Is Philosophy Just A Guy Thing? Not In My Classroom. (A Response To William Lane Craig)

According to a woman named Alexandra, writing into his site, Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig’s April newsletter “casually stereotype[d] men and women, and complain[ed] that the church is becoming increasingly feminized, and has difficulties in attracting men.”

In reply to the letter, Craig proceeded to make his case that Christian apologetics has a “peculiar attraction” to men compared to women. The support for the claim is entirely anecdotal:

First is my observation that apologetics seems to have far more interest for men than for women. That observation is based upon an enormous amount of experience in speaking on university campuses, at apologetics conferences, and in classroom teaching. It is a realization that gradually and unexpectedly forced itself upon me. It became very evident to me not only that the audiences which came to these events were largely male but that in event after event only the men stood up to ask a question. These facts seem to me to be undeniable.

Second is my hypothesis that this disparity is to be explained by the fact that men respond more readily to a rational approach, whereas women tend to respond more to relational approaches. Of course, this is just my best suggestion, and if you’ve got a better hypothesis to explain the disparity, Alexandra, I’m open to it. But there has to be an explanation.

Let me just say, having taught 93 philosophy courses myself, nearly all of them at the introductory level where students are not self-selecting, I honestly have no indication whatsoever that women find philosophical questions and arguments less attractive than men do. I am not saying this because I’m generally pro-feminist. I’m saying that in all sincerity when I think about my most engaged and outspoken students, they’re so mixed gender wise I couldn’t even begin to speculate about whether either gender has predominated overall in our constantly interactive class discussions. I couldn’t even begin to speculate who has had on balance more high quality comments. In any given class, the distribution of participants and quality contributions, as far as I can tell, is simply random between men and women.

The only thing I do know is that one time when I underwent a teaching observation, the professor sitting in kept close track of the participation and the genders of the participants and noted that the women were participating much more than the men in that particular class. It’s not always like that. It’s unpredictable. But I would not be surprised if, when it has come to participation, I have had as many male dominated classes as female dominated ones. Thinking back on the vast majority of my classes, it’s such a mixture that I couldn’t begin to guess.

I have no concrete evidence that anything I do makes women open up more than they might otherwise. The only thing I do that may be helpful is that I mediate all discussions so students are always talking to me instead of directly to each other. This makes direct confrontations between students rare and insofar as men are sometimes socialized to be more confrontational and women are sometimes socialized to be less so, this is almost never a factor in my classes. I also am extremely supportive of all my students. They don’t feel judged and tested when I call on them. Even if they only have a tenuous grasp of what they want to say, I am encouraging and supportive and I will seize on whatever seed of a good idea they have gotten a hold of and praise them for it and patiently help them develop it, and then I’ll develop it for myself and let them see clearly that it was a fruitful idea indeed.

That kind of nurturing, collaborative, non-combative approach to philosophy opens people up (all people, not just women). And insofar as women suffer from negative messaging in the form of stereotype threat and might take being shot down as reinforcing any socially conditioned doubts about their abilities, I am assiduously removing such barriers. I don’t do it any more for women than for men, and nor do I, in the classroom, think of women as needing it more than men need it. I have always just treated all students equally in this regard.

Only in the last year or two have I even started wondering why women participate more in my class than they do in the field of philosophy at large. In thinking it over, this is the most likely thing I have figured that may be having the effect of removing the extra barriers that exist to women feeling comfortable, confident, and eager to participate in philosophy contexts. I presume that the average woman is more likely to be turned off to philosophical debates when they resemble pissing contests or are generally conflict heavy, given how much more the average woman is socialized towards maintaining social equilibriums and how much more men are socialized towards competitiveness (that exacerbates naturally higher levels of testosterone, which themselves correlate with greater competitiveness). But, I am only speculating here and am very interested in women’s thoughts on the issue.

And, it goes without saying that even if true these are just generalizations. I myself am a male philosopher who is seriously put off by the kinds of philosophers who see philosophy as a blood sport or an opportunity to appear superior to others. While I can certainly get extremely passionate and aggressive when making an argument and can stand up to the nastiest, most dismissive, and most contemptuous philosophical interlocutors without being cowed, I am usually not one to initiate hostilities into an otherwise genial discussion. I really want to feel like disagreements are collaborative endeavors. So I don’t start philosophical fights (I finish them).

But I digress. Whatever problems philosophy has had achieving gender balance on the professional level (and there are infamously serious problems), I see not a trace of it coming from the relative interest or ability levels of beginning students with respect to the questions at hand.

I’m not exaggerating. I feel like William Lane Craig is describing a completely different world from the one I work in daily. And, in fact, I suspect that that might be a big part of the actual problem. He is talking to college students who have self-selected to go to a conservative Christian college and he is talking to audiences disproportionately representing conservative Christians. And in conservative Christianity, patriarchal attitudes towards women are prevalent.

