Episode 120 – Who Speaks for Atheists?

Richard DawkinsThis week we take a look at the fallout in the Atheism movement following some poorly chosen comments by “leaders” in the movement like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.  The strength of the atheist movement is our combined distaste for organized leadership.  It is also a weakness.  We examine that dichotomy and try to figure out if there is a way to balance them.  Of course, we also get to read five answers from one of our listeners!  This week, our answers come all the way from Scotland!

Show notes below the fold:

Here’s a link to the Buzzfeed article that inspired this episode.

A link to listener Ben’s podcast – Podzilla!

Also a nerdy picture of Ben:




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25 Responses to Episode 120 – Who Speaks for Atheists?

  1. Nick Knight says:

    I just listened to this episode. Wow, what an uneducated andjudgmental debate. You did not analyze Dawkin’s comments, you just jumped on the bandwagon. He is this XXXXXX. Might as well become Christians, if you are going to jump on wagons with out engaging your brainsl

    • Thanks for your constructive and non judgmental comment! We’ll be converting to Christianity and changing the name of the podcast to Geeks *with* God next week!

    • In our defense, this episode wasn’t about him and our claims are pretty subjective (“He’s a dick,” or whatever it is Tim said). That subjectivity is a part of why atheists don’t really have leader, you know? The fact that we disagree is further evidence to our topic regarding the lack of atheist leader/leadership.

      • I haven’t re-listened to the podcast yet. I would lay high odds on having calling him a dick. I like to use that word. Also likely I called him a “douche” and an “asshole.”

    • What is an XXXXXXX?

    • Scot McDonald says:

      I came across this episode while looking for new podcasts to listen to on my phone. This was the first episode I listened to and I had a problem with how you spoke on Dawkins comment on the 15 year old girl. I did not find the source of the quote so I only have what was said in your podcast to go off. Based on that it seems like you think that the topic is just plain off limits. The state has drawn a line in the sand and that is how it has to be. Once a person has been alive for 6570 days they can become sexually active but not a second before then. It also seemed like because of his comments on rape you choose not to think about what he was actually saying about sexual maturity because you already wrote him off.

      These uncomfortable conversation such as sexual maturity, abortion, assisted suicide needs to be had if we are going to progress as a species. To dog pile on someone because they recognize the need

      • Scot McDonald says:

        Oops Looks like I cut myself off at the end. (God I am an ass like that)
        To dog pile on someone because they recognize the need to look critically at closely held beliefs is ironic when we fault the religious for doing exactly that. More often than not it is the issues that are “off limit” that require the most scrutiny.

        • I disagree that we aren’t having these “uncomfortable” conversations all the time. I also disagree with your assessment of Dawkins’ motives as he seems completely uninterested in engaging in debate with those who disagree with him.

          Statutory rape is certainly a fuzzy area if you are talking about an eighteen year old having sex with a fifteen year old. On the other hand, when you are talking about a thirty-five year old having sex with a fifteen year old, it isn’t nearly as fuzzy. Not to me.

          But if Dawkins wants to have that conversation, so be it. I think he’s wrong. He certainly isn’t interested in my opinion or, so far as I can tell, the opinion of anyone else but himself.

          As for Dawkins’ statement on whether or not a drunk person can be raped, I’m going to respectfully (to you) say that it is not a hard topic that requires debate. Yes, when someone is drunk they can still be raped. You don’t surrender control of your reproductive system to whoever happens to be around you when you’ve had a few too many.

          What Dawkins said on the topic is, in my opinion, indefensible.

          But I don’t have to agree with him. He doesn’t speak for me.

          Which was kind of the whole point of the podcast topic. You seem concerned with defending Dawkins when he doesn’t need your help. He’s still got many thousands of Twitter followers. His next book will still sell quite well. He’s fine. It is entirely probable he has no idea this podcast exists.

          • Scot McDonald says:

            I had no interest in defending anyone. I was trying to point out that to take offense at someone for something that were quoted as saying without knowing the context in which the quote came from is just lazy. I attempted to find a source for more details but could not find anything. I took the question that Dawkins was answering to be at what age should we allow people to have sex.

