Does feminism have an excluded middle?

Rebecca Watson recently posted a summary of her life in the skeptical/atheist community on Slate. The comments left in response by readers are, sadly, not surprising. The discussion on Slate is not that different from the discussions that have been taking place in the atheist zone of the blogosphere for the past 16 months.

Broadly, people (whether on Slate or elsewhere) agree or disagree with Rebecca’s position. Those who agree that sexism exists and is a problem make a fairly straightforward argument. However, those that disagree seem to be a more diverse bunch. There are certainly some who are happy to present as sexists or even misogynists; they may or may not be trolls. If they are trolls, according to one argument, they can be ignored. I’m not convinced. If they are not trolls then there is clearly a problem – one that is easily expressed: Some people are sexists.

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Congratulations, trolls and misogynists

…for your work here is done. You have managed to chase away an excellent young blogger with your unrelenting harassment. Jen McCreight quit last night:

I love writing, I love sharing my ideas, and I love listening to the ideas of my readers. But I simply no longer love blogging. Instead of feeling gleeful anticipation when writing up a post, I feel nothing but dread. There’s a group of people out there (google the ironic term FtBullies to find them) devoted to hating me, my friends, and even people I’m just vaguely associated with. I can no longer write anything without my words getting twisted, misrepresented, and quotemined. I wake up every morning to abusive comments, tweets, and emails about how I’m a slut, prude, ugly, fat, feminazi, retard, bitch, and cunt (just to name a few). If I block people who are twisting my words or sending verbal abuse, I receive an even larger wave of nonsensical hate about how I’m a slut, prude, feminazi, retard, bitch, cunt who hates freedom of speech (because the Constitution forces me to listen to people on Twitter). This morning I had to delete dozens of comments of people imitating my identity making graphic, lewd, degrading sexual comments about my personal life. In the past, multiple people have threatened to contact my employer with “evidence” that I’m a bad scientist (because I’m a feminist) to try to destroy my job. I’m constantly worried that the abuse will soon spread to my loved ones.

I just can’t take it anymore.

I don’t want to let them win, but I’m human. The stress is getting to me. I’ve dealt with chronic depression since elementary school, and receiving a daily flood of hatred triggers it. I’ve been miserable. And this toxic behavior is affecting all parts of my life. With this cloud of hate hanging over my head, I can’t focus or enjoy my hobbies or work. It has me constantly on edge with frayed nerves, which causes me to take it out on the ones I love. I spend most of my precious free time angry, on the verge of tears, or sobbing as I have to moderate comments or read what new terrible things people have said about me. And the only solution I see is to unplug.

So, vile scum, do you feel happy now? Have you got a glowing sense of accomplishment? Are you virtually high-fiving each other? What’s next? Are you going to put your feet up and retire, or will you shift your attention to other champions of equality and social justice?

I have a suggestion. Go away and don’t come back. Enjoy your freedom of speech, but do it in a place where people who are full of awesomeness do not have to attend to it. This is exactly why Jen proposed the idea that became Atheism+: to define a space you do not get to destroy. Though Jen may have stopped writing about atheism and feminism, she has started something new, and the idea will continue to grow, even if she takes a less active role.

Jen: I am sorry to see you go. I have been reading blag hag for years now and know that you are an important part of the freethought/atheist/skeptic movement. I hope you come back. More importantly, I hope that you can cope with all the hate and move on, knowing that you have the support of thousands of people who have enjoyed reading what you have written, and have been inspired by your words and ideas.

Check your privilege! Part 2

In my last post, I discussed white privilege and how to find out if you have it. Now I want to turn to another kind of privilege, one that is particularly relevant to the atheist community right now. I have already talked about the many recent examples of sexism and misogyny that have dogged atheism recently. Now I would like to talk about sexism in the light of male privilege. Before getting into the details of male privilege, I would like to highlight a recent issue: the one that gave rise to Atheism+.

