Choosing Rock

Some of you fence-sitters and those who’ve been, I dunno, trapped deep underground with no internet access for two-plus years, may be wondering what the fuss is about. I mean, jeez, Ron Lindsay just made a bone-headed speech and spouted off on the official CFI blog. What’s the harm, amirite? You may think the response is disproportionate to the offense.

But the thing is this: both the content and the context of his little lecture at WiS2 were awful. His actions afterward, when he attacked Rebecca Watson rather than attend a fundraiser for his own organization, displayed a stunning lack of professionalism, and went against the principles he himself had agreed to abide by. He betrayed himself as well as the women he said he stood by. That shows a weakness of moral fiber that concerns me deeply.

And the CFI Board? Given the chance, they couldn’t even muster a miserly “We’re sorry you were offended.” They couldn’t lower themselves to say even “I can see why you’d be upset, but…” They chucked the long, eloquent letters of very hurt people into a deep black hole and chose to blame the hurt folks for hurting. They decided to make the dedicated set of harassers, abusers, and general riff-raff scream for joy.

One act can balance ten thousand kind ones. What Ron did wasn’t evil, per se – there are far worse things that have been done. But his was an act that balanced many kind ones. It was an act that called into question CFI’s ability to lead in the secular movement. One act can fracture trust. A second (such as the Board’s) can shatter it. We no longer trust Ron Lindsay and the CFI Board of Directors to act in our best interests. Nor should we.

There are a great many organizations that do outstanding work within the secular movement. There are organizations that stand by their principles, no matter how it hurts them (hi, Skepticon!). There are organizations whose leaders have stood unflinchingly beside the women of this movement (hi, American Atheists!) Why should we support an organization whose leadership chooses not to support us?

I choose the rock I stand on. I will not stand on rock that threatens to crumble away from beneath me. I choose to stand with those who share my principles. And one of those principles is that you not only pay lip service to women, but support them as they struggle to undo the damage of thousands of years of second-class citizenship, servitude, and slavery. You can tell me that your rock is safe to stand upon, but I will base my decision upon the cracks I see in it, and how well you fix those cracks when they form.

CFI was once a great rock to stand on. The dedicated employees and volunteers did remarkable things for the secular movement, and I will be forever grateful to them for their hard work and dedication. But CFI’s leadership chose to let that rock fall away. I can no longer stand there. Many of us have discovered we can’t. And we are not shy about making our choice public. We hope those dedicated and outstanding people will either be able to repair that shattered rock, or find better places to stand, but we cannot stay there.

You can choose other rock. You have that right. But your choice will determine whether we stand beside you or apart from you. This should not surprise you. We choose, every day, where we will stand, or if we will stand at all, and those choices shape the world around us.

I have made up my mind to stand with the feminists, the social justice advocates, the people who are trying to make this world a better one. I choose to stand with those who are working to empower the powerless, and give voice to the voiceless. I choose to stand with those who will not tolerate harassment. I choose to stand with those who not only fight religion and superstition, but against outdated social constructs that constrict rather than allow people to realize their potential.

Upon this rock I stand.*

Moi standing upon Siletz River Volcanics at Alsea Falls.

Moi standing upon Siletz River Volcanics at Alsea Falls.

With thanks to Robert G. Ingersoll, who chose his rock, and rocked it.


*Being a geologist, I can assure you as to its stability. This is an excellent rock that will be very hard to break.

No Longer Donating to CFI? Skepticon Could Use Your Help!

Thanks to our own John-Henry Beck, I was made aware of this outstanding adherence to principles, irregardless of money:

However, after witnessing the actions of one of our years long sponsors, the Center for Inquiry (CFI), it has come to our attention that, in order to uphold the values that we have come to embody and endorse, we will no longer accept their sponsorship.

So what does this mean for Skepticon? Well, losing a large sponsor is going to hurt a little bit (we’re probably going to have to sell some of those awesome hats were were talking about) but it has made even determined than ever to make a conference that we can be proud of.

That right there tells me Skepticon is worth supporting. If you’ve withdrawn your fundage from CFI, Skepticon is a great place to redirect your donations. I’ve thrown some money in their coffers, and will be doing so on a semi-regular basis. Remember, this is student-led and free, and principled. If you can spare the change, show them some love.

And, Skepticon? Thank you for being awesome. Much love!


