Back in 2011, Rebecca Watson published a video in which she talked about a lot of things, and in a couple of sentences buried in the middle of the video, she told the story about the guy who asked her for coffee late at night in an elevator, admonishing “Guys, don’t do that,” and then she moved on to another topic.
Looking back, I can no longer understand why that little story should have caught so much attention, much less struck the collective nerve it did. But it helped that Richard Dawkins commented about it. Without that comment, elevatorgate, as it came to be called, would not have happened. When Dawkins weighed in, that prompted Watson to issue a blog post in which she pledged to boycott Richard Dawkins, the rich old white man. At that point, among the feminist community, Dawkins became public enemy #1.
In Why Atheists are Finally Turning on Richard Dawkins, Kimberly Winston talks to atheists Greta Christina, Adam Lee, Amy Roth, Ophelia Benson, all of whom agree that Richard Dawkins has become a liability to the atheist movement. Notable here is that all four of these experts are card-carrying members of what used to be called atheism+ (I’m not sure if it still called that, but it will work for my purposes here), which was not mentioned in the article. Instead, all four are presented as somehow speaking for the larger atheist community, when in fact they are speaking for the atheism+ community, which is a small and particularly surly slice of the atheist pie.
All four have a strikingly similar message: Richard Dawkins has become a liability. He may have done some good things in the past, but now, according to Phil Zuckerman, quoted in the article, “. . . Dawkins seems to embody everything that people dislike about atheists: He is smug, condescending and emits an unpleasant disdainfulness. He doesn’t ever seem to acknowledge the good aspects of religion, only the bad. In that sense, I think he doesn’t help atheism in the PR department.”
Rhetorically, the message being broadcast seems clear: Richard Dawkins is old. That means he’s out of touch, insensitive, and he’s outlived his usefulness. He’s also, according to Amanda Marcotte, a racist when he is critical of Islam and its followers. When he posted on Twitter, “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge,” which is a fact, and a cut to the scientific stagnation among the world’s Muslims, Dawkins is called an “Islamaphobe” and a racist. It seems odd to have to state what is clear: Islam is not a race. It is a religion.
The rhetoric, that Dawkins is an old, out-of-touch prejudiced white man, is the same since Rebecca Watson first unleashed it in 2011. The leaders of the atheism+ community have done a good job of staying on message, and if you trace this all back to Dawkins’ first comment, the “Dear Muslima” comment that ignited elevatorgate, the persistant message has begun to take its toll.
Every comment Dawkins’ makes is scrutinized, and last week when he tweeted about rape, of course he was pummeled, despite the fact that what he said was logical and rather benign. Any comment from a rich old white man about issues of sexism or gender is just asking for trouble. In other words, Dawkins tweeting about rape was an open invitation for his atheism+ critics, so either he is welcoming this kind of negative attention, or he is oblivious to it. I’m not sure which it is, but I will say the rich old and white (read: sexist and racist) rhetoric is sticking. This much seems clear: No white man, especially an old white man, should say one word about rape, ever, unless it is to say how horrible it is and just leave it at that. Any further exposition is inviting disaster. No dialogue is to be had there.
What we can be certain about, though, despite these attacks on his character, Dawkins has done more for atheism and freethought and science education than any of his atheism+ critics combined. And long after all of us are dead, Dawkins will continue to live on through his writing, continue to have a powerful impact on people who are looking to embrace freethought. No one will read Greta Christina in fifty years time. Most of her work is smut, and smut has a short shelf life. Her work just isn’t that important. No one will know that Amy Roth, Ophelia Benson, Rebecca Watson, etc., ever existed. Their contribution to atheism is negligible, and in my view, a net negative given their propensity to alienate and shun those who don’t go in for atheism+. I certainly don’t go in for it, for one simple reason: The people of atheism+ are not people I would want to associate with. They attack their own. They have nothing to teach me.
But Dawkins, on the other hand, I’d love to have a beer with the man and pick his brain. He is, without question, one of my heroes, and for good reason. They can keep trying, stay on message, continue to use the rhetoric of ageism and sexism and racism, but they cannot do a thing to harm Richard Dawkins.