Reporting on the deep rifts

A couple of days ago I talked to Kimberly Winston of Religion News Service about the joint statement with Richard Dawkins and about his recent adventures on Twitter. Her article is now posted.

So now I can tell you that that’s what prompted yesterday’s farewell to Dear Muslima.

Dawkins declined to be interviewed, and a representative for his foundation said a statement he made on its website would be his final word on the subject.

Yet the current dust-up may have served as a wake-up call. On Wednesday (Aug. 6), presented with criticisms collected for this story, Dawkins added to an existing post on his foundation’s website.

“There should be no rivalry in victimhood,” the addendum to the post reads, “and I’m sorry I once said something similar to American women complaining of harassment, inviting them to contemplate the suffering of Muslim women by comparison. But maybe you get the point? If we wish to insist … that all examples of a sexual crime are exactly equally bad, perhaps we need to look more carefully at exactly who is belittling what.”

Now to begin at the beginning.

It may go down as one of the shortest-lived peace accords on record.

Late last month, two heavy-hitters within organized atheism, activist Ophelia Benson and scientist Richard Dawkins, reached a detente of sorts about online debate and posted it on their separate websites.

Heh heh heh. Two heavy-hitters. Like I’m on his level. Like I’m a heavy-hitter at all. Heh heh heh.

Not that I’m going to argue!

“Disagreement is inevitable, but bullying and harassment are not,” the statement reads. “ 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.”

Before the virtual ink was dry, Dawkins had stepped in it again.

“Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse,” Dawkins said on Twitter, where he has almost 1 million followers. “If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.” Another tweet applied the same logic to “mild date rape” and “violent date rape,” and still another compared “mild pedophilia” and “violent pedophilia.”

The sad thing is…this article was going to be about the statement. Just the statement. I think Richard probably would have enjoyed that article more.

On the other hand we now have farewell Dear Muslima, so maybe it’s for the best?

Atheists say controversial things online every day. But Dawkins’ position as the godfather of the modern atheist movement has revived a question that’s been percolating for at least three years: Has the famous scientist become more of a liability than an asset for the movement he helped create?

I’m genuinely torn about that question. He did blow open a lot of doors, and I do still think that was valuable. But…his Plainspeaker shtick has been a magnet for a huge throng of Plainspeaking shitheads who don’t have his talents but do have his taste for being confrontational. That can make organized atheism a massive turnoff for a lot of people.

That’s what I said to Winston, except I knew I had to leave the swears out.

So when his recent tweets about rape and pedophilia hit the Twittersphere two days after the release of the civility agreement with his longtime critic, the debate started anew.

“Perhaps he was testing it,” Benson said of the agreement, which she characterized as a positive step in repairing a rift over feminism within atheism that she traces to Dawkins’ “Dear Muslima” comment.

Benson said Dawkins attracts people to the movement with his well-reasoned arguments against religion and superstition. But he then repels them with what many see as an unwillingness to listen to ideas other than his own.

“In his two or three recent Twitter combats, the most striking thing is he does not listen to anyone except his fans, no matter how reasonably things are put,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a good way to represent long-term, healthy atheism.”

To put it another way, I don’t think “go away and learn how to think” is a helpful thing for a heavy-hitter to tell people who disagree with him on Twitter.

Even some of Dawkins’ critics say they are heartened by his recent statement over the “Dear Muslima” incident.

“I consider this a very hopeful sign that he’s gaining a better appreciation of perspectives different from his own,” [Adam] Lee said. “I’m not going to say that this one statement wipes the slate clean, but it does make me more optimistic and hopeful that his understanding will continue to evolve.”

See what Adam did there? “Evolve.” A friendly little joke.

Anyway – that’s what I think too. We’re not going to agree on everything. I very deliberately composed the statement to say at the outset that we’re not going to agree on everything. But we can disagree without being total shits about it. That will work better. We should do that.



  1. artymorty says

    “Plainspeaker shtick.” Ha! That should become a Thing.

    There are some great quotes in that article.

    Dennett’s quote disappoints me, though. (“If some radical feminists (and others) think that all rape is equally bad, do they think it is not quite as bad as murder? If so, are THEY condoning rape?”) That’s missing the point, or at least that’s not the message I got from critics of Dawkins’ latest tweet-storm. Part of the point is this: it’s not that every single rape is necessarily equal to every other in every possible way; it’s that Dawkins has no business classifying and ordering other people’s personal, painful, traumatic experiences as though they’re species to be mapped into a taxonomic hierarchy. That personal experiences can’t and shouldn’t be discussed in the same way that, say, varieties of beetles are, is a point that ought to be readily apparent to a philosopher such as Dennett.

  2. Al Dente says

    But we can disagree without being total shits about it.

    That’s what I got from the Benson-Dawkins Treaty. Unfortunately some people (I’m not including Dawkins) have so much hubris and vanity tied up in being total shits that they can’t stop.

  3. Kevin Kehres says

    I thank Richard for trying. For reaching across the chasm and making the attempt to understand the position that fighting for one human right does not in any way reduce the need to fight for another similar human right.

    I think we all can agree that murder is “bad”, but we don’t have to eliminate all murder in order to denounce and fight less-severe crimes and torts. Trying to place such things on a continuum of level of concern only drives people apart. Some people might be more capable and more comfortable tackling the problem of schoolyard bullying (which very, very rarely leads to murder); while others might wish to be more involved in fighting the root causes of murder, such as poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, and lack of empathy (and in the US at least, appallingly easy access to guns).

    It’s like saying that breast cancer is worse than prostate cancer because it kills more people each year. While trivially true, that doesn’t mean that all prostate cancer research should be halted until breast cancer is defeated. There’s enough work for everyone, according to their own talents and interests.

    The answer is “yes”, not “yes therefore no”.

  4. says

    Al @ 3 – And not just hubris and vanity – also social lives, entertainment, occupation, activism, an interest, a cause, a banner to march under. A lot of these people are basing their whole lives on being total shits about 6 or 7 bloggers they hate.

    Can you imagine? Can you imagine living with the triviality, the parasitism, the crankishness, the lack of light and air, the tinyness? Can you imagine not having your own popular blog or podcast or whatever but just a fanatical obsession with someone else’s popular blog or podcast or whatever?

  5. screechymonkey says

    John, isn’t MIchael Nugent the guy who kept insisting that Ophelia and others should sit down and have a nice chat with the people harassing them? He sure has a lot more to say when it’s Dawkins being “smeared”

  6. John Morales says


    screechymonkey @7, he had a go at practicing what he preaches some time ago and Stephanie Zvan accommodated him, but he quickly discovered what it’s like to straddle a fence.

    (A very well-meaning person, IMO, and someone whose intent I respect)

  7. johnthedrunkard says

    Mutilating infant boys in sterile hospital settings is bad. Mutilating girls with rusty razor blades is worse. Blah blah….learn how to think.

    There IS a point there. But it is that our threshold of outrage needs to be set LOWER, not higher. Propositions in elevators and attempted assassination are not THEMSELVES equivalent. But both incidents, and their subsequent reporting and commentary, demonstrate the appalling level of veiled misogyny that was passing unnoticed by the ‘community’ of online atheists.

    It is the ignoring, or anecdotal trivialization, of this ‘meta-problem’ that is so outrageous.

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