From the mailbox – “Sexism in atheism”

Posted by on July 9, 2011 in From The Mailbox, Thoughts | 20 comments

I recently received this request in my mailbox, and it’s particularly poignant given the furor within the atheist community over the past week or so regarding misogyny and sexism. The request was from my FaceBook friend Teresa Folds and reads:

I would be interested to see a man address the sexism within the Atheist community. That is something that I don’t see many Atheist men do. Just a suggestion. =)

Well, I thought I’d rather not venture into this territory since I haven’t been up to date with the whole Rebbecca Watson/Richard Dawkins/PZMyers/a-bunch-of-others conversation, but this request did bring up a few ideas I had that I’d like to explore. I won’t go into the whole debacle, but if you want to, check it out here at Pharyngula (comment #75 was purportedly by Richard Dawkins, and the shit-fight begins there).

On the topic of sexism in the atheist community, yes it exists, and yes it’s bad. That’s the simple short answer. But this is just a single example within a single community that points at problems on a much larger scale, on a worldwide-societal level.

Sexism rears its head in many ways, from the Western obsession with big-breasted women and the objectification of women, to the rights of women in Afghanistan, and at its roots it has one thing in common: control. Men like to feel in control of things, from money to possessions to business to sex. Men have historically seen women as objects, or as home-bound possessions, and have seen the women that they don’t already have control over as possible conquests to add to the notches on their bedpost. Of course this is not acceptable, but we still experience the hangover from the times when this was the norm, and the hangover cure is going to be a long and drawn-out procedure.

Every day women are subjected to acts of misogynistic thinking, from feeling the need to wear make-up to look pretty, to the average wage of women being lower than that of men. Men run all the top countries and the legal profession, men control the armed forces and the police, men run the majority of politics worldwide.

I’d venture to say this “women as possessions” attitude is a throwback from the territorial pissings of our ancestral heritage, and this is precisely why this problem won’t be fixed easily. But times have changed, and we, as men, need to be aware that our territorial obsession with women, and our perceived need to conquest is no longer acceptable in this day and age (if it ever really was).

As to the Dawkins comment, well, I can see where he’s coming from. However I think his comment was ill-timed, and the barrels of his anger are aimed at the wrong people. The fact that women have it much harder in Afghanistan does not excuse the “elevator guy” from his unwanted advances, and the implications of the act given the context of the situation are in very poor judgement. But Dawkins seems to be looking at the “bigger picture” on a world scale and forgetting the world we live in as Westerners which has its own problems to deal with. (I’ll admit, the scale of the wrongdoings in Western cultures is small compared to the scale of the atrocities metered out on women in Afghanistan, but it doesn’t make them any less real or important to those experiencing them.)

Back to the question at hand: Sexism in Atheism.

The atheist community is as much a part of society as a whole as is any other, so it seems to only make sense that there would be equal amounts of sexism within atheism as there is within education, politics, or the local badminton club. What strikes me as odd, and what I think the request is pointing toward, is the fact that atheism seems to project itself as a triumph of humankind over the antiquated beliefs and practices of the past, namely religion, superstition and societal ills. However in my experience I’d say that the atheistic movement is no different from society at large with regards to the attitudes toward women. Just because we rally under the banner of reason does not translate to everyone being reasonable.

I’m not sure of what else to say except that I hope that the Dawkins/Watson/Myers/whoever incident actually gets people to question on a daily basis what they are doing to uphold the stereotypes, or destroy them. I think that, as champions of reason and rationality, it would be nice for us to step forward as a movement of sexual equality as well as social equality, unfettered by societal shackles of the past and the accepted norms of religious inspired inequity.

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20 Comments

  1. Well said.

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  2. Thank you so much mentioning that women’s experience in this life is through the lens of men. A culture that upholds all that is male, history, rules, laws and of course religion all told by men about men in the honor of all that is male. This is the context of our lives. Nothing in our world is female affirming and so we go through life with the back drop of all that is male and if we speak about it or against it then we, us women, are called man haters. Funny thing really and just a knee jerk reaction to any woman who dare speaks up and when one can not actually think of something compassionate or intelligent to say.

    I guess I will continue to wait and see if most men can find that humanist quality of compassion and pass it on to those that have been hurt the most by patriarchy, but until then I will resign myself as being a man hater, bitch, whore, cunt & Atheist.

