One could argue the atheist community has an unspoken rule to respect the esteemed biologist and controversial atheist Richard Dawkins. People have several reasons to respect the man: he has advocated for atheism, he has communicated the science of evolution to the masses, he has written many beloved books; hell, the man invented the word “meme”. For many of us, there has been a lot to like about Dawkins. But a line must be drawn somewhere. Just because someone has done good things at their best, does that mean we can ignore the hurtful things they say and do at their worst?
Obviously, I say no. And this applies not only to Dawkins but to all scientists.
Dawkins’ latest offense to a marginalized group is a tweet from April 10th which read,
In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a white chapter president of NAACP, was vilified for identifying as Black. Some men choose to identify as women, and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as.
I wish that I could trust that you, my reader, can easily see how this tweet is both deeply transphobic and racist. Unfortunately, there were scores of transphobic comments on this tweet agreeing with Dawkins—presumably, mostly from atheists. (Who outside of the atheist community would like someone so anti-theistic to begin with?) Whether you see the issue or not, I highly recommend this article by non-problematic atheist Hemant Mehta, explaining why this tweet is so bad as well as sharing other transphobic Dawkins tweets (which are only the tip of a very large iceberg—here’s a thread of a few) and some of the best and most scathing replies to Dawkins’ original tweet.
The tweet was both insensitive and stupid
In addition to what Hemant said, I’d like to emphasize that while yes, both gender and race are social constructs, they are not the same thing. They are both linked to physical phenomena which are not really similar in any way. To be transgender is to have gender dysphoria when presenting as the gender you were assigned at birth, because it is not consistent with the gender that best aligns with your identity. To be clear, transitioning does not make a person transgender. Transitioning makes an already transgender person more comfortable in their own skin because it is their only way to truly be themselves. And no, Richard, your gender identity (and experiencing gender dysphoria) is not a choice.
On the other hand, race seems to be a collective word referring to someone’s genetic ancestry. “Race” itself is not something that has any real biological meaning, but there are such things as ancestry, genetics, and skin color as influenced by the skin’s amount of melanin. Unlike gender, which is more fluid, your genes never change, and definitely not at will. (But like gender, your DNA is not a choice, either.)
Different people may perceive someone as looking like they belong to one racial group or another, but that doesn’t mean that anyone from a privileged racialized group has the right to co-opt the culture and identity of an oppressed group for some twisted reason. Equating this with someone struggling with their gender identity and trying to find one that allows them to feel at home in their mind and body is tone deaf at best and cruel at worst.
(Please be patient with me as I continue to educate myself on the scientific and cultural meaning of both race and gender, and feel free to kindly correct me if I am wrong. I’ve since read this book which explains race much better than I have here.)
What does this mean for the atheist community?
So yes, based off things he himself has said, Richard Dawkins seems to be pretty transphobic. Pretty bigoted. And I know that the word “bigoted” hurts atheists especially because they claim to hate the bigotry of religion without addressing their own. Transphobia from atheists is just as bad as transphobia from Christians, if not worse: in many churches transphobia is taught, but if you are an atheist, that means that you more than likely came to that conclusion on your own. Shameful.
As an atheist, I find it sad that people like Dawkins represent our community. Fellow atheists, I know what you’re thinking: “He’s not our leader. We don’t have leaders. We believe in freethought.” Some of you might even think that the entire idea of an atheist community doesn’t make sense, because how do you commune around a lack of belief?
The truth is, atheists share something in common and they do have a community. Naturally, any community is going to have people who rise to the top, achieve fame, and are (even subconsciously) seen as representatives or leaders of that community. Unlike in churches, these leaders do not make rules that the rest of us have to follow, but also naturally, any community is going to have rules—even if it claims not to. The rules in the atheist community are generally to agree with Hitchens that Religion Poisons Everything. What’s the punishment for not agreeing? Well, you might not land in eternal hellfire, but you will not be accepted into the group. If you are, you will receive nothing but pushback.
This may or may not have been part of the reason for renaming my blog and dropping the word “atheist” from the title. I don’t really feel like a part of the atheist community in any way. That’s okay, because I don’t want to be associated with anyone who uses words like “religitard”. When I started identifying as an atheist, I thought that that meant shedding the dogma, intolerance, and transphobia of conservative Christianity. What I found was that this was far from the truth! I thought that transitioning my blog from discussing the existence of God to trying to be an advocate for good would be easy. I expected my fellow atheists to agree with me, to believe in basic human rights for everyone. I was wrong.
