Danielle Schacter never thought she would become an un-Christian. "I slowly became more and more disgusted by the way I saw people treating others," says the 32-year-old, who was raised Baptist. "I didn't want to be associated with a religion that preached so much hate."
Danielle Schacter, who identifies as agnostic, is one of a growing number of people who identify with no religion. Photo courtesy of Danielle Schacter.
Schacter, like so many millennials, has chosen a secular life, and she's not alone: according to the Pew Research Center, only four in 10 millennials say that religion is very important to them, compared with six in 10 Baby Boomers.
The numbers of religiously unaffiliated support this, too: 23 percent of the population identifies with no religion. This number is up from 2007, when it was only 16 percent. Of older millennials, 35 percent are religiously unaffiliated — and they're driving the overall growth of the nonreligiously affiliated in America.
"I didn't want to be associated with a religion that preached so much hate."
This is a big deal. To be religiously unaffiliated means you not only avoid identifying as a Christian or Jew or Muslim, but that you eschew organized faith altogether. From there, "nonreligious" can be broken down into four categories: secularism (the belief in separation of church and state and that all beliefs are equal), agnosticism (the belief that it's impossible to know if there is a god), humanism (the idea that human reason drives us, not higher powers), and atheism (the belief that there is no god). This last group, the atheists, has become increasingly vocal in recent years. They are fighting to keep religion separated from laws that affect them and to shift society away from religious trappings.
Kayley Whalen, a queer transgender Latinx woman who identifies as "a humanist and an existentialist and an atheist." Photo courtesy of Kayley Whalen.
What's fascinating is that while millennials are moving away from religion, they are moving toward spirituality. This demographic considers itself just as spiritual as older demographics, even as they represent an exodus out of organized religion and into the throes of secularism. When you consider the issues facing young people today, the reasons for the exodus are easy to understand. In rejecting religion, millennials are asserting their progressive attitudes and passion for social justice. They're committed to the idea that they don't need religion to know the difference between right and wrong.
Perhaps no one represents this cultural shift better than millennial atheist women. While they may sit at the most extreme side of the nonreligious spectrum, atheist women are fueled by the same concerns plaguing millennials in general: a quest for independence and a rejection of the status quo.
The Atheism and Feminism Connection
Lauryn Seering, 27, has never been religious, but she found atheism in high school in reaction to mainstream fundamentalist Christian ideas that condemn her lesbian mother. "Millennial women want autonomy over their own bodies," says Seering, communications coordinator for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is dedicated to protecting the separation of church and state.
"They recognize that all the arguments against this autonomy (contraception, birth control, marriage) are religiously fueled," Seering continued. "Women aren't being pressured by society anymore to get married at a young age, have children right away, and tend house while their husbands work."
Lauryn Seering, an atheist who works for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Photo courtesy of Lauryn Seering.
Schacter identifies as agnostic. She's based in Kansas City, MO, where she founded a digital marketing agency called Boxer & Mutt. To her, growing secularism is a sign of independent women. "It's becoming more socially acceptable for women to think for themselves and really question why things are the way they are rather than blindly accepting them," she says.
Kayley Whalen, 31, is a queer transgender Latinx woman who identifies as "a humanist and an existentialist and an atheist." These different identities certainly influence how she approaches the world. "We have ethical values without the need for the supernatural," Whalen says. "We believe in social justice, that we can live a life with meaning, purpose, and dedication to social justice without the need for supernatural guidance." Unsurprisingly, Whalen's beliefs are tied up in her activist work: she's the digital strategy and social media manager for the National LGBT Task Force and is on the board of directors for both the Secular Student Alliance and the Trans United Fund.
As Whalen epitomizes, many young women who do not believe in God share a point of view that goes beyond just being atheist or just being a woman. The two are intertwined identities oppressed similarly in the United States.
"We have ethical values without the need for the supernatural."
Lee Blackwolf, who runs the popular Facebook page Black Atheists, constantly copes with this intersection. "It's important to me because, as a black bisexual woman, there's not many of us who are atheist," explains Blackwolf, a 29-year-old stay-at-home mother in Twinsburg, OH. "We're not welcomed in most spaces that are atheists. We already have a lot of hurdles to jump through in life so it takes a lot of strength. I lost an entire family because of it. I actually have the luxury to say that I'm better off without them. It's not the same for most."
Blackwolf's concerns hint at societal assumptions about atheist women, which every woman we spoke with touched on: being a woman who isn't religious breaks away from the social norms that frame femininity. Emily Greene, an artist and activist working in promotional marketing in Augusta, summed it up best. "You're probably seen as less feminine," the 32-year-old said. "You're definitely judged, looked at more harshly. It's an assumption that it's a negative thing."
Ironically, being atheist can mirror being religious, as it plays a role in many aspects of young life. "That was very important to me in choosing a partner," says Katherine, a 32-year-old HR manager in California. "I have gotten into some debate with friends before where they're like, 'If you're an atheist, why do you care if the other person is of faith?' I'm like, 'You — as, say, a Christian person — would not want to marry a non-Christian person."
Why Are Young Women Interested in Atheism?
Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, believes that young people are turning away from religion as a result of how closed-minded and conservative many congregations can be, particularly when they are responsible for enabling xenophobic and queerphobic mindsets. For instance, many churches reject the idea of same-sex marriage, while 71 percent of millennials support it (in comparison with only 46 percent of Baby Boomers).
"A lot of young people are being turned off of by that brand of Christianity," he explains. "They're just seeing religion as an institution and saying, 'Ah, screw it.' Even though that brand of Christianity is not the majority — most Christians are decent, kind people who aren't anti-gay and aren't racist and aren't anti-Islamic. But they don't make the headlines. They're not dominating the news."
Emily Greene, an artist, activist, and atheist. Photo courtesy of Emily Greene.
The internet is also serving as a conduit for less religion. As technology occupies more of our time, says Zuckerman, it chips away at "religion's ability to maintain a monopoly on truth . . . It's really corroding religion's ability to dominate our culture and dominate people's lives."
While there have always been religious skeptics — the farthest back is believed to be the Charvaka movement in 7th century BC — the present shift away from religion is notable because the numbers of religiously unaffiliated and atheists are way up. Although the movement is still predominately male and white, more women are stepping forward as religion reveals itself to be optional in their lives — and sometimes to stand in the way of their independence.
Zuckerman believes this has to do with traditional organized religions' male-centrism: teaching women that they're second class, must remain virginal, and must stay out of leadership positions. Pair this with the amount of women in the workplace rivaling men, and the group doesn't need to turn to a church for social or financial support that churches typically offer.
Being an Atheist Is a Political Act
Molly Hanson grew up in a Catholic household but has always been skeptical of the "invisible man in the sky" who tells people what to do. The 23-year-old Hanson, like many atheists, finds that questioning faith and religion makes people wonder if something is wrong with her womanness.
"If a woman doesn't bow down to this god and lord, she must have an issue with that god or lord," says Hanson, an editorial assistant at the Freedom For Religion Foundation. "She must have been damaged. There's a reason why she decided to leave that god. She might have been morally corrupted by another man or might have — I don't know — been wronged."
This issue isn't confined to religious communities. One woman — a 30-year-old Indian American writer in New York who declined to give her name — finds this flaw in atheist leaders, too.
"The movement itself is really alienating toward women," she says. "Leaders like Richard Dawkins are pretty sexist and condescending and talk down to women. Women have been left out in those major discussions of atheism."
The nonreligious believe that, once the church is taken out of the state, equality can be achieved.
Whalen agrees: "It's really difficult that one person like a Richard Dawkins or a Bill Maher can be seen as the face of atheism. The difference between a woman who is an atheist, and a male, cisgender atheist is that a woman doesn't have the choice to be a single issue. She can't say, 'Oh, religious discrimination is the most important thing — and being a woman comes second.'"
For women who are atheists, discrimination is complicated further by the many ways their identities intersect. Gender as it relates to religious affiliation is complex, and it's even more complicated as it relates to black female atheists, as Blackwolf can attest. "A lot of black atheist men are often heard saying, 'Black women sure do love them some church!'" she says. "When we start having a discussion, there are implications about where my place in the community should be, and that's behind the man."
Atheist Women Want a Future of Equality
In speaking with young atheist and secular women, some through lines appear, among them a hope for equality that could be stymied by religion's grasp on society. There is a desire to normalize differing points of view, from LGBTQ people to atheists.
Katherine sees public events like the inauguration of President Donald Trump as a perfect example. "I was really struck by so much praying happening," she says. "I'd like to see us move kind of away from that and use logic and science and that holistic definition of freedom."
The nonreligious believe that, once the church is taken out of the state, equality can be achieved. Hanson believes these roadblocks arise as the result of unequal representation. "Women understand what it's like to be oppressed by laws that are rooted in religious ideas that oppress women and their sexuality," she explains. "To get more women in government positions is going to be a challenge, especially right now."
When women hold elected office, it inspires more women to run — and more women in government has a powerful trickle-down effect on women as a whole.
But what if these women leaders were atheists? Would they still succeed?
Surveys have shown that atheism is one of the traits in a leader that Americans are most biased against. "I cannot imagine a president who identifies as an atheist," says the Indian-American writer in New York. "I'm a woman and a person of color: a female person of color who is an atheist could never be the president of the United States. It feels like another barrier."
Others, like Whalen, see these many layers as vital to change: "I want a woman politician to run and say that she's an atheist and that she's for reproductive justice, that she's for transgender rights, and win. I want a transgender woman to be able to do that."
Ultimately, for atheist women (and atheists in general) to succeed at changing society, they need to continue on the path they are on and not settle for being silenced. Zuckerman draws parallels to the LGBT community. "Coming out does have an effect," he says. "More and more people feeling comfortable saying 'I'm not that religious' has an effect." Atheists just want to be seen as starting from the same place as any other decent American.
Greene sums it up nicely: "We want to get up, go to work, and enjoy our friends and families and our lifestyles just the same way as the person who gets up on Sunday and goes to church. We have our own ways of self-care. A lot of people find religion and that's how they take care of themselves — and that's great. We just do things a different way and that's OK."