Why Both of Sam Harris’s Recent Comments Were Sexist — Even If You Accept Some Degree of Innate Gendered Behavior

(As promised. Sorry this took so long.)

sam harrisYes. Sam Harris’s recent comments about gender in the atheist movement were sexist. The original one was sexist; the second one explaining and clarifying the original one was sexist; several of the Tweets along the way were sexist.

And importantly, they were still sexist — even if you believe that some degree of gender difference in behavior or psychology is innate.

Let’s look at Harris’s first statement first, the one stating that “There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women” and that “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.”

Here’s why this is sexist.

There is a mountain of evidence showing that sexism is real, and that throughout our lives we get barraged with sexist gender expectations and gender policing. These socially trained and enforced gender roles begin at birth — people treat infants they think are female noticeably differently than infants they think are male, in ways these people are often not aware of and will often deny when it’s pointed out to them. This training happens in infancy, in childhood, in adolescence, and throughout our adult lives. It happens subtly and unconsciously; it happens obviously and overtly. It’s done to women, to men, to trans people of all varieties, to people who don’t identify on a gender binary. Link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link — and that list barely scratches the surface. We know this. It is not controversial — or it shouldn’t be. Harris himself understands and accepts it. (Interestingly, there’s some evidence suggesting that even in some non-human animals, gender roles are at least partly learned.)

It is also possible that there’s some degree of innate gender difference in behavior or psychology in humans. This is a more controversial and less certain statement (here’s a good summary of some of the thinking on the subject, with lots of citations) — but it’s not completely implausible. It certainly exists in other animals. If nothing else, the experiences of transgender people, many of whom feel they were born as a gender other than the one corresponding to the genitals they were born with, does suggest that some degree of gender identity and gendered psychology might be innate — although it also suggests that any of this innate-ness is incredibly complex, and does not easily line up with birth genitals or chromosomes.

Which leads me to my next point. Gender, and gender differences, are incredibly complex, and do not easily line up with birth genitals or chromosomes. And importantly: Any gender differences in humans, whether innate or learned or both, are very much an “overlapping bell curve” thing. (Or, to be more accurate, they’re multiple overlapping bell curves, since there are many different behaviors and psychologies that we commonly identify as gendered — verbal skills, spatial skills, a tendency to be co-operative, a tendency to be competitive, a tendency to be physically violent, many more.) The noticeable differences are on the far ends of the bell curves: gender is only a useful predictor in very large populations, and the majority of women and men fall into a range where gender is a largely useless predictor of behavior. (There’s a very good piece explaining this on Skepchick.) This is true even with a lifetime of sexist expectations and gender policing that’s done its best to push people into clearly divided gender camps. And importantly, humans seem to have a greater degree of social and learned influence on our behavior than most other animals.

So. Let’s say you’re asked why some particular human behavior — rearing children, enjoying harsh criticism, being the head of a Fortune 500 company, not reading Sam Harris — seems to be different in different genders. If your first and only answer is, “It’s innate,” that does two things — both of which are sexist.

1: It makes the “social training and enforcement” angle invisible.

2: It absolves you — and your readers — of the responsibility to do anything about it. Even if you believe that gender differences are a blend of innate and learned, zeroing in on the innate makes it easy to dismiss the learned part. “We’re just born different! It totally makes sense that women would be grossly under-represented in Fortune 500 companies! Women are just born to be more nurturing and less competitive! It’s innate! Why are you asking us to do anything about it?”

Why Are You Atheists So AngryIt’s flatly ridiculous to say that women disproportionately don’t read Sam Harris because he’s harshly critical of religion. Plenty of atheist writers/ podcasters/ videobloggers are harshly critical of religion, and have much more gender balance in their readers/ listeners/ viewers than Sam Harris says he does. PZ Myers, Rebecca Watson, Matt Dillahunty, Amanda Marcotte, Ophelia Benson, Alex Gabriel — I could go on. Not to mention me: I literally wrote the book on atheist anger about religion. And as far as I know, none of these people have the “84% male” gender imbalance that Harris acknowledges in his Twitter followers. Given that this is true, doesn’t it seem as if the gender imbalance in Harris’s followers has a more likely explanation than “women on average don’t like harsh criticism of religion”?

