Attention Coyne, Dawkins, and Harris: You Are Part of the Problem

I’d like to ask a favor of anyone who can manage to get a critical viewpoint through the defenses of atheist celebrities like Harris and Dawkins: please get them to read Libby Anne’s infuriating and heartbreaking post, Do They Care about Women, or Simply Bashing Religion? Because it’s a question they need to address. They’re driving people like Libby Anne away from movement atheism. That is very much to the detriment of the movement.

Libby is one of the best atheist bloggers out there. I don’t always agree with her, but I have to put careful thought into why when that happens, because she’s a lot smarter and more thoughtful than I am. She emerged from the Christian patriarchy/Quiverfull culture, so she has insights into the extremes of fundamentalist Christianity that are invaluable. I’d not be blogging about Christianist textbooks or aware of the plight of kids trapped in that awful bubble if it wasn’t for her. She’s also my go-to person for showing that there are better ways to parent than hitting your children. She’s made me aware of just how relentlessly even mainstream culture genders kids, well before they’re old enough to even have a concept of themselves as boy or girl or something else. She’s worth a thousand Richard Dawkinses or Sam Harrises to me. She could be a tremendous asset to any atheist organization.

She could, but movement atheism is too busy patronizing women and making sure we all get the impression that we’re only of use to our Fearless Leaders™ when we’re being used as a cudgel against religion, and she wants none of that.

It is men like these who confirm my decision not to engage in movement atheism. Despite their claims, I don’t see them displaying a greater willingness to question their biases or engage in critical thinking. Frankly, I have felt for some time that atheist activists are frequently only willing to call out sexism when they see it in religion. It’s one more way they can point to how thoroughly horrible religion is as they call for its demise. But the moment an atheist woman says she has encountered sexism at atheist conventions or at atheist gatherings, she is lampooned and derided, called all manner of names and even threatened with rape or death. But isn’t this the kind of thing these same atheists criticize religion for?

Frankly, I feel used. These atheist activists are the sort of people who want to use my story as proof that religion is horrible to women but aren’t willing to listen to what I have to say about sexism in our culture at large. They are the sort of people who are eager to use the shooting of young education activist Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban to prove how horrible religion is for women but somehow fail to mention that Malala is a Muslim who speaks of drawing her inspiration to fight for gender equality from the Koran. This is not standing up for women. This is exploiting women as merely a tool in a fight against religion.

You know what, atheist dudes? Women are smart enough to see what you’re doing there, even if you’re not willing to remove your own blinders.

Image shows two cats in a box with their chins on the edge, looking toward the camera. Caption says, "We see what you did there."

We can tell when you don’t genuinely give a shit about us, and are only using us as a weapon against someone or something else. You think you’re amazing allies, because wow are you so brainy, and you say such wonderful things about how wrong those religious practices that fuck over women are, but when it comes to treating the women within your own movement better? You shriek and whine and shit all over us. You use the plight of those religious women against us, as if this is either/or, as if we cannot address sexism within western secular spaces until we’ve destroyed all the religion.


You need to start paying attention to the women who are telling you they are not yours to use. People like Hiba. Her comment on Libby Anne’s post needs to be etched onto atheist leader dude’s mirrors, where they’re forced to read the words every day, until they get it:

Ex-Muslim woman of color here. I blog about this stuff over at the Freethought Blogs. Your words are affirming. I too, feel used. Especially when the plights of women like me–women raised in Muslim-majority countries, forced to cover, controlled and abused by militant Islamist organizations and individuals–are appropriated and used to bolster anti-feminism in the West, to minimize battles against harassment and unequal representation. I refuse to have my story used to attack and demean other women. I refuse to have my story used as a talking point for hypocritical anti-theists.

I seem to recall men looking round the atheist movement a few years ago and wondering where the women are. We’re right here, either outside the movement or heading for the doors, because we tried to come in, but you made the place so hostile many of us said fuck all y’all and walked out.

You, white male atheists who spend so much time screaming you’re not sexist that you can’t acknowledge when you’ve done sexist things and bloody well stop, are causing women to stomp out in disgust. Then you’re blaming us for not wanting to put up with your shit. It’s well past time you cut your pride down to size, swallowed some of it, and listened to what women are saying to you. Women like Hiba, and Libby Anne, and so very many others who’ve had it.

You want a strong, united movement? Then fix the problems you’ve caused. Until you do, I’ll just be hanging out here on this side of the Deep Rifts with the people who give an actual shit about women. I’d rather spend my time with those who are working their asses off to make themselves and our spaces better, not just for women, but people of color, LGBTQ folk, and a lot of other people you’ve trampled all over.

