Thinking About Safe Spaces, Dawkins, and Intersection of Privilege and Atheism

The genesis of this post is from a comment I left on The Thinking Atheist Podcast page. The host, Seth Andrews, invited various people on his podcast to talk about “Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces.” One of the guests was Bill Ligertwood, a conference organizer with the Imagine No Religion conference

So here’s where I come from. I’m a white trans woman. I’m middle class. I went to college before transition and have a decent life making decent money. I don’t worry for much in terms of material things. I lived and grew up in a culture that was mainly white (my grandfather was a Klansman). I never met another transgender person (the opposite of transgender is cisgender) until after I transitioned. Being a trans woman, I was male identified at birth. Up to the point of transition, I’d been enmeshed in men’s culture. Positionally in terms of socialisation, I was seen as a member of “white cis bro culture.”

Living in Indiana, I was one of those “libertarian” Republicans that believed life was a level playing field and that if you just applied yourself, you’d succeed. This wasn’t a belief I had tested or reasoned, it was just a feeling I had. Back then, talk of privilege wasn’t something that was commonplace in my circle of friends. I certainly didn’t spend any of my time thinking about it. When I transitioned, I lost cisgender, heterosexual and male privilege and had to actually confront the loss of something I didn’t think existed.

So when I’m talking about “white cis bro culture”, it’s essentially a discussion about white, cisgender, heterosexual, male privilege. It’s not just displayed at atheist conferences, but in the atheist community as a whole.

The last atheist conference I attended was the Secular Women‘s conference, but for the most part I stay way the away from conferences because it’s rife with white cis-het bro culture.

I don’t go to conferences that will invite Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Lawrence Krauss as guests. Not because I have a problem with their skepticism, but a problem with their displays (Shermer, Dawkins, Krauss, Harris) of sexism/misogyny/islamophobia.

From the interview:

Andrews: “You wanted to weigh in on this because you have an opinion, a perspective. You approached me and said ‘I want to talk about the challenges that I’m facing in this culture when it comes to conference organisation.’ You’re finding it harder to do what you do, in what you might call an ‘offence culture.” A ‘taking offence’ culture. You want to flesh that out for me?”

Ligertwood: “Yea, sure. Well, we’re talking about safe spaces, and what we’re trying to do, obviously, at a conference is create one. We’re trying to create a safe space for people of our persuasion. In other words, unbelievers, atheists, what have you, a place where they can come and not be worried about someone finding out, ot worried about someone that’s going to take a strip off them because they’re not believers. So that’s, first of all that’s what I think we’re trying to do. What makes that really difficult now is that it doesn’t seem to take much to make it is that actually quite safe, unsafe just because somebody takes offence to something that one of the speakers said once in a tweet or whatever, years ago, months ago, days ago, hours ago, it doesn’t really matter. It just seems like people take offence to almost anything these days and it seems like once you go off the path, once you go stray from the dogma, which is what I thought we were all interested in doing, is straying from the dogma. But once you stray from this new dogma, you’re in the out group. People will boycott our event. People will boycott anything you’re at are because you said something or someone said something about you and it’s instantly, yeah, the safe spaces isn’t safe anymore, so people won’t come.”

Taking that apart, I read that as:

“Just because Dawkins made sexist comments with ‘Muslima,’ people shouldn’t boycott our conference if we invite him.”

First off, boycott is a form of free speech. Secondly, dogma is used incorrectly here by Ligertwood. According to Merriam-Webster, dogma is:

  • 1. a : something held as an established opinion; especially : a definite authoritative tenet b : a code of such tenets c : a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds

  • 2. a doctrine or body of doctrines concerning faith or morals formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church

It seems like Ligertwood is using 1a and c in reference to his point. Fleshing that out in the context of Dawkin’s Muslima comments makes no sense. What is the dogma here? Is it the “new dogma” to acknowledge sexist tweets of thought leaders in the atheist/skeptic movement?

There’s an underlying message that Dawkins is a magic man with knowledge so unique, it can only be gained by listening to him. That may have been true in 1975, but it isn’t now. I’ve stated before that there seems to be a Jeckyll and Hyde side to Dawkins. There’s the brilliant evolutionary biologist who wrote “The Selfish Gene.” But then there’s the crotchety old grandpa who will tell you that sexism isn’t that bad because muslim women in Saudi Arabia can’t drive, or that “mild pedophilia” isn’t harmful. Attendance at a conference (or buying of a book of his for that matter), supports both his Jeckyll and his Hyde.

I don’t buy cakes from bakers who won’t make wedding cakes for gay men for the same reason (no matter how delicious they are). That isn’t a rejection of the baker’s confectionary skill, but their bigotry. There are plenty of other “bakers” in the atheist community that aren’t sexist, that I can (and do) give my time/audience with/money to.

Ligertwood seems to be angry that people will “boycott” his conference because of “tweets.” He seems angry that another person’s free speech (boycott) will make his job of conference organizing harder. Given that conferences generally cost to attend and are not mandatory, I’m not sure where his beef is with me exercising my own free will over my own pocketbook. Yes I’m an atheist, but I value my own time, talent, and treasure enough to take it to places and spaces that value me. Mr Ligertwood won’t have to worry about catering to me for his conference. I’ll stick with listening to my favorite atheist podcasts (The Thinking Atheist, The Atheist Experience) , reading Greta Christina, and supporting people involved with Secular Women. That’s as far as I’ll dip my toes in the atheist community, because I don’t have to do any more than that. Support isn’t something atheist communities or conferences are owed.

Atheists are a marginalised community, even though it’s hard for many cis white men to comprehend. The only thing I can work out with Ligertwood is that his frustration might stem from his own privilege.There is such a thing as “Christian privilege” and those things impact atheist’s lives.  This is truth is hard for white cisgender men who have never had to face up and acknowledge their own privilege in other areas. Would Ligertwood be against atheists who refuse to shop at Hobby Lobby or eat Chick-fil-A? Boycotts are a powerful change agent. But Ligertwood’s words seems to express that old saying that “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”