Adam Lee has launched a petition I hope all my godless readers will sign. In fact I hope you will encourage as many godless friends and colleagues as you can to sign, to show how many of us support women in our movement and oppose the abuse and harassment of them that is going on from a very vocal minority of appalling atheists. See Petition: Support Feminism and Diversity in the Secular Community for the full explanation and link, or go directly to the petition at Change.org: The Leaders of Atheist, Skeptical and Secular Groups: Support Feminism and Diversity in the Secular Community.
Why is this needed? As Lee well puts it:
We, the undersigned, are atheists, skeptics and nonbelievers who value free speech and rational thought and who seek to build a strong, thriving movement that can advocate effectively for these values. We’ve chosen to put our names to this petition because we want to respond to a video created by a blogger calling himself Thunderfoot. In this video, Thunderfoot attacks named individuals who’ve been active in promoting diversity and fighting sexism and harassment in our movement. He describes these people as “whiners” and “ultra-PC professional victims” who are “dripp[ing] poison” into the secular community, and urges conference organizers to shun and ignore them.
We hold this and similar complaints from other individuals to be seriously misguided, false in their particulars and harmful to the atheist community as a whole, and we want to set the record straight. We wish to clarify that Thunderfoot and those like him don’t speak for us or represent us, and to state our unequivocal support for the following goals: We support making the atheist movement more diverse and inclusive. … We support strong, sensible anti-harassment policies at our gatherings. … We support the people in our community who’ve been the target of bullying, harassment and threats. … [And we want] to put a stop to this bad behavior once and for all [by] chang[ing] the culture of the atheist movement…
As of this posting, his petition is approaching 1700 signatories, and I want to see it go as high as possible, so we know how many atheists in our movement have our back, and how many of us these horrible bad apples of atheism are offending. I want to know how alone I am in this, or how supported I am. I want to see where our movement is going: their way, or ours.
Please go sign that petition now. Then come back to read on. Unless you are still not convinced you should bother. In that case read on first, and then see how you feel.
What You Need to Know
I’ve written about this issue before, of course. I brought up the rising sexism and abuse women are facing within the atheism movement in The New Atheism+ and why that behavior is in conflict with what should be our core values of reasonableness, integrity, and compassion. And then in Being with or against Atheism+ I explained further what the movement is that this term is a name for, and why no one needs to adopt the label “Atheism+” but rather “we are only at odds with those who condemn Atheism+ and its values,” the values I spelled out in those two posts, and which have been embraced and furthered by its most avid activists at the resource hub AtheismPlus.com.
In short, you don’t have to call yourself a “member” of the A+ movement to be welcome by it, or to support it. We only hope you will occasionally speak out in defense of its values and goals and against those who slander it and lie about it and attack and abuse anyone who actively promotes it. Because if you don’t speak out, they treat that as endorsement and an encouragement to continue.
Attack of the Antifeminists
The Atheism+ movement itself existed long before it was named. It had been growing for a couple of years until Jen McCreight gave it a name (Atheism+, meaning Atheism plus a core set of basic humanist values and goals and a skepticism applied to everyone, even ourselves). Once it was named, of course, then it could be attacked. It could be mocked and denounced. Lies could be told about it. Its advocates could be digitally harassed (or worse). I see all of that as an attempt to take away power from the movement the same way Christians do by lying about what “atheism” means or what “secular humanism” is: they slander these terms and build absurd straw men out of them in an attempt to make them unpopular, so no one will go and see what they are really all about. Now, atheists themselves are doing this to their own. Atheists are acting like Christians.
The same has long been done to “feminism,” and now those tactics are being picked up and used by organized atheists to attack feminism the same way the Tea Party does. Indeed they do this the same way Christians do with the term “atheism.” They pick absurd caricatures and extremists (e.g., Stalin) and then claim all atheism is that or that’s what atheism inevitably leads to. The antifeminists in the atheist movement are doing the same thing, picking absurd caricatures and extremists (e.g., Dworkin) and then claim all feminism is that or that’s what feminism inevitably leads to. (See “straw feminist” in the TV Tropes Wiki and the excellent video on same.)
They are so successful at this they even convince women to declare they are not feminists, thus declaring themselves against their own rights and interests, because they think it leads to absurd ends like that, when in fact, all feminism is “is simply the belief that women should be treated as fairly as men” and the reason it exists is that women often aren’t, even in ways they might not be aware of: see my explanation in Why I Am a Feminist for Taslima Nasrin and my further discussion in Why I Am a Feminist on my own blog.
Hostility to Atheism+ is often born of the same seed. By trying to make it impossible to give a respectable name to what we are doing, haters are trying to interfere with our ability to promote and organize in defense of our values and aims. This is fundamentally irrational, rather immoral (in its dishonesty as well as its ruthless disinterest in the welfare and feelings of others), and embarrassing to atheism as a whole.
