A toast to all our saviours, each so badly behaved?


I’ve been thinking about our heroes, what we expect of them, and how we turn on them. Two things have happened in the last few days to bring this up. The first of these was, unsurprisingly, Elevatorgate. The second was some conversations I’ve had with a friend* about Kate Bornstein- someone who I think is lovely, and who my friend has serious criticisms of and doesn’t like because of this.

I’m thinking of what we ask of the people we admire from a distance. The people who we have heard of, who we know as activists, whose work we read and are inspired by. The people we look to as spokespeople.

I’m thinking about how quickly we reject them.

Here’s the thing. Dawkins, in my opinion, has behaved abominably in relation to ElevatorGate. However, any of his behaviour from now on can’t negate his past work. A Devil’s Chaplain will always be dog-eared holiday nights, finally making sense of my lack of belief. The Ancestor’s Tale will always be the book I read oh-so-carefully, in whose detail and scale I found such profound, mindboggling awe.

I think that we reject people so strongly, not in spite of having admired them, but because we did. Because it’s hard to reconcile the fact that inspiration and ignorance can come from the same person. Because it’s hard, I think, to accept that a person who taught you so much can be so clueless. It makes us question ourselves, question everything we learned from that person in the first place. Question the times we admired them, the times we defended them.

And that’s hard. That’s hard work. It means learning to see these people as our equals. Learning to look at everyone- even our heroes- critically. Learning to accept that they’re just people who are as flawed as ourselves, who mess up as much as we do.

It’s a lot easier to just reject them wholesale.

I’m not recommending that we leave Dawkins (or whoever) off. The guy messed up, and needs to deal with what that means and what it implies. Messing up has consequences. And it should.

I do think, however, that we should be conscious of how we react when people we admire do godawful, ignorant things. And before we reject them wholesale, think about whether we’re rejecting them because of the ignorant thing they did, or because of the inspiring things before that.

*If you’re reading this, I didn’t name you because, hello, privacy. I’ll pop your name in if you like, though.

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.