Shortly before I read The God Delusion in 2006 I watched a (now very famous) video of a then little-known (outside of evo-bio circles) author Richard Dawkins giving a speech at Randolph Macon Womens College. It was this appearance that piqued my interest and resulted in me reading the book & realising I’d been atheist for years and not known it; it also led me to the (at the time) wonderful, positive and refreshing world of online godlessness.
After the speech and some TGD excerpts, Dawkins took questions from the students. One of my favourite exchanges was his curt reply to (or regarding) a Liberty University student who was being taught that the university’s dinosaur fossils were only 3000 years old. Dawkins replied (I paraphrase), “Leave right away and go to a <i>real</i> university.”
Another exchange, possibly the most famous, was his reply to the audience question “What if you’re wrong [about God?]“:
“”What if I’m wrong?” What if you’re wrong about the great Juju at the bottom of the sea?”
Of course we 2014 atheists, post-Elevatorgate and the torrent of misogyny that’s driven more than one outspoken female blogger offline, might look back on both of these moments and see them as quaint from our current perspective; our reactions as hopelessly naive in the hopefulness, but in late 2006 I’m positive they stirred many conversations that mightn’t have otherwise happened (they certainly did for me; I was a decade past any form of religion at that point but still had some pseudospiritual vestiges wastefully lurking about in my head). That speech was a critical point for a great many people, spurring them to read TGD and other atheist books, to reevaluate their beliefs and to ask questions they’d not asked before – to seek answers they mightn’t have even known were possible to find. Perspectives were changed, as was the social landscape of the internet, not to mention many “real” communities: homes, towns, perhaps countries.
Dawkins appears to require his own RMWC moments regarding feminism and the problems the movement he helped create has with how it treats women.
First, he needs to talk to educated people about what comprises “real” feminism and stop assaulting this invented (or at least overblown) “radical” kind other people (chiefly anti-feminists, oddly enough – hardly unbiased sources) appear to be telling him is dominated by shrieking anti-sex harpies (I say “other people are telling him” because he certainly doesn’t seem to be applying his own intellect or investigative skills to the issue). Dawkins is well-acquainted with hysterical accusations of militancy and stridency just for having the audacity to be publicly critical of religion and its effects; he should try to empathise with feminists who receive precisely the same type of mistreatment from his ostensible brothers and sisters in atheist advocacy.
Second, Dawkins needs to ask himself “What if I’m wrong?”. What if he’s wrong about feminism, about rape culture, about the at-least very creepy behaviour of skeptic luminary Michael Shermer, about poster-child for misogynist fear and loathing, Rebecca Watson (her “page-o-hate” hasn’t been updated since May ’13 but rest assured the loathing hasn’t stopped; just check her twitter mentions) and about pretty much everything he’s tweeted about regarding feminism since “Dear Muslima” (which he did apologise for)? And he needs to ask properly, the same way he would if he was investigating some scientific phenomenon he didn’t understand – because it’s very likely he does not understand either feminism or the nature of the complaints against atheist/skeptic culture’s obvious woman problem right now.
Dawkins is already on public record with Ophelia Benson decrying threatening and abusive language and behaviour between atheists and secularists. This is of course a good (and long overdue) thing, but it’s not only a no-brainer to oppose that kind of incandescent hatred, it’s addressing the very pointiest and most extreme example of the sexist and misogynist treatment that feminist atheists and skeptics experience every day, online and in person, in many forms and at varying intensities. Dawkins should converse further with Ophelia and other atheist feminists about the real nature of the sexism problem within organised skepticism (not to mention the further problem of delayed, insufficient, flippant, insulting, rank-closing organisational and leadership responses to it). He knows that the problems caused by religion aren’t limited to the damage done by suicide bombers and murderers of abortion doctors; he should thus be able to realise that the problems of sexism and misogyny in atheism aren’t limited to those who issue graphic threats of rape and violence online.
TL;DR: I implore Richard Dawkins to employ his famously sharp intellect to interrogate his own understanding of feminism. Atheism globally has embraced the LGBT community and has in many places found with it common cause and common experience regarding stigma, religious opposition, marginalisation and ostracism by family and community follwing a “coming out”; it’s frankly baffling that it appears to be refusing to do so with women. As one who helped to create and inspire the global atheist community, Dawkins owes it to that community and to himself to honestly examine his prejudices and misunderstandings regarding what appears to be one of global atheism’s last and biggest hurdles.