“Tell a devout Christian that his wife”

This is one reason I’ve never liked Sam Harris’s writing, even before he wrote the wretched The Moral Landscape.

He does that throughout The End of Faith, and it’s maddening. You see it, right? Starting with “a Christian” and then saying “his” – as if “a Christian” is automatically a man, as if male is the default sex, as if male is normal and female is weird. That’s a bad, clumsy, confusing way to write, even if you’re indifferent to the politics of it. It’s his wife, it’s making a man invisible; it’s his his his he he he – throughout the book, every time.

There’s also of course the threadbare and suspect choice of “that his wife is cheating on him” with all its unpleasant undertones – that “his wife” is his property, that what she does is something done to him, that wives are probably sluts, all that. A good writer doesn’t do that. A good writer stops to think of an example that isn’t threadbare and loaded with nasty baggage. A good writer thinks more carefully about the words.

That’s why.


  1. Brucee says

    This is ironic. Harris prides himself on being able to question the presumptions of society, even with regard to deeply held views. Yet his approach to grammar is what I was taught in the 1960s. In the 1970s, we started to hear of movements to circumvent the obvious Gender-based disparity in language, and people experimented with a number of forms. I would certainly not fault any writing of the 1970s or even the 1980s for keeping the old-fashioned style until things settled down.
    But did Harris get told that the ERA didn’t pass, so somehow therefore all people should be presumed to be male unless proven otherwise?
    It’s time for Harris to get with the 1990s, or maybe even something more recent. He seems so well read in some areas, so it’s hard to believe he’s never encountered modern formulations.
    Unfortunately, it looks like he just finds it more proper to obey arbitrary obsolete rules taught when he was a child. I am grateful for his writing of End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. But the irony burns in this one.

  2. says

    I know, I thought the same thing when I first read it, all those years ago – it seems so bizarrely dated for such a young guy.

    And I don’t think people were ever actually taught as a matter of grammar that “a Christian” has to mean a man. I think some were taught as a matter of grammar that words like “someone” and “anyone” should be followed by the default “he,” but not that all “a ___” had to be male. I think that’s just stupid habit.

  3. says

    Ugh. That’s so gross. It’s like the wife and the yogurt are equal with respect to how much intelligence and agency they have. They’re both just things that a Christian(=man; i.e. person) might possess.

    I’m a few years younger than Harris and I recall a time when I clung with romantic pedantry to “him/his” third person. When I was about 15 and had no clue.* I was past it (thankfully) by the time I was out of high school.**

    *This was about the same time that the whole language was shifting: policeman to police officer; chairman to chair; mailman to mail carrier and so on.
    **I’ve been a die-hard fan of singular “they” since then.

  4. Seth says

    Not to mention that quite a few people require no evidence whatsoever to accuse their intimate partners of infidelity; the mere suspicion, often groundless, has caused the sometimes-violent end of many relationships. As a man raised in rural, Christian, North American culture, my initial reaction to ‘tell a Christian [man] that his wife is cheating on him’ is to want to try and find the wife in question and get her to a safe place as quickly as possible before that husband comes looking with a few pointed questions and maybe a few weapons just in case he doesn’t like the answers.

  5. Ben Finney says

    > This [male-default, sexist examples] is one reason I’ve never liked Sam Harris’s writing[…] He does that throughout The End of Faith, and it’s maddening.[…] A good writer doesn’t do that.

    I agree the gendered stereotypes and sexist examples are annoying. Do you allow for the fact The End of Faith was Harris’s first book? I have found his later books to be much better and showing signs of much better editing.

  6. thomaspaine says

    The traditional Christian view of marriage is that women are chattel. Vestiges of this attitude remain today. If the passage quoted is intended for a Christian audience, then the example of a wife cheating on her husband works much better than the other way around.

  7. aziraphale says

    I think it’s not quite that bad. He wanted, and got, a punchy opening to the sentence. “Tell a devout Christian that his or her spouse…” – not so good. Admittedly “Christian man” would have been better.

    Also, a devout Christian is quite likely to have been brought up on the Ten Commandments, where the default gender is male and a wife is considered as property. Harris may be more subtle than you give him credit for.

  8. John Morales says

    aziraphale @7:

    Also, a devout Christian is quite likely to have been brought up on the Ten Commandments, where the default gender is male and a wife is considered as property. Harris may be more subtle than you give him credit for.

    What a remarkably inane addendum; what the default gender within Christian tradition may be is irrelevant here, given women can be (and are) devout Christians but have no wives.

    (Or: Harris may also be less subtle than you give him credit for)

  9. John Morales says

    PS aziraphale, if you imagine I’m nitpicking, consider that had Harris written “Tell a devout Christian that their spouse is cheating on them”, that nit would not have been there to pick.

  10. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    It’s not a terrible thing, and I don’t think Ophelia is trying to make it seem so, but it is supporting an annoyingly prevalent custom of considering male the default.

