Diversity in the atheist/skeptic communities: An evidence-based approach

The mainstream media has picked up that within the atheist community, there’s been a growing discussion about a perceived lack of diversity among the people viewed as leaders of this movement. I’m not going to rehash the entire discussion (Ashley Miller’s 2013 article "The Non-Religious Patriarchy: Why Losing Religion HAS NOT Meant Losing White Male Dominance" provides a good starting basis) but much of it has focussed on (the important) discussions of why and how the movement should build diversity, with not as much being said about whether things are actually changing.

In the spirit of Sense About Science’s Ask For Evidence campaign (though unaffiliated in any way), Chris Hassall asked me while I was living in Leeds if I could help him research trends in diversity among the leadership of the skeptic/atheist community. It’s a question he’s been thinking about for a couple years (at least) and one I was eager to help answer (particularly being unemployed at the time).

Using as much data as I could find from Google and getting in touch with organisers, we compiled a list of 630 people who have spoken at almost 50 different conferences over the past decade. We made our best estimates of age, sex, education, and ethnicity and were able to show that diversity has increased over the study period.

Once the work was done, we submitted to the journal Secularism & Nonreligion and after some edits from the reviewers, we’re published. It’s an open source journal and our data is available through figshare for those who have novel ideas on how to reuse our work.

What did we find?

Compared to the global gender-balance of the non-religious community, significantly more of the speakers are men and more of the slots available to speak at have gone to men.

Diversity among the speakers has increased

Why is this important?

There’s been a dearth of evidence in the discussions about diversity in the atheist community. Most focuses either on personal anecdotes or specific events/people and their actions or commentary. These discussions are clearly important – personal stories tell us that sexual harassment has happened at atheist and skeptic conferences and those making sexist comments should be challenged. But to make our efforts to change things – particularly at the systematic level – we need to mirror the successes of the evidence-based medicine movement (and by extension the more recent science-based medicine movement). This should seem obvious to a community that prides itself on using reason and evidence to guide its worldview, yet such a discussion has been slow to come.

Similar thinking motivated the BC Humanists to commission a poll into the state of the broader non-religious public in BC in 2013 and I suspect it also motivated American Secular Census and the Atheist Census projects.

We hope that this paper starts a discussion on how to better use evidence in our efforts to improve the community. While the trendline is positive, there is still work to be done.

I’m hoping to follow up this work with a talk I can give at Skeptics in the Pub (or elsewhere) and possibly future investigations. I’m also happy to answer any further questions about this work. Send me an email ian@bushfield.ca or leave a comment below (or on the paper itself).

Sidebar: The sad ironies

I fully recognise the irony of a sociological paper being published by a PhD in Biology and a MSc in Physics. I also realise that this is a discussion about diversity coming from two white men. Nevertheless, I hope it still proves a valuable contribution to the broader discussion and I encourage everyone to listen to people from different backgrounds with different perspectives. Comments are welcome on the paper itself and both Chris and I are eager to discuss this work further.

Reference: Hassall, C and Bushfield, I 2014. Increasing Diversity in Emerging Non-religious Communities.Secularism and Nonreligion 3:7, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/snr.as


16 thoughts on “Diversity in the atheist/skeptic communities: An evidence-based approach”

  1. Could it be that most of the speakers about atheism are white males because most of the speakers about anything are white males?

    1. That’s a really good point, but I think it’s not the case considering audience attendance is also skewed (well, as far as I know, it is)

  2. I wonder how much of this “forward toward diversity” movement is projection. No one cares about the shape and shade of a person’s genitals as much as the people trying to balance the representation. If only they would focus as much of their efforts on merit as a reason for representation…

    1. The fact that you presume ‘diversity’ equates to ‘lack of merit’ is precisely why this problem persists. The whole basis of the complaint is that factors other than merit have been used to exclude non-white males for decades (centuries, even). All anyone’s asking for is that an active, positive effort be made to reverse that bad old habit, and allow previously hidden merit a chance to thrive.

      1. Who, exactly, is holding back non-white males from writing in the manner of the brilliant Dawkins, or speaking in the manner of the brilliant Hitchens?

        You can’t just make some lame graph and claim it proves anything, other than you can make a graph. The populations in question have historically suffered from terrible education (both in substance and opportunity) and partly as a result of that shown limited interest in science/secular fields and issues, so that is why there is limited participation.

        Tyson gets invited to plenty of panels. But, there are few Tysons.

        1. And if you talk to Tyson, he’ll tell you that the sciences are underpopulated and underrepresented among women and people of color.

          Don’t take my word for it:

          “Before we start talking about genetic differences, you got to come up with a system that is equal opportunity. Then we can have that conversation.”

