Richard Dawkins Stands by Remarks on Sexism, Pedophilia, Down Syndrome

The famous atheist isn’t taking back the comments that riled even those in his own camp.

ATHERTON, California — As the world’s most famous atheist, Richard Dawkins is no stranger to criticism from religious believers.

But in recent months, a few of his opinions have riled many in the atheist community as well. Remarks he made on Twitter and elsewhere on subjects ranging from sexual harassment (“stop whining”) to Down syndrome fetuses (“abort and try again”) have sparked suggestions from some fellow nonbelievers that he would serve atheism better by keeping quiet.

When Religion News Service reported on his controversial July tweets on pedophilia — Dawkins opined that some attacks on children are “worse” than others — the 73-year-old British evolutionary biologist and best-selling New York Times author declined to be interviewed.

But on a speaking tour through the San Francisco Bay Area in support of his new memoir, An Appetite for Wonder, he invited a reporter to sit down with him and explore the thinking behind his remarks.

Bottom line: he stands by everything he has said — including comments that one form of rape or pedophilia is “worse” than another, and that a drunken woman who is raped might be responsible for her fate.

“I don’t take back anything that I’ve said,” Dawkins said from a shady spot in the leafy backyard of one of his Bay Area supporters. “I would not say it again, however, because I am now accustomed to being misunderstood and so I will . . . ”

He trailed off momentarily, gazing at his hands resting on a patio table.

“I feel muzzled, and a lot of other people do as well,” he continued. “There is a climate of bullying, a climate of intransigent thought police which is highly influential in the sense that it suppresses people like me.”

Recent criticism of Dawkins has come from women, many of them within the atheist movement, which has long drawn more men to its ranks. His online remarks, some women say, contribute to a climate they see as unwelcoming to female atheists.

Writing for Salon last month, atheist activist Amanda Marcotte said: “People like Dawkins . . . are the public face of atheism. And that public face is one that is defensively and irrationally sexist. It’s not only turning women away from atheism, it’s discrediting the idea that atheists are actually people who argue from a position of rationality. How can they be, when they cling to the ancient, irrational tradition of treating women like they aren’t quite as human as men?”

Some atheist men, too, are unhappy with Dawkins’ most recent remarks.

“There’s no denying that Dawkins played a formative role in the atheist movement, but it’s grown beyond just him,” Adam Lee, a New York-based atheist, wrote in September in The Guardian. “Remarks like these make him a liability at best, a punchline at worst. He may have convinced himself that he’s the Most Rational Man Alive, but if his goal is to persuade everyone else that atheism is a welcoming and attractive option, Richard Dawkins is doing a terrible job.”

Dawkins, however, disagrees. He is, he said, not a misogynist, as some critics have called him, but “a passionate feminist.” The greatest threats to women, in his view, are Islamism and jihadism — and his concern over that sometimes leads him to speak off-the-cuff.

“I concentrate my attention on that menace and I confess I occasionally get a little impatient with American women who complain of being inappropriately touched by the water cooler or invited for coffee or something which I think is, by comparison, relatively trivial,” he said.

“And so I occasionally wax a little sarcastic, and I when I have done that, I then have subsequently discovered some truly horrific things, which is that some of the women who were the butt of my sarcasm then became the butt of really horrible or serious threats, which is totally disgusting and I know how horrible that is and that, of course, I absolutely abominate and absolutely repudiate and abhor.”

Dawkins’ supporters are legion. They laud the work of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, which many credit with helping to normalize atheism with its “out” campaign, aimed at getting atheists to go public about their lack of religious faith. The foundation also works to remove the influence of religion on science education.

Todd Stiefel, president of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, has worked with Dawkins on numerous projects, most recently teaming up to launch Openly Secular, an anti-discrimination campaign. He says that despite the controversies, Dawkins continues to be a worthy spokesman for atheism.

But Stiefel knows not everyone feels the same — and that is an asset to atheism. Dawkins, he said, is just one voice within atheism — and the more different voices the movement includes, the stronger it will be.

“It is wonderful that we have such a brilliant asset with a keen, logical mind and passion for integrity,” Stiefel said in a phone interview. “But he is not perfect. He has flaws and weakness, just like we all do. I forgive Richard his faults and try to care for him as a human being, just like I would any other person. I think it is OK to admire Richard for his strengths and forgive him his weakness.”

Hemant Mehta has covered Dawkins’ accomplishments and his controversies on his widely read blog, The Friendly Atheist. He has read every one of Dawkins’ 12 books and describes them as examples of  “elegant explanations” and “beautiful prose.”

But that doesn’t carry over to Twitter’s 140 characters.

“What we’re seeing is a bad combination of a celebrity who speaks his mind about issues he’s not necessarily an expert on and a horde of well-intentioned people ready to vilify him instead of educate him,” Mehta said.

