David Sloan Wilson amuses me outrageously. He accuses me of not thinking scientifically in an astonishing glurge of pettifogging pedantry. You see, he’s peeved that I have said that the deleterious effects of patriarchal religion on women are obvious and that arguing that religion is beneficial to women is ridiculous, so he’s going to set me straight on how to think like a real scientist…that is, apparently, like someone who is divorced from pragmatism and reality.
Myers the ideologue thinks that he can demonstrate the harmful effects of religion on human welfare with a single word — WOMEN. Here’s how a scientist would set about studying women in relation to men. The first step would be to ask what evolutionary theory predicts about male-female relationships and how the predictions are borne out in nonhuman species. [I…what? The first thing a scientist should do is look up the theory that will tell him about the relations of men and women? I would have thought that the first thing we should do is measure the relative status of men and women.] That inquiry would show that sexual conflict is common in the animal world and that the kind of sexual equality that has become a virtue in contemporary western society evolves by genetic evolution only under special circumstances.[OK, I understand that comparative ethology can be useful…but it doesn’t answer the question of the actual status of men and women. That sexual conflict occurs does not mean we should not oppose it] Among the great apes, gibbons are monogamous, bonobos form female coalitions that resist domination by males, and males boss females around in all of the other species (and most other primate species). [I notice we still aren’t talking about humans] None of this variation can be explained by religion. [Yes. Because humans have religion and those other apes don’t. “Religion” is the variable in question, and we’re pondering how it affects human society; you can use data from other primates to show that religion isn’t the only factor that affects sexual relationships, but that’s not the question.]
The second step would be to see if variation in male-female relations within the human species can be explained by the same evolutionary dynamics that explain cross-species variation. [Nice of him to consider our species finally] For example, it is likely that in both cases, the ability of males to control resources needed by females will result in sexual inequality. This is one reason why agricultural societies are more patriarchal than hunter-gatherer societies — regardless of their religions. [That there are many factors that affect the relationship of the sexes in a species is not a point under contention. The question is whether religion does harm, or is a moderating factor to limit the damage caused by biological predispositions]
To measure the effect of a given religion on sexual inequality, that religion should be compared to the other cultural forms (religious and otherwise) that existed at the same time and place, such as early Christianity vs. Roman pagan society, early Islam vs. the many Arabic cultures of the region, or Christianity vs. scientific views about sexual equality in Britain during the Victorian era. I won’t try to second-guess the result of such an inquiry, but I do know this — it isn’t self-evident. [Or, rather than trying to calculate from theory the effects of a welter of complex phenomena, we could cut to the chase: are women oppressed by their society? Does religion act to oppose that oppression, or justify it?]
Myers and other new atheists seem to think that their action-oriented agenda doesn’t leave room for such scholarly footwork, but the reverse is true. Scholars who remain in the Ivory Tower can make mistakes without hurting anyone. [This was my very favorite part!] Those who leave the Ivory Tower to make a difference in the real world need to be extra careful, lest they hurt people on the basis of faulty theory and information. Humility is called for, which is the very opposite of ideological braggadocio.
I love that last bit. It’s an admission that David Sloan Wilson sneers at that dirty complicated real world; we’re supposed to sit in our ivory tower and calculate whether religion has a deleterious effect on women.
Rather than condescendingly telling us about evolutionary dynamics, I’d like Wilson to get specific.
How does depriving girls of an education benefit women?
How does raising girls with the expectation that their purpose in life is to bear children benefit women?
How does throwing acid in their faces when they demand independence from men benefit women?
How do honor killings benefit women?
How does stoning rape victims benefit women?
How does female genital mutilation benefit women?
How does letting women die rather than giving them an abortion benefit women?
I’m just asking about women here, but I could also say that the attitudes fostered by religion-based misogyny also do harm to the well-being of men — these are deep, wide-spread, endemic problems that poison whole cultures, including our own.
I would also not argue that these problems are solely caused by religion: atheists can be misogynists, too, and history and culture shape individuals in many ways. But these are cases where religion validates and reinforces the oppression of women; secularization and liberalization (more liberal religions are less damaging than conservative, dogmatic ones) reduces the harm done. The question is not whether religion is the only force that does harm, or even the force that does the most harm, but whether religion does more harm than good. I suggest that Wilson open his eyes to the tangible, measurable harm done to women in the name of god, rather than closing them to the real-world data that makes his theories superfluous.
You know, while he sits in his ivory tower trying to ponderously calculate whether women are being hurt, women are actually being hurt.