Nate Adds a Few Cents

Our own NateHevens has a few words to say about Good Christians™ himself.

Look… I get that you’re not like those Christians. I get that you’re a good, loving Christian who’d never send death threats. I get that you’re pro-choice, that you don’t have a problem with non-straight marriage, that you’re open and experimental in life. I’m really glad that you don’t have a problem with atheists. I’m even happier that you think works is at least as important as faith, if not more. I’m especially happy that you don’t believe in hell. (Please note that all of these are “or”, not “and”, so you might believe some and not the others, etc.)

But I also don’t care.


Go on over and see the rest of his several cents’ worth. And remember, Good Christians™ – we do love you, but please, save the Not Real Christianity™ spiels for them as needs ‘em.

Ron Lindsay’s Extraordinary Bullshit II, In Which I Compose a Letter

Here is the missive I have sent to the board of CfI.

Dear CfI Board Members:

You may notice that I haven’t spent this opening paragraph telling you how grateful I am that you have championed excellent causes in our secular community. Of course CfI has done great work in the past. We in the secular community have been very happy to join you in common cause, and are proud of the work you have done, “but this is something you know already, and, although I don’t want to appear ungracious, why take up time to state the obvious, because the reality is we have much work to do, and presumably you’re reading this letter for substance not rhetoric.”*

The president and CEO of CfI should know better than to stand up in front of a conference focusing on women in the secular movement and spend his time telling them how they have disappointed him, what he expects them to do, and how he desires they act. I can think of no other opening to a conference that treated its speakers and attendees with such blatant disrespect. Ron Lindsay has created an enormous problem for CfI. This problem can be resolved by removing him from his position. Failing that, he must apologize, in full and without qualification, and demonstrate by his actions that he understands that what he did was beyond the pale and must never, ever happen again. He will have to show his full and unqualified support for the women in the secular community he has wronged. And he must promise never to speak at a Women in Secularism conference, nor any other conference for women, without ensuring his speech focuses on their accomplishments and initiatives, and supports them fully.

This woman, and many of the women I know, are finished with men who feel they must always make it All About Them. This is precisely what Ron Lindsay did. That would have been quite enough to justify the anger of speakers, attendees, and those of us who were following the conference from a distance. However, his subsequent behavior was frankly appalling, and shamed CfI deeply. An apology for one statement in one blog post does nothing to make amends. And so, members of the board of CfI, I call upon you to shape him up or ship him out.

Does this sound harsh? Take my harshness as a measure of my disappointment. I’m afraid that if CfI cannot discipline or dismiss Ron Lindsay for his outrageous behavior, I will never be able to support your organization financially, nor by recommending it to secular people seeking an organization they can rely on, nor by publicizing your campaigns, fundraisers, or any other actions that may require community support.

I know I am not alone in this. I know I am not the only one who has expressed anger and disappointment. All of us would be delighted to support CfI in the future. Your actions in this matter will determine our course.

Thank you for your time and attention to this matter.


Dana Hunter

En Tequila Es Verdad and Rosetta Stones

*If this portion was offensive, speak to Ron regarding it: I lifted it nearly verbatim from his statement in his WiS2 speech.



Christian “Love” and Christian Dissociation

(This was written long ago, and I never got round to posting it, but a fresh infusion of Good Christian Love™ has made it quite relevant. So why the hell not?)

I’m so tired of this.

I’m tired of hearing people prattle on about “God is Love” and what loving, moral people religion makes. It isn’t true. It’s manifestly not true. What religion does is takes otherwise decent human beings and turns them into sanctimonious shits, when it’s not busy enabling evil. “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction,” Blaise Pascal said once. This is truth.

Let me just state this now, for the believers: I do not want to hear, “But that’s not True Christianity!” I do not want to hear, “But I’m not that kind of person.” The first is a bloody stupid No True Scotsman fallacy, and you should be better than that. The second is beside the point. And don’t even begin to tell me how the majority of Christians are wonderful people who would never, ever do the things I’m about to show you Christians have done. Stop playing defense for the home team for a moment. Sit down on the sidelines and listen.*

I will tell you what set me off. It was back when I tweeted a link to this post by Chris Rodda. Some wonderful Christian had sent Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an email on his birthday. It was full of ethnic slurs and bile and some choice Christian love:

That’s right Mr. Weinstein. Hell awaits you. As it awaits your wife and children and all who align with the satanic darkness you and your “Freedom Foundation” preach Mr. Weinstein. And we are frankly very glad of it.

