December 14, 2012

Michael Shermer is Latest to Be Demonized

Michael ShermerMichael Shermer is a prominent atheist and skeptic who has done as much as anyone to make the modern skeptic movement what it is today. A former fundamentalist Christian, Shermer outgrew his faith during graduate school. He founded the Skeptics Society, serves as Editor and Chief of Skeptic, writes a column in Scientific American, and co-hosted a television series called Exploring the Unknown.

Here are a few of the books written by Shermer currently sitting on my bookshelf (or in my Kindle):
You can tell by their titles that they are likely to be of interest to atheists who are interested in science and skepticism. Shermer has a knack for explaining difficult material so the lay reader can grasp it. His books are easy to recommend. In short, Shermer has earned a fair amount of credibility in the atheist and skeptic communities.

Shermer was recently accused of sexism by Ophelia Benson, a columnist who is probably best known in the atheist community for her Butterflies and Wheels blog on the Freethought Blogs network. Benson wrote:
The main stereotype in play, let’s face it, is that women are too stupid to do nontheism. Unbelieving in God is thinky work, and women don’t do thinky, because “that’s a guy thing.”

Don’t laugh: Michael Shermer said exactly that during a panel discussion on the online talk-show The Point. The host, Cara Santa Maria, presented a question: Why isn’t the gender split in atheism closer to 50-50? Shermer explained, “It’s who wants to stand up and talk about it, go on shows about it, go to conferences and speak about it, who’s intellectually active about it; you know, it’s more of a guy thing.”

It’s all there—women don’t do thinky, they don’t speak up, they don’t talk at conferences, they don’t get involved—it’s “a guy thing,” like football and porn and washing the car.
In his response, Shermer notes that he was quoted inaccurately and out of context. And he takes the additional step of pointing out the problems with some of Benson's more common tactics regarding labeling those with whom she disagrees as sexists and misogynists. I recommend that anyone not completely burned out by the "atheism plus" and "freethought bullies" stuff take the time to read Shermer's article. I do not imagine that you will agree with every word of it, but it is certainly thought-provoking.

Did Michael Shermer make a sexist comment, and if so, does that make him a sexist? And most importantly, should his comment - whether it strikes you as potentially sexist or not - reduce his worth in the atheist and skeptic communities to zero? Unfortunately, this does not appear to be a rhetorical question, as it appears that some are dismissing him entirely.

Adam Lee
This is precisely the sort of thing with which I have such a problem. We can and should feel free to disagree with something Shermer says. And the same holds true for any figure in our community, regardless of his or her prominence. But to suggest that Shermer is "clueless" or that he belongs to such an emotionally-loaded category as "Clueless Privileged Skeptical White Dudes" is embarrassing. Are we really willing to dismiss the entirety of Shermer's contributions on this basis while calling ourselves rational?

latsotKnapp-LoomisLeah Raeder
Yes, it appears that this is the plan. Shermer's contributions can now be dismissed and all because he made a comment that looks like it could be sexist in nature when presented without the context in which it was made. But even that is not enough. Shermer deserves to be haunted to his grave, as nothing more than a social Darwinist douche and a "dipshit." And what of Benson herself?

Ophelia Benson
She's decided that labeling Shermer a sexist is not sufficient. He's also "an anti-feminist."
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