On Richard Dawkins Being a Liability to Atheism

Journalist, Kimberly Winston, who often writes about atheism at the Religious News Service has an article out today about Richard Dawkins and his recent “comparison of rape” comments as well as his sorta-not-kinda-maybe apology-comment or statement about civility. The article is called, “Richard Dawkins: Atheism’s asset or liability?” and it is making the rounds in the news. I was quoted in it along with some other fine people such as Greta Christina, Ophelia Benson and Amanda Marcotte. You can read the article and their comments in full by clicking here.

Only a snippet of my words were quoted in the article because that is how quotes usually work, so I figured I’d just go ahead and post the entirety of what I said here. Cuz why the heck not? Here is my full comment on the matter:

Dawkins’ recent comments on the relativity of rape have left me rather stunned. As a writer for the popular blog Skepchick, my life was already negatively affected by his “Dear Muslima…” statement back in 2011. In that statement he told one of my co-bloggers to essentially get over sexism and sexual harassment that she experienced because women have it worse elsewhere. His seemingly ignorant, yet authoritative statements unleashed a barrage of online harassment directed at our blog and it’s contributors that has yet to cease to this day. Dawkins also publicly lashes out at Islam and periodically he brings up specific topics that directly impact the lives of women and minorities such as the concept of privilege (which he dismisses) and as we have seen recently, he brings up the absurd topic of ranking rape. In this case Dawkins has gone so far as to insinuate that his particular emotional reaction to an often emotionally destructive topic, trumps anyone who may feel differently. You can not rate rape on a scale. Full stop. No one can say what type of rape is more damaging to another person. His attitude towards these sensitive topics is extremely dismissive and outright damaging to any community that hopes to be inclusive and understanding of women’s issues or any other issues affecting oppressed groups. If a person wanted to teach a lesson in logic, they certainly did not not need to reach for the example of rape when they are aware that harassment of women is currently a problem within their community. Dawkins’ recent statements at worst highlight his refusal to acknowledge his role in promoting misogyny, sexism and racism in the atheist community and at best show me an extremely privileged man who cares more about being seen as “right” than he cares about any of the victims of violent sexual assault. What he should be focused on is the building of a compassionate community without religion. Perhaps he doesn’t realize the weight and reach of his words. But the rest of the world should know that not all atheists are blind to the struggles of the average person, we do not hate people who are religious, and we want to build a community incorporating atheism, that is intelligent, compassionate, kind and inclusive and Richard Dawkins does not represent all of us.

I was then asked if Dawkins had any effect on me becoming an atheist and my response was this:

I read The God Delusion, and at the time I enjoyed the book, but I was raised without religion and so I don’t hold any specific anger towards religion. It seems to me that his target market is angry youth or those harmed by extreme fundamentalism who wish to rage against the perceived shackles of faith instead of focusing on the more important task of building a functioning society without faith. So any joy I felt from reading his book has far been exceeded by the pain inflicted upon me and my peers by his rabid followers.

Again, you can find the full article by Kimberly Winston and read comments and opinions by other writers by clicking on this link: Richard Dawkins: Atheism’s asset or liability?

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Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. Dawkins actually did help me reach atheism. I never read the God Delusion, but I stumbled upon part of an interview he was doing to promote the book. He said that in science, lack of evidence is sufficient to reject an idea. The burden of proof lies with the side making the claim, and the question of whether gods exists should not be treated any different. That’s what it took to move me from an actively searching agnostic to an atheist. I’m still grateful for that insight. That said, Dawkins has a bad case of rich white guy privilege. I wish he’d limit his public pronunciations to biology and the very basics of why god belief is unfounded, and remember that he is not an authority on the plights of women and minorities.

  2. He seems to suffer from the same category of problems that, “old dudes that spend too much time on one subject, and not enough time listening”, have. I mean, I at over 40 now am getting into that “old dude” range, but I am still able to learn something, and its probably because, if anything, the job I work at demands that I distract myself with thinking about the latest things I read on one of these blogs, or in the mess of books I tend to burn through 2-3 a week, or just about anything else, when its slow, or I am pushing, ugh.. shopping carts around a lot, than focusing all my time on some discipline, or the next speech I am going to make at some convention.

    To change opinion means being challenged, then, having been challenged, admitting that they have a point, and then, from there, paying attention to what is really being said by the people who disagree with you. Dawkins’ position, and privilege, along with, probably, to some extent, his age, at this point, all isolate him from too much of the later parts of that equation. And, even if he has made some limited attempts at apology, he can’t grasp, from his position, why its not enough, or how his error stems from so many of his poor assumptions, which proceed the apologies.

    One can hope that, at some point, he can see past his own flaws, and make progress. But, one some levels, his own fame, and, yes, even his age, hamper any possibility of this happening. So, perhaps, the best we might hope for is a recognition, on his part, that he is in the way, the movement can’t progress with him in that position, and he needs to back off, and let others, with a clearer view of the future, to step up. Just.. don’t hold your breath that this is going to actually happen.

  3. At one point, Dawkins struck me as “probably a good guy if you know him, but his followers are total douchebags”. These days, I’m getting tired of “X is bad. Y is worse.” Rape isn’t as bad as being held in Abu Ghraib (where the particular torture included sexual elements, if I recall correctly), I suppose, but what does that even mean? I’d rather not be raped, and also not be sent to some thinly-veiled torture chamber.

