Year of Publication

2015

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

College

Arts and Sciences

Department

Sociology

First Advisor

Dr. Shaunna Scott

Abstract

This study focuses upon the experiences and perceptions of women Atheists in the Southern U.S., a region which is highly religious and, therefore, has comparatively low numbers of Atheists. Taking a Symbolic Interactionist approach, I examine how these Southern Atheists understood what it means to be an “Atheist,” how they became Atheist, their strategies to manage their stigmatized identity as Atheists, and finally the role gender has in managing this stigma. I utilize a Feminist methodology to investigate and foreground women’s experiences. I conducted participant observation at 23 Atheist and Humanist meetings in two southern cities in two different states; I also interviewed 51 Atheists, 40 female and 11 male.

I found a variety of definitions for Atheism, though all participants agreed that they do not believe in god. This identity is also informed by political ideologies and philosophies that cultivate pro-social behavior. Participants also discussed what they perceived to be the best things about what it means to be an Atheist.

I also examined the stages by which Atheists come to this identification especially as this relates to the importance of place and their experiences in educational, religious and family institutions and how these affected their decisions to self-identify as Atheist.

Additionally, I investigated how Atheists undergo stigma management (and negative interactions) by selectively concealing their identity, which they based on what they believed others assumed about Atheists. Many strategies were used to assuage feelings of being uncomfortable. As a stigmatized group, they discuss the importance of community and social support. In addition, Atheists saw several parallels between their experiences and the LGBT community such as similar language and face prejudice and discrimination, even though they said that the Atheists can more easily “pass.”

Atheist women manage their stigma by utilizing various tactics to avoid hurting the feelings of others. Female Atheists walk a fine line between being masculine and assertive when they identify as masculine and caring about the feelings of others. Participants also discussed the role gender plays in self-identifying as Atheist. Lastly, they explained that it is harder to be woman and an Atheist.

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