AS69: Is Sam Harris the Sexist Pig We’re Looking For?

Sam Harris made some comments that feminists did not take kindly to. Here’s a link to his explanation:

I think there are some troubling points to his commentary, and here are some critics:

“a professional responsibility to get the facts straight”

I find this one pretty outrageous though:

Amanda Marcotte writes this as though Sam Harris has said women are biologically inferior to men, something I’m pretty sure he would disagree with vehemently.

6 thoughts on “AS69: Is Sam Harris the Sexist Pig We’re Looking For?”

  1. Thomas I wouldn’t call the Raw Story article “garbage”. I actually enjoyed reading it, even though like you I don’t completely agree with her.

    Amanda Marcotte (pronounced (Mar -Cot by the way, no “E” on the end I believe) raises some interesting points about what Harris said, and makes quite a clever case to show at least some of them to be potentially problematic. (His stance on guns, for instance, always puzzled me). I don’t always agree with her, but she is usually worth reading; a very intelligent woman, and talented writer, if too firmly entrenched in one camp. She has her reasons for that though. I would agree that she is very fond of hyperbole and likes to make a show of her articles though – one thing you may have missed is her tendency to satirise her target. It was interesting to judge my own interpretation of the Harris’ comments, from her perspective.

    One thing I do disagree with her about is that all of the differences between male/female participation in active atheism can be attributed to sexism causing an uncomfortable environment. It’s a factor, but I think it’s also possible that other environmental variables (pressure to conform, financial security, family commitments etc. which may be different to those experienced by men) mean that it’s often simply more difficult for women than men to participate in active atheism.

    You say she’s misinterpreting Harris, but I think you’re misinterpreting Marcotte as well. I’ve seen her write like this before: she’s so clever that it’s sometimes unclear where she’s joking and where she’s being serious: this article had both parts. Near the end, she is really just satirising him. She’s just suggesting how it would be easy to interpret his paragraph about his respect for women as an advert for female servitude. You are taking her too literally. My conclusion is just that Harris could have used better examples of female achievement in his life.

    Overall, I think she means that because Harris says that a reason for his low female following, is that women are not as inclined towards critical posture, it follows that women are therefore less effective (inferior) at becoming and staying active atheists. As active atheism is the “preferred” stance in Harris’ eyes vis a vis attitude to God beliefs, you could conclude that Harris’ statement does imply that women are fundamentally disadvantaged in this regard, and thus we are led directly lead to Marcotte’s inference of the “biological inferiority”. This might not be where Harris wanted to go, but he opened a path to it.

    Where you remarked on the whole “Good at the critical posture” vs. “Attracted to the critical posture” ? Same difference, surely. You’re more likely to be effective at it, either way. Come on now, Thomas, you railed on before about semantics, but that’s exactly what you’re doing now.

    Where we need to be clear is to explain why Harris is wrong to infer intention from patterns.

    Observation: Women appear to be less attracted to angry atheism than men. Reason given: Psychological differences, innate or cultural.

    You might think this is a decent answer, but I’d go further than that. For all we know many of the female non-participants in angry atheism may be mentally raring to go, but because of various environmental factors, are unable to actually engage. Inferring the intention to not act, after observing non-action, is another bad assumption Harris is guilty of making here.

    I think Marcotte’s central point revolves around how we conceptualise these “observable differences” between men and women. I’ve heard her speak on this before and she’s always pretty big on this. The differences could be physical or behavioural. You could argue about whether it’s a good idea to embrace these differences, ignore them, or treat everyone the same regardless. Marcotte is one to really try and minimise the differences. You could make an argument that it would be beneficial to do this of course, whether or not it reflected reality.

    But when you do get a difference, say in behaviour i.e. how much of an “active atheist” someone is, you can’t just assume the observed difference in behaviour is somehow “inherent”. There are social, economic and environmental factors which may differ between men and women too, and for all we know those could be just as much the cause of the “difference” as any physiological trait. It’s a massive assumption from Harris to say that women are less inclined towards a “critical posture” than men; and even if they were, he can’t know for sure whether this is due to inherent or environmental factors (at least, not without a lot of difficult study). In a lot of places, women still don’t have the same level of independence as men. Therefore he can’t assume that his male and female followers are following him from an equally privileged position, and that you would therefore even expect to see anywhere near equal numbers anyway.

    Did you not also find Harris’ statement “I haven’t given 5 minutes thinking…on how to modify my writing style to be more nurturing and hence attract more women” pretty disappointing, on more than one level?

    Sam, do get on that problem of yours. Actually, don’t, because it’s BS. Again, the assumptions. “Men are the doers and women the nurturing support”. I’ll tell you what won’t attract more women: telling them that a nurturing style should attract them.

    “Pheromones ladies!”

    It’s condescending in the extreme. Maybe if he spent more than “5 minutes thinking about it” he might realise that…

    The best response to all this of course is to admit that yes, I can be sexist sometimes, even though I try not to; we all can be. When called out for it, best to admit it and try and learn from it. Maybe Harris doesn’t want to admit to it, and regardless, ultimately, I’d agree with you that he’s not as bad as Dawkins (yet), nor should he really be the focus of our anti-misogynist outrage. This is just Marcotte being given an excuse to flex her feminist muscles (!)

    I do enjoy observing these little spats and like to call them “Popcorn Time!” as the two heavyweights face off. This was nearly, but not quite as good as, Lindy West vs. Matt Dillahunty.

