Enlightenment Reactionaries: Sexism and Racism in the Atheist Community

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.


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.

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