You can either join us over here, or enjoy your rabble of merry misogynists and your increasing irrelevance. It’s completely up to you.

Image is a black and white photo of two women at the rim of the Grand Canyon early in the 20th century. One is holding the back of the other's dress as she looks into the chasm. Caption says, "Yes, it's a very Deep Rift, but it definitely could get deeper."

Attention Coyne, Dawkins, and Harris: You Are Part of the Problem

29 thoughts on “Attention Coyne, Dawkins, and Harris: You Are Part of the Problem

  1. 4

    How is it that some boys growing up in a culture that turns females into ‘the other’ are able to overcome the estrangement and others not? How did the these guys and especially the mra’s get boxed in?

    I think there are many men, talented writers, who could describe their paths out of a childhood misogyny. There are many inspiring stories of folks escaping religion. What are the experiences that help men get over whatever blocks their ability to apprehend the experience of women. Women describe over and over and over what misogyny is and does and yet to these men it is somehow not real, a minor inconvenience at worst.

  2. 6

    @ludicrous @4: My path away from the misogyny I grew up with was mostly about listening to women, trying to understand some of their concerns, and exercising some basic empathy. It’s not rocket surgery.

    I won’t say that I’ve completely escaped it yet, because some of the worst stuff lingers unconsciously, but I’m working on it.

    (Same for racism and other forms of bigotry)

  3. 7

    @ludicrous #4: In my own case, while I identified as a strong feminist in high school, looking back I can see a lot of sexist attitudes that I held (and I’m sure there are others I haven’t yet recognized nor begun to dismantle). Some of the things I see e.g. MRAs say have come out of my mouth. Despite being reasonably smart and definitely feminist-oriented, my own experience in a society that treated me in a particular way because people read me as White and male and heterosexual led me to a certain set of conclusions about how people interact, how social systems work, what “fair” is, etc. And while I had any number of friends who are not White and plenty who are female, that alone isn’t enough to give one a good knowledge base of the experiences of people unlike oneself – friends don’t often relate the totalities of their experiences to each other, one’s personal group of friends is still going to be a small sample, and one’s group of friends is also going to be biased to particular kinds of experiences, as one is unlikely to wind up with friends who travel in very different social environments (becasue if you’re traveling in entirely different circles, you’re unlikely to ever meet or have enough in common to be friends in the first place). Hence non-White friends or female friends not actually being any sort of defense against charges of sexism or racism (and actually attempting to use them as such is a rather insidious appropriation of their identities).

    So, to given an answer to your question, those guys who get boxed in are those who never have anyone or any event push them to expand their perspectives. They stay locked in their narrow worldviews and never see any reason to look for information outside their own experiences. That’s one of the things that social privilege allows one to do, because one’s perspective is treated as the normative default, so one is unlikely to encounter any push-back about the validity (or, at least, generalizability) of one’s own perspective and experiences (as one does when one’s experiences or perspectives are contra-normative). This also explains the intense defensive reactions to challenges to privilege (it may be the first time the person has ever had that perspective or interpretation of experiences challenged), and it’s one of the ways privilege self-perpetuates, by being invisible to the people who benefit most. Even with e.g. many women loudly and publicly sharing their experiences of street harassment and denouncing it, it is shockingly easy to remain unaware of phenomena like that unless one is actively seeking out perspectives and experiences of dissimilar people. Scientists ought to know better, but even they (like most people) are prone to universalizing/projecting our own perspectives and experiences – this is, of course, why the scientific method requires repeated testing by different researchers (and ideally researchers in very different cultural contexts) to verify results. While the preceding may not accurately describe everyone in the group we’re discussing, I have noted it as a common pattern. The default state is tribalist ignorance, and it takes active effort to start to overcome that, so even in cases where pushing past that is the normative (or simply preferred) course, people will wind up in the default state by default.

  4. 8

    I could add that perhaps a willingness to question oneself and one’s experiences (or interpretations of them) is a necessary precursor to a broader worldview. In my case, my history of mental illness led me to recognize that my perceptions were not necessarily the only possible ones or even those most reflective of reality. A depressed brain lies to itself, so successfully coping with a depressed brain can mean learning methods of self-questioning and external validation of one’s interpretations of events, which are valuable skills for questioning normative assumptions.

  5. 10

    Oops, my bad… the post that Harris was alerted to was an earlier one by Libby Anne, “Is Sam Harris Sexist?”

    But the larger point holds: his response was condescending and dismissive. As Libby Anne pointed out:

    “By moving the goalposts, he could point at the fact that it’s women who get pregnant and then act like I’m an idiot for not knowing that. Great. Like I didn’t feel marginalized by movement atheism enough already.”

  6. 11

    Fantastic post Dana and thanks for sharing Libby Anne’s wisdom (bookmarking her now.)

