Sexism in the Skeptic Community

"Unfortunately, it [sexism] is [rampant within the skeptic community].  I say this from my own experiences within it, hearing stories from friends, etc."  -- Hemant Mehta, aka "The Friendly Atheist".
Hermant Mehta is in a position to know better than most people whether sexism is rampant within the skeptic community. So, I'm guessing he might be right, despite that the relative handful of skeptics I myself know are overwhelmingly non-sexists.  But, if Mehta is right, why are there so many sexists among skeptics? That seems to be a real puzzler.

Any ideas?


  1. I have not experienced this.

    Looking forward to what others have to say, though! I'm sure it varies quite a bit based on who you have (or have not) been exposed to.

  2. @ Lydia: Glad to hear you haven't experienced it! What little sexism I've seen has taken the form of male skeptics trolling females on the net in overtly sexist ways. But I'm not that involved in the skeptic community. For instance, I've never attended a convention, and I frequent only two or three skeptic websites. So I might be the last to know if sexism was rampant in the broader community.

  3. I think I know what you mean, Paul, but just for clarification: by Skeptics do you mean Atheists? Then there is the science community which of course is seperate from either. It's funny because doing field work the scientists I respected most were 100 percent un-sexist and put total faith in everyone on the team to get the job done. It was a nice surprise. Doing ranger work I run into sexism once in a while, in my experience there's 2 types: the guy who I can easily emasculate with just one comment (after which they show me the utmost respect) and the guy who is so isolated and angry that you just don't want to mess with them. Fortunately the latter type is rare.

  4. @ Amelie: That's an interesting question about who is included in the skeptic community here. In my post, I was simply following the usage on Hemant Mehta's "The Friendly Athiest" blog, so I'm not entirely sure who all he was including.

    My hunch -- for what it's worth -- is that Hemant is mainly referring to atheists, agnostics, and other non-theists. Of course, there would be some overlap with the science community.

    It is a relief to hear that your science colleagues are for the most part not sexist. That helps to restore my faith in humanity after the blow it suffered last night when Hemant stated sexism was rampant in the skeptic community.

    I also find your comment that you've encountered two kinds of sexists fascinating. I'm glad that at least the first kind can be put in his place.

    As for the bitter kind, I've run across a few of those myself. But the one's I've run across have mostly been theists. Luck of the draw, I guess.

  5. My first thought was that it was one of those comfortable, seductive lies, which we are all prone to believe, despite knowing better. It is similar, perhaps, to the belief held by some skeptics that they are inherently superior to people of faith because they haven't succumb to myth, or have become enlightened beyond myth.

    My second thought is that this may be one of those odd generalization-versus-specific internal contradictions. That is to say that some skeptics may believe that women generally are not equals in thought (which, given the disproportionate number of male scholars in the field, one could {circumstantially} be led to believe) yet they have no problems when a specific woman presents herself at that level of capacity.

    My own skeptical community is pretty much limited to online, and I haven't run into any real sexism, so I don't know if my conjectures are accurate. I suspect that sexism in a skeptic would show up more in person than online.

  6. @ Wise Fool: Sceptchick has posted on this issue here, among other places. I'm beginning to think the problem might either be over-stated, or more complex than it at first seems.

  7. Yuck, Paul. I checked out the Skepchick link and I feel like I need to wash out my eye sockets.

    I wonder if this is what Hemant was talking about, or something else.

    This may relate to something I've been pondering for a while. It appears that atheism used to be somewhat of an elite status; that it actually took some serious contemplation to buck the trend of the rest of the world, and that deep thought usually provoked the drives of tolerance and equality.

    With our increasingly secular world, however, I get the impression that there are more and more atheists who are, shall we say, less contemplative. "Atheist" is becoming as polluted as "Christian," as far as housing all sorts of people.

    In my line of work, where I travel quite a bit, I dwell among rougher crowds at times, and some of the atheists I've met in my travels are not exactly prime specimens of humanity. They are so different from my personality that I didn't even think about them regarding this post until I read the Skepchick post.

