A Guy Thing? Secularism, Feminism, and a Response to Ophelia Benson

Michael Shermer

When I got involved in the skeptical, atheist, and secular movements in the 1980s, one looked out over the audience and saw mostly old white guys. Today it is a different picture entirely. At the last Skeptics Society lecture at Caltech on December 16, for example, an audience of three hundred was roughly fifty-fifty men and women, with a broad range of ages from college students to octogenarians. At the last several instances of The Amazing Meeting (TAM) inLas Vegas—the largest gathering of skeptics and atheists in the world—there have been almost as many women speakers as men and around 40 percent women attendees.

Prominent women atheists write powerful books, such as Greta Christina’s 2012 Why Are You Atheists So Angry: 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, which I just listened to on audio, laughing my ass off and wishing I had come up with such poignant arguments. There are notable women skeptics, such as CarolTavris, who has re-engineered introductory psychology textbooks to include skeptical principles throughout (see, for example, her own introduction to psychology textbook coauthored with Carole Wade).

Exceptional women physicians debunk alternative medicine quackery, such as Harriet Hall, MD, widely known and highly regarded as the SkepDoc. Women skeptics have created organizations to encourage more participation by women in secular communities, such as Rebecca Watson’s Skepchicks (I even posed for her Skepdudes calendar!). My friend and colleague Jennifer McCreight, whom I have encouraged to go on for her PhD, has pushed secular student groups to get more women students involved on campuses throughout the United States. For years, the brilliant Ellen Johnson headed American Atheists. Annie LaurieGaylor’s Freedom From Religion Foundation has called attention to the hateful actions of religion against women. The executive director of the RichardDawkins Foundation is Elisabeth Cornwell, a PhD evolutionary psychologist who writes and speaks brilliantly on all matters secular. Robynn McCarthycoanchors (with Derek Colanduno) the biweekly podcast Skepticality, the official podcast of the Skeptics Society. There are distinguished women columnists in skeptical, atheist, and humanist magazines, such as Karen Stollznow in my Skeptic magazine (along with Harriet Hall’s regular column there) andOphelia Benson in Free Inquiry. And last but not least, there is the cofounder of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, Pat Linse, who also developedJr. Skeptic magazine and has for twenty years produced world-class illustrations in support of secular issues and been a powerful force for skepticism.

This is the tip of the iceberg. Google “women in atheism” and you’ll find hundreds more examples, emblematic of how far we’ve come toward gender equalityin just a quarter-century and of how much there is to celebrate.

Let me provide another example of moral progress that at first will seem counterintuitive. It involves a McCarthy-like witch hunt within secular communities to root out the last vestiges of sexism, racism, and bigotry of any kind, real or imagined. Although this unfortunate trend has produced a backlash against itself by purging from its ranks the likes of such prominent advocates as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, I contend that this is in fact a sign of moral progress. Less than a century ago, women were not even allowed to vote. Less than half a century ago, women were blatantly discriminated against in the workplace. As I mentioned, a quarter-century ago, the secular, atheist, and skeptical movements scarcely included any women. Today, even as a plethora of women openly, freely participate in—or lead—secular organizations, much ink and emotion are spilled over trivial slips of the tongue that allegedly reveal hidden biases and unconscious prejudices.

To date, I have stayed out of this witch hunt against our most prominent leaders, thinking that “this too shall pass.” Perhaps I should have said something earlier. As Martin Niemöller famously warned about the inactivity of German intellectuals during the rise of the Nazi party, “first they came for …”but “I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a….”

When self-proclaimed secular feminists attacked Richard Dawkins for a seemingly innocent response to an equally innocent admonishment to guys by RebeccaWatson (the founder of Skepchicks) that it isn’t cool to hit on women in elevators, this erupted into what came to be known as “Elevatorgate.” I didn’t speak out because I figured that an intellect as formidable as Richard Dawkins’s did not need my comparatively modest brainpower in support.

When these same self-described secular feminists went after Sam Harris for a commentary supporting racial profiling in the search for terrorists, again I didn’t speak out. When Harris wrote, “If my daughter one day reads in my obituary that her father ‘was persistently dogged by charges of racism and bigotry,’ unscrupulous people like P.Z. Myers will be to blame,” I thought to myself: “Don’t worry about it, Sam. Your work is for the ages. PZ Myers’s work is for the minutes—the half-life measure of blogs relative to books.”


But perhaps I should have spoken out, because now the inquisition has been turned on me, by none other than one of the leading self-proclaimed secular feminists whose work has heretofore been important in the moral progress of our movement. I have already responded to this charge against me elsewhere,* soI will only briefly summarize it here. Instead of allowing my inquisitors to force me into the position of defending myself (I still believe in the judicial principle of innocence until proven guilty), I shall use this incident to make the case for moral progress.

Here’s what happened: last summer I appeared on an online television show called The Point, hosted by Huffington Post chief science correspondent CaraSanta Maria, who invited me and two other men (Sean Carroll and Edward Falzon) to discuss atheism. In a Q&A following the main discussion, a male viewer asked: “Why isn’t the gender split closer to fifty-fifty as it should be?”

Santa Maria responded first: “In putting together this panel I had a hell of a time finding a woman who would be willing to sit on the panel with me to discuss her atheism. Why is that?”