    It’s been a real eye-opener to see people who can be so good at the rational/critical thinking show such huge blind spots when it comes to feminism. It’s like they have some sort of kill-switch that activates whenever the subject arises. I’m glad so many people are taking them to task. What you say about further irrelevancy being their future if they don’t wise up is true. It may not happen so fast, but I can totally see them like the homophobes who are currently becoming ostracized as the world moves on.

    One of the things I’ve always loved about the freethought movement was the idea that there were no idols and everyone was subject to criticism and would welcome being told when they are wrong. It’s hard for me to claim that now with Harris, Dawkins and Coyne being such counter-exemplars.

    On the topic of escaping misogyny: I’m a white. male, upper-middle class and I played sports and music, so I was privilaged to the Nth degree and spent most of my life in environments where casual misogyny was the norm. Until only a few years ago I was pretty damn misogynistic in my attitude and approach to dating. And I would have probably gotten defensive if I was ever really called out on it or was confronted by one of those Feminazis I had heard tales about. Nowadays I find myself spending more time reading feminist articles and nodding along as new light bulbs continue to flash on. My turn-about has been so marked that a FB friend (who moved away about 7 years ago) saw one of my posts recently about Anita Sarkesian, I believe, and remarked that she almost didn’t recognize me from the wanna-be-womanizer who loved to defend the C-word, that she used to know. She asked what prompted the change and I told her that witnessing the fights in the atheist movement, listening to/reading/absorbing the concepts of actual feminism (rather than the stereotypes) and just questioning my own assumptions was all it took to see how clueless and wrong I was. Maturing, getting married and losing my Mom probably also played a role, but it was mainly just shutting up and listening. Anyways, I’m not looking for a cookie here, just wanted to illustrate that as others have noted above it really comes down to a simple flick of the switch and willingness to examine oneself that can get the ball rolling. And a little effort going forward to try and be better. IE- it doesn’t really take much. And for people like me who had all the privilege to comfortably keep our heads in the misogynist sand, just witnessing the Freethoughtblogs Wars of 2009-? can be all that is needed to wake us up.

  7. 15

    Can’t speak for others, but for me it took repeated (figurative) smacks to the head. Eventually I realized that ‘wait, maybe there’s something I’m missing’.

    After that, I was perfect, of course. *cough*

  8. 17


    I’d check over at Coyne’s blog for a response, but I’ve scrubbed it from my bookmarks and history. Used to be I could happily deal with the endless pics of his meals or his boot collection (he really does have some nice boots) or his incessant cat-worship (which is fine – it’s the internet – but his dog-loathing I will not abide) and just focus on the theological critiques and evo-bio business. However, his one-eyed support of the Old Boys’ Network and petty, passive-aggressive loathing of FtB is beneath him (well, actually it’s beneath me to tolerate it). Not to mention the fact that he happily banhammers and even deletes the comments of people who criticise Dawkins or step out of line, however civilly they do so. That place is a haven for #braveheroes – and they’re welcome to it. He says he’s all about equality, but his actions tell a different story.

    The increasing irrelevance of the old white guy atheist is a good point. Kinda reminds me of the impending irrelevance of coal-fired electricity generation versus the increasing efficiency and decreasing costs of solar and wind – in both cases the established monopoly can detect inevitable change and it makes them a tad uncomfortable; their response is to protect their patch as vociferously as they can and to demonise the opposition at every turn.

    Another thing: the old new atheists always revelled in their impropriety and impertinent interrogations of religion – they seem to very much resent receiving similarly irreverent treatment from the new new atheists. Their outrage, disdain and denial almost precisely mirrors the reactions they got from establishment religion in the early years of last decade. Dawkins et al were accused of stridency and shrillness quite a lot back in the day and rightly scoffed, as the allegations were baseless hyperbole. Today? Not so much. If anyone ever wanted to see Dawkins truly earn that “strident” badge, just read his feed. If invoking hallmarks of tyranny – i.e. jackboots and the feckin’ “FreeThought Police” – in response to being criticised on blogs isn’t strident and shrill, I’m waiting to see what is.

    The fact is that the atheist movement – such as it is – that these (mostly) men founded (or at least accelerated) is changing. All movements do: feminism, LGBT rights, civil rights, indigenous rights and now non-religious rights have gone and all go through periods of intense forward motion followed by periods of reflection after their successes (even if they’re just in raising awareness) and discussions of “where do we go now?” Right, now atheism is expanding both its demographics and its agendas. Where once it was dominated by academic white guys who were all about church & state and proper science classes in schools, many of the atheists inspired by those people to examine their own beliefs are wanting to talk about – apply their skepticism and secular reasoning to – other things like gender equality and ethnic inclusiveness. One byproduct of this and the atheist habit for proud irreverence is that the words and attitudes of atheism’s purported leaders are now questioned as deeply as they themselves would question those of the religious. Sadly, in many cases, those words have been found wanting, the attitudes as calcified as in any rank-closing bishop and the responses to criticism as reactionary as any wrathful believer – or insecure believer in belief.