    1. I certainly don’t agree with Dawkins’ approach at all, but you left out his entire point by saying “I’m getting tired of ‘x is bad, y is worse'”. What he said was “x is bad, y is worse. That is not an endorsement of x” (which is completely true, and in fact condemns him for his “Dear Muslima” nonsense). He then went on to make a series of examples for x and y, including the one concerning rape. But he never once claimed any of the examples were his opinion, and in fact stated that they weren’t necessarily.

  4. “You can not rate rape on a scale. ”

    It’s very difficult to ask certain questions about rape, but:

    Is there any difference between non-consensual sex with a complete stranger, accompanied by brutal, near-fatal beating, and non-consensual sex that is just round the corner from grudgingly-consensual sex within a long-term relationship? If there is any difference at all, then is it a legitimate difference? And if so, then do the two ends of that difference constitute the extremes of a scale? And if so, doesn’t that mean that you CAN actually rate rape on a scale, between those two extremes?

    And if it means that you can actually rate rape on a scale, then why is it wrong if Richard Dawkins suggests the same idea?

    1. For a breakdown of why this is illogical, see my previous post on Dawkins, particularly (but not exclusively) this bit:

      The best the average person can do is to contextualize their own experiences. When it comes to the experiences of others, we can look at what research exists and try to judge the quality of that research and put the results into context. For child sexual assault, there have been some studies of the long-term effects but absolutely not enough to come up with some specific ranking of each form. For instance, we can say that most likely use of force has a greater long-term negative effect, but the threat of force may be similar. Women may be more traumatized than men. or maybe we just don’t have enough reporting for men. Children subjected to very similar kinds of abuse can have very different outcomes, meaning that Dawkins’ classmates may not all agree with his statement that there was no lasting harm. Unfortunately, they don’t get interviewed by the Guardian.

      1. Excellent point, and well made. Thanks.

        I grew up with a single, alcoholic parent, with various related, abusive forms of parenting. As a result, I have had various issues to work with, some of which I discovered late in life. I’ve found it useful to hear from others with abusive childhood experiences – and I’ve found that while some experiences and issues directly echo my own, others I don’t recognize at all, or to very different degrees.

        Talking about abuse is helpful. Talking against abuse is helpful. Comparing abuse – no, not helpful at all.

    2. There was no need to bring it up at all.

      If Dawkins had just said, “Instilling fear of hell in a child is a cruel thing”, we would all have accepted that. “Good point, Richard”, we would have said. “Right again, bully for you”.

      To compare that to the other was minimising, distressing and offensive to victims.

      There is no singular response to rape, the response itself is on the spectrum.
      Some are apparently unscathed, others suffer a lifetime of trauma, even eating disorders or suicide.

      In sentencing, the effect on the victim is taken into account and the eggshell skull principle applies.

  5. When I was first exposed to his writing, Dawkins always (from reading him, I’ve no other experience with him) as suffering from that thing I dislike so much when it shows up in religious people – fanaticism. And if I learned anything from him, it’s that I don’t like fanaticism any more if it’s directed against religious people.

    Now, I realize that I’m privileged having grown up in a non-religious home an in a society that isn’t overwhelmingly religious (as well as in countless other ways). I realize that’s one reason Dawkins always seemed over-the-top to me. However, even if I try to emphasize with where he’s coming from, I can’t make myself see his approach as useful.

    It was much later I came to read other things from and about him. The more I read, the more he strikes me as a fanatic – as someone who want to be right, to “win” at all cost, and who does not care who is hurt. Predictably, issues he engage in end up being about him, not the issue. So, yes, I’d agree he’s a liability, and I find you response extremely well put and nicely balanced. Thanks.

  6. I was an atheist long before I heard about him. I really enjoyed his evolution books but now I cringe when I looked at them.
    He shows no empathy towards people. He did not say anything when he heard Rebecca talked about the incident. Then very bravely waited for the next day to write an article.
    The article beside being insensitive and missing the point was very hypocritical. He felt compelled to write the article because he was annoyed to hear someone’s experience and their feelings about it. Following his logic he should had STFU after weighing his feelings of hearing the incident and actually having the experience.

  7. The God Delusion was massively important in getting me off the fence of pseudo-agnosticism and allowed me to see atheism as not only a respectable position, but something to actually be proud of. I never got the impression that it was written for those who had suffered from an extreme fundamentalist background. I come from a Catholic background and it was far from fundamentalist, much less extreme fundamentalist. The attitude towards the book of those not raised religious will inevitably be different from those who were raised religious, whether that religion was relatively liberal or fundamentalist or any point in between. I have many friends for whom The God Delusion was was an eye-opener and a liberator (the “shackles of faith,” while obvious metaphor, were not merely “perceived” as real, they were real for many of us; you are speaking from a position of privilege – the privilege of not being raised with religion – when you discount how truly shackled ones mind can become due to religion). And there are far many more than just those I know personally (see Dawkins’ Convert’s Corner on his website). To suggest that Dawkins should have written a different book – one “focusing on the more important task of building a functioning society without faith” – is to insult those for whom the book was the most important thing they (we) could have read at the time. For me the desire to build a better and faith-free society came later, with further reading and once I actually met some other atheists. Neither of these would have happened if not for my reading The God Delusion first.

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