“But all of this starts and ends with Dawkins. He’s supposed to be the expert at communication. That’s the title he held at Oxford for so long. He, of all people, should realize that not all audiences will respond to him the same way — and he needs to adjust. He hasn’t done that yet.”

Image courtesy of Albert H. Teich / Shutterstock.com.

  • bakabomb

    Dawkins is a big, obnoxious baby who certainly knows how to dish it out, but is totally incapable of taking it. He thrives on making outrageous statements and knows nothing of humility. No matter how preposterous his comments, he’ll never recant — preferring instead to obfuscate, rationalize, bully and bluster. His version of atheism is “There’s no supreme being, but if there were, I’d be it!”

    I have the greatest respect for atheism as a philosophy — though I don’t subscribe to it — and have had many interesting and productive discussions with atheist friends (one of whom always makes a point of giving me a book by one or another atheist author every Christmas!). Dawkins, however, is an execrable example of the absolute worst that atheism has to offer.

  • Through the Looking Glass

    Richard Dawkins misunderstood? LOL. I think he is very clearly loosing his grip on reality. His reality is the only thing he subscribes to, and I have to believe that when Atheist’s see this man for who he really is, they will abandon him. He has through his demented philosophies completely ruined any opportunity to be remembered for any science he may have done, because of his self serving posture. To me he is a sickening example of humanity. I’m thrilled to be able to express my utter dislike about this man. Delusions? Yes he has many.

    • Han

      This comment is the most definitive example of what he faces. Long list of insults guises as a legitimate criticism. If you want to know if a comment is worth any value see if there’s any example or evidence supporting the idea, or if the comment simply drools on and on about the point. This comment drools quite a bit, starting with typical grand insults and ends with even grander declaration of joy, as if anyone cared for him being thrilled to bite the bait made of 100% pure quote mining concentrate.

      Dawkins’ contribution to Biology, as in ideas and theories both reputed and validated will continue on, although most people uninterested in biology will never see them. As for his stands on religion, his description still remains as one of the most to-the-point, clear and certainly caustic criticism of religion to date.

      What he’ll be remembers as is one of very few who dared to criticize religion without even slight inclination to being apologetic. A person who said what he needed to without playing politician. Only tragedy is that religion turned out to be a bee hive full of raging bees, and that he could not walkaway once he struck it.

      • Through the Looking Glass

        I would be willing to discuss in more detail my attitude toward him and Hitchens. I believe your stuck in the concept that he is still a scientist. He moved to philosophy in 2006. I don’t support structured religion, I do however support the evidence of Christ. When a man says he is an Atheist, then retorts to slamming the things he doesn’t believe in, that is a ridiculous position to take. I’ve seen his debates, and when I hear him say, when asked why so many believe in God, his answer is Mass Hallucinations, that instantly makes him less credible as both scientist and philosopher. He isn’t the only one to criticise religion. I certainly wouldn’t bring my Grandchild around the man, since his true belief is that we are only here to reproduce and there is no purpose to the Cosmo’s. Sorry Han, but this guy isn’t worth following. He consistently contradicts himself, and there is plenty of stigma attached to his name and the “unholy trinity” as Vox Day would say.

        • saneandreasonable

          Agree. The guy is toxic and and a elitist egotist. Not a good representative for atheism.

      • bakabomb

        “I feel muzzled, and a lot of other people do as well,” he continued. “There is a climate of bullying”

        Oh, boo-hoo-hoo. He sounds exactly like every dominionist who ever got whupped in a general election.

      • Mick

        Han he will be known as a journalist . A growing number of scientists including atheist se him as a distraction , he attempts to use science to dis credit others . That is his goal , science suffers for it .

      • Mick

        Han he will be known as a journalist . A growing number of scientists including atheist se him as a distraction , he attempts to use science to dis credit others . That is his goal , science suffers for it .

  • malafein

    So long as he continues to say what he means, and mean what he says, then he shouldn’t take back anything he has said. When he has been misunderstood, he’s done a pretty good job of clarifying his statements from what I have seen.

  • JudgeX X

    Dawkins does not need any kind of “education” on issues that he speaks about. We all know his perspective, and his English is quite clear. His statements are accurate, and an attempt to criticize him for obviously accurate statements says very little for your own character.

    You gonna “educate” Dawkins on how all rape is the same and none is worse than the other? If you can’t imagine a rape scenario worse than another rape scenario, it’s YOU who needs to be educated on the topic, not Dawkins… but hey, thanks for making me imagine some really awful stuff by questioning his simple statement.

  • Ted_Fontenot

    No one–not women, religious figures, gay rights activists (your identity political groups of choice)–is entitled to absolute deference. Dawkins gives his opinions, just as you or I do. He always has his reasons. They may not be your reasons, but they don’t have to be. Grow up, and try to handle yourself emotionally when someone says something you don’t like. Contention is good for you.