And it’s ridiculous to say that being “nurturing” has nothing to do with organized atheism. Tell it to the people running the many, many support organizations in our community: Darrel Ray at the Secular Therapist Project, Rebecca Hensler at Grief Beyond Belief, Andy Cheadle at the Secular Safe Zone project, Sarah Moorehead at Recovering From Religion, Robert Stump at LifeRing (the secular sobriety support organization), Vyckie Garrison at No Longer Quivering and the Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network, many more that I don’t have space here to list. For years now, movement atheists have been talking about how we need to create secular communities and support structures, to replace the ones people lose when they leave religion — and a whole lot of atheists have been stepping up to the plate. Atheism absolutely has a nurturing, coherence-building vibe. Either Harris thinks these support organizations don’t matter, which would be grossly insulting — or he’s genuinely ignorant about them, which would make him profoundly out of touch with the reality of on-the-ground organized atheism, to the point where he’s grossly unqualified to comment about it. (Kudos to Rebecca Hensler, founder and co-moderator of Grief Beyond Belief, for pointing this out in her excellent post, Sam Harris, Meet the Secular Support Movement.)

In other words: Jumping to the conclusion that Sam Harris has fewer female readers because women tend to not appreciate harsh criticism — and that this difference is innate — is sexist. And jumping to the conclusion that organized atheism has fewer women because women tend to prefer nurturing and coherence-building — and that this difference is innate — is sexist.

Which wouldn’t be such a terrible thing. We all have sexist ideas. Me, and you, and everyone we know. We all say wrong things sometimes — especially on the spur of the moment, when we’re on the spot and don’t have time to think.

Which brings me to Harris’s second piece — the one he did have time to think about, the one that was supposedly going to clear all this up, the one that was going to show once and for all that Harris’s words and ideas weren’t really sexist.

Yes, I think much of it was sexist. Here’s why. [Read more...]

Cool Peripheral Character Arcs In “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”?


lily/anne and buffySo I was thinking about the “Anne” episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (the one where Buffy is hiding out in L.A. under an assumed name and winds up battling the labor exploitation demon — I’m vastly entertained by the fact that she wages this battle with a hammer and sickle). I was posting on this on Facebook and Twitter, and some of us got to talking about Chanterelle/ Lily/ Anne, and what a great character arc she had for someone who is very much a peripheral character on the show: she goes from being the gothy vampire wannabe, to the lost and aimless homeless teen, to the strong woman running the shelter for homeless teens.

And I started thinking: One of the things that I think makes “Buffy” such a rich show is that it isn’t just the main characters who get good, strong, interesting character arcs. Secondary characters, even peripheral characters, clearly have rich inner lives, and you get to see them mature over the arc of the show. Jonathan leaps immediately to mind, as does Harmony. The Buffyverse seems like it’s populated by actual people, any of whom could have a show written about them.

So since I’m going to be at the Carolinas Secular Conference in Charlotte this weekend, and won’t be on the blog much until I get back, I thought I’d start a thread about this: Who are some secondary or peripheral characters in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel” that you think have particularly interesting character arcs? (I think I’m defining “secondary or peripheral” as “the actor never got a named credit in the opening credit sequence.”)

There are no wrong answers. Your time starts — now!

Replies to Phil Zuckerman and to Sam Harris’s Second Post — Coming Next Week

I’ve promised to write responses to Phil Zuckerman’s piece Are Men More Likely to Be Secular Than Women?, and to Sam Harris’s piece “I’m Not the Sexist Pig You’re Looking For” (which supposedly explained why his original comments on why he has more male readers than female ones weren’t sexist).

I’ll keep that promise, and in fact those responses are mostly written. But I’m speaking at the Carolinas Secular Conference this weekend (I leave Friday), and I won’t have the time or energy to deal with what I expect to be an exhausting load of comment moderation, Twitter blocking, and more. So I’m posting those pieces next week. To anyone who’s been waiting: Sorry for the delay. To anyone who wasn’t waiting and doesn’t care: Here is a cute picture of our tabbies. [Read more...]

How Humanism Helps With Depression — Except When It Doesn’t

This piece was originally published in The Humanist.

What is it like being a humanist with depression?

I’m going to preface this right off the bat by saying: I am not a doctor. I am not a therapist. I am not a mental health care professional, or indeed a health care professional of any kind. I’m just talking about myself here, and my own experiences. I freaking hate it when people give me unsolicited amateur medical advice about my mental health, so I’m very careful not to do that with other people. If you have depression — your mileage may vary from mine. Take what you need from this, and leave the rest. (And if you’re not already doing it, get professional help if you possibly can.)

So. Caveats are in order. What is it like for me to be a humanist with depression?

