The Lament of the Atheist Feminist

I am an atheist and a skeptic who has never been to an organised event related to these communities. In fact, most of my female friends are atheists and yet none of us has ever been to these events. I can’t speak for them, but for my part, it is partially because as a woman my encounters with these communities online have been really mixed.

These movements are unfortunately overpopulated with men who are obsessed with androcentrism and a blunt, blinkered perversion of inductive reasoning that they employ without questioning their premises. I have felt emotionally unsafe in comments sections on rationalist/skeptic blogs, usually when the issue of “getting a girl” gets raised: because the answer is usually that if men’s precious right to hit on ladies is ever impeded in any way by anything at all (for example, common courtesy or human decency) it is an outrage and a grave injustice. How else will they ever “get” girls?

Women’s objections to this way of thinking have been largely ignored in the community until very recently. Atheists and skeptics were forced to confront the situation when, in a youtube video, prominent feminist skeptic Rebecca Watson expressed her concerns about some men at atheist events lacking a firm grasp of the boundaries of appropriate flirtation or how to treat women in general.

Her argument was simple: a man who approaches a woman in an elevator at 4 in the morning and asks her back to his hotel room, after she has clearly stated that she is tired and wants to go to bed, is being creepy, pushy and generally demonstrating a suspiciously cavalier attitude towards the stated wishes of the woman.

It should be beyond obvious that such behaviour is likely to make a woman feel unsafe. First, because it reinforces that these men think their desire to hit on us is more important than any of our desires. That’s pretty skeevy, guys. Moreover, for many women it is actually seriously scary, because it’s not that uncommon for men – even men who seem very nice – to go further with that cavalier attitude and actually commit sexual assault. Rebecca clearly said she did not fear being raped, but in her situation, I think I would have been subconsciously worried.

In case it’s hard for men to remember this, let me remind you: in Australia, 1 in 5 women experiences sexual assault at some time. In America, 1 in 6 women is the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime – most of them completed. Many women are pretty fucking aware that being alone in an elevator with a guy hitting on us at 4 am can go really very badly for us, and colour me unsympathetic to you if you are lucky enough to be oblivious to that.

The community’s response to Rebecca’s video is pretty predictable: the men who don’t get it are whinging about being victims of prejudiced women, while the rest of us are respectfully discussing how the community can make the situation better. My homeboy and hero PZ Myers has our back on this. Awesome atheist women like Jen McCreight at Blaghag are on it too, and Rebecca’s follow-up post is great.  But what I did not expect was for Richard Dawkins to throw in with the people claiming that their right to hit on women in elevators after said women have expressed their desire to go to bed alone is absolutely sacrosanct.

I really respect Richard Dawkins. I love his writing about evolution, genetics, and zoology. I love The Blind Watchmaker, The View from Mount Improbable, and The God Delusion. He is a great thinker, a great writer and a person who has done a lot for atheism around the world. I admire his academic career immensely, and I wish to emulate his commitment to educating the public. I am a huge fan. It absolutely guts me to see him casually dismiss Rebecca’s concerns, and by proxy the concerns of all women in these situations. It shows a complete lack of empathy and an unwillingness to step outside of his male social role and imagine what it might be like to be a woman. To have men feel they have a right to hit on him whenever they want to, regardless of how he feels about it. To have a substantial chance of being raped in his lifetime.

Dawkins says that he doesn’t understand how Rebecca could be so hurt by mere words. Do we really need to explain that words mean things, words cause harm, words can be used to threaten, intimidate and abuse people? Do we really have to explain this to an adult human being? Yes, obviously it’s worse to both verbally and physically assault someone, but that doesn’t make it okay to use words to make them uncomfortable.

The other issue Dawkins raised is the fact that western women have it much better than women  in the Middle East, so we shouldn’t focus on the plight of western women at all. It is definitely true that women as a class face must greater oppression in those nations, but that doesn’t mean that Western women are not allowed to be concerned about issues in our own lives. In fact, surely the plight of women in the Sudan is much more important than say, I don’t know, the academic field of zoology for example. Therefore nobody should ever spend time doing zoological research because that detracts from our focus on women being raped in the Sudan. So unless you’re quitting your job to go help out in the Sudan, don’t come at me with this. You’re allowed to surf the internet in your spare time, I’m allowed to talk about the ways in which I feel unsafe in public because of how men treat me in my spare time.

Overall, It’s very hard for women to come into atheist and skeptical spaces when we know this attitude prevails. The men inside the movement have to take some responsibility for their own behaviour and start working to change this, or not only will there not be more women in the community anytime soon, but there may very well be fewer of them. That’s bad for everyone. Surely even the most self-involved atheists must be aware that the movement for a more secular society needs all the support it can get. Of course, you should care about how women feel because women are human beings. But if that’s not enough for you, how about this: start paying attention to how women feel, or we are all going to lose.


8 Comments on The Lament of the Atheist Feminist

  1. Shaina says:

    Your claim to be both an Atheist and a Feminist is interesting. As a fellow Atheist, I am somewhat puzzled as to how this is possible.

    You see, life is inherently pointless except for biology and biological continuity. Any and all claims that “life’s meaning is for the individual to decide” is masturbatory circular logic. To claim that the purpose of life is to enjoy it is undeniably circular and leads to a low-grade sense of self-indulgence and selfish pursuit culminating in a narcissistic nihilism and hedonism.

    So where were we? Ah yes, biology. You have one purpose. You are an incubator. Don’t feel bad. I am too. Men of power and strength vie for the ability to fertilize us as we vie for the honor of being fertilized. We give birth. The process starts anew.