            Why do you think that there is any difference if a minor has sex with someone they are close in age to? Does sleeping with someone who is older require a higher level of maturity. It should be a simple question. At what age are you able to decide what to do with your own body.
            I understand the concern that if an older person sleeps with someone who is younger then the younger person has been taken advantage of. What if the younger person is just attracted to older people. It is not uncommon for people to be more attracted to younger or old people than they so why would this not be the case for teens?
            As you have said it is a fuzzy area but the answer should not be “Lets ignore it and slam people for bringing it up.” I do not have a firm line in the sand age of consent, and I think we should protect children from those who would take advantage of them.
            I do not blame anyone for not wanting to associate with FTB pharyngula. From what I have heard of them they are just as prejudice and judgmental as you claim dawkins is. That is not to say that there are members within the organization that are doing great things for the movement but there are bad apples within the group that have tarnished the name.

            I said nothing about Dawkins tweets about rape as they are not relevant to my message. Again I am not defending anyone just pointing out what I feel is unjust assault based on preconceived assumptions.

      • “Once a person has been alive for 6570 days they can become sexually active but not a second before then.”

        I’m almost certain this is not what the law says.

        • It’s also a total oversimplification. There is no law preventing a 15 year old from being sexually active with another fifteen year old, for example.

          …actually there probably is. However I don’t believe such laws are enforced with regularity.

          • That’s mainly what I meant, not the clever unit conversion thing.

            Perhaps there is, but how unjust is that? Both parties would have to be guilty, and who does that help?

  2. footnotegirl says:

    I will note this: It is not actually part of the religion of Islam that women must wear head scarves. The majority of Muslim women in the U.S. and much of Europe do not in fact wear head scarves. The Qu’ran requires that women and men dress modestly, but doesn’t really give specific requirements as to what that means other than that privates should be covered, and that women should wear their scarves over their breasts. That’s actually less of a rule than the biblical requirement from Corinthians that women must wear a head covering. So the hijab (and certainly the niqab and the burqa) are not part of the religion itself, but rather part of the cultural background of the area (women were wearing the burqa and the niqab and covering their hair in the middle east long before 570 CE.) It’s dogma laid over the actual religion that isn’t chosen by everyone but can and is forced on some who are under the control of the more fundamentalist sects for terrible reasons and with very bad rationalizations (men can’t control themselves!). Granted, it’s a much less populous example, but a large number of Baptists refuse to drink alcohol, and fully believe that this is commanded by God, but that doesn’t mean that it’s actually part of the Christian religion (though for the most part, you won’t get raped or killed for sipping some wine, so yes there’s a difference of scale and severity).

    • So, we can agree that it’s not all people that subscribe to Islam, but that it’s definitely a part of the religion, as practiced by some. How people are indoctrinated to that flavor might be regional, cultural, ethnic, etc, but it is a religious ideal/law. Much in the same way that Baptists don’t drink because it’s a part of their religious beliefs, though it’s not a part of other flavors of Christianity. Agreed that it is religious? It’s a squares/rectangles thing.

      • footnotegirl says:

        I tend to separate ‘what is religious’ from ‘what is cultural’. If it’s not actually part of the holy text of the religion, not something actually taught or demanded by the deity involved, then it isn’t really ‘part of the religion’ it’s ‘part of the culture’. Wearing a head scarf is as much a part of Islam as abstaining from alcohol is part of Christianity. Then you get issues where something actually part of the religion, but not part of the culture (see: christian women not wearing head scarves, christians getting divorced and remarried, reformed jews wearing mixed fibers, etc.). Of course, there’s also huge swaths of grey area where something is mentioned in the holy book of a religion but interpreted in different ways. For instance, the story of Onan, whether it’s actually a command against masturbation, or simply about following God over cultural taboos. Or for Jews, whether “do not boil a calf in the milk of its mother” means ‘don’t eat veal’ (i.e. a calf that is still nursing which is how I personally would take that), ‘don’t boil a calf in the milk of it’s mother’ which would be the literalist and easiest to avoid interpretation, or ‘don’t mix meat with dairy at all, period, neverever, you need entirely different sets of pots and pans and sometimes even a whole different kitchen’ which is the fundamentalistorthodox interpretation. Then it really is hard to pick out what’s ‘religion’ and whats ‘culture’ or ‘dogma’.

