As usual I’m a little late to the debate so was surprised yesterday to see that Richard Dawkins has offended the women in his movement by comments he made to an attendee named Rebecca Watson. Watson felt awkward being propositioned on an elevator late at night and happened to say so online.
Dawkins personally attacked her for, it seems, taking the spotlight off his anti-religion crusade. I guess he’s working pretty hard for the rights of women victimised by religious fanaticism, but if he was interested in how women feel, he wouldn’t have made such a mistake. It’s as if I were to set up a charity to help children vcitims of violence overseas, and then, when my child falls over and skins their knee, I get angry at them because they’re not in the same boat as the children in Iraq being blown apart by Obama’s military. If I’m not conerned about their small upsets at home, perhaps I’m not really interested in big ones either, but just have a grudge against the weapons business, and need a way to generate mass sympathy.
Dawkins’ rant was pretty severe, belittling her for her feelings and sarcastically comparing them to horrific trauma suffered by women overseas at the hands of Obama (a man Dawkins fervently supports) and his military. Wait, or was it at the hands of religious fundamentalism? I’m not sure one life-ruining trauma has the edge over another. If you’re maimed by a soldier’s knife, is it better than being maimed by the Taleban?
Dawkins is conerned with women as victims of religious insensitivity, so it’s a shame he’s made some public gaffes at their expense: after a discussion on evolution with Christian Wendy Wright in which he belittled her opinion as irrelevant for not being a product of a scientific degree – so much for free thought – he allowed crude, insulting cartoons of her to be published on his own website, to the cheers of his congregation. His followers devoured the YouTube video of the encounter and eagerly totted up the argu-score, declaring that Wright’s vacuous comments made them want to puke, and other reasoned nuances. But they follow Dawkins, and Dawkins somehow has the idea that his reasoning is more important than another person’s self esteem.
When you start to work with colour you very quickly become sensitive to the smallest gradations of it, as the brain obligingly rewires itself to follow your interests. And if you start to concern yourself with injustice you will also begin to recognise subtle shades and varieties of it which you overlooked before, because you will have voluntarily become sensitive to its nature: how it begins innocuously, how it can be allowed to fester, and how even in milder forms it disturbs sensitive people: the very souls you try to persuade with your logic. Without developing this sensitivity which you expect others to learn and incorporate into their societies, you might fairly be considered a hypocrite.
In this recent case his words pierced open a can of worms and some intense navel gazing where some women speakers admitted warning others about unwelcome advances from certain male speakers at atheist rallies, and the predominantly male culture came in for scrutiny. Clearly it’s a male dominated group, because it’s based on winning arguments like judo matches. One female pundit tried to help by emphasising how important it was for males to find partners who thought the way they did, just as anyone would do who resists compromise. But for Darwinian atheism to survive long term, I’m sure they won’t need anyone else to point out that it needs reproduction of the species.
There were also some very measured and reasoned commentaries, in particular a brilliant post from SkepChick (Watson herself) who found the common denominator of Big Tent Atheism – lack of belief in something – less binding than a shared belief, such as the value of self-esteem perhaps. This is the kind of mind atheism should be working hard to attract, not offend.
Even the Friendly Atheist asks why so many atheist men are single. It’s a perfectly valid question; one response was that women are not interested in intellectual superiority and even find it repugnant. Another observed that women tend to stay in their religion, a comment which provoked one responder into supplying his insight:
Because it takes greater intelligence to see thru the bulls*** that religion is. So men are obviously smarter then women. I’ve never met one christian woman who ever bothered to research out any other religions to see how they might have influenced their own.
As the atheist movement grows, of course it will enounter the same problems every group aiming at mass acceptance has struggled with over the course of history. Some have called for rules to be put in place to manage the possibility of late night chat-ups. But atheism cannot deal with all these different problems by legislating against them one by one. Besides being an admission of defeat for a group of free-thinkers, it diverts a huge amount of energy, and creates a patronising aura.
