It’s interesting how (what I consider to be) the initial phase of New Atheism in the mid-noughts proudly considered itself somewhat radical, game-changey and fighting the establishment, only to turn around in recent years and itself become the establishment, as resistant to introspection and self-reflection and the admission of error or misjudgement as the hierarchy of any religious target they would’ve railed against, scarlet “A” banner flapping proudly in the breeze as they charged. Specific subject matter to one side, the behaviour of the self-described global thought leaders has, in the face of years of complaints of sexist behaviour and attitudes, rape threats and general misogyny, attempts at driving women bloggers into silence and many real allegations of assault and rape, been just the same as any Old Boys’ Club’s inner circle (and their concentric circles of wannabes) who are faced with inconvenient questions or impertinent highlighting of problematic behaviour or attitudes: deny, defend, deflect, denigrate, double down.
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 middle 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 finally earn that “strident” badge, just read his twitter feed when women are up for discussion. If invoking hallmarks of tyranny – e.g. when he employed “verbal jackboots” and the “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 should 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 – and apply their skepticism and secular reasoning to realising – other things like gender equality and ethnic inclusiveness. One byproduct of both this and the atheist habit for proud irreverence is that the words and attitudes of atheism’s purported leaders are now being questioned as deeply as they themselves would question those of the religious. Sadly, in many cases, those words have been found wanting, the attitudes they reveal as calcified as in any rank-closing bishop and the responses to criticism as reactionary as any wrathful believer – or insecure believer in belief.
In many of the cases of defensiveness on the part of visible atheists like Harris and 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, utterly inoffensive, well-informed 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 meaningfully 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 monetary motives (“doing it for the clicks!”), as if 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, or any comparable ability to attract revenue just by publishing a post (if anyone’s wondering, this one’s on the house, just like every other one).
The transition was relatively rapid, too: one minute everyone’s apparently (I’ll get to that) on the same page and looking in the same direction, the next – as soon as women identify problematic behaviour and request that we guys not do that then start talking about harassment policies – there’s an instant rift dug by people who for some reason viciously resent being told that some behaviour makes others uncomfortable. Then a few visible “leaders” say some thoughtless or petulant things, one blogger wonders if atheism can be about a little more than debunking myths and is vilified at length for the mere suggestion, a blogger or ‘tuber or two reveal themselves to be unapologetic misogynists, a parallel atheist community is born for the sole purpose of harassing and obsessively monitoring two blog networks and before you know it, women are being threatened with rape and death. With rape and death. And others are laughing at it. Including other women.
And now for the “apparently”: as various discussions progress it turns out that no, we weren’t all on the same page and sexist and creepy behaviour didn’t just spring into existence ex nihilo in a lift early one morning; it’s been a problem nobody (especially insulated white chaps like me) really had any idea about for years – except those directly involved and in some cases, disappointingly, at the executive level of some atheist/skeptic organisations, where active decisions were made to do nothing to support employees who’d been victimised or harassed. It also turned out that there had been for years (like there is in other conference circuits) a grapevine, a back-channel utilised by women attendees and speakers to stay informed about infamous creeps and sexual predators.
And with every revelation and accusation, the rift got wider and deeper, the apologetics got louder and more (dare I say) strident, the responses got more toxic and hateful and the leadership seemingly became focused on prioritising the preservation of their positions at the cost of making what movement there was more welcoming to people who didn’t resemble them physically. Not only that, but the misogynist ragers, the hateful stalkers, the doc-droppers and the entrenched old boys then had the unmitigated gall to accuse those advocating for a more welcoming and diverse community of being “divisive”. As if, somehow, women and feminists pointing out sexist attitudes and harassment so as to raise awareness and start a discussion about solutions was something unexpected, a gross heresy, an unforgiveable sin, all part of a plot to – well, God only knows what. It has never been adequately explained how atheism as a cause might be irreparably harmed by making better and more meaningful efforts to welcome the other half of the population to atheism.
And now that many women, feminists, non-male people and now many non-white people are throwing up their hands and saying “fuck it, you want your “movement” to be pure, to be free of questions that make you uncomfortable, fine – you can have it,” I fully expect the apologists and the old boys themselves to further blame us (feminists, women, non-males, non-whites, inclusivists in general, those social justice warriors everyone seems so concerned about) for being even more divisive.
Finally, I find it highly ironic that the leadership/s that brought us the scarlet letter “A” logo, a repurposing or “taking back” of the old tactic of publicly humiliating women who dared step out of the social boundaries prescribed by the men who essentially owned them, would be so solidly behind enabling and defending a sexist status quo, and in some cases being openly hostile to all women who challenge them, whether they’re accusing accuse “leaders” of assault or inappropriate sexual behaviour or of simply saying things that are mildly (but no less thoughtlessly) sexist. In light of the last three years of harassment, obsessive monitoring, threats, both mild casual sexism and unapologetic misogyny, all with nary a disapproving look from the leaders over the tops of their spectacles, followed by wagon-circling and dismissive responses to allegations of assault and rape (some going back years), that scarlet letter is more appropriate than ever.
Simply, the message in “movement” atheism at this moment appears to be: Speak, woman, and be vilified.