A Response to Michael Shermer

Ophelia Benson

Michael Shermer is very indignant about being criticized: he wrote a two-and-a-half-page article (“A Guy Thing? Secularism, Feminism, and a Response to Ophelia Benson,” FI, February/March 2013) for Free Inquiry in reaction to four paragraphs in an article of mine (“Nontheism and Feminism: Why the Disconnect?FI, December 2012/January 2013) that criticized something he said on an Internet talk show. That’s a lot of response to a small and not terribly ferocious criticism.

It’s also a very heated response. He claims there is “a McCarthy-like witch hunt within secular communities to root out the last vestiges of sexism, racism, and bigotry” that is “purging from its ranks the likes of such prominent advocates as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.” He worries that he should have spoken up about this sooner, adding, “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. . . .’” He adds that “now the inquisition has been turned on me.” He declares that he won’t be “allowing my inquisitors to force me into the position of defending myself (I still believe in the judicial principle of innocence until proven guilty).”

To sum all that up: Shermer characterizes a brief criticism of something he said as a McCarthy-like witch hunt, a purge, the Nazi party, an inquisition,and a criminal trial. As he mentions (apparently without realizing how prickly it makes him look), he had already written a long piece on the subject in his online newsletter eSkeptic, much of which he simply repeated in his Free Inquiry response.

This is a lot of angry bluster to respond to a criticism that takes up four paragraphs in a piece that’s not about Shermer. My article, written for the“Women in Secularism” section of the December 2012/January 2013 issue of Free Inquiry, is about stereotypes that may contribute to the under representation of women in the atheist/secular movement. Here is the part that is critical of something Shermer said:

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.”

Don’t laugh: Michael Shermer said exactly that during a panel discussion on the online talk-show The Point. The host, Cara Santa Maria, presented a question: Why isn’t the gender split in atheism closer to 50-50? Shermer explained, “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.”

It’s all there—women don’t do thinky, they don’t speak up, they don’t talk at conferences, they don’t get involved—it’s “a guy thing,” like football and porn and washing the car.

It’s incredibly discouraging, that kind of thing. I thought (naïvely) that stereotypes of women as stupid and passive and bashful had been exposed as,precisely, sexist stereotypes decades ago, at least among intellectual and political and progressive types. I thought everybody knew they were not just wrong but also retrograde. Would Shermer have said that if the question had been about race instead of gender? Would he have said “it’s more of a white thing”? It seems very unlikely.

The rest of the article—the bulk of it—says nothing about Shermer at all.

The criticism is sharp, but I don’t think it’s unfair. A certain amount of sharpness is needed to address a thoughtless banality of that kind.(I’ve heard from several fathers of daughters who were particularly annoyed by Shermer’s comment, not when they read my article but when they heard Shermer say it in the video. I’m far from the only person on Earth who flinched when hearing it.) Thoughtless banalities are what keep stereotypes doing their work, and a wake-up call is no bad thing.

So why is Michael Shermer so angry? He did after all say what I quoted him as saying. (He twice says I “redacted” it but that’s offensively incorrect—I did no such thing.)

He seems to be furious simply because some underling had the gall to criticize him—as if he were beyond or above criticism. Why would that be? A cat can look at a king, after all. Shermer seems to see it as some sort of lèse-majesté, as if we were in Thailand, where it’s an actual crime to criticize the royal family. But Shermer’s elevated status is—ironically—as a prominent skeptic. A skeptic. If there’s anything skeptics don’t subscribe to, it’s the idea of infallibility.

Shermer, however, genuinely does seem to think that “prominence” should confer immunity to challenge. After he mentions the putative purge of “such prominent advocates as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris,” he says that “I have stayed out of this witch hunt against our most prominent leaders.” Our what? Whose “leaders”? I don’t recall joining any army, or even a party. I don’t consider Dawkins and Harris my “leaders”; I don’t consider anyone that.

No, I’m sorry, that won’t do. I’m not going to bend the knee to “our most prominent leaders,” and I’m not going to refrain from criticizing them and go looking for less prominent people to dispute. On the contrary: their prominence itself is a reason to dispute a bit of thoughtless sexism. These honcho dudes are influential, so it’s all the more unfortunate if they’re recycling dopy sexist stereotypes.

As a lot of people have pointed out, Shermer could have just said he misspoke, as happens in live conversations, and moved on. Instead he chose an explosion of outraged vanity. So much for skepticism.


Ophelia Benson is a columnist for Free Inquiry and the editor of the website Butterflies and Wheels. With Jeremy Stangroom, she is the coauthor of Does GodHate Women? and Why Truth Matters (both from Continuum, 2009 and 2006, respectively) and The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir, 2004).

Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).

Michael Shermer is very indignant about being criticized: he wrote a two-and-a-half-page article (“A Guy Thing? Secularism, Feminism, and a Response to Ophelia Benson,” FI, February/March 2013) for Free Inquiry in reaction to four paragraphs in an article of mine (“Nontheism and Feminism: Why the Disconnect?” FI, December 2012/January 2013) that criticized something he said …

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