A group based on the value of the individual mind will attract those able to think for themselves, but to base it on the individual’s absolute right to justify, with logic, doing whatever they want to do to others, can only result in anarchy. One responder wrote:
Dawkins was right on. The whiny little girl who complained about the man in the elevator needs to get a taste of real life. She needs to be slapped into reality. Send the snot to the Middle East and make her live the life of a Muslim woman for a year or two. Maybe that will make a real woman of the spoiled bitch.
Ladies take note: Charles (aerospace marketing, California based; GSOH, NS, MM) would make a fine husband for a woman seeking an intellectually enlightened partner.
While disagreeing with Dawkins, Martin from Atheist Experience, after expressing his main fear – that the event wouldn’t spoil an upcoming convention – wrote:
We are rationalists. We pride ourselves on our capacity for reason, which we boast of having more of than anyone else.
You can imagine the problem with a group in which all members carry a sense of superiority – the very trait religious fanatics are accused of displaying. If you base your self-esteem on superior logic, winning arguments can become an obsession:
“ooh, you used a straw man argument – one point to me!” “Ah, so your opening gambit was the slippery slope argument – one point to me!” “Gotcha! Ad hominem.” “Your risible comment was at best disingenuous, at worst, very disingenuous..”
And so on, ad nauseum, as the world burns.
Groups like Anonymous are often presumed to be anarchic. In fact they are anything but: they depend on a reputation of undermining oppressive and criminal groups. Without this, they would be nothing but nosey geeks. Their mask symbolises not just the right to privacy but an aversion to individual fame, and the parallel anonymity of those who, behind the scenes, manipulate the media so that 491,000 separately reported Iraq atrocities and another 91,000 in Afghanistan – all commited by savage US military attacks on innocent people – found no room in our morning papers. That’s a hell of a lot of deaths, considering that in one incident alone, 181 people in a village were killed.
When two Reuters photographers were massacred along with a street full of people and children by a US Apache helicopter, the film was leaked by Assange’s group Wikileaks. As Assange pointed out in an interview with John Pilger, what was notable was that although a vast number of press pages were now reluctantly obliged to cover the issue, at first the video was sanitised and edited to remove the killings, under the pretence of “waiting for the full facts to be known” – forgetting that the video in its entirety gave all the facts straight away.
A day later the story was dominated by military spin wizards, with the ongoing coverage giving us the impression of a story examined anxiously and wholeheartedly. But two days later – while the story was still front page news – a marine involved in the carnage came forward to relate how he personally found children torn apart in a car by the Apache’s 30mm missiles, and tried to save their lives (despite officers telling him not to have them rushed to a US military facility but a run-down local hospital where they would be doomed) and was completely ignored. Despite massive public interest – or in fact, because of it, zero coverage was given to him due to the corporate forces involved in keeping a war running – for which they need widespread public approval, requiring the appearance of being fair-minded.
Every movement is obliged to carry those who just want to be on a winning side, to feel a sense of superiority, because it is impossible to legislate against intent. But groups who have to make some kind of sacrifice tend to attract far fewer. Sociopaths gravitated to religious leadership throughout history because of the power and unaccountability it offered. Today, they prefer the government, the weapons business, and financial corporations, where they do extreme damage to our world, safe behind the protective wall of silence from a supine and pliant media.
Assange’s Wikileaks, and the Anonymous group, are two examples of people who stand for something. They’re not just marching for the right to be self-indulgent, or to display their superiority: they are willing to sacrifice their time and even their freedom for a higher cause. This is highly appealing to the human mind, and sustains their movement even in the face of massive official pressure.
The atheist movement needs to attract those willing to make sacrifices. And it will seem churlish to point out the ancient religious tradition to make sacrifices – of crops, of income, of self-interest, of guilty privacy via confession – must have been incorporated in realisation of the egotistic tendencies of the human mind. Sacrifice was intended to moderate the motivations of very large groups of people, to ensure a healthy altruism becoming built-in to a fledgling movement, and creating a sense of society which attracts people.
So, perhaps like Faircloth’s plea for compassion as a rebranding quality, sacrifice could be added to the list. Women might even find it attractive!