Atheists should practice what they preach
Atheists spend so much time proclaiming how good they are without God, debating whether morality is objective or subjective, and treating goodness and morals like hypotheticals instead of actually practicing true goodness, acknowledging their privilege, standing up for the marginalized, taking accountability, and saying the hard truths. I don’t see it all that radical to advocate for equality for everyone. Isn’t that just basic goodness? So why, when one attempts to do so, is one labeled as “a social justice warrior”, “a radical feminist”, “a radical leftist”, “politically correct”, or my personal least favorite, “woke”? Labeling justice with words that we have done our best to connote as violently radical doesn’t make it less just. It only makes you an asshole who uses these negative labels to self-righteously turn the other way and ignore the cries of the marginalized.
Honestly. Atheists and Christians alike would do well to remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46 and Matthew 7:1-5. (They ring true whether he really said them or not, although he likely did.)
I can agree to disagree with someone on whether God exists, but not about the validity of trans people, the reproductive rights of women, the religious freedom of Muslim women, or whether our Black and Brown siblings deserve to be shot just for existing. If you disagree with me on any of these points, I don’t want your views and I don’t want your support. I certainly don’t want your opinion so don’t bother commenting, as bigoted comments will be swiftly deleted.
Note: I want to be clear that I know not all atheists are like this. Hemant’s article was great. Many atheists are publicly denouncing Dawkins, and the American Humanist Association has stripped Dawkins of his 1996 Humanist of the Year Award. His April 10th tweet has also been condemned by American Atheists. I’m proud of both of these organizations for not letting this slide. You can find many atheists with great progressive values; you do not have to look very far. I especially recommend supporting atheists who are women, people of color, and/or in the LGBTQ+ community. There are many atheists to be admired. Dawkins does not have to be one of them.
Edit: A couple of people have kindly pointed out to me that one must not necessarily experience gender dysphoria in order to be transgender. Gender dysphoria is a clinical diagnosis of the stress felt when one’s assigned gender does not represent their gender identity, but that stress does not need to be clinically diagnosed to be valid. Additionally, I would like to note an additional factor that contributes to one’s racial identity outside of genetics and skin color, and that is lived experience. While the way you are treated by others obviously does not change your genetic makeup, your experience in society as shaped by others’ perception of your race will also play a role in your racial identity.
14 thoughts on “The Dawkins Problem”
A passionate post. My only criticisms here are 1. to go further beyond homo sapiens and consider speciesism (see https://strangequark.me/2020/04/19/animalia-commonalis-truth-suffering-and-ethics/) and 2. consider that respectful discussion about questions should always be permitted, else we risk ending the conversation with others with whom we disagree.
Re “As an atheist, I find it sad that people like Dawkins represent our community.” We did not elect Dr. Dawkins. If he has put his foot in his mouth, it is he who must pull it out. I do not see how this reflects upon us.
I do not see how Dr. Dawkins opinions on other subjects than atheism evolve from his position on atheism, that is I do not see the connection. So, what I see is another old man (as am I) pontificating on a topic he doesn’t quite understand. This confusion/uproar/whatever (that has resulted) is what happens when we collectively decide a person has a certain standing in our society, whether he has earned it or not.
As Dawkins brought to light, education can be as blinding as it is enlightening when viewed through the lens of bias and the belief of his personal and mental superiority.
Dawkins comment reeks of elitism.
So now we can add Dawkins to the stopped clock analogy. It can be right twice in a day. But then at other times it can be stunningly clueless and wrong.
The only addition or point I would make to this otherwise wonderful post is that you don’t have to have dysphoria to be trans. Lots of trans people have figured things out through euphoria and may look back on some things to realize they may have been dysphoria, but not always.
Thank you so much for informing me and for your kind words!! ❤️
A couple of thoughts I had after reading your post:
1. A great rule for all freethinkers should be: no gods/no masters/no idols/no heroes. If you elevate someone to such a level you are still religious and not yet a full freethinker—and you will be let down. It’s okay to love the work, product, insights, or efforts of any person but the minute you devote yourself to them as a person (beyond someone that you have a personal, trusted relationship with) you open yourself up to severe disappointment. This is a hard rule to learn and to stick with but worth it.
2. Dawkins has always been a jerk TBH. “The Selfish Gene” is a landmark book well worth any thinking person’s time. It’s a great, important book. Nothing Dawkins does or says now negates that. He’s played outside of his lane in pretty much every book ever since (especially in “The God Delusion”) that one though the results have usually made for entertaining reading even if their scholarly impact has been far less. Just because you’re an expert in one thing—or do one thing particularly well—doesn’t mean you’re an expert in every (or any) thing else.
3. There are many issues tangentially related to transgender issues that are indeed up for debate and discussion and scientists, psychologists, doctors, and other experts are divided. It’s worth giving people a bit of space and not instantly judging them if they don’t grasp the intricacies quite yet (or if they disagree). One issue that shouldn’t be up for debate is whether a transgender person has rights and should be free to live their life as equitably as everyone else. But to debate, discuss, or question tangential issues (e.g. should those under 18 be legally allowed to undergo transition surgery yet, what percentage of people that do transition suffer from dysphoria, whether transition should always be the suggested course of action for everyone who experiences dysphoria, etc.) does not necessarily make one a bigot.
