Atheist Richard Dawkins Swings to Anti-Trans Right in Grasp at Broader Intellectual Relevance

Richard Dawkins at Protest the Pope Rally in London, September 2010. Image: Colin Grey/Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, Richard Dawkins tweeted a request to his followers, asking them to sign on to a declaration by UK-based anti-transgender advocacy group the Women’s Human Rights Campaign (WHRC).

Best known among anti-transgender circles for their proposed re-writing of the 1981 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in an attempt to deny access to gender-affirming care, accurate identity documents, and nondiscrimination protections to transgender and nonbinary people, the WHRC has also been directly linked to disinformation campaigns about international LGBT groups. 

The last time Dawkins publicly opposed justice for (and frankly the existence of) transgender people, he was more careful to couch his agenda in pseudo-intellectualism. In April, Dawkins tweeted one of his habitual socratic questions. “In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a white chapter president of NAACP, was vilified for identifying as Black. Some men choose to identify as women, and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as.” said Dawkins. “Discuss.” 

After being taken to task for equating Dolezal’s racism with trans identity, erasing the lives of Black trans women, and promoting casual debate over the existence of trans people, Dawkins doubled down behind his flimsy request for discussion. “I do not intend to disparage trans people,” he tweeted two days later. “I see that my academic ‘Discuss’ question has been misconstrued as such and I deplore this. It was also not my intent to ally in any way with Republican bigots in US now exploiting this issue.”  

The American Humanist Association withdrew its 1996 Humanist of the Year Award from Dawkins for the Dolezal tweet, writing that “Dawkins has over the past several years accumulated a history of making statements that use the guise of scientific discourse to demean marginalized groups, an approach antithetical to humanist values.” American Atheists responded as well, led by Alison Gill, Vice President for Legal and Policy, who is trans. “Trans people are under constant attack across our country. Implying that our identities are somehow fraudulent and questioning whether we even exist dehumanizes us and helps justify this violence.”

These aren’t Dawkins’ first, or even his tenth or hundredth, instances of hiding behind “intellectual rigor” to mimic right-wing rhetoric. In 2015, Harper’s editor Sophie Elmhirst asked “Is Richard Dawkins destroying his reputation?” At the time, Dawkins was under criticism for his tweets trivializing rape, likening airport security to the attacks on 9/11, and equating Islam to Nazi ideology. 

Atheist recruits to the Right

“Left-Right Crossover” or right-wing recruitment from the left has a long history. See, most famously, erstwhile titan of the pseudo-Left, Lyndon LaRouche. LaRouche began his ego-driven political career criticizing the Left for not being Left enough, and when faced with criticism of his own politics, pivoted to the hard Right

As anti-fascist researcher Spencer Sunshine has written, the Far Right (and other factions of the Right) has a long history of capitalizing on cultural Left issues, such as globalization or veganism, and offering a simple worldview to explain them. But, says Sunshine, quoting German writer Simone Rafael, who monitors the extreme Right, “In the end, it’s always about racism and anti-Semitism and nationalism.” 

As of 2015, when Sunshine authored his booklet on disrupting Far-Right recruitment in Left spaces, he had observed recruitment in “anti-war, progressive populist, radical Left, anarchist, environmental, animal rights, anti-Zionist, counter-cultural, and religious­ (especially esoteric, occult, and neopagan Heathen) circles.”

And, while atheism has a long history of exclusionary gate-keeping, the post-9/11 New Atheists are becoming the next wave of recruits, slingshotted by their extreme anti-Muslim rhetoric into irrelevance and bigotry. Atheist writer Adam Lee documented the rise of the New Atheists in 2019, tracking their resistance to a “call for the atheist movement to refocus its energy on issues crucial to a diverse community” that would be better reflective of the community of atheists, agnostics, humanists, “nones,” and non-religious and unchurched people in North America and Europe. 

Dawkins’ own response to the growing diversity of the movement and his corresponding irrelevance, has descended into petty ad homina, typified by his 2014 “Dear Muslima” letter in which he dismissed Western Feminism as being irrelevent in the face of the discrimination that women in Muslim countries face. In theory, criticism of myopic white feminism has a place in an atheism that seeks to eradicate oppression of all kinds, but Dawkins’ letter typified his egotistical neglect of intersectionality, placing himself as the arbiter of what feminism should and shouldn’t be, instead of turning to Muslim feminists who’ve been doing this work for a very long time (or indeed any feminists at all) to guide his rhetoric.   

During the heyday of the Bernie Bro, journalist Jude Doyle wrote about the danger of the angry, white male public intellectual. As intellectual spaces have become accessible to more than just the white men who held dominion for hundreds of years, Doyle notes, and cultural awareness of the racism of Islamophobia has risen, it’s caused some men to “wield their authority more anxiously, and brutally, to those who challenge it.” 

Evolutionary psychology and Christian-Right theology become indistinguishable

Dawkins is too smart to not have known that his apparently-socratic questioning of trans identity on Twitter would fuel the flames of anti-trans advocacy. Right-wing media is already hailing Dawkins as a martyr of woke cancel culture for “Questioning Transgenderism” as the Daily Wire put it. And conservative paper The Washington Examiner called him, ironically, “the latest apostate from the church of progressive humanism.” 

Dawkins is also too smart to not know that the UK and US are currently hosting a violent resurgence of anti-trans advocacy, propped up by a deep infrastructure of anti-trans medical professionals and their organizations. As Aviva Stahl reports for BuzzFeed News

“organizations with seemingly professional names like the American College of Pediatricians or the Society for Evidence-Based Gender Medicine have effectively accomplished for gender dysphoria what anti-vaxxer medical professionals have sought to do for their cause: give credence to the notion that no scientific or medical consensus exists regarding the relative safety and efficacy of a given treatment, despite the clear and growing evidence to the contrary.” 

This is a process of “credentialing,” by which medical mis- and disinformation can be given the appearance of broader adoption by simply being repeated by someone with a medical or other higher degree. Of course, as Stahl reminds us, “Every major medical association in the United States has issued statements supporting gender-affirming care for youth that have met specific diagnostic criteria.” 

Dawkins’ own medical background and reliance on evolutionary psychology to guide his atheism may be his undoing here. As Adam Lee points out, evolutionary psychology “becomes a pseudoscience when it’s misused to claim that our current wealth distribution, gender roles or racial hierarchies are ‘natural” and therefore immutable.’” At what point do evolutionary psychology and narrow Christian-Right gender essentialist theology become indistinguishable? Does it matter whether or not they’re distinguishable if they’re furthering the same racist, anti-feminist, anti-trans agenda? 

As Alison Gill of American Atheists said in her response to Dawkins’ April tweet, “We need science communicators like Richard Dawkins to put in the time to learn this information and then communicate it clearly and accurately to the public, not reinforce dangerous and harmful narratives put forward by the opponents of equality.” 

In an episode of white male pundits, erm, eating their own tails, Glenn Greenwald wrote a 2013 critical column about Sam Harris and the other New Atheists’ Islamophobia. Pot, meet kettle. In 2021, we find ourselves in a timeline in which Greenwald himself is spreading transphobic rhetoric and granting multiple interviews to Tucker Carlson (whom Greenwald calls a socialist), giving right-wing rhetoric access to his substantial online following. Truly the dangerous death throes of another angry, white male intellectual destroying his own reputation. And, while Dawkins may not be booked on TruNews in the foreseeable future, he’s able to do real harm on Twitter all by himself.