June 30, 2014

I used to admire and look up to Richard Dawkins; I really did. But it’s becoming harder for me to remember why. Over the last few years, my esteem for him has sunk lower and lower in response to a steady stream of callous, ill-thought-out or just plain ignorant remarks he’s made. And last week, he hit a new low:

This was in response to criticism he received for an earlier tweet, in which he proposed a list of names to go on a hypothetical memorial to humanity, and (surprise, surprise) they were all dead white men:

In response to this, numerous people suggested that there might be some women and non-Westerners whose names would also be worth including. On the advice of some sexist harassers from the slimepit, whom he was only too happy to engage with, Dawkins decided that we “social justice warriors” must have meant that we blame Shakespeare for being white and male. This is as lazily ignorant a misconception as saying that atheists are just troublemakers who are angry at God.

If you were trying to assemble a lineup of the greatest figures in human history, and the result was exclusively composed of white men of European descent, that ought to be a sign that your selection process went badly astray somewhere. How can a group intended to represent all of humanity be limited to such a small and unrepresentative subset? If someone else proposed a list of the most influential humans who’ve ever lived, and all its members were, say, Chinese, I have no doubt that Dawkins or any other Westerner would recognize the incongruity. Why should this kind of provincialism be any more acceptable just because it’s one’s own ethnic group?

Of course, this isn’t just a thought experiment. We have sent something of ourselves to the stars: the golden record carried by both Voyager spacecraft. And I’m happy to say that Carl Sagan, the record’s creator, appreciated the importance of diversity in a way that Richard Dawkins clearly doesn’t. The record has greetings in many languages, music and images from many cultures: not just Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, but Indonesian gamelan music, Australian Aboriginal folk songs, Japanese shakuhachi flute melodies, Peruvian panpipes, Indian and Chinese songs, Navajo night chant, black American jazz, and many more. That’s the kind of message you should send if you wanted to tell other worlds who we were as a species.

Obviously, Shakespeare’s place in the canon of English literature isn’t in question. Nor do we blame him for the content of his chromosomes. The point is that racist and sexist bias has often operated to ensure that only the cultural contributions of white men get noticed and appreciated. Whether Dawkins realized it or not, he was perpetuating that well-established pattern. He asserted that he’d still admire Shakespeare even if he had been a black woman – but of course, if Shakespeare had been a black woman, it’s all but certain we’d never have heard of her. That was the point that so many people were making and that he chose not to see.

Too often, a group consisting solely of white men is treated as the unremarkable norm, rather than being seen for what it is: a strange phenomenon which cries out for an explanation. As someone who’s spoken about the importance of consciousness-raising, Richard Dawkins ought to understand this. Instead, in his vitriolic rejection of the importance of equality and fair representation, he’s turned his back on the principles that led so many of us to admire him in the first place.

November 6, 2013

So, Richard Dawkins has once again become an unintentional social media star with a sequence of tweets:

And when he received some mockery for this, he got grumpy:

Just to be clear, the point isn’t that Dawkins is wrong when he complains about airport security theater. I agree that ridiculous rules like this are a waste of time and don’t make us any safer. They’re the product of a metastasizing security state, of unimaginative bureaucrats who need to justify their existence by making us think they’re doing something valuable, and cynical politicians who find it useful to top up a climate of fear.

I don’t even object to Dawkins’ laughably overwrought hyperbole, although admittedly that’s easy to mock. Since Osama bin Laden’s corpse is currently being nibbled by fishes on the bottom of the Indian Ocean, I don’t think he’s “won”. Even if he were still alive, I doubt that subjecting airport travelers to petty inconvenience was ever his primary goal.

No, what I object to is the hypocrisy of a man who hits the roof over being slightly irked at an airport checkpoint, and justifies this reaction with a great show of Standing on Principle, when that same man previously wrote this:

Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and… yawn… don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

It takes a serious deficit of self-awareness to not notice how these situations are comparable. In his infamous “Dear Muslima” letter, as well as other remarks published since, Dawkins has sneered at women who objected to creepy solicitations, sexist condescension and harassment, insisting either that they’re overreacting to a trivial matter or that they brought it on themselves, and if their genitals aren’t being mutilated with a razor blade, they have no right to complain about anything that happens to them. But it clearly doesn’t even cross his mind to apply the same standard to the things that bother him. (The “less objectionable than having your genitals mutilated with a razor blade” standard would rule out a lot of complaints from all of us.)

