Ask an atheist, and they will tell you that religion poisons everything. There is an understanding that human nature is not fixed, but is susceptible to all kinds of influences — people make decisions based not simply on what they are, but on how they were brought up and shaped by their environment. They are likely to note that an American is most probably a Christian, not because they thought it through and worked out the logic and evidence, but simply because they were brought up in a predominantly Christian culture; if they’d been born in India they’d most likely be Hindu, in Italy Catholic, in Iran Muslim, in Sweden Lutheran, etc.
Where this awareness fizzles out, though, is in domains where we’ve absorbed and accepted the dominant worldview — suddenly, the conventions become not a plastic response to history and contingency and idiosyncratic circumstance, but “human nature” and the arguments become all about the necessity of maintaining the status quo: “that’s the way it is”, “are you some kind of freak?”, “we wouldn’t be this way if it weren’t adaptive.” There is a pressure to conform, because everyone is expected to behave the way everyone else is.
We wouldn’t hesitate to be iconoclastic if the issue is one of faith. Break it down, we’d say, shatter those chains and think for yourself. Other topics, though, are suddenly taboo. Try to go to most atheist meetings and question, for instance, conventional notions of masculinity. A significant number of those radical superstition-breakers will be appalled and start whispering about you, and divisions will form and some will cast you out. There will be references to such distinguished defenders of the fixity of gender norms as Steven Pinker and Christina Hoff Sommers when they want to appear highbrow, and mutterings about cucks and SJWs when they don’t care. They are willing to be infidels only on narrow matters of religion, but on anything else, they are as hidebound and inflexible as the most dogmatic Catholic.
But they are wrong. Masculinity is not one simple thing. There is no rulebook that says “You must have short hair; you must enjoy football; you must sneer at queers; you must eat steak and work out on weekends.” Having a penis does not imply that there is a suite of behaviors you must accept, while not having one means you cannot engage in them. There is a link between biology and behavior, but it’s weaker than you think and requires constant reinforcement from culture in order to sustain itself. We know this is true because different cultures have different notions of masculinity. There is no one true male nature.
Cartomancer has a long and thorough post on the nature of masculinity in ancient Greek culture. It’s amazing. Right there at the root of contemporary Western culture, they can’t even get this fundamental biological essentialism right — different cities had different perspectives on what it means to be a man, almost as if the Y chromosome does not dictate every aspect of your identity.
I have spent some time outlining the Homeric models of manly behaviour, because they show us threads that continued to be important in the culture of the Classical city-states of the 5th and 4th centuries BC, widely regarded as the high water mark of Greek culture. But to talk of one Greek culture is clearly a mistake. The different city states each took their shared Homeric inheritance and distorted it in different directions, placing emphasis on different aspects of their shared culture and in so doing creating different and competing conceptions of masculinity.
Spartan culture, for instance, was radically authoritarian, militaristic, anti-intellectual and anti-capitalist. Full Spartiate citizens were expected to be full-time warriors, living in communal barracks with their fellow men and spurning the trappings of wealth, comfort and sophistication. To them courage was everything, the model of Achilles their ultimate goal. The Spartan approach to courage comes across well in the saying, recorded by Plutarch, that Spartan mothers expect their sons to come back carrying their shields or on dead on top of them (that is, having won the battle or having died trying – throwing away your heavy metal hoplon shield to better escape a pursuing enemy was an unforgivable crime in Sparta). The Greek word we usually translate as “courage” is andreia – literally “manliness”, and the two were pretty much synonymous in Sparta (compare the Latin virtus, from vir, man, which is the root of our “virtue”).
They don’t say much about femininity — there’s another lengthy essay that needs to be written — but it’s too often implicit that the feminine is the mirror image of the masculine. If courage and virtue are manly traits, then women must be timid and weak, or they are violating norms. If men of other cities are less diligent in pursuing glorious death in battle, they must be “pussies”, or that universal put-down, “women”. If a woman expresses courage like a man, she must be “butch”, a “dyke”, and must therefore be ugly and less desirable as a woman.
We are soaking in these attitudes. Fire up an online video game and do poorly, and watch the reaction: you must be a “pussy” or a “fag”. It’s gotten so bad that if you merely defend the equality of women, you are a damnable SJW who is betraying men.
But we can fix that! We tried to bring up our kids to be tolerant and open and willing to explore their identities beyond blindly accepting gender-defined paths, and I think they turned out pretty good. There are sub-communities within atheism that are conscious of other ways of thinking than the default patriarchal set, just as there are better ways of thinking about the universe than the indoctrinated godly explanations. We can learn to be better and recognize the artificiality of so many conventions in our society, so we can break them. This ought to be understood as the default position of atheist organizations everywhere. No gods, no masters, no dogmas about human nature.
There’s a flip side to human plasticity, though. If we’re flexible enough that we can be made better, then we must also recognize the possibility that culture can make us worse. If atheism is liberating, it’s also true that Catholicism is persuasive, and we could be living in a society that constantly tells us we need to be more Christian (hey, we do!). If the truth is that gender roles are more complicated and less rigidly dictated by biology than many people believe, there can also be a culture that promotes the lie that there is only one true way to be a man, and we have that, too, and it harms people as badly as the most demented religion out there. It’s called the alt-right, or the manosphere, or machismo, or any of a thousand names that some will automatically accept as virtuous (it’s built into the language that man equals virtue, after all.) Abi Wilkinson reports on her experiences with toxic masculinity.
In modern parlance, this is part of the phenomenon known as the “alt-right”. More sympathetic commentators portray it as “a backlash to PC culture” and critics call it out as neofascism. Over the past year, it has been strange to see the disturbing internet subculture I’ve followed for so long enter the mainstream. The executive chairman of one of its most popular media outlets, Breitbart, has just been appointed Donald Trump’s chief of strategy, and their UK bureau chief was among the first Brits to have a meeting with the president-elect. Their figurehead – Milo Yiannopoulos – toured the country stumping for him during the campaign on his “Dangerous Faggot” tour. These people are now part of the political landscape.
On their forums I’ve read long, furious manifestos claiming that women are all sluts who “ride the cock carousel” and sleep with a series of “alpha males” until they reach the end of their sexual prime, at which point they seek out a “beta cuck” to settle down with for financial security. I’ve lurked silently on blogs dedicated to “pick-up artistry” as men argue that uppity, opinionated, feminist women – women like myself – need to be put in their place through “corrective rape”.
I know about the “men going their own way” movement, which is based around the idea that men should avoid any sort of romantic or sexual relationship with women. I’m aware of “traditional marriage” advocates, who often argue that you should aim to marry a very young woman as she’s likely to be easier to control. I also learned the difference between an “incel” who is involuntarily celibate, and a “volcel” who makes a deliberate choice to avoid sexual activity, and sometimes also masturbation, often in the belief that ejaculation depletes their testosterone and saps them of masculine power.
I’ve read their diatribes, too, and what I find dismaying is how often they cite science as somehow backing up their views, but to their minds, “science” means rationalizing their rigid and deterministic gender essentialism. Good science says no such thing. Neither does history or philosophy or sociology or anthropology or psychology. We have a responsibility to stop these lies. They are as damaging to human psychological development as dogmatic Christianity or Islam, and if you are concerned about removing obstacles to our species’ potential, as most atheists will say they are, then you have an obligation to combat the propaganda of these pseudo-scientific Y chromosome worshippers as you do the propaganda of religion.