Richard Dawkins Responds After Being Booted from NECSS Conference

Last week, the Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism (NECSS) opened up registration for its annual conference, which draws hundreds of people annually. Richard Dawkins was one of the keynote speakers.

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Last night, however, conference organizers withdrew its invitation to him with this statement:

The Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism has withdrawn its invitation to Richard Dawkins to participate at NECSS 2016. We have taken this action in response to Dr. Dawkins’ approving re-tweet of a highly offensive video.

We believe strongly in freedom of speech and freedom to express unpopular, and even offensive, views. However, unnecessarily divisive, counterproductive, and even hateful speech runs contrary to our mission and the environment we wish to foster at NECSS. The sentiments expressed in the video do not represent the values of NECSS or its sponsoring organizations.

We will issue a full refund to any NECSS attendee who wishes to cancel their registration due to this announcement.

The NECSS Team

The video in question caricatured a feminist (one who actually exists, though I doubt Dawkins knew that) and was titled “Feminists Love Islamists.”

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When Dawkins learned that the woman in question was being harassed online, he deleted his tweet and later told his followers to stop bothering her (and anyone else, for that matter):


That’s all well and good, but the bigger concern for NECSS organizers was that Dawkins found the video worthy of being tweeted in the first place. That’s why they removed him from their roster.

Now, in his first public comments about the withdrawn speaking invitation, Dawkins told me he wishes NECSS organizers had simply spoken to him first:

I woke up this morning to see a public announcement that my invitation to speak at NECSS 2016 had been withdrawn by the executive committee. I do not write this out of concern about my appearance or non-appearance at NECSS, but I wish there had been a friendly conversation before such unilateral action was taken. It is possible I could have allayed the committee members’ concerns, or, if not, at least we could have talked through their objections to my tweet. If our community is about anything it is that reasoned discussion is the best way to work through disagreements.

I might mention that, before receiving any word from NECSS, I had already deleted the tweet to which they objected. I did it purely because I was told that the video referenced a real woman, who had been threatened on earlier occasions because of YouTube videos in which she appeared to her disadvantage. I have no knowledge of the authenticity of the alleged death and rape threats. But to delete my tweet seemed the safest and most humane course of action. I have always condemned violence and threats of violence, for example in this tweet, which I also posted the day before the NECSS decision.


I wish the NECSS every success at their conference. The science and scepticism community is too small and too important to let disagreements divide us and divert us from our mission of promoting a more critical and scientifically literate world.

There’s an argument to be made that it would be more effective to let Dawkins speak at the conference so people can ask him directly about his views. Let people make their case for why they’re bothered by his comments, let Dawkins defend himself, etc. Telling him not to come may just perpetuate whatever Dawkins already thinks about an overly-PC culture.

It’s also a little strange to me that NECSS invited Dawkins in the first place if they were concerned about his tweets or his reputation among many in the secular community. Dawkins saying cringe-worthy things on Twitter isn’t new. He’s been doing it for years. I’m not exactly sure why this particular tweet crossed the line while the myriad controversial things he’s said in the past didn’t seem to matter to them. (I reached out to organizers last night for an answer to that, but I have not heard back yet.)

Still, as far as I can tell, this may be the first time a group has invited, then disinvited Dawkins from an event in response to something he tweeted. Considering that the Reason Rally also lists Dawkins as a headliner, it may not be the last.

***Update***: NECSS sent me this brief message: “Steve Novella will be providing a more thorough explanation of our decision on his blog tomorrow. He will also discuss the matter on this weekend’s SGU podcast.”

(Image via Albert H. Teich / Shutterstock.com)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.