Atheism, women and history

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Portrait of Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach (1723 - 1789) was an early advocate of atheism in Europe.

In the 1770s, the French philosopher Paul-Henri Thiry observed a dearth of female atheists.[1] The English poet Edward Young (June 5, 1681 – April 5, 1765) wrote to satirically signal earthly apocalypse: "Atheists have been rare, since nature’s birth; Till now, she-atheists ne’er appear’d on earth."[1] In a letter written in the 1760s, the English essayist Bonnell Thornton wrote: "Good God! A Female Atheist! … One is not half so shocked at the idea of a Female Murderer; A Female Murderer, in the worse of senses, of her own children, of herself."[1] In 1813, the prominent doctor Thomas Cogan (founder of the Royal Humane Society) declared: "Men contemplate a female atheist with more disgust and horror than if she possessed the hardest features embossed with carbuncles."[1]

Professor of Humanities Leigh Eric Schmidt said about women atheists in the 19th century:

In the 19th century, there are more women in the church than men. So there is an association with churches and pious femininity and domesticity. Freethinkers see women as supporters of the church, and supporters of evangelical Protestant politics, whether it’s temperance or other moral-reform causes, so there’s an alienation that arises there. They’re fearful that if women have the right to vote, they’ll vote for Christian-inflected politics. They’re afraid: What’s this going to do? Is this really going to advance the cause of reason, the cause of science, if we give women the right to vote?...

Because there was such an ideal of pious femininity—women are supposed to be pious, women are supposed to go to church—there was greater horror associated with a woman being an atheist than with a man being an atheist. Male atheists are bad. Women atheists are genuinely considered monsters.[2]

Christianity Today wrote about the American atheist Elmina Drake Slenker in an article entitled A Portrait of America’s First Atheists:

When a village did manage to raise an atheist, it was almost always a boy. In his lively, informative study, Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation (Princeton University Press), historian Leigh Eric Schmidt includes a chapter on Elmina Drake Slenker, a 19th-century woman from Upstate New York. Many readers today disapprove of books solely about men, but organized atheism hasn’t always been terribly concerned with gender parity. Slenker confessed that every place she went, she was the first woman atheist anyone there had ever seen. When the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism (4As) surveyed its membership in 1930, it was 93 percent male.[3]

The atheist sociologist Phil Zuckerman wrote about Slenker:

The final profile is that of Elmina Drake Slenker, an ex-Quaker who wrote novels as well as short, didactic stories for children about Darwinian naturalism, rationalism, and other secularist topics. Slenker came out publicly as an atheist in 1856 by publishing a letter in the Boston Investigator in defense of the infamous infidel Ernestine Rose. Such declarations of unbelief were scandalous for any individual at the time, but especially for women. As Schmidt documents, “Being a village atheist invited cold shoulders; being a female village atheist doubly so.” Condemnation of Slenker was swift, not only by friends and relatives, but also by public voices, newspapers editors, and writers such as the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who wrote that “the most repellent object on earth is a woman infidel. She is as unnatural as a flower which breathes poison instead of perfume.” What ultimately brought Slenker into national prominence was her prosecution by Anthony Comstock’s anti-vice crusade. Her crime? Writing leaflets and personal letters to various people about human sexuality, marital relations, birth control, and bestiality. She was put on trial, and it only took the jury 10 minutes to find her guilty.[4]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Engelhart, Katie (July 21, 2013). "From Hitchens to Dawkins: Where are the women of New Atheism?" Salon.
  2. ‘Women Atheists Are Genuinely Considered Monsters’ by Emma Green, The Atlantic
  3. A Portrait of America’s First Atheists by Timothy Larsen, Christianity Today, August 22, 2016
  4. The Church of the Churchless by Phil Zuckerman, Los Angeles Review of Books, March 19, 2017