Dogma comes in many flavors

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.


  1. jacksprocket says

    “Christian culture; if they’d been born in India they’d most likely be Hindu, in Italy Catholic”

    Funny, I thought Catholics were Christians.

  2. nomadiq says

    @1 many christians don’t accept Catholics are christians. And I’ve know many Catholics refer to other christians as ‘the Christians’ and themselves as ‘Catholics’.

    Anyway I think PZs intentions here are clear. It’s a funny thing to bother to point out.

  3. says

    Lutherans are also Christian. Isn’t it funny how tiny differences in the interpretation of the same holy book can be the basis for an identity?

  4. Becca Stareyes says

    Jack sprocket @ 1

    Well, you can argue that White American Evangelical Protestantism* is it’s own form of Christianity, distinct from European sects**. I recall seeing various articles circa 2009 about European and Australian Christians, even quite devout ones, quite surprised at the way many Christians in America took it as axiomatic that opposing state-run health care was the Christian thing to do.

    We Americans, of course, think the world revolves around us, so our loud, pain-in-the-neck Christians must be the default state. ;-P

    * The African-American church seems to be its own distinct thing, thanks to slavery and segregation.
    ** I don’t know enough to make cultural distinctions here, but I imagine they exist.

  5. says

    I recently posted about a Wisconsin senator who was appalled over an offered course which taught young men alternatives to toxic masculinity. The senator was terribly upset, and quite the asshole, but thanks to him, I found my way to the course page, and a fantastic video by Guantes, Ten Responses to the Phrase ‘Man Up’.

  6. says


    Funny, I thought Catholics were Christians.

    Not according to most non-Catholic Christians. A quick look at history will confirm that one.

  7. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Mike Rowe argued the slogan “go vote” was actually a bad idea and refused to say who he preferred to win. (Didn’t want to be shrugged off as the reason for swaying someone’s vote)
    The point being that getting everyone to vote, no matter how thoughtless etc, they are, revealed how mixed we really are. Everyone likes to think everyone thinks like them (see what I did there?) BUT
    Shit who knew there were so many who hated everything and wanted someone who be anti everything and destroy?
    “Back in the old days” (yeah I said that) many used to think a lot about the long term ramifications of the candidate rather than the ‘instant gratification’ mode we’ve fallen into. That’s why poll numbers were so small.Only deep thinkers knew where ther votes might lead so hesitated frequently. Now people just get fired up and think raw emotion will be enough to decide who to vote for.

  8. scottbelyea says

    “Ask an atheist, and they will tell you that religion poisons everything. ”

    Poor start to the article. I would have thought that you’d try to avoid that sort of Dawkins-esque gross overstatement.

  9. cartomancer says

    It is true that all too often people (and whole cultures) try to define what is appropriately feminine as the inverse of what is appropriately masculine. But the opposite can happen too. One aspect of Roman attitudes towards masculinity and femininity (just as multi-faceted as the Greek ones) is that we quite often find women praised for showing traditionally masculine virtues in situations we might have expected feminine failings. Particularly in funerary inscriptions. One very revealing tombstone – the so-called Laudatio Turiae – praises a peculiar blend of traditional feminine ideals (domesticity, concern for children, subordination) combined with a pushiness and presence of mind in public affairs in support of husband and household. Others even praise girl children for their boyish appearance (pueri vultus). Some of Pliny’s letters even praise women for taking a lead and showing a courageous example to their husbands (Arria the Elder and Caecina Paetus for instance)

    The thought process here seems to be that feminine is naturally inferior to masculine, so a woman showing masculine qualities is going above and beyond what can be expected of her. Admittedly these displays of masculine dynamism tend to be in service to family, husband and state, and any hint of sexual masculinity is heavily censured (Cicero on Clodia, anything from Juvenal’s sixth satire).

  10. martha says

    The books I came across as a teenager all seemed to describe growing up in terms of “becoming a man”. The only references to “becoming a woman” involved sex, which was kind of beyond the pale anyway in Catholic culture, so didn’t seem relevant. I did know about feminism and I used to wonder how to go about this “becoming a man” thing as a woman. It always felt like trying to get into a suit of clothes that didn’t fit and I really wanted an entirely new vocabulary and set of stories. Judging by the stories my kids have read and watched, things seem somewhat better now but not quite better enough.

  11. says

    As an ex-Evangilical, I can confirm: most evangelical protestants don’t consider Catholics to be Christian – all that praying to Mary and the saints stuff is too much like paganism.

    I’m somewhat bemused by the whole “men going their own way” phenomenon. I’ve never had a romantic/sexual relationship with a man (or woman) and probably never will (not for any philosophical reason; its just never appealed to me,) but I don’t feel the need to join some sort of group or build my identity around not needing a man. I used to laugh at that sort of thing – its only recently that I’ve realized how deadly serious it really is.

