Dear Richard Dawkins,

Professor Dawkins,

It pains me a little writing this. As a fellow atheist, I respect the work you’ve done promulgating atheist thought through your books and lectures. That you’ve chosen to absorb the attacks of religious zealots of all kinds makes me glad you’re here, and equally glad I’m not you.

But when it comes to your attitude toward women, I’ve got to say how disappointed I am in you. That a person as bright as you are could entertain such silly, victim-blaming attitudes is enough to make me weep. Now I know what you’re thinking. You don’t believe that you’re a sexist. After all, Christina Hoff Sommers is always there to tell you that sexism isn’t even a problem, and if you can’t believe a woman who’s made a career of telling rich, straight, white, conservative men that everything they say and do is fine, who can you believe?

Still, I’m not yet prepared to give up hope in your ability to pause, reflect and learn, so let me just give you a couple of pieces of friendly advice.

1. Stop trying to compare types of rape or abuse.

I’m not sure why you think ranking different types of sexual assault is a game worth the candle, but it isn’t. Whether the rapist gains power over his or her victim through violence, intoxicants, or just by being an adult or an authority figure, we’re still talking about sexual assault. Trying to parse the relative badness of each particular rape is like picking gnat shit out of pepper. It wastes time and helps no one, except possibly the rapist. And do we really want to help people who would say things like “Sure, I banged her without her consent, but it’s not like I hit her over the head first. I slipped something in her drink, ’cause I was raised right.”

2. Listen to a woman (other than Ms. Hoff Sommers).

It’s not easy to be told that something you’ve said is misogynistic. It’s hard enough to be told that you’re wrong about anything. The accusation that your words or deeds are sexist (or a racist, or a homophobic) carries the additional stigma of moral corruption. Understandably, your first impulse is to man the ramparts of your injured self esteem and defend yourself against the marauding horde. Since you can’t be what your opponents say you are, you will start to convince yourself that everyone who thinks you’re wrong must be slanderers out to tear you down as part of their own evil agenda.

This is a destructive road to go down, but sadly, Professor Dawkins, it’s the road you’re on. The way to get off it is this, a little bit of advice I picked up from the movie White Men Can’t Jump that’s served me well:

Listen to the woman.

Since the Bronze Age, men haven’t listened to women all that often. It’s a bad habit we’ve all gotten into, and the misery it’s inflicted and the opportunity costs it’s imposed have been enormous. If you think back over 6,000 years of intelligence and talent that men squelched to maintain power, it’ll break your heart. Nevertheless we’re stuck with these bad habits, and when we look around at the cultures and institutions we’ve inherited from our ancestors, we find their traces everywhere.

How do we break the sexist habit?

We start by listening to the woman.

We start by understanding that women know things about the way life is lived that men don’t, and that they’re experts on is what it’s like to navigate the world as a woman. Women understand harassment, rape, and legal and economic injustice in a way that we can’t. When they talk about these things, and a lot of other things, we need to listen. We don’t get defensive. We don’t try to justify or excuse. We don’t worry about being right. When we feel the impulse to do any of these things, we arrest the thought on its route from our brains to our lips, and instead, we listen.

Listen to the woman.

All the time.

Not just when she tells us what we want to hear.

Now you may be asking at this point, Professor, the question Billy Hoyle asks in the movie, “If I listen to the woman, do I have to agree with her too?”

And I’ll tell you what Sidney Deane said, that just listening is a start. I don’t want to stress you out. Just listen. If you do that, you might hear some things that inspire new thoughts. Where you go from there is up to you.

Listen to the woman, Professor Dawkins. You and the atheist world will be better for it.

Good luck,


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