Part deux

Where was I? There were some things I didn’t get to in the post this morning.

One of the things. Shermer is indignant about what I said about him. Here’s what I said about him.

You would think that nontheism and feminism should be a natural combination. Women have the most to gain from escaping religion, after all: monotheism gives men higher status, starting with their allegedly being made in the image of God.

But atheism hasn’t always been very welcoming to women. Maybe there’s an idea that men created God, so men should do the uncreating.

Mostly though, it’s just a matter of stereotypes, the boring, stubborn, wrong stereotypes and implicit associations that feminism has been battling since, well, forever…

The main stereotype in play, let’s face it, is that women are too stupid to do nontheism. Unbelieving in God is thinky work, and women don’t do thinky, because “that’s a guy thing.”

Don’t laugh: Michael Shermer said exactly that during a panel discussion on the online talk-show The Point. The host, Cara Santa Maria, presented a question: Why isn’t the gender split in atheism closer to 50-50? Shermer explained, “It’s who wants to stand up and talk about it, go on shows about it, go to conferences and speak about it, who’s intellectually active about it; you know, it’s more of a guy thing.”

I start with the stereotype – which is one that Susan Jacoby also talked about at the Women in Secularism conference – and then give an example of someone saying it. Well he did say it. I’m seeing a lot of weird explaining away, but that’s bullshit. I can easily believe he didn’t mean to say it, and that he would have put it differently if he’d been writing and thus had more time to think – but the fact remains that he did say it. And no, it doesn’t bear some other, less dismissive interpretation.

It reminds me of my brother-in-law, actually. Decades ago my brother and I were wrangling about a big desk that had belonged to my mother (a journalist) and that I said she had told me I could have, and my brother-in-law (older than both of us) suddenly cut in to say that a desk was a man thing. I don’t remember what I said or did; I remember only the rage.

No, a desk isn’t a man thing. No, wanting to stand up and talk about atheism isn’t a guy thing. No, wanting to go on shows about it isn’t a guy thing. Wanting to go to conferences and speak about it isn’t a guy thing. Being intellectually active about it isn’t a guy thing. They’re not more of a guy thing. I know this. I’ve done all the things Shermer lists, and I can think of a long long list of other women who also have. Saying it’s more of a guy thing is like saying the law is more of a guy thing, science is more of a guy thing, work is more of a guy thing, thinking is more of a guy thing. It is, in short, the same old shit. It would be pretty astonishing if Michael Shermer had never been made aware of an occasional whisper about this over the past 40-plus years.

So that’s one of the things. He said it. He could have just said it was a stupid thing to say, he was thinking on his feet and made a hash of it. But indignation at me for pointing it out? No. I don’t think he has a case.

The next thing. About the “why didn’t she email me?” again.

in journalism, as in science and all rational inquiry, there is an ethic of going to the primary source, and especially giving the person in question the benefit of the doubt. In this case, a simple email asking what I meant would have cleared up any misunderstanding.

I simply assumed he meant what he said. He could have emailed me asking what I meant, too, but he didn’t. Harriet Hall could have emailed me asking what I meant instead of emailing her thoughts to Shermer for publication. Everybody could email everybody about everything, but usually we address what’s on the page or in the podcast without emailing. That’s normal. Look at The Daily Show – it’s all about things people say.

That’s it. Back to stirring my witch’s brew.



  1. says

    Ah, the rage.

    Lo, these many years ago (in college), my boyfriend at the time and I were arguing with some religious fundamentalist types about something in the organization we all belonged to…and one of the fundies turned to me and said “Stay out of this, it’s men’s work.”

    I turned away, walked over to a nearby closet, and pulled out a baseball bat. I don’t know exactly what I was going to do, but at that moment, my boyfriend turned and saw me, so he dragged me out of the room. It took a few minutes of walking before I’d calmed down enough to tell him what happened, at which point he wanted to turn around and hit the guy!

    I really wish Michael Shermer had just said “Gee, I said something that I didn’t intend. That happens during live events. Sorry ’bout that.”

  2. artymorty says

    Besides, even if you HAD emailed him before publishing your article, how would that have made any difference? He would have just confirmed what you suspected he meant by “guy thing” all along, just like he ended up doing afterwards in his written response.

    That’s the weirdest thing about his defense: it’s a non-defense. You say he’s got stupid ideas about “guy things” and “girl things”; he responds with… really stupid ideas about “guy things” and “girl things”.

    He should be thanking his lucky stars you didn’t email him before you published your article; he would have just handed you more ammunition for your piece if you had.

  3. Nathair says

    in journalism, as in science and all rational inquiry, there should be an ethic of giving Very Important People like me the benefit of the doubt.

    FTFY Mike.

  4. Brian M says

    I actually thought his column, while a little mealy mouthed, was not ALL that bad. I could kinda sorta see where he was coming from. That’s not to say that I disagree with what you are saying here, either, and would note he seems monumentally unaware of WHY such comments can lead to rage, but…

    But my FSM, the commenters. it was outrageously amusing to see these people practically doing a tribal war dance in their eagerness to denounce the tribal evils of Free Thoughts Bloggers. my God, the lack of self awareness over there is stunning.

  5. says

    A further lesson, as if one were needed, that being a self-professed skeptic is not enough to magically overcome personal biases. He has written about the need to put aside emotional investment to look at a situation clearly, and it’s sad that he apparently can’t do that himself in this situation.

  6. says

    And ugh, his tweets today. Insisting that he is neither a sexist or a racist, as if not having the noun “sexist” applied to you means that hooray, you can never say or think anything influenced by patriarchy ever again

  7. says

    Beyond it being pretty reasonable to assume people mean what they say under normal circumstances, if someone says or writes something that’s transmitted to the public, using a private channel (like email) to get a clarification lets the apparent meaning of the words stand. Surely, if they need to be amended, that should also happen in public, right?