    I didn't discuss religion with them, as I don't do that at work, but I could not help but suspect that they had not "earned" their atheism, so to speak. They are not "skeptics," in the scholastic sense of the word. They were just atheists, and for several of them it seemed that they were atheists for the stereotypical reasons of why Christians think people become atheists; so they can do whatever they want without guilt.

    At least, I would like to believe that they are a fundamentally different class of people, as I would rather not like to be lumped into the same category with them. So, I would have a hard time calling them "skeptics" even if they are atheists.

  8. @ The Wise Fool: It's pretty ugly what happened to that girl, isn't it?

    I kinda think you might be right -- although it sounds a little strange at first -- that some atheists have not earned their atheism through a process of skepticism. If so, it's misleading to call them skeptics.

    The other day someone said that the atheist community was divided between those atheists who had come to atheism via the "Thomas Paine route" and were humanists, and those atheists who had come to atheism via the "Ayn Rand route", and were anything but humanists. I'm not sure how right she is about that, but the distinction is an interesting one. I wish I had saved the link, or could remember where she posted.

  9. To all: I emailed Hemant and he graciously responded with a clarification of his remarks.

    Hemant wrote that he did not have the science community in mind when he said sexism was rampant among skeptics. That's because he's not "in" with that crowd. Instead, he was referring to the broader non-theist community.

    He also made it clear that he does not believe the problem is for the most part caused by people who actually intend to be sexist. Rather, it is caused by people who are largely unaware of their own sexism. For instance, they might listen more to a man than to a woman, and more likely to take a man's suggestions than a woman's suggestions, without actually being aware of their own bias in the matter.

  10. I'm inclined to believe there's a Paine/Rand schism within atheism, Paul. It fits with my own experience, such as it is. I've never been active either as a skeptic or an atheist. I've always viewed the habit of skepticism as a tool, not an avocation. So I've mostly paid attention to this incident because I have friends and acquaintances who do.

    It's dangerous to generalize about those two populations, but in my own limited experience there are people who are genuine skeptics and people who are "skeptics" because they don't want to believe in something. Most of the folks who do skepticism debunk claims of the paranormal, which at least implies that there's a prejudice on their parts. People who don't believe in climate change or the Holocaust call themselves "skeptics", too. Those people don't really employ the tools of skepticism, of which one of the most important is to examine one's own preconceptions.

    It's been my experience that far more of those kinds of people are in the Rand camp.

    If you're not willing to re-examine your own view of things, odds are that you're not going to understand what Rebecca Watson was talking about. It takes being able to imagine being another person, or being yourself in a different situation.

  11. I followed the elevator-gate incident at Skepchick with interest, and the original panel with her and Dawkins is actually a great talk. It discusses how, if there is to be any type of 'atheist movement', we need to think about inclusiveness. People come to it for many different reasons and many don't want a movement. Sometimes I wish everybody was a loca-vore, atheist, sympathetic, giver to the needy, Star Trek fan like me, but it ain't gonna happen. Here's my blog post with a link to the talk

  12. Thanks for the clarification. I'm glad we are not considering the scientific community to be all "Atheists" or "Skeptics". No need for either in science, because for each study there are methods we use to eliminate bias. Skepticism is more of a belief system, I think. Not method.

  13. I tend to think that sexism is a plague of patriarchal society. While many people claim religious justification for sexist view points, I think that what we know about, for instance, Jesus shows that he believed in equality. Most of the sexism inserted into scripture comes from other authors who undoubtedly struggled with just how radical Jesus' ministry was. Most societies are patriarchal simply because when societies began, physical strength mattered far more than it does in today's world. It's simply molded into most culture today and is why the opportunities for feminism within scripture are often overlooked in favor of "tradition."

    I obviously hold onto a fairly Durkeimian view of religion. Scripture is voluminous enough to be used to support just about every viewpoint... and it is.