        2. While I definitely agree when you say “Who, exactly, is holding back non-white males from writing […] or speaking […]?” They did address that there is a large difference between the people attending and the people speaking.

          However, I am interested in seeing how people respond to this, because lately whenever information such as this arises as of late, there is a tendency toward pointing fingers at society as whole and it is sometimes used as kindling for social justice rage. I do not think there is any force restricting women or minorities, but I think they feel a lack of encouragement. Which should change–women and minorities should be encouraged more. I hope this information goes to that side of the debate, rather than the male-privilege, white-guilt side.

          This is very interesting, especially because a common complaint directed at religious organizations is that they always seem disinterested in including women/minorities, and not one I have ever heard as a critique against atheists.

  3. There’s a lot more to this issue than diversity. First, it would be helpful to know how many non-white, non-male speakers have been available or asked to be a speaker. To assume prejudice, which is the assumption in a discussion about diversity, one has to provide some evidence that people are being left out. If the diversity is not yet available, why should a push be needed to artificially produce it? That seems counter-productive.

    Next, why are we spending so much time worrying about physical characteristics of the speakers? Genitals and skin colour do not affect ability and should stop being a focus. Anything to keep us infighting, I suppose.

    Lastly, every group is made up of many individuals. If the only thing we’re being accused of is having a few rude men and not enough non-white, non-men, then I think we’re doing alright. No group is devoid is bad people, and we should not be defined by ours.

    1. Your first paragraph is gold.. Besides, for me Tyson is #1. Not because he’s black, or a man.. but because he is intelligent and articulate, and makes the discussion fun.

  4. This “evidence” based approach is missing a huge piece of evidence that negates the entire approach. There is a assumption here –that there is a “global gender-balance of the non-religious community”. No evidence for this, although the population is so broadly based that it could be accurate. Second, the subject group is actually the atheist/skeptic community, which is a small subset of that population. Again no data. My own personal experience in attendees has been that it is male dominated, but I certainly could be wrong. Without accurate data on the ratios of male/female in the overall population, this comparison breaks down. There certainly are many demographic problem with the atheist movement, like bringing in more women and minorities. There are also other factors that would reduce the number of women speakers in a science based forum, where women again are in the minority in many fields of science, biology being an exception.

    1. This supposition makes no sense whatsoever: “There is a assumption here –that there is a “global gender-balance of the non-religious community”. No evidence for this, although the population is so broadly based that it could be accurate.” This is not an assumption. Gender-balance is a ratio of the genders of the members of a group. You cannot have a population that does not have a gender balance (though one can certainly decline to list it). Some examples (which may not be completely accurate, but serve to illustrate my point): Gender-balance of traditional students in United Statian public universities: roughly 43.6 male to 56.4 female (sample size: 13 956 614). Gender-balance of my work-site: 85.7 male to 14.3 female (sample size: 42). Gender-balance of my office: 100 male to 0 female (sample size: 1).

      So i have no idea why you suggest that the assumption that there is a gender-balance in the studied population is somehow bad, since there is no way to not have one.

      If you were going to make “assumptions are bad” supposition, lead with the assumption that there are only two genders, instead of that there are genders.

      1. I stand corrected Muad’Dib :-). What I think I should have said was “global gender-balance is assumed to be 50.0 male to 50.0 female of the non-religious community.” A similar assumption also occurs for the populations of the subgroup “atheist/skeptic community” and in the population of the “pool of available speakers for atheist skeptic subject area”. Is that better?

        1. Tom, did you even read our paper or even look at the graph I posted? We very clearly don’t assume a 50:50 gender split and went to effort to find a reasonable number based on international census data. Globally, about 42% of those who identify as non-religious are women to about 58% men. Even taking this into account, we still find significantly fewer women have either spoken or taken up speaking slots at the conferences analysed.

          1. But that is not the whole story. Anyone paying attention over the last few years has seen the impact of “diversity”. The SJWs whose main interest is not atheism have been trying to grab the rudder of the movement and remake it in their image going so far as character assassination of anyone who isn’t on board. Maybe the reason so few women have be invovled is because activist women tend to put their efforts into feminist causes, instead of purely atheist ones. Every one has limited time. And those with a clearer focus on atheism are bound to have a bigger influence in that community. The SJW distraction shows pretty clearly that they have different priorities. No real surprise.

  5. I find that even among Christian presenter, there has been a lack of diversity in the creation vrs. evolution debate. So many of the presenters are all saying the same thing. It is nice to see that the trend in diversity in leadership of atheist and skeptic community. It keeps us on our toes. May the best view win in the end.

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