18 December 2009


I had my nose to the grindstone last week, and then I was baking like a crazy person for a few days, but now I'm back! And I came out of it with two delicious essays, one about Peter Pan and the postcolonial and one about Austen in the purity movement.

I don't know if you missed the super-misogyny fun-time in the atheist blogosphere last week. Which is perhaps a misleading moniker, sorry. First, this article came out by Stephen Prothero, and he seems to think that a more feminine face of atheism would improve it. Which would be nice, if he meant that atheist's public face wasn't all white guys, all the time. But that's not really it:
I heard two very different arguments at this event. The first was the old line of the New Atheists: Religious people are stupid and religion is poison, so the only way forward is to educate the idiots and flush away the poison. The second was less controversial and less utopian: From this perspective, atheism is just another point of view, deserving of constitutional protection and a fair hearing. Its goal is not a world without religion but a world in which believers and nonbelievers coexist peaceably, and atheists are respected, or at least tolerated.

These competing approaches could not be further apart. One is an invitation to a duel. The other is a fair-minded appeal for recognition and respect. Or, to put it in terms of the gay rights movement, one is like trying to turn everyone gay and the other is like trying to secure equal rights for gay men and lesbians.
R-igh-t. As Amanda pointed out, there's a big difference between religious people and heterosexuals: one is making a truth claim and the other kind of isn't. Which is kind of true; I would argue that both make truth claims, but they're of a different kind. GLBT and allies are making the claim that homosexuality is not a bad thing, and homophobic bigots are claiming that it is not, and should thus be practically illegal. Obviously, neither of these claims can be true at the same time. But, the nature of them is clearly different from the truth claims of the religious vs. the atheists. When GLBT rights are finally enacted, GLBT can coexist with heterosexuals just fine. They don't need to convert the heteros, because homosexuality and heterosexuality are not mutually exclusive categories on a societal-scale, any more than homosexual and heterosexual behavior are mutually exclusive on an individual-scale. But if atheists' truth claims (or non-truth claims) are correct, then they are necessarily mutually exclusive from religiousity also being correct. Prothero thinks that atheists need to forget this nature of our competing truth claims, and just hold hands and sing Kumbaya instead of arguing it out. After all, what does it matter that atheists are getting their right to serve in public office challenged?

The most infuriating part of this article, though, is the nonsensical sexism of it. Prothero thinks that female leadership would lead to this softer, gentler atheism. The only reason he could think that without stating his reasoning is that he thinks women are just softer and gentler.
But there is a different voice emerging — call it the new New Atheism — and with it a very different agenda from that of Hitchens and his angry acolytes. This friendlier atheism sounds more like a civil rights movement than a crusade. And it is far more likely to issue from the lips of friendly women than from the spittle of angry men.
Fuck you, Stephen Prothero. How's that for lady-like atheism?

Next up is Kathryn Lofton, who wrote a blog post claiming that (presumably, according to New Atheists) "Religion is [...] a lot like a girl." The post has been removed apparently, but it's written about by Myers at Pharyngula and Ruchira at the Accidental Blogger. As Ruchira points out:
Unless the New Atheists have categorically called religion a girlish pursuit or religious males girly men, (Lofton does not say that they have) it is plausible that it is Lofton herself who conflates irrationality and emotionalism with feminine traits and critical thinking and reason with manly characteristics. She may have again confused style with substance. After all, the majority of the high profile and vocal atheists in the public square are all males. Most of them also assume a combative stance while arguing their points of view. Even if Lofton considers the New Atheists arrogant, self absorbed and boorish, based on her opinion of their discursive temperaments, where did she get misogyny? Perhaps in her eagerness to condemn, Lofton uses the red herring of misogyny without any supporting evidence because it fits the rest of her perception of the atheists. Are some atheists women haters? Of course. Could there be a few among the ones she names? Possible. But it has nothing to do with critical thinking which does not bar women from becoming practitioners. And what is the score in the department of misogyny on the religious side? Start your count with the priestly class and the orthodox.
Now, there are plenty of misogynists among high-profile atheists (namely, Christopher Hitchens and Bill Mauer). And yes, those guys are assholes. But the sexism in the atheist "movement" can hardly measure up to the troubling sexism that comes from Christianity. Which isn't to say that sexism is not a problem for atheists, but that Lofton is not getting this "religion is a girl" comment from the atheists. Rather, she is, as Ruchira suggests, likely assuming that women would never be so aggressive and rude. Like Prothero, she thinks that soft and gentle are female characteristics. And she (rather nuttily, from my point of view) assumes that religion is soft and gentle, compared to those rude and obnoxious atheists.

