(RNS) — For decades, the renowned evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins urged his readers to use science and reason to counter religious misinformation. Now Dawkins is abandoning both to spread anti-transgender rhetoric embraced by religious conservatives.
During a recent episode of his podcast “The Poetry of Reality,” Dawkins spoke with author Helen Joyce about the “influence of gender ideology on society.” There was no mention of how Joyce has previously said transgender people who have transitioned are “damaged” and “a huge problem to a sane world.” Nor did Dawkins bring up how she believes “reducing” the number of people who transition is a moral imperative.
Dawkins not only agreed with many of her points, he added that “sex really is binary” and that kids are choosing to be trans under pressure from both their peers and teachers. He also insisted that people like him were the real victims of abuse, wondering why “all the bullying (goes) one way.” (In fact, a study from 2021 found that trans people are four times more likely than cisgender people to “experience violent victimization.”)
The podcast episode dropped days after Dawkins wrote an essay for the British magazine The New Statesman answering the question, “What is a woman?” Dawkins’ reductive response boiled down to “A woman is an adult human female, free of Y chromosomes,” as if the absence of a single chromosome answers the question. That flies in the face of what many scientists have said about the subject.
“There are cisgender women who have XY sex chromosomes, and many other exceptions to binary sex. Around 1 in 1,000 people are intersex,” said Jey McCreight, a science communicator with a Ph.D. in genomics who has consulted on trans inclusivity for biotech companies. McCreight added in an email: “That’s pretty common as far as biology goes. A study may treat sex as binary out of practicality, but scientists understand that reality is more nuanced.”
Despite acknowledging those exceptions exist, Dawkins casually dismisses them, just as he dismisses the genetic influences many experts believe contribute to the development of trans identities. Those exceptions and influences are reasons the American Medical Association and other major medical organizations have supported gender-affirming care.
Dawkins also rejects definitions of womanhood that extend beyond chromosomes. In 2021, he went even further, comparing trans people to Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who famously (and controversially) identified as Black. Suggesting trans people were making a similar choice, he tweeted, “Some men choose to identify as women, and some women choose to identify as men.” He insisted he wasn’t disparaging trans people — most of whom say their gender identity is not a choice at all, but rather just who they are — and said he used their names and pronouns as a “courtesy.”
But that didn’t smooth things over. The American Humanist Association, which gave Dawkins its 1996 Humanist of the Year award, rescinded the honor in response.
At a time when 76% of atheists accept the existence of trans people, according to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey, while only 38% of all American adults feel the same, it’s jarring to see the world’s most famous atheist use his massive platform to downplay or deny trans identities. That’s especially true when trans people in the U.S. are under attack from conservative media outlets and legislators eager to label them predators or “groomers.” The advocacy group GLAAD said 2023 was “on pace to be a record-setting year for state legislation targeting LGBTQ adults and youth,” including laws banning or limiting trans individuals’ access to health care and participation in sports.
For decades, the most vocal opponents of LGBTQ rights were religious conservatives making the argument that acceptance violated God’s wishes. Lately, though, as the lines between politics and religion have blurred, conservatives have been citing science, rather than religion, to justify their positions. In response to a trans-supporting colleague, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene hung a sign outside her office saying “There are TWO genders … Trust The Science!” A recent anti-trans film by conservative provocateur Matt Walsh attempted to make a scientific rather than religious case against trans people. And author J.K. Rowling, whom Dawkins called “very brave” in his podcast, has couched her inflammatory rhetoric in biological terms.
What’s most frustrating about Dawkins’ shift in focus is that his otherwise excellent science writing is being tarnished by his bizarre obsession.
Much as fans of the Harry Potter series are now conflicted about the book and movie franchise and its creator, I can no longer recommend Dawkins’ books to people who want to educate themselves about evolution.
It’s also maddening because Dawkins remains the go-to atheist for reporters and media outlets. There are more atheists who are LGBTQ, women and people of color than ever before, yet it’s Dawkins who often takes center stage whenever there are public conversations about atheism. That’s not his fault, of course: He literally wrote the most popular book on the subject. But it’s irresponsible to use his platforms to spread ignorance on a topic that critics have repeatedly said he doesn’t understand and often gets flat-out wrong.
His words also have the effect of further alienating LGBTQ people when they’re already marginalized by many powerful religious leaders. Why would they want to become atheists when supposedly “reasonable” people are spreading the same lies they hear in churches?
Trans people are currently subject to political attacks and dehumanizing laws. Dawkins should spend less time acting like this issue boils down to basic biology and more time advocating for LGBTQ people who have been harmed by religious — and now supposedly scientific — bigotry.
(Hemant Mehta is a writer, podcaster and atheist activist. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)