4. Everyone, but especially those who are very or once were very religious, is susceptible to falling into non-freethinking patterns in which we subscribe to blanket positions and beliefs, ideologies, etc.—whether a particular religious or political party or sociological ideology. It’s been my experience that those who grow up in religiously fundamentalist environments (as I did too) quite often fall into a sort of “atheist” religion (in which they appoint certain writers and thinkers in the role of a quasi-religious leader or think there are certain dogmas that have to be affirmed) and if they reject that they often do it again politically—whether conservative, Q, “progressive”, etc. Always take every viewpoint and position on its own terms and judge it based on clear logic, regardless of who/what expresses it.
Thank you Rebekah for posting this piece. I have been conflicted over his transgender views, which as stated is a transphobic comment. I have loved reading Dawkins for more years than I can remember, and he has been one of my favorite authors. I am a transgender woman, so his comments are deeply troubling for me. Can I still read his other works with a clear conscience, or should I place him on a do not read list (if I had one)?
Okay, with that said, I will point out, since you plainly asked to be educated on transgender issues, that one can be a transgender person without experiencing gender dysphoria. Gender identity in its simplest terms is just that–the gender you identify as. If it so happens that the gender you identify as does not match the sex you were assigned at birth you are a transgender person. If this causes distress in a clinical manner you would be diagnosed as having gender dysphoria. Not all transgender individuals have gender dysphoria. The fact is that many, probably most do feel this stress. I have written about the issues I have with gender dysphoria as a psychiatric diagnosis on one of my blog posts, and where my own dysphorias lay.
Of all the people in religion and politics who have a real hatred for the LGBTQ community and whose every thought is to put everyone in their designated boxes, we have to assault someone whose comment we are not really sure if we disagree with. I think we should go after the obvious hatred. White supremacy, Christian Dominion, homophobes, xenophobes, and all the other bigoted phobias.
At least he had a place from which to fall. And he didn’t put himself on that pedestal. The public, scientific, and literary community recognize him for his work over a number of years. Now he has had at least this one disagreeable comment and everyone knew all along he was/is a stupid jackass.
I only have a couple of his books and I don’t see any sense in starting a fire just for them.
I don’t know the politics nor the religion of everyone here, but by some of these remarks, it is obvious some need more roughage and greens in their diet. Clearly, they need more frequent and more productive evacuations.
This too shall pass.
Thank you so much for pointing that out!
I do not defend Richard Dawkins’s comments about Black Identity nor transgender existence.
I don’t know what he means if he is comparing someone who pretends to be Black to someone who is transgender. I would not understand a textbook explaining all the elements of a person being transgender, but I cannot believe that a transgender person would become a transexual person on a whim or fancy.
Experimentation is one thing. Altering the body to fit one’s identity is an entirely different game. One would have to really desperately need to change that body. I don’t think that could be a game of pretending. It is more than an ‘assumed identity.’
Let’s call om Mr. Dawkins to explain himself.
” (Who outside of the atheist community would like someone so anti-theistic to begin with?)”
You’d be surprised. The “anti-SJW” atheists are to atheism what TERFs are to feminism; both seem to prioritize their bigotry over their atheism/feminism enough to ally with fundamentalist Christians (and with each other) on the one thing they have in common.
As to why the fundamentalists themselves accept such an alliance, it’s partly because they also more about bigotry than about religion, and partly because they know they hold the most power in any such alliance anyway.
“When I started identifying as an atheist, I thought that that meant shedding the dogma, intolerance, and transphobia of conservative Christianity.”
As someone who was part of the internet atheist community before Dawkins ever wrote The God Delusion, I still say that it did mean that before “New Atheism”.
My impression has long been that people like Dawkins and Hitchens represent a tiny minority of atheists, the highly ideological types. In all walks of life the highly ideological types are quite often pretty annoying. What we see so much of online is the highly ideological atheists getting in to food fights with the highly ideological theists. Meanwhile the vast majority in both camps go peacefully on their way, largely ignoring the food fights.
Years ago I spent some time on Dawkin’s forum, which at the time was the largest collection of atheists online. A small percent of users were hateful fanatics. Dawkins was content to let them run wild all over his forum, until…… They turned on him. Then he freaked out, and radically changed the structure of the forum.
My impression was that Dawkins is a classic nerd. Very intelligent about abstract things, and more or less clueless about people. I share some of that, so you know, it takes one to know one.
It’s good that you are aware of it though! That’s probably the most important part