    Thanks Marty, I asked and you delivered. =)

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  3. I guess since I don’t go to these conferences and meet-ups, I don’t see the boorish behavior that some Skeptical ladies are talking about. But, neither do I see how the strange incident in the elevator is indicative of what they might be experiencing at these gatherings, let alone society as a whole. And while that point has been made, many drown it out by accusing those who’ve made with defending some creep in an elevator. Perhaps I don’t “get it”, but after watching Hemant Mehta get flame broiled for posting a rather middle of the road opinion on the matter, I don’t know if I care to even try. The choice seems to be either agree with Watson and company or be branded anti-women or clueless. I can stomach the latter.

    While I can see arguments from both sides having valid points, the nature of the discussion has devolved into an us versus them, black and white dichotomy of emotional outrage. All this talk about white, male privilege from privileged, white females leaves me sympathetic to Dawkins point, although he expressed it in a surprisingly terrible and callous manner. Perhaps he is clueless and I am, too. Phil Plait wrote about “potential assault” and the chorus of “context” didn’t make me feel any better about the implications of that charge. Nor did it explain how that related to anything in the Skeptical community beyond this single incident. One man’s odd behavior of asking for coffee at 4am while confined in an elevator should not be used to indict all men, as was implied by Watson’s admonishment to males to “don’t do that”. If anything, use the examples that are common place and at the heart of the matter to admonish the men in the community.

    I don’t know what might get more women involved in the Skeptical/atheist movement, but I suspect that simply eliminating all sexism and creepy men in elevators will not do the trick alone. Most meetings revolve around lectures and pubs. I rarely, if ever, see events that are geared towards young families, something that might bring in more women with their kids and fathers/husbands who aren’t looking to hook up.

    That I don’t agree with Myers, Watson, Plait, and others is surprising since I have never found myself so starkly alienated from the Skeptical community as a whole. But it is not that I disagree with all their points or deny that sexism exists. It is certainly not because I am anti-women. And it is not because I agree with Dawkins one hundred percent nor do I now support the assholes who send threatening messages to Watson and other Skeptical ladies who are voicing their opinions.

    I have noticed the exasperation regarding sexism steadily rising for awhile now and it seems the encounter in the lift was the spark in the powderkeg. I do agree with Marty that if it forces a candid and constructive discussion over the matter, then perhaps all the turmoil will be well invested. However, I have not seen the constructive portion of that discussion begin to form for most. It looks to have become a war of attrition and everyone has to choose sides or stay quiet.

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  4. Cooperation, education, arbitration. These are things that will help change the tide. Name calling, whether it be from the feminists or the sexist pigs (note: I’m not adding gender to those labels as they both encompass all genders) is less than helpful. Rather it is a negative attitude that just adds fuel to the fire of hate. I have dealt with sexist pigs of all persuasions and I don’t like them. I have dealt with feminists of all persuasions and I don’t like them either. I have seen change in my lifetime and it has been for the betterment of all genders. It has been slow, but if you’ve been around as long or longer than I have, you’ll have noticed it too. What I have written about before and will continue to say is that as long as people use this issue to fight over, the fight will continue. If you push them, they will push back and nobody gets anywhere. That applies to all sides.

    Don’t fight, cooperate. Don’t abuse, educate.

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  5. Author, why dance around the issue? This lady is asking for help and wants action that will lead to change. Bringing the rest of the world into it is a cop-out. Have some spine and stand take a stance. Rock the establishment. Call Dawkins a pinhead for that’s what he is. An Atheist pinhead. I have no problem saying it, why should you?

    A woman can press the button in an elevator. What an insensitive prick Dawkins is. A sexist pig. I am offended and I have a penis. But apparantly you lack balls.

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    • The sexist pig in all of this is Watson. She has the audacity to imply that the elevator situation she described is some kind of potential sexual assault scenario? That’s not only insane, it’s misandry.
      A million white knights like you don’t make her any more credible.

      As for Dawkins, he treated her properly. She stamped her feet like a child, so he admonished her like one.

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      • Duane, Duane, Duane,

        Thank you for being the kind of misogynistic moron that demonstrates exactly why Rebecca’s position is defensible. What would women do without big strong men like you to tell them exactly how to feel in every situation? You must have to wear enormous hats to fit that Ego.