  8. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    “my brother and I were wrangling about a big desk that had belonged to my mother (a journalist) and that I said she had told me I could have, and my brother-in-law (older than both of us) suddenly cut in to say that a desk was a man thing.”
    …a woman’s desk- a desk that belonged to a woman- is a man thing?

    Actually, Shermer had a valid point when he said: ‘It’s who wants to stand up and talk about it, go on shows about it, go to conferences and speak about it, who’s intellectually active about it; you know, it’s more of a guy thing.”
    We live in a culure where all of those things are guy things. Guys are expected and encouraged to do those things. Non-guys are not expected to do them and discouraged from doing them, so it isn’t surprising if they don’t do them as often as guys, even when they could be expected to. It’s better than it was, but- as we see- there’s still a long way to go. Our pasts influence us even if we recognise that they do and try to overcome them. The important thing is to try to do something about it.
    Another guy thing is ‘never apologise; never explain.’, even when apologising and/or explaining would be the sensible and decent thing to do.

  9. Maureen Brian says

    Speak for yourself, googlemess @ 9.

    Some of us live in cultures where women do speak – and own desks. Admittedly we do sometimes have to stake out our space a little more explicitly for the dim of eye and slow of mind, or hang onto the mic just that bit tighter if we’ve not yet finished what we wanted to say.

    Sometimes we have to take colleagues with this “guy thing” disease aside quietly and point out that they were talking across us or – heavens-to-Betsey – attempting to tell us what we were thinking. We even have to do it more than once in the difficult cases!

    The worst thing we can possibly do to is give the Michael Shermers of this world the benefit of the doubt. (I don’t know the man, have no opinion of him and use him only as an example.)

    Imagine the scenario – intelligent, educated and articulate woman goes around giving “guys” the benefit of the doubt for 40 years. She hits age 50, looks at her girl scout uniform, now emblazoned with tens of millions of Benefit of the Doubt Badges, and wonders whether that approach has achieved much.

    So the next time time some bloke makes a silly and demeaning remark she points it out to him. And what does he say. He says, “I am deeply hurt and wounded and anyway you never complained before.” but insists that no way is that a silencing tactic.

    You would think someone with all that psychology would have sussed this one out.

  10. says

    Maybe hogging the mic IS more of a guy thing. Stop it guys.

    I’ve held my tongue about this for a long while, but that was the first thing that turned me off of a certain ex-FTB blogger.
    Watching one of the first google hangouts which was pretty evenly split between men and woman quickly come close to degenerating into the “A.S. Explains It All Show.”

    Hogging the mic. Or maybe I’ll call it “Hoggling the mic.”

    Can we use that along with “mansplain?” Hoggling the mic?

  11. Sili says

    And as Crommunist points out, it’s not as if the whole column is about Shermer. It’s not. He was an illustration, not the subject.

    Don’t be ridiculous! Everything is about Shermer! Why would anyone ever want to talk about anything but Shermer, the most interesting skeptic in the world?!

  12. Brian M says

    But Maureen:

    While everything you say is also true in some contexts, are you outright denying the cultural underpinnings which make what Shermer is saying also true. He is NOT making a value judgment, but an OBSERVATION. And this observation has some accuracy to it.

    I mean, come on folks. On other posts and comments many of you (appropriately) rail against the cultural expectations and stereotypes limiting women. Many inherent or unspoken, but there.

    When someone observes (in passing) that these expectations and stereotypes may be one explanation for why there are fewer active women speakers etc., you act like he is supporting this reality. He was not.

    You are NOT being fair here.

  13. says

    Brian – that’s not what he said. He didn’t say “there’s a stereotype that it’s a guy thing.” He could have, yes, but he didn’t. It’s not the least bit clear that that’s what he meant, and I don’t think it is what he meant.

  14. Maureen Brian says

    Are you telling me, Brian, that Mr Shermer has never once, in the privacy of his own head, checked the validity of an old and decaying stereotype which he is quite willing to use to his own advantage?

    Some Sceptic! I don’t have so low an opinion of him. I just think he misspoke and then his ego wouldn’t even let him address Ophelia’s point – check again, he doesn’t – or simply say, “Oops, sorry.”

  15. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    ‘Speak for yourself, googlemess @ 9.’
    Who else can I- or anyone- speak for? Claiming or believing we speak for other people is a way to silence them.
    On a point of pedantry, Ophelia & Maureen, the claim that “It’s who wants to stand up and talk about it, go on shows about it, go to conferences and speak about it, who’s intellectually active about it; you know, it’s more of a guy thing.” isn’t a stereotype. It’s a truth, unfortunately. It’s a truth because other factors- including sterotypes about differences between men and women and the behaviour such stereotypes inspire- mean that men are more likely than women to stand up and talk, go on shows, go to conferences, be intellectually active. They’re encouraged to, and until we think about it we are likely to assume that it is entirely natural. Most people don’t think about things until they are given reason to and our first response to challenges to assumptions that we have never thought about is often unthinking rejection. So, yes, Maureen, your girl guide in post 11 ought to keep pointing out foolish assumptions and preconceived notions when she comes across them. It will persuade people to think more carefully, even if they don’t admit it or sometimes even realise it.

  16. says

    That’s what a stereotype is. Yes, men are encouraged to, and yes, women are discouraged from, partly by gormless people repeating the endlessly-recycled trope “that’s a guy thing.” That’s part of why stereotypes are bad.

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