Last updated on 22 Jun 2018
The recent furore, called #elevatorgate on Twitter, about what Richard Dawkins said in response to complaints of sexism amongst atheists, has hit Gawker, who finish with the line: “That’s skeptics. Rational about everything except themselves, self-preservation, and manners.”
Now without discussing personalities (for as a Tone Moderator I eschew mere ad hominem) there’s a general point to make here. It is this: be careful of the fallacies of composition, division, hasty generalisation and difference. In short, don’t incorrectly extend the properties of one man to the whole movement, from the movement to the individuals that comprise it, or focus on the unique traits of a movement as if it were somehow isolated from the wider society in which it exists.
Of course there are sexists in the atheist movement and the skeptic movement (which, by the way, are not identical)! This is because they exist in a society in which people generally are sexists. If there weren’t sexists amongst atheists and skeptics, then the movement would be a movement of antisexists, not atheists or skeptics. Issues are not linked by conceptual cement. They move around independently of each other.
I think it is perfectly reasonable to ask that men at atheist or skeptic conferences behave with sensitivity. Likewise, I think that it is perfectly reasonable to ask that these groups fight against the subjugation and mutilation of women in other societies too. These are not mutually exclusive moral claims. Moreover, simply because one old man is the product of empire and thinks that some activities are harmless (like trying to hook up at conferences), it doesn’t follow this is thereby going to be a defining character for everyone else in any movement they may happen to be part of.
No matter how much of a leader in these movements Dawkins may be, he is not authoritative in every respect (or, given the nature of skeptical reasoning, in any, really, although I’m going to believe him when he talks about ethology, the topic of his doctorate; oddly, he rarely does). He is not Pope, nor is he, nor even Bertrand Russell, infallible ex cathedra. What I find most heartening is that the atheist movement immediately did criticise his sexism, as mild as it may have been. We aren’t blindly following authority here (for the purposes of this debate I will self-identify with atheism for simplicity).
In case anyone is still confused, here’s a Venn diagram:
I hope this clears things up.