“We Are Not Holding Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins to Some Impossible Standard”

Continuing the theme of expecting better, here’s Tony on standards and the possibility thereof:

As I started to compose this comment, I thought: we’re not asking much of people like Dawkins and Harris. That all people are asking is that they listen to what we’re saying. That they open themselves up to criticism and accept that they can be wrong. That they peel back their layers of privilege and recognize the signs of the internalized sexism they’ve carried with them their entire lives.

But then I thought:

Framing it that way appears as if this is an easy task.
I remember when I started confronting my biases. It *wasn’t* easy. I remember when I started seeing how women were treated. When I started listening to what women were saying. When I started recognizing the signs of sexism.
I was horrified.
It was everywhere.
I couldn’t escape it.
I couldn’t go to work and escape it.
I couldn’t go to a gay bar and escape it.
I couldn’t go to the movies or turn on the tv and escape it.
I saw it in the way people dressed.
I saw it in the way people acted.
I saw it in the way people spoke.
I saw it in the way people interacted.

One of the most striking moments for me came when I was sitting at a local gay bar and having a conversation with a friend. We were talking about effeminate gay men and drag queens and dating sites and more. This was maybe 2 years ago. I’d accepted that feminism was a worthy cause and was becoming comfortable calling myself one. But I was still in the process of understanding the sexist views I had.

Well one of those sexist views up and slapped me across the head right then and there.

I realized as my friend and I spoke, that all those people talking about how they won’t date a “girly gay man”…
•or those times when I said that phrase, followed by “I want to date a man bc he’s a man. I don’t want a date a man who acts like a girl”…
•or those people who put at the top of the Adam4Adam, Manhunt, or Grindr profile “not interested in nellie men, only want masculine men”
…I realized then and there that we…I…was trapped in thinking about gender in very rigid terms. I realized that I thought “men are supposed to be this way, and women are supposed to be this way”. I thought that any deviation from that was wrong. I thought that there was something wrong with a man acting like a woman, or having traits or characteristics typically associated with women. I realized how deep sexism ran. It runs so deep it affects how we view ourselves, as well as the people around us. It shapes our opinions of our friends, our family, our coworkers, even strangers.
It.
Runs.
Deep.

Reflecting on that, I realize now, that we *are* asking for a lot from Dawkins and Harris.

But you know what?
We’re not asking the impossible.

[snip]

I…We are not holding Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins to some impossible standard. We’re holding them to same standard we hold ourselves and others to. They continue to fail to measure up to that standard.

One day I hope they’ll recognize what they’re doing and dig deep…deep into their core and realize that they have some shit to come to terms with. I hope they do this because not believing in gods is NOT. FUCKING. ENOUGH.

Read the whole thing.

Image shows a black kitten poking its head up over a fence with big, eager eyes. Caption reads, "K, I not beweive in any gawds. Nao wut?"
Adorable kitten photo by Tony Alter via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

And for those who haven’t done the hard work yet: yes, it sucks. What Tony said up there about confronting biases, and recognizing sexism, and being horrified because it’s bloody everywhere? That’s truth. It is horrible, especially when you realize you’re not exempt. I’ve been there and go through that daily: finding new pockets of sexism left by a lifetime living in this sexist culture, and having to scrape them out of myself. It’s like having an infection in your jawbone, and every time you think it’s gone, it comes back, or your hygienist finds yet another bit of it that has to be tediously and painfully scraped out. It’s not fun. It’s not pleasant. But ignoring it doesn’t make the problem go away: it makes it worse.

Getting over gods is a great start, but it’s only a beginning. Once the gods are gone, we’re left with people, and civilization, and all of the imperfections that plague both. I’m sorry, but losing religion doesn’t mean all problems are solved. Religion amplifies some of our worst qualities, but those are still human qualities, and they remain once religion is gone.

I used to think it would be easier to fix things like sexism and homophobia and racism once religion was gone. But looking at how so many of our atheist celebrities and their fans have reacted to even the most mild requests to please not make sexist assumptions or do sexist things, I’ve realized it can actually be harder. The men (and some women) who have let go of gods seem so assured of their own rightness that they refuse to listen to the people affected by their words and actions. They sneer at the evidence presented, although they pretend that evidence is important to them. They don’t question their assumptions. They don’t do the hard work, but worse, don’t believe they need to. They got what they feel is the most important question right. They coast on that. And when people don’t go along for the ride, they get pissed.

Having gone from oblivious asshole to painfully aware, I’m not willing to cut them any slack. If a headstrong peon like myself can do the hard work, the lofty intellects at the top are certainly capable of the same. Let’s demand they do it.

