Jerry Coyne at BHA 2016—Part 3: Yes and hahaha no.

UPDATE: WordPress apparently black holed a few of sentences re: Purvi Patel (and some formatting tags). I fixed it—I think.

(Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.)

[CONTENT NOTE: While this post contains no graphic descriptions or images of violence, it does mention: rape, sexual assault and violent abuse, including against children; mental illness including suicidal ideation; hostility to consent, bodily autonomy and agency; sex- and gender-based discrimination.]

To briefly recap: While atheist Big Willie Jerry Coyne is notoriously prone to poo flinging, he also said some very interesting things in his Darwin Day lecture at the British Humanist Association (and elsewhere). I transcribed a few sections of his talk because I’d like to have a handy link to it to help shut down the font of incoherent nonsense that is conservative movement atheism. I also thought some readers here just might (a) find some of this talk as worthwhile as I do (see Part 1), and/or (b) enjoy my documenting Coyne’s insulting, dismissive, nearly comical obliviousness to his privilege (Part 2).

Part 3 focuses on a section of the Q&A wherein Coyne manages both to say some more really cool stuff, and then go into full mansplain-to-the-feminists mode and pull a classic Dear Muslima.


Question from an audience member (@1:14:57):

Q: I thought your point about the correlation between the quality of life and people having a religion or religious belief was very interesting. I was wondering how would you say that science and the concept of evolution is going to tackle countries that are currently under theocracy. I’m obviously referring to Islamic states and places where science isn’t as widely spread. How do you think we can tackle the fact that their quality of lives are inevitably lower and therefore their attachment to an extreme religion is higher and therefore their likelihood to believe in evolution is going to be lower, how do you think science can help abate that?

Coyne: Yeah well that’s a problem for sociology, which I think properly construed is a branch of science. Okay first of all you have to determine, because remember I just said it was a hypothesis whether indeed Marx was right, whether having a dysfunctional life makes people more religious. Now… I get in trouble for saying this but I think that properly conducted, things like sociology science and history are science, you know, because they use the scientific method. So here’s one way that you can test that, and it has been tested. If indeed dysfunctional societies make people more religious, then you could make predictions. If you look at a society and plot its dysfunctionality over time then you should see religiosity going in parallel with that, but a year behind it or some time behind it. That’s exactly what sociologists have found. So if you look at income inequality of The United States it fluctuates, if you look at religiosity it fluctuates in tandem, but a year behind. To me that shows that the dysfunctionality is the cause of the religious belief, rather than the other way around, because of the time lag.

♥ ♥ ♥ !!!

Now what do we do about it? Well, my remedy was what I said in the last slide. You have to improve societies. Now how do you improve a society like Saudi Arabia, for example? Or Africa [sic]? I don’t have the answer to that, you know that’s a political question.

Actually, Coyne does indeed have an answer to that: universal health care and reducing economic inequality. Now how you accomplish that in Saudi Arabia is another matter entirely, though it probably does not entail corporate welfare programs for Boeing arming its rulers to the teeth in an unprecedented weapons deal.

But let’s just imagine for a moment what might have happened in Afghanistan, for example, if instead of arming the Taliban to fight our proxy war against Russia, and then invading, bombing, occupying and otherwise meddling with that country since 9-11, the US spent a tiny fraction of all that blood and treasure doing things like:

  • Partnering with Médecins Sans Frontières to build and staff free (or low-cost) regional clinics and hospitals, and using the world’s greatest military to ensure safe access.
  • Partnering with locals to aggressively address the endemic illiteracy among adults and children, and educating for free qualified Afghans who wish to pursue careers in medicine, engineering, teaching, law, STEM, etc.
  • Buying up the opium crops and/or paying Afghans for cultivating other commodities.
  • Partnering with locals to help build basic infrastructure, such as renewable energy generation and transportation.

A girl can dream, can’t she?

Coyne: But the lesson if anything that Europe has taught us is that countries that do not have god can function very well. I could have shown you another plot on the happiness of countries. There’s something called the Happiness Index that the United Nations constructs, which is not just how happy are you today, but it combines a number of factors, how comfortable people are, how good they feel about their lives, how good they feel about their prospects, that is completely negatively correlated with religiosity as well. So that’s an independent test, because it’s not just functionality it’s how people feel about themselves. And you see an even stronger negative correlation. So first of all that gives the lie to the assertion that religious societies are the happiest societies. In fact it’s the opposite way around.