When Jen McCreight said

I don’t feel safe as a woman in this community – and I feel less safe than I do as a woman in science, or a woman in gaming, or hell, as a woman walking down the fucking sidewalk

a whole can of worms opened up. Many people understood, sympathized, or empathized with Jen’s statement. Other people blew up, arguing that this was a ridiculous statement: how is it possible not to be safer at a convention – in a room full of people – than walking down the street? Another class of response was to ask for evidence: what is the evidence that you are safer on the street than at a con? The latter two types of response are missing the point. Jen did not claim that as a woman she is safer on the street than at a con; this would have been a claim that could be supported or refuted with evidence from research on the relative frequency of assaults on women in different settings. Neither did she claim that as Jen McCreight she is safer on the street than at a con. I doubt there is any published research on this question, but Jen would be able to offer up data regarding all the times she has been attacked in different settings. Of course, this may not satisfy the most hyper-skeptical among us as these would be anecdotal data. But why am I even making the distinction between Jen-as-a-woman and Jen-as-Jen-McCreight? This distinction is relevant because, in the context of a public atheist/skeptic event, she is not just one of many women walking around. She is a woman who has

“received sexual invitations from strangers around the country”,

who has been

“repeatedly told I can never speak out against people objectifying or sexually harassing me because a joke about my boobs was eternal “consent”,

who has received

“hundreds of comments accusing me being a man-hating, castrating, humorless, ugly, overreacting harpy”,

who has

“become used to being called a cunt or having people threaten to contact my employers because a feminist can’t be a good scientist.”

In short, she is a public figure in the atheist/skeptical/freethought community who has received many threats of violence. Given this, I can see how Jen may feel less safe in an environment where there is a chance that there are a few individuals who recognize her by sight and wish her ill than in an environment where she is anonymous. This does not seem irrational.

I now want to stress that her claim was not that she is less safe in the atheist community than on the sidewalk, but that she feels less safe in the atheist community than on the sidewalk. This claim does not belong in the class of claims that require, or can be supported or refuted by, evidence. If I were to say “I have a headache” or “I feel sad”, no-one would ask me to provide supporting evidence. People would be happy to accept these statements without challenging the truth-status of these claims. Why? First, because they of little consequence, which I do agree is not true of Jen’s claim. Second, because they are my subjective feelings, and we are typically happy to allow that people have subjective experiences that may not be true for the rest of us at this time, and this second reason is true of Jen’s claim. The key difference, however, is that when I talk of headaches or sadness, others can easily simulate what it feels like to be me because they have probably experienced both of these feelings themselves at many different times in their lives. However, it is not the case – and I am happy that it is not the case – that all of us have felt threatened in the way that Jen describes. This is because we have not been subjected to the same abuse and threats that she has. This makes it potentially harder to simulate what it feels like to be Jen. People who have received threats and have been in public spaces in which those who have issued the threats may also be present will probably have a much easier time simulating what it feels like to be Jen.

All of this talk of phenomenology, alluded to in my last post, is essentially the problem of other minds. If I want to be hyper-skeptical, I can make the argument that I have no way of knowing that other people (or animals) have thoughts, feelings, or any kind of conscious experience that is in any way similar to what I experience.

Given the subjective nature of the claim of feeling less safe, adducing the threats received by Jen is not even necessary for accepting that her feelings regarding specific places or situations may differ from other people’s. It is quite possible that Jen could feel safer in one situation than another even if she were not well-known to the atheist community and had not been the recipient of harassment.

The example I have discussed is a specific case of a more general problem: empathizing with others, or – if empathy is not possible because one has no similar experiences to draw upon – accepting the idea that different people have different experiences. That was the point of the White Privilege Pop Quiz, and it is also the point of Barry Deutsch’sMale Privilege Checklist:

1. My odds of being hired for a job, when competing against female applicants, are probably skewed in my favor. The more prestigious the job, the larger the odds are skewed.

2. I can be confident that my co-workers won’t think I got my job because of my sex – even though that might be true.

3. If I am never promoted, it’s not because of my sex.

4. If I fail in my job or career, I can feel sure this won’t be seen as a black mark against my entire sex’s capabilities.

5. I am far less likely to face sexual harassment at work than my female co-workers are.

6. If I do the same task as a woman, and if the measurement is at all subjective, chances are people will think I did a better job.

7. If I’m a teen or adult, and if I can stay out of prison, my odds of being raped are relatively low.

8. On average, I am taught to fear walking alone after dark in average public spaces much less than my female counterparts are.

9. If I choose not to have children, my masculinity will not be called into question.

10. If I have children but do not provide primary care for them, my masculinity will not be called into question.

11. If I have children and provide primary care for them, I’ll be praised for extraordinary parenting if I’m even marginally competent.

12. If I have children and a career, no one will think I’m selfish for not staying at home.

13. If I seek political office, my relationship with my children, or who I hire to take care of them, will probably not be scrutinized by the press.