And right after I tweeted the link, someone I like and respect** tweeted back, “yikes! I hope I come across as a friendlier Christian.”


Let me unpack the wrong here. She’d apparently read the post, as my tweet didn’t give away much. So she’d just seen that vile bullshit spewed by a man who loves him some Jesus. And all she could think about was appearances, rather than condemn, directly and without hedging, that venomous hate. Perhaps she didn’t mean it to, but those words come across as a Christian caring more for presenting a good Christian facade than sticking up for a fellow human being.

And that’s disgusting. It’s far beneath her, a person I know to be smart and funny and caring. I wonder if she would she say the same if she realized that this man, in defending the Constitution, fighting for the separation of church and state in our military, battling for other Christians, as well as atheists, Jews, Muslims, pagans, and all other religious flavors when they come to him with problems caused by evangelical Christians using our armed forces as a captive audience for conversion, has been targeted by people who would describe themselves as Good Christians. His house has been vandalized, “good” Christians have killed animals and strewn them on his property as a warning; he and his family need bodyguards because some of these warriors for Christ believe God will be quite happy with them if they blow Mikey Weinstein and his family away.

“Yikes! I hope I come across as a friendlier Christian.”

It doesn’t matter how friendly you are. It doesn’t matter how much fluffier your Christianity is compared to their (supposedly fake) Christianity. It. Doesn’t. Matter.

And I’m not speaking just to her. I’m speaking to all of the Christians who have responded to the worst Christianity has to offer with, “That’s not really Christianity.” Or, “Not all of us are like that.” Let me tell you something: distancing yourself from your fellow believers accomplishes so very little other than making you look like a self-absorbed jerk. You sound like you don’t give two shits about the people harmed by the behavior of your fellow believers. Don’t tell me not all Christians believe that way, and not all of them are like that, and you’re not like that. I know this. If you were, we wouldn’t be friends. If you were, you’d be too busy telling me I’m going to burn in hell to tell me how awesome your brand of Christianity is.

Tell them that. Tell the people who threaten harm, and do harm, in the name of God that they’re despicable shits. Read them the riot act over their behavior. Tell them this isn’t what Christian love is all about, if that’s what you believe, but please don’t tell it to me.

Not after I’ve seen what Christian love really looks like. Here’s the response to a brave young girl who asked for a prayer banner in a high school to be taken down: there’s the rape threats, and the death threats, and the threats of violence, and the sincere wishes for her to burn in hell. Ordinary Christians who, up until the time Jessica Ahlquist asked the school to abide by the Constitution and take down an illegal prayer banner, were probably quite decent and possibly kind, suddenly let their inner lunatic go. Over a fucking banner.

I want you to click this link. Right now. Go see only one of the many disgusting letters she got juxtaposed against the holy words on that fucking banner. You might have pointed to that banner as proof that your religion teaches love and compassion and morals. This is how well it worked.

These are good Christians, killing animals to leave on a man’s lawn, threatening to kill him, threatening to beat and rape and murder a teenage girl. If all you have to say to me is, “I hope I come across as a friendlier Christian” or the equivalent, all I have to say to you is, you have some soul-searching to do.

*And don’t you even start the “Atheists can be meanies, too!” spiel. We know that. We’ve screamed at them for it. And we, unlike you, do not have this bloody stupid idea that some ancient book cobbled together from the ravings of goatherders and fanatics, full of horrific violence, somehow has the magic formula for making people wonderful.

**I like and respect her enough not to plaster her identity all over this post. That may not be the right thing to do. But I want to give her enough anonymity to hopefully think rather than get defensive, and it wasn’t meant only for her anyway. She’s not the only believer I’ve encountered who, although a fantastic human being, says some very fucked up things when religion is involved.

How Many Fires Should the Arsonists be Allowed to Set?

So there’s this thing a lot of decent people (and isn’t it remarkable how they’re almost always men?) have been doing. It happens in public with people like Lee Moore and Michael Nugent playing at being peace brokers; it happens in private, with friends and respected colleagues comparing the harassers and the harassees to the USSR and America. Sit down at a table, they say. Air grievances, they say. Come to an agreement, they say. Give and take is what’s needed here, they say.