Dawkins insists that although he doesn’t really care about a jar of honey, this was a matter of principle. Very well. It’s also a matter of principle that women in the secular community shouldn’t be subjected to inappropriate behavior or unwanted sexual come-ons, even if they don’t suffer any lasting harm from it. The fact that he can’t seem to see this parallel – that he casts himself as taking a brave stand on principle, while everyone else is just being petulant and whiny – suggests a troubling lack of empathy for perspectives other than his own.

September 11, 2013

When I last wrote about Richard Dawkins, it was to report on the backlash over some clumsy, badly-judged remarks that he made about Islam. I was hoping that, at the very least, he’d learned a lesson from all the criticism he received and would watch his words more carefully in the future. But alas:

In an interview in The Times magazine on Saturday (Sept. 7), Dawkins, 72, he said he was unable to condemn what he called “the mild pedophilia” he experienced at an English school when he was a child in the 1950s.

…He said other children in his school peer group had been molested by the same teacher but concluded: “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.”

“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today,” he said.

Like the last time, if you turn these words and squint at them just right, it’s possible to discern a valid argument buried somewhere in there. I’d agree that not all cases of child abuse are equally harmful, and that there should be degrees of punishment depending on the circumstances. For example, consensual sex between a teenager and an adult, like a teacher, shouldn’t be punished with the same severity as the violent rape of a child.

But again, like the last time, he’s managed to couch this point in probably the worst possible way. Even if we atheists were determined to be charitable in our interpretation, we can be sure that Dawkins’ many enemies won’t be, and will use these remarks to paint both him and the larger atheist movement in a poor light, or to deflect attention from their own moral failings. As I said on Twitter, the next time a priestly pedophilia story breaks, we can be almost certain that some Catholic apologist will say, “This is no big deal, and you’re just trying to exaggerate how serious it is to embarrass the church. See, even Richard Dawkins says it’s not always so bad!”

Dawkins’ opinion apparently stems from the fact that he himself was molested by a schoolmaster as a child, but didn’t suffer any lasting harm from it. That’s a fortunate thing for him, obviously. But we can’t assume, as he seems to, that everyone who has a similar experience came out similarly unscathed. For one thing, it’s almost never assumed that men who suffer sexual abuse must have been asking for it, nor are they treated as if they should share in the blame. But these assumptions often are made about women who are raped or molested, and that can’t help but worsen the harm inflicted. (This is another example of how Dawkins’ own privilege has repeatedly blinded him to the lived realities of others, to his detriment.)

What’s even worse is that Dawkins gave his endorsement to the notion that child abuse wasn’t always understood to be wrong, and that we can’t judge the past by the moral standards of the present. Yes, we can, and we should! To accept this terrible argument would require us to excuse all kinds of evils – from genocide and slavery to mundane racism and sexism – on the grounds that the people of the past didn’t know any better. How can he not see that this even badly contradicts his own arguments, made on so many occasions, about the historical harm done in the name of religion? (As Alex Gabriel says, if it had been a Catholic bishop saying these same things, there’s no doubt that the reaction from the atheist community would be blistering.)

There’s a parallel here to the way that scientists who study evolution ought to be judicious in their public statements, and not make arguments that can be seized upon and quoted out of context by creationists. When you’re under scrutiny by people who are eager for you to make a mistake, it’s vital to carefully weigh your remarks so as not to speak in ways that can easily be used against you. Dawkins doesn’t seem to understand this, and it speaks poorly of him that he keeps committing these unforced errors. I have no explanation for why he can’t see that he’s harming not just his own reputation, but the entire secular movement that, for better or for worse, he’s widely assumed to speak on behalf of.

