Enlightenment Reactionaries: Sexism and Racism in the Atheist Community

by Robin Marie

Note: This is an essay I wrote which I am cross-posting from a great feminist blog, Disrupting Dinner Parties, which you should all check out. There are a few slight edits in this version that I added after the post went up.

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Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.

In the beginning, there was “Elevatorgate.” Rebecca Watson, a feminist atheist blogger, politely explained how not to hit on women. Richard Dawkins, the most famous leader of the “New Atheists,” then decided he needed to condescendingly explain to Watson that since she is not a Muslim woman, it was self-indulgent of her to speak about her experiences of sexism. Not coincidentally – as far as I am concerned – Dawkins decided this after sitting on a panel with Watson where she extensively explained how being a skeptic and a feminist netted her the delightful catch of a plethora of e-mails – from other skeptics – offering alternatively to pleasure her like no one else had before (the “fan mail”) or, to rape her violently to set her straight (the hate mail). I think all this talk about sexism in the skeptical community made Dawkins very uncomfortable – but then he realized, no worries: there’s nothing a little comparison to the Muslim Barbaric Other can’t fix.

Over the next few years – the controversy over “Elevatorgate” began two years and two months ago, to be exact – the feminist atheist community blossomed. We now have conferences organized for skeptical, non-believing women; we have multiple bloggers who focus on the intersectionality of race, gender, and religion; and we have an association of atheists, called Atheism +, which defines itself explicitly along the lines of giving a shit about these other social ills.

What we also have, however, is a community of people devoted to attacking feminist atheists. The most polite of these express their position with the classic reactionary posture of “reverse discrimination” – by talking about white privilege and male privilege, feminist atheists are actually irrationally stereotyping all men/white people, and are on a quest to destroy anyone who disagrees with their dogmatic, unfounded social analysis. The worst of them, on the other hand, create web sites and twitter feeds devoted to attacking these women endlessly, threatening them with rape and calling them cunts, whores, and every other invective in the book. They fill these same women’s inboxes with these verbal assaults every day.

Meanwhile, other shit has gone down outside of the interwebs as well. At conferences, in particular, there have been numerous reports of white privilege, mansplaining, and sexual harassment. Increasingly, women started to come out about these experiences and often informed the organizers of these conferences about the incidents. Sometimes, however, the leaders of skeptical organizations would fail to respond adequately and then, later, blame feminist atheists for the lower attendance of women; all this talk about harassment was overblown and “scared them off,” apparently.

And now, a few weeks ago, an unnamed source informed PZ Myers – one of the most relentless defenders of feminist atheists and an overall pretty awesome human being – that Michael Shermer, one of the most well-known members of the community, had gotten her very drunk at a conference and then had sex with her without her consent. No legal action is being pursued – the woman simply wanted her story out there to warn other women. Myers, cognizant of the legal and social risks of making the information public, decided to do the right thing and posted the woman’s report anyway. The shit has not stopped flying since – and you can very well imagine the torrent of abuse this unnamed woman and all of her supporters have since endured.

Now, I could spend this post explaining to you all the awfulness that has gone down in this particular incident over the last few weeks, and also the various ins-and-outs from the last few years of this struggle. But others have already done this so well, that I would not be adding much – except to say that obviously, this shit is horrendous. Rather, I want to talk about something a bit broader – I want to talk about the connection between sexism in the atheist community, and racism in the atheist community – particularly racism directed towards Muslims. I want to talk, in short, about the reactionary wing of the New Atheists.

One of the best ways to start this inquiry, it turns out, is by taking a closer look at the same person who ignited Elevatorgate – Richard Dawkins. Dawkins has a reputation for being one of the most uncompromising – or condescending, depending on your perspective – critics of religion. But although he is sure to express his disdain for all religions, Dawkins has a special place in his heart – like so many of the vaunted “New Atheists” – for attacking Islam. Now usually, Dawkins keeps to supposedly sanitary claims about the violence of the Quran or the fanaticism of the 9/11 terrorists, but occasionally he gets a little carried away and lets some more overtly anti-Muslim ethnocentric bullshit fly. A few weeks ago, for example, he created quite a stir on twitter when he pointed out that “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though” – a statement, his defenders insisted, which could not possibly be construed as racist since, of course, it is a fact! Previous to that, he had gotten even more straightforward and just expressed his frustration that he has to grapple with this – apparently monolithic – group of people at all, wondering “Who they hell do these Muslims think they are?”

