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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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