Last week blogger Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism wrote for the Guardian about Richard Dawkins’ sexist comments. The article was titled “Richard Dawkins has lost it: Ignorant sexism gives atheists a bad name.” Blogger Jerry Coyne of Why Evolution Is True was not pleased, and wrote a post titled “Adam Lee Has Lost It.” My regulars will know that I don’t usually dig into the issue of sexism in the atheist movement—largely because I don’t really engage in the atheist movement—but given that I dipped my toe in it last week (“Is Sam Harris Sexist?“) I do want to respond to one thing Coyne said in his post.
And let me say this: I am friends with both Richard and Sam, have interacted with them a great deal, and have never heard a sexist word pass their lips. (You may discount that if you wish since I have a Y chromosome, but I speak the truth.) Both have seemed to me seriously concerned with women’s rights, particularly as they’re abrogated by religion, and both have written about that. But does that count? No, it’s all effaced by a few remarks that can be twisted into accusations of sexism and, yes, misogyny, which is “hatred of women.”
These men do not hate women, and their opponents are ideologues.
Several things come to mind. First, if you’re a man, you are more likely to miss sexism right in front of your face than if you’re a woman. Besides, given Sam Harris’s lack of understand of what sexism actually is, I’m not convinced Coyne knows what it is either. Second, willingness to criticize sexism in religion is hollow if it is accompanied by lack of willingness to examine your own innate biases or call out sexism in the wider atheist movement. This really shouldn’t need saying, but sadly, it does. And third, while misogyny is often defined as hatred or contempt for women, sexism does not imply any antipathy toward women at all.
Coyne does not engage with any of Dawkins or Harris’s sexist comments. Instead, Coyne asks you to believe these men are not sexist because: He has never heard them say anything sexist, they criticize religions for being sexist, and they don’t hate women. Frankly, I’m growing increasingly dismayed by the lack of critical thinking I’m seeing displayed by men like Coyne, Harris, Dawkins, and others. They look down on the religious and make fun of them for their lack of critical thinking, and this is the best they themselves can do? This is not critical thinking. This is just sad.
It is men like these who confirm my decision not to engage in movement atheism. Despite their claims, I don’t see them displaying a greater willingness to question their biases or engage in critical thinking. Frankly, I have felt for some time that atheist activists are frequently only willing to call out sexism when they see it in religion. It’s one more way they can point to how thoroughly horrible religion is as they call for its demise. But the moment an atheist woman says she has encountered sexism at atheist conventions or at atheist gatherings, she is lampooned and derided, called all manner of names and even threatened with rape or death. But isn’t this the kind of thing these same atheists criticize religion for?
There are currently allegations that Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, raped a woman at an atheist conference in 2008. The victim has come forward under her real name, and her story has been corroborated by numerous witnesses. And yet I’ve watched atheist bloggers and organizers defend Shermer and hurl accusations at the victim—that she is simply out to bring Shermer down, and even (yes) that she is a slut. But I seem to recall that any time a fundamentalists Christian pastor is accused of rape and defended by followers willing to write the victim off as a temptress seeking to entrap their godly pastor, these same atheists jump to condemn the pastor and implicate Christianity in what happened, pointing again to the evils of religion.
Frankly, it looks to me as though these atheist activists are just as willing to defend their heroes and leaders against allegations of rape or abuse as are fundamentalist Christians. I thought I left this stuff behind when I left fundamentalist Christianity, but I didn’t. It turns out that this stuff isn’t so much the product of religion as of being human—and atheists are every bit as human as the religious. Coyne can claim Dawkins and Harris’s willingness to call out sexism in religion shows that they care about women, but I don’t by that. If they cared about women they’d be willing to examine their own biases, and they’ve made it clear they’re not.
Frankly, I feel used. These atheist activists are the sort of people who want to use my story as proof that religion is horrible to women but aren’t willing to listen to what I have to say about sexism in our culture at large. They are the sort of people who are eager to use the shooting of young education activist Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban to prove how horrible religion is for women but somehow fail to mention that Malala is a Muslim who speaks of drawing her inspiration to fight for gender equality from the Koran. This is not standing up for women. This is exploiting women as merely a tool in a fight against religion.
I’m done. I’m so, so done.