As the world’s most famous atheist, Richard Dawkins is no stranger to criticism from religious believers.
In past months, however, some of his opinions have riled many in the atheist community as well.
Remarks he made on Twitter and elsewhere on subjects ranging from sexual harassment (“stop whining”) to Down syndrome fetuses (“abort and try again”) to pedophilia and rape (some attacks on children and women are “worse” than others) have sparked suggestions he would serve atheism better by keeping quiet.
Recently, the 73-year-old British evolutionary biologist and best-selling New York Times author — on a speaking tour through the San Francisco Bay Area in support of his new memoir, “An Appetite for Wonder” — sat down with a reporter.
Bottom line: He stands by everything he has said — including comments that a drunken woman who is raped might be responsible for her fate.
“I don’t take back anything that I’ve said,” Dawkins said. “I would not say it again, however, because I am now accustomed to being misunderstood and so I will…”
He trailed off momentarily, gazing at his hands.
“I feel muzzled, and a lot of other people do as well,” he continued. “There is a climate of bullying, a climate of intransigent thought police which is highly influential in the sense that it suppresses people like me.”
Recent criticism of Dawkins has come from women, many of them within the atheist movement, which has long drawn more men to its ranks.
Writing for Salon last month, atheist activist Amanda Marcotte said: “People like Dawkins … are the public face of atheism. And that public face is one that is defensively and irrationally sexist. It’s not only turning women away from atheism, it’s discrediting the idea that atheists are actually people who argue from a position of rationality. How can they be, when they cling to the ancient, irrational tradition of treating women like they aren’t quite as human as men?”
Some atheist men, too, are unhappy.
“There’s no denying that Dawkins played a formative role in the atheist movement, but it’s grown beyond just him,” Adam Lee wrote in The Guardian. “Remarks like these make him a liability at best, a punchline at worst.
“He may have convinced himself that he’s the Most Rational Man Alive, but if his goal is to persuade everyone else that atheism is a welcoming and attractive option, Richard Dawkins is doing a terrible job.”
Dawkins disagrees. He is, he said, not a misogynist, as some critics have called him, but “a passionate feminist.” The greatest threats to women, in his view, are Islamism and jihadism — and his concern over those sometimes leads him to speak off-the-cuff.
“I concentrate my attention on that menace, and I confess I occasionally get a little impatient with American women who complain of being inappropriately touched by the water cooler or invited for coffee or something which I think is, by comparison, relatively trivial,” he said.
“And so I occasionally wax a little sarcastic, and I when I have done that, I then have subsequently discovered some truly horrific things, which is that some of the women who were the butt of my sarcasm then became the butt of really horrible or serious threats, which is totally disgusting and I know how horrible that is and that, of course, I absolutely abominate and absolutely repudiate and abhor.”
Supporters point to the work of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, which many credit with helping to normalize atheism with its “out” campaign, aimed at getting atheists to go public about their lack of religious faith. The foundation also works to remove the influence of religion on science education.
Todd Stiefel, who has teamed up with Dawkins recently to launch Openly Secular, an anti-discrimination campaign, says that despite the controversies, Dawkins continues to be a “brilliant asset,” but that he is just one voice.
Hemant Mehta, who has covered Dawkins on his widely read blog, The Friendly Atheist, cited Dawkins’ 12 books as “elegant explanations” and “beautiful prose.” But that doesn’t carry over to Twitter’s 140 characters.
“He’s supposed to be the expert at communication. That’s the title he held at Oxford for so long,” Mehta said. “He, of all people, should realize that not all audiences will respond to him the same way — and he needs to adjust. He hasn’t done that yet.”