They never do get that there are some situations that can’t be resolved by dialogue, some people with whom negotiation is impossible. I’m reminded of Methos trying to talk sense into MacLeod, speaking of a person whose only goal was death and destruction: “Kronos didn’t torch those villages for a few coins, he torched them to watch them burn.” What can you offer to someone whose only desire is to cause damage (and be lauded by the upper eschelons while doing it)? Nothing except capitulation. So what, we hand Kronos a torch and say, “Go to it”?

Firing Match by Vomir-en-costard, via Flickr.

Firing Match by Vomir-en-costard, via Flickr.

I’ve been struggling to find the proper analogy to describe how bloody stupid this is, but it clicked in place today, and perhaps it might help a few of the peace brokers understand what their pushing for peace looks like to those of us who have had their houses set on fire:

[Peace Broker]: you’re asking us to negotiate with arsonists. If there are arsonists in your community who won’t stop setting fires, you don’t ask the anti-arson parts of the community to negotiate how many fires the arsonists can set, and how much damage the anti-arsonists are expected to tolerate. You stop the arsonists, period. Please don’t play silly buggers by equating “both sides” to superpowers with equal accountability and concern for survival. That’s an incorrect and harmful analogy. It does nothing to solve the problem.

The Digital Cuttlefish, with whom I shared this analogy (and who understood this long ago), wrote it up in an easy-to-understand poem. Perhaps the peace brokers could sing a few bars if the written words aren’t penetrating. All together, now: “Why Can’t You Just Meet Me Halfway?”

If you wish to ask me that – why can’t I let the harassers meet me halfway, hash out our differences over a beer or in some grand diplomatic scheme, let me just ask you this: why won’t you let arsonists burn down your house? Not the whole thing? Well, why not just part of it? The bedroom? The living room? Kitchen? Well, how about a bathroom? Oh, and don’t forget, there will be other arsonists coming who will want to burn your house down as well, so make sure you have some kindling and other rooms ready to welcome them. And they will never ever stop, not until you’ve moved to a different state to get away from them, and never once show up to hang out with your friends or family in your old neighborhood again. Even then, they might track you down and light a match just for old times’ sake. You know, just to show you how vulnerable to arson you are, and why you might want to rebuild with asbestos. But surely, Mr. Peace Broker, you can accept that. After all, aside from the whole arson disagreement, your interests are perfectly aligned!

Fire in West Campus by That Other Paper, via Flickr.

Fire in West Campus by That Other Paper, via Flickr.

Also, after you’ve negotiated your “peace” with the arsonists, the murderers would like a few words. Well, a few limbs, but it’s all the same when it’s all in good fun, right? How can there be peace among us if you aren’t willing to part with at least a foot or two?

Those with a fetish for dialogue need to consider what dialogue actually does, and consider the fact that dialogue in this case was tried and failed. You can’t negotiate with arsonists. Nor should you have to.

So, future peace broker, consider the analogy above. Ponder the fact that not all disagreements are like tensions between countries. Realize that not everything can be resolved by just talking it over. And take the following to heart:

[Peace Broker] can’t compel us to “come to the table” with bullies. He can’t, without their help, tell us there is anything to be gained by talking to people whose idea of disagreement is to:

There is nothing he can do to convince us that this time, as opposed to the other times these folks didn’t want to hear what we had to say on our own blogs, things will be better because it happens in his space.

Instead of handing the arsonists more matches, could you perhaps consider stopping them from setting fires instead? Just a thought.

Pearl River Fire by Loco Steve, via Flickr

Pearl River Fire by Loco Steve, via Flickr

Ron Lindsay’s Extraordinary Bullshit Part I: Wherein We Have a Discussion About Open Letters

I’ve been meaning to parse and publish this for some time. Remember all the way back when Ron Lindsay published and signed that open letter that wasn’t so much a call for civility as a call to STFU? Remember when people got upset? Yeah. Well. According to the letter, we were supposed to call folks before reaming them, so I asked for his phone number on Twitter. I was pretty shocked when he actually gave it to me, but then, he’d just signed the letter saying people should phone each other, so that bit was fresh in everyone’s mind. We couldn’t come up with a good time to talk on the phone, our schedules being what they are, so we eventually conversed via email. By the time all that was done, the furor over the open letter had subsided, and there was always something more pressing to publish, and most days I forgot Ron Lindsay existed.

