Why Aren’t There More Women in the Secular Community? An Interview with Kristen Kennedy

Last week, I discovered a story about Denver University’s Kristen Kennedy, a senior undergraduate double-majoring in International Studies and Sociology who has received grant money to work on a subject of interest to the humanist community. She agreed to speak with me about her work and her current findings.

Jessica Xiao: You are studying why fewer women than men identify as secular, and you’ve pinpointed that white men, specifically, make up a majority of the secular community. What interested you about studying nontheistic women and their participation in secular communities?

Kristen Kennedy: At the University of Denver, I was given the opportunity to study a topic of my choice in a sociology qualitative methods class. I’ve always been very interested in the sociology of religion. I grew up in a very religious, small town, although I was never very religious. I remember people cringing at the term “atheist,” and I began studying secular activism. Atheists are typically deemed the most untrusted community or group in America. As I was conducting research for this topic, I stumbled across some interesting statistics concerning the makeup of secular communities. There were significantly fewer women and minorities. I also found a few blogs online belonging to women secular activists, which struck my interest.

Xiao: What is the research question? What were your hypotheses?

Kennedy: My research question is: What are the possible explanations behind this white, male majority that makes up secular communities? Because there are multiple social situations that could impact the makeup of secular communities, I had many different hypotheses, but ultimately decided to test three major hypotheses.

First, I wanted to test if there was any correlation between masculinity and femininity and secularism. Gender identity is a very powerful social learning that people experience, which could have impacts on the secularism of an individual. We start learning gender the minute that we are born when we are placed on a blue or pink blanket. Religion usually encourages traditional gender identities. Men are encouraged to be strong, athletic, and providers. Women are often taught to be more passive and have domestic roles. To test this hypothesis, I asked interviewees how they identified themselves in terms of masculinity and femininity.

Second, I wanted to test if women were being socially excluded from the secular community. This was tested through observation of different secular events and witnessing how inviting the environment was to women. Were women participating equally in conversations? Were they returning to future events? Throughout the interviews, I also asked if women had felt included in the different secular events that they attended.

Finally, I was curious about how people felt about the small number of famous secular thinkers. I wanted to test if the media coverage of predominately masculine secular thinkers, such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, has an impact on who is drawn to secular communities. I tested this hypothesis in my interviews by asking how familiar individuals were with these famous secular thinkers and if they knew any equally famous female secular thinkers.

Xiao: How did you conduct your research?

Kennedy: I’ve conducted my research using a combination of ethnography and interviews. I’ve attended multiple secular events beginning in February this year. I’ve observed a secular community in my region and collected field notes. Throughout the month of July, with grant funding from the University of Denver, I have conducted fifteen interviews with both men and women who participate in this secular community.

Xiao: What were your main findings and the takeaways from these findings?

Kennedy: Although it’s relatively early to tell my exact main findings, I do remember some distinctive patterns from my hypotheses. None of the men that I interviewed identified themselves as very masculine. This seemed to fit with my first hypothesis. The degree of femininity a woman identified with did not seem to correlate with her secular views. This is expected, as other sociology studies have shown that threats to masculinity are more strongly discouraged in comparison to threats of femininity. Therefore, a lack of masculinity is more likely to correlate with other aspects of an individual’s life, such as religion or lack thereof.

There were varying degrees of social exclusion in the community that I studied. Secular communities have a much harder time, compared to churches, creating an inclusive environment for families. A few women identified this as a source of exclusion. Also, there were times when women felt excluded from different discussion groups and events. However, this community had set up a women’s group, which seemed to help with these situations. This group allowed women to discuss topics that they normally wouldn’t in a co-ed setting.

Finally, no member, male or female, could identify a prominent female secular thinker. However, it was unclear how much of an impact, if any, this had on the members of the community. Multiple members stated that they weren’t familiar with any prominent secular thinkers, male or female.

Xiao: What are your next steps in your research work?

Kennedy: Currently, my interviews are being transcribed. Therefore, my next steps will be to code the interview transcripts. I will be looking for different patterns present throughout the interviews.

Xiao: What is your own faith background?

Kennedy: I was raised Lutheran, but in high school most of my friends were Mormon. I was invited to multiple Mormon events such as dances and services. However, by the end of my senior year in high school, I had decided that I was an atheist.

Xiao: How can the secular community apply your findings to encourage women to be more active or to create and ensure a space for women?

Kennedy: The secular community needs to actively strive to create an inclusive environment for women. This exclusion is usually unintentional but can have an impact on who decides to join secular communities. The phenomenon that women experience in secular communities seems, at times, comparable to the situations women experience in STEM (science/technology/engineering/mathematics) careers. For example, women are more likely to be interrupted in discussion in masculine settings. The best way to combat these situations is to ask members of the secular community to be aware of the impact that gender can have on something as small as group discussions and language.

Secular communities should also strive to create an inclusive community for families. This can often be difficult with the resources available to secular communities. Religious communities often provide benefits, such as childcare, to families. If secular communities could provide similar benefits, then more women would at least have the option of leaving a highly beneficial religious community.

Finally, I would encourage secular communities to set up women’s events and groups. This provides women with a space to discuss topics that they routinely face that are often more difficult to discuss in a co-ed environment, especially one that is heavily male-dominated. For example, reproductive rights is a topic that women do not necessarily discuss in a masculine setting but often feel strongly about. This will ultimately boost the overall membership of women in secular communities. This has been very successful in attracting women in the secular community that I studied.

Xiao: Is there anything further you’d like to tell me about your research work or your life that we haven’t already explored?

Kennedy: Secular communities often do not have the financial resources or connection available that religious organizations have. This can make the solutions for inclusion more difficult. Secular communities would ideally be able to create a diverse community and strong networks in order to gain influence, just like a religion. This would require more community outreach, volunteer work, and diverse events.