Courtney Caldwell has started a Change.org petition calling on Dawkins to retract these awful remarks. I’ve signed my name, and I encourage you to add yours, although I think most of the damage has already been done.

* * *

On a related note, my friend Sarah Moglia has revealed that she witnessed an angry, vindictive outburst from Dawkins during a meeting for the planning of the Reason Rally:

As I walked the ten feet back, I couldn’t hear everything Dave was saying, but I heard the name “Rebecca Watson.” Richard suddenly had a very angry look on his face and I heard him almost shout, “No, absolutely not! If she’s going to be there, I won’t be there. I don’t want her speaking.” and then Dave immediately replied, “You’re absolutely right, we’ll take her off the roster. It’s done.” Richard huffed for a moment, Dave continued to placate him, and then he made the video.

In response to this, American Atheists put out a statement on Facebook in which they state that there were never any plans to invite Watson in the first place, but if there had been, they wouldn’t have acceded to a demand to blackball her. That’s good to hear, and it’s exculpatory for American Atheists and the other Reason Rally organizers – but not for Dawkins.

This is just further evidence of why Richard Dawkins is unsuited for a leadership role within the atheist community. Making tone-deaf and embarrassing public statements is bad enough, but throwing his weight around in an attempt to bully conference organizers and suppress other voices – especially the voices of women – is unacceptable. We need better leaders than this.

UPDATE (9/12): Richard Dawkins has apologized, saying: “I cannot know for certain that my companions’ experiences with the same teacher were are brief as mine, and theirs may have been recurrent where mine was not.”

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December 2, 2015

I haven’t written until now about Ahmed Mohamed, the gifted Texas teenager who was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school to show off his engineering prowess. Ahmed’s teachers claimed that they thought the device was a bomb, but it’s obvious that the real reason for their absurd overreaction was racism and xenophobia (Ahmed and his family are Muslim and of Sudanese descent). Anything even slightly out of the ordinary from a brown or a black person triggers panic reactions and hair-trigger aggression from authority figures, whereas there’s no hint of a chance that the police would have been called over a nerdy white teenager’s engineering project.

Ahmed’s family is planning to sue the school district for $15 million, and you can read the letter their lawyer sent. The facts it lays out are damning: Ahmed – a 14-year-old, let’s remember – was aggressively interrogated by five police officers. He asked for his parents to be present, which was his right under Texas law, but was denied. An assistant principal threatened him with expulsion if he didn’t sign a confession on the spot. When he wouldn’t give in – which shows uncommon courage, under the circumstances – he was arrested on spurious charges and hauled off without being read his rights. The mayor and the town police chief then took turns trashing him in the media, calling it highly suspicious that he wouldn’t confess to what they initially accused him of.

All the while, the school and the police knew perfectly well that his clock wasn’t dangerous, since they never evacuated the building, called a bomb squad, or did any of the other things you’d expect someone to do if they faced what they thought was an explosive device. The conclusion that Ahmed’s civil rights were violated is inescapable. I’ll leave the amount up to a judge and jury, but under the circumstances, monetary damages seem more than reasonable.

Ahmed has already been compensated in other ways for his ordeal, including a White House invitation from President Obama, recognition and praise from Facebook, Google, NASA, the United Nations, and more. However, there’s one public figure who hasn’t been so enthusiastic:

Yep, Richard Dawkins is at it again. In the past few weeks, he’s been commenting repeatedly on Ahmed’s case, giving voice to a bizarre obsession. He’s labeled Ahmed “Hoax Boy”, accused him of lying because he built the clock from existing parts (rather than machining each piece from scratch like an Ayn Rand protagonist), and accused him of deliberately plotting the whole affair to drum up publicity (speculating that “he wanted the police to arrest him”, because of course that’s how teenagers think). And then we got this topper:

Just let that sink in. Richard Dawkins, science communicator extraordinaire, author of books like An Appetite for Wonder and The Magic of Reality, is devoting his considerable public platform to trashing a teenager and pouring scorn on his interest in science and technology. For the crime of being a Muslim boy who likes to tinker with electronics, Dawkins has attacked Ahmed repeatedly, over a period of weeks, in multiple forums; has concocted an elaborate conspiracy theory about his motives; and has now compared him to murderous child soldiers.