14. My elected representatives are mostly people of my own sex. The more prestigious and powerful the elected position, the more this is true.

15. When I ask to see “the person in charge,” odds are I will face a person of my own sex. The higher-up in the organization the person is, the surer I can be.

16. As a child, chances are I was encouraged to be more active and outgoing than my sisters.

17. As a child, I could choose from an almost infinite variety of children’s media featuring positive, active, non-stereotyped heroes of my own sex. I never had to look for it; male protagonists were (and are) the default.

18. As a child, chances are I got more teacher attention than girls who raised their hands just as often.

19. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether or not it has sexist overtones.

20. I can turn on the television or glance at the front page of the newspaper and see people of my own sex widely represented.

21. If I’m careless with my financial affairs it won’t be attributed to my sex.

22. If I’m careless with my driving it won’t be attributed to my sex.

23. I can speak in public to a large group without putting my sex on trial.

24. Even if I sleep with a lot of women, there is no chance that I will be seriously labeled a “slut,” nor is there any male counterpart to “slut-bashing.”

25. I do not have to worry about the message my wardrobe sends about my sexual availability.

26. My clothing is typically less expensive and better-constructed than women’s clothing for the same social status. While I have fewer options, my clothes will probably fit better than a woman’s without tailoring.

27. The grooming regimen expected of me is relatively cheap and consumes little time.

28. If I buy a new car, chances are I’ll be offered a better price than a woman buying the same car.

29. If I’m not conventionally attractive, the disadvantages are relatively small and easy to ignore.

30. I can be loud with no fear of being called a shrew. I can be aggressive with no fear of being called a bitch.

31. I can ask for legal protection from violence that happens mostly to men without being seen as a selfish special interest, since that kind of violence is called “crime” and is a general social concern. (Violence that happens mostly to women is usually called “domestic violence” or “acquaintance rape,” and is seen as a special interest issue.)

32. I can be confident that the ordinary language of day-to-day existence will always include my sex. “All men are created equal,” mailman, chairman, freshman, he.

33. My ability to make important decisions and my capability in general will never be questioned depending on what time of the month it is.

34. I will never be expected to change my name upon marriage or questioned if I don’t change my name.

35. The decision to hire me will not be based on assumptions about whether or not I might choose to have a family sometime soon.

36. Every major religion in the world is led primarily by people of my own sex. Even God, in most major religions, is pictured as male.

37. Most major religions argue that I should be the head of my household, while my wife and children should be subservient to me.

38. If I have a wife or live-in girlfriend, chances are we’ll divide up household chores so that she does most of the labor, and in particular the most repetitive and unrewarding tasks.

39. If I have children with my girlfriend or wife, I can expect her to do most of the basic childcare such as changing diapers and feeding.

40. If I have children with my wife or girlfriend, and it turns out that one of us needs to make career sacrifices to raise the kids, chances are we’ll both assume the career sacrificed should be hers.

41. Assuming I am heterosexual, magazines, billboards, television, movies, pornography, and virtually all of media is filled with images of scantily-clad women intended to appeal to me sexually. Such images of men exist, but are rarer.

42. In general, I am under much less pressure to be thin than my female counterparts are. If I am fat, I probably suffer fewer social and economic consequences for being fat than fat women do.

43. If I am heterosexual, it’s incredibly unlikely that I’ll ever be beaten up by a spouse or lover.

44. Complete strangers generally do not walk up to me on the street and tell me to “smile.”

45. Sexual harassment on the street virtually never happens to me. I do not need to plot my movements through public space in order to avoid being sexually harassed, or to mitigate sexual harassment.

45. On average, I am not interrupted by women as often as women are interrupted by men.

46. I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege.

I agree with the vast majority of these statements. As with the White Privilege test, the point isn’t that I am a sexist, or that I can choose not to have this privilege. The point is that I should now be aware that I have male privilege, and have some minimal idea about what women may experience. I still do not know what it is like to be a woman, but I am aware that the phenomenology of being a woman is not the same as the phenomenology of being a man.

You may be a woman who does not agree that all of the statements on the list are representative of your experiences, but that does not mean that this is true for all women. Jen McCreight recently blogged about Richard Dawkins retweeting the following:

I’m a woman & an atheist blogger, & never experienced sexist abuse from fellow atheists. Maybe because I don’t assume they’re misogynists?