Obviously, after his extraordinary fuck-ups at WiS2, my memory’s been jogged.

I’ll have Words to Say about the “welcome” speech debacle. And no, I won’t be calling (or emailing) Ron after he failed to live up to his own fucking pledge. But before I get to those Words, here is the conversation surrounding that ridiculous open letter asking us why we can’t just all play nice with each other (which is a question Ron Lindsay should be answering right about now).

Dissapointed cat

Onward, then:

Dear Dana,

This is in response to your April 10 email. I will try to answer your questions as best as I can given my time constraints and also my unwillingness to divulge the contents of private or confidential communications.

Because I am taking the time to answer your questions as best as I can, if you do refer to or reproduce my answers in a blog post, I ask that you reproduce them in full.

Please note that I am speaking only for myself. I do not have the authority to speak for, nor am I speaking for, the leaders of any other organizations.

In response to your questions: First, you need to be aware of the process, at least in broad terms, by which the Open Letter was produced because the wording of your email suggests a misconception of the process.

The Heads group had a meeting in Atlanta on January 26. Heads is a very informal group consisting of the leaders of major secular organizations. It has no constitution, bylaws, written rules of procedure, governing body, etc. It was started several years ago as a way for leaders of these groups to talk about issues of common concern in confidence, in part to foster an atmosphere of cooperation and trust and to help bring about coordinated action where possible.

Prior to this year’s meeting, there was significant discussion on the Heads listserve about diversity issues within the movement and problems relating to online communication. There was also discussion concerning sexism and feminism. I submitted for consideration a proposed statement that leaders of the organizations could sign on to if they wanted. Two other individuals submitted statements for consideration. There was much discussion, including discussion at the actual meeting in January. Secular Woman, through its representatives, was one of the organizations that participated in the discussion.

At the meeting, there was a consensus that the three persons who had submitted proposed statements should confer and draft a statement for consideration. There was also a consensus that the statement should focus on problems with online conduct, with specific mention being made of the despicable comments being directed against some women. The statement would take the form of a pledge by the signatories to do their best to improve the content and tone of online communication, along with some suggestions for everyone, that is, for leaders of organizations as well as everyone else.

There was no consensus at this time to support a statement that was more focused on sexism or feminism, although there was unanimous support for inclusion within the statement of a section that would unambiguously indicate that advocacy of women’s rights was an integral part of the mission of secular organizations.

With this background, let me answer your questions.

Section I, Questions 1-6:

[He didn't include the questions, so I shall do so here:

I. When drafting this open letter, which of the following women/organizations did you reach out to?
1. Secular Woman
2. Ophelia Benson
3. Stephanie Zvan
4. Greta Christina
5. Rebecca Watson
6. Mary Ellen Sikes/American Secular Census]

Prior to the Heads meeting, I publicly solicited input from anyone interested in issues of diversity within the movement and/or the controversy over sexism and feminism. Thus, to the extent that they were interested, all the individuals and organizations you mention had the opportunity to contribute. (As I recall, Stephanie Zvan, Ophelia Benson, Kim Rippere, and Mary Ellen Sikes did submit comments.)

With respect to the Heads discussion, both Mary Ellen Sikes (American Secular Census) and Kim Rippere (Secular Woman) participated. The Heads discussion was limited to members of the Heads group. That’s simply how the group operates.

[Okies. Next section:

II. Have you read any of the following posts:

With respect to Section II, Questions 1-6, I read all the posts you have cited.

[I guess I should have added a short reading comprehension quiz for each.]

Section III [III. Questions arising from various comments and posts]

Question 1: [How are we to "pick up the phone" or "send a private email" to those who either won't provide them or won't answer our calls/emails? Are we supposed to follow this procedure with our harassers?] Your question relates to one paragraph of the Open Letter. This paragraph, as is true with the rest of the Open Letter, presumes people will interpret it using common sense. If talking or writing to someone is pointless, because they have already made their hostility abundantly clear, there is no need to engage in a futile act. I don’t think this needed to be spelled out. (If we had spelled it out, we may have been accused of infantilizing our audience.) The advice to communicate privately at first applies to situations where it’s possible to avoid a needless public battle.

Question 2: [