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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

To Dawkins’ credit, he’s much better at avoiding red eye than I am.

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.

Sarah :Sarah is a feminist, atheist vegan with Crohn’s Disease, and she won’t shut up about any of those things. You really need to follow her on Twitter (and probably Google+, just to be safe).

View Comments (105)

  • Slymers might be sock puppets, people come to defense of their idols faster than they make thoughtful criticisms, and yeah, the AA community could have a problem or two. But not everyone there is a slymer.

  • Sarah. Thank you so much for your post. I know it took courage. And yes, it is really sad and horrible when people we admire for one competence (or two) turn out to be so so so lacking in other areas...

  • I want to say thank you to Sarah for telling this story and that I am not surprised at all by this type of behavior from Richard Dawkins.
    But I'm stunned that so many people can't think of any way that both Sarah and Mr. Silverman's accounts could be correct.
    I can give a couple of examples without twisting logic or credibility at all;

    Scenario #1) Mr. Silverman said that they weren't going to be able to invite Rebecca and had already made that decision. (not surprising considering how many people wanted to speak that there would be big names left out). If he already knew she wasn't going to be invited and he said exactly what Sarah reported he did nothing more than let Dawkins think he had won a point, the worst he did in that situation is feed the ego of an egomanic, hardly something most of us wouldn't do especially if we could raise our standing with a prominent person. Please note that if this is what happened would be disappointed in Mr. Silverman but would see it as a mistake rather than a character flaw.

    Scenario #2) Mr. Silverman knew she wasn't invited so when the ultimatum came down he said something like "Don't worry, she won't be speaking". Not that I disbelieve Sarah, just that in her place (coming back and hearing the name drop, the hissy, the ultimatum, and the response) “You’re absolutely right, we’ll take her off the roster. It’s done.” and "Don't worry, she won't be speaking." have the same implications (that Rebecca was now dis-invited) but mean something very different from Dave's side (she's now dis-invited or we couldn't fit her in anyway).

    It was two years ago and memories are fungible so we may never know for sure but since Dave Silverman hasn't given us good reason to doubt his word, well, anyway...

    As for Richard Dawkins, As an atheist leader he is a very good evolutionary biologist.

  • @mrmisconception

    I'm very willing to believe it wasn't obsequiousness on David's part and merely reflective of a decision which had already been made. I'd RATHER believe that in fact.

    What IS problematic still is the imperious demand on the part of Dawkins which no amount of Febreze could unstinky-fy.

    • Oh yeah, no Dawkins was being a big wank, absolutely. I thought he was hugely arrogant before all this, and not because he's harsh with theists, I'm hardly an accommodation and have no problem calling bullshit bullshit.
      I would contribute it to his Britishness but Stephen Fry and Ricky Gervais, err, scratch that, comes off a less than pompous most of the time, as does Patrick Stewart so it's not only that. Maybe it's because he's a professor, or maybe it's because he's a wank.

      I just thought Silverman deserved at least the appearance of the benefit of the doubt.

      BTW - It's rather satisfying to end a sentence with bullshit bullshit.

  • Not all that surprising really, it's no secret that RD and RW do not like or respect each other. If those were indeed his exact words, that's pretty childish. I think RD has done lots of admirable things, but that doesn't mean he's not capable of being childish or petty on occasion.

        • There is a lot of basic bad behavior among younger skeptics/atheists which I think is rot coming from the head of the fish in many cases. Perhaps I spent too much time on YT reading comments but there are a lot of people without the chops, the argumentation, the knowledge of all the arenas in dispute - who like the other side manage to carry all the snark and smart ass forward without doing anything but aping the postures and arguments of the grown men at the top. And then it goes the other way as well... when 70 year old dons play the pownage game... instead of say - take the Socratic path.

  • "(Or, Why You Should Never Meet Your Idols)"

    Like you might say hi right as they're biting into a sandwich and there would be this awkward silence while they try to swallow O.O .....

  • I am a very, very long-term atheist,skeptic,freethinker or whatever and the first reading I did on the subject was Dawkin's "The Blind Watchmaker". Since then he has been massively influential in helping to get our voice heard and taken seriously, as have many others, writers, bloggers and broadcasters to all of whom I am indebted for a plentiful supply of mind food. Sure Dawkins is not perfect, and Shakespeare put it very elegantly when he said "And every fair from fair sometimes declines". We need to understand that neither those we agree with are always right, nor those we disagree with always wrong.

  • Sarah,

    It saddens me to hear this about Dawkins. I always expect the best from people. And when I hear of less than that, the bad news saddens me.

    I hope you do not go the negative route.