Defending Sexism at The Reason Rally

Hemant Mehta, who runs The Friendly Atheist blog, and who has been helping to organize The Reason Rally, has recently addressed a number of criticisms of The Reason Rally.

But surprisingly, Mehta’s argument is that the documented sexism of some of the biggest speakers is just not a big deal! As he puts it, “Yes, Bill Maher and Penn Jillette have their faults, but they amplify our way of thinking more than just about anyone else.” Therefore, it is still worth having them speak because “we need big-name celebrities to attend.” He goes on to comment:

You can argue that the Rally needs higher “standards,” but you’re missing the point. This isn’t just about us. This isn’t just about spreading science and atheism. This is about drawing attention to our movement. This is about getting media attention.

There’s no doubt about it. Bill Maher, Penn Jillette, and Richard Dawkins will all draw attention to The Reason Rally. So will the presence of the Westboro protestors, who despite their character flaws, have also been officially invited to add their voice to Saturday’s event.

In this post, I want to look at three different topics in response:

  1. Is it true that Bill Maher, Penn Jillette, and Richard Dawkins have all made blatantly sexist comments?
  2. Are these comments representative of a broader problem in the atheist movement?
  3. What does it say about The Reason Rally that an organizer of the event is arguing that a higher standard—such as “no sexism”—should not disqualify speakers?

Before getting to those points, two clarifications are important:

  1. Yes, I’m aware that Christians can be sexist as well. If, like me, you have a problem with Christians being sexist, you should agree that atheists shouldn’t be sexist either. I’m writing this post because Mehta, a Reason Rally organizer, has defended sexism among the speakers at The Reason Rally because they want the publicity.
  2. I know that many atheists, agnostics, free-thinkers, and other skeptics are strongly opposed to sexism. In fact, at the end of this post, I acknowledge and feature atheists who are objecting to the widespread sexism that they say currently exists within their own movement. If that describes you, join with me in advocating for higher standards at The Reason Rally.

Is it true that Bill Maher, Penn Jillette, and Richard Dawkins have all made blatantly sexist comments?

There are clear examples of sexism from each of these individuals.

Bill Maher

Whatever his virtues are (he is an advisory board member at Sam Harris’ Project Reason), Bill has:

  • Recently defended “Rush Limbaugh’s sexist attacks on Sandra Fluke” as a “bad joke” and calling the criticism of Limbaugh an attack on “free speech.”
  • Used the terms “dumb twat, bimbos, and c***” to describe Representative Michele Bachmann and Governor Sarah Palin
  • Has used a similar term in discussing Hillary Clinton.

Penn Jillette

  • In response to a woman’s article about Super Bowl ads, he commented: “What a remarkably stupid c***. Why did I read this? Strained comedy that does exactly what she’s busting. Horrible. How about not watching? This is just someone trying to hate people and be superior and having to work really hard at it. She does the same f***ing joke 4 times and pats herself on the back for it. I’ve never seen any of these ads, and never will, but what a f***ing talentless c***.”
  • In commentary on the 2008 Democratic primary, he ‘joked’: “Obama is just creaming Hillary. You know, all these primaries, you know. And Hillary says it’s not fair, because they’re being held in February, and February is Black History Month. And unfortunately for Hillary, there’s no White B**** Month.”
  • When Mallorie Nasrallah, an atheist woman, celebrated the prominence of dirty jokes about women in skeptical communities, Penn Jillette said she had written “something really wonderful about her experiences.”

Richard Dawkins

  • Dawkins has referred to Mary the mother of Jesus as a “‘submissive cosmic doormat” and called the Immaculate Conception “a disgusting theological idea.”
  • Last summer, Rebecca Watson, who had just given a talk on sexism in the skeptical community at a conference, was subsequently propositioned by a creepy man in the elevator on the way to her room. She posted a response video on her blog with the message “Don’t do that” because the experience was obviously pretty uncomfortable. Dawkins then went to the trouble to respond to her video, commenting that she should “stop whining,” “grow up” and “grow a thicker skin.” Dawkins subsequent explanations of his comment only made things worse, to the point that Rebecca eventually suggested that other atheists simply refuse to buy Richard Dawkins’ books.

Are these comments representative of a broader problem with the atheist movement?

Are these problems widespread in the skeptic community? According to at least three different atheist leaders, they definitely are.

Rebecca Watson

At her site, Rebecca Watson has documented a number of sexist comments in the atheists community (e.g., here  and here).  As she states, “The fact is that women are marginalized to the point of leaving the atheist/skeptic movement.”

P.Z. Myers

P.Z. Myers agrees with Watson. In a post entitled “Atheism has a sexism problem” he says,

It’s rather like a case of acne; we’ve got it, people are pointing it out, and we’re trying out denial as a solution. It doesn’t work. I think Victoria Bekiempis is quite right in pointing out that New Atheism is a boys’ club.

Hemant Mehta

As Mehta himself wrote on The Friendly Atheist just two months ago, in response to one of Jillette’s sexist comments that was mentioned above, “If you’ve been hanging around the freethought communities lately, you’ve probably heard a lot about sexism. You’ve probably heard plenty of women sharing their experiences: feeling objectified, feeling dismissed, feeling threatened, feeling constantly sexualized.”

In other words, a number of leaders in the skeptical community have been saying for a while now that sexism is a serious and widespread problem in the contemporary atheism movement, and that atheists need to work hard to change this negative culture.

So what does it say about The Reason Rally that an organizer of the event is arguing that a higher standard—such as “no sexism”—should not disqualify speakers?

I will be pleased to update this post and give proper credit if, at The Reason Rally, there are repeated and strong statements denouncing the problem of sexism in the skeptical community. In particular, it would be a step forward if Maher, Jillette, and Dawkins each acknowledge the problem and makes a commitment to live differently in the future.

Given that the problem is admittedly widespread, and that the featured speakers for The Reason Rally includes repeat offenders precisely because they will generate more publicity for The Reason Rally, it is that much more important for other speakers at The Reason Rally to speak against the problem of sexism in their community.

But as it stands, the organizing leadership of The Reason Rally, as represented in this post by Mehta, is making the wrong choice by arguing against raising the moral standards of the skeptical community. To argue against higher standards in this case amounts to an implicit endorsement and acceptance of sexism among atheist movement leaders.

I hope that many atheists will speak up in disagreement with this approach. If the organizers of The Reason Rally really want the publicity that Penn Jillette, Bill Maher, and Richard Dawkins bring to their event, then they also need to recognize that part of what these speakers highlight at The Reason Rally is the widespread problem of sexism among the atheist community.