Jen then quotes a nice critique:

From Veronica at Purple NoiZe:

Good for you Lucy. Good for you. There are numerous women who have, but I’m glad you’re not one of them.

The problem, however, with this tweet is of course the second sentence. Lucy seems to be saying that either is the abuse imagined, i.e. that the recipients interpret the abuse as sexist while it is actually just for laughs or something. It is a little tricky to treat death and rape threats as funny jokes, but I suppose if you’re naive enough you could manage it. The other option is that the abuse women receive online is caused by women assuming these people are misogynists, therefore the sexism is really the victim’s fault for being so uppity. The classic victim blaming that we so often see of rape victims.

As well as the victim-blaming implied in the second sentence, this is good example of the point I am trying to make: just because you have not experienced something or have not felt a particular way in a situation, it doesn’t mean that other people haven’t.

Note that all the arguments I make in this post can be applied to Rebecca Watson’s experiences as well.


The Male Privilege Checklist is copied from Barry Deutsch’s site, where he explains the reasons for compiling it:

In 1990, Wellesley College professor Peggy McIntosh wrote an essay called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. McIntosh observes that whites in the U.S. are “taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” To illustrate these invisible systems, McIntosh wrote a list of 26 invisible privileges whites benefit from.

As McIntosh points out, men also tend to be unaware of their own privileges as men. In the spirit of McIntosh’s essay, I thought I’d compile a list similar to McIntosh’s, focusing on the invisible privileges benefiting men.


Thanks again to Corinne Zimmerman for inspiring this post.

Atheism, therefore Feminism

Does being an atheist imply that one is (or should be) a feminist? The answer, according to me, is “yes”. Like many others , I implicitly thought that people who were skeptics and atheists, who rail against the oppression of fundamentalist religion, must stand for a whole bunch of Good Things and against a whole bunch of Bad Things. I assumed they were for liberty, justice, and equality, and against racism, homophobia, sexism, and misogyny.

It turns out that I, and the many others, were wrong. In case you missed it, one bit of the internet has spent some considerable proportion of its time discussing sexism and feminism. The bit of the net I am talking about is the section of the blogosphere centered around the freethought and skepchick blog networks .

A year ago, Rebecca Watson said “Guys, don’t do that” and craziness ensued . The subsequent debates about what is or isn’t acceptable behavior and what does and doesn’t count as sexual harassment led to discussions about sexual harassment policies at conferences . In June 2012, Rebecca explained why she wouldn’t be attending a conference.

Later in June, freethoughtblogs added Thunderf00t to their roster, and he immediately started spewing all kinds of nastiness about sexual harassment. In early July he was booted from the network, and in August it was revealed that he had access to confidential information about freethought bloggers . This led to a very distressing post by Natalie Reed.

Then there’s the campaign against skepchick Surly Amy . And the “feminazi” name calling aimed at freethoughtblogs and skepchick. And probably a whole bunch of other stuff that I don’t remember or didn’t see, given the vast amount of traffic on sexism and feminism.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, and don’t have several hours to read everything I linked to above, here’s the brief summary: it turns out there are many people in the atheist/skeptic community who really hate feminists and feminism, and are willing to wish horrible fates on women who dare to argue that sexism exists within the community and should be dealt with.

So, given the fact that many people who identify as atheists, skeptics, and freethinkers clearly do not identify as feminists, why should I claim that atheism logically implies feminism. Well, there is a sense in which it doesn’t. Atheism means not believing in gods. Nothing else. From a definitional standpoint, arguing that atheism implies anything other than not believing in gods is incorrect. However, atheism as a movement has moved beyond the dictionary definition of the term. A lot of people have stated that dictionary atheism isn’t enough, and that being skeptical should go beyond debunking bigfoot, Loch Ness monster, or alien sightings. What is missing from the old-school of skepticism and atheism is an interest in social justice.

Yes, tarot readers and mediums do prey on their customers, and shouldn’t get away with it, and of course we should be combating religious institutions’ interference in secular life. But we should be asking ourselves why we care about these things. We could say we care about religious interference in secular American life because it is unconstitutional/illegal, and we could argue that the whole point of the United States is freedom of religion, and this is true but, again, it is a narrow technical explanation. If true, then people in other countries should not be trying to promote secularism and we shouldn’t care what happens in those countries as they do not have legal protection against religious influence.

