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Sexism and the New Atheism

Slate recently published an important piece by Rebecca Watson, in which she describes the sexism she’s encountered during her career as a ‘skeptic’: that is, a member of the anti-faith, pro-science community that overlaps with the ‘New Atheist’ movement. Watson writes:

[W]omen started telling me stories about sexism at skeptic events, experiences that made them uncomfortable enough to never return. At first, I wasn’t able to fully understand their feelings as I had never had a problem existing in male-dominated spaces. But after a few years of blogging, podcasting, and speaking at skeptics’ conferences, I began to get emails from strangers who detailed their sexual fantasies about me. I was occasionally grabbed and groped without consent at events.  […]

I started checking out the social media profiles of the people sending me these messages, and learned that they were often adults who were active in the skeptic and atheist communities. They were reading the same blogs as I was and attending the same events. These were “my people,” and they were the worst.

Then she details an incident already infamous online.

After a panel at an atheist event in Dublin (also attended by Richard Dawkins), Watson was propositioned in a lift by a male conference-goer.

A few days later, I was making a video about the trip and I decided to use that as an example of how not to behave at conferences if you want to make women feel safe and comfortable. After all, it seemed rather obvious to me that if your goal is to get sex or even just companionship, the very worst way to go about attaining that goal is to attend a conference, listen to a woman speak for 12 hours about how uncomfortable she is being sexualized at conferences, wait for her to express a desire to go to sleep, follow her into an isolated space, and then suggest she go back to your hotel room for “coffee,” which, by the way, is available at the hotel bar you just left.

What I said in my video, exactly, was, “Guys, don’t do that,” with a bit of a laugh and a shrug. What legions of angry atheists apparently heard was, “Guys, I won’t stop hating men until I get 2 million YouTube comments calling me a ‘cunt.’ ” The skeptics boldly rose to the imagined challenge.

Even Dawkins weighed in. He hadn’t said anything while sitting next to me in Dublin as I described the treatment I got, but a month later he left this sarcastic comment on a friend’s blog:

“Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and … yawn … don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so …

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.

Richard”

Dawkins’ seal of approval only encouraged the haters. My YouTube page and many of my videos were flooded with rape “jokes,” threats, objectifying insults, and slurs. A few individuals sent me hundreds of messages, promising to never leave me alone. My Wikipedia page was vandalized. Graphic photos of dead bodies were posted to my Facebook page

If you Google ‘Rebecca Watson’, you find a myriad of examples of the abuse she’s talking about.

At a general level, the political dynamic of the New Atheism has been pretty obvious for a long time. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to suspect some relationship might exist between the growth of celebrity non-belief and the fundamental reorientation of Western
foreign policy to a War on Terror directed against an enemy understood in religious terms. Out (to some extent, at least) with the Christian ministers blessing the crusade against the godless Communists; in with the glib pundits and TV panelists using high school atheism to laud perpetual war against Muslamics.

Though many New Atheists regard themselves as progressive, in the current context, an argument that explains religion not in terms of culture and history but purely and simply as a result of the dangerous ignorance of the faithful leads, fairly inexorably, to certain political conclusions about those particular nations that Uncle Sam and his allies happen to be occupying. Figures like Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens shot to prominence after 9/11 precisely because they offered simplistic explanations for the ‘why do they hate us?’ queries dominating the media (short answer: cos they’re religious fanatics!), and then consolidated their careers with an anti-God shtick in which an essentialised Islamophobia jostled with bloodthirsty warmongering.

Not all the New Atheists are so explicitly enthusiastic about imperialism (indeed, many think of themselves as liberal) but a racialised attitude to Islam has steeped through the movement as a whole, with the attitudes in the comments threads on many atheist blogs often comparable with what you’d find on so-called counter-jihadi sites.

Even so, the vitriol directed at Watson might still seem perplexing, given that the New Atheists often pitch their hostility Islam as a defence of gender equality.

