Monthly Archives: August 2013

Sexist Unbelief?


I tried writing this post a couple of days ago, struggled with it, nearly deleted it, and then decided to take another shot. The problem is that I feel, on the one hand, that I don’t have the right to comment on the recent spate of allegations about sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault within the anti-religious movement(s) and organizations. (I’m going to use ‘anti-religious’ to try to encompass the various atheist, secularist, and sceptical organizations; I’m not singling out any particular group.) I’m not a member of any such organization, I don’t know any of the individuals involved, and I don’t know whether the allegations are true. On the other hand, I’m a woman — and I want to add my voice to the women (and men) who decry sexism in all its forms. I might have left this alone, but it’s clear from the comments on articles written by women about this subject (and from the vile threats made against women in the public eye, such as the classicist Mary Beard), that misogyny is alive and well and that women are facing serious threats to their right to express themselves and tell the truth as they see it.

I’m not going to discuss particular cases; I don’t know enough about them, and you can read about them easily enough if you follow the links in the articles listed at the bottom of this post. If you’re in the mood for an especially weird sexist atheist read, by all means have a look at Secular Patriarchy. I’m not posting the link because I don’t want to encourage the author, but it’s worth reading if you’re sceptical about the likelihood that there are sexist atheists.

I want to comment on one of Soraya Chemala’s remarks in her Salon article “5 reasons why there aren’t more women in atheism.” Chemala wrote:

“Sexism is real and has an effect on women’s participation and leadership within the atheist community. Rape jokes and sexual harassment, as penalties and tools to silence women, exist in atheist and secular groups as well as religious ones. Many people hold the tacit belief that atheism equals rationalism and rationalism is gender-neutral, and therefore sexism can’t exist among atheists. But critical thinkers do irrational things all the time — and unless they actively try to resist existing prejudices, they can easily fall into them. The discrimination based on class, race, gender and sexuality that we see in the broader culture exists in atheist and secular communities too, and requires the same dismantling.”

I think Chemaya’s right that sexism within atheism seems dismaying because of tacit assumptions regarding the connections between atheism, rationalism and gender. But rationalism has been associated with men, and irrationality with women, for thousands of years. We could say that it’s the default position in Western societies when it comes to thinking about gender. Not everyone thought this way — women such as Christine de Pizan defended their capacity for reason, and Descartes suggested that the mind has no sex. Francois Poulain de la Barre took that suggestion up in three feminist treatises written in the 1600s. But the Enlightenment adopted the idea that women and men had very different natures, with different purposes and roles to play in society. This notion was developed further in the 1800s to become the ideology of separate spheres for men and women (women’s place was in the home, as the ‘angel of the house’, while men should work outside the home).* Modern studies that purport to show that men’s and women’s brains work differently reinforce the very old idea that women are less analytical and more emotional than men.

I don’t mean to suggest that there are no differences between men and women. But I’m deeply sceptical about claims that intellectual differences are innate — and, as I’ve suggested about studies of intelligence and religiosity, we have to consider what agendas are driving studies of how men and women think.

I’m not surprised by the allegations of sexism within anti-religious organizations, or by what seems to be the marginalization of women within atheism. Atheism, and anti-religion more broadly, valorize rationality in ways that are strongly reminiscent of the Cult of Reason established (briefly) during the dechristianization phase of the French Revolution. Considering how strongly rationality has been and still is associated with being male, it’s no wonder that women struggle to be heard and respected within rationalist movements dominated by men.

What’s maddening about this, besides the impact on the women within these movements, is that religion’s oppression of women is a central plank in the anti-religious platform. Kind of makes you wonder just how much better things would be for women in a New Atheist world.

*Obviously, I’ve simplified the history of gender and rationality. If you’re interested in further reading on this subject, I recommend:

Knott, Sarah and Barbara Taylor, eds. Women, Gender and Enlightenment. Houndmills, Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

Meade, Teresa A. & Merry E. Wiesner, eds. A Companion to Gender History. Blackwell, 2004.

