Is Richard Dawkins Evolving?

This is big news: Richard Dawkins has apologized for “Dear Muslima“, the infamous remarks he made in 2011 belittling the concerns of Western feminism on the grounds that women in Muslim countries have it worse. Here’s the relevant part:

There should be no rivalry in victimhood, and I’m sorry I once said something similar to American women complaining of harassment, inviting them to contemplate the suffering of Muslim women by comparison.

This follows on the heels of a joint statement with Ophelia Benson two weeks ago, in which Dawkins, for the first time that I’m aware of, spoke out against the harassment campaigns waged against atheist women. The goodwill engendered by this was short-lived, however, since he almost immediately thereafter inflamed the internet again with a series of wince-inducing tweets about “mild date rape”.

As is par for the course with Dawkins lately, he started with the kernel of a valid point – that not all people suffer the same degree of harm from a traumatic experience – and managed to express it in the worst possible way, making it seem as if trauma can be neatly classified into a well-defined taxonomic hierarchy based on a few simple factors. (If you want a good explainer of the whole story, see this article by Kimberly Winston, “Richard Dawkins: Atheism’s asset or liability?”, which quotes me, Greta Christina, Ophelia Benson, Amanda Marcotte, Hemant Mehta and other atheist writers responding to these comments.)

That still-boiling controversy is what spurred Dawkins’ latest post, which included the apology quoted above. I’d agree that it’s not the most heartfelt apology ever written – especially since he’s now pushing the false equivalence that to take issue with his remarks is to insist, absurdly, that all rape victims suffer the exact same degree of harm – but the fact that he made it at all, I think, is huge. The “Dear Muslima” letter has been a touchstone of division in the atheist community for three years, and its retraction could be the first sign that those deep rifts are starting to mend, especially since it comes from a public figure who’s not known for second-guessing himself.

And then there was another development. At the 2014 World Humanist Congress in Oxford this weekend, Dawkins was interviewed and said this on stage, according to the conference’s official Twitter account:

I don’t know if this is something new for him. As best as I can tell, he didn’t present this as if it represented a major shift in his thinking. On the other hand, if he’s claimed to be a feminist in the past, I haven’t seen or heard about it.

Obviously, there are ample grounds to challenge whether Dawkins is in any meaningful way a feminist. I certainly don’t think anyone who claims that identity should be accepted at face value; nor, as I said last time, am I calling for the slate to be wiped clean the first time he says something vaguely encouraging. I’m not saying we should forgive and forget every dumb or offensive thing that he’s ever said, or forego criticizing him if he says other objectionable things in the future.

What I am saying is that when someone takes a step in the right direction, we should recognize that and encourage them to take another. And I think a case could be made that Richard Dawkins, albeit in a frustrating two-steps-forward-one-step-back fashion, has moved a small way in the right direction.

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  • DJMankiwitz

    In one sense, this is all very mixed up and confusing on his part.

    In another, welcome to the ego. No one is capable of immediately retracting something they said so very publicly when they feel they were putting something of their core selves on the line. The ONLY way such apologies ever come forth is when enough time has passed that someone’s ego can say “that was me but isn’t me any more, I have PROGRESSED and am better, and saying so will make me better in the eyes of others”. It’s human nature. Sure, some people can apologize immediately, but only usually in cases where they feel that really was just some “slip” that doesn’t represent their views. Like: A”Sorry, I was wrong, that war actually happened in the year xxxx.”, because they really couldn’t care less what year it happened in, so the apology comes easy.

    It takes YEARS for “core value” statements to ever get an apology.

    Walter White: Every time.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    It takes YEARS for “core value” statements to ever get an apology.

    Well put. I agree with this completely. However offensive some of Dawkins’ past statements have been, expecting him to have a complete change of heart overnight just isn’t in accord with human nature. I’d rather encourage small signs of progress, in the hope he’ll come to a point where one day he will renounce some of the things he’s said.

  • https://medium.com/@andreatorti90 AndyT

    You know, a thing I very appreciate in Humanist communities around the world is their ability of calling out bad rethoric and bad arguments, no matter who uttered them, how famous or celebrated he/she is!
    If you try to do the same in a religious group, most times you end up being yelled at and thrown away.

