Christopher Hassall and Ian Bushfield answer questions about their study on atheist diversity

In preparing for an article on Canadian Atheist about a recently released study on diversity in the atheist movement, I contacted the authors and asked some questions relating to the study. Both Ian Bushfield and Dr. Christopher Hassall kindly replied to my request. Below I reproduce the entirety of the questions and answers, to make the context of all quotes clear, but I recommend reading the post about the study on Canadian Atheist.

  1. How would you (informally) characterize the diversity of the atheist population in general (bearing in mind that that’s not actually part of the focus of your article)? Would you say that it is a generally representative sample of the total population?

    This is a difficult question to answer, as there appear to be a large number of socio-economic correlates (not necessarily causes) of religiosity which are all tangled up together. These include factors such as education, socio-economic status, gender, race, and age. As a result of the complex network of interacting factors, and the correlation between those factors and particular social groups, I expect that the atheist community is not representative of the wider population. However, we do not know how unrepresentative.

    No, I don’t think the atheist community is representative. I think our data suggests it’s getting better, particularly among the public faces of the movement but there’s still a ways to go.

    On an anecdotal level, diversity varies greatly by the type of group and event I’ve been to. When I founded the UofA Atheists and Agnostics, it was majority male (though I wouldn’t say it was overwhelmingly so) and predominantly white. Of course, Edmonton is 65% white and the university could arguably be more so (because of the privilege of going to university), so it may have been close to representative. Other groups had different issues. Humanist groups were often mostly older and white but were closer to an equal gender divide. Skeptic groups would be younger but more male-dominant. In most of these cases, I don’t think our communities were representative of the wider population, even among the wider “non-religious” population. The 2013 BCHA secular values poll and 2011 National Household Surveys both give useful cross-tables on these questions.

  2. Would you say (again, informally) there is a difference in diversity between the “non-out” atheist population, and the “out” atheist population? If so, would the cause be the “lack of social support” you referred to?

    Again, it would not surprise me if the “out” atheist population was less representative than the larger “non-out” atheist population. It is generally thought that out atheists are a combination of those individuals with sufficient social capital to be able to persist as an island in a sea of believers, and those individuals who have found an alternative social support structure. Social capital tends to be associated with particular privileges: white, male, old, cis, etc. and so atheism becomes predominant in those social groups.

    Yes, I think it’s much easier to keep your atheism hidden, so if you deal with discrimination based on race, gender or other grounds, I can imagine it would be tempting to (sometimes) make life easier by not speaking up.

    You can see from the Global demographic data, the non-out atheist population is still majority male, but less so than the speaker distribution. I think there are also certain countries where more people are more likely to be identify as non-religious (eg China, Vietnam) but anecdotally they are still under represented in the North American atheist community. I agree with Chris that there are added costs to becoming an active atheist and I think there is also just a generational inertia – the “founders” were of a certain demographic and it takes time to shift these trends. I think the signs are positive though.

  3. Your study concludes that there is a demonstrable lack of diversity among atheist “leadership”. It also suggests the situation is improving. What are your opinions about the current state of atheist “leadership”? Do you think that the current inequalities are a serious problem, or merely an artifact of the past that is slowly becoming history?

    There is plenty of evidence that diversity in leadership is a positive force. This diversity provides role models for a range of groups, different perspectives on issues, and (in some cases) greater organisational efficiency. As a result I do think that the current lack of diversity in leadership may be a problem. The trouble comes with trying to quantify that problem. However, I do not think it is fair to blame the leaders for the situation. Much of the current leadership is made up of those privileged individuals who were at the forefront of contemporary atheism and many have made considerable progress in social issues and scientific skepticism from which we are reaping the benefits today. As society becomes more accepting and the “privilege bar” is lowered, the representation of other social groups will increase and attempts should be made to involve those newer groups in the hierarchy.
    I think there is a shift and that it’s a positive thing. One thing we didn’t look at, that I would be interested in following up on, is the current and historic make-up of the staff and boards of organisations like the British Humanists, American Atheists, CFI, Humanist Canada and others.
  4. Your study depends on comparing the atheist movement to academia, calling them “parallels”. What do you think makes the academic community and the atheist community so similar?


    Our study does not necessarily “depend” upon the comparison with academia. Rather, we see a useful body of literature and perspectives that have built up over the past few years around diversity in academia that can be a useful starting point for a discussion about atheist communities. Being an academic working in a scientific field, I am acutely aware of the problems that come with trying to enhance the representation of women in science and technology. I was struck, therefore, that precisely the same questions have been asked about representation in academia, and particularly academic conferences (you can see the references in the article), as had been asked of the atheist movement.

