Why, Despite the Incredibly Discouraging Crap That’s Been Going On in Recent Weeks and Months and Years, I Still Have Hope for Organized Atheism

Cologne_Germany_Cologne-Gay-Pride-cheerleadersI know. Here comes Greta, the eternal optimist, the relentless Pollyanna cheerleader, always holding out for hope. Stay with me. I really think I’m right about this.

Yes, the recent weeks in organized atheism have been incredibly discouraging, disheartening, disillusioning, demoralizing, dis- and de- just about every good thing that keeps people engaged in activism. Heck, the recent months and years in organized atheism have often been discouraging. Our most visible representatives are saying and doing horrible things: they’re perpetuating horrible sexist and racist ideas, they’re trivializing rape and making excuses for it and blaming the victims of it, they’re apparently committing sexual assault. The online hatred and harassment squad has been in full force. The defenses, denials, rationalizations, trivializations, and victim-blaming about all of this have been in full force. And in the last few weeks, all of this has been in overdrive. I can totally understand why some people, even people who have been in organized atheism for years — strike that, especially people who have been in organized atheism for years — would be losing hope. I’m feeling it, too.

And I’m not going to say for a second that the awful shit isn’t awful. I’m certainly not going to say that we shouldn’t talk about it just because it’s giving people a sad. I’m not going to tell anyone else that they’re bad or wrong for being disheartened — or even that they have any obligation to stay in organized atheism.

What I’m going to say is that I have hope. And I’m going to explain why. [Read more...]

5 Stupid, Unfair and Sexist Things Expected of Men

If you have a scrap of progressive politics in your bones, it’s no surprise to you that sexism hurts women. Like, duh. That’s kind of the definition of the word.

But we don’t talk as much about how sexism hurts men. Understandably. When you look at the grotesque ways women are damaged by sexism—from economic inequality to political disenfranchisement to literal, physical abuse—it makes perfect sense that we’d care more about how sexism, patriarchy and rigid gender roles affect women than we do about how they affect men.

But men undoubtedly get screwed up by this stuff, too. Not screwed up as badly as women, to be sure… but not trivially, either. I care about it. And I think other feminists—and other women and men who may not see themselves as feminists—ought to care about it, too.

I care about this stuff for a lot of reasons. I care because I have men and boys in my life, men and boys who matter to me; I see how they get twisted into knots by gender roles that are not only insanely rigid but impossibly contradictory, and it makes me sick and sad and seriously pissed off. I care because I care about justice: fair is fair, and I don’t want to solve the problem of gender inequality by making things suck worse for men.

And I care for entirely pragmatic, even Machiavellian reasons. I care because I care about feminism… and I think one of the best things we can do to advance feminism is to get more men on board. If we can convince more men that sexism screws up their lives, too—and that life shared with free and equal women is a whole lot more fun—we’re going to get a lot more men on our side. (Like the bumpersticker a friend once had on her truck: “Feminists Fuck Better.”)

So I’ve been looking more carefully at the specific ways sexism hurts men. In particular, I’ve been looking at our society’s expectations of men, our very definitions of maleness. I’ve been looking at how rigid and narrow many of these expectations are, creating a razor-thin window of acceptable manly behavior that you’d have to be a professional tightrope walker to navigate. (Which would be a problem, since “professional tightrope walker” is definitely outside the parameters of acceptable manliness.) I’ve been looking at how so many of these expectations are not only rigid, but totally contradictory, creating a vision of idealized manhood that’s not just ridiculous but literally unattainable. And I’ve been asking the men in my life—friends, colleagues, family members, community members, guys I know on the Internet—what kinds of expectations they get about Being A Man and how those expectations affect them.

Here is a list of five.

*****

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet and Salon, 5 Stupid, Unfair and Sexist Things Expected of Men. This is actually an older piece that they’re reprinting: if I’d known, I probably would have revised it, and I definitely would have cleaned up the broken links. :-p But I’m glad they’re reprinting it: one of the most common MRA tropes is that feminists don’t care about the ways that gender roles and rigid gender expectations hurt men, and that’s just flatly not true. Anyway. To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

“Keep up the good work”: Fighting sexism helps

I got this email a few days ago from Shane, which I’m quoting with permission, responding to my post, A Woman’s Room Online: Misogyny, and the Idea That the Internet Isn’t Real.

Ouch and thanks.

I’ve been reading your blog for a long time. You have opened my eyes on a lot of issues, especially LGBT and women’s issues. I have room to grow. The Woman’s Room Online post hit me in the gut and then I realized, that’s what it feels like for a white straight male. Holy shit. For me, it’s terrible. For a woman, it’s got to be terror. How fucking awful we people manage to be. Anyway, thanks.