Of course, in the wake of 9/11, the status of women in the Muslim world became, all of sudden, a matter of tremendous concern for Western liberals: you’ll remember that the catastrophic invasion of Afghanistan was shilled as much by the so-called ‘decent Left’ as by the traditional Right, with many supposed progressives the loudest in enthusing about how war would liberate girls from the Taliban.

So why the hating on Watson?

Part of the explanation probably pertains to the demographics of the New Atheism. A movement based upon a pretty crude positivism is likely to find its strongest support within the natural sciences, fields that are still largely dominated by men. Certainly, if you look at most atheist panels, they’re pretty much sausage-fests.

But is there more to it than that?

Obviously, much of the ‘feminism’ associated with the Iraq and Afghan campaigns was entirely bogus: one of the people most ostentatiously shedding crocodile tears about Afghanistan’s little girls was Laura Bush, better known for proselytizing her husband’s ‘family values’ than for smashing the patriarchy.

More importantly, even for those who believed their own rhetoric, the ostensible emancipation of the Islamic world rested on a perception of the oppressed as people entirely without agency of their own. Muslim women were depicted as burkha-clad lumps, waiting helplessly to be delivered from bondage, a trope of feminine passivity that had less to do with the women’s liberation movement (which, in the seventies at least, was overwhelmingly centred on women as fighters for their own freedom), and more to do with a Victorian notion of the white man saving the lesser races from their own backwardness.

Humanitarian imperialism is not, it should be remembered, an entirely new phenomenon: in the glory days of the British Empire there were no shortage of jingoes lauding the civilizing impact of the Raj, precisely because it rescued Indian maidens from the depredations of their savage culture. If you picture a sloshed London clubman simultaneously harrumphing about suffragettes and decrying how the darkies treated their wives, you’ve got a pretty good sense of the mentality that allowed Christopher Hitchens to laud the Iraq invasion as a victory for women – and then call the Dixie Chicks ‘fucking fat slags’ for opposing it.

It’s no coincidence that Dawkins belittles Watson by contrasting her with the mythical Muslima, someone he seems to like precisely because she doesn’t exist. A hypothetical Islamic victim begging for white men to save her appeals to the self-perception of the imperial atheist; a flesh-and-blood American standing up for her own rights, not so much.

To their credit, some New Atheists have publicly stated their solidarity with Watson. But, clearly, there’s an ongoing problem. Right-wing atheists have long argued that Islam needs a reformation. Well, the same thing might be said about their movement. It’s high time that the atheist Left asserted itself against the atheist Right – an Occupy Skepticism, if you will.

Certainly, insofar as the New Atheism represents a coherent intellectual trend, one of its central characteristics is an absence of any theory of ideology, which means it struggles to explain oppression other than in the crudest terms. If you can’t understand why, say, radical Islam might appeal to intelligent Iraqis – might, in fact, become more attractive rather than less in the context of Western intervention, precisely because it represents a form of resistance – then you’ll probably find it difficult to grasp how sexism works in the west.

After all, in formal terms, gender equality exists, more or less, throughout the industrial world: women have the right to vote, equal pay is legally mandated, and so on. Why, then, might a female atheist, free from the influence of priestcraft or sharia, feel intimidated or threatened by a sexual approach that many men find flattering?

It’s a dynamic that produces a legion of aggrieved Professor Higginses, eternally wondering:

Why can’t a woman be more like a man? 
Men are so honest, so thoroughly square; 
Eternally noble, historic’ly fair; 
Who, when you win, will always give your back a pat. 
Well, why can’t a woman be like that? 

That’s the context for the appalling response to Watson, a reaction that traverses the slight distance from that verse to this one:

Women are irrational, that’s all there is to that! 
Their heads are full of cotton, hay, and rags! 
They’re nothing but exasperating, irritating,
vacillating, calculating, agitating, 
Maddening and infuriating hags! 

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland magazine and the author of “Money Shot: A Journey into Porn and Censorship.

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