  • Azkyroth

    Unfortunately, this is by no means universal; I just left the local Freethinkers, Atheists, and Nonbelievers group over this kind of shit. The last straw was when I pointed out why Jaclyn Glenn is problematic in response to a talk of hers being promoted and got about a 90% hostile response. >.>

  • https://medium.com/@andreatorti90 AndyT

    So sorry.
    Well, I hope the heterogeneous nature of Atheist/Humanist groups will help you find a more accepting one, if you want.

  • Indigo

    In The God Delusion, Dawkins does have a bit where he talks about how we shouldn’t say “Christian child” or “Muslim child” because children aren’t old enough to make that kind of commitment; he thinks we should cringe when we hear it, just like we cringe when people say “policeman” instead of “police officer”, or “mankind” instead of “humankind”. I think he’s a little over-optimistic about how thoroughly gendered language has been rejected by the population as a whole, but he does show that he has at least a little feminist awareness.

  • http://cityzenjane.wordpress.com/ cityzenjane

    He may feel he is sympathetic to feminism…but, sorry – he’s too dismissive of his actually feminist critics to really BE a feminist… Being a feminist actually means engaging in consistent self critique and process and being accountable for dumb shit you say. He’s not even a good ally at this point… But perhaps there is hope.

  • GCT

    Why are we touting this not-pology as a step in the right direction? He spends 4 paragraphs (out of 5) doubling down on his latest idiocy and erecting even more straw men to paint himself as the victim. Then he spends the last paragraph talking about the conclusion of flogging his straw man.

    There should be no rivalry in victimhood, and I’m sorry I once said something similar to American women complaining of harassment, inviting them to contemplate the suffering of Muslim women by comparison. But maybe you get the point?

    WTF? He said something similar? He “invited them to contemplate the suffering of Muslim women by comparison?” Maybe we get the point? He’s not admitting to doing anything wrong. He’s sorry that we were offended, mostly because we can’t understand the deep thoughts that he’s capable of thinking, probably because we are too emotional (something he brought up a lot in the piece that he’s defending here – something that’s never been stereotypically applied to women in the past, right?) Nope, sorry, I’m not seeing a step in the right direction. I’m seeing more smug righteousness.

    If he really wants to apologize, he should do so by itself. He should also take steps to undo the damage that he caused. He’s never once told all his fanboys not to harass and threaten Rebecca Watson and all the other women caught up in his bullshit. He’s not acknowledged that western women are also victims of sexism and have legitimate gripes. Screw that. I’m not willing to grant him any benefit of the doubt – not anymore. If he wants it, he’s going to have to earn it, and not with not-pologies and victim rhetoric where he blames all of his problems on everyone else. He hasn’t learned a damned thing.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    He’s never once told all his fanboys not to harass and threaten Rebecca Watson and all the other women caught up in his bullshit.

    That’s not true; that’s what his previous joint statement with Ophelia Benson was all about. I think it’s fair to offer criticism on the grounds that it took much too long for him to say this, or that he should have mentioned her by name. But those things aside, it’s as clear a statement against harassment as I think we could have expected.

  • GCT

    True enough, and I take back that he never once said not to harass people. He simply waited years. I still maintain that this is not an apology for Dear Muslima. He’s taking up the mantle of victim, all while continuing to claim that he was making a point, which screams that he’s only “apologizing” because we can’t get his point. He’s a misogynistic asshole that pokes and prods in order to be an asshole and we’d all be better off if he just went away and stopped making all of us look bad.

  • Science Avenger

    The “Dear Muslima” letter has been a touchstone of division in the atheist community for three years

    The atheist online community you mean. Believe it or not, there are millions of good atheists out there who never heard of Rebecca Watson or Dear Muslima and wouldn’t give a shit if they did. IMO Dawkins’ every utterance gets way too much attention, and this subject has been beaten absolutely to death. He’s just not that important, nor are all these internecine battles some seem to treat as the center of the atheist universe. It’s a great big world out there, surely there are other subjects and people worthy of our limited time and resources.

  • GCT

    Except, he is important, because he’s seen as the face of atheism. And, for those of us who would like to be more open and inclusive to see atheism grow, his comments are divisive and drive women and other minorities away. Atheism looks a lot like a white man’s club, and part of the reason for that is Dawkins. It’d be great if we could all ignore him and he’d go away, but that’s not the reality of the situation.

  • WalterWhite007

    As Sam Harris pointed out this may be part of the problem with the atheist label. Self labelled atheists and believers alike tend to defend or attack recognized atheists as if atheists are all in a big organization speaking for the ‘group’.