Richard Dawkins' Ignorant Sexism Gives Atheists a Bad Name
I became an atheist on my own, but it was Richard Dawkins who strengthened and confirmed my decision. For a long time, I admired his insightful science writing, his fierce polemics, his uncompromising passion for the truth. When something I’d written got a (brief) mention in The God Delusion, it was one of the high points of my life.
So, I’m not saying this is easy, but I have to say it: Richard Dawkins, I’m just not that into you anymore.
The atheist movement—a loosely-knit community of conference-goers, advocacy organizations, writers and activists—has been wracked by infighting the last few years over its persistent gender imbalance and the causes of it. Many female atheists have explained that they don’t get more involved because of the casual sexism endemic to the movement: parts of it see nothing problematic about hosting conferences with all-male speakers or having all-male leadership—and that’s before you get to the vitriolic and dangerous sexual harassment, online and off, that’s designed to intimidate women into silence.
Richard Dawkins has involved himself in some of these controversies, and rarely for the better, as with his infamous “Dear Muslima” letter in 2011, in which he essentially argued that, because women in Muslim countries suffer more from sexist mistreatment, women in the west shouldn’t speak up about sexual harassment or physical intimidation. There was also his sneer at women who advocate anti-sexual harassment policies.
But over the last few months, Dawkins showed signs of dÃ©tente with his feminist critics; even progress. He signed a joint letter with the writer Ophelia Benson, denouncing and rejecting harassment; he even apologized for the “Dear Muslima” letter. On stage at a conference in Oxford in August, Dawkins claimed to be a feminist and said everyone else should be, too.
Then another prominent male atheist, Sam Harris, crammed his foot in his mouth and said that atheist activism lacks an “estrogen vibe” and was “to some degree intrinsically male.” And, just like that, the brief Dawkins Spring was over.
On Twitter these last few days, Dawkins has reverted to his old, sexist ways and then some. He’s been very busy snarling about how feminists are shrill harridans who just want an excuse to take offense, and how Harris’ critics (and his own) are not unlike thought police witch-hunter lynch mobs. Dawkins claimed that his critics are engaged in “clickbait for profit,” that they “fake outrage,” and that he wished there were some way to penalize them.
For good measure, Dawkins argued that rape victims shouldn’t be considered trustworthy if they were drinking.
Benson, with whom Dawkins had signed the anti-harassment letter just weeks earlier, was not impressed. “I’m surprised and, frankly, shocked by Richard’s belligerent remarks about feminist bloggers over the past couple of days,” she told me. “Part of what made The God Delusion so popular was, surely, its indignant bluntness about religion. It was a best-seller; does that mean he ‘faked’ his outrage?”
There’s no denying that Dawkins played a formative role in the atheist movement, but it’s grown beyond just him. Remarks like these make him a liability at best, a punchline at worst. He may have convinced himself that he’s the Most Rational Man Alive, but if his goal is to persuade everyone else that atheism is a welcoming and attractive option, Richard Dawkins is doing a terrible job. Blogger Greta Christina told me, “I can’t tell you how many women, people of color, other marginalized people I’ve talked with who’ve told me, ‘I’m an atheist, but I don’t want anything to do with organized atheism if these guys are the leaders.’”
It’s not just women who are outraged by Dawkins these days: author and blogger PZ Myers told me, “At a time when our movement needs to expand its reach, it’s a tragedy that our most eminent spokesman has so enthusiastically expressed such a regressive attitude.”
What’s so frustrating, from the standpoint of the large and growing non-religious demographic, is that Dawkins is failing badly to live up to his own standards. As both an atheist and a scientist, he should be the first to defend the principle that no one is above criticism, and that any idea can be challenged, especially an idea in accord with popular prejudices. Instead, with no discernible sense of irony, Dawkins is publicly recycling the bad arguments so often used against him as an atheist: accusing his critics of being “outrage junkies” who are only picking fights for the sake of notoriety; roaring about “thought police” as though it were a bad thing to argue that someone is mistaken and attempt to change their mind; scoffing that they’re “looking for excuses to be angry” as though the tone of the argument, rather than its factual merits, were the most important thing; encouraging those who are targets of criticism to ignore it rather than respond.
The artist Amy Roth, who recently debuted an exhibit in which she literally wallpapered a room with the misogynist messages that she and other feminists have received, finds the systemic sexism incredibly frustrating. As she told me this week:
The men and women in this community have a right to speak up about it, and if the best argument you have against us is that we are the ‘thought police’ or we are writing for ‘clickbait’ or that the weight of our words is equivalent to an actual ‘witch hunt’, then perhaps it’s time to retire to your study and calmly reevaluate the actual topics at hand.
On other occasions, Dawkins himself has emphasized the importance of awakening people to injustice and mistreatment they may have overlooked. But when it comes to feminism, he’s steadfastly refused to let his own consciousness be raised. Instead, he clings to his insular and privileged viewpoint – and, worse, he’s creating the impression that “true” atheists all share his retrograde attitudes.
Like many scientists who accomplished great things earlier in their careers, Richard Dawkins has succumbed to the delusion that he’s infallible on any topic he chooses to address, and in so doing, has wandered off the edge and plummeted into belligerent crankery.
Whatever he may say, it’s up to the wider atheist community to make it clear that this one public intellectual doesn’t speak for all of us. If the atheist movement is going to thrive and make a difference in our society, it needs to grow beyond its largely older, largely male, largely white roots. Dawkins’ very public hostility toward the people who emphasize the importance of diversity, who want to make the community broader and more welcoming, and who oppose sexual harassment and sexist language, is harming the cause he himself claims to care about.
In the long run, however, the reputation Dawkins will damage the most is his own.