    The commonalities between academia and atheist stem from three key factors:

    1. Both academia and the atheist movement originated with a small number of middle/upper-class white men and are in the process of slowly becoming more diverse. This introduces the kind of “generational inertia” that means that lack of representation takes time to overcome.
    2. Second, those dominant individuals act as gatekeepers for the flow of ideas. This can most clearly be seen through the association of particular individuals (such as Richard Dawkins) with “New Atheism”. The rise of a more forthright form of non-belief has been championed by prominent members of the community and becomes a norm. Similar phenomena arise in academia, where leading researchers can steer entire fields of study through their influence on granting panels, peer review, and conferences.
    3. Finally, as in academia, meetings play a major role in the atheist community. If atheists can be said to have a church then that church is wherever intellectual discussion occurs: sometimes a pub, sometimes a community centre, and sometimes a 1500 seat conference auditorium. The sharing of ideas is a communal task, and there is prestige in providing a service to the community – even when the reward is nothing more than a pat on the back. Similarly, academics seek to promote their work to enhance impact.
    As Chris said, I think it’s a useful analogy from which we can put the discussion in a larger context. Many groups – gamers, academia, “geeks” – are having discussions about improving diversity at the moment, and I think this is a good thing.
  5. Attempts to diversify speakers have provoked enormous response from the atheist community at large – both supportive and not. What is your perspective on the response of the community to attempts to diversify its leadership.

    The discussion has been predictably polarised, as seems to be the way of the atheist community. I think that these kinds of differences of opinion (“deep rifts” in PZ Myers’ words) and the public forum within which they have been explored have been intellectually positive in the sense that a lot of people who have never thought about these topics have been exposed to new ideas. I know I have learned (and am learning) a lot from the ongoing debate. However, neither of the extremes has shown any interest in changing minds – only fighting their corner. One example is that some members of the community have perceived themselves as having been blamed for the current lack of representation, and there is good evidence that a back-lash can result from those kinds of sentiments and that back-lash then prevents conflict resolution. The main problem with the debate is that there have been no objective data on which to base arguments and, as a result, the discussion has become unwieldy in breadth and depth. I hope that our data can provide a stimulus to crystallise the debate that has gone on so far, and a platform from which to restart a more productive discussion.
    I think the response has been predictable – any challenge to the status quo or established authorities is going to provoke push back. Nevertheless, I think most of the discussion has been dominated by a small number of vocal commentators. It would be valuable to get a picture of what most “out” atheists think – my suspicion (based on data showing atheists are generally more progressive) is they would be broadly supportive of (at least limited) efforts to promote greater diversity.
  6. Although your study concludes that diversity is increasing, what is your opinion of the *quality* of that diversity? When I take a glance at your data, it seems that diversity is somewhat “ghettoized” – diversity is increasing but only where it already exists, at the expense of already less privileged groups. For example, considering race, the percentage of males who are non-white is only ~9%, while the percentage of females who are non-white is almost twice as much (~18%). And considering gender, the percentage of non-whites who are male is ~30%, but the percentage of non-whites who are female is ~46%. (I made a little table below to show what I mean.)

    M F
    W 757 319
    nW 79 68
    % males who are non-white = 79 / (757 + 79) = 9.4%
    % females who are non-white = 68 / (319 + 68) = 17.6%
    % white who are male = 757 / (757 + 319) = 70.4%
    % white who are female = 319 / (757 + 319) = 29.6%

    That seems to imply that the diversity is not as “diverse” as it would appear – white males are still securely dominant, and when diversity is “increased” it is done without touching that group; a convention looking to increase its diversity would sooner replace one white male with a non-white female than replace two white males with one non-white male and a white female… or, even less likely, replace three white males with a non-white male, a white female, and a non-white female. Do you agree with that observation? What is your opinion on what it means, or how (and if) it should be discussed and handled?

    That is an interesting and difficult point, and I agree with your evaluation – conferences can (mathematically, at least) gain in “diversity” by having a small number of very different speakers to complement a larger pool of white men. Obviously this is not ideal as relying on a small number of people to represent several (probably quite different) groups is unlikely to be successful, but a solution is unclear. We have seen through the evolving discussions about representation that there are an enormous number of constituencies from which the atheist community could potential draw speakers. Our article largely deals with “are you a white man or not?” which provides a very blunt measure of diversity. Clearly wrapped up in the “non-white” (a problematic term as it defines people by what they are not, I know, but hopefully readers understand why we use it despite its flaws) are a broad range of ethnicities, and we chose (for similar reasons) to adopt a binary gender variable despite the fact that there are openly trans speakers at some of the conferences. We have not even touched on the issues of ableness, sex, gender, or sexual orientation. I think the key factors in our consideration of the topic should be the removal of barriers to participation and active promotion of those individuals from different backgrounds when they do break through into the movement. I would like to think that adopting some of the approaches suggested in our article (for which there is growing empirical evidence of effectiveness) would provide a first step towards achieving this.
    There’s definitely still a lot more work to be done and a clear need for more data and evidenced-based approached. Nevertheless, this was a study done by two, young and relatively privileged white men. I’d say we should try to listen to the growing number of voices speaking out on these issues from different communities.

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Christopher Hassall and Ian Bushfield answer questions about their study on atheist diversity by Indi in the Wired is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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