending, sexism at an atheist gathering. I was engaged in a discussion, once again with a group of men, about historical preservation (I am a trained archaeologist and am familiar with Section 106 and other laws pertaining to the subject). At one point, one of the men with whom I was arguing turned to my future fiance and said "she's talking again". Everyone was taken aback, and he wrote a long letter of apology to the group later that night.
These two experiences have given me a small insight into what it does and doesn't mean to be atheist. These days, the atheist and secular humanist movements are very closely tied, to the point that they are often indistinguishable. While the two philosophies do intersect within what has been dubbed the "New Atheism", one can easily be an atheist without any of the other humanistic philosophies. However, I don't believe that either of the men were so quick to use this sexist, condescending, language because they don't consider themselves to be humanist, but rather because racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry are ideas that are so deeply ingrained that people who are otherwise reasonable, and would otherwise speak out against this behaviour, still have not managed to completely purge them from their worldview. Most Americans, or Westerners in general (atheist or not) would probably deny having sexist views, but still, with a little bit of liquid courage and the confidence instilled by the sense of camaraderie brought on by being apart of the majority (in this case, being male) words can slip out. "Little" things, things that one doesn't really mean, things that are only used because they have become part of our language. This is the kind of thought process that allows reasonable people who consider themselves to be humanists to use this belittling and offensive language, forgetting that language is powerful, and that it is not just a tool we use to communicate, it can also control and influence how we think, and ultimately behave.
My initial reason for wanting to write this essay was anger. Ok, more than that. It was impotent rage. The kind that starts at the top of your stomach and sits in the back of your throat where you can almost taste it, knowing there is absolutely nothing you can do, at least at the moment. I was deeply offended by one small word, a word that is a term of endearment when used correctly. It is a word that a strange man at a party could never use in the proper sense to a woman he has never met. I am sure that he had no intention of offending me when he chose to use that word, which brings me to my ultimate conclusion. While we, as secular humanists, atheists, New Atheists, or whatever term you go by, may on one hand believe that we have progressed so far as to have eliminated racism and sexism from our personal philosophies, yet on the other hand use the terminology in exactly the way that is most hurtful and demeaning. If we are to be participating in a movement based on equality and celebration of diversity, we need to be more guarded in our use of language. Using sexist language, especially in the presence of a fifteen year-old boy, is unacceptable and inexcusable for anyone, but this group should be held to a higher standard than that. It is far more insulting and at the same time, far more surprising to hear such language casually tossed about by an atheist than by, for example, a Christian. Considering that atheists in general are a group that often feels persecuted by the religious majority, it seems only fitting that we should be more willing to check ourselves for prejudice, and more conscious of the meaning behind the words we use.