    That would be some extremely subtle subtlety, very hard to read from the sentence, and I’m not even sure what the subtle message or ridicule in it would be.
    So, I have to call Occam’s razor on that one.

  11. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says


    In late 90’s and early ’00s, in Croatia, I learned about the use of they instead of gendered pronouns. But people whose first language is English apparently have little knowledge of this usage.

    How strange.

  12. John Morales says

    Beatrice, it’s sorta strange because grammatical gender is almost an irrelevance in English — and this usage is actually not historically gendered.

    (‘Wife”, however, is gendered, so that Harris’ usage of it indicates that he apparently has confused the non-grammatically gendered term with a gendered one)

  13. aziraphale says

    Beatrice @#10

    I think the subtle message might be something like “Christianity is a patriarchal religion. Look, even thinking about it makes me slip into its language!” Agreed, not too likely.

    I’m wondering why I made this argument. I’m not a great fan of Harris’s later works. I think I have a sentimental attachment to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, who reminded me why I am an atheist at a time when I wasn’t really thinking much about it. I don’t want to think all my heroes have feet of clay.

    Also, Occam’s razor is often useful in judging scientific theories, where simplicity is a virtue. I’m not sure it’s so useful in judging human beings, who are intrinsically complicated.

  14. chrisdevries says

    I agree that he erred in using male pronouns only when gender was not otherwise indicated in The End of Faith. Personally, I try to mix it up, using both his and her in my writing. Even this adaptation to modernity may already be outdated though, given the existence of alternative genders. I really dislike using “they/their” though (it seems so impersonal) and “xe” is even more impractical (even ignoring the fact that no style guide contains these pronouns, how are they pronounced, and even if you manage to say it right, will anyone know what you’re talking about?). In other words, I have yet to find a suitable alternative.

    I chalk this error up to carelessness on Sam’s part, and an (almost) equally culpable editor who didn’t catch it. This is not a good thing and probably means that he, like all of us, has biases of which he is unaware (understatement of the decade). And being a person of not insignificant privilege, he is not generally forced to confront his latent sexism, racism, etc. So challenging them is a good thing, and being a (purported) rational individual, hopefully he will listen to constructive criticism and evolve. Hopefully he will evolve faster than Richard Dawkins is evolving (evidence of which is found in his recent concession that he was wrong to criticise Rebecca Watson and now knows that victimisation cannot and should not be ranked).

    But I certainly see no evidence that would lead me to conclude that Sam personally believes women are property without agency who are more likely than men to cheat on their spouse (as Ophelia seemed to imply), or even that he meant to besmirch the character of the Christian man by implying that this man thought so negatively of his wife. In fact, if he was democratic in assigning male and female pronouns throughout the book (as I would have been in his place), I have no problem with this excerpt. Sam is contrasting the very different standards of evidence he expects people of faith to require in the real world vs. in religious fantasyland. Perhaps he did not consider the possibility that the Christian was a sexist jerk who would not require concrete evidence to conclude she was cheating on him, but as Sam is someone who would require concrete evidence, it is probably hard for him to imagine ANYONE in such a position judging his or her spouse without it. The example of cheating is drastic enough that I assume Sam thought his own response would be universal, just as his own response to magical invisibility fro-yo would be universal (one hopes). It is quite a jump to say that Sam actually considers women inferior, as opposed to the much more likely scenario that he has unexamined privilege that allows him to let faux pas like this pass by unnoticed.

  15. yahweh says

    Beatrice, at school, back in the day, the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun would have been (was) corrected as an error by the same people who never split infinitives or end sentences with prepositions.

  16. John Morales says

    chrisdevries @14,

    (it seems so impersonal)

    I like your precision, if not your over-generalisation; but that it seems so to you is precisely the problem, given there is no grammatical (or semantic) ambiguity of plurality with the singular ‘they’ any more than there is with the plural ‘you’.

  17. Decker says

    Sam’s examples are maladroit. I grant you that Opheilia even though I’m a fan of Harris. However, part of the problem resides in the english language itself.

    And if you think english is bad, in french the word for wife is simply ‘women’.

    When you say “my wife” in french, you say “my women”. And of course french assigns a gender to just about everything, so one has to really tip-toe around things.

    That said, Harris should exercise more discretion and reflect a little more on what he’s writing before heading of to the printers. Essays and books are labours of love and the time it takes to write them affords the opportunity for countless changes and corrections.

  18. Omar Puhleez says

    Oh, I dunno.
    My wife and I frequently use the possessive case with respect to each other in introductions etc. No big deal there. Marriage is a commitment and each of the parties belongs to the other as a spouse; not as a person; not as a slave.
    So “tell a devout Christian MAN that his wife is cheating on him…” has validity.
    But I agree that Harris’ original formulation is less than perfect, in that it could carry at least one less assumption.