Poulain de La Barre, François. Three Cartesian feminist treatises.  Chicago UP, 2002.

Ross, Sarah Gwyneth. The birth of feminism : woman as intellect in Renaissance Italy and England. Harvard UP, 2009.

Schiebinger, Londa L. The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Steinbrügge, Lieselotte. The Moral Sex: Women’s Nature in the French Enlightenment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Stuurman, Siep. Poulain de la barre and the invention of modern equality. Harvard UP, 2004.

Wiesner, Merry E. Gender in history: global perspectives. 2nd ed.  Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Intelligence and Religiosity

A scholarly article appeared a few days ago that argues intelligent people are less likely to be religious than, um, less-intelligent people. It’s received a fair bit of attention, for obvious reasons.

The article, “The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations,” by Miron Zuckerman, Jordan Silberman, and Judith A. Hall, was published online in Personality and Social Psychology Review on August 6th. If you have access to a university library, you can read it for free; if not, you can download it for $25 USD. Be warned: much of this paper is a discussion of statistical analysis. I don’t know enough about that to engage in a critique of their methodology, but their discussion of methodological issues is graspable if you’re willing to work your way through it. Here is the abstract, which is available for free at


A meta-analysis of 63 studies showed a significant negative association between intelligence and religiosity. The association was stronger for college students and the general population than for participants younger than college age; it was also stronger for religious beliefs than religious behavior. For college students and the general population, means of weighted and unweighted correlations between intelligence and the strength of religious beliefs ranged from −.20 to −.25 (mean r = −.24). Three possible interpretations were discussed. First, intelligent people are less likely to conform and, thus, are more likely to resist religious dogma. Second, intelligent people tend to adopt an analytic (as opposed to intuitive) thinking style, which has been shown to undermine religious beliefs. Third, several functions of religiosity, including compensatory control, self-regulation, self-enhancement, and secure attachment, are also conferred by intelligence. Intelligent people may therefore have less need for religious beliefs and practices.

In a nutshell, the article is a detailed review of other studies on the relation between intelligence and religiosity; the authors have not done a new survey. The authors note that the first such study was published in 1928 and that there have been several large-scale studies in the last decade. The authors review 63 studies in all; 53 showed negative correlations between intelligence and religiosity. In other words, most of the studies showed that “the higher a person’s intelligence, the lower the person scored on the religiosity measures (p. 9).” The authors consider various factors, such as whether education levels, restricted samples, etc. account for this negative correlation. They argue that the relation holds even after taking those factors into account.

A few observations:

The idea that intelligence and religiosity are related is not new. The beliefs of the uneducated masses were often regarded as mere superstition as compared to the proper religion practiced by the elite classes. In the 18th century, anti-religious writers argued that the ignorant needed religion; only the enlightened could live moral lives without it. Of course, before the 20th century no one was thinking in terms of IQ, but the pattern of devaluing whatever the lower classes believe while privileging the beliefs of the educated members of society is consistent throughout Western history. The modern interest in intelligence and religiosity is, I think, an iteration of the pattern, with a different sort of class division being created that separates high-IQ individuals from those with lower IQs — and between the religious and the non-religious.

The authors point out that most explanations of the negative relation between intelligence and religion “share one central theme — the premise that religious beliefs are irrational, not anchored in science, not testable and, therefore, unappealing to intelligent people who ‘know better’ (p. 3).” They do criticize this premise, but not, I think, as strongly as it deserves. It seems to me that the entire enterprise of trying to establish what the relation between intelligence and religiosity is presupposes a) that there is one; b) that it would be useful to know what it is. The anti-religious agenda and snobbery are obvious.