  14. Cujo, your comments strike me as worth reading quite carefully and more than once. I would only add that your experience of "Randian skeptics" jives with my limited experience, too.

  15. @ Lausten: Thank you for the link! I will check it out.

  16. @ Amelie: That's an intriguing observation that skepticism is not necessary in science. I was under the impression that the scientific methods largely depended to some extent on the skepticism of one's colleagues in reviewing one's work. Am I wrong about that?

  17. @ Jellybean: Do you think our society is moving away from patriarchy? I think it often appears to be doing that, but I am not all that sure it actually is doing that.

  18. I'm a woman (young-ish) who has participated in the atheist activist community for awhile. My personal belief is that there is systemic but mostly unintended sexism, as Hemant says. I'm not too sensitive myself, so it doesn't usually bother me, but I think the unintentionally-sexist ought to be more humble and diligent at uncovering their own biases.

    A few things I see as contributing factors --
    -Population. There are more male atheists for a variety of reasons. Women are seen as novelties, attention is paid to them differently, so they feel like outsiders.
    -Egotism. People who reject religion tend to trust their own logic and thought processes more than the average bear. They think they are objective, so they are less likely than others to believe women who tell them they are being sexist, even if they are.
    -Intellectual egotism. For most people, becoming an atheist requires you to be more confident than the average bear in your own reasoning skills. We're talking about a community full of people who believe that 90% of the population is wrong about something fundamental to human existence. Egotism is almost a required trait (I cop to it myself). This egotism leads them to dismiss claims of sexism (see below).
    -Skepticism=masculine. Some people (men and women) view skepticism as a masculine trait or masculine form of intelligence, and think that women who engage in it ought to either behave like men or accept the community just as it is. I don't think this is usually conscious, but I think it's there. Much of the sexist jokes and banter I hear at atheist conferences seems to associate feminism with 'fuzzy logic' and portrays women as irrational, something anathema to skeptics. Skeptical men don't think they're sexist, so when women claim to see sexism where they don't, they assume the woman is being irrational, not that their perception is skewed.

  19. Paul - I can certainly see why that would seem like what's going on! The thing to remember, and this may be *slightly* about semantics, is that skepticism is a type of bias in itself. Because you go in with a certain agenda (being skeptical). In science we simply need to stand by good method. Now, in my thesis, before I even began my field work, I had to scan my methods for bias. Maybe someone would call that skepticism, but it is a fairly technical process that should not be sullied by emotion going in. It is almost like hunting for easter eggs - you simply look for what you need. In my case, I needed to make sure my study sites did not lead me to find too many or too few of my subjects (birds called chimney swifts) and that was more a matter of understanding bird biology, not so much being "skeptical".

  20. Paul, I do think we are making progress, though certainly not in all circles and certainly not at the speed many of us would like. I'm happy that I don't need to be painted like a doll every time I leave my house and that in my own faith tradition I can pursue ministry, but that's not true everywhere and in every tradition. I have "faith" that even the Roman Catholic and LDS Churches will see the error in their anti-feminism and slowly begin to afford women the rights and responsibilities of men. I think it's happening, but like all forms of discrimination, it's hard to undo and may not ever fully be undone.

  21. @ Kristen: What you've said makes a lot of sense to me. I am especially interested in your remark that many in the skeptic community regard feminism as irrational, relying on fuzzy logic. I can relate to that in the sense that when I was young, hadn't read much feminist literature, and was overall poorly informed, I harbored a similar prejudice. But it was nothing more than an unfounded prejudice. And of course, it was one my pride fueled.

    Thank you for some very interesting comments!

  22. @ Amelie: You've given me a lot to think about. I might even indulge myself in a blog post on it. Now, I've got to start mulling it over. Thank you so much!

  23. @ Jellybean: It's good to hear that progress is being made. I sometimes despair of humanity because it seems that every two steps forward we take a step back.


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