Ironically, these antifeminists use the same tactics to try and straw-man and belittle our movement by calling us a “cult” and saying we are the ones behaving like Christians. How are we behaving like Christians? By taking a stand on moral issues and expecting our fellow human beings to adopt basic humanist moral values and denounce those who won’t. Which means they think atheism should be thoroughly amoral and devoid of values. They ironically are thus denouncing humanism. Which, most ironically of all, makes them into the very people Christians attack all atheism for creating: immoral people who denounce the very idea of moral values or standards (denouncing it even as “religion,” the irony of ironies, considering that atheists used to denounce religion for its moral failings, not for its agreeable moral standards).
Atheism+ is not like a religion, not least because it embraces nothing supernatural, but also because its epistemology is not at all faith-based but entirely responsive to reason (as in, arguments devoid of logical fallacies) and evidence (as in, actual documentable facts), and it does not embrace “authorities” (we have no Popes) but only “arguments” (we side with those who argue well, meaning those who make logically valid arguments from well-evidenced premises). In other words, it is far more like science and philosophy than cults or churches. When it comes to what we should believe, including what we should believe about how we should behave, we expect people to be reasonable and persuaded by sound arguments. Nothing more.
In other words, Atheism+ is just atheism + skepticism + humanism. Why anyone would have a problem with that quite astonishes me.
A Lot of Sexism …
…until I realized what might really be driving this atheist-movement antifeminism. Apparently, there are a lot of closet sexists (and a few closet racists), and generally all around mean people, who of course swear up and down they are no such thing. But their actions expose them. That their beliefs, even about themselves, are not in alignment with reality is pretty much the same kind of delusionality we see from Christians, who purport to believe in loving their neighbor, then go balls out trying to hurt their neighbors (with covertly sexist and racist political policies, and overtly homophobic ones, for example). We now have enough atheists in our movement behaving in exactly the same way to become a visible problem.
For a really good exposure of the delusional state of these people, see Michael Nugent’s analysis of Thunderf00t’s Inflammatory Video of Misleading Personal Attacks on Atheist Feminists (which video also inspired Lee to finally say enough is enough and start a petition against this disturbing trend). Nugent shows how Thunderf00t’s argument, which has a large following and which typifies views I know to have been voiced or approved by hundreds of atheists on the internet (and thus not a crank handful), is based on wanton distortions of the facts and gross fallacies–in fact, a lot like the way creationists attack evolution.
Indeed, these atheist antifeminists seem quite committed to irrationality, while ironically insisting they are the only rational ones (a lot like Christian apologists). See Lilandra’s excellent exposure of this fact (while in the process demonstrating the nature and extent of sexism in our movement and how insidiously it thinks it’s not sexist) in The Foundational Oft-Repeated Fallacies of Sexism Deniers (in that case analyzing the comments following Thunderf00t’s video, although I can vouch for the fact that the same nonsense appears in dozens of other atheist venues as well). If this kind of irrationality is not destructive to atheism, I don’t know what is. Relying on obviously fallacious arguments to attack and hurt their own people, in defiance of a commitment to truth, honesty or logic, is what destroyed religion. Let’s not allow the same thing to happen to organized atheism, the only alternative there is to religion.
This faction isn’t just persistently irrational, it’s also characterized by a certain disregard for basic moral values. They have even come to the point of mocking cancer survivors and rape victims. And those are instances from women, so it’s not just men who are enabling this antifeminist cabal; the same tactics women have long used to attack feminism and put down their fellow women is evident now even in our movement, like attacking the fact that women need to shop for clothes, by twisting facts to suit their own outrageous narrative (see The Absurd Manufactured Shoe Controversy). That’s the kind of people they are. Are these the kind of people you want populating and leading the atheism movement? Are these the kind of people you want to hang out with?
A movement without moral standards, without any sense of kindness or perspective or courtesy, is doomed. You can’t claim atheists are good people, and then denounce any and every effort to make them good. Thus, when these antifeminists claim that the advocates for human decency are the ones being divisive and destroying atheism, know what they are really saying: they do not want atheists to be good people, or atheism to be known as a movement for the good of society. They want atheism to be amoral and valueless, without standards of any kind. They will deny that. But that is the consequence of what they are arguing.
Greta Christina already exposed the joke of them calling us divisive last year. No, they are the divisive ones, making women and minorities feel unwelcome, and attacking anyone who makes an effort to welcome them. See, again, Some Thoughts on Divisiveness. If you hadn’t read that already.
… and A Little Bit of Racism?
