Atheism, Sexism, and Sociology: A Reply To Jerry Coyne And Others

Atheism, Sexism, and Sociology: A Reply To Jerry Coyne And Others December 15, 2017
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I recently wrote a blog post where I summarized my book chapter on a research agenda for studying sexism within atheist spaces. After reading a few comments from my post and also seeing Jerry Coyne’s post, I’d like to clarify a few things.

That wasn’t a scientific study. It’s a book chapter discussing ideas for future research. 

I had several comments refer to my article and question the data, hypotheses, and results. I must have not made it clear that it wasn’t an actual study because we don’t have any of that! This was a book chapter discussing different ways future researchers could study sexism within the atheist community. I addressed this in the comments of my post, but I wanted to explicitly address that again here. I can’t speak for my co-authors, but I certainly am not claiming there is any evidence that atheism causes sexism.

The ethnographic data does not confirm atheist spaces are significantly more sexist than other spaces. 

One of our authors, Lori, interviewed atheist women from her local atheist group. That’s the ethnographic research briefly referred to in the chapter.  Some of the women described experiences of sexism in their local groups that made them less likely to participate in future events. So no, it’s not scientific and there is no comparison group. The blog posts and Salon articles are not scientific either. There is certainly a lot of discussion on sexism in atheist spaces and I think it’s a reasonable area to investigate with empirical research.

So why investigate sexism in atheist spaces? 

Jerry Coyne writes this at the end of his post:

Frankly, in the absence of data rather than anecdotes, I don’t accept the authors’ claim that sexism in the atheist community needs intensive study, for we don’t know its degree. If it’s minimal, we needn’t write a gazillion articles about it. And if it’s less than in other “communities,” I’d like to see articles praising atheists for being less sexist, and analyzing why nonbelief fosters acceptance of gender equality.

First off, there are articles praising atheists for being less sexist! I wrote a blog post here summarizing Landon Schnabel’s article that showed atheism is strongly correlated with higher gender equality across different countries.  We also begin the chapter by writing how nonreligious people generally score higher on surveys about gender equality.

Despite these positives, there is a large discussion about sexism in atheist spaces and that’s the contradiction we speak of in our chapter. We want to know what’s going on here. So I’m confused why Coyne argues we shouldn’t study this, but then also states that we need more data:

The important question is this: is atheism more sexist than other groups, or society as a whole?  While I don’t know the answer, my lived experience suggest that the answer is “no”.  But we’ll need data to answer one way or the other.

Yes Jerry, we do need data! Your “lived experience” isn’t scientific just like a blog post describing the experience of sexism isn’t scientific either. I’m not sure why you’d be against some people trying to figure out what’s going on. They could find that there isn’t anything unique to atheist spaces that creates more sexism. Why not let researchers look at what is going on empirically? As you say, we don’t know the degree. Maybe we can find some sociological reason that explains why there are so many articles and blog posts on sexism within atheist spaces.

What do I think is going on? 

I mentioned possibilities of subsets of sexist atheists in the chapter, but I’d like to use this blog post to speculate more. Again, none of this is scientific, it’s a “hunch.”

So we know that atheists generally are pretty pro-feminist according to large surveys. We also observe instances of sexism in atheist spaces. Particularly online spaces. I think there is a subset of atheist men who also have pretty sexist attitudes who make a lot of the noise.

Men’s rights activists, a group of men who believe men are oppressed in society, certainly hold some sexist beliefs. Members of this group of men have also been known to attack and harass women online.  It would be interesting if this group of men was predominantly nonreligious. And there is some data to support this.

The Men’s Rights subreddit had a poll asking for demographic data of its members. An initial poll reported that 94% of the nearly 3,000 respondents were nonreligious! However, that poll also had a large spike in replies that may have been driven by trolls or bots. A follow up poll was conducted that only had about 600 respondents, but also didn’t appear to have any weird spikes in activity. About 70% of respondents said they were nonreligious in this later poll (depending on how you break down the confusion over “other” and irreligious noted).