One “explanation” that has been offered for the relation between intelligence and religion is that atheism “is evolutionarily novel,” and since intelligent people are better able to cope with evolutionary novelty, they become atheists. The authors of this article cite Kanazawa as the proponent of this theory, which is based on the idea that religion developed because it conferred an evolutionary advantage. What’s important to consider here is that any theories about how religion developed among pre-historical humans are speculative. Anthropologists have different interpretations of what, for instance, the famous Venus figurines mean (goddess figures or pornography?) and what the intent behind cave paintings was. We have to speculate, because there are no written sources to tell us what pre-historic humans were thinking. Furthermore, what evidence is there to show that religion was evolutionarily advantageous or that atheism didn’t exist? The idea that religion evolved suggests that humans were originally not religious, which would make religiosity more novel, in the evolutionary sense, than non-religiosity. Finally, it’s woefully unclear what is meant by atheism being evolutionarily novel, because the article contains no historical or anthropological background whatsoever. It’s actually unclear what the authors mean by atheism, since they never define it and tend to slip from “non-religious” to “atheist” without commenting on the difference between the terms.

The authors discuss several other “explanations,” such as the idea that intelligent people are non-conformists. Their own favoured “explanation,” which they claim is new, is that religion fulfills certain functions, such as alleviating loneliness. Intelligence fulfills the same functions, or at least leads to a person being able to satisfy their needs without religion. So religion and high intelligence are functionally equivalent. For example, a person who is less intelligent, and  feels lonely, will be comforted by a secure relationship with God. An intelligent person, on the other hand, is statistically more likely than a less-intelligent person to get married and to stay married. The authors reason from this as follows: “if intelligent people are more likely to be married, then they may have less of a need to seek religion as a refuge from loneliness (p. 20).” It’s the same sort of reasoning that has led some scholars to suggest that sports fandom, nationalism, etc. are religions, because they fulfill the same functions as religion.

The functional explanation seems very forced to me. Part of the problem is that the authors don’t discuss any qualitative information; there’s nothing here about religious and non-religious (or intelligent and less-intelligent) people’s own explanations of their behaviour and beliefs. What we get instead is a convoluted attempt to explain a statistical correlation by other statistical correlations.

What are the implications of this research? It reinforces the notion that religiosity is a characteristic of unintelligent people and that non-religious individuals are more “evolved” than religious people. Remember the “Brights” movement? ( Perhaps I’m being alarmist, but this kind of language, especially the use of evolution as an “explanation,” gives me the willies. We’ve heard this before, haven’t we? What’s happening is the development of a discourse that suggests atheists are better humans — that they represent evolutionary progress. Believers, in this model, become flawed, degenerate humans. Expendable, perhaps.

The fact that women are, overall, more religious than men adds a disturbing wrinkle to the intelligence-religiosity relation. If women tend toward religiosity, and religiosity is connected with lower intelligence, it’s not a great leap to the conclusion that women overall must be less intelligent than men. Why else would they be more religious?

No doubt, many atheists and other non-religious people would say that these studies are simply practicing fair turnabout on the centuries-old view of unbelievers as irrational, immoral monsters. But any work that suggests an entire category of humans is less intelligent than another is playing with fire. We need to think hard about the agendas and consequences of such research.

Defending Rick Warren


On August 9th, columnist Greta Christina wrote about Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren’s return to preaching after his son’s suicide. In her article, Christina criticizes Warren for trivializing mental illness as merely everyday fears and worries. She quotes Warren as saying “‘We’re all mentally ill’” and “‘You have fears, you have worries, you have doubts, you have compulsions, you have attractions…’” Then she interprets Warren’s reference to “doubts” as meaning atheism, and suggests “he’s basically saying that atheism, agnosticism and questioning religious faith are mental illnesses.”

This caught my eye, because atheism was linked with madness for several centuries, and was regarded as a cause of suicide due to despair (more on this another day). I was curious to learn exactly what Warren had said, so I listened to his sermon, which is available at

After listening (several times), I felt I had to defend Warren against Christina’s interpretation. She has seriously misrepresented Warren’s sermon through inaccurate and misleading “quotations.” He does not say that we’re all mentally ill; he says that many people struggle with their thoughts and are tortured by them. He does not refer to doubt, and does not mention atheism or agnosticism. We could interpret his remarks about people who lack hope as referring to atheists and agnostics, but I think his meaning is much broader, including anyone who has not accepted the evangelical understanding of God and God’s purpose.