Is this what we want the atheist movement to be? Is this the person we want to speak for us?

In what’s become an entirely predictable pattern, after Dawkins was fiercely criticized for his remarks, he issued a backpedaling statement claiming to be “horrified” that anyone could think he was equating Ahmed with ISIS. Remember, this man is supposed to be an expert in communication, yet he’s constantly shocked, bewildered and stunned by the backlash his remarks attract. Shouldn’t there come a point where he realizes that the problem is with him and the way he expresses himself? Why is this so-called communications expert so utterly unable to predict how people will react to what he says? (See also: Down syndrome, “mild pedophilia“, Dear Muslima, honey, etc.)

I admit, I wrestled with whether to write this post at all. Poring over Dawkins’ every remark, even to criticize, just perpetuates the idea that he represents the Official Viewpoint of Atheism. If we’re embarrassed by his tone-deaf crankery and want to shuffle him off the stage, then I think the best thing we can do is not mention him. Instead, we should highlight the upcoming generation of secular activists who deserve the publicity more.

However, the wider atheist community hasn’t gotten the message. Other atheists eagerly seek out Dawkins’ endorsement. He’s a top-billed speaker at the second Reason Rally planned for next year, and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t diminish my enthusiasm for attending. Regardless of what I think about him, he is treated as if he’s the president of the atheist movement. Not only are his views assumed to be ours, his constant blunders distract attention from the valid and important points we have to make. That’s why it’s still important, when he makes these boneheaded proclamations, for atheists to emphasize that atheism is far more than just Richard Dawkins. He doesn’t speak for all of us, he doesn’t represent us, and more than a few of us consider him an embarrassment.

July 28, 2014


Well, this is most welcome news:

[W]e have to be able to manage disagreement ethically, like reasonable adults, as opposed to brawling like enraged children who need a nap. It should go without saying, but this means no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, haircut; no photoshopping people into demeaning images, no vulgar epithets.

Richard adds: I’m told that some people think I tacitly endorse such things even if I don’t indulge in them. Needless to say, I’m horrified by that suggestion. Any person who tries to intimidate members of our community with threats or harassment is in no way my ally and is only weakening the atheist movement by silencing its voices and driving away support.

As I’ve written before, my esteem for Richard Dawkins has been on a downward slide these past few years in response to ignorant and insensitive remarks he’s made about race and gender in the atheist community, beginning with the “Dear Muslima” incident in 2011. I’d come to the point where I’d all but given up on him as someone worthy of admiration.

But this weekend, he issued a joint statement with Ophelia Benson, excerpted above and also published on his own site, which unambiguously condemns violent threats, vulgar sexism, or juvenile image-manipulation in lieu of an argument – all tactics used widely by aggressive anti-feminists. This is a tremendous and highly praiseworthy improvement, and while I don’t know what went on behind the scenes, Ophelia deserves great credit to the extent that she helped bring it into being.

As Gretchen Koch said, it should go without saying that all prominent atheists condemn this sort of behavior; but until now, it hadn’t. Dawkins’ pattern of making sneering remarks about social justice and privilege, while declining to address actual instances of sexism, encouraged some of the worst elements in the atheist community to believe that he was on their side. As recently as a few days ago, slimepit harassers were writing must-be-seen-to-be-believed self-insert fiction in which they ludicrously imagined themselves as brave heroes crusading against feminism on Dawkins’ behalf. (I assume they’ll be furiously spinning this statement any day now, if they haven’t started already.)

To be sure, one statement like this doesn’t wipe the slate clean. While I’m very glad to see Dawkins take a stand against harassment, I would’ve also liked to see him express regret for some of his own retrograde remarks. Nor is this any guarantee that he won’t return to tossing off disparaging opinions about women. At most, I’m cautiously optimistic. But I am optimistic, especially since consciousness-raising is often a gradual process. In the best case, this statement will be the first stepping stone in a journey, one that will lead Dawkins and other prominent atheists to fully recognize the undercurrent of sexist ugliness within our community and grasp the importance of opposing it.

