Atheists, Rationalists & Rape

By K. A. Laity

The "rational answer" depends entirely upon your starting point.

While most of the hubbub on both sides of the pond focuses on various egregious examples of tabloid mayhem (depending on whether you hate Nancy Grace or Rupert Murdoch more), there's been a smaller but just as shocking story developing in the rational (not necessarily to distinguish it from tabloid) world.

At a student leadership conference where she had been invited to talk about the religious Right's War on Women,"Skepchick" blogger Rebecca Watson had an unpleasant encounter:

You may recall that last week I posted this video, in which I describe an unpleasant encounter I had with a fellow atheist that I thought might serve as a good example of what men in our community should strive to avoid – basically, in an elevator in Dublin at 4AM I was invited back to the hotel room of a man I had never spoken to before and who was present to hear me say that I was exhausted and wanted to go to bed.

 What she was unprepared for was an atheist community—both men and women—who dismissed her discomfort with an unsolicited sexual comment and accused her of everything from outlawing sexuality to "constantly" telling men " how sexist and destructive they are." 

The irony of the situation highlights the uncomfortable image many have had in recent months of atheists being as virulently fundamentalist and shockingly anti-feminist as the religious extremists they rail against. Many skeptical women found it a disturbing betrayal of their basic principles.

But then it got worse. Atheist poster boy Richard Dawkins got in on the act over at PZ Myers' blog Pharyngula, dismissing Watson's concerns with mocking comment on the blog (did you ever think about Dawkins dropping by to comment on your blog? Imagine the pope dropping by a Catholic activist's blog!) addressed to "Muslima" that came across as vaguely racist and seemed to suggest that because Watson (and presumably any woman in a wealthy industrial nation) had no right to complain about anything that happened to them because they were not being stoned to death or mutilated by religious zealots.

There's been a huge backlash since; Dawkins entitlement and gender seem to blind him to any chance of seeing the issue rationally, so Skepchick has been gathering letters to Dawkins to address his need for education on this Feminism 101 issue and why so much of daily life is still different for women. 

A letter from Robynne W. which spells it out, "It is critical to your understanding of this situation that you grasp that all women, everywhere, are engaged in constant low-level threat assessment when in public." Perhaps the most poignant comes from the Almost Diamonds blog and has been signed by a growing number of survivors of sexual assault:

You have made one more space blatantly unsafe to us. We don't mean safe as in free from any kind of sexual interest. We're not asking for that, and we don't want it. We mean that you, a leader in our community, made free with a woman's experience and rewrote it to suit your own ends.

You'd imagine a rational thinker could understand that.

K. A. Laity writes so much that she had to create some pseudonyms to keep her colleagues from thoughts of murder. A tenured medievalist at a small liberal arts college, she mostly tries to find ways to avoid meetings in order to write more . Find her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter where she attempts to employ a certain amount of rational discernment.

Image via Shane Port's Flickr

Thu, 07 Jul 2011 10:00 (GMT+01)
4 Responses

Well...more like if, say, William F. Buckley was to drop by a Catholic activist's blog...and probably as problematic (even if he'd done so while still alive). Madalyn Murray O'Hair was the would-be Pope of Atheism, and one of the advantages of atheism is not having hierarchies of holy folk, unless simple celebrity was to make the difference.

Sadly, too often those who are busy striving against one form of oppression fail to realize that other forms of oppression, or even simple rudeness that impinges on oppression, are no more acceptable. Following a stranger into an elevator to hit on them in isolation, particularly in the dead of night, however well-intentioned, is at best thoughtless...trying to claim that pointing out that that is thoughtless and a bit scary is to be at best a nag, is indicative of a lack of empathy that too often comes along with the Clear True Vision, whichever CTV one propounds.

Todd Mason
Thu, 07-Jul-2011 20:09 GMT

True enough: can't figure out if I was overvaluing Dawkins or undervaluing the pope. Clear true vision, but one that specifically includes class and gender as well. Privilege isn't privilege just because you don't notice it.

K. A. Laity
Thu, 07-Jul-2011 20:40 GMT

Before anyone else jumps in to slam Dawkins, please look carefully for confirmation that the "Richard Dawkins" who posted the somewhat clunky comments is actually the famed Richard Dawkins himself. There is much confusion on the Pharyngula comments board and I have searched for confirmation in vain so far. Any old troll can post to a website claiming to be anyone they like, and I hate to see people jumping into a fray without confirming if statements are actually true and verified - it makes otherwise intelligent people, and their arguments, look a bit silly to put it mildly.

Mon, 11-Jul-2011 01:58 GMT

Myers did confirm; read his introduction carefully. However, the real problem isn't just Dawkins, it's the widespread misogyny of those who supported him:

K. A. Laity
Mon, 11-Jul-2011 02:16 GMT

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