But in the world he and other new atheists envision for us, there would never be a way to prove it.
Sunday, we noted that science writer Mark Oppenheimer asks if misogyny will bring down the atheist movement. But there is another side to all this.
In a world where nothing has inherent meaning, you are a sexist pig if you are labelled as such. Here’s what happened to Sam Harris, as he tells it on his blog:
I was recently interviewed onstage at George Washington University by Michelle Boorstein, a religion reporter for the Washington Post. The next day, Boorstein published an article summarizing our conversation, in which she excerpted a few quotations that made me appear somewhat sexist. I believe that these quotations are accurate, but they are also incomplete and misleading. Boorstein seemed to anticipate that they would spark a little controversy, and they have.
My exchange with Boorstein in the Lisner Auditorium had been somewhat prickly, in fact. At one point, she flatly denied that a significant percentage of Americans are fundamentalist Christians. I cited poll results going back 80 years that suggest the number hovers around 45 percent. Boorstein then asserted her authority as a journalist, having focused on these issues, studied all the relevant polls, and written multiple articles explaining them to the public. According to her, the kinds of questions I claimed had been asked and answered, and upon which I based my case—Do you think God created humans in their present form? (46 percent); Do you think Jesus will return to earth in the next 40 years? (41 percent)—hadn’t been asked at all, and wouldn’t indicate a person’s actual beliefs even if they had. I found her remarks stunningly uninformed. I did my best not to let this derail the interview, but after we left the stage I told her that she had a professional responsibility to get her facts straight. She seems to have now paid me back in print.
I also asked Harris at the event why the vast majority of atheists—and many of those who buy his books—are male, a topic which has prompted some to raise questions of sexism in the atheist community. Harris’ answer was both silly and then provocative.
It can only be attributed to my “overwhelming lack of sex appeal,” he said to huge laughter.
“I think it may have to do with my person[al] slant as an author, being very critical of bad ideas. This can sound very angry to people… People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women,” he said. “The atheist variable just has this—it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”
It is a measure of the ridiculous paranoia engendered by political correctness that in the second it took me to make that joke about my sex appeal, I worried whether my assuming that most women are heterosexual would offend some number of lesbians in the audience. And though the phrase “extra estrogen vibe,” spoken in a tone that acknowledged its silliness, also got a laugh, Boorstein surely knew that setting it down in print would make me look stupid. (If further evidence of her intentions were needed, her announcement of the article on Twitter read: “@samharris on why chicks don’t dig atheism.”) It’s very difficult to speak the way one writes, but this unpleasant encounter with direct quotation gives me further impetus to try. On the upside, however, one of my critics coined the hashtag #EstrogenVibe, and many have savaged me with it to delightful effect.
Let me be clear about what I was trying to say (and actually do believe): More.
Basically, Harris is as supportive of feminism as one can be if reality matters.
But if he doesn’t believe in the existence of the mind apart from the brain, how dare he set himself up to be a judge of what is reality, ignoring the needs and demands of all the angry and disturbed people out there, who are demanding change from others? Their needs and demands should be the first priority in a new atheist society, not some guy’s neurons’ illusions about “reality.” See, for example, “Darwin’s “horrid doubt”: The mind” for a quick overview.
The problem becomes painfully obvious when Harris says stuff like this:
I am well aware that sexism and misogyny are problems in our society. However, they are not the only factors that explain differences in social status between men and women. For instance, only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. How much of this is the result of sexism? How much is due to the disproportionate (and heroic) sacrifices women make in their 20’s or 30’s to have families? How much is explained by normally distributed psychological differences between the sexes? I have no idea, but I am confident that each of these factors plays a role. Anyone who thinks disparities of this kind must be entirely a product of sexism hasn’t thought about these issues very deeply.
In short, Harris believes in the weight of evidence, not the power of ideology. But his “fellow liberals” live in a post-mind world: They know that politically correct people follow their line, which is to say that their neurons fire correctly. And they know how to deal with the ones whose neurons don’t fire correctly.
Sp his stance comes with two disadvantages: It is inconsistent with the materialist frame he assumes. In that frame, “reason” and “evidence” can only be statements about the individual brain’s workings, not about external reality.
His Twitter opponents understand that perfectly well; they have known and lived it for decades. He apparently hasn’t and doesn’t.
Now here is the second disadvantage: What opponents, new atheist or otherwise, see is a man who isn’t stupid or corrupt enough to, for example, be enlisted into a project to force neuroscience programs to accept more women, independent of qualifications, to create parity – or else. Boorstein’s audience would probably prefer to hear that person’s practised rant about systemic injustice, intelligible or otherwise.
Because, as C.S. Lewis said, long after “I think” has been disproven, “I want” remains.
That’s what will really kill the new atheist movement’s credibility, even to itself.
Incidentally, I’ve noted roughly the same thing about men’s vs. women’s achievements here (2009):
Actually, if we leave Darwin’s obsession with natural selection out of the matter for a moment, we can come up with a simple explanation for the difference between men’s and women’s achievements. Men are far more likely to win Nobel Prizes than women – but also far more likely to sit on Death Row.
For most normal achievements, women will do as well as men, given a chance. Women do just as well as men at being, say, a family doctor, an accountant, a real estate agent, a high school teacher, etc.
It’s only in outstanding achievements – either for good OR for ill – that men tend to dominate. One way of seeing this is that the curve of women’s achievements fits inside the curve of men’s achievements, either way.
Natural selection does not explain this because most men who have outstanding achievements do not contribute a great deal to the gene pool as a consequence.
Either they produce few or no children, or their children do nothing outstanding. So Darwin did not really have a good explanation for this fact.
Note: Multiverse cosmology, dear to new atheists, means among other things that reality doesn’t matter. See The Science Fictions series at your fingertips (cosmology) for a quick overview.
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