Conference musings: Atheists, non-atheists, and the Four Horsemen.


One of the criticisms that’s often levelled at The Atheist Movement(TM) is that we’re composed almost entirely of middle-aged white guys. That our spokespeople are all white guys. That we all blindly hang on every word that comes from Richard Dawkins’ lips. That Dawkins et al are the leaders of our movement.

Nothing could have debased that notion as much as this weekend. Two things this weekend, to be precise.

The first were the hecklers. A group of Islamists* who came to the conference specifically to confront Dawkins. They showed up only for the two panels that Dawkins was included in, and Maryam Namazie’s (amazing!) keynote speech at the end of the conference. The rest of the time they spent at a stall they had put up outside the conference, arguing with anyone who got close enough.

The second was a PZ Myers’ reply to the contention that humans are ‘wired’ for hero-worship. He pointed out that as a professional scientist/academic, he has been trained to criticise and question. That there are people who he admires, and that this admiration is often expressed through questioning and criticism.

By yesterday evening, it was a group of exhilerated, exhausted people who pottered down the road from the hotel to grab a bite to eat in Eddie Rockets. While we talked about an awful lot of things- in that exciteable, giddy, stopping-and-starting way that sleep-deprived people do- Dawkins wasn’t a major topic. Not one who eclipsed all others, anyway.

The atheist community is one of many, many disagreements. As a rule, one of the few things that most of us have in common is that tendency to criticise, to question. While we admire individuals, most of us are rarely inclined to hero-worship. It’s tough to be a skeptic and see anyone as infallible.

It wasn’t the atheists who spent the weekend hanging on to Dawkins’ every word. We were, it seemed, mainly delighted to have him there, delighted to have an opportunity to engage with him, delighted to perhaps thank him for what his work has meant to many of us. But it was the Islamists who showed up specifically for Dawkins, who insisted on speaking to him specifically, who weren’t interested in what the rest of us- excepting Namazie and possibly PZ Myers- had to say.

The atheist movement is not immune from sexism, racism, ageism, xenophobia, ablism. We are part of a society which suffers from all of these things. But from the inside, the Four Horsemen play a far smaller role than an outsider might see. From the inside, my atheist movement, and my skeptical movement, is the movement of Greta Christina, Maryam Namazie, Hemant Mehta, the Skepchicks, Jen McCreight and countless others. Many of whom are middle-aged white guys. But many of whom are not. And most of whom- no matter how much a lot of us may appreciate and admire their work- aren’t the Four Horsemen.

*Thank you to Maryam Namazie for pointing out, time and time again, the difference between Muslims and Islamists.

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4 thoughts on “Conference musings: Atheists, non-atheists, and the Four Horsemen.

  1. The atheist movement is not immune from sexism, racism, ageism, xenophobia, ablism

    Correct. I just wish the female atheist activist panel had acknowledged this instead of trivialising it. That was an opportunity missed. I agree with you that Maryam Namazie was great. Also, when I intervened to get Dawkins out from talking to Tzortzis, I was told (and it should be on tape somewhere) that he only wants to talk to Dawkins. Classic Creationist tactics, they don’t want an honest debate, they want to be seen with famous people.

    • Regarding the panel- absolutely! There seemed to be a lot of unexamined privilege going on there. I have loads more to say on that one, but I want to save it for another post in the next few days. Watch this space!

      And yep, re Tzotrzis et al. Well, it’s not like any of them were in the least bit open to changing their minds, or listening to what anyone had to say. It wasn’t an opportunity to learn for them, it was just a chance to get on film with RD.
      Sigh.

  2. I can only comment for myself, but having spoken to quite a few people about the panel and read the blogs I’m disappointed that I didn’t communicate better. I didn’t mean to trivialise the sexism that women encounter and I see that a lot of people thought that we did. I wanted to encourage women to speak up because often they don’t (which was an issue for me personally and demonstrated by my question/hands up at the start) and also talk about indirect/accidental discrimination (which I think is a big problem and a difficult one as it’s hard to get some people to see it). But those factors are not the whole story and I did spend more time on the speaking up part than the indirect/accidental sexism, which I should have put some more words and examples into. I didn’t appreciate that by not directly acknowledging the sexism that exists (and Rebecca Watson did a great job of illustrating) it could be seen as implying that such sexism isn’t out there and isn’t a problem. Of course it is. I’ve learnt from this experience and plan to do a better job if there is a next time.

    • Thanks for this! You know, one of the things that I really want to do is to talk about that panel in more depth, which I’ll do in a post in the next couple of days. However I can say for myself that it was your own talk that encouraged me to speak up (extensively!) through the rest of the conference. And I appreciate that. Dealing with the way that we, as women, have been socialised is so important, and it’s very easy to slip into putting ourselves down and contributing to the problem.
      Also, I have to say that reading your comment here is a lovely thing. One of my favourite things about skeptically-inclined people is our willingness to take criticism in a positive way. I think that’s awesome.

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