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Neuroscientist Sam Harris says he is NOT a sexist pig, and clearly isn’t

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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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11 Replies to “Neuroscientist Sam Harris says he is NOT a sexist pig, and clearly isn’t

  1. 1
    anthropic says:

    It’s been known for decades that women’s IQs vary less than that of men. So more brilliant men, but also more men in Special Education — and jail.

  2. 2
    CalvinsBulldog says:

    In short, Harris believes in the weight of evidence, not the power of ideology.

    Not so. He very much believes in a range of ideologies, hence his great concern not to be labelled as a sexist and his efforts to soften the force of quotations taken from himself, which even he admits are accurate. His detractor from the Washington Post does not strike me as saying anything untoward either on Twitter or in print; the fact is, he gave an interview, and when his own words appeared in print, now complains.

    He does not complain that the journalist misquoted him, but that the journalist “selected” his words to skewer him. But even when he fills in the supposedly missing context, it does not alter the general impression of what he said. And unfortunately for Harris, selecting interesting information is what journalists do. He seems to labour under the delusion that she ought to have published everything he said that day.

    The tension between political correctness and true belief in Darwinism is an interesting area for exploration. Typically the atheist wants to demonstrate both, partly because his values are derived from the secular world so he wants to be on the cutting edge of tolerant ethics, and partly because you cannot be considered learned – much less a genius or an intellectual – if you do not believe in the fundamentals of evolution.

    Unfortunately for the atheist, evolution is a fundamentally sexist process and produces sexist outcomes, that is to say, it produces males who are generally stronger, faster, taller, and seemingly more numerously represented in the world-shaping disciplines of mathematics and science.

    Indeed, an article was referenced on Uncommon Descent earlier this week in which it was pointed out that Darwin believed that women were “selected for” by men, since natural selection allegedly operates “more actively” on men than women and thus men have a greater impetus to select their mates along narrow lines. In other words, women are the genetic product of male taste and men are “more evolved” in the sense of having more exposure to the rigours of natural selection.

    If we wished to evolve the human race to ever higher levels of biological and psychological complexity, of course, an evolutionist ought to advocate allowing the process to continue as it has thus far. That is, male-dominated communities selecting traits in women they find desirable. Apparently it’s worked a treat so far. But of course, that’s politically incorrect and so in typical Darwinist atheist fashion it’s “this far and no further” in the application of the theory to the real world.

    After all, nobody really wants to live in a world governed by evolution or Darwinist principles of natural selection. They are merely abstract mental play-things applicable to the past, or having a lazy, just-so explanatory power for present phenomena – like why it is that men do not put the toilet seat down. Because… evolution. There’s a magazine article or two in that.

    Watching Harris flail around in his own hubris and silly cleverness as he tries to navigate this tension is a confirmation of the bankruptcy of this worldview. He is apparently very annoyed that this journalist should have put her finger rather astutely on the gender dynamics of atheist movement and even dared to challenge his statistics. Of course Harris’ statistics are facts – the bedrock of reliability indeed – and Ms Boorstein’s are not. And if you go about basing your conclusions on social polls and statistics, well, hey, you can believe anything. Even evolution.

  3. 3
    Barb says:

    “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… “

    My problem with Sam Harris is not that he is misogynistic or sexist. It’s that he is stupid. He denies Buddhism is a religion. He also misinterprets nearly every scripture he bothers to quote in his “Letter to a Christian Nation” screed.

    “People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized.”

    Especially atheists, or so I’ve noticed.

  4. 4
    News says:

    Barb at 3, welcome back! The column isn’t a brief for Sam Harris, but a reflection on how even a new atheist like him can often not “get it” about where his ideas lead. They lead to a society where ideas can’t matter.

    It’s not so much that they don’t matter. That would be bad. But they *can’t* matter in principle.

    That leads to precisely what he is dealing with now – hordes of angry and unhappy people determined to find fault with others for the nature of their own personal existence. And you can’t reason with them because reason is just one of those illusions, right? You can’t prove them mistaken because there is no such thing as mistaken.

    If there is no right, there is no wrong.

    I feel sorrier for the people who do nothing to bring it on themselves and will nonetheless suffer far worse than Harris is likely to – but I can spare a thought for him now and then on my too-frequent coffee breaks.

  5. 5
    Mung says:

    Barb, do you think the Watchtower Society is misogynist?

  6. 6
    Andre says:

    I don’t want to be the one to point this out…. He may not be a sexist pig but he certainly is a pig…..

  7. 7
    Barb says:

    Mung @ 5: No, I don’t. What a stupid question to ask.

  8. 8
    Dionisio says:

    Andre @ 6
    In the article you linked I read this:

    ‘Hybridizing a pig and a chimp is like taking half the dancers from a performance of Swan Lake and the other half from a performance of Giselle and throwing them together on stage to assemble something. It’s going to be a catastrophe.’

    Well, not necessarily… if one considers the powerful ‘n-D e’ magic formula RV+NS+T, those mixed dancers could eventually produce a completely new ballet masterpiece, that would receive much acclamation from the art critics, even without the musical composition, the orchestration arrangement, the choreography, the scenario, the costumes, the lights, special effects, rehearsing. However, perhaps a few commonsense folks might call it stupid nonsense. But only ignorant ID proponents who don’t understand ‘n-D e’ wouldn’t appreciate that kind of artistic creation.

  9. 9
    Dionisio says:

    #8 obviously tongue-in-cheek

  10. 10
    Andre says:


    🙂 Got it….. But Harris can’t argue with the science now can he? If science says he’s a pig, then he is a pig….

  11. 11
    Mung says:


    Mung @ 5: No, I don’t. What a stupid question to ask.

    The fact that you don’t like the question doesn’t make it stupid. In fact, it makes it more likely it hit entirely too close to home.

    Any effective mysogynist cult must convince it’s women of their “proper role.” Hiding sexism under the “authority” of a governing body composed exclusively of males might be a sign something is amiss.

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