Coyne: So what do we do about it? I mean my view is a rising tide lifts all boats. We have to take an internationalist – I sound like a Marxist don’t I? – we have to take an internationalist view of the world. So if you’re a feminist for example, and I’m in hot water here because I’m telling feminists what to do


but, you don’t just worry about you know, things that happen in your country, oppression of women in the Unites States, which is very real. But in other countries like the Middle East [sic] it’s much, much worse. So I think you need to take the long view of, you know, where the human miseries really lie.


Once again, it was all going so well, and then all of a sudden SPLAT. Now it smells like shit up in here.

Let us put aside the trivial ease with which we could dismiss the relative privation fallacy these paragons of rationalism love to lob at feminists. Because where’s the fun in that?

Coyne graciously acknowledges that the oppression of women in the US is “very real,” however it’s not, “you know, where the human miseries really lie.” So let’s talk about these feminists who “just” worry about “things” that happen in their own country, if that country happens to be the United States in the 21st century.

Here are some non-miseries on which  US feminists might focus:

  • poverty. Poverty in the US has a gender bias: 14.7% for women vs. 10.9% for men (2014 data). And it’s much, much higher for certain segments of the female population:

    -women 65 and older living alone: 19.7%
    -Hispanic women: 22.8%
    -Black women: 25%
    -women ages 18-64 with a disability: 31.9 percent
    -women who head families: 39.8%

    42 million US women—plus 28 million children—live in poverty or right on the brink of it. Among the reasons US feminists are engaged in a multi-front war here are: benefit cuts to social assistance programs that fund everything from adequate housing to school lunches for poor kids; opposition to equal pay and paid leave; lack of affordable health care; stagnant minimum wages; reproductive coercion by the state to force childbirth; etc. These are all directly impoverishing women (and children and men) right now, today, with profound effects that persist for entire lifetimes.

  • rape and abuse. The statistics are well known: 1 out of every 6 US women (and at least 1 in 33 men) has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. The effects are well documented: enormously increased rates of depression, PTSD, alcohol/drug abuse, suicidal ideation. In any other realm, this is what you would call “a public health crisis.”We also know a thing or two about rapists: the vast majority of rapes are committed by serial predators who make up a (relatively…) small minority of men, estimated between 4% and 8%. That is a lot of men—and a lot of rapes. Furthermore, these men are also disproportionately responsible for other violent acts

    such as slapping or choking an intimate partner, physically or sexually abusing a child, and sexual assaults other than attempted or completed rapes. In the realm of being partner- and child-beating monsters, the repeat rapists really stood out. These 76 men, just 4% of the sample, were responsible for 28% of the reported violence… If we could eliminate the men who rape again and again and again, a quarter of the violence against women and children would disappear. That’s the public policy implication.

    So it’s rather, uh…interesting, then, that hundreds of thousands of rape kits remain untested across the nation. Have drug tests been piling up unanalyzed by the hundreds of thousands for many years? I don’t fucking think so. Evidently, it’s much more important to non-feminists that we reincarcerate a parolee for smoking a joint than catch a violent rapist who will almost certainly continue to rape and abuse until caught, prosecuted and jailed. What’s that you say? It costs money? Priorities: we have them.

  • reproductive rights. Restrictions on access to abortion (and birth control FFS) are increasing, with predictably tragic results. It is axiomatic that forcing or coercing anyone into continuing an unwanted pregnancy and giving birth is state violence, but it goes much further than that. Consider:

    This study documents hundreds of cases of forced interventions on pregnant women by the state from 1973-2005 in horrifying detail. In each case, “pregnancy was a necessary element and the consequences included: arrests; incarceration; increases in prison or jail sentences; detentions in hospitals, mental institutions and drug treatment programs; and forced medical interventions, including surgery.”

    -More recently, prosecutors have been aggressively targeting women for self-aborting or otherwise Doin’ Preggers Rong™. Just last year, Purvi Patel was sentenced to twenty years in prison for feticide and neglect after a miscarriage at 23-24 weeks. She says it was a stillbirth; prosecutors say it lived for a few seconds. Here’s the real kicker: if she had a live birth at a hospital, she could have legally declined resuscitation and neonatal intensive care, the odds of catastrophic neurological damage being extremely high at that stage. But she went into premature labor at home instead—oops!—so she rots in jail. FOR TWENTY YEARS.

This is hardly an exhaustive list. But I do think it illustrates that US feminists have their hands pretty full. What I’d like to know is this: which of the aforementioned non-miseries does Dr. Coyne think feminists should be neglecting where we live and can have an impact in order to fully focus on the worse plight of women in the Middle East?