What I like about the atheist reactions to these pieces is that they are not down with the sexism in them. What I don't like is that atheist authors are more likely to see misogyny as a problem of these authors and religious folks, and thus not our problem. But sexism is alive and well among atheists, and while it shouldn't be tackled by people like Lofton, who are clearly hostile towards atheists, it can't just be projected onto religious folks and ignored in our own community.

In a similar vein, Kay Hymowitz wrote an article about the conflicts between feminists and science for City Journal. She conflates evolutionary science with evolutionary psychology, that bastion of sexist thinking:
Evolutionary science has been nearly as vexing a subject for feminists as for rural Texas school boards. Feminists consider sexual identity a “social construct,” a human—or, to be more precise, a male—invention. Evolutionary scientists, on the other hand, believe that we have inborn physical and psychological traits that result from millennia of adaptations to our natural environment. Where feminists see society, evolutionists see nature.

Especially galling to feminists has been the field of evolutionary psychology, which proposes that evolution has fundamentally shaped human sexual and reproductive behavior—behavior that often seems to conform to the worst stereotypes. So New York Times science writer Natalie Angier refers to evolutionary explanations of why older men prefer younger women as “just so stories” told by “evo-psychos.” Recently in Newsweek, Sharon Begley critiqued evolutionary psychology–inspired apologias for poor behavior by the likes of John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer before gladly pronouncing the field dead as a dinosaur.

Begley is right that pop evolutionary psychology often bears about the same relation to science as an episode of The Flintstones does to the Pleistocene era. But she’s wrong about the field’s being on its way out. If anything, recent findings in primatology, neuroscience, and genetics have given evo-psych new life. Scientists in these fields, many of them women, have lent support to some deeply controversial ideas about differences between the sexes.
Stupid feminists, with their lady-brains, are so anti-science! Now, I once knew someone who thought this. Sort of. He didn't want to be accused of sexism, but he basically thought that feminist who argued that genetic sex is a construct (as I have done) are crazy, anti-science, anti-evidence morons. I suggested he read Sexing the Body, and he was fascinated by the fact that a woman who actually studied biology would argue something so nutty. He also said point-blank that we should force animals into categories because "sometimes you just want black-and-white distinctions," even if those distinctions are projected onto bodies instead of already being there. Feminists are not just crazy, folks. I know that we are deeply invested in sex and gender constructs. Like, deeply. But evolutionary psychology is more often than not a sexist guessing game (and when it isn't, then the media will twist it until it is), and the scientific community more often than not ignores the evidence when it comes to intersex conditions and the malleability of "genetic" maleness and femaleness. Jessa Crispin's reaction to this article is telling:
Um. What? We do? Feminists believe in evolution. There have been women who have criticized the science and the conclusions drawn from imbalanced theories, but we do not as a whole believe that evolution is a patriarchal conspiracy..
This is true. Most feminists believe in evolution. Even Anne Fausto-Sterling feminists. I don't know if Crispin is aware of evo psych and how it's used to basically claim that women are inferior money-whores who are just plain dumber than men, but that is exactly what feminists mean when they claim that sexist conclusions are "drawn from imbalanced theories." Science is designed and "done" by human beings who bring their already-formed conclusions and biases into the process. I know that they value "objectivity" and all that, but to act as thought science completely removes bias from the process is naive and a little stupid, especially when it comes to biology as it relates to humans. Do we honestly think that no bias will enter human beings studying the nature of human beings? Of course it will. Science doesn't happen in a vacuum.


Gemma said...

So I'm a feminist atheist with a biology degree- which means I'm totally with you on this one.

Also, if anyone tries to tell me that I'm friendlier and more accepting of religion just because I'm female, they're getting introduced to my bookshelf, and probably my mother. She's almost 50, very petite, atheist, and TERRIFYING.