We care about the influence of religion, not just because it violates laws, but because of the real-world outcomes. These include outcomes that atheists and skeptics have been working against for decades, such as the dilution of science education in order to weaken evolution and promote creationism. A good science education is incredibly important, but there are other negative outcomes to fight against as well. Anti-choicers are largely driven by religious motivations, as are those who do not want gays to marry. Those in the middle east who do not like the idea of girls getting educated, and who don’t want women driving, using cell phones, going out in public on their own, or wearing what they want are driven, at least in part, by their religion.

We care about what happens to people who belong to minority ethnic groups, what happens to gays, what happens to the poor, what happens to the starving, what happens to inhabitants of war-torn countries, and what happens to women all over the world for a reason. That reason is not that their suffering is caused (or aided and abetted) by religious individuals and institutions. The reason is that we care what happens to people: we do not like to see others suffer. Why? Because we are moral beings with empathy.

I have often heard the argument that morality derives from faith in the divine, and that atheists in particular have no reason to be moral beings. In fact, just recently one of my friends was relating an anecdote about a conversation he had in his workplace. My friend’s atheism was mentioned by one colleague to a second colleague; the second colleague turned to my friend, shocked, and asked whether my friend was really a nihilist and whether he really thought that life was meaningless and that we have no reason to behave well towards others.

One of my earliest memories of my teenage proto-atheism is my reaction to these words from chapter 9 of The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge :

Now that we know that the only thing on the other side of the sky is more sky, the idea of an afterlife has finally been slid into the history books alongside the rest of the quaint and forgotten religions. With heaven and hell gone we are faced with the necessity of making a heaven or hell right here. What with societies and metatechnology and allied disciplines we have come a long way, and life on the civilized worlds is better than it ever was during the black days of superstition. But with the improving of here and now comes the stark realization that here and now is all we have. Each of us has only this one brief experience with the bright light of consciousness in that endless dark night of eternity and must make the most of it. Doing this means we must respect the existence of everyone else and the most criminal act imaginable is the terminating of one of these conscious existences.

My reaction: Oh, wow, that is so evidently true. And coherent.

I was thinking about this quotation just a few days ago. The next day Harry Harrison , the author of the Stainless Steel Rat books, passed away .

My point (I realize that it may not be clear yet) is that atheism does not end with the dictionary definition. I find it hard to see how one can state “I believe in no gods” and then move on without considering the implications. The passage quoted above was the first implication that was made clear to me. This is all there is. There is not afterlife, no eternal reward; putting up with oppression and abuse in the hope that it will all be alright in the next life is tragic. Oppressing and abusing others, whilst offering them hope of some karmic balance in another life, is criminal.

Another implication of atheism is feminism, as described by Amanda Marcotte :

It was atheist thinkers who I first encountered who had an explanation for gender that comported better with the real world evidence. Simone de Beauvoir, author of the seminal text “The Second Sex”, laid out a rationale for feminism that was firmly rooted in her atheist existentialist philosophy. To wildly oversimplify her extremely long argument: There is no God. Therefore, there is no higher authority telling us what we are here “for”. Therefore we have the right to define our own purpose for ourselves. There is no rational reason that this right should only be extended to men, because again, there’s no higher power assigning one gender the role of leaders and the other of servants. Thus, women are equal to men, and as a matter of human decency, should have the same right to self-determination. Elegant, persuasive, and above all other things, logical and evidence-based. Atheism, by all rights, should lead to feminism, I thought. It’s just what’s rational.

Other implications of atheism relate to reproductive rights and gay rights:

Anti-choicers insist that the debate over choice is a theological one over when “life,” i.e. ensoulment begins. If the public at large understood that a substantial percentage of Americans don’t believe in souls at all, then it would be much easier to see why the theological question of when “life” begins has no place in the law at all. Same story with gay rights; if you don’t believe in a supernatural higher power assigning gender roles and telling us what sex and marriage are “for,” then there’s no argument against equality for gays and lesbians.

This is why so many people were so shocked and confused when a number of men and women who identify as atheists started a campaign of verbal harassment, abuse, and threats against other women and men who identify as atheists and feminists. The confusion derives from the incoherence of an atheist taking an anti-feminist stance. As Amanda Marcotte puts it,

a not-insubstantial percentage of atheist men have convinced themselves they can both not believe in a god and somehow still conclude that women were put (by who?) here on Earth for the purpose of pleasing and catering to men. And that therefore women who rebel against that by, say, demanding the right not to be sexually harassed just because some guy feels like it, are evil witches who need to be fiercely attacked. All these years, irrational sexists have thought they needed a God to rely on to tell women that our bodies belong to men and not to us. But it turns out that plenty of men feel that they themselves are the only authority needed to take away this basic right of women’s.