I also think that some of these antifeminists have attitudes that might be a little bit racist. Not that they’re white supremacists, mind you. They aren’t actively believing in the inferiority of other races, or actively trying to harm them or curtail their rights. But rather, they are holding onto their own privileged white status, by tooth and claw, and belittling or dismissing the interests of other races, even denying that any inadvertent, latent, or institutional racism exists (or if admitting it, showing no concern about it). I don’t think most of those who do this realize this is what they are doing. I think if they did, many of them would rethink it.
Those few who do it more consciously closet this even more, of course, because no one can become popular being openly racist the way they can by being openly antifeminist (alas, thereby proving that women as a whole still in some ways have it worse than racial minorities, even in America). The one is “acceptable,” the other is not. I want to see both become equally unacceptable. This does not mean antifeminism constitutes any criticism of feminism. Not only can such criticism be worthwhile and productive, but feminists themselves have been actively doing if for over a century. Rather, antifeminism is about distorting facts and logic in an attempt to denounce feminism itself. The next step will be, of course, the same as racism: to insist one is not a racist, but then say and do racist things and defend them as “not really racist.” Possibly honestly believing it’s not. I’ve seen the same two-step danced for antifeminism; I no longer assume it’s always deliberate. Sometimes people just don’t realize what they are doing when they avoid confronting something they might be doing wrong.
Hence the racism I see is often unintentional, latent in the oft-voiced rejection of the expansion of interest in our movement (meaning in our conferences and organizations and media) to issues of social justice and other broader concerns that are often the actual needs and interest of minority groups, especially racial minorities. Our movement has been largely white, predominately because it was only interested in “white people’s problems,” and thus uninterested in anyone else’s (and thus not attracting their interest in turn). Things like UFOs, Big Foot, homeopathy, and pseudoscience as a whole on the one end, and theology and other esoteric matters of history and philosophy on the other end, are not unimportant, but they are the luxuries of people who don’t have to worry so much about crime or poverty or such things as subtle institutional racism or economic injustice.
To now adamantly insist that organized atheism and skepticism should not concern itself with those matters, is itself covertly or unintentionally racist in its attitude. It is exclusionary of the interests of other races, placing the interests of white people first; and it is dismissive of the often far more serious problems caused by the racial divide, the battles other races are fighting in this country. We care a lot about discrimination against atheists, but not so much about discrimination against black atheists or Hispanic atheists. We care a lot about creationism in schools (and often only in schools with lots of white kids in them), but don’t show as much interest in the quality of schools generally (such as in predominately black or Hispanic neighborhoods). That can change. It obviously should change. We should be talking to those and other groups and finding out what we can do to bring them into our fold and show them we have their back, every bit as much as we want them to have ours.
We face the same reality as the Republican party, whose deaf ear to the concerns of minorities is hurting its ability to influence the public, when in fact if they gave more of a damn, they could grow their movement instead of dooming it to shrink. Even in America, whites will soon be a minority; and America isn’t the only gigantic nation on a pathway to global success. Moreover, if atheism is good for people, it ought to be good for racial minorities as well. We should want to spread the movement into their neighborhoods. But doing that requires caring about the things that they regard as important targets of skepticism and religious criticism. And that requires, in turn, finding out what that is. Which requires, in turn, actually talking to them.
Two really excellent articles on this issue you will want to read are Kate Donovan’s No True Scotsman, Atheists, & Apathy and Heina Dadabhoy’s Deep Rifts: A Fairy Tale, especially the comments section there, where Heina develops further a lot of the ideas intended by her brief “lesson-by-fairy-tale” that comprises the post itself. Dadabhoy concludes:
A separation between social justice issues and rest of the concerns of skepticism is the luxury of those who do not belong to a group that has been — and indeed, some that still very much are — marginalized by skepticism. The struggles have been obvious and painful to many of us long before they became readily apparent to everyone else. While I (and everyone else, likely) wish the changes could have happened with less vitriol, they’ve still made skepticism a better place for more and more people by, among other things, thoroughly dispelling any false notion that skepticism (and atheism) are the exclusive province of white men. Since when was more of what we all claim to hold dear a bad thing?
Her “fairy tales” (in effect, parables) also capture how things look from from the perspective of many women, too (and not just other races), and understanding how things look from that perspective is essential to understanding why Atheism+ is important, and why being dismissive of it (much less mocking of it) is out of touch with reality–and, ultimately, a little racist (even if unintentionally), insofar as it insists on only seeing the world from the perspective of white men and refusing to even admit that things might look quite differently to atheists who are neither.
Why Has This Problem Grown?
Where did this more wanton sexism and more subtle racism come from? I don’t think it’s because atheism has grown these people, or that atheism especially attracts them. I think it’s just the inevitable mathematics of growth. The movement of organized atheism has grown so amazingly over the last ten years that amoral minorities once invisible are now visible.