As regular readers may know, I’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression. My form of it is chronic and episodic: I’m not depressed all the time, I’m not even depressed most of the time, but I’ve had episodes of serious depression intermittently throughout my adult life. I had a very bad bout of it starting about a year and a half ago: I’m pulling out of it now, but my mental health is still somewhat fragile, I still have to be extra-careful with my self-care routines, and I still have relapses into fairly bad episodes now and then. And I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be a humanist with depression, and how these experiences intertwine. [Read more...]

Greta Speaking This Weekend in Charlotte, NC! Plus Sacramento CA, Springfield MO, and Austin TX!

I’m speaking this weekend in Charlotte, NC, at the Carolinas Secular Conference! Other speakers include Bridgett Crutchfield, Mandisa Thomas, Steve Ahlquist, Harry Shaughnessy, Amy Monsky, Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, Fred Edwords, Marshall Brain, and Conor Robinson. Tickets are still available. Should be a barn-burner!

And I also have speaking gigs coming up in Sacramento CA, Springfield MO, and Austin TX. Details below. If you’re near any of these cities, I hope to see you there! [Read more...]

Some Clarifications on the Mythology Springing Up Around My Recent Twitter Exchange with Sam Harris

Some very strange mythology is springing up around the recent Twitter exchange I had with Sam Harris. I’m getting tired of repeating the same clarifications again and again, so I’m going to post them here and just link to them.

Two key points:

1: No, I don’t think Sam Harris is responsible for everything that all of his fans say or do. I don’t think any writer is responsible for everything that all of our fans say or do. I don’t think that, and I never said that. I do think that in general, writers should be aware of the effect we’re having, and if our fans are saying or doing bad things in our name, it’s certainly a good thing to speak out against it. But writers are not responsible for everything that all of our fans say or do. I don’t think they are, and I never said that they are.

2: No, I don’t think Sam Harris, or any writer, has a responsibility to speak out against absolutely every bad thing that ever happens. I understand that writers are busy — heck, I understand that people in general are busy — and I don’t expect everyone to speak about everything. And I understand that Sam Harris, in particular, is probably more busy than most of us. (However, if a writer is responding to a bad thing that happened, and they’re spending more time getting defensive and hostile towards the person who’s calling it to their attention than they are actually speaking out against the bad thing, that’s somewhat troubling.)

So. For anyone who cares, here’s how the exchange actually unfolded. [Read more...]

Four Reasons “God Made Evolution Happen” Makes No Sense

This piece was originally published in AlterNet.

“Of course I believe in evolution. And I believe in God, too. I believe that evolution is how God created life.”

You hear this a lot from progressive and moderate religious believers. They believe in some sort of creator god, but they heartily reject the extreme, fundamentalist, science-rejecting versions of their religions (as well they should). They want their beliefs to reflect reality — including the reality of the confirmed fact of evolution. So they try to reconcile the two by saying that that evolution is real, exactly as the scientists describe it — and that God made it happen. They insist that you don’t have to deny evolution to believe in God.

In the narrowest, most literal sense, of course this is true. It’s true that there are people who believe in God, and who also accept science in general and evolution in particular. This is an observably true fact: it would be absurd to deny it, and I don’t. I’m not saying these people don’t exist.

I’m saying that this position is untenable. I’m saying that the “God made evolution happen” position is rife with both internal contradictions and denial of the evidence. You don’t have to deny as much reality as young earth creationists do to take this position — but you still have to deny a fair amount. Here are four reasons that “God made evolution happen” makes no sense. [Read more...]

#mencallmethings: “NO chance of being raped “

Content note: misogynist harassment, rape

On Twitter:

Sam Harris on Twitter:

@GretaChristina You really think I should take a public position against threats of rape and murder? Does *anything* go without saying?

Asshole on Twitter:

@SamHarrisOrg @GSpellchecker @GretaChristina it’s ok Greta you’re NO chance of being raped #sithlord


I’m reminded once again of Lewis’s Law: “Comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.” [Read more...]

Sam Harris Responds to Misogynist Fan — Well, Sort Of – UPDATED

Me on Twitter:

#mencallmethings: “ugly dyke,” “irrelevant whore,” “just die.” (Note that this was in defense of @SamHarrisOrg .) http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2014/09/22/mencallmethings-ugly-dyke-irrelevant-whore-just-die/

Sam Harris, in response:

@GretaChristina And you’re holding me responsible for that? (Meanwhile, look at what you said about me on your blog.)

Where did I say I hold Sam Harris responsible?

It would be nice, however, if he’d speak against it, and tell his readers not to do that. It’d be nice if atheist leaders answered misogyny in movement with concern for targets and censure for perpetrators — not with defensiveness. It’d be nice if atheist leaders told their misogynist fans, “Guys, don’t do that.”



UPDATE: [Read more...]