Posted on August 3, 2011 by

What do you get when you cross atheism and skepticism with radical feminism? If this isn’t an interesting question for you then you should read no further. I think it’s interesting that radical feminism can make enemies of both the atheist/skeptical and traditionalist Christian communities. It also can be used as an example of how people tend to let unconscious biases color their perceptions.

The Short and Sweet Synopsis

Some background. There is a relatively small but influential group of people who refer to themselves as members of the skeptical community. These people , some of whom are religious, some of whom are agnostic, and some of whom are atheist tend to have scientific interests and feel that the role of science is important in society and so often feel they must (or find it fascinating to do so) debunk popular superstitions such as astrology. Because some of the most prominent (though not all) of the members of this community are atheists, and because being an atheist can make one very unpopular, the term “atheist” is often separated out and the overall community is known as the atheist/skeptical community. Of course, like all groups of people with similar interests they often like to get together whether online or at real life meetings such as TAM a.k.a The Amazing Meeting. For years it has been noted that the atheist/skeptical community is predominately male, and lack of females at events and get-togethers is a common complaint. Things seem to have gotten somewhat better over time, and women within the community disagree as to what causes the issue, what seems to be somewhat mitigating it, and what to do to finish solving it. Our story starts early in June of this year. Rebecca Watson, a fairly prominent atheist blogger was at a conference in Dublin, Ireland. She gave a speech, which is available at the links below, where she talked about some issues of male sexism in the so-called “Skeptical” community. After the speech, she hung out in a hotel bar till roughly 4am in the morning. According to her, as she was leaving to go to her room, a man whom she had seen at the speech and in the bar asked her if she would like to go up to his room for a coffee in a very self-effacing way. Watson rebuffed his advances, and then man politely respected her “no” and did not bother her again. As this was late at night, and in an enclosed area –the elevator – Watson felt uncomfortable and a bit threatened , and so she mentioned the incident in the next video on her blog. It was not the main thrust of the video, instead Ms. Watson calmly mentioned the incident towards the middle, and left some advice “men, don’t do this”.

A student female skeptic blogger by the name of Stephanie McGraw saw the video and made a mild (at least it seems so to me) post on her much less well known blog where she basically told Ms. Watson not to generalize men as harassers, and not to presume to speak for all skeptical women. While this was happening some of what Ms. Watson had said in her video was getting pushbacks from men in the comments of various atheist/skeptical sites like PZ Meyers blog, PHARYNGULA, who similarly felt accused as a group, of bad approach etiquette towards women. This caused some feminists to defend Watson and started heating up various flamewars. Over time it emerged that there were two types of feminist responses to the issue which might be termed “gynocentric” and “egalitarian”. Some feminists felt and wrote that Elevator Guy –which, as he has never been named is what he is called – or EG, was a sexist pig who obviously heard Watson say she didn’t want to be picked up or hit on during either the speech she gave or certainly doing her time in the bar. According to this narrative, EG deliberately ignored Ms. Watson’s express wishes and instead chose to corner her in an elevator late at night and proposition her for sex. The egalitarian feminists, on the other hand, would say that EG probably was merely shy and socially clueless and might not have been propositioning Ms. Watson at all.

Stung or offended by McGraw’s criticism, Watson took the debate public at a conference for younger student atheists that both were attending, Watson as speaker, and McGraw as an audience member. After having discussed the incident and flashed some examples of hateful and misogynistic emails that she had received, Watson spoke about McGraw’s opinion piece. While she sat in the audience, McGraw was accused of basically being a gender traitor by helping promote misogyny. McGraw felt devastated as due to the rules of the forum –where one only gets 60 second to ask a question or make a statement that the Speaker can ignore and where the Speaker would have the last word- she felt she was being publically attacked with no way to defend herself. So she went back to her blog and wrote a post.

Meanwhile a flame war over the original issue continued with much use of terms such as “rape culture” and “misogyny” being thrown around, showing that when it comes to contentious issues , skeptics can be just as irrational as anyone else. Richard Dawkins (author of The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, and The God Delusion, books infamously unpopular with Christians everywhere and inventor of the “meme” concept) weighed in on Meyer’s blog, comparing Watson’s plight in the elevator and the amount of alleged sexism in the man’s approach with the plight of a woman in the Muslim world and basically stating that RW had nothing to complain about. This caused an even bigger uproar as Dawkins is an internationally famous and respected proponent of atheism and skepticism, and most of the “gynocentric” branch of feminism “circled the wagons” feeling that if someone of the stature of Richard Dawkins would defend EG that sexism within the skeptical community was worse than they thought. A few even said they would boycott Dawkins’s books as a result including Ms. Watson, though there was never an active boycott set up. As for the incident between Stephanie McGraw and Rebecca Watson, quite a few people have said that they have lost respect for Ms. Watson over this incident, even while they sympathized with her initial complaint about being hit on by EG.

