It took approximately seven years for a prominent skeptic to actually address the claim that there is a sexism trend/pandemic in the atheist community (the existence of said community is contested; for the purposes of this post and blog, the “atheist community” is a reference to several people and groups who are fighting for secularism and against religious privilege — their atheism usually stems from the application of free inquiry and skepticism principles to the preternatural claims mostly made by religious preachers, books, and theologians).
Around 2011 or so, the atheist community was the target of unsubstantiated accusations of sexism that a lot of self-proclaimed skeptics were more than eager to take at face value, shamelessly disregarding what Sokal and Bricmont had warned us about.
And, as it so often happens with bigoted agendas being pushed by zealots, it was only a matter of time before the sexism accusation leveled against New Atheism was disguised as science, to be portrayed as fact. Meet “Gender and Atheism: Paradoxes, Contradictions, and an Agenda for Future Research”, a ‘paper’ (wink, wink) by Landon Schnabel, Matthew Facciani, Ariel Sincoff-Yedid, and Lori Fazzino. I’m actually surprised it took them this long before trying these shenanigans!
Fortunately enough, Jerry Coyne read the article so we don’t need to waste our time doing so. His post about it, Another plaint about sexism-ridden New Atheism, contains a couple of paragraphs that neatly sum up my first thought when I heard about the so-called sexism in the atheist community and how the disproportionately low number of women in the atheist community was somehow ‘proof’ of misogyny within it:
While this is possible, the authors fail to document it with any data. Instead, they do what Salon always does: cite a few anecdotes that supposedly demonstrate misogyny in people like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins. Even Elevatorgate is dragged in, citing Rebecca Watson’s unsubstantiated complaint that a man asked her to his room for coffee when both were in an elevator during an atheist meeting. The quotes from Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins are well known, and hardly demonstrate that they’re misogynists (remember, that means “women haters”, not simple sexists). There is the misrepresentation that Watson’s comment “guys, don’t do that” ignited a firestorm of misogyny in the atheist community, while in reality what happened is that people strongly criticized Watson not for that mild comment, but for her subsequent videos calling out a critic in the audience of a later talk, and saying that men who objected to what she said could simply go copulate with watermelons.
What we have here are the usual anecdotes, not data, and those anecdotes, like Harris suggesting that the paucity of women atheists might be due to differential aggressiveness, don’t convince anyone but the already converted that atheist leaders—much less atheists in general—are ridden with misogyny.
Further, it’s long been known that women are substantially more religious and far less atheistic than men, and this holds even in countries without a substantial number of atheists.
Exactly: what’s the evidence? That’s what I’ve been asking for years, because anecdotal evidence is no evidence! This shouldn’t even be controversial —let alone, scholarly paper material—… yet, so many decisions and incidents have gravitated around the whole bogus idea that New Atheism is sexist, that when people fall for it that should be some kind of huge red flag about how skeptical some of them really are when it comes to claims that resonate with their previously held beliefs.
And some questions should also come out of this: for instance, why do we keep on pretending that you can be a skeptic and a post-modernist at the same time? Can someone be a homeopath or an anti-vaxxer and be welcomed in the big Skepticism tent? If not, why the double standards when it comes to post-modernists?
I think everyone should really read Coyne’s take, for it pulls no punches when poking holes at the ‘paper’, reducing it to little less than a Swiss cheese; for instance, he also addresses the claim that gender (and race) gaps in atheist demographics are due to sexism/racism — I have already pointed out that crying “sexism” (or “racism”) when looking at atheist demographics is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, but I guess self-proclaimed skeptics falling for one of the oldest tricks in the book is only really on display when a prominent actual skeptic says so, so more power to Coyne.
I have a small quibble with his post, though. Jerry Coyne asserts that “there is sexism in any movement that contains men, for some men are sexists“, which isn’t a false statement, but doesn’t sound completely right, either. That’s half the picture. There is sexism in any movement that contains humans, for some humans —regardless of their sex— are chauvinists. We actually have seen smear campaigns in women-only atheist groups.
Leaving that comment aside, I wholeheartedly agree with his post, and I encourage you to read it and spread it by any means you can.