She then turned to me. I said: “I think it probably really is fifty-fifty. 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 then followed this up by noting that at the 2012 TAM, there had been more women speakers than men. In that I misspoke slightly; according to TAM organizer D.J. Grothe, the number of men and women speakers was equal (the roster on the web page is incorrect) until, ironically, Ophelia Benson herself dropped out. As for the sex ratio of attendees,there were 40 percent women in 2011 and 31 percent in 2012. Grothe speculated online that the anomalous downward shift might possibly be due to some of these very same secular feminists blogging about how skeptic or atheist events were not safe for women.

The other two panelists gave their answers, we moved on to the next topic, and I didn’t give it another thought until I read in Ophelia Benson’s article“Nontheism and Feminism: Why the Disconnect?” (FI, December 2012/January 2013) that “atheism hasn’t always been very welcoming to women.” Why? Because,Benson believes: “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.’”

As evidence for this claim, Benson cites my ten-second comment, removing my preface that “I think it probably really is fifty-fifty,” as well as my observation that women are now near parity in both speakers and attendees at the largest skeptics/atheist conference in the world. However sexist “it’s a guy thing” might sound out of context (and redacted of qualification), it is clear from my answer that I do not believe that women are, in Benson’s characterization, “too stupid to do nontheism” or that “unbelieving in God is thinky work and women don’t do thinky.”

I don’t believe that for a moment, and in any case the evidence (as I outlined at the beginning of this essay) overwhelmingly demonstrates that women are more than capable of thinking, writing, speaking, and debating about God and theism. Unquestionably. Unequivocally. After reading Greta Christina’s book,for example, if I were a believer heading into a debate with her about God, I would be trembling in my boots as much as many theists I know were when they faced the great Christopher Hitchens.

So what did I mean by “it’s a guy thing”? Mostly it was just an observation of the way things were in the past (a bunch of old white guys) that is rapidly changing (the near-parity at TAM), and is in reality intellectually equal (“I think it probably really is fifty-fifty”). Yet since I wrote that explanation noted above, I have been pilloried as a sexist, misogynist, and bigot (with, thankfully, even more positive comments in support and against this secular witch hunt).

Why isn’t the sex ratio in secular, atheist, and skeptical communities perfectly fifty-fifty? I don’t know. If it were 51–49, would that be sexism or statistical noise? What about 55–45? What’s the number at which we define sexism? I don’t know. I asked Cara if she had given the matter further thought,and she replied as follows:

In my search for panelists on the show, I did reach out to a couple of high-profile female atheists local to Los Angeles, but none were available to join.We did receive a video comment from AJ Johnson, the Director of Development at American Atheists.

I don’t know why there seem to be more men in secular circles than women, or whether there truly are more men than women who proudly bear the atheist label. I do find that I get a lot of feedback from readers/viewers commending me on my “bravery” for speaking up as a female atheist. I’m not sure why I’m perceived as being any more brave than a man in doing so.

What I can say is whether it’s real or perceived, a gender bias does seem to exist in atheist/secular/humanist circles, but I’ve never known my friend and colleague Michael Shermer to contribute to this problem. He is, in my estimation, as pro-woman and pro-atheism as they come. [This final comment was unsolicited and I considered redacting it, but just in case there remains any doubt….]


I shall close with a warning about the propensity for social movements to turn on themselves in purges that distract from the original goals and destroy the movement from within. (I wrote about this effect in my book Why People Believe Weird Things, most notably with regards to Ayn Rand’s Objectivist movement,in which members were judged—and subsequently purged—for such trivial matters as liking the wrong music; in the end the movement was reduced to Rand and a handful of sycophants alone in her New York apartment.) As the aforementioned Harriet Hall e-mailed me, she “was vilified on Ophelia’s blog for not following a certain kind of feminist party line of how a feminist should act and think. And I was attacked there in a disturbingly irrational, nonskeptical way.” I asked her why she didn’t defend herself: “I did not dare try to explain my thinking on Ophelia’s blog, because it was apparent from the tone of the comments that anything I might say would be misinterpreted and twisted to use against me. I have always been a feminist but I have my own style of feminism. And I have felt more oppressed by these sort of feminists than by men, and far less welcome in that strain of feminism than in the atheist or skeptical communities.” As for why the sex ratio isn’t perfectly fifty-fifty, Hall noted: “I think it is unreasonable to expect that equal numbers of men and women will be attracted to every sphere of human endeavor. Science has shown that real differences exist. We should level the playing field and ensure there are no preventable obstacles, then let the chips fall where they may.”

If I had to conjecture why at this moment there are not more women atheists and skeptics making public appearances on such television shows, it is probably a legacy of the past socialization defining what women are expected to do. But as I noted at the beginning of this essay, this is changing so rapidly that I doubt the necessity of witch hunts to root out any such remnants of sexism (because of the problem of false positives, in my case).

To conclude on a positive note, if the worst offense against women in secularism today is a ten-second quip taken out of context and redacted to the two-second line “it’s a guy thing” (which in any case was not meant to be sexist) then I would count that as evidence of significant moral progress deserving of celebration, not vilification.


* http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/12-12-12/#feature

** At the twelve-minute mark: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5pmvv_-Lew


Michael Shermer is the executive director of the Skeptics Society and the publisher of Skeptic magazine. He writes a monthly column for Scientific American. His most recent book is The Believing Brain (Times Books, 2011).

Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer is the executive director of the Skeptics Society and the publisher of Skeptic magazine. He writes a monthly column for Scientific American. His most recent book is The Believing Brain (Times Books, 2011).

When I got involved in the skeptical, atheist, and secular movements in the 1980s, one looked out over the audience and saw mostly old white guys. Today it is a different picture entirely. At the last Skeptics Society lecture at Caltech on December 16, for example, an audience of three hundred was roughly fifty-fifty men …

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