Before I found my place as a feminist, I sought out community from those identifying as atheists and skeptics. Though I no longer feel comfortable associating myself with those labels, despite still being firmly non-religious, I felt welcomed for a while. The militant atheists (and I use that word with no intended connotation either way) I exposed myself to were usually far from the feminist ideal, but because they led me to believe that misogyny was at the root of every religion, I felt like an imaginary atheist-run secular society would be like a haven. By comparing themselves to the religious people who own women as property or marry them off to the highest bidder when they turn 12, I’m sure these atheist men felt like their non-religious ideology would solve sexism without any added effort. Richard Dawkins, a prominent atheist and famous evolutionary biologist, perfectly encapsulated the absurd mentality of “well, as long as you aren’t being mutilated, you have no reason to complain about sexism” when he made the following mocking satirical comment on the blog of a skeptic woman, Rebecca Watson, because she mentioned being come on to in an uncomfortable situation:
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.
Whether or not Richard himself is guilty of this I cannot say, but another alarming trend I’ve noticed among skeptic/militant atheist bloggers is that they only care about sexism when they can use it to justify their Islamophobia and/or racism, as seen in this graphic on atheistzico’s tumblr [trigger warning for ignorant bigotry].
These men use the image of an oppressed Muslim woman to conjure hate for Islam, not to motivate an elimination of sexism. As a matter of fact, they often do things to perpetuate smaller-scale sexism. When women are suffering from sexism and misogyny that they don’t think is ‘bad enough’ (read: female genital mutilation and complete lack of autonomy) many atheist men are quick to silence them and to tell them that they don’t understand “real” sexism. Which, incidentally, is exactly what Richard Dawkins did when the Internet exploded in his face, along with a healthy dose of “I know exactly what it feels like” and “words are just words.”
The skeptic movement is a big fan of logic. And rightly so; it’s pretty handy. You take a selection of facts that are known to be true and you use a set of provable techniques to construct other valid statements. But the way that many non-feminist atheists employ logic to discuss feminism is often faulty and nonsensical. I once had an atheist dude tell me I was “moving the goal post” when I said I wasn’t interested in what men thought women should do to heal from sexual assault. And even though it makes no sense, there seems to be the idea that throwing the name of any old logical fallacy at someone is the ultimate trump card in an argument. Another issue is that things like sexism, racism and the like can only be truly understood by those who experience it every day. Simply put, we have access to much more information on the topic just by living our lives as women or as people of color or both.
If they choose to, men can learn many of things that are needed to deeply understand feminism, but by default, they’re missing a lot of information. What good is novice-logic when you only have access to a small fraction of the information needed to create a sound logical statement? As an example, let’s take a look at Daniel Tosh’s logic concerning the seriousness of rape jokes.
This is how some men saw it:
- Anything can be funny!
- We all have to be able to laugh at ourselves
- It’s just a joke, I would never actually rape someone
- Humor shouldn’t be censored
- Words can’t hurt
Ergo, rape jokes are OK.
And this is how a feminist woman sees it:
- Rape is incredibly common
- Rape jokes trigger painful flashbacks for survivors
- Humor shouldn’t inflict pain
- They normalize the crime and make victims less likely to report it and rapists more likely to commit it
Ergo, rape jokes are not OK.
Neither breaks any serious logical rules, but it’s obvious that Daniel Tosh’s understanding of the issue is seriously limited. His logical progression is sound, but because he uses incomplete and false premises, his statement isn’t truthful. He might as well be saying, “Because humans can breathe underwater, there is no need for me to use a submarine to explore the Titanic.” There aren’t very many issues like sexism and racism, where one group of people has a distinct advantage (if we can call it that) at understanding the issue, so most straight white men who don’t experience oppression expect sexism and racism to conform to their understanding of the topic. But their understanding is often wrong. Atheist dudes love logic, and that’s great, just as long as they don’t forget that they need to learn about an issue before they try to start arguments over it.
One of the largest sources of hostility toward women in the skeptic community is the vitriol received by any female atheist who is in the public eye to any degree (let’s not forget how difficult that alone is to achieve for women in this community), be that because they have a blog, a YouTube channel, or have written a topical book. This is what happens when women rise in the atheist community [trigger warning for literally everything]. I don’t know why women who become famous for their atheism are treated so much worse by fellow atheists than women who become famous through art or organic chemistry or athletics.
When men become famous in the atheist community, they do not always create a sexism-free environment. TheAmazingAtheist titles a rant video about laziness and stupidity “Everyone’s a Teenage Girl Now.” Famous author Christopher Hitchens is asked why women can’t earn money for a household and responds, “I won’t have any woman of mine going to work.” And of course, it wouldn’t be an atheism video without the 90% of commenters seeing no issue with his statement.
Sam Harris, another famous author, felt it was necessary to include the line, “There’s nothing more natural than rape” in his explanation of why religion is a greater evil than rape. Though there are feminist-friendly male atheists like PZ Myers, the only ones who have any chance of name recognition all hold horrifying beliefs about women’s issues. In what way can women feel safe and welcomed in this environment? Even the men who aren’t as unapologetically sexist almost certainly greatly respect these prominent figures.
When I look at religion, I am not blind to the way misguided religious teachings restrict the freedom of many women in Saudi Arabia. I see the mutilated genitals and the people at risk of contracting HIV being told to not use condoms. But is the skeptic community the panacea to society’s ills? Far from it. If the skeptic community wants me back, they can start by making their space welcoming and safe for women who just happen to like science and aren’t religious. Until then, I’ll put more distance between myself and them than I do myself and the various friendly churches, mosques and synagogues.
Written by Sara Wofford