    • Thanks for the clarification. I admit that I’m not particularly well informed about Islam. Would love to get a former Muslim on the podcast so we could talk about some of this.

      • footnotegirl says:

        I’m sure that there are also some moderate Muslims who might be willing to go on the show as long as they were assured that it would be ‘please explain’ (which is what I trust it would be from you guys) and ‘defend yourself in this heated debate’ which is what they so often get.

  3. Elliott James says:

    Atheism is the answer to one specific question, namely, does a god exist. Beyond that nothing. Does it speak to our politics? No,we extend from the rightwing of the Libertarian movement to the social progressive. We even include a few thinking conservatives.

    It has been stated, when the charge is made that atheism is a religion, then in reality ‘not collecting stamps is a hobby’. Yes, glib, cleave and accurate. But think about this further, if the only thing we have in common is that we don’t collect stamps at s a hobby, then why should we agree on anything else?

    This is a complaint about the Atheism+ movement, that I know the three hosts support. Not all atheists feel they need support it because their sole shared belief with other atheists is the answer to the question of the non-existence of a god. Now supporting Atheism+ may be a good idea because of own weltanschauung, or ha politically sensible move because if we support other oppressed groups and they see our support they may be encouraged to stand with us on our church/state fights.

    There is an Will Rogers quote “I am not a member of any organized party — I am a Democrat.” That holds true especially for the atheists.

    • I’m not sure it is accurate to say all three of us “support” a+ b/c I won’t speak for Molly or Nick. I know that I *personally* agree with what they say about social issues being important to the larger atheism community.

      To me the question is whether or not we want that community to be inclusive and I would argue that yes, we do. Atheists are stronger if women feel safe from harassment at atheist gatherings. I don’t feel that should be a political perspective (though it typically is).

      But atheism + was named specifically because the people involved wanted to take the base concept of atheism to a different level. I find that goal admirable but I’m well aware (as are they) that they do not speak for all atheists. They are trying to create a smaller community *within* the larger atheist community that has a specific focus.

  4. Charles Hubbell says:

    Great stuff. I did take the time to read Harris’ blog about this issue here: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/im-not-the-sexist-pig-youre-looking-for As you’ve said many times, we should always question, especially our heroes, so I don’t post this as an excuse for a clean slate. I do find his comments here compelling and thought provoking.

    • I did read that blog on the situation. I think my biggest issue with Harris is that he said some things that aren’ supported by facts and, as a skeptic, he should be more careful about such things. I would think his best response would have been “I chose my words carelessly and I apologize.”

      Ultimately, though, I don’t find Harris’ statements as troubling as those of Dawkins.

  5. Perhaps I wouldn’t bond with someone over not collecting stamps, but I might over not liking sports. Since, at least among men, the alternative is often the default, and hence I and the other non-sports-liker might have quite a bit to talk about with our experiences. I think that’s a closer analogy to what it’s like to be without religion in this country.

  6. Re Islam: I really don’t think you can usefully separate what’s religious from what’s cultural. That cuts both ways with respect to the headscarves and such. No, it’s not a fundamental part of the religion to wear them. Yes, those countries that do it use the religion to justify it: thus it’s part of the religious expression of those who do it. But no, you can’t point to any Muslim who doesn’t subscribe to the view that Islam requires that, and say “See? This is what your religion does.”

    The same goes for being more lenient than is supposedly required by the holy text. I don’t agree that we should judge a religion in any fundamental way by its holy text, whether for better or worse. That’s playing their game. The text is part of it, but no more important a part than any other aspect of how the religion is practiced. If there are no, or very few, branches of Christianity that require women to wear headscarves, then Christianity doesn’t require headscarves. That’s the practical effect of the religion. Plus, there are religions with no particularly important sacred texts, such as most versions of neo-paganism. Does that mean no way can say what’s part of that religion at all?

  7. Charles Hubbell says:

    I just wanted to comment on that Sam Harris blog I referenced and I want to take a step back. Ive thought a little more about this and I no longer find it compelling and I think that he is just digging a deeper hole for himself and cannot come to grips that he made a misogynist statement. He really should just apologize.