And I hope you’re sitting down, because I’m about to totally blow your mind. Believe it or not, despite the endless and overwhelming demands of smashing the patriarchy here at home, a Google search will inform you that many USbased feminist organizations do not in fact confine their activism to the US!* Many do not even focus their work here at all! I know, right?! And guess what else? I hope you are still sitting down, because feminist work is not an either/or proposition. Incredibly, it turns out that feminists are capable of focusing their efforts on more than one cause and one place at a time, just like non-feminists and even atheists are. AMAZING AMIRITE.

You see, it’s not like Jerry Coyne (or Sam Harris) is demanding the release of Purvi Patel.


But persecute an atheist on the other side of the globe, and they are all over it. And there is nothing wrong with that—it is an entirely laudable endeavor that many of us enthusiastically support. But persecute pregnant women on the basis of religious ideas and junk science—seriously, is this not their entire purported purview?—right here in the US, you get *crickets*. Because women in the Middle East have it much, much worse.

By that logic, shouldn’t FFRF stop focusing on trivial little issues like Latin crosses on police cars and scripture displays in public schools, and instead devote their efforts and resources to fighting religious persecution in India or Myanmar?

And what the fuck was everyone doing partying it up at the Reason Rally in DC this past weekend while atheists in Russia face jail time?

Hey! Silly Saudi ladies! What are you complaining about when women in Yemen have it so much worse than you?

It is absolutely true that the vast majority of women in the Middle East have it much, much worse than the vast majority of women in the West. Yes. And that is why so many feminists—including Islamic feminists, in the Middle East—focus their efforts there. It is also absolutely true that Western “mainstream” feminists have a long history of fucking this shit up (in many of the same ways and for many of the same reasons white feminists are prone to fucking shit up with respect to women of color). But you know what? At least some of us are listening to our sisters in the Muslim world, and trying to do better by them. What exactly is Jerry Coyne doing for them? Besides taking potshots at feminists for not doing enough, I mean.

Coyne suggests that the solution to women’s oppression requires taking a more global view: “a rising tide lifts all boats.” So if women across the Middle East were to become significantly less oppressed tomorrow, women in the United States would consequently escape poverty, enjoy the same rights to bodily autonomy as men, and be raped, beaten and killed by their partners a lot less frequently? Oh, and does it work the other way around? That is, if women in the United States dramatically improved their lot, would women in Yemen soon be better off?

Hahaha no.


You know, I have a theory about why such demonstrably fallacious critiques by our esteemed atheist “leaders” are only ever lobbed in the direction of Social Justice Warriors. It’s because their fanatical zeal to single out Islam as the Worstest Religion EVAR™ (despite evidence to the contrary) does not spring from rationalism, humanism or even basic empathy. It is motivated in large part by a petty tribalism, a base compulsion to feel culturally superior (despite evidence to the contrary). And to feel personally superior, too. To that end they need to deny, ignore or justify the traditional Western beliefs we all internalize about the moral and intellectual inferiority of women, brown people, poor people and sexual and religious minorities—and the characteristic Western exploitation, oppression and genocide of those deemed inferior—by pointing fingers anywhere except in the mirror.

Godsforbid any of us should recognize our own part in the social, cultural and economic systems from which we unjustly benefit.

Hey, look over there! People in the Middle East have it much, much worse than you do.

*Feminist anti-war activists also have a long and impressive history in the US. Their work is also international in scope, even though their activism is obviously directed at influencing the US government and their fellow citizens. An effective anti-war movement is probably the most beneficial mission we could undertake if we were serious about, you know, actually helping women in the Middle East, and not just using them as convenient props to feel superior—or worse, to justify Western “intervention.” ISIS and Boko Haram did not just spring up spontaneously out of the blue because of Islam. FFS.



  1. Siobhan says

    That pesky, pesky evidence to the contrary.

    Too bad they’ll never read it.

  2. Excluded Layman says

    It took a minute for it to click, but “rising tides” and “internationalist view” are incompatible concepts, and create a broken analogy: Globally, water volume is effectively fixed, so a rising tide anywhere has to come from receding water elsewhere. In the context of the answer he gave, no, a rising tide does not lift all boats, just the ones he happens to be looking at.

    But it was an ad hoc turn of phrase, so meh. Just goes to show how badly you can mangle a concept when you can’t think it through.

  3. dianne says

    You know, life for women in Saudi Arabia is pretty good compared to life for women in Medieval Europe. So we’re done here, we can all go home and stop worrying about oppression. Relatively speaking, it’s all completely fixed.

  4. chigau (違う) says

    re: floating boats
    Someone once said something like:
    “The sound of champagne corks popping in the lifeboats is of little comfort to those of us treading water.”
    I know I didn’t make this up but I cannot find a source.