Again, this isn’t a scientific poll, but it’s interesting as those numbers are much higher than the general population. I was talking to Landon, my co-author, about this after our chapter was published and he suggested that some of these men may fall into a “woken up” type of demographic who fight against perceived delusions. Men’s rights members typically think they are aware of the “real” bias in society that actually impacts men more than women. The poll also showed they are mostly independent and libertarian (and fairly young). Atheism then could be viewed as another kind of contrarian identity they gravitate to. Not all atheists are skeptics as we certainly see too many atheist anti-vaxxers and anti-GMO people.

Landon also noted that despite most men not being sexual abusers, the serial sexual abusers certainly cause a lot of problems for women. It could be then that this subset of anti-feminist atheists could be causing a lot of the sexism/harassment problems we see in the community. These men could follow both atheist and anti-feminist blogs. When they see an atheist woman write something in the atheist space they are in, it may trigger some of the harassment we see reported.

But hey, that’s all speculative. First off, we absolutely would need a rigorous demographic survey of this group of men. However, it still could identify certain types of social spaces that perpetuate sexism. These “woken up” anti-feminist men may bleed into atheist spaces. There doesn’t have to be a lot of them to make a significant amount of noise while vocalizing their beliefs. This may explain why atheists largely report themselves as pro-gender equality in national surveys, but we still see these frequent reports of sexism. This is a question that could be addressed empirically.

What about that section epistemologies that refers to other ways of knowing?

At the end of the chapter, we have a section on Epistemology and Knowledge. There are also a few sentences about how scientism doesn’t allow for other approaches to obtaining knowledge. I didn’t write these sections and they are outside my area so I can’t comment with too much detail on them. I think they refer to obtaining knowledge through anecdotes as a way to inspire scientific work. That’s how I interpret it at least. But you’d have to ask a feminist scholar to get a better answer.

What I can say is that I take a scientific approach to my own research. I think the scientific process is our best way of understanding the world. Some subfields of sociology do not take a scientific approach and that section may be more relevant to them. I would like to describe what scientific sociology looks like, but this post is already pretty long and I’d like to address that in a future post!

Briefly, good scientific sociology has well-defined terms, theory that’s both logical and clear, and rigorous experimental methods. Here is an excellent book of some scientific contemporary sociological theories. Sociology is still a new field and the more science-y part of it is still gaining support. But there is good social science out there!

Hopefully, this post provides some clarification on my book chapter! Feel free to ask me any more questions you have about the chapter or sociology in general!


Update 12/15/17:  I shared this follow up post on Coyne’s blog and he replied with a comment saying the following:

Fine, but if you want to correct or clarify what you said further, I’d ask that you do so on your own website.

By the way, it was reprehensible to take those anecdotes about atheist “leaders” out of context and distort their meaning, and your interpretation of the “Elevatorgate” affiar is way, way off the mark. Perhaps you’d like to “clarify” this on your own website.

I’m totally fine with addressing this here. I do have to say I’m a little disappointed Jerry didn’t specifically address anything in my followup article. Instead, he wanted to beat a very, very dead horse about Elevatorgate and Dawkins all over again.

I don’t find that super productive to be honest. Obviously people disagree on how offensive some statements by Dawkins and Harris have been.

However, if any clarification is needed: I don’t think either Dawkins or Harris is a misogynist (using the literal definition of someone who hates women). So I’m fine with correcting that if anyone thought I had that perception of them. We didn’t call either of them a misogynist in the chapter either. Sometimes misogynist and sexist are used interchangeably in online discourse (I’m probably guilty of doing that sometimes too). But no, I don’t think Dawkins or Harris literally hate women.

I do think they both say some pretty ignorant things about women. Dawkins later apologized for what he said to Rebecca Watson. Harris tried to clarify his #EstrogenVibe gaffe, but I don’t think he fully understood why it upset people as Libby Anne wrote about.

The main point here is that women were upset by their comments and they certainly didn’t help atheism become more women friendly.

I linked above some of the incredible hatemail Rebecca Watson has received. Rape threats, death threats, comments about how ugly she is, etc. None of that is acceptable even if you don’t like her feminist points. Atheist “leaders” like Harris and Dawkins have said misguided things, but the harassment of women is what I’m referring to with the misogyny in atheist spaces.

So that is the crux of this agenda for future research. Why do female atheists like Watson get tons of hateful, sexist comments despite atheists being generally pro-gender equality on surveys? Who are the people saying these things? That’s what a future study could investigate.


PS: I now have a Patreon if you’d like to support my writing and podcasting.

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