As many of you have probably gathered over the years, I’m not a fan of political correctness. The philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris recently got himself in trouble over a few comments he made. People (primarily feminists) are claiming he’s sexist. He’s written a book on spirituality without religion, and so he’s been touring around, giving talks and interviews. He gave one interview at George Washington University with the Washington Post religious reporter, Michelle Boorstein.
She asked him why the vast majority of atheists, and many of those who buy his books, are male. Then she went on to accuse him and the secular community of sexism. I just rolled my eyes and thought, “Here we go again.”
I simply want to use it as an example of why political correctness is often a terrible thing. As Betrand Russell said,
When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed, but look only, and solely, at what are the facts.
– Bertrand Russell
So what are the facts about atheists and secular thinkers? I would recommend this post by the Friendly Atheist.
But when we take the existing corpus of sociological, psychological, and anthropological data together — from the past sixty years — there is clear empirical support for the claim that men are more likely to be secular than women. As Marta Trzebiatowska and Steve Bruce note in their book Why Are Women More Religious Than Men? (Oxford University Press, 2012), “since 1945 the Gallup polling organization has consistently found that, on every index used, American women are more religious than men, and not by small margins.”
Consider, for example, that according to the American Religious Identification Survey, men currently make up 58% of Americans who claim “no religion,” 70% of Americans who self-identify as atheist, and 75% of those who self identify as agnostic. Or consider the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, which found that 86% of American women claim to be religiously-affiliated, but only 79% of American men claimed as much; 77% of women believe in God with absolute certainly, but only 65% of men do; 66% of women pray daily, but only 49% of men do; 63% of women say that religion is very important in their lives, but only 49% of men say as much; 44% of women attend religious services on a weekly basis, but only 34% of men do. The differences may or may not be significant — social science gets fuzzy here — but they are consistent. And for one final example, consider the fact that the Freedom From Religion Foundation reports that 79% of its members are men (see Melanie Brewster‘s essay “Atheism, Gender, and Sexuality” in the Oxford Handbook of Atheism, 2013, for further details).
In short, whatever measures one uses to assess religiosity — frequency of prayer, belief in God, church attendance, or self-identification — men in the United States are more likely to be secular-leaning than women, on average.
And the “on average” is key, folks. The above studies do not illustrate that all men are more secular than all women. It is just an average. A percentage.
These same trends are pretty much found all over the world. Harris wasn’t sure why most of those interested in his work are males, but he has noticed that about 70% are men and only 30% are women. Is this evidence of sexism in the secular community? Hardly. Since the majority of atheists and secular thinkers are men, it sort of makes sense that most people showing up to these sorts of events are men.
Though I hate being too general, I tend to lean toward the opinion that, on average, women have strong inclinations to be caregivers and nurturers. They seem less likely to engage in careers, movements, and ideas which lack those features. This tendency may be biological in origin, or it may be purely cultural, though I’m guessing it’s some of both.
Take for instance the field of psychology. There are three times as many women earning PhDs in psychology as men. In developmental and child psychology, women PhDs outnumber men five to one. It’s hard to deny the nurturing and emotional connection argument. Check out this article.
Since a lot of religion deals with caring for the sick, helping the poor, and taking care of the needy, it may appeal to women more than men. Religion also has emotional aspects, such as God’s life-force and presence being everywhere and in all things. That gives a feeling of connection, which I think is more important to women than men, on average.
Compare that to physics. It’s mostly about mathematics and patterns, having little to do with interactions with people, family, children, etc. What you do deal with is “cold”. It’s about objective facts and a lot of abstract concepts and mathematics. Engineering. Many things in physics are impersonal. So my first guess would be that women would be less inclined to be physicists. Is this true?
It’s nice to see more and more women getting interested in physics, but it’s still a field almost totally dominated by men. What percentage is that? I’d guess we have 80-90% men, and only 10-20% women. Why? Are all of us physicists sexist? No. There’s nothing stopping women from majoring in physics and advanced mathematics, but they just don’t seem to be all that into it. The women I’ve met who are physicists are brilliant, there’s just not many of them.
My friend Greg and I used to notice that women are put off by libertarian ideas. For example, if you attend libertarian events, where the core ideas are self-reliance, beating the competition, entrepreneurship, etc., there are very few women there. As for those you do find, they’re with their husbands, not really there on their own. If you study the numbers, almost 7 out of 10 libertarians are male.
The thing about freedom is that its heights are limitless, and its lows are bottomless. Libertarians, I presume, look at that void and never consider that they will do anything but rise. And “communalists,” as the Research Institute dubbed the other end of the spectrum, probably look and are horrified by the many eventualities that could sink them. This is Thomas Hobbes’s “state of nature”: The strong snap up all the firewood and nuts and berries and whatnot, and the weak die starving and shivering in the cold. But what does that have to do with gender? In any state of nature that today’s libertarians would like to return us to, women seem as well-equipped to succeed as men, their paucity of brute strength not being such an issue thanks to modern amenities. So the divide must be more between how women see themselves and how men, especially libertarian men, see themselves—not how they actually are.
Way back then we figured that this was because libertarian ideas do not stress nurturing, caring, and connection. They primarily stress beating the competition, getting stronger, and dominating your market. Women seem less drawn to those ideas and ways of life.
Sam Harris is known for being critical, and to many in religious circles, his ideas are divisive, and may even sound angry. He doesn’t have nice things to say about Christianity or Islam. I don’t think the critical approach to sharing and discussing ideas appeals to a lot of women. That may be part of it. Also, Harris sometimes features articles on self-defense and guns, himself being a skilled martial artist. Those things appeal to men but far less to women. That’s another thing to consider.
Are there other factors? Definitely. This is all worth discussing, but let’s not play the sexist card.