    Thomas, if you’re searching for another feminist atheist to go up against, look up Robin Marie from An American Atheist podcast, she is very anti-Harris, especially on the last episode (Sep 14) but she’s also a PhD so watch out! That would be another popcorn moment!

  2. As a woman…I do not understand what the big uproar is over. The joke made me smile. I honestly think there are multiple reasons for male dominance in outspoken atheism…

    1 – Patriarchal conditioning.
    2 – Some types of women do not want to get involved.
    3 – Here in Australia sexism is an issue in these types of fields which can lead women to be hesitant.
    4 – General population wise I believe there are more men than women

  3. I’d like to thank you for your comment regarding “professional atheism critics” on the introduction of the episode. Although there might be some projection on my part and maybe we don’t agree as much as it seems, I really thought I was alone in feeling a bit estranged by the popular internet atheist clique.

    Now, I’d like to give credit where it is due; I think it’s safe to say that most of us who came to atheism after being raised in a religious environment found great entertainment and catharsis in the “representatives” of atheism that became these atheist celebrities, specifically the internet advocates for skepticism and atheism. I believe all those podcasts, blogs, and TV shows played a huge part in my education about skepticism, atheism, philosophy, and everything related.

    That being said, I feel like I have to move on, and not only me, but atheists in general, for many reasons. I can’t help but feel like controversies are being stirred and outrage amplified simply because some of these content providers realize that well, that’s all they have.

    I consume A LOT of podcasts, but there are many today that I can’t even hear the hosts’ voices without rolling my eyes. How many times do we have to sit through a point-by-point explanation on logical fallacies? How many times do we have to talk about the goddamn cosmological argument as if we didn’t know why it’s bullshit? I understand that new people become atheists every day, but it baffles me to see some of these people talking about the same tired old subjects for more than a decade, and be interested about it nonetheless.

    I also realize that no one is making me do anything, and if I don’t like it, I can just not listen to it, but haven’t we gone past that point, as a movement? Shouldn’t we leave this adolescent ideas of overcoming the cultural stupidity of the majority if we want to be adults in the world? It’s completely anectodal, but in my case, I found that these ideas were enforcing that horrible Us vs. Them mentality in me, something that I’m just starting to overcome.

    This is why I love this podcast, by the way: I feel very much a “let’s move on to more important things” vibe from it, and I still like it, just like the Cognitive Dissonance guys, because it offers better, more entertaining things (hell, CD only uses the atheist and skeptical news backdrop to give a context to the real meat of the podcast, which is the awesome chemistry they have).

    I’d also like to add that I think this isn’t just a matter of taste. I think the mentality that most atheist online entertainment currently offer is one that’s kinda detrimental to maturity and personal growth.

  4. And to prove you can’t please everyone, I enjoyed your discussion of Marcotte’s piece, but felt you were far too generous to her. She might have beaten up her straw man Harris very well, but she left the real one completely unscathed

  5. This exasperates me too. I think you’ve nailed a number of the main causes for the animosity within the atheist crowd in the past, but I want to suggest one more possible factor: this is exactly how literary criticism worked when I was in college. Referring to an author’s “inner mind” would have earned you pitying smiles from professors, and I think that likewise, for a lot of angry commenters Harris’ intention was simply irrelevant.

    You had a great discussion of this topic in an early episode about Robert Frost. I was an English major, and we “analyzed” everything according to the theory that meaning was not something intrinsic to texts, but rather something that we, as readers, imbue texts with. “You don’t read texts; the text reads you.” It was all about coming up with theories and then finding symbols in the text for support. Nothing had any connection to whatever book we were reading.

    There’s one place in social activism which overtly expresses that same idea, in the assertion that a statement’s offensiveness can be determined only by the listener, while the speaker’s intention is irrelevant. (And though I actually think there’s some value to that idea, it’s not exactly true either.)

    And then look at the article you read there. Marcotte wasn’t aiming to figure out what Harris meant; she already had her theory, and was just looking for quotes to support it. Exactly the kind of nonsense my college professors reveled in. Try to notice how often some activists will use phrases like, “So what you’re saying is,” or “His/Her message was clear:” and then go on to say something totally different. You know, as if the speaker hadn’t just explained their message, in, y’know, *words*. I’m left thinking, “Yeah, I read her message, and it was clear. She said it. It’s not in code- it’s not a Grecian urn- you don’t have to interpret it; it’s right there. *In words*.” It’s more of this post-modernist lit-crit idea that intention is irrelevant.

    Honestly, when I first noticed the atheist movement I looked forward to a lot of podcasts like this one. Debates, thoughts, logic, open investigation. And within a few months I gave up trying to participate because all I was sick of getting shouted down for things I’ve never thought and never said.

  6. Women staying away from cons because they are getting unwarranted advances when they are just trying to get some info and participant in some critical thinking totally make sense. If a anyone is going to say do some work at a genetics lab, one would expect not be hit on during an important experiment…kind of wonder if its the same thing.

    But, lols, women won’t go to cons, because of those unattractive nerds made me giggle and thin even worse sexiest ideas and assumptions popped up, damn stupid male brain getting me in trouble.

    I was wondering if there is any stats that show men tend to read stuff written by men, and women tend to read stuff written by women, or is that false analogy that I just perceived?

    Best answer Sam Harris could have said, “I’m not sure” and just left at that might of been better.

    I often wonder if this sort of little infighting will eventually lead to more rifts in the already somewhat fluid atheist community, and leave openings for more dogmatic communities to attack it.

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