Another week, another atheist demands we call his sexism not-sexism. (This time, Sam Harris.)
[Image via Steve Jurvetson, Creative Commons licensed]

Another week, another dudely atheist whose supposed rationalism can't seem to stop him from engaging in emotion-driven temper tantrums because those mean ladies insist you actually apply the same rational lens to sexism as you do religion. This week's contestant is Sam Harris, who was criticized for suggesting that it's women's biological inferiority to men that drives women out of the atheist movement and not, say, the widespread acceptance of sexism that makes women feel unwelcome.


“I think it may have to do with my personal slant as an author, being very critical of bad ideas. This can sound very angry to people..People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree instrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women,” he said. “The atheist variable just has this – it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”

His theory that men are inherently better at being able to take rough-and-tumble criticism and women are inherently reluctant to participate in such a thing was immediately put to the test, as his comments received quite a bit of rough-and-tumble criticism from women who, defying their estrogenic destinies, told him where to shove his gender essentialist ideas. He, in turn, defied his testosteronic heritage by getting his fee-fees hurt. Perhaps it is not true that the "critical posture" is inherently masculine? Could it be possible that the swift hurt of male feelings suggests that women's "nurturing" stance is a socialized reaction to men's inability to take criticism of their ideas, particularly from women?

Is it possible that men and women are possibly more alike than Harris's worldview has allowed? 

Nah, he can't be wrong. He's Sam Harris! And so he's going to drown us in words to show how mean we are to criticize him about his suggestion that being female makes us less critical and ugh, getting a headache now. Let's just get into it. His response is titled, "I'm Not the Sexist Pig You're Looking For". Indeed, as his comments showed, we don't have to go looking for sexist pigs, as they happen to fall right in our laps. I would like, in fact, for sexist pigs to quit falling in my lap, honestly. But here we are and so I'm going to at least have some fun with it.

He starts with saying the "estrogen vibe" thing was a joke. Okay, but that doesn't change the fact that he suggested being good at the "critical posture" is inherently male, something you'd think that he would have learned is completely false in the days after this quote. Then this:

And when I shifted to speaking about atheists as a group, I was referring to active atheists—that is, the sort of people who go to atheist conferences, read atheist books, watch atheists debate pastors on YouTube, or otherwise rally around atheism as a political identity. I was not talking about everyone on Earth who doesn’t believe in God.

Yep, a lot more male than female atheists are active about it. This should be considered evidence not that women are less critical---they are just as likely to come to the conclusion that there is no god as men---but that there's....something....unappealing about organized atheism. Perhaps the swiftness to which women are treated like biologically inferior helpmeets might have something to do with it?

My work is often perceived (I believe unfairly) as unpleasantly critical, angry, divisive, etc. The work of other vocal atheists (male and female) has a similar reputation. I believe that in general,men are more attracted to this style of communication than women are. Which is not to say there aren’t millions of acerbic women out there, and many for whom Hitchens at his most cutting was a favorite source of entertainment. But just as we can say that men are generally taller than women, without denying that some women are taller than most men, there are psychological differences between men and women which, considered in the aggregate, might explain why “angry atheism” attracts more of the former. Some of these differences are innate; some are surely the product of culture. Nothing in my remarks was meant to suggest that women can’t think as critically as men or that they are more likely to be taken in by bad ideas. Again, I was talking about a fondness for a perceived style of religion bashing with which I and other vocal atheists are often associated.

Again, the acerbic tone that offends him so greatly that he goes into italics-bonanza mode should suggest perhaps that he is not as masculine and tough and women are not as soft and receding as he thinks. On average, even. Also, the reason a lot of women hated Hitchens is Hitchens thought we were inferior by dint of biology. I find that offensive whether you say it gently or say it acerbically. It's the content, not the tone. Or, as the calm, rational manly man Harris would write, it's the content, not the tone.

I believe that a less “angry,” more “nurturing” style of discourse might attract more women to the cause of atheism.

He gave this its own paragraph. Because every rational person knows that saying things repeatedly makes them more true.

However, I haven’t spent even five minutes thinking about how or whether to modify my writing or speaking style so as to accomplish this.

I want to be offended that Sam Harris admits he cannot be bothered to think about women beyond just dismissing us outright, but honestly, all I ever think about him is dismissive, so I guess we're even? At least I have reasons for my dismissive attitude.

He then has some weird, digressive dialogue with a woman he claims to have met at a book signing and he likes to imagine he triumphantly pwned, because fantasies about pwning bitches is the best way to disprove accusations you're a sexist pig. A sample:

She: Okay, let’s forget what you said about Sarah Palin. What you said about women in the atheist community was totally denigrating to women and irresponsible. Women can think just as critically as men. And men can be just as nurturing as women.

Me: Of course they can! But if you think there are no differences, in the aggregate, between people who have Y chromosomes and people who don’t; if you think testosterone has no psychological effects on human minds in general; if you think we can’t say anything about the differences between two bell curves that describe whole populations of men and women, whether these differences come from biology or from culture, we’re not going to get very far in this conversation.