Image shows a puma with its paws crossed and its ears flattened, gazing at the camera as if disappointed and annoyed. Caption says, "We expect better of you than this."
Puma photo by Beatrice Murch via Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)
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“We Are Not Holding Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins to Some Impossible Standard”
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13 thoughts on ““We Are Not Holding Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins to Some Impossible Standard”

  1. rq
    1

    Nicely said, Tony and Dana.
    It’s not an impossible standard. The task can be unpleasant, but so is cleaning the toilet – the results, however, are their own reward.
    And the results require constant vigilance, because those leftover bits? They can pop up at any time, completely unexpectedly. Just walking along, doing something, and being hit by the realization that, hey, what you just did/said? That was kinda sexist! But it gets easier once the big wrong ideas have been cleared out.
    That would be my word of assurance: it gets easier.

  2. 2

    “Getting over gods is a great start, but it’s only a beginning. Once the gods are gone, we’re left with people, and civilization, and all of the imperfections that plague both. I’m sorry, but losing religion doesn’t mean all problems are solved. Religion amplifies some of our worst qualities, but those are still human qualities, and they remain once religion is gone.”

    QFFT.

    I’m in the middle of writing a post about Dawkins, et al, and you just blew past me in high gear. Totally stealing this (with full attribution and link, of course).

  3. 3

    It occurred to me the other day: if we really grok that there are no gods, then we should understand that none of the bad things in religions came from gods, it all came from people. Ergo, getting rid of religion is not going to get rid of every bad thing, **because the sort of people who filled religions with falsehoods and bigotry are still around filling other institutions with falsehoods and bigotry**.

    Witness the sight of assorted atheists closing ranks to declare that the testimony of a woman to her own experience is not acceptable in shariah law, sorry, “logic and skepticism”.

  4. 4

    Thanks for the reblog Dana.

    Getting over gods is a great start, but it’s only a beginning. Once the gods are gone, we’re left with people, and civilization, and all of the imperfections that plague both. I’m sorry, but losing religion doesn’t mean all problems are solved. Religion amplifies some of our worst qualities, but those are still human qualities, and they remain once religion is gone

    This is something I think a lot of atheists don’t realize. I remember thinking (years ago) that so many of the world’s problems would be solved if we eliminated religion. But that’s a privileged view to have. I was only aware of how religion impacted people. I didn’t notice how sexism, racism, homophobia (this one I understood to *some* extent), transphobia, ableism, ageism and the rest affected the lives of others. Nor did I realize that all those social ills affected people in big *and* small ways. I also didn’t realize how religion didn’t create social ills, but served to amplify them. Hell, I because of my privilege, I didn’t even see how religion amplified social ills, by providing a huge base of support for them.
    Except I did, at least with regard to one social ill: homophobia.

    Being gay, I saw (and continue to see) how religion and religious beliefs are used to sustain homophobia. You see it in the news almost everyday. 10 years ago, I’d have said religion is the cause of homophobia. Today, I know that’s not true. Religion propagates homophobia, but it doesn’t create it.

    You’d think that would have been a big clue for me about other social ills not originating from religion. Alas, that was not the case.

    Again: privilege.
    I had no idea how sexism and misogyny affected women.
    I knew nothing of how transphobia wrecked havoc on the lives of trans people.
    I knew very little of how religion twisted the lives of and fucked over people of color.
    It took listening to people from other marginalized groups and paying attention to what they said for me to realize that “Hey, the world doesn’t revolve around me and my problems. Other people have shit they’re dealing with and that shit is awful. I ought to pay attention to that stuff too!”

    Once I saw that there are a host of social ills, many of which I don’t deal with, I began to see them everywhere. I also began to see how religion helps support those ills. I realized that religious belief isn’t limited to belief in god. I know of no theist who simply believes in god. There is baggage that accompanies god-belief:
    what you can eat
    when you can eat
    what you can where
    who you can date
    what activities you can enjoy
    your views on women
    your views on economics
    your views on gay people
    your views of trans people
    your views on the environment
    your views on gender roles
    your views on corporal punishment
    your views on capital punishment
    your views on mercy
    your views on morality
    and more.

    God-belief carries baggage.

    This is what the dictionary atheists refuse to even contemplate. They think atheism is just about not believing in gods. That’s true in the strictest definition of the word. But what then? Once you reject god belief, what else? For them, they say there is nothing else. For me, I say there’s a fuckton of something else, because there are a host of beliefs that are influenced by god-belief.
    If, for your entire life, you thought the role of women was to be in the home, caring for children and tending to housework and you thought that largely bc of your religious beliefs what does that mean for that belief when you become an atheist?
    If, for your entire life, you thought that it was ok to beat (read: spanking by far too many people-this shit is child abuse) your children to raise them up strong in the eyes of the lord, and you reject god-belief, ought that not affect your thinking on corporal punishment?
    If, for your entire life, you thought that gay people were immoral bc God said so (providing no justification for it, just decreeing it), and you stop believing in God, doesn’t this say something about your homophobia? Shouldn’t you reexamine that view?

