Joint statement by Ophelia Benson and Richard Dawkins on threats, bullying, bigotry, and harassment

Joint statement by Ophelia Benson and Richard Dawkins:

It’s not news that allies can’t always agree on everything. People who rely on reason rather than dogma to think about the world are bound to disagree about some things.

Disagreement is inevitable, but bullying and harassment are not. If we want secularism and atheism to gain respect, we have to be able to disagree with each other without trying to destroy each other.

In other words we have to be able to manage disagreement ethically, like reasonable adults, as opposed to brawling like enraged children who need a nap. It should go without saying, but this means no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, haircut; no photoshopping people into demeaning images, no vulgar epithets.

Richard adds: I’m told that some people think I tacitly endorse such things even if I don’t indulge in them. Needless to say, I’m horrified by that suggestion. Any person who tries to intimidate members of our community with threats or harassment is in no way my ally and is only weakening the atheist movement by silencing its voices and driving away support.

I am pleased, and cautiously optimistic. This doesn’t erase years of sexist and racist behavior from Dawkins, of course. And it makes me sad that “no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, haircut; no photoshopping people into demeaning images, no vulgar epithets” should be such a controversial issue that a prominent leader has to speak out against it. (Also, I’m not so sure about the “vulgar epithets” part — I reserve the right to call people assholes if I think they’re being assholes.) But I am nevertheless pleased, and cautiously optimistic. I doubt that this will get the worst of the harassers to change their behavior — but I hope that it will get the people saying “There’s wrong on both sides” and “Why do we have to be divisive?” and “I don’t agree with everything they say, but…” to stop and think about what they’re really saying, and to knock it off. And I hope this will get Dawkins himself to speak more carefully about these issues, and to be more careful about whose work he praises and promotes.


  1. Al Dente says

    Dawkins is denouncing outright threats and bullying. Hopefully he’ll turn his attention to the more subtle sexism and misogyny going around.

  2. says

    Dawkins seems befuddled as to why people think he tacitly endorses it. To be blunt, I don’t buy that the befuddlement is genuine; consequently, I don’t get the sense that he’s putting the full weight of whatever authority he has behind the anti-harassment message.

  3. Seven of Mine, formerly piegasm says

    Hershele @ 2

    On the one hand, starts out a little on the side of incredulity that anyone could think that. On the other hand, the next sentence is unambiguous and pretty strongly worded. I’m happy to take this as a solid first step in the right direction.

  4. EigenSprocketUK says

    Seems a shame that the first commenters out of the block over on Dawkins’ site are ones trying the “but she was nasty to us, too” line. But very impressive to see a firm and clear line drawn in the joint statement. And the “I’m horrified” bit and “any person who tries to intimidate … is in no way my ally …” leaves a wonderfully hopeful feeling. I hope this is a pivotal moment.

  5. kompani says

    I think Dawkins is largely right, many of an internet argument is lost due to crass, abusive and inappropriate language. My personal atheism does not rely upon a ‘leader’ or hierarchical structure of any sort, I leave that to religion and party politics. I attempt to listen to all sides of opinion and try and argue, with civility, my atheist corner. Language must always be used with great care and tailored to the audience it is aimed towards. Lastly, Dawkins can be incredibly hurtful and bullying at times so I do hope he takes a leaf out of his own statement. Atheism does not need to stoop to the lowest denominator to win anything.

  6. Alex says


    I think Dawkins is largely right, many of an internet argument is lost due to crass, abusive and inappropriate language.

    Having witnessed that elevatorgate kerfuffle first hand as a lurker (mostly), this irks me a little bit. Back then, RW said this innocuous thing, and soon after, a huge shitstorm ensued with people pouring out hate against her. In this situation, amidst several 1000+ comments threads, Dawkins rides in on his high horse and proclaims that Rebecca is basically making too much of a fuss. The rest is history. In other words, to me it seems in the past he has made the mistake of telling victims to calm down while they were under fire from harassers while being completely oblivious of the context. So, I’d be even happier about civility pleas from his side if I knew that he has some awareness of this problem.

  7. Infophile says

    I get the impression from some of Ophelia’s comments that “vulgar epithets” is meant to refer specifically to slurs. Of course, I wish it would have simply said that, but perhaps there was some discussion going on behind the scenes which led to this word choice.

  8. Alex says


    I’m not a native speaker so I’m not 100% sure, but wouldn’t personalized stuff like “Twatson” be better captured by epithet than by slur?

  9. says

    I dunno, my own reaction is more along the lines of “too little, too late”. Had Dawkins spoken up against the hatefest back when Elevatorgate had first happened, rather than pulling out “Dear Muslima”, it might have made a difference, might possibly have prevented the Slymepit from forming and the hateful assholes from gaining so much traction in the atheist community.

    But now? It’s too late to do any good, I fear.

  10. ceesays says

    let’s get to the part where he actually backs up those pretty words with action. Until then, he’s still the same. anybody can make a speech. I want to see him actually walk the walk that goes with that talk, consistently. I want to see him learn a thing or to and actually live it.

    I will wait here.
    with this tea.

  11. No Way says

    I ask this as a relatively disinterested party. I don’t understand this comment., “years of sexist and racist behavior from Dawkins.” If I am wrong about Professor Dawkin’s character forgiven me, but I cannot imagine him engaged in racist or sexist behavior. I clicked over here from Richard Carrier’s blog where I was checking for updates on his Historicity of Jesus book. I have no dog in this fight, but this strikes me as extreme. Again, forgive me if I am incorrect about Richard Dawkins.

  12. Great American Satan says

    It depends on whether your definitions of sexism and racism are the kind that white dude’s use to feel good about themselves or the ones the oppressed use to explain the realities of their position. Favoring the latter uses of the words, we are correct about him. If you favor the former, we’re all hysterical social justice warriors getting worked up over a seemingly endless series of nothings.

  13. jakup3 says

    How exactly has Dawkins been sexist and racist? What exactly are you talking about? Unless you provide evidence to back up those claims, it’s just gossip. I’m sorry but you sound like a shit-talker. Why do you feel the need to accuse people?

  14. Greta Christina says

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