Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and the New Atheism’s Gender Problem

New Atheists
Worst game of “Spot the Difference” ever.

I’d like to start this piece by disclosing something: I’m an atheist. Ever since I was a child, I knew I never believed in God, though not for lack of trying. I did try, and I did pray, but at the same time I felt nothing. I grew up with that feeling, not knowing what it was. It was only when I was in my late teens that I began identifying as an atheist, and, at about the same time, a book called The God Delusion hit the shelves.

Written by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, it was popular among atheists and was vilified by the Christian Right — spawning knock-off apologetics books like Alister McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion? and David Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion. The book, though overly confrontational in places, was, in my opinion, necessary for me to come to terms with my own atheism. And the same could be said of books like Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, and the late Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Of course, while I found myself nodding in agreement with their theological perspectives, I would often hang my head in shame when these “New Atheists” tried to tackle other subjects, such as international politics, feminism, or bioethics. Sam Harris is an unapologetic supporter of torture and racial profiling. Christopher Hitchens, once an unabashed Trotskyite, turned coat following the grisly 9/11 attacks and promptly surrounded himself with neoconservatives and chicken hawks such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle.

He championed imperialist aggression in Iraq under the guise of liberation, veering dangerously close to “White Man’s Burden” territory.* He also authored a rather disgraceful and sexist article entitled “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” This is, quite simply, a load of horse manure for many comedy lovers, myself included.

Richard Dawkins, for his part, opened the floodgates of controversy in 2011. That year, Rebecca Watson — the founder of the Skepchick website — mentioned in a video blog that she had been approached by a man in an elevator during a recent conference who invited her to his hotel room for coffee. Watson had declined his invitation and stated in the video that this interaction had made her uncomfortable. In a sane world, this would have been the end of the discussion and everyone would have gone their separate ways. Instead, Watson found the following comment by Dawkins on her website:

Dear Muslima,
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and…yawn…don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with. Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so…And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.

If Professor Dawkins prides himself in being rational, then I certainly would have expected better of him than this. This is a very privileged response coming from a stodgy, white male. In addition, he commits an age-old fallacy of relative privation. In other words, Dawkins appealed to worse problems to distract from the point at hand.

Anyone can do this for any type of problem, of course, even concerning topics more near and dear to Dawkins’ heart. For example, I could just as easily tell Richard Dawkins to calm down over the treatment of atheists in America and Great Britain — which he equates to the treatment of homosexuals in the 1950s and 1960s, in that it was a form of deep cultural stigma. After all, in Pakistan you can be executed for apostasy for being an atheist. The same is true for Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Mauritania, and the Maldives. So it therefore doesn’t matter that Britain has a state church, or the United States makes students pledge allegiance to “One nation, under God,” or that most voters would never stomach an atheist candidate. Better that outcome than a noose around your neck, no?

If that weren’t enough — well, that or his petulant response to hearing that Rebecca Watson would be attending another conference alongside him — he took to Twitter this year and mouthed off about rape. As Dawkins so eloquently phrased it, “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.” Richard Dawkins, who has never been the victim of rape, either by knifepoint or date rape drug, believes he is in a position to tell rape victims which method of rape is more detrimental. Unfortunately for him, this is not the case. He does not know what that trauma is like, and is in no position to judge. He has no business telling a date rape victim, “Yes, that was bad, but really it could’ve been worse, right?”

Neuroscientist Sam Harris, who recently authored the book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, was asked in an interview why there was such a visible absence of women in the atheist/skeptic community. He first responded jokingly by saying it was due to his “overwhelming lack of sex appeal.” However, he then followed suit by stating that there is “something about that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women” and that the “atheist variable just has this – it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.” Yikes. This should attract about as many women as a tacky, sexist t-shirt.

Yet the most egregious example of New Atheist misogyny does not lie with Hitchens, Dawkins, or even Harris. Rather, it seems to be a professional YouTube star named T. J. Kincaid or, to his fans, “The Amazing Atheist.” Kincaid is blunt about his opposition to “Feminazis,” and describes the history of the feminist movement in a style reminiscent of sitcom character Archie Bunker:

A lot of women got together and they decided they didn’t want to make sandwiches for their men anymore, and they said, “We’re fed up and we’re not gonna take it.” And they took to the streets with their little signs, and the men said, “Alright, you don’t have to make our sandwiches anymore. We’ll just open up a bunch of fast food restaurants all across the country, and get other minorities to make our sandwiches for us.” And the women said, “Alright, that’s fine.” And that’s what we did. And everyone was happy with that solution except for the feminists. Most women don’t call themselves feminists but a lot still do, even though the goals of feminism have already been accomplished.

He also made his views of women — especially victims of sexual assault — abundantly clear during an online meltdown during a discussion on Reddit about a so-called “feminist morality brigade.” The discussion became increasingly volatile, spiraling out of control as Kincaid replied to one commenter by saying “I’m going to rape you with my fist” and “I will make you a rape victim if you don’t fuck off.” He then began berating another commenter who identified herself as both a feminist and rape survivor, and unleashed this repugnant tirade:

I’m tired of being treated like shit by you mean little cunts and then you using your rape as an excuse. Fuck you. I think we should give the guy who raped you a medal. I hope you fucking drown in rape semen, you ugly, mean-spirited cow. Actually, I don’t believe you were ever raped! What man would be tasteless enough to stick his dick into a human cesspool like you? Nice gif of a turd going into my mouth. Is that kind of like the way that rapists dick went in your pussy? Or did he use your asshole? Or was it both? Maybe you should think about it really hard for the next few hours. Relive it as much as possible. You know? Try to recall: was it my pussy or my ass?

He capped this off by telling her to admit she “got a little wet” when he told her to “drown in rape semen.” No matter how antagonized Kincaid may have been, these types of responses are callous and inexcusable at best. For someone who claims he is “neither a feminist nor a sexist,” he seems oddly comfortable in hurling gendered slurs and reveling in the details of sexualized violence against a female detractor.

There are many lessons to be learned from outbursts like these — for example, that we in the atheist community are not, by virtue of our atheism, the most rational and logical beings, or that one can reject religion and nonetheless regurgitate bigoted dogma — but here I’m focusing on the fact that misogyny, male privilege, and rape culture permeate society at all levels.

Certainly the Abrahamic religions have plenty to answer for in their treatment of women over the centuries, and there is no denying this. However, even those who eschew religion are not impervious to our culture’s constant degradation of women, and the words of these New Atheists are a small reflection of this. So before you laugh at the backwardness and crude sexism of Pat Robertson or Mark Driscoll, try to reflect on your own privilege and how you treat women.

And, if there is anything else my lifetime of atheism and skepticism has taught me, it is this: We should not simply be content to question the existence of God or the authority of religious figureheads; we should question anyone who speaks their opinions authoritatively. That includes secular windbags, too.

*For the record, I do not actually believe Hitch was a racist. He is also, in spite of his clear flaws, one of my longtime favorite authors.