I'm not saying all women are inferior at thinking! Just, you know, on average. (Where he believes he stands in relation to women as a group is both obvious and obviously untrue. Which kind of irony is that? Is it dramatic irony, since he wrote us a play?) He rides this train for awhile, holding out the fact that he has more male followers than female followers as further evidence of male, um, difference. (That's a code word for "intellectual superiority".) The possibility that one doesn't like having their feed to pop up condescending bullshit from sexists is not entertained. And then this delightful bit of dialogue:

Me: Listen, I was raised by a single mother. I have two daughters. Most of my editors have been women, and my first, last, and best editor is always my wife. If you really want to know the truth about me, I tend to respect women more than men.

How dare you suggest he has a problem with women?! Women have served him well his whole life. As a servant class, they are top-fucking-notch. Except when they argue with you and ruffle your theory that they, are as a class, meant more for the nurturing work while men do all that thinky-arguing stuff. Then they are caricatures in your Socratic dialogues.

I knew that this honest (and admittedly desperate) confession could be cynically viewed as a version of the “Some of my best friends are black!” defense.

To be fair, it's closer to the "I tip my staff well!" defense.

However, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the mixture of contempt and pity my words elicited from this young woman. Her expression of disdain for me couldn’t have been any more intense had I said, “Listen, honey. I go to strip clubs every week. I love women—especially when they’re covered in oil.”

To be fair, guys who are open about their misogyny are actually less aggravating than men who allow that some women might be as smart as men---but we're certainly not equal, no sirree---and then want a fucking cookie for it.

I am well aware that sexism and misogyny are problems in our society. However, they are not the only factors that explain differences in social status between men and women.

It's only like half sexism and half that women just aren't good enough.

For instance, only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. How much of this is the result of sexism? How much is due to the disproportionate (and heroic) sacrifices women make in their 20’s or 30’s to have families?

Certainly, the expectation that women give up their careers so men don't have to is not even remotely sexist. It's like heroic and stuff. You're like Superman, and you may even get the benefit of having your husband cite his appreciation of your lifetime of service as evidence he is not sexist as your reward.

How much is explained by normally distributed psychological differences between the sexes? I have no idea, but I am confident that each of these factors plays a role. Anyone who thinks disparities of this kind must be entirely a product of sexism hasn’t thought about these issues very deeply.

It might be 50% that women are inferior. It might only 25%. Have you considered that it's 95% that women are inferior? All I'm saying it it cannot all be sexism. Because reasons. By the way, have I told you I don't think there's a god?

As readers of my blog will know, I often write about violence, self-defense, guns, and related matters—much to the bewilderment of my fellow liberals.

Despite being a liberal, when it comes to gendered issues like feeling manly when I think about violence, I turn into a frothing reactionary. This should be evidence of something, but certainly not that I have massive hang-ups about gender.

As it happens, I tend to look at the ethics of force from a woman’s point of view. Violence is different for women than it is for men. Unlike men, they don’t tend to get into fistfights with strangers after an escalating series of insults. It is far more common for a woman to be attacked, physically controlled, and sexually assaulted by a man. Outside the walls of a prison, adult males almost never have to think about getting raped. For most women, rape is a very real, lifelong concern. Women also suffer from domestic violence in ways that men rarely do. Most of these differences can be explained by general disparities in size, strength, and aggressiveness between the sexes.

And this is really where this kind of reflexive gender essentialism stops being cute and starts being a real problem. Because if you believe, as Harris clearly does, that gendered violence is inborn and, as he says, "millions of years of evolution" (both in terms of men committing it and women being wary of it), then you've laid the groundwork for saying nothing can be done. It's just "human nature" and therefore the only thing is for women to accept it and just hope that supposedly instinctual ability to suss out bad guys kicks in when necessary. (That this also blames women who aren't "naturally good at is detecting threatening people" for their own victimization could be the source of its own fucking post.)

But, in reality, we have substantial evidence that Harris is just wrong about this and that gendered violence, far from being an inborn trait, is really malleable to outside influence.

Piece of evidence #1:

In the two decades since the United States Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, domestic violence has declined dramatically.

Annual rates of nonfatal domestic violence fell by 63 percent between 1994 and 2012 – from 13.5 victimizations per 1,000 people to 5 per 1,000. This is a count by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) of such crimes as rape, assault, and robbery committed by intimate partners, former partners, or family members. The figures are based on a national survey and include both reported and unreported crimes against people over age 12.

In a BJS count of serious intimate partner violence against women, the numbers dropped 72 percent between 1994 and 2011. And from 1993 to 2007, the annual number of female victims of homicides by intimate partners declined from 2,200 to 1,640; male victims from 1,100 to 700.

Piece of evidence #2:

The last comprehensive survey on violence against women in America happened in 2000, and it's difficult to know everything that has changed between now and then. But there is at least some evidence that certain types of assaults are becoming less frequent. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported last year that rates of sexual assault have fallen significantly since 1995.

Male violence---and piggishness and contempt for women---is a learned behavior. And it can be not-learned. But, of course, accepting that might mean having to open your mind up to all sorts of possibilities, including the possibility that your wife dotes on you and puts you before her in life not because she was born to do it, but because society has conspired to relegate women to second class status. And that is obviously a painful possibility and so, in a most unskeptical manner, an idea will be rejected out of hand because of good, old-fashioned wishful thinking.