Paul Fidalgo, the Communications Director for the Center for Inquiry, also points out that there has to be more to atheism than disbelief :

This movement (not merely the community of heretics, but the movement) is about lessening the power of religion, superstition, and credulous thinking because we want to live in a world guided by facts, science, and reason, because (and here’s the part I might lose some of you) we want to live in a world that maximizes human happiness, morality, freedom of thought and expression, and equality. Atheism and skepticism for their own sakes are not “causes.” They are not, in and of themselves, worthy of a movement. But we pursue these goals because we know they will bring about a society in which we are more free and equal, and in turn we will be more fulfilled and enriched as a result.

This quotation comes from one of fifteen (so far) statements made by men in leadership roles that have been posted on skepchick, in response to a request made by Surly Amy. These statements are just one of several positive things that have emerged from the discussions of sexism and feminism (although I do want to be clear that lots of *very* negative things have happened too, as outlined at the beginning of this post). A second major outcome is the formation of Secular Woman , a society whose mission is “to amplify the voice, presence, and influence of non-religious women”. A third outcome is in progress: it is fairly clear that the sense of direction and identity of the atheist movement is changing. I think it has been moving beyond the “second wave” of atheism spearheaded by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett for some time, but recent events have put a sharper focus on issues that go beyond whether there is a god. Jen McCreight is calling for a third wave of atheism :

It’s time for a wave that cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime. We can criticize religion and irrational thinking just as unabashedly and just as publicly, but we need to stop exempting ourselves from that criticism.

The future of atheism will, I hope, be a movement that both implicitly and explicitly stands for humanism.

On hugging atheists

In my previous two posts, I described research showing that (a) there is a lot of prejudice against atheists, and (b) this prejudice may be reduced by increasing the visibility of atheists.

This leads me to Sylvia Broeckx’s documentary film Hug An Atheist. This film is an attempt to portray the lives and struggles of people who have come out as atheists.

Hug an atheist is not setting out to ignore the problems and challenges people face, but the project aims to highlight the positives: how atheists too have emotions, love, morals,… By featuring regular people going through some key moments in life (such as marriage, grief, celebrations, …) , the project aims to show how atheists are more alike than religious people might think. Hopefully this might contribute towards a society where one doesn’t have to be afraid to say they are not religious.

The film has not been made yet. Sylvia is hoping to raise $27,000 through her indiegogo campaign. She has already raised over $4000, and has 40 days left to raise the remainder. If this is a film you would like to see, go ahead and make a donation. The impact could be very important. As discussed previously, a sense of the prevalence of this outgroup may go a long way towards reducing prejudice against atheists.

On reducing anti-atheist prejudice

In my last post, I discussed research by Edgell et al. showing that atheists are the most disliked group in America. I also described a series of studies by Will Gervais and his colleagues showing that anti-atheist prejudice is strongly related to distrust. In another paper published last year, Gervais tested the hypothesis that prejudice against atheists will be reduced when there is a perception that atheists are numerous. This is an interesting hypothesis, as it is typically the case that prejudice towards an outgroup increases as the outgroup gets larger.

“For example, anti-Black prejudice is stronger where Black people hold a larger relative share of local populations in the United States (e.g., Fosset & Kiecolt, 1989; Giles & Evans, 1986; Pettigrew, 1959). The disparity in racial attitudes between North and South in the United States is statistically nonsignificant after local Black population share is controlled (Taylor, 1998)”

Given this tendency, why should atheists be different to any other outgroup? According to Gervais, different groups represent different perceived threats to those who are prejudiced. If an individual sees members of an outgroup as posing a physical threat, their fear and prejudice will increase as the outgroup increases in size. Distrust, in contrast to fear of physical threat, may decrease as the outgroup becomes larger. In addition, we can observe that in countries with greater relative numbers of atheists (such as Denmark and Sweden), there is less anti-atheist prejudice than in countries with fewer atheists (such as the US). In order to see whether it is really the case that there is less prejudice towards atheists in countries with greater atheist prevalence, Gervais analysed survey data from 40,271 respondents who expressed a belief in God, from 54 countries. He found that there was a significant negative correlation between atheist prevalence and anti-atheist prejudice.

