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 articlesummarizing 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):
1. I started by claiming that my readership seems more male than female. And when I shifted to speaking about atheists as a group, I was referring to active atheists—that is, the sort of people who go to atheist conferences, read atheist books, watch atheists debate pastors on YouTube, or otherwise rally around atheism as a political identity. I was not talking about everyone on Earth who doesn’t believe in God.
2. Although I share the common perception that there is a gender imbalance among active atheists, I don’t actually know whether this is the case. I used to joke that my average “groupie” was a 75-year-old man. Happily, my audiences are now filled with young people, but I still encounter many more men than women. I wouldn’t be surprised if the split were 70/30. I would be very surprised if it were 50/50. Again, I am talking about active atheists. I have no idea whether there are more male unbelievers than female.
3. My work is often perceived (I believe unfairly) as unpleasantly critical, angry, divisive, etc. The work of other vocal atheists (male and female) has a similar reputation. I believe that in general,men are more attracted to this style of communication than women are. Which is not to say there aren’t millions of acerbic women out there, and many for whom Hitchens at his most cutting was a favorite source of entertainment. But just as we can say that men are generally taller than women, without denying that some women are taller than most men, there are psychological differences between men and women which, considered in the aggregate, might explain why “angry atheism” attracts more of the former. Some of these differences are innate; some are surely the product of culture. Nothing in my remarks was meant to suggest that women can’t think as critically as men or that they are more likely to be taken in by bad ideas. Again, I was talking about a fondness for a perceived style of religion bashing with which I and other vocal atheists are often associated.
4. I believe that a less “angry,” more “nurturing” style of discourse might attract more women to the cause of atheism.
5. However, I haven’t spent even five minutes thinking about how or whether to modify my writing or speaking style so as to accomplish this.
6. As I said onstage, I don’t think of myself as primarily an “atheist” figure (or a “figure” at all). And while I am probably one of the most vocal critics of religion on earth, I don’t spend any energy advocating atheism as a political identity.
I suspect these ideas came across as intended to most of the audience at GWU. However, the remarks that Boorstein quoted, even in their full context of an hour-long conversation, managed to offend at least one woman in attendance. Looking back on our encounter at my book signing later that evening, she now strikes me as the Ghost of Things to Come. This is more or less how our conversation went:
She: I want you to know that what you said about Sarah Palin, and about women in the atheist community, was incredibly sexist. As a leader in our community, and as a writer with a large platform, you have a responsibility not to say such insensitive and bigoted things.
Me: I don’t know what you’re talking about. How were my remarks about Sarah Palin sexist? I merely said that she almost became Vice President of the United States, and would have been one heart attack away from becoming President, and this was terrifying, given her religious beliefs.
She: No, you said her candidacy “was like putting lipstick on a pig”!
Me: Wait, wait, wait…. I was quoting her [misquoting her, as it turns out], referencing her famous laugh line from the Republican National Convention. I was simply recalling that moment when she was at the absolute height of her influence, when her candidacy seemed entirely plausible. I found her star power a serious cause for concern, given the religious demagoguery that lay behind it.
She: Okay, let’s forget what you said about Sarah Palin. What you said about women in the atheist community was totally denigrating to women and irresponsible. Women can think just as critically as men. And men can be just as nurturing as women.
Me: Of course they can! But if you think there are no differences, in the aggregate, between people who have Y chromosomes and people who don’t; if you think testosterone has no psychological effects on human minds in general; if you think we can’t say anything about the differences between two bell curves that describe whole populations of men and women, whether these differences come from biology or from culture, we’re not going to get very far in this conversation.
She: I’m not saying that women and men are the same.
Me: Okay, great. So I think you misunderstood the intent of what I was saying. I was just acknowledging that some differences in the general tendencies of men and women might explain why 84 percent of my followers on Twitter are men. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to get into this, because there are 200 people standing behind you in line patiently waiting to have their books signed.
She: You should just know that what you said was incredibly sexist and very damaging, and you should apologize.
Me: You really are determined to be offended, aren’t you? It’s like you have installed a tripwire in your mind, and you’re just waiting for people to cross it.