Keep up the good work.

Keep up the good work.

I get emails and comments like this every week. I used to get emails and comments every week saying, “I am now an atheist, in part, because of you.” I do still get those, although not quite as often, since I’m not spending as much time writing about 13 More Reasons God Doesn’t Exist. Now I get emails and comments every week saying, “I am now a feminist, in part, because of you.” And every feminist writer, speaker, podcaster, organizer, activist of any stripe that I know gets these comments as well.

So keep up the good work. All of us. All of us who are working to change people’s minds about sexism, about racism, about all the awful shit that happens in the world. Keep up the good work. It’s working.

We Take Feedback From Our Misogynist Customers Seriously: Intel Issues Pseudo-Apology for Gamasutra/ Gamergate Debacle

Intel-logoSo last week, misogynist gamer advocates GamerGate convinced Intel to pull its advertising from the gaming website Gamasutra, in order to punish Gamasutra for publishing a feminist opinion piece about gaming culture that they didn’t like. An entirely predictable Internet firestorm ensued.

Intel has issued a pseudo-apology for the debacle. Here’s what they said — and here’s what it sure as heck looks like they were really saying.

We take feedback from customers seriously.

Translation: We hate losing money.

For the time being, Intel has decided not to continue with our current ad campaign on the gaming site Gamasutra.

Translation: We hate losing money, and we have decided that misogynist dudebros spend more money on our products than the people who are fighting misogyny. This week, anyway. We are incredibly short-sighted, and have no clue about how public opinion on this issue is shifting, or how bad the word “Intel” is going to taste in people’s mouths a year from now, or two years, or five.

However, we recognize that our action inadvertently created a perception that we are somehow taking sides in an increasingly bitter debate in the gaming community. That was not our intent, and that is not the case.

Translation: We put our foot into something we had no clue about and didn’t do our homework about. Now that we’ve done it, though, we’re not willing to undo it, since we don’t want to anger the misogynist dudebros. (We have also never heard the phrase “intention is not magic,” and we think that not meaning to take sides with misogynist dudebros magically absolves of of responsibility for the fact that we did exactly that.) We don’t understand that it is literally impossible to not take sides in this debate. We don’t understand that refusing to act is supporting the status quo.

Alternate translation: We made a calculated decision to prioritize misogynist dudebros over the women who are harmed by them and their allies. That was totally our intent. We just hoped that nobody would notice. We completely understand that it is literally impossible to not take sides in this debate — we’re just trying to take those sides quietly, and without pissing anybody off. We completely understand that refusing to act is supporting the status quo. The status quo has been working pretty well for us, and we’re okay with it. We just don’t want to take responsibility for that choice. [Read more...]

#mencallmethings: “filthy looking beast,” “cunt”

Content note: misogynist harassment

On Twitter:

Asshole on Twitter, who didn’t like the fact that their Tweets wound up in Amy Roth’s art installation about online misogyny, and who I blocked:

Blocked by @GretaChristina So that’s how it works, you take my comments out of context (The Glue God) then turn your back like a coward? LOL

Second asshole on Twitter, replying to first asshole:

@SteveOortcloud @GretaChristina It’s not much of a lost. She is a filthy looking beast! I would welcome the block from that cunt!

#mencallmethings

I’m reminded once again of Lewis’s Law: “Comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.” In particular, it’s fascinating how “It wasn’t fair to include my Tweets in the art show about misogyny” got replied to with, “Don’t worry, she’s an ugly cunt.” Because that’s really going to convince me that online misogyny isn’t an issue. And it’s fascinating to see someone spell out, in words, that there’s no point following a woman on Twitter if she’s not pretty. m-/

[Read more...]

A Woman’s Room Online: Misogyny, and the Idea That the Internet Isn’t Real

Content note: misogyny, harassment, threats of violence and rape and death, images of same

Here’s the thing. For hundreds of millions of people, the Internet is our workplace: we go there to collaborate, to do research, to promote our work. The Internet is the place where we meet our friends. It’s where we get our news. It’s where we organize charity activity, or political activity. For hundreds of millions of people, the Internet is a central hub of human activity.

Now. Think about what it would be like if every time you went to work, every time you went out with friends, every time you went out to get a newspaper, every time you went on a charity walkathon, every time you went to a neighborhood meeting to plan the new public park, you had people screaming at you how worthless you are, how ugly you are, how much they hate you, how much they want to torture and rape and kill you.

Think about showing up to work at 8:30 in the morning, and sitting down in this room.

A Woman's Room Online 23 [Read more...]