While the incident in full might seem petty and a bit silly, there have been some real world consequences:
A. The split between types of feminism in the atheist community is open for all to see, with many of the “gynocentrists” at ideologically friendly places like PHARYNGULA basically attempting to “excommunicate” some of the “egalitarians”. Also, the “gynocentric” view does seem to have more overall institutional support.

B. Conservative Christians, such as those at Conservopaedia have had much fun with this brouhaha as their internal disputes have often been subjected to ridicule by the atheist and skeptical communities.

C. While there haven’t been any big blowups about any of this at a convention yet, Rebecca Watson and a rather small group of supporters did boycott Dawkins’s speech at TAM.

D. There is a timeline available at my first link.

My Thoughts

It would be easy to be smarmy and talk about how one shouldn’t allow women into your male treehouse or how feminists always mess up things and etc. But that would be preaching to the choir here – that is, the idea that feminists muck up things, not that boys and girls can’t play together – and wouldn’t really be interesting to me. I find several things in this mess worth commenting on:

1. Human groups, once they get large enough to institutionalize procedures and establish a hierarchy all seem to share similar traits, whether they are religious or secular in nature. As an example, almost any sizeable group will have an “orthodox” position of some sort. Feminists are no different, even if they are otherwise rational and skeptical leaning. Yes, “excommunicate” is indeed what they have done and tried to do to the “egalitarians” in their midst, even if they don’t use the term. That they have some institutional support is obvious as members of some conferences have openly embraced the “gynocentric” view of this incident and Watson has mostly received either sympathetic or even (in my opinion) syncophatic attentions in the mainstream scientific press, such as Scientific American (3). To be fair, there has been some dissent published as well.

2. As I am sure most of you know, people are not very careful in argumentation, and the internet would seem to have proliferated this problem. Take Elevator Guy for example. Many people’s responses to what he allegedly did are based on facts not in evidence. It’s not just a matter of believing that one can “read” the mind of a man who has never emerged to give his “side of the story”. It goes beyond that. Many people assume:

A. Elevator Guy heard RW state that she wished not to be “hit on” either in the bar, or earlier in the speech she gave. In fact, the speech she gave never mentioned anything about male approaches at all, instead it was in response to a fellow female skeptic who had said she saw no evidence of sexism in the community. And as many (3, John Gregg, comments section) have pointed out, not only are bars often crowded, noisy, and rather large, but there is no indication that EG sat anywhere near Rebecca Watson, as a picture (2)of her relatively sparse personal group at that bar would seem to make clear. Of course once they make the assumption that EG heard this, he is assumed to have deliberately violated it.

B. Elevator Guy was looking for sexual contact. In fact, if one listens to the original video EG says something to the effect of “I know how this will sound” which seems to be disclaiming sexual interest. Apparently he might have wanted to talk not make love.

C. Then, there is the fact that many blogs and posts on this outright ignore the Stephanie McGraw incident, even though that helped keep the fighting going., and lost Rebecca Watson some fans.

3. VAGINA PASS: Rebecca Watson, while not stunning , is reasonably good looking. One of the things that she was known for in the Skeptics community besides her podcasts , speaking events, and blog, was a nude picture she took as part of a calendar she put together which posed many ladies in the community a few years ago. The pic is actually rather demure – while she is obviously nude, she’s mostly covered with a book which she holds in front of her whilst reclining on a bed. Regardless, she has quite a few “fanboys” and “white knights”, who will rush to her aid pretty much no matter what she does. As a self-identified feminist, she gets that sector of support as well. In my opinion, through this whole thing she has rudely and with much condescension, but her defenders generally absolve her of all blame.

4. SHAMING LANGUAGE: In the various conversations at the various blogs one can easily see that feminists use shaming language every bit as much as any tradional lady, the difference in my opinion is that they do so less honestly. At least trad-con ladies often have one standard to hold men to.

5. This looks like the opening salvo in a larger war. Certainly gynocentric feminists with their Title IX push for more women in the sciences have a multi decade headstart in the propaganda on this subject . The skeptical community tends to be very supportive of getting more women into the sciences in general: if men feel that a radical Andrea Dworkin style of feminism is behind the complaints that might damage their credibility. Oh, and did I mention that Amanda Marcotte is involved in this brouhaha as well? Bet you can’t guess which side she comes down on.

Anyway, why did I write about this? Well, there seems to be an almost infinite amount of things to discuss such as the skeptical community, sexism in geek cultures, the personalities of the people involved, feminism in “progressive movements” and etc. Further, there seem to be a relative lack of accessible summaries of this whole thing , esp. ones written from a somewhat “outside” point of view. As far as I can tell, this is the only such post, esp. one so comprehensive. And it’s only HERE on Traditional Christianity. Irony, right? Lastly, I suspect the Christians on Traditional Christianity might want to “point and laugh” or maybe say “there but for the Grace of God, go I”. If anyone is reading this and not sleeping now that you’ve reached the end, I hope you enjoyed it.
*Warning some links, particularly the second contain profane language.


1. Timeline
2. Pic of bar
3. Scientific American
4. Stephanie McGraw
5. Watson on Dawkins
6. Watson before EG

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