Outstripping Dawkins in overt hostility to Muslims, however, is Sam Harris. Harris has built a career, in fact, around insisting that Islamic terrorism is not a matter of politics, imperialism, or poverty, but the bad, ugly ideas of the Quran– plain and simple. When asked why the vast majority of the world’s Muslims are not currently in the habit of blowing things up, Harris responds only by implying that actually, they might be thinking of doing just that. “Some percentage of the world’s Muslims – ” he writes, “Five percent? Fifteen? Fifty? It’s not yet clear – is demanding that all non-Muslims conform to the strictures of Islamic law.” Meanwhile, he refers to Muslims as “barbarians at the gate” – although according to his own arguments, it is not altogether clear if only violent terrorists qualify as barbarians, or all “devout” Muslims (a term he often uses), or just some unknown, and possibly horrifyingly large percent, of Muslims in general.

It should not come as a surprise, then, that Harris supports discriminating against Muslims in airport screenings and, moreover, has argued for the acceptability of torture under certain circumstances. And like the two other big names in the “New Atheist” leadership – Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens – Harris did not oppose the invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan and generally refrains from harshly criticizing US policy towards Muslim-majority countries. (Hitchens, in particular, was the biggest cheerleader for both of these wars.) But in Harris’ mind, these efforts fall far short of what is required, and liberalism, in particular, has difficultly grasping with the stance required – for, he argues, it is plain to see that “[t]he only future devout Muslims can envisage—as Muslims—is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, politically subjugated, or killed.”

This confluence between the rise of New Atheism and the rebirth of American imperialist adventures is no coincidence. Although nearly all of the big names of New Atheism are very bad historians – indeed, as far as I can tell, Harris has nothing but disdain for every field of social science – they are, alas, not outside of history themselves. As Hitchens himself once explained, the fight against the Barbaric Muslim Other provided him with a purpose for the rest of his life, and anti-theism, in the minds of Hitchens, Harris and company, provides the primary weapon for conducting this battle.

Recent attempts to confront Harris and Dawkins with a critique of their rhetoric have met with nothing but elaborate excuses and self-righteous reassertion. Dawkins, apparently, thinks it is impossible for him to be racist against Muslims because “Muslims aren’t a race.” (Oh well, thank you for clearing that up, Richard – if only the Nazis had understood this about Jews.) Harris, not to be outdone, partakes in this absurdity by writing epically long posts where he works with the most narrow, and unsophisticated understanding of racism possible and thereby concludes that he is completely free of any suspicious behavior whatsoever.

Indeed, Harris is clearly shocked – just shocked - that anyone could ever construe his multiple references to Muslims as barbaric or Islam as evil as anything other than a disinterested Analysis of the Facts. But this is to be expected – for the intellectual framework that Harris, Dawkins, and their various fan boys & girls are working with continues the grand tradition of Enlightenment Rationalism being used to silence, otherize, and belittle the voices of oppressed minorities – all in the name of Progress (brought to you, you’re welcome, by the West).

Now, before I dive into this unpleasant unpacking, let me say something about the Enlightenment. I am not an Enlightenment-hater. Indeed, despite so many of its ugly aspects, I cleave to its positive traditions and consider myself the inheritor of its better self. I am not a post-modernist – I very much think there is something outside of the text, and while I do not believe in God or gods, I do believe that certain acts are right and other acts are wrong. So this is not an exercise in deconstruction – indeed, it’s clearly been too ethical in tone to qualify as such an undertaking.

Yet when contemplating Dawkins, Harris, and the attackers of feminist atheists, it is sometimes difficult to keep the positives of Enlightenment thought in the front of my mind. For from a historical perspective, the rhetoric of these New Atheists is depressingly familiar. While they make sure to despise all religions – and credit religion, overwhelmingly, with the majority of responsibility for Bad Things, therefore letting racism, sexism, and capitalism off the hook – the heart and soul of their quest has been to convince the rest of the world that Islam is evil – a statement, they believe, they can make without otherizing the 1.6 billion Muslims in this world. As Dawkins himself put it, “Haven’t read Koran so couldn’t quote chapter & verse like I can for Bible. But often say Islam greatest force for evil today.” When others try to point out, relentlessly and tirelessly, how such rhetoric mirrors nearly to a tee the arguments employed by the imperialists of old – the civilized against the barbaric, the ignorant saved by the Enlightened, the white man’s burden par excellence – they reply that they cannot be considered racist or ethnocentric because, well – because they aren’t racist or ethnocentric. They do not believe some races are inferior, they insist – they do not think all Muslims are inherently violent, but rather that the “ideas” of “Islam” (which is also, apparently, a monolithic thing) are “evil” – and, moreover, do you really want to live in an Islamic society full of overt sexism and Bronze Age ideas, Mr. I’m So Self-Righteous About Racism?