Christina also misrepresents Warren as suggesting that the mentally ill only need God, not treatment or explanations. He says no such thing.

Warren says very clearly that “it is not a sin to be sick,” to take medications, or to see a psychiatrist. There is absolutely no suggestion that faith alone is sufficient to cure mental illness. He wants his church to help people who feel tortured by their thoughts, and to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness. Christina is right that he preaches “when in pain, explanations don’t help” and that “you don’t need an explanation, you need God.” But the context is loss, not diagnosis. All the explanations in the world about his son’s mental illness (Warren makes it clear that his son was diagnosed and treated) can’t take away the pain of losing him — for Warren, only God can provide comfort.

Christina closes her article with a brief statement of respect for Warren’s attempt to de-stigmatize mental illness, follows it up with a plug for her friend Rebecca Hensler’s site Grief Beyond Belief, and then says “But intention is not magic. It’s not enough to want to de-stigmatize mental illness. You have to actually do it. And lumping it in with ordinary emotions — and treating it as something better handled with faith than understanding — doesn’t help.”

Neither does twisting the words of someone who is, I suspect, pretty likely to “actually do it,” if by that we mean spreading the message that mental illness does not deserve the stigma attached to it — a stigma that many atheists reinforce every time they accuse religious believers of being delusional, crazy, sociopathically violent, etc., as part of their “debating” strategy. If you read the comments on Christina’s article, you’ll find a large number of posts that equate religious faith with insanity. I suspect strongly that Christina didn’t listen to Warren’s sermon — or perhaps she was just so concerned with her own agenda that she wasn’t willing to really hear a man who says that every human being has value in God’s eyes. Even if we prefer to leave God out of it, we could do a lot worse than to emulate Warren’s goal of instilling hope in the “wiped out and written off.”

I’m no fan of evangelical preachers. I disagree strongly with much of what Rick Warren stands for. But irresponsible distortion of his words serves no legitimate purpose. It suggests that some atheists look so hard for the bad in religion that they’re blind to anything good in it.

A Blog Is Born


I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a blog for a couple of years, since I started working on my PhD program and began to think seriously about atheism and its relationships with religion, humanism, and secularism. Many of the things I would like to write about don’t fit within the scope of my dissertation research on eighteenth-century atheism, and I couldn’t possibly produce academic articles about all of them — thus, a blog was born.

I plan to write about a pretty diverse set of topics: the history of atheism; free will; ethics; religion in the public sphere; “New Atheism”; women and atheism; atheism and religion in literature and popular culture; etc. Some posts will stem directly from my research on eighteenth-century texts, so I need to acknowledge here that my PhD work is supported by scholarships from the University of Alberta and the Province of Alberta, as well as by a doctoral fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

To start on a personal note, I have been an atheist for around twenty-five to thirty years, since I was in my early teens. I was raised a Roman Catholic, and never had any bad experiences within the Church other than boredom at Mass. As far as I can remember, I didn’t have a “conversion experience” that turned me into an atheist; I didn’t read Russell or Nietzsche, and my head wasn’t turned by Darwin.

If anything started my atheizing process, it was a lecture given by a visiting Jesuit missionary at my church in Oshawa, Ontario, when I was in fourth grade: in answering a question from the audience, he said (this is the only thing I remember from the lecture) that he believed heaven and hell were states of mind. Around the same time, I was reading The Lord of the Rings, which showed me that one person could invent a detailed, layered world with its own history and mythology. The Troubles in Northern Ireland had a significant impact on my thinking because that conflict involved Christians killing other Christians over, apparently, being Christian (needless to say, this is not a good summary of the Troubles). At some point in high school, I decided that God and Christianity, and by extension other religions, were human inventions.

I’m not especially concerned with labels, but I am not a “New Atheist.” For one thing, I’ve been an atheist since the 1980s; more importantly, I disagree with much of what the Big Names of New Atheism stand for, which is a topic for another day.

You won’t, I hope, find religion-bashing here. I’m not interested in trying to convert people to atheism, or in attacking religion. There are plenty of other people doing that!