Melanie Brewster on the Lazy Assumptions about Women and Atheism

September 23, 2016

Melanie Brewster, an assistant professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, clearly needs to be featured at more conferences, and what a great choice she was to present first at Women in Secularism. She come armed with loads of facts and data, but engages with the audience in a very personable way, using humor and candor to make her subject feel very accessible and understandable.

Case in point, the way she introduced her topic: why there aren’t more women in atheism? Before delivering any of her own information, Brewster instructed the attendees to turn to each other and take a few minutes to chew on the question themselves. After a bit, she had them shout their thoughts back to her.

She then examined the question from the other direction: Why are women more associated with religion than men? And as she pointed out, those differences are not what they seem.

She cited many older studies that asserted some kind of biological or psychological traits of women that prime them for religious belief, but then revealed that these studies were done with no actual examination of the biological components, and often they came from sociologists working from explicitly religious universities such as Baylor, Brigham Young, and Holy Cross.

But these dusty studies still serve as the foundation for popular understanding of these perceived differences, even among seculars, and she cautioned us to bring our own prized critical thinking to this question. “It’s lazy,” she said, for our own community to glom on to these incomplete studies, and we can do better.

Also incredibly important, Brewster noted that the media only presents an extremely narrow view of atheist thinkers and leaders, almost all male, and the vast majority are white. “We need to start asking people in power to start forcing representation in the media,” she said, asserting that those who have that kind of leverage should insist that women and people of color get the air time they might have gotten themselves.

She also had some fascinating insights into nonreligious women, or women who are “nones,” and why surveys show them to be more inclined toward religious practice than nones who are men. Take prayer, for example, where she suspects women “can feel it,” the more meditative components of prayer, “but not necessarily buy it” as an actual communication with the Great Beyond. And in talking about her own mom, who despite her own atheism still must have it as part of her life as she cares for her own religious mother (Brewster’s grandmother).

But, Brewster tells us, if her mom were of a younger generation, “She would probably be a troll.” Good to know.