    This goes the same for every species. The purpose of life is continuity. Reproduction. It is only in the human species that a group has challenged this.

    Ironically, I also fail to understand why fellow Skeptics endorse Homosexuality. Again, it impedes the reproductive goals of humanity.

    We are but one species on one planet in one solar system. One day we will cease to exist. We have but one purpose: to surge forward.

    Morals are fabrication. Rights are fabrication. Intrinsic human value is fabrication. Eternality is fabrication. They are all interconnected.

    Everything that distracts you from the transience, impermanence and pointlessness of this existence is fabrication.

    Why rebel against it. Why resist. Accept it. We are puppets who can see the strings.

    We are animals who know we are animals.

    We are the hearing at a convention for the deaf.

    So we can choose to rebel against the laws of nature. We can choose to delude ourselves with talks of “rights” and “values” and “right” and “wrong,” but all of these words lack any real traction against the emptiness on either side of our brief existence. To what end?

    No, rather than taking some false comfort in some pseudo-salvific nonsense, I will take hold of my identity as a mother.

    • Connie Connie says:

      I am providing a reply for the public record, but would like to note it is not our responsibility to engage and educate people with this level of ignorance (or trolls for that matter). We will be deleting further comments attempting to advance any similar views.

      The following views are entirely my own:

      Regardless of the commenter’s views on humanism (which seem to rely on the commenter’s complete lack of empathy and respect for their fellow humans and unsubstantiated claims about human behaviour), the biological/reproductive argument is a complete fallacy considering we are facing the overpopulation of humankind (which threatens our continued ability to rely on the earth’s resources and sustainably sustain the human race). If the commenter wanted to express an extreme, oppressive view if anything, they should advocate killing off a percentage of people who are fertile to manage the population and resource problem.

      Even if a zombie apocalypse were to eradicate most of the human population, I think respect and empathy for individual human life and well-being would still prevent me from advocating such a view.

      Other members of The League may also want to add their own 2 cents.

    • Rachael Rachael says:

      OP here: Of course, readers, Shaina is right. We human beings can never be anything but machines programmed to reproduce. Nope, not even a machine programmed to reproduce and also a great pianist or mathematician. Only a reproduction unit. That’s why no human being has ever intentionally lived their whole lives without creating progeny. In fact there is simply nothing outside of our evolutionary purpose, and never will be: no organism can ever exhibit traits that are useless or harmful to the organism itself, because all traits are definitely adaptive (this is FACT, regardless of what actual evolutionary biologists say). Humans should stop trying to find fulfillment and meaning in their lives beyond perpetuating the species.

      Clearly the cumulative knowledge of human experience suggests that childless people are usually depressed, while people with many children exist in a state of near-perpetual bliss. And there are simply no other sources of happiness we humans have ever discovered. And if you enjoy being a mother, obviously I will enjoy it too. Evolution means there is absolutely no variation ever within species. It is impossible that any individual of the species could be any different to others due to mutation. That is certainly not an inevitable occurance during mitosis or a foundation stone of natural selection or anything.

      As a result, there is no way we humans could ever better our own communal existence by creating complex systems of governance, economics, law or social structures. And since we can’t ever create them, we certainly shouldn’t worry about making them GOOD. We should accept that we will live in base anarchy forever, or be ruled by whoever proves in combat to be the most violent and bloodthirsty person in the immediate area. I can’t believe I didn’t see the merit in this plan before.

      Oh wait…

  2. Your Blogger says:

    Beneath the post, but above the comments, it currently says ‘3 Awesome Responses’. Given the quality of the first I feel I would be remiss in some way if I didn’t draw your attention to this error.

    Cool blog otherwise,

    Your Blogger

  3. Officialnoob says:

    I heard one of the MOST ignorant comments regarding this Rebecca Watson incident. I was literally floored. Some woman said “If he was going to rape her he wouldn’t have ‘blown his chances’ like that.” (the way he approached her)

    Wouldn’t have blown his chances?! ASDFASDFASDF! *headslamsondeskrepeadedly* What is that I don’t even. When it comes to rape there is NO SUCH THING as ‘blowing your chances’ in that manner! UGH!

    • Rachael Rachael says:

      Oh my god, I hadn’t heard that response. That is beyond appalling. What does it even mean? That seems to imply that asking Rebecca up to his hotel room means he certainly would never have raped her, because…what? Because he asked her to come back rather than putting her in a headlock on sight?

      Sometimes I think these people think all rapists and abusers are cartoon villains who go around shoving people into traffic while the Darth Vader theme plays. Newsflash, people, a lot of abusers look and act like everyone else, that’s how they get away with it.

      • Officialnoob says:

        I’m not even sure what it actually means, though I think it means that they believe that if he was going to rape her he’d have been more charming at first to lower her guard.

        But, we’re talking about a person that thinks they can fight off truckers that are serial killers because they’re ‘big enough’ and muscular enough to fight back, and that they wouldn’t be targeted anyway because said trucking serial killers are used to easy prey such as sickly, skinny meth-jonesing prostitutes and won’t bother with a big healthy woman. Their friends even believe this too.

        Not to mention there was an odd situation where someone called someone else out for making a rape joke, and this person jumped on the person being critical of the rape joke, saying, “WTF I MAKE RAPE JOKES ALL THE TIME AND YOU LAUGH!”

        This same person made a remark about how it’s always fat, never skinny women, that have the rape whistles dangling from their necks. As if fat women never have to worry about being raped because we all know it’s only the attractive or skinny women that are raped, AMIRITE? Good grief…*faceplant*

  4. all 3 says:

    Now that is some magnificent writing.


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