She: No. You’re just totally unaware of how sexist you are.
Me: Listen, I was raised by a single mother. I have two daughters. Most of my editors have been women, and my first, last, and best editor is always my wife. If you really want to know the truth about me, I tend to respect women more than men. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but it’s actually an honest statement about my psychological biases. I’m not the sexist pig you’re looking for.
I knew that this honest (and admittedly desperate) confession could be cynically viewed as a version of the “Some of my best friends are black!” defense. (It isn’t. I’m not saying that my fondness for certain women proves that I’m not sexist. I’m saying that I actually respect women more than men by default. Again, I’m not saying that this is necessarily good; I’m saying that it is a fact.) However, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the mixture of contempt and pity my words elicited from this young woman. Her expression of disdain for me couldn’t have been any more intense had I said, “Listen, honey. I go to strip clubs every week. I love women—especially when they’re covered in oil.”
There ended our happy meeting—and, I thought, the controversy. However, in the wake of Boorstein’s article, I’ve been attacked as a sexist bigot by several atheist bloggers and their many fans. So it seems that a few words of clarification are in order.
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.
As readers of my blog will know, I often write about violence, self-defense, guns, and related matters—much to the bewilderment of my fellow liberals. As it happens, I tend to look at the ethics of force from a woman’s point of view. Violence is different for women than it is for men. Unlike men, they don’t tend to get into fistfights with strangers after an escalating series of insults. It is far more common for a woman to be attacked, physically controlled, and sexually assaulted by a man. Outside the walls of a prison, adult males almost never have to think about getting raped. For most women, rape is a very real, lifelong concern. Women also suffer from domestic violence in ways that men rarely do. Most of these differences can be explained by general disparities in size, strength, and aggressiveness between the sexes.
If you are a man, just consider how you would feel in the presence of a potential aggressor who is 4 to 6 inches taller and 50 to 100 pounds heavier than yourself. Most women find themselves in this situation with every man they meet. One of the reasons I cannot slavishly follow the liberal line on gun control is that I know that a gun is the only tool that reliably cancels the advantages that (most) men have over (most) women when it comes to physical violence.
Any time a woman comes away from an encounter with a man saying that he gave her the creeps, I trust her. This is not mere chivalry on my part: It is a judgment based on an understanding of human nature. One of the things we are naturally good at is detecting threatening people—indeed, millions of years of evolution have more or less guaranteed this. The silly word “vibe” enjoys its most felicitous application here—when a person must make a split-second judgment about the man at the door. I suspect (but do not know) that women are slightly better at this than men. I’m not denying that honest misunderstandings occasionally arise, or that some men have been falsely accused of sexual harassment and even of rape. But having been raised by a single mother since the age of two, I have always had a very visceral sense that men have a responsibility not to be evil jerks. And when they are, they should be sorted out—physically, if need be—by good men. Call me old-fashioned.
My criticism of Islam—for which I have been vilified by many of the same people who are now attacking me over my remarks about gender—is largely inspired by my concern for women. And I consider it one of the most sickening effects of political correctness that so many liberals appear to care more about the (nonexistent) rights of Muslims to not be offended than about the rights of women to not live as slaves. This malignant derangement of liberal ethics can be seen whenever a “feminist” expresses reservations about (my friend and hero) Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It also came into full flower when I wrote in support of Malala Yousafzai while ignoring the (completely irrelevant) fact that she wouldn’t agree with my full-frontal criticism of Islam. Many liberal blogs erupted in scorn, which eventually led to a private email exchange with a well-known feminist-atheist blogger. This conversation was every bit as hopeless and dispiriting as my encounter at my book signing in D.C. Here was a woman who imagined herself to be bettering the world by fighting for gender equality, and yet she appeared far more concerned that I had “co-opted” Malala and “denied her agency” by ignoring her religious beliefs than that a Taliban thug had put a bullet in her brain. I’m tempted to name this person—so pure and smug and sanctimonious and incorrigible was her moral blindness. But I’ll resist that combative impulse in the interests of maintaining harmony in the atheist community. #EstrogenVibe