        And I DARE you quote Rebecca’s EXACT words where she “described [the situation] is some kind of potential sexual assault scenario”. It is exactly this kind of ignorant, strawman, diatribe that I referred to.

        And when you fail to find those words, please ask yourself why you felt the need to lie about her position in order for you to feel superior.

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  6. Marty & I spent some time yesterday reading this (http://evebitfirst.wordpress.com/2011/05/18/a-man-is-a-rape-supporter-if/ ) as part of exploring the issues behind the brouhaha over at Pharyngula & especially the implications of Dawkin’s comments.

    It’s confronting.

    In short, it’s a primer on the extent to which ‘rape apology’ is broadly ‘supported’ in all societies, written from the stand point of third wave feminism. It speaks of ‘rape support’ where support doesn’t mean condone, but may imply it & the actions & modes of conversation which constitute such. It is so broad brush that it includes in the end everyone. But it does so deliberately, because actually violence against women is supported by all of us by our very participation in the patriachal heirachy that constitutes society & which we all call ‘normal’ or ‘the way it is’. It’s quite subtle really & it’s something I am really only just distilling myself, but as a woman it has the feeling of truth to it when compared to my lived experience on this planet.

    The best prism I can hold up for atheists, through which to view this thesis, is the way in which moderate religion supports & acts an an apologist for fundamentalist religion. So long as it persists & is tollerated, so too will extremism. In very much the same way, so long as we refuse to acknowledge the depth and breadth violent ‘acts’ against women (& children I would add), then we are supporting (if not overtly condoning) rape culture.

    Now, with respect to Dawkins comments. Sadly I have been bitterly disappointed by his interactions at the ‘coal-face’ before & this time is simply no exception. I don’t even find it surprising. He lacks a degree of empathy with all but the most obvious of outrages that I find stunning & whilst I admire & greatly respect his contributions to popularising the field of evolutionary biology, in this instance he is not even fucking wrong.

    In closing, a request. Please read the blog I have linked to carefully. She is extremely specific in her framing. Also read ALL of the comments because much is explained there that at first blush won’t be evident to many. Tread carefully & don’t get tricked by your gut reaction to it! Hopefully we can have an interesting & level headed discussion about it here, by way of distilling the Watson brouhaha, with Marty’s indulgence.

    Cheers
    Marnie

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  7. You know, my education in sexism has come fairly recently. It’s quite frightening when your perceptions of the world are drastically rocked by things you didn’t know were there or just CHOSE to know acknowledge were there and are just hit full force with them square in the face over the course of a year.

    I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned this earlier, Marty, or maybe they have, but this has everything to do with our evolution as a species like you briefly hinted. Our closest cousin is the chimpanzee. Second closest is the bonobo. Chimpanzees are patriarchal, territorial, and savage assholes… just like us! Bonobos are matriarchal, solve all their problems with sex, and chill out… NOTHING like us! A lot of the time I find myself in wishful thinking that we were closer linked to bonobos rather than chimps.

    Finally, it’s not spineless to take a measured approach and see where all sides are coming from in an argument before weighing your judgment. It is reactionary infantilism to spring forward with a slew of ad hominem statements against not only Dawkins, but you as well, people the above poster does not know personally at any level.

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  8. small typo there, should read “CHOSE to *not* acknowledge.” Cheers!

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  9. Sexism is an attitude. Playing the evolution card is avoiding taking responsibility. If someone put a gun to Dawkin’s head he’d change his tune about women real fast and whistle it continuously.

    Your ‘measured’ approach and evolutionary excuses have more to do with fear of consequence from within your community for dealing with an issue that that is manifest high up the pecking order. This is a deliberate action or lack thereof as I’m pretty sure ‘measured response’ is not an evolutionary characteristic shared by chimps.

    So much for militant atheism.

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    • The measured approach I was referring to was Marty’s, which if you missed it, was what I was agreeing with.

      If you disagree that our closest linked cousins social structure mirrors our own, I’d invite you to get a clue. Also, calling looking into evolution for answers avoiding responsibility is ridiculous. You can’t figure out the present or plan for the future without looking at the past.

      But, by all means, continue with your territorial ad hominems.

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  10. Yes, of course it’s possible to separate people from their conditioning so as to rely on argumentum ad evolution.