By responding to criticism of their otherizing of Muslims by insisting on the superiority of Western civilization, the Islamaphobes of New Atheism continue the project of imperialism. Moreover, they wield the very thing New Atheists most pride themselves on – the treasured quality of being “rational” – to dismiss and belittle those in the skeptical community who call them out on their bullshit. Harris and his defenders insist that any rational reading of his words can only lead to the conclusion that he is anything but racist or Islamaphobic (a term, in fact, that Harris claims is incoherent) – and anyone coming to a different conclusion, therefore, must be motivated by either Bad Ideas, personal animus, or both. Thus blinded by the delusion and moral cowardice of “political correctness,” his critics, they argue, engage in an irrational frenzy to bring him down. They are not, in other words, good skeptics, but ideologues.

And here we come full circle back to sexism. In the wake of the rape allegation, two memes have by and large dominated the discussion – one, reports of sexual assault and rape are nothing but “gossip,” (see comments in link) and two, anyone who is inclined to believe these reports is not a good skeptic. “Where is your evidence?!?”, these trolls and even prominent leaders ask. “A claim, itself, cannot be considered evidence! This is just a witch hunt!” When you point out to said trolls that, actually, there are numerous reports, from numerous people – some of which are not unnamed, but quite openly known – of a pattern of behavior that suggests, at the very least, that Shermer and others have engaged in offensive, creepy and downright disturbing behavior, they merely repeat the refrain. “Gossip!” they cry. “That’s just hear-say!”

Such nonsense, of course, is not only an incredibly callous way to respond to allegations of rape and sexual assault, but a display of remarkable ignorance about the social dynamics of rape. It ignores how powerlessness, shame, and self-blame result in more than half of rapes never being reported. It ignores how rapists do not often put themselves in a position to leave behind a lot of evidence. It ignores how any woman would be reluctant to come out openly when her reward for doing so is a torrent of abuse. Indeed, sometimes it seems the only way to really get a case of sexual assault or rape taken seriously is if several other men are present when it occurs – although, even then, not everyone agrees.

But most sexist and racist atheists are not really interested in educating themselves; what they are interested in is shutting these women up, and crusading against the Muslim Barbaric Other. So here we have the language of reason and rationality being used, once again, to silence minorities and perpetuate the status quo that oppresses them. The atheists and skeptics who engage in this kind of behavior are thus the descendants of the worst of the Enlightenment tradition – and their attraction to what they consider “skepticism,” and their obsession with the all-encompassing evil of religion, cannot be separated from their politics.

On another level, however, sexism and racism in the atheist community is depressingly pedestrian and unexceptional, regardless of the peddling in the rhetoric of the White Male Rational Skeptic. While the New Atheist leaders and their legion of trolls have discovered a particularly attractive way to package their reactionary politics – sitting around all day calling other people stupid and uncivilized is quite a delightful method of intellectual masturbation – their methods often degenerate to the strategies of nasty, misogynistic schoolboys venting their anger at all them bitches that never gave them no pussy. To this extent, the skeptical community is no worse than any other loosely knit, largely internet-based community of people that is predominated by men and white people.

Except for one thing. Several of the biggest names in “organized atheism,” as it is sometimes called, do not only turn the other cheek in regard to this awfulness, but actively partake in it. As one woman so brilliantly put it, “the problem with organized skepticism isn’t the herding cats problem – it’s that too many of the shepherds are assholes.” This alone is reason for anyone who has been an active member to take pause, and take care, to dissociate themself from this bullshit. Yet when not enough people in the broader community join you in this effort – when more and more people, when put to the test, fail to call this ugliness what it is and condemn those who peddle in it – one starts to contemplate leaving the community entirely, and only participating in the alternative atheist community that has sprung up around actually taking a true and rigorous stand against social injustice. Luckily, there is now such a community to go to – and if you happen to also be both a feminist and an unbeliever, I will see you there.