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Symbols of man and woman cast shadow in the form of transgender on blue. (Adragan, Adobe Stock)

Everybody seems to be piling-on once-lionized Richard Dawkins these days, implicitly and explicitly indicting him for allegedly being an awful, doddering, trans-phobic bigot.

Several recent statements of his on Twitter caused a ruckus, including this one below:

“Is trans woman a woman? Purely semantic. If you define by chromosomes, no. If by self-identification, yes. I call her ‘she’ out of courtesy.”

His recent tweets resulted in, among other lesser ramifications, the American Humanist Association withdrawing his 1996 Humanist of the Year Award.

Honestly, I don’t really get the apoplexy.

Like many other atheists, I closely read and was greatly influenced by Dawkins’ seminal The God Delusion (2006). I was taken with the reasonableness of his tone in summarily dismissing supernatural assumptions with fair, compelling, scientific and frequently amusing arguments.

Full disclosure: He once extended a personal kindness to me regarding my second book, Holy Smoke: How Christianity Smothered the True American Dream (2020), so I am happily and forever indebted to his generosity and am loathe to criticize him even if ever deserved.

So, when I read about this recent kerfuffle over some recent Twitter statements he has made, much of it fueled by virulent anti-Dawkins angst in the atheist community itself (that he himself hugely expanded with his books), it instinctively felt a bit like betrayal. But, because no one is perfect, I looked into the situation to learn more and perhaps lessen the chance that my self-fulfilling bias in favor of Dawkins might cloud my objectivity.

But, no. It still feels a bit like betrayal.

My interpretation of what Dawkins said in a couple of tweets (I haven’t read all of them) is that he views transsexual issues through a strictly biological lens, which strikes me as eminently defensible, if a little narrow. Admittedly, I’m a 70-year-old unambiguously heterosexual man (cisgender, in the new “woke” parlance), and I surely have a lot to learn about the intricacies of the entire contemporary gender debate.

But I took the time to read about the issue, and I discovered that, even if you try to study it, it can be maddeningly confusing. So, I suspect there’s lots of us out there (perhaps even Mr. Dawkins), who harbor zero ill-will toward people choosing alternate gender identifies and orientations but still can’t quite wrap our heads completely around everything these gender searchers are insisting on.

In reading Dawkins’ tweets, I sensed no personal animosity toward trans people, just a sense that whatever gender identity they might choose and be most comfortable with, they are still left (before any elective surgery) with a distinct physical gender biology. The existence of certain chromosomes and genitalia. And according to the rules of biological science, those physical characteristics carry standard labels for physical descriptive purposes. Male. Female. Hermaphrodite. Not, “male with female instincts” or the like.

So, until science re-evaluates its nomenclature for gender descriptions, the peculiarities of the existing categorization system remain.

In April, Dawkins tweeted this also disparaged comment:

“In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a white chapter president of NAACP [National Assocation for the Advancement of Colored People], was vilified for identifying as Black. Some men choose to identify as women, and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as. Discuss.”

A lot of people reacted with contempt.

One online commenter who identifies as @ExhaustedIsaac wrote:

Transgender people don’t ‘choose to identify’ as anything. We simply ARE transgender, whether we like it or not. Frankly, as a scientist, I would expect better from you. You ought to know that sex isn’t merely XX or XY, and peoples’ concepts of gender are culturally influenced.”

This equivalence seems false. I strongly suspect that, psychologically, Rachel Dolezal, who is white, felt deeply that “in her heart” she was black, for whatever reasons, as transgender people say they feel trapped in genders different than their body parts display. Donezal and transgender people harbor a sense that they aren’t what they physically appear. The difference between Donezal and trans citizens is that some people view Donezal’s self-characterization as fraudulent, while trans proponents view the transsexual sense as natural.

I don’t see much difference, except that skin color doesn’t have inborn emotional content, whereas gender sense and sexual instinct do. Both wannabe blacks and trans people feel different than cultural norms may demand they should. Although I don’t, some people believe both are lying, to themselves and the rest of us, to justify an aberration.

What I have read of Dawkins views on this, it appears he’s saying that people’s physical landscapes determine their external gender, without addressing whether their internal psychological features may sharply diverge, causing them to sexually identify differently. Dawkins doesn’t say this is wrong; what he objects to is vilification for just questioning today’s “woke” standard, for even suggesting that no matter how one identifies, their given bodies retain clear gender (or race) markers.

It’s true that sexual psychology and emotion exist along a wide and diverse continuum, but external and internal physical sexual organs are far less interpretive than the inner workings of the mind.

Speaking for myself, I completely support trans people, as I support anyone trying to locate the sweet spot in their lives, to find peace and solace and a sense of personal authenticity. But if someone is born with a penis and testicles, or a vagina and uterus, their physical bodies are exactly what they appear to be. The emotional content of sexuality is a whole other thing, in my view, and can have absolutely nothing to do with how one outwardly appears.

I suggest, therefore, that the progressive, atheist community give Dawkins a break and continue to honor him for his seminal contributions to greatly expanding thoughtful wariness of all things “supernatural” in the world. He insists he bears no animosity toward the trans community (and I believe him), as he pointed out in another recent tweet:

“I do not intend to disparage trans people. I see that my academic ‘Discuss’ question has been misconstrued as such and I deplore this. It was also not my intent to ally in any way with Republican bigots in US now exploiting this issue.”

We should give him the benefit of the doubt, that he is only saying, for instance, if you are born with unambiguous external male features, in the current system you are classified as male. He says nothing judgmental about what anyone might feel about their physical assignment,  whether it’s right or wrong.

It is a fair argument, I think, one that does not dis or dismiss or discriminate against the very real, profound and visceral needs of people as they find their way in a complicated existence.

Or maybe I’m biased or mistaken. Or both.

(Here’s links to posts on this topic by two other bloggers, The Friendly Atheist’s Hemant Mehta and The Tippling Philosopher’s Jonathan MS Pearce.)

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...