Unexamined Male Privilege in the Atheist Movement – Part I

I suppose every movement will have incidents where a significant number of members (including some who are positions of leadership and influence) just don’t get it when discussing issues of power, privilege, and social inequality.

For Unitarian Universalists, the two recent examples of this would be two incidents at their annual General Assembly conventions:

A recent incident and the responses to it should tell us that the atheist movement is facing its own moment where it is forced to confront unexamined power and privilege.

Rebecca Watson (a blogger at Skepchick) was a presenter at a recent atheist conference in Ireland where she delivered a presentation on issues of sexism and objectification of women in the atheist movement.

At this conference during the informal after-hours socializing time, Rebecca was talking with colleagues about her presentation and other issues. At 4 AM, she said she was tired and was leaving the hotel bar and heading back to her room to sleep.

For the elevator ride back to her floor, she was alone save one other passenger on the elevator. A male passenger who is spoken on the atheist blogosphere as the “Elevator Guy.”

During the elevator ride, the Elevator Guy says to Rebecca “Don’t take this the wrong way but I find you very interesting and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?”

Rebecca commented about the elevator incident on a YouTube video where she says “Just a word to the wise here guys … don’t do that.” She continues to explain how this elevator conversation made her feel uncomfortable based on the late hour, the isolated elevator setting, and how the conversation that evening touched on sexism and the objectification of women.

It sounds like yet another example on unthinking and unexamined privilege.

The biology professor and atheist blogger PZ Myers commented positively on Rebecca’s video post because she was highlighting a recurring problem in atheism:

Maybe we should also recognize that applying unwanted pressure, no matter how politely phrased, is inappropriate behavior. Maybe we should recognize that when we interact with equals there are different, expected patterns of behavior that many men casually disregard when meeting with women, and it is those subtle signs that let them know what you think of them that really righteously pisses feminist women off.

Then it take a turn for the worse with some of the comments on PZ’s blog.  Out of the internet woodwork comes every person who wants to trivialize Rebecca’s experience, how she overreacted, how this will keep atheist men from getting laid at conferences, etc.  A breathtaking display of “men’s rights activists” in all their glory.

When one feels that it’s gotten as bad as it’s going to get, the following blog comment from Richard Dawkins shows up responding to Rebecca’s “Elevator Guy” comments with this comment:

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.


The “how dare you complain about a local problem when there are much worse problems elsewhere” is a classic silencing and minimizing technique.  The blogger Blag Hag points out how Richard Dawkins is speaking from a position of unexamined privilege.

And yes  … PZ Myers does confirm on his blog that the Richard Dawkins comments are really from his and not someone pretending to be him.  Keep in mind that when people are defending your reputation by saying that we can’t be sure Richard Dawkins really wrote this comment, the comment might have been a mistake.

That’s all for now … more on this in Part II.

This entry was posted in Atheism, Sexuality, Unitarian Universalism. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Unexamined Male Privilege in the Atheist Movement – Part I

  1. Pingback: Behavioral Covenants and Atheist Meetings | Philosophical Penguins

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