How Dare You Show Me My Mistake! My Reply to Phil Zuckerman About the Global Gender Breakdown of Atheism

So when I wrote that globally, there’s no gender split in atheism, and that men being more likely to be non-believers than women is a localized phenomenon — was I mistaken?

Phil ZuckermanPhil Zuckerman — professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, author of Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion, and the upcoming book Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions (scheduled for publication in December) — thinks so. Here’s a link to his article. The tl;dr: He says most of the current data supports the conclusion that men are more likely to be atheists than women, pretty much around the world. How much more likely varies — the gender difference in non-belief varies from country to country — but with a couple of exceptions (example: self-designated agnostics in Japan and Belgium are about evenly split between women and men), men around the world are, on average, more likely to be secular than women. The poll I was citing in my piece — WIN-Gallup International “Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism 2012,” August 6, 2012 (PDF, Table 8, page 20 of 25) — is an outlier. To quote Dr. Zuckerman about this poll, “It may very well be valid. But for now, it is such a major outlier — so much so, that until we have more studies and more data confirming these unique and exceptional findings, we should remain skeptical.”

For the record, Dr. Zuckerman doesn’t think this gender difference in non-belief comes primarily from innate differences between the sexes. He doesn’t know where it comes from, although he posits a number of possible explanations, mostly sociological (although he’s “not going to totally, utterly discount or disregard biology outright”). And he says, “Of course, none of the above means that this gendered difference is fated and eternal. In 25 years, we could find different results.” But he does think that the poll I was citing is an outlier, and that when I said there there’s no global gender split in atheism, I was mistaken.

A number of people have pointed me to Dr. Zuckerman’s piece, and have asked me to respond. Here’s my response:

How. Dare. You.

HOW DARE YOU?!?!?

You’re deliberately misunderstanding what I obviously meant! You’re going out of your way to twist my words and make me look bad! You’re determined to be offended! You’re looking for people to be angry at! You’re trying to stir up controversy! You thrive on drama and attention! You’re trying to get rich through blog traffic and book sales! You’re being politically correct! You’re on a witch hunt! You’re the thought police! All those people who say how horrible you are, the people who harass you and threaten you and spread disinformation about you and keep re-registering new Twitter accounts when you block them so they can keep harassing you — they’ve got it right about you! You are a horrible person, and you’re destroying atheism and freethought!

Or, to put it another way:

You’re probably right. You have more experience, more expertise, and more knowledge in this area than I do. My mistake.

I’ll say that again, and I’ll put it in boldface and italics so readers can’t miss it, and I’ll clarify for the irony-impaired that this is what I actually mean and the “How dare you?” rant was a snarky jab at public figures who respond poorly to criticism:

You’re probably right. You have more experience, more expertise, and more knowledge in this area than I do. My mistake.

I still think the bulk of my criticism of Harris was correct and fair. I think his original statement about the supposedly innate causes of the gender split in his followers was sexist; and I think his follow-up statement supposedly clarifying his original statement was sexist. As I wrote earlier: I think these statements were sexist, even if you do accept some degree of innate gender difference between women and men. And I think they’re still sexist, even if there is a global gender split in atheism (which I’m now convinced there probably is, although it’s interesting that it varies so much from country to country). Given how massive and pervasive gender policing is (and how extensively well-documented this policing is), I think it’s sexist to immediately reach for “the difference is innate, manbrains and ladybrains are born so different” as the default explanation for gender differences. (I’ve written a more thorough explanation of why this is elsewhere.)

And as Dr. Zuckerman himself stated, there are lots of possible explanations for this gender split. Possible causes that he cites are that having less power and privilege and agency (as women do) can make people turn to religion for consolation and support; that women are socialized to be less assertive and less independent, making them more vulnerable to religion; that it could have to do with women’s expected roles as caregivers, or with the greater expectation that women work inside the home. I would add to that list of possible causes: the cultural expectation that being religious and passing religion on to children is women’s work; a culture that equates being religious with being civilized and moral (especially sexually moral), and that sees enforcing civilization and morality (especially sexual morality) as women’s work; the fact that religion is one of the few arenas where women traditionally have some power and social status (women often do much of the day-to-day running of religious institutions, even though men are usually the most visible leaders); the pervasiveness of sexism and misogyny in organized atheism. Given that we know all this, and given that the gender split in atheism does vary so much from country to country, and given that the evidence for significant innate gender differences in behavior and psychology in humans is tenous at best, I think it’s extremely sexist to immediately reach for “innate differences between manbrains and ladybrains” as the explanation for this gender split in atheism.

But when it comes to the specific question of whether there really are more male atheists than female atheists worldwide, it seems likely that I was mistaken, and that the study I was citing was an outlier. My apologies.

Now. How hard was that? [Read more...]

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...]

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...]

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...]