  19. Reality_based_community says

    Sam is a worthy activist. Moral philosopher? Not so much. As if taking pictures of the brain can tell us anything meaningful….It’s an absurd undertaking.

  20. Reality_based_community says

    *taking pictures…I should clarify….anything meaningful about morality.

  21. Kevin Kehres says

    @14… that’s what a good book editor does. Reassigns gender randomly, so that the author’s bias towards his/her own gender doesn’t get in the way of the message.

    I ascribe this kind of writing to unconscious incompetence. The writer is writing from his or her own point of view, and the default gender is that writers’ gender. Because it’s never been brought to that person’s attention that it’s annoying to some people.

    If the sentence had read “Tell a devout Christian that her husband had been cheating on her…” then the message would have gotten across and no one would have challenged Harris on whether he believes women are chattel and all that. You don’t even need the clunky (IMHO) “zir” or “his/her” or inappropriate use of the plural pronoun “their” when a singular is called for.

  22. anbheal says

    The prohibition on “their” is a fairly recent phenomenon, linguistically, part and parcel of the Saxe-Coburg elevation of German science and literature, then promoted by their henchmen at Oxford and Cambridge in the Victorian era. It doesn’t exist in Chaucer or Milton or Chaucer, or even up through Pope and Swift. When I was in high school, we still accepted the German scholarship that veni vidi vici should be pronounced waynie weedy weekie, when it’s patently absurd to believe Italians 2000 years ago sounded like Germans, rather than Italians. Same thing with their. We began insisting upon it because Germans said so, and who could be smarter than a German???

    Feel free to use their. It’s absolutely not incorrect.

  23. says

    aziraphale @ 8 –

    I think it’s not quite that bad. He wanted, and got, a punchy opening to the sentence. “Tell a devout Christian that his or her spouse…” – not so good. Admittedly “Christian man” would have been better.

    No, his or her DEFINITELY not so good, in fact terrible and not to be used ever. No, the thing to do is to stop and rethink and start over – come up with a new example. Rework the sentence in whatever way it takes.

    Simply mixing it up is definitely one way to go.

  24. says

    Omar @ 19 – no, I know, and I certainly don’t consider spouses referring to each other that way at all sinister. It’s just that in combination with all the other bad choices in that sentence, “his wife” has a different connotation.

    (Also, I suppose, “my” is one thing and “his” is another. A third party using the possessive pronoun is just a little…uncomfortable. I tend to stumble over it in conversation…I prefer to say X is married to Y rather than X is Y’s [wife|husband]. That’s probably a refinement too far, but…well I’m not sure.)

  25. Reality_based_community says

    I”m a little less likely to take umbrage at this type of phrasing. When one says “this is my x,” it’s not implying in any degree a kind of ownership. Not in my opinion. This is my dog. This is my child. This is my wife. This is my brother. This is my niece. In common parlance, the words describe a relationship to oneself…not ownership.

  26. Dan says

    Didn’t Dawkins do something similar in one of his books? I can’t find it now (if anyone can, much obliged) but I’m almost positive he stated in one of his books that he wouldn’t be saying “him or her” and such all the time because it was too clumsy, and therefore he was going to stick to saying “him” and such (I don’t think he considered using “they,” and of course he didn’t consider making the female the default.)

  27. Reality_based_community says

    Since I walk behind “my dog” with a plastic baggie picking up his shite, I’m not entirely sure who is in control 🙂

  28. says

    Well I don’t see it in the Preface, so maybe not. He did though, somewhere – I remember reading it and frowning and thinking the obvious “but you can just alternate or even use default-her” and then moving on, as one does.

  29. hoary puccoon says

    The question of possible adultery seems like a bad example, anyway. For one thing, we’re all aware it’s not an extraordinary claim– we know it does happen. Furthermore, different people require different levels of proof. Some people take the Caesar’s Wife approach, expecting their spouse to be above even suspicion. Other’s won’t believe the truth of an affair no matter how much evidence piles up. Is this difference correlated with religious belief? Who knows?

    There are so many better examples. For instance,”If you tell Christians you have a surefire way to make a million dollars* in a month, they’ll demand just as much proof as anyone else.” Why drag in gender politics that will almost certainly derail the discussion?

    *In the interests of cultural sensitivity, dollars would, of course, be replaced with pounds, euros, or other appropriate currencies in foreign editions.

  30. newenlightenment says

    Here’s Harris being absolutely charming, he just retweeted this gem: https://twitter.com/nivva/status/498934929468956673/photo/1

    Nice, the Palestinian people are comparable to Zombies, soulless automatons whom you are not only permitted but positively obliged to slaughter en-masse, and anyone with any moral qualms about doing so is ‘insane’. I expect nothing less though, from a man who claimed that Muslims are simply too primitive for democracy, and must be oppressed by the Assad’s and Al Sisi’s of this world, to protect us civilized westerners from their fundamentalist hankerings.

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