    The answer to all of those is YES. You ought to reexamined the views you have, bc they find so much support from religious beliefs. If you reject God, you should be prepared to examine a host of biases, beliefs, and prejudices you hold because there is a connection. Rejecting God-belief ought to lead people to becoming better. But only if they realize that there god-belief carries baggage and you’ve got to be willing to check your privilege *and* your baggage.

  5. 7

    10 years ago, I’d have said religion is the cause of homophobia. Today, I know that’s not true. Religion propagates homophobia, but it doesn’t create it.

    I’d say the root of homophobia (and transphobia) is misogyny.

  6. 8

    First off, great comment/post Tony.

    I’ll second what RQ said, said, said (echo ;) ) I know when I first started paying attention to this stuff more closely, there was the nearly overwhelming realization of how much more pervasive the problem is than I had ever conceived. So the downside is that you see it everywhere. But on the bright side, you’re now seeing it. Which makes it so much easier to deal with now that it’s clear. It’s like all the road’s potholes are suddenly illuminated. It’s still tricky and annoying and depressing to try to avoid them, and there’s no guarantee you won’t hit a few, but at least the clarity of the hazards is there for you. Also, I know personally I felt good about the fact that the problem is cultural and effects everyone. When a sexist thought slips into my head, it isn’t just some innate defect of myself as a bad person. It’s something I can be aware of, actively improve/work on and encourage others to do so as well.

  7. 9

    I remember thinking (years ago) that so many of the world’s problems would be solved if we eliminated religion. But that’s a privileged view to have.

    One thing that exacerbates this problem is the excessively narrow view most people seem to take on what qualifies as “religion.” It’s not belief in god that distinguishes religion or makes it problematic; god belief in-and-of-itself is just another silly, unsupportable belief, not particularly different from belief in yetis, the tooth fairy, or Derek Jeter’s defensive prowess as a shortstop.

    What matters about religion, what makes religion something problematic, is the reliance on revealed truth and the belief that revealed truths can not be questioned. What makes religion particularly dangerous is the belief that these revealed truths are universal truths, that people who reject them are not merely people with a different opinion but people who are wrong. God belief is a symptom of what’s wrong with religion, but it’s not really a particularly interesting or meaningful aspect of religion; it’s just one of the myriad unevidenced revealed truths held by religious believers.

    Belief in revelation as a valid form of epistemology combined with belief in infallibility happens all the time outside of traditional theistic belief systems. When Sam Harris talks about that estrogen-vibe he’s talking about revealed truth, and when he doubles down he’s talking about the infallibility of that revealed truth. Why should Sam Harris’s belief not be treated as a religious belief if it suffers all the same epistemological flaws that make religious belief interesting and problematic?

    Atheists who define “religion” as having a theistic component are, wittingly or unwittingly, engaging in an effort to hide what’s problematic about religion, and thereby contribute to allowing the evils of religion to have a home in the atheistic movement. Any ascription of infallibility and any crediting of revealed truth is best viewed as religious.

    Of course, even viewed that broadly getting rid of religion is still not enough to solve the world’s problems; people still need to have a well-developed sense of empathy that goes beyond empathy for tribal insiders. But I do think that viewing “religion” more broadly really does help explain how sexism and racism can find such welcoming homes in an atheistic movement that’s focused narrowly on the rejection of god beliefs. It’s all too easy to conclude that god exists, even using the language of critical thinking, without actually being a critical thinker.

  8. 10

    Religion doesn’t cause bigotry but it is a handy excuse for it. People can legitimately be called bigots if they say something like “I think what gays do in bed is icky.” It seems less bigoted to say “Gawd thinks what gays do in bed is icky.” It’s the same homophobia but shifting the blame to someone else.

  9. 11

    Hang on here; wasn’t Dawkins the one who lovingly quoted the story of a crusty old prof that changed his mind? The guy had a pet theory he’d been clinging to for twenty years, until one day some professor visiting from the USA gave a lecture that demolished that theory. As everyone was breathless with anticipation, the other professor got up, walked to the front, and thanked the visitor. “We clapped our hands raw“, was how I think he phrased the response.

    So you’re not holding him to an impossible standard, Hunter. You’re holding him to his own standard.

  10. 12

    Psst, that part of the post was Tony’s, not Dana’s, but yes. It’s not an impossible standard but it does require an open mind to consider and weigh evidence. Instead there is a basic unwillingness to listen to various marginalised voices.

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