Why does this matter? Here’s why it matters: this week, I read an atrocious story about a “men-only” bomb shelter in Israel, the awful end point of fundamentalist Judaism’s insistence on gender apartheid. We can and should condemn this, as just one example of the way that religion consistently devalues women. But if we criticize religious sexism in the wider world while tolerating it in our own house, we make hypocrites of ourselves and rob our argument of the impact that, by all rights, it should have. We’ll be handing the fundamentalists a ready-made excuse to dismiss us, and ensuring that religion’s harm to women continues unabated.

The only consistent course of action is to condemn sexism on both fronts: when it’s committed by religious believers following the decrees of an imaginary deity, and when it’s committed by atheists. Only then can we make a plausible case that we stand for something better. Richard Dawkins has taken the first step toward doing this. Now I hope he’ll take the next one.

September 29, 2014

Earlier this month, I wrote about the serious allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault made against skeptic “thought leader” Michael Shermer by three women, who agreed to be named in an article published by Buzzfeed. That article, as you’d expect, has provoked an enormous amount of controversy and outrage.

But what I find more surprising is who isn’t discussing it. Some prominent individuals in the atheist and skeptical community are either minimizing this story, treating the allegations as if they were no big deal, or are trying to make the whole thing go away, acting as if the allegations never happened or shouldn’t be mentioned. It’s as if they’re trying to build a protective wall of silence around Michael Shermer.

One of them was named in the Buzzfeed article: James Randi, whose foundation was putting on the convention where Alison Smith alleges she was raped by Shermer. This is what he said to the reporter:

“Shermer has been a bad boy on occasion — I do know that,” Randi told me. “I have told him that if I get many more complaints from people I have reason to believe, that I am going to have to limit his attendance at the conference.

“His reply,” Randi continued, “is he had a bit too much to drink and he doesn’t remember. I don’t know — I’ve never been drunk in my life. It’s an unfortunate thing… I haven’t seen him doing that. But I get the word from people in the organization that he has to be under better control. If he had gotten violent, I’d have him out of there immediately. I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk.”

I quoted this statement in my previous post, but the more I reread it, the more damning it becomes.* This isn’t some innocent misunderstanding of the situation; Randi had been told by multiple people that Shermer had done something blameworthy, and he believed them. (He warned about what would happen if he got “more” complaints from “people I have reason to believe” – implying that he already had some.) He doesn’t even have the slender reed of an excuse that he didn’t think the complaints were credible. But because he didn’t have reports that Shermer had done anything “violent”, he dismisses it with a “ho ho ho, boys will be boys, what do you expect when people are drinking” attitude.

You may also recall my recent Guardian article about Richard Dawkins. Some of the tweets I mentioned there show that he wanted to talk about the Shermer case without talking about it. That’s the only reasonable context for his victim-blaming advice to women who are raped: “If you want… to testify and jail a man, don’t get drunk” (as well as his even more appalling comparison of being raped while drunk to driving while drunk).

Unless you choose to believe that Dawkins just happened to be idly speculating on the topic of drinking and rape at the same time this controversy was occurring – as one of my commenters put it, popping off random facts from “the lottery ball machine of his mind” – the obvious inference is that he believes the allegations against Shermer should be doubted on those grounds. Yet he says so without making it explicit who or what he’s talking about.

There’s also Michael Nugent, chairperson of Atheist Ireland, who wrote several lengthy posts criticizing my Guardian article. Most of Nugent’s criticisms consist of endless hyperskeptical hair-splitting; but when I brought up the point about how Dawkins was clearly speculating about the Shermer case, this is what he said:

You then engage in detailed speculation about why you believe Richard was trying to convey a message that a specific person (who you name, and I won’t) should be considered an untrustworthy witness in a specific allegation of rape (which you give details of, and I won’t) against another specific person (who you name, and I won’t).

Nugent calls this “salacious speculation”, and says that he avoids repeating it to “help protect victims”. This would seem like a laudable concern for the privacy of rape victims, if you didn’t know that Smith intentionally came forward to tell her story. She wanted to go public to warn other women, precisely because she says she had brought this up privately with Randi’s foundation and they declined to act.