A conservative Christian girl grows up being taught that she is never to teach men, never to be the pastor in front of the church doing theology, and that her highest value in life is in her relationships to others as mother, wife, daughter, caregiver, etc. Or, even if she is lucky enough to escape that teaching in both her home and her home church she nonetheless grows up at least having to treat that patriarchal viewpoint as a serious theological possibility that she has to carefully refute (or accommodate) from countless fellow conservative believers–any number of whom she may respect spiritually and feel bad about having to differ from.

On Facebook, Bobby Struck (who pointed out the Craig article to me in the first place) sums up what’s going on here succinctly:

Step 1: Create institutional biases and social norms that prevent or otherwise discourage a certain group of people from commonly taking part in a certain activity.

Step 2: Point out the consequences of Step 1 –that a certain group of people doesn’t commonly take part in some activity– and claim it as evidence of the non-politically-correct “way things are” and further as evidence that you were justified all along in prepetuating the biases and norms in Step 1.

The circularity is perfect, and wholly vitiating.

And what is most troubling here is that while Craig repeatedly challenges anyone who doesn’t like his conclusions to come up with an alternative explanation for why more men participate in his classes and lectures than women, he never once suggests that they start brainstorming ideas for a solution to the problem of gender imbalance.

It is one thing for him to honestly think he sees a correlation between gender and interest when it comes to thinking about the reasons for his faith. But his laziness in not even bothering to introspect as to whether it is his, or the church’s, fault that women are apparently not seeking to maximize their understanding of the supposed intellectual supports for their faith, is troubling. His failure to show any interest in inspiring more women to care about apologetics is troubling.

He is more interested in proving himself right that women just aren’t as attracted to apologetics as men and, worse, he’s hung up on how Christianity is supposedly losing men. So, after supposedly isolating a fact that his own specialization within his faith is losing women, his only worry is how to attract more men. He shows no concern, say, that women who do not study apologetics may be failing in an intellectual, moral, and spiritual responsibility to give an account for why what they believe is true. This seems a matter of complete indifference to him, so long as they believe. He also shows no concern that he might be failing them by not learning how to reach them.

His gripes about a “feminized” Christianity leave me as aghast as anything. As I’ve talked about before, even as I grew up in a conservative Evangelical Christianity where it was a serious matter of debate whether women should be allowed to be preachers, I always saw my faith in otherwise very egalitarian terms and never as being epitomized by beer commercial masculinity. In his article Craig tries to show his masculine bona fides by mocking a female sportscaster for suggesting to a quarterback that he must feel bad for the other team when he sees his team is beating them in a blowout. Craig gives all the men reading along a jovial manly punch in the arm saying, “Uh, I don’t think so!” (Weirdly, he cites his wife as laughing along with him at the interviewer’s question. Not very feminine of her. Tsk tsk.)

When I was a Christian, I would have seen the view of the good man as a chest thumper as wholly “worldly”. Christianity was a religion of love, self-sacrifice, humility, kindness, compassion, forgiveness. It had nothing to do with competitiveness. Not that I would have been against competitiveness. I loved baseball dearly. But the idea that compassionate feelings had to be mocked or were a threat to feminize Christianity instead of ideally realize it never would have crossed my mind.

I mean, whatever happened to sportsmanship at least? I wouldn’t have been surprised if in Christian athletics they had a custom of having opposing teams pray together as a way of emphasizing their deeper unity off the field. When I was a kid in Little League, we had to high five everyone on the other team and say “good game” before leaving. I would have thought Christians would at least aspire to that minimum of graciousness and not pump themselves up on how the proof of what manly men they are is that they feel nothing for the vanquished foe and laugh contemptuously at the very suggestion that they feel a little bad to embarrass him in a lopsided victory. Professional athletes actually have all sorts of sportsmanship understandings about not showing up the losers and rubbing it in their faces. It would only be becoming for them not to encourage petty “nyah-nyah-nyah-na-nanna-na” attitudes within themselves.

Craig thinks that what men need is to see that Jesus is “not only a tough guy but a smart guy”. You know, a “guy’s guy“. Not a God. Not even a perfect human. Guy’s need to connect with Jesus as a fellow guy. And mysteriously women are turned off to what Craig is saying.

Finally, “Jesus was a badass” spiels from Christians are always so forced and artificial and desperate they just beg for a parody. I’m suggesting one along the lines of Breaking Bad. Someone can do that scene where Jesus asks his disciples who he is and they tell him what various opinions are and then he says “Who do you say I am?” Except instead he says, “Do you know who I am?” And they say. “Yes.” And he says, “Say my name.” “The Christ.” “You’re goddamm right.” (Then, for good measure, doing his best Heisenberg impression: “I AM THE SAVIOR! I AM THE ONE WHO SAVES!”)

Ophelia Benson also blogged about Craig’s remarks after I sent her the link to them.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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