    Incidentally, you mention that different cultures have different ideals of masculinity and femininity – I’d be interested in learning more about some specific examples. Does anyone know a good book for the layperson, something like Freakonomics for gender roles?

  12. whheydt says

    As my wife puts it from time to time…If I’d been a football fan, she would never have married me.

  13. dragon says

    With our kids we used the phrase “becoming an adult”. There are many responsibilities and discipline to acquire in that process. For both men and women.

  14. rietpluim says

    How to become a man:
    1. Be a boy.
    2. Grow up.

    Of course this needs some tweaking to include trans and non-binary people, but that’s basically it. Anything else is sexism.

  15. Siobhan says

    #12 Sarah A

    Does anyone know a good book for the layperson, something like Freakonomics for gender roles?

    Whipping Girl: A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity by Julia Serano. While the overall thesis is about the capacity of gender roles in bludgeoning trans people specifically, it also pretty comprehensively illustrates predominant Western attitudes about gender more generally.

  16. Zeppelin says

    @Sarah A

    I haven’t got any scholarly recommendations, but the Georgian national epic's_Skin is kind of interesting from a Western perspectives in that its male heroes are described as pale and slender and doe-eyed with skin like porcellain and lips like rose petals. They’re also highly emotional, iridescent tears dewing their rosy cheeks at every opportunity. But they also embody more familiar chivalric masculine values like strength and fighting prowess.

  17. zardeenah says

    Question for the wise:

    My son is 14 and I’m starting to allow him to play Xbox live – I want to give him ideas on what to say if people use sexist language, but everything I think of comes off as whining that they insulted you, not a call out.

    What would/do you say?

  18. cartomancer says

    Zardeenah, #18

    Perhaps a simple “not cool” would be best. It’s pointing out the sentiment, not shutting down further thought by seeming confrontational or accusatory. Not that confrontational and accusatory are wrong per se, but they do tend to make people defensive.

  19. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    I know it’s what Luther noted. Catholics don’t care about Christ, only Mary and Saints etc. that’s why Luther demanded no iconography,originating term ‘iconoclast’
    All modern Christianity focuses on talking to Christ, even bypassing God. Catholics were the originator sect but not quite Christian enough.
    Or so this former Catholic likes to think.?

  20. cartomancer says

    Slithey Tove, #20

    Actually the term iconoclast (Greek-derived, meaning “smasher of images”) originated much earlier – in the Byzantine Empire in the 7th/8th centuries. Byzantine Christianity (from which the Greek, Slavic and Russian Orthodox sects emerge) placed a great emphasis on painted images of Jesus and the Saints, but over the course of the Byzantine Empire’s clashes with the new religion of Islam (very much against depiction of people and gods, as we know) a number of prominent thinkers began attributing the Christians’ mounting defeats to God punishing them for their impiety, and started to oppose image-painting. Leo III made this official Imperial policy and for a century or so it was a schism that divided the Orthodox church. The iconophiles eventually won and normality was restored.

  21. ragdish says

    Discussions such as this often pin people into corners especially if your opinions are heavily skewed to either nature or nurture. And each corner needs to cogently answer to all available evidence. The nature clerics need to answer why masculinity is different in various contemporary and historical cultures. The nurture clerics need to explain the innate aspects of being transgender if they argue that cisgender is a social construct.

    That being said, I think that the nature clerics are in the greater number (eg. Pinker). I find way more pragmatism among those who tilt to the nurture side particularly among neuroscientists (eg. Ben Barres, Eric Kandel, Pat Churchland, etc). It’s nature and nurture. Duh.

    Height is highly innate. But height has no meaning if you’re a human kept in total isolation. With total social deprivation being tall or short is meaningless. Similarly, even if there are genetic underpinnings to gender, all that is bubkas if you are born deaf, blind and without peripheral sensation. This is what I find most infuriating about nature clerics such as Pinker.

  22. unclefrogy says

    Judging by the stories my kids have read and watched, things seem somewhat better now but not quite better enough.

    this is it. the whole idea that there is a difference between culture and biology , nature and nurture is very difficult. We all experience it and are subject to it collectively as society and individually. Often not even being able to make a clear separation between the what we learned , what the rules society imposes as accepted norms and what we feel intrinsically feel as true.
    When I look back back at my life I personally have experienced a change in attitudes that I intentionally did not realize were attitudes or that they could be questioned. I am not sure how the overall culture has changed how ever as I am some what removed or at least outside of the culture group I was originally in. When I was “in it” growing up it seemed like the whole truth and superior to everything else but the conflict was apparent even before i was aware of what it was or dared to think about it let alone express it out loud. Good old evil and sin, guilt and punishment how I used to adore them!
    I would make the observation that the attitudes and areas that generate the most excitement and controversy, that stir up the most emotions, might be those that are the most culturally learned and the least influenced by biology though I doubt there are any that are purely one or the other.

    uncle frogy

  23. deepak shetty says

    Ask an atheist, and they will tell you that religion poisons everything.

