Much has already been said about Shermer’s statement regarding atheism being “a guy thing” and how the sensible thing to do would’ve been to say, “What I said wasn’t well thought out. Allow me to apologize/clarify the intended meaning of my statement”. Rather than what he did, which was to write an article that invokes the spectre of witch hunts and purges. I, like many in the secular community, found myself baffled by Shermer’s reaction after Ophelia Benson called him out on his statement. If anyone should know better than to make such arguments, it would be Shermer. Wouldn’t it?
Now it would be disingenuous if I were to ignore that Shermer had more to say in his original quote than, “It’s a guy thing”. Throughout this post I’ll be quoting from this article (unless otherwise stated).
First of all, Benson shortened the quote. What I prefaced the above with is: “I think it probably really is 50/50.” Benson also left out my follow up comment moments later that at the 2012 TAM (The Amazing Meeting) conference of skeptics and atheists, there were more women speakers than men speakers. I misspoke slightly. According to D. J. Grothe, the TAM organizer, there were an equal number of men and women speakers (the roster on the web page is incorrect) until, ironically, Ophelia Benson herself dropped out. As for the sex ratio of attendees, there were 40% women in 2011 and 31% in 2012, the shift, Grothe speculated online, possibly due to some of these very same secular feminists irresponsibly blogging about how skeptic or atheist events were not safe for women.
In any case, please read my answer again. Where do I say or even imply that women are, in Benson’s characterization of what I said, “too stupid to do nontheism” or that “unbelieving in God is thinky work and women don’t do thinky?” Clearly that is not what I said, as punctuated by my preface that I believe the actual sex ratio is 50/50. And for the record I don’t believe for a moment that women are not smart enough to do nonbelief thinking, or any other type of cognition for that matter.
Ok. So what if the gender split really is 50/50? We’re running the risk of having two different discussions. One is strictly about the numbers and the participation rates, the other is about an underlying culture of discrimination that numbers alone can’t explain. Back when the debate about how women were being treated came to the forefront of the secular community, some out there were demanding the numbers. E.g., collect data on the number of women going to conferences, the number of harassment complaints that had been made, and compare this to the general population to see if a problem existed. The problem is that determining the existence of gender discrimination in a community can’t be boiled down to a numbers game. Now if we were going to make an argument that discrimination towards women is worse in the secular community than in others, then numbers would be useful. However, that has not been the focus of the discussion within the community about women in secular-atheism. Later in the article Shermer writes:
For all I know there may very well be stereotyping still going on in secular circles, but here I would like to challenge the assumption that a sex ratio other than 50/50 is evidence of misogyny. It isn’t.
Ok. Fine, but the argument that misogyny exists in secular circles is not based solely on uneven sex ratios. We are aware that unevenness in numbers does not equal misogyny. Refuting that argument isn’t very useful.
Most of what Shermer writes in the article up to this point can be summed up as, “Ok. It has a few problems but it’s not terrible. He doesn’t say anything that’s too off the wall”. Unfortunately, things start to take a bizarre turn right about here:
As well, as in witch hunts of centuries past, we should be cautious of making charges against others because of the near impossibility of denial or explanation after the accusation. (Just read the comments about me in the forum section of Benson’s blog, where I’m called a “jackass,” a “damn fool,” and other descriptors that have become commonplace in the invectosphere. Is there anything I could say that would not confirm readers’ beliefs?
First, if anyone can invoke the spectre of a “witch hunt” it would be female-identified feminists. Because, you know, women were actually burnt as witches. All those names Shermer was called? That’s happening to the feminists as well. Second, there is something Shermer could say to prove the beliefs of those commenters wrong. “What I said wasn’t well thought out. Allow me to apologize/clarify the intended meaning of my statement” Judging by the response to the article, most people would’ve accepted the apology.
In a different article he writes,
Let me provide another example of moral progress that at first will seem counterintuitive. It involves a McCarthy-like witch hunt within secular communities to root out the last vestiges of sexism, racism, and bigotry of any kind, real or imagined. Although this unfortunate trend has produced a backlash against itself by purging from its ranks the likes of such prominent advocates as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, I contend that this is in fact a sign of moral progress.
If you’ve been looking for a way to get people to immediately ignore the point you were making about moral progress, here it is. Mention purges and, “a McCarthy-like witch hunt”. To muddle the message even further, state that people were purged even though such a thing never happened.
What Shermer seems to be getting at in the aforementioned article is that there have been great strides of improvement in the role women have to play in the atheist movement. Since our attention has turned inwards to address instances of sexism and misogyny things are getting out of hand, at least that’s the case in Shermer’s view. He comes off as saying, ‘I’ve been very supportive of women in atheism. Why are you coming after me now as an example of someone who hates women?’. Of course, it’s been pointed out that Shermer has straw-manned the criticism made by Benson in response to his original statements. I think Ed Brayton sums up Shermer’s reaction the best:
All of this is such an hysterical overreaction that it leaves my jaw agape. No one has been “purged” in any “inquisitions” or “witch hunts.” What they have been is criticized for saying dumb things now and again. You’d think that Shermer, who has spent most of his adult life encouraging people to think critically would recognize criticism when he sees it, but he squeals like a stuck pig when the harsh glare of criticism is turned on him.
Getting back to the first article.
Finally, there is a deeper problem here that I have observed over the past several years that I would like to address to the larger secular community, and that is the dangers of in-group fighting and inquisition purges of those who are not “pure” enough in their atheism, skepticism, or humanism.
I’m going to make the collective voice of secular feminists sound like a broken-record for a moment but, “Who is being purged?” There is no central organization dictating who can and cannot participate in the world of secular-atheism. Aside from internet forums, there hasn’t been a banning of people who disagree on feminism. No one is dragging Shermer, Dawkins, or Harris off to a camp for defying the will of the party. Mass burnings of “Skeptic” magazine aren’t taking place.
Nobody likes in-group fighting. It isn’t fun, and we’d rather be focusing our energy on dealing with issues we can all agree on. The problem is that the list of issues is rather small in our community. As I previously wrote for CFI, “Being an atheist is fine, but it should not be the central basis of your ideology.” The larger message behind that statement had to do with getting atheists to engage in political movements. It’s really difficult to use lack of a belief in gods as a central driver in what you do. Splits within movements happen all the time, movements where the threads that tie everyone together are much stronger than they are among atheists. The transition period is bound to be unpleasant, but I don’t think it should be a shock to see a split occurring when the idea that is supposed to unite us is so weak. Given what Shermer says in his article, he is not unaware of the tendencies of movements to split. However, he seems to view it as something that is generally undesirable. I view it as necessary in the struggle to address the major issues of our time. Why would I want to waste time in a group that is being held back from achieving its goals because a number of people cannot agree on the right way to move forward? I would rather go with the faction that has demonstrated that its interpretation of our situation is best backed up by the evidence. Such an approach doesn’t require a purge. All it needs is for people to go their separate ways.
To avoid having that last statement taken the wrong way I should be clear: None of this means I’m going to completely ignore Shermer or suggest that other people do the same. I just don’t see him as a voice to listen to when it comes to feminism in the secular-atheist community. Stick to writing books on skepticism and why people believe weird things.