It’s been an overwhelmingly busy few days with preserving garden food, supporting a family full of colds, and continuing work. Yet, it is impossible for me not to extract some time to discuss the issue of sexism in atheism as it again rears its ugly head in some recent remarks by Sam Harris in a Washington Post article.
Way back in the neorenaissance of New Atheism they had a conference where they took a few of the big names in atheism and had a conversation. Four people showed up, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was supposed to be there but could not. Otherwise there would have been five horsemen. That was the biggest mistake in this nascent movement (some say it wasn’t-isn’t a movement but usually to derail discussions of intents and purposes.) There were plenty of women atheists at hand, even well published ones.
Indeed, at that time more women were visibly present to the public than now; notably Ellen Johnson, Margaret Downey, Eugenie Scott, Rebecca Goldstein, Susan Jacoby, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Wendy Kaminar, Ann Druyan, etc. Though the boards did and do remain male dominated. While I was at that conference I can’t remember the exact list of women atheists available, at hand, but there were plenty to draw from.
Who knew that atheism would face an ontological crisis of inclusiveness of women, minorities, and humanist issues that many, usually men, said had nothing to do with atheism.
Perhaps the most famous woman atheist of old was Madelyn Murray O’Hair but there have been many and anyone paying attention would remember an even older time where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her cohorts wrote a feminist bible.
With this in mind it is troubling that there has been pushback against women, in particular atheists who claim that women haven’t showed up because they aren’t naturally or culturally aggressive enough to enjoy the combative environment–as Sam Harris conjectured. It is true that women have stepped up and said sexism is alive, well, and thriving in atheism. Rebecca Watson in particular but also Amanda Marcotte, Greta Christina, Ophelia Benson, PZ Myers, and many others. In too typical way they were pushed aside with notions of prioritizing social ills in the attempt to return discussion to big issues like flashcards of the most obscene crimes on the planet, forgetting that it is often the everyday acts of violence that count the most.
Mark Oppenheimer’s article outlines this agonizingly protracted issue that has yet to be resolved.
Odd though, that men could talk about atheist issues pertinent to their own worlds yet were unable to consider atheist issues in women’s worlds. I can see the goal was to show just how magnificently evil religion was on a global scale. Richard Dawkins exclaimed surprise that so many came to him and thanked him for giving them the courage to come out. That so many missed the importance of coming out on local levels evidences the blind eyes these men had to their own gardens.
Richard Dawkin’s inability to empathize with the real problems of women who were trying to change the world on local levels as well as national levels made his sincerity sound beyond shallow but vicious. And so it has been in his many oddly inchoate ramblings on logic and social justice, where women should just feel guilty, stupid, ready for schooling, for not thinking right. And then categorizing all who don’t get him as radical feminists, an old term of specific meaning that now just means feminist. Dawkins has taken Mansplaining to a glorious new high, as if women weren’t far more aware of these issues than he ever will be.
Hitchens famously said women have no sense of humor. His point was that women have been so oppressed, even biology has made their lives more difficult then men’s; they burden most of the ills of the world while working more then men. How could they be humorous they were too busy being oppressed? This sideways homage to women caused his downfall. Mostly because his point was lost in the lack of truth of the statement. Nor was it a matter of statistics looking at how many of one versus the other were present in popular culture. It was casting an inevitability, a wrong one, to women.
Hitchens further lost it when he thought women should stay at home, unless they want to work. That last phrase was completely lost because so many women were choosing to work at great sacrifice because economic power is political power. Women well knew the cost of economic, political, and governing engagement. They didn’t need to be told that staying at home was really the ideal. Especially when that is equally true for men. Especially since that was the crap conservatives were spouting to support their particular form of vicious patriarchy. Neither of what he said has much to do with reality today, sounding more like a romantic sentimentality of some particular, and rare, egalitarian, forager society that can’t possibly exist now, or in any kind of near future. It’s the kind of talk you hear at renaissance festivals, not politics.
Sam Harris in another inchoate response to “where are the women,” the question itself sounding like a Steve Martin skit on Saturday Night Live, responded by saying the atheist world is a competitive world, and women are more nurturing supportive types. Saying this to a growing audience of feminists is beyond absurd. Basically he shot himself in the foot while chewing the other up to his knee. More pertinent is sexism exists in atheism in greater numbers than anyone thought. It took women to show this because of incredible confirmation bias on the part of men. Addressing this directly would have been incredibly helpful and far more accurate.
The only person left is Daniel Dennett who has gone on in his work. Reminding me of Santayana he maintains an Olympian gaze to the world below while he finishes up his tenure. His exaggerated and annoyed response to Sam Harris playing philosophy in his musing of free will shows just how annoyed professionals get when amateurs play expert. Aside from this, Dennett is also the only working professor and educator of the bunch, which means he long ago learned how to analyze and deal with an audience as well as how to educate rather than pontificate. He has certainly shown a curmudgeon responsiveness. He famously quipped he didn’t see how it would be socially useful to study people who meditate 10 hours a day. A perspicacious clue as to why many women find fault with Buddhism, precisely because it has been a male separatism from not just the world but women and the families they often leave behind in happy bliss.
The last salvo has been about the #EstrogenVibe against Harris. I can say the best remark on that was by Debbie Goddard who said she would like to imagine that meant something more pleasant.
Jim Newman, www.frontiersofreason.com