In that context, Nugent’s assertion that “allegations of rape should be reported to the police, not to bloggers” can only reasonably be read as a claim that rape victims should keep quiet and not speak to the media. If someone rapes you, you should go to the police and otherwise tell no one; and if the police decline to prosecute or don’t get a conviction, too bad for you, you should never bring it up again.** (I await Nugent’s post condemning Richard Dawkins’ “salacious speculation” about his own experience of being fondled by a schoolmaster when he was young. Doesn’t Dawkins have any concern for the privacy of victims?)

Next, there’s Jerry Coyne, who as I previously mentioned was very upset about my Guardian article. Three people have since told me that Coyne immediately banned them from his site for questioning or criticizing his post about me (1, 2, 3). One of them, ahermit, said this:

And now I’ve been banned from Coyne’s blog for pointing out the obvious…that Dawkins tweets were a response to the Buzzfeed article about Shermer. Can’t have people talking about that little problem now can we?

Lastly: One of the women quoted in the Buzzfeed article was the astronomer Dr. Pamela Gay. In a post on her blog earlier this year, “My mistake of silence“, she discussed the incident without using names. At the time, she said that someone she called “Famous Person A”, since named as Shermer in the Buzzfeed article, had tried to grope her. She also said that another individual, “person B”, intervened to protect her at the time but later tried to pressure her into silence:

I was cc’d on a chain of emails that resulted in person B denying my experience… It was clear these emails wanted me to retract my very simple account of what happened in 2008.

…Today I received the following threat from the person I thought was my friend, the person who intervened for me, person B. It was in the context of trying to get me to say nothing ever happened. He wrote, “I will also publicly speak about this as necessary, providing all documentation as necessary, including photos, emails, etc., and contact all relevant employers, as well.” He cc’d Famous Person A.

I’ve corresponded with Dr. Gay, and she’s agreed to speak on the record. According to her, “person B” is D.J. Grothe, the former president of the James Randi Educational Foundation. (The Buzzfeed article cited Grothe as saying that “he had never once received a complaint” about Shermer’s behavior.)

There is, of course, no law obligating anyone in particular to discuss the accusations against Shermer, much less to believe them. However, our community has consistently condemned religious organizations that try to cover up misdeeds by one of their own – and with good reason, in my view. Secrecy leads to unaccountability, to corruption, and hence to harm. Conversely, the truth has nothing to fear from open and honest discussion. It’s this same principle which leads me to conclude that these allegations deserve a hearing, at the very least. Intellectual consistency demands no less.

There are many, many atheists who’ve condemned Catholicism and other religions for covering up allegations of molestation by clergy, shuffling predators from one parish to another or trying to pressure the victims into silence. If any of the atheists who’ve said this in the past are now taking the position that the allegations against Shermer shouldn’t be discussed, those people owe the Catholic church a very large apology. As for me, I don’t believe in a double standard, nor do I expect religion to abide by any moral rule that I don’t strive to live up to myself.

UPDATE: There’s one more relevant piece of information that’s since come to my attention and that deserves to be mentioned here. According to a post Ophelia Benson published today (and alluded to in earlier remarks), around the time she was corresponding with Richard Dawkins to negotiate the language of their joint anti-harassment statement, he asked her to “dissuade people from spreading the ‘libellous allegation that Michael Shermer is a rapist or a sexual predator.'” She declined to do as he requested.

* It’s worth comparing Randi’s paraphrase of Shermer’s explanation of his behavior – “he had a bit too much to drink and he doesn’t remember” – to Shermer’s own description of his encounter with Alison Smith as “sober and consensual”: “She was sober. I was sober.” If these are referring to the same event, there’s obviously a significant contradiction. Or are there other stories that we haven’t heard?

** If this is not Nugent’s position, I’ll be glad to issue a correction. But in that case, I’d expect him to state that he thinks Alison Smith did the right thing by coming forward. So far, he’s ducked multiple opportunities to say so.

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