Imagine 1 in 1000 atheists has always been a sexist douchebag who is happy to abuse and harass women in the movement that they perceive to be too uppity (or who digitally high-fives those who do). When the movement was only 10,000 strong, there would have been only 10 of them. Too few to feel safe being vocal or to organize themselves against the majority. But grow the whole movement to a 1,000,000 strong and now there are 1,000 sexist douchebags, enough to organize, defend and commiserate with each other, pat each other on the back, run their own web venues, and barrage comments sections with dozens or even hundreds of attack posts (often with disgusting sexual mockery).
Thus, even if nothing has changed with respect to the rate of sexism among atheists, our growth has made sexists among us more visible and more powerful. They can now chase women out of the movement whom they perceive as too “feminist” or “vocal,” just by their shear numbers and the incredible volume of harassment it can produce. Obviously their cognitive dissonance prevents them from admitting that what they are doing is sexist. But it is.
Fortunately Atheism+ May Be Winning
In terms of what’s actually happening, though, I see the goals and values of Atheism+ slowly becoming the norm in organized atheism. More and more conferences are featuring talks and speakers on issues related to feminism, economics, and social justice, and on being as critical of our own people and institutions as we expect anyone to be of religious people and institutions. They are adopting harassment policies, showing greater concern for making everyone who attends feel welcome (and not just white men), and inviting more and more women and minority speakers. And now major national organizations are becoming interested in how to build membership by appealing to more women and minorities, precisely the point of Atheism+. See, for example, How Organizations Can Improve Movement Diversity.
The debate between Sam Harris and Sean Faircloth over gun control policy is an example of expanding our interest beyond just talking about god and homeopathy all the time. I personally think both Harris and Faircloth are wrong (and both somewhat ignore the perspectives of non-whites; see, for example, the comments of our own Frederick Sparks), but it is precisely by applying our belief in purging logical fallacies and getting the facts straight that we could come closer to informing the public about what the options are and which option might perhaps generate the best results. Because that’s important. And atheists have the better tools to do it: it is precisely only our movement that is committed to making decisions not on faith-based principles or dogmas or traditions or folk logic but on science, evidence, and logical reason, with a commitment to avoiding fallacies and cognitive biases, and a deep-seated love for the truth and the welfare of humanity.
Atheists should be having these debates. And they should be doing even better at it than this. Bad science or philosophy about matters of social justice is surely more harmful than bad science or philosophy about drugs or dowsing rods or the coherence of the trinity. And contrary to the argument that “atheism is not a thing,” and thus can’t have values or goals, in point of fact atheism is a thing, a very huge and growing one: atheism is an identity movement with hundreds of local, national, and international organizations and dozens of annual conferences worldwide, potentially counting over three million self-identifying members in the U.S. alone (if we count everyone who spontaneously identifies as an “atheist” in polls). We have the skills, the venues, and the active members to care about things and apply our reasoning and our skepticism and our distinctly nonreligious worldviews to the problems and questions of the world.
Surely that would be a good use of some of the atheist movement’s time and resources. But we shouldn’t have to waste time combating sexism and latent racism in our own ranks. We shouldn’t have to put up with these harassment campaigns against our best and brightest women. Don’t let them get away with it. Please join in the social condemnation of their attitudes and behavior. Make it clear that they are the bad guys, and that their behavior will not win over the movement or even be welcome in it. Please sign the Lee petition.
Note to the inevitable you-know-whos: to save loads and loads of my time, because of the way comments sections on Atheism+ posts get bombarded by inept or deliberately derailing remarks, I may not respond to comments that violate any of three basic commonsense rules, except to issue stock responses as follows (though I will still allow through moderation all posts that do not violate my comments policy). If I answer with YDNRTP, that means You Did Not Read the Post (your claim is either answered or refuted in or by this post already, and therefore requires no further comment; if you want to know why, read the damn post). If I answer with YFW, that means Your Facts are Wrong (you have made a claim about something that happened that isn’t true, and if you bothered to check into what actually happened, you would discover this; it’s not my job to lead you by the hand, it’s your responsibility to find out what the facts are: go do that). If I answer with YRF, that means Your Reasoning is Fallacious (your conclusion does not follow even from your own premises, and I don’t have the time to explain this to you; so go back and rethink what you said; if you still can’t figure out how your argument is fallacious, I can’t imagine how I can help you out of your delusional thinking by anything I bother to say, so please just leave me alone and find somewhere else to stew). If I answer with NWIS, that means Not What I Said (you should go back and re-read what I said and try to figure out what it meant that was not what you thought I said; then respond, if at all, to what I actually said). Finally, if I answer with BN, that means Bored Now (you are just wasting everyone’s time with your irrational or factless ranting and your attempts to troll my blog are just boring me).