Does Atheism Have a Misogyny Problem?

Nighttime shows in Las Vegas feature all sorts of large mammals: lions, tigers, bears, and the rest. So if you had happened to poke your head into The Amazing Meeting, a 1,600-strong skeptic and atheist conference last month, you might be excused for assuming that the giant elephant in the room had escaped from some circus on the Strip. But you’d be wrong. That elephant in the room with us was our own. There’s no pachyderm in Vegas—or on Earth—that big, or that ugly.

This elephant was born in July, when a well-known skeptic blogger named Rebecca Watson, who maintains the “Skepchick” website, complained in a video about something that had happened to her at an atheist conference in Dublin. She had been out with a large group of conference guests at the hotel bar, and finally at four in the morning announced that she was exhausted and headed up to bed. One of the men from the group followed her into the elevator, and said, “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?” Watson declined and went off to bed as planned.

In her video, she described the encounter as an example of the kind of insensitivity toward women that drives them out of the skeptic and atheist communities. The unnamed Elevator Guy should have known better than to proposition her after she had just announced she wanted to go to bed, she said. In a panel discussion earlier that day—which he had attended—she had even spoken about misogyny in the atheist community and about her distaste for being objectified. It’s understandable, she added, that a woman might feel nervous at being propositioned by a stranger in an enclosed space where she can’t escape if need be.

“Guys, don’t do that,” she urged.

Watson’s complaint sparked a minor debate on various atheist and skeptic blogs, which then exploded into a major one when Richard Dawkins, bestselling author of books like The God Delusion, and one of the indisputable leaders of the contemporary atheist movement, chimed in to chide her for overreacting. He left a comment on another popular atheist blog, PZ Myers’ Pharyngula, sarcastically comparing Watson’s experience to the much more serious problems faced by women in the Muslim world. He then followed it up with two more comments insisting that “zero bad” had happened to her in that elevator. An outpouring of thousands of comments as well as additional posts from popular atheist bloggers like Phil Plait, Greta Christina, and Jen McCreight replied to Dawkins. Some defended him, but even more took him to task for his dismissiveness.

Amid the Mudslinging, Some Thoughtful Discussion

By the time The Amazing Meeting rolled into Vegas, nerves were raw. It seemed like everyone was both sick of hearing about Elevatorgate, and still nursing at least a little irritation toward what they perceived as either the sexism and insensitivity or the political correctness of their fellow atheists. Those of us in attendance dealt with it the best way we knew how—by joking about it. When that got old, we resorted to jokes about how bad our jokes were. Underneath the layers of meta-humor, however, it was clear that the heated argument had taken a toll on the atheist and skeptic community.

But the internet explosion wasn’t without its benefits. If you had managed to elbow your way through the melee without getting splattered by stray mudslinging, or accidentally whacked by someone going to town on a straw man, you might have noticed some genuinely thoughtful, nuanced ethical discussions taking place. For the most part, they were couched in the language of rights—albeit non-legal, social ones: Do men have the “right” to proposition women, even if it might make women uncomfortable? Does Watson have the “right” to ask men to change their behavior? And do men have the “right” to dispute how women should or shouldn’t feel in such situations?

From his comments, it’s clear that Dawkins subscribes to a relatively austere conception of rights: as long as you’re not openly threatening or abusing people, you’re not violating their rights, and so any discomfort they may feel with your behavior is something they need to deal with on their own. “Rebecca’s feeling that the man’s proposition was ‘creepy’ was her own interpretation of his behavior, presumably not his,” Dawkins said. He didn’t dispute that Rebecca felt uncomfortable, but he maintained that she had nevertheless not been harmed, because her rights were not violated—what happened was “not even slightly bad, it was zero bad,” he insisted.

By contrast, many of Watson’s supporters maintained that the right to say whether harm had occurred lay with the target, not the perpetrator. “You don’t get to tell people how to feel. You don’t get to tell people that what they experienced was ‘zero bad,’” wrote one Skepchick reader in an open letter to Dawkins. Others argued that privileged men like Dawkins could never understand a woman’s experience of these situations, and should defer to women’s judgment about the inappropriateness of Elevator Guy’s behavior. “When I read a woman saying she was offended or made uncomfortable, I don’t question it… I have no right to tell her or anyone how they should have felt,” one sympathetic commenter wrote.

A Utilitarian Solution

The problem with a rights approach, however, is that it doesn’t provide much of a framework for resolving disagreements. If I insist people have certain rights, and you insist that, no, they have different rights, we’re left in deadlock with no way to weigh our respective ideas of rights against each other. Add to that the fact that emotions were already running high, and it’s no wonder that Elevatorgate has been going on so long with so little resolution. It’s strange to say this about a group of nerds who normally inspire eye-rolls with their tendency to overanalyze everything, but I think our problem in Elevatorgate was that we weren’t being analytical enough.

For starters, instead of arguing about rights, we could have taken a utilitarian approach, in which the focus is on maximizing overall utility, or well-being. That would have allowed us to hash out some important empirical questions: What percentage of women would feel uncomfortable in a situation like Watson’s? What percentage of women would actually enjoy such a proposition, either because they would find it flattering or because they might actually be interested in a tryst with a stranger? How much of an imposition would it be on men to ask them to change their behavior? It’s obviously impossible to measure these quantities precisely, but even some rough estimates would have gone a long way toward determining which unofficial policy for situations like Elevatorgate would yield the best outcome.

The philosopher J. L. Mackie offered a memorable thought experiment about how to choose your ethical views in his book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. You may be confident that your car will never get stuck in a ditch, or that if it did, you would be able to fix the problem yourself. So you might be tempted, he said, to endorse the maxim, “No one is obliged to help someone else’s car out of a ditch.” But not everyone is lucky enough to have a sturdy car and not everyone shares your preference for self-reliance. And you’re going to have a hard time convincing others to take your ethical views seriously if those views are too obviously retrofitted to your own circumstances and personality.

So, to apply Mackie’s argument to Elevatorgate, the people arguing that we have no obligation to accommodate the discomfort of women in situations like Watson’s might consider whether they’re akin to the driver telling himself that he wouldn’t ever need help, so therefore he feels no obligation to help other people who stuck. In other words, if you’ve never encountered situations which make you skittish about being propositioned in an elevator—or if you have, but prefer to deal with your discomfort yourself—you should make sure that you’re not retrofitting your ethical maxim (i.e., “People have no obligation to concern themselves with the comfort of women in those situations”) to your own situation.

We still might not all agree about how people should behave. In fact, I’m sure we won’t. But at the very least, trying to examine our ethical intuitions from a more objective vantage point would go a long way towards keeping us out of future Elevatorgates, by helping us look past our own personal ethical intuitions to consider whether the people who disagree with us might have a point. And that would be a relief. Because you can take it from me that having an elephant in the room makes it awfully difficult to have a good conversation; and to be frank, they’re no picnic to clean up after, either.