VERY IMPORTANT CORRECTION: It looks like I was mistaken about the global gender breakdown of atheism. Details here. I still think the bulk of my criticism of Harris was correct and fair — I think his remarks were sexist, even if you do recognize a global gender split in atheism (which I now do), and even if you do accept some degree of innate gender difference between women and men. But when it comes to the specific question of whether there really are more male atheists than female atheists worldwide, it seems likely that I was mistaken, and that the study I was citing was an outlier. My apologies.
Sam Harris is just factually wrong. Globally, there is no gender split in atheism. Globally, women and men are religious, not religious, and convinced atheists at about the same rate. In fact, globally, women are slightly more likely to be atheists than men (although that difference is small, probably too small to be significant).
In case you haven’t already heard this: Sam Harris recently gave an interview to the Washington Post. When asked why the vast majority of atheists — and many of those who buy his books — are male, he said this:
“I think it may have to do with my person slant as an author, being very critical of bad ideas. This can sound very angry to people..People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree instrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women,” he said. “The atheist variable just has this – it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”
But it’s also very, very important to say this, since it’s something that even a lot of feminist atheists don’t know: The gender split in atheism is not universal. It seems to be an American phenomenon. It may exist in some other countries as well — but globally, women and men are religious, not religious, and convinced atheists at about the same rate. According to the WIN-Gallup International “Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism 2012,” August 6, 2012 (PDF, Table 8, page 20 of 25), when asked, “Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person or a convinced atheist?”, 60% of men and 57% of women said “A religious person.” 23% of men and 23% of women said, “Not a religious person.” 12% of men and 14% of women said “A convinced atheist.” (“Don’t know/no response” got 5% from men and 6% from women.)
Those responses are almost identical. If anything, women are slightly more likely to be atheists (although again, that difference is negligible, and probably not significant).
This may come as a surprise to many. The “fact” that more men than women are atheists gets pondered a lot, with an assortment of speculations as to the answer: assorted social pressures and expectations on women to be religious, sexism and misogyny in organized atheism, standard evo-psych bullshit about manbrains and ladybrains.
But “Why are there more men atheists than women atheists?” is the wrong question. And this crummy, half-assed, evo-psych crap about how atheism doesn’t fit with ladybrains because we’re so nurturing and coherence-building with all that extra estrogen — it’s crap. It’s just simply and flatly not true. If there are local differences between the genders in how likely we are to be atheists, it’s just that — local. Cultural. It has nothing to do with estrogen or ladybrains.
So Sam Harris, and anyone else who says this sexist, patronizing bullshit — knock it the hell off.