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.”
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