Having established that religious people living in countries with more atheists tend to be less prejudiced against them, Gervais conducted an experiment in which he manipulated the perceived prevalence of atheists in order to determine whether this would cause a reduction in anti-atheist prejudice. One hundred and twelve undergraduate students were split into two groups and given different information about how many atheists there are. One group was told that around 5% of the students at their university were atheists, and that atheists are rare all over the world. The other group was told that 50% of the students at their university were atheists, and that atheists are the fourth largest “religious” group in the world (this last point is actually true: only Christians, Muslims, and Hindus are more numerous than atheists). The participants were then asked to rate two statements on a 7-point scale (from “strongly disagree to “strongly agree”). The two statements were “Atheists are dishonest” and “Atheists are trustworthy”. The second item was reverse scored and the two responses were added together to form a single measure of atheist distrust. The results showed that the students who were told that atheists are common gave lower ratings of distrust than the students who were told that atheists are rare, lending support to Gervais’ hypothesis that distrust decreases as perceived outgroup prevalence increases.

An obvious implication of this research in that atheists should seek to become more visible in order that others perceive them as more prevalent. This has clearly been happening in recent years – the bestselling books about atheism and the billboard and bus campaigns have definitely brought atheists to the attention of the population at large. Has all this effort led to a reduction in distrust of atheists? It’s hard to say, but if Gervais’ findings are generalisable, then the outspoken atheists who have been criticized for being outspoken, may be helping to reduce prejudice simply by altering people’s perception of the prevalence of atheists.


ResearchBlogging.org

Gervais, W. M. (2011). Finding the faithless: perceived atheist prevalence reduces anti-atheist prejudice. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 37 (4), 543-56 PMID: 21343437

On dislike and distrust of atheists

As many people reported back in 2006, atheists are perceived in rather a bad light by many Americans. According to a survey conducted by Penny Edgell and colleagues at the University of Minnesota

Atheists are at the top of the list of groups that Americans find problematic in both public and private life, and the gap between acceptance of atheists and acceptance of other racial and religious minorities is large and persistent. It is striking that the rejection of atheists is so much more common than rejection of other stigmatized groups. For example, while rejection of Muslims may have spiked in post-9/11 America, rejection of atheists was higher. The possibility of same-sex marriage has widely been seen as a threat to a biblical definition of marriage, as Massachusetts, Hawaii, and California have tested the idea, and the debate over the ordination of openly gay clergy has become a central point of controversy within many churches. In our survey, however, concerns about atheists were stronger than concerns about homosexuals.

Edgell and colleagues conducted a telephone survey of 2081 American households over the summer of 2003. First, participants were given a list of racial, ethnic, and religious groups, and asked whether “people in this group agree with YOUR vision of American society—almost completely, mostly, somewhat, or not at all?” Second, respondents were asked “Suppose your son or daughter wanted to marry [a person in given category]. Would you approve of this choice, disapprove of it, or wouldn’t it make any difference at all one way or the other?” For the first question, respondents were asked about recent immigrants and homosexuals, in addition to groups such as Conservative Christians, White Americans, African Americans, Jews, Muslims, and Atheists.

Only 2.2% of respondents answered “not at all” when asked whether White Americans agreed with their vision of America; White Americans can thus be seen as the least “problematic” group. At the other end of the scale are Homosexuals (22.6%), Muslims (26.3%), and Atheists (39.6%). Turning to the second question, respondents said they would most disapprove of the children marrying African Americans (27.2%), Muslims (33.5%), and Atheists (47.6%).

From these results, it would certainly seem that a lot of people don’t care too much for atheists. Two immediate questions arise. First, what is the basis of this dislike? Is it fear? Distrust? Moral outrage? Second, is this rejection of atheism still the case? The data discussed above were collected in 2003. Not really a long time ago, but before the current conception of ‘New Atheism’ became an object of discussion in the mass media. Before Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Before Harris’ The End of Faith. Before Hitchens’ God Is Not Great and Dennett’s Breaking The Spell

Both questions are addressed in a more recent paper from Will Gervais, Azim Shariff, and Ara Norenzayan. Their conclusion is that:

Atheists are among the least liked groups of people in many parts of the world, and the present studies help to explain why. The present six studies converged on the conclusion that distrust is at the core of this particularly powerful, peculiar, and prevalent form of prejudice.

