My Time With Richard Dawkins (Or, Why You Should Never Meet Your Idols)
I’ve only been an atheist for about four or five years. I was raised Catholic, eventually became a non-denominational Christian, then a “well there’s SOMETHING out there” deist, to a “who really knows?” agnostic, and eventually became a solid atheist (around 2009 or so). This was in great part due to the writings of PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins.
So, in July of 2011, when I had just graduated college and saw that the Secular Student Alliance was hiring an Event Specialist to help plan a tour for Richard Dawkins’ children’s book, The Magic of Reality, well, of course I jumped on it. To my great surprise, I was hired within two days of
sending in my résumé. In a week, I bought a car, a smartphone, and packed up my entire life to move several states away. Little did I know what I was in for.
The first stop on the tour was Miami. Hours before the first event, there were people lining up outside the doors. As a member of the team, I was allowed in the auditorium before the event began. It was me, Dave Silverman (President of American Atheists), Elizabeth Cornwell (Executive Director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation), Sean Faircloth (then newly-hired Director of Strategy and Policy for RDF), and Richard Dawkins himself.
At this time (September of 2011), Dave Silverman was heading up the Reason Rally Committee. There was still quite a bit of planning and promotion that needed to be done, so Dave asked Richard, Elizabeth, and Sean to make videos to promote the Reason Rally. (The video Richard ended up making is still viewable.) Richard was standing behind the podium, and he asked Dave something along the lines of, “What exactly is the Reason Rally?” Dave started explaining it, and as he did, someone who was waiting in the line outside opened the door to peek inside and we could all hear a lot of noise. I rushed up the aisle and made frantic “shut the door” gestures at the people peeking inside, and they did. 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.
I was crushed. I couldn’t believe it. Richard Dawkins was my hero. I looked up to him as a beacon of truth and reason in a world of irrationality. I couldn’t believe he would act this way toward Rebecca. Before I left for the tour, I truly, honestly thought that the whole “Elevatorgate” thing was a miscommunication, and if someone (and I was willing to be that someone) would sit down with Dawkins, they could explain to him why it’s uncomfortable to be propositioned in an elevator by a stranger, and then Dawkins could apologize for the whole thing and everyone could move on. I really just thought it was just ignorance, not malice, that caused Dawkins to act that way.
I think it says a lot about the atheist movement, that a famous speaker can use his position in order to keep someone else off the lineup, and the movement willingly obliges. I’m truly not trying to blame Dave Silverman (I’ve spent a lot of time with him and I generally think he’s a good guy). I think the head of every single organization would have done the same thing, had they been in Dave’s position– and that right there is the problem. Yes, Richard Dawkins is a big draw. Yes, the Reason Rally was (for the most part) successful. But at what cost? Are we okay sacrificing the voices of some people in order to get others involved? Do we have too much of a culture of celebrity, so that we are willing to do things we otherwise wouldn’t do in order to get those celebrities involved? Is this indicative of a mindset that some people’s opinions are more important than others?
I spent two years working for the atheist movement (or to borrow Ashley Paramore‘s term, Big Atheism). I saw a lot of things that made me disappointed in a movement that claims it is dedicated to truth and critical inquiry. I made a lot of excuses for supporting things that I ordinarily wouldn’t have, claiming it all was for the greater good– for the movement, but also for the world.
I think the atheist movement has reached a critical point that will determine whether it succeeds or whether it flounders. I think we need to take a long, hard look at what we’re doing and decide if our actions truly line up with our values. Do we want to be a movement that refuses to change, simply because we think it’s too hard? Do we want to become a movement that doesn’t critically question people in leadership roles? Do we want to become a movement that only pays lip service to minorities, instead of actually working to include them? What do we want this movement to become, and how can we really achieve that?
As for me? I’m sorry it took me two years to build up the guts to share this story publicly. I’m sorry I didn’t have the courage to speak up when I saw things I disagreed with. I’m going to stop making excuses for why I haven’t been living up to my values and start actually doing it. I hope you’ll join me.