    Its funny that the same atheists are also the ones who argue that Atheism is only a rejection of God and hence implies nothing more. (But believing in religion/God is not just a belief in God, it has all these dangerous poisonous implications! )

  24. says

    Friends and acquaintances have identified as a different gender and dressed differently. I wondered, if dogma of masculinity and femininity gets rejected, it’ll be interesting to see future choices of clothes. Buttons on the other side, belts that buckle the opposite way, frillies, conductor hats, and such are culturally feminine. “Hey, that’s for girls,” I hear. “What does it have to do with penises/scrotums or breasts?” I ask. Perhaps newer and better cues of sex, gender, orientation, and/or relationship status will come about for better communication. …assuming not having to worry about being a target for vicious bigots.

  25. johnlee says

    95% of Christians will join us Atheists in Hell because they belong to the wrong sect. The only ones who will get saved are the True Christians, and I’m not too clear which ones they are anyway.

  26. says

    @Siobhan and Zeppelin, thanks for the suggestions. The more I think about it the more amazed I am that I’m working on a PhD in biology but don’t know the first thing about most of the issues I read about here. There needs to be something like “Social Justice 101” as a required course in high school.

  27. tororosoba says

    Regarding the Greek view of men vs women: A (unscientific) look at the Greek pantheon makes it clear that they were well aware that not all women are like Venus (sorry, Aphrodite) and not all men like Mars (Hephaistos). Still, I don’t think women were present in Greek politics (or perhaps they were?).

  28. jacksprocket says

    “Being a man” – Kipling had something to say on the subject. See the rightly much-derided poem, “If” (Kipling’s, not Andrew Lang’s). He would probably have regarded the alt right as a load of common oiks, and he would have been right. That his own version of masculinity was a problem was something he didn’t recognise until after he’d driven (by parenthood) his own son to a pointless and miserable death in the trenches of World War One. “If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied”.

    “Catholics don’t care about Christ, only Mary and Saints etc.” (polynomic stevem @20)

    Where do you get this stuff from? I seem to be the only Catholic atheist in town.

  29. jacksprocket says

    @30 tororosoba
    Courtesans and Fishcakes by James Davidson is what you want to read. Politics and passions in Classical Greece, including some very powerful women and why you shouldn’t gobble your food at a symposium.

  30. Rob Grigjanis says

    tororosoba @30:

    not all men like Mars (Hephaistos)

    Huh? Mars is Ares. Vulcan is Hephaistos.

  31. chigau (ever-elliptical) says

    jacksprocket #31
    I’m a Catholic atheist and I long ago gave up trying to inform the Protestant atheists what Catholics really believe.

  32. Joe White says

    The late mathematician W.W. Sawyer had something to say on this subject. From his essay “Dialectic and Logic”:

    “Can any one produce a property A that in fact is capable of being exactly defined and separated from not-A? And if there are such properties, can one characterize the class they form?

    A few suggestions:-

    Sane and insane. Generally agreed no dividing line.

    Biological species.Biologists generally agree that clear lines of demarcation cannot be drawn.

    Living and not-living.The viruses, for instance, are described as having “some of the properties of living beings.” I do not believe there is any real meaning in asking to which category they belong. In the medical
    profession there is great difficulty in saying at what moment a person becomes dead.

    Male or female. 100% males and 100% females are rare. We have both sets of organs before birth and throw in our lot, more or less, with one side or the other. According to Coleridge the great mind is always androgynous.

    I and not-I. People give the greatest variety of answers to this question – some regard only their minds as “I”, others the whole of their bodies. Taking the latter view, where do we leave off? Is the air in my lungs “I”? I should soon cease to function without it.

    Bertie Wooster attributed Jeeves’ brainpower to the fact that Jeeves ate lashings of fish. At what point does the fish cease to be fish and become imperfectly organized Jeeves?

    Human and not-human. At present the distinction seems a simple one. It might not be so simple if Neanderthals were still in existence. Again, it has been suggested that, if a number of nuclear bombs were exploded, the whole earth would become permeated with radioactive carbon, in sufficient quantities to upset the process of reproduction. Assuming monsters of all kinds to be born, by what test would one decide whether they were human or not? If this horrible situation actually arose, no doubt some ruling would be made on practical grounds, but whatever it was, there would be a considerable arbitrary element in it.

    Pass and fail. No one yet seems to have produced a satisfactory procedure for separating “those who ought to pass” from “those who ought to fail”.”

    Food for thought. Although I’m starting to wonder if the properties “Red State” and “Blue State” might not fulfill his criteria. The class that they form is supposed to be “The United States,” but I’m starting to wonder about that too.

  33. unclefrogy says


    here now and not here now?
    though both here and now are contingent qualities, now particularly
    uncle frogy