In the first of their six studies, Gervais et al set out to replicate Edgell et al.’s finding that atheists are liked less than homosexuals. Three hundred and fifty-one participants were asked to rank atheists, gay men, and people in general on three scales of 0 to 100: general feeling toward each group, trustworthiness of each group, and disgust towards each group. The results show that atheists were viewed less favorably than the other groups, that atheists were viewed with more distrust than gay men, but that gay men were viewed with more disgust than atheists. These findings indicate that anti-gay prejudice results from disgust, whereas anti-atheist prejudice is rooted in distrust.

The authors then conducted several further studies aimed at examining distrust further. To this end, they modified a classic psychological task, first made famous by Tversky and Kahnemann (1983). In the original version of the task, participants were presented with the following problem:

Linda is 31, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy in college. As a student, she was deeply concerned with discrimination and other social issues, and participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which statement is more likely?

a. Linda is a bank teller.

b. Linda is a bank teller and active in the feminist movement.

Tversky and Kahneman found that 85% of participants answered ‘b’. This response is a conjunction fallacy; it is fallacious because the likelihood of both A and B occurring is always less than the likelihood of either A or B alone. If “A and B” is true, then both A and B have to be true, which is less likely than only A being true or only B being true. To illustrate why this is the case, consider another example:

Which statement is more likely?
a. You will be hit by lighning
b. You will be hit by lightning and you will win the lottery

Clearly both being hit by lightning and winning the lottery are unlikely, but it should also be clear that any one of these two events is more likely than both. So why do people answer that Linda is more likely to be both a bank teller and a femininst? According to Tversky and Kahneman, it is because people tend not to reason using pure logic. Instead we rely on heuristics to guide our decisions. In this case, participants used the representativeness heuristic to guide their judgments. The description of Linda is more representative of a feminist than it was of a bank teller, so people pick the answer that includes the word feminist, ignoring the fact that the conjunction of feminist and bank teller is less likely than either one of these attributes alone.

Gervais et al. modified this task so as to compare the extent to which participants made the conjunction fallacy with different target groups, including atheists. Participants were given the following description:

Richard is 31 years old. On his way to work one day, he accidentally backed his car into a parked van. Because pedestrians were watching, he got out of his car. He pretended to write down his insurance information. He then tucked the blank note into the van’s window before getting back into his car and driving away.

Later the same day, Richard found a wallet on the sidewalk. Nobody was looking, so he took all of the money out of the wallet. He then threw the wallet in a trash can.

Participants were then asked if it is more likely that Richard is
a. A teacher
b. A teacher and a [Christian/Muslim/rapist/atheist]

Participants were placed in four groups. Each group saw of one of the four alternatives presented in answer ‘b’. The point of this task is that Richard is presented as someone who is untrustworthy. As a result, participants should make the conjunction fallacy if they consider the target group presented in answer ‘b’ to be untrustworthy. Given that the prejudice against atheists seems to be driven by distrust, people should be more likely to make the conjunction fallacy when answer ‘b’ is “teacher and atheist” than for, say, “teacher and Christian”. Gervais et al found that participants were significantly more likely to make the conjunction fallacy for ‘atheist’ than ‘Christian’ or ‘Muslim’. Also – and very alarmingly – there was no significant difference in the frequency of conjunction errors between ‘atheist’ and ‘rapist’!

I am going to skip over studies 3-5. Suffice it to say, they all paint a picture of the perception of atheists as untrustworthy. Furthermore, Gervais et al. found that belief in God was associated with higher levels of atheist distrust. In study 6, participants were given the task of choosing between two (fictional) job candidates for two different jobs: waitress and daycare worker. You can probably guess that one of the candidates was presented as religious and one as an atheist. You may also guess that participants preferred the religious candidate for the daycare position, as this job requires someone who is trustworthy. The authors also found that participants with a strong belief in God were less likely to hire the atheist candidate for the high-trust position than participants who did not have a strong belief in God.


ResearchBlogging.org

Edgell, P., Gerteis. J., & Hartmann, D. (2006). Atheists As “other”: Moral boundaries and cultural membership in American society American Sociological Review, 71 (2), 211-234 DOI: 10.1177/000312240607100203

Gervais, W. M., Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice. Journal of personality and social psychology, 101 (6), 1189-206 PMID: 22059841

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1983). Extension versus intuitive reasoning:
The conjunction fallacy in probability judgment. Psychological Review (90), 293-315 : 10.1037/0033-295X.90.4.293