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

Sun, 12/14/2014 - 11:38

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