  9. 18

    Hank_Says wrote:

    Another thing: the old new atheists always revelled in their impropriety and impertinent interrogations of religion – they seem to very much resent receiving similarly irreverent treatment from the new new atheists. Their outrage, disdain and denial almost precisely mirrors the reactions they got from establishment religion in the early years of last decade. Dawkins et al were accused of stridency and shrillness quite a lot back in the day and rightly scoffed, as the allegations were baseless hyperbole. Today? Not so much. If anyone ever wanted to see Dawkins truly earn that “strident” badge, just read his feed. If invoking hallmarks of tyranny – i.e. jackboots and the feckin’ “FreeThought Police” – in response to being criticised on blogs isn’t strident and shrill, I’m waiting to see what is.

    I’m stunned by the hypocrisy, both in terms of this and the excuses people (like Michael Nugent) have been providing for why they’re all downplaying the misogyny, which could have come straight from a church memo. As I’ve noted on Twitter a couple of times already, it’s just like Animal Farm – which is especially hilarious given how Dawkins has been making 1984 references.

  10. 19

    Wowbagger, yup. Dawkins’ hysterical overreactions to being criticised remind me of this ancient law I just invented:

    He who invokes tyranny while responding to a bad review not only endorses the bad review; it invites another.

    Both Dawkins’ clueless statements and the oppressed martyr apologetics he employs to both defend and distract from them are from a playbook we should all be familiar with. This exact behaviour is what would be exposed and ridiculed by Dawkins himself were it to be displayed by, say, a Catholic bishop complaining of criticism of the Vatican’s enabling of rapists, some ID advocate whining about censorship by Big Evo or some ranting imam playing the Islamophobia card after being called out for demonising gay people.

    In all three cases, just as in Dawkins’, the subject of the criticism isn’t responding to the content of the criticism, but to the mere fact of the criticism. The subject, incredulous, cannot possibly imagine why anyone would take issue with what they said, because (to their mind and to the bulk of their experience) they are right, what they are saying is common knowledge and could not possibly be disagreed with by any educated person of the right mindset. Accordingly, anyone who does disagree or criticise is obviously of the wrong mindset. Once categorised as Wrong, such people can then be summarily dismissed without the need to respond to any specific criticism. If the Wrong reiterate or expand their criticism or issue followups, for example criticising the non-responses and summary dismissals, the subject can then invoke all sorts of tyrannical or oppressive or purely capitalist motives, as if (in this specific case) a single blogger or even a moderately popular blog network has any sort of censorial power over someone like the Richard Dawkins, a best-selling author and in-demand public speaker with (in the atheist world at least) unparallelled influence and access to resources.

    This categorisation of critics as Wrong also causes splash damage to associates of the critics: we’re probably all quite familiar with the depiction of FtB and Skepchick as ideologically homogenous with little to no deviation in perspective and no dissent tolerated. The splash damage, unintentional or otherwise, is nonetheless useful and welcome as it marginalises in one stroke about three dozen critics simply because of the two URLs they occupy. You don’t even have to find out which specific blog or author you’re dismissing; the fact that “http://freethoughtblogs” or “http://skepchick” is present is sufficient.

    Finally, as a bonus, any exasperation or hostility expressed by critics is then responded to with complaints about tone and civility, allowing further dismissals, depictions as unhinged ragebloggers and even condescending, paternal scolding from enablers like Mick Nugent, who appears to think we could all just get along if everyone would please give the wise old men their movement back.

  11. 20

    …purely capitalist motives…

    I meant to follow that up by mentioning Dawkins’ accusations that his critics are just stirring shit for clicks. I’m sure he was quite indignant when his religious critics suggested the same about him during his TGD heyday.

  12. rq

    Bunker, yes – guns, no.
    If we’re arming the rift, I’m out. I don’t plan on pre-emptively shooting anyone who decides to walk across that rift, even if they choose to be assholes about it. Best to prepare to take in the refugees.

  13. rq

    Well said, Hank_Says. Frankly, the lot of them have pissed me off. For some reason, especially Nugent.
    Actually, no – just all of them.

  14. 28

    I have no desire to comment over at Coyne’s given that I’ve heard from more than a few people that he deletes comments. From all indications, when he does so, it is *not* for the reasons that someone like PZ does.

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