    And criticising behaviours is not as hominem attack.

    Dave, you hit in on the head. Because the admission here is a colossal one it’s much easier to rationalise it
    away, than it is to sit with it for a while & test the truth value. Status quo is as status quo does.

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  11. Blake: Your comment has been deleted because it lacks substance, is abusive & contributes no value to the discussion. If you’d like to address Teresa’s points rather than her person, you are welcome to try again.

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  12. On the topic of sexism in the atheist community, yes it exists, and yes it’s bad.

    Impossible. Several people on Twitter (men and women) took the time to explain to me the facts of Atheist Community Exceptionalism, which means racism and sexism in the community do not exist. They were also kind enough to explain to me under what specific scenarios a woman is allowed to feel uncomfortable around a stranger.

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  13. Marty,

    Good post. This is an issue that evokes emotional responses all around, as many of the comments on Pharyngula demonstrate. My approach has been to try to listen to those who have the best perspective of the issue, which I believe is the women. If women say something makes them uncomfortable, then it does. If it makes even one woman uncomfortable, or threatens her, then it’s incumbent on men to pay attention and not do whatever that is. Period.

    The best part of your post is in the last paragraph. We all need “to question on a daily basis what we [they] are doing to uphold the stereotypes, or destroy them.” Great advice.

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  14. My ‘guy’ perspective:

    The problem seems to be that when people comment on this situation they failed to do two important things

    (1) go back and watch Rebecca’s original video
    (2) read the misogynistic tirade that erupted against her, thus prompting PZ’s posting

    She simply didn’t make a huge deal out of it at all – go back and watch her video and tell me exactly which words she said are even remotely offensive – much less deserving of the horrible things some people were saying.

    So what went wrong, IMHO, is that people (mostly men probably, but some women even) decided they needed to tell a woman exactly how she SHOULD feel in an elevator, at 4am in the situation described (while universally presenting a strawman version of the events) and how WRONG Rebecca’s response was (again from (1), it was extremely mild) – if you don’t understand why that could be offensive then you have failed at rationality IMHO

    The biggest strawpile seemed to be around “he wasn’t threatening, he was polite” – so f***ing what. All Rebecca alleged was a breech of etiquette and common decency against her personal and stated preference. She didn’t say he was threatening. She said it creeped her out because she had been talking about NOT doing that all day, the creep was THERE in the talks, and he willfully ignored her stated preference – in an elevator at 4am no less. There is NOTHING wrong with her feeling uncomfortable in that situation. And if you want women to feel more comfortable in such situations the way to achieve that goal is NOT by being enormous pricks about it.

    And in order to defend their behavior they pulled the “but other women have it worse” move. I wonder how many abusive husbands have told their wives, “shut up and stop whining”? Is it difficult to understand why THAT canard might have been offensive?

    I was already ashamed for our community and then Dawkins stepped in. And THEN he actually wondered out loud what’s so wrong about an elevator, aren’t they easy to get out of? [#1 utterly missing the point again, and #2 Seriously? NO, they aren’t – but this is MISSING the point and is irrelevant]

    I have a tremendous amount of respect for Dawkins and I hope he was reacting more to the dust cloud and that this is mostly a misunderstanding on his part. Although his subsequent refusal to understand that his words hurt someone else is now the bigger issue.

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  15. Well-said, Marty. I agree that the sexism in the “atheist community”, whatever we take that to mean, is a reflection of sexism in society at large, but that is in no fashion an excuse.

    My addition would be this: we, as atheists, are not credal, nor should we be insular, nor, to be sure, should we have saints or clergy. The right response to Dawkins is to evaluate his statements as if they were coming from any other person — or, indeed, as he is someone many of us respect, to hold him to an even more exacting standard. We are not intellectually honest unless we set for our heroes, and ourselves, a higher bar than we insist upon for strangers and those with whom we disagree.

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  16. well said Marty….yes i think sexism definitely exists within the atheist community as within any other.. because it’s an evolutionary trait which has been enforced and perpetrated by various religions and isn’t that what we are fighting against?.. atheists are people, we are not perfect yet we are mostly reasoned thinkers and we need to keep perpetuating and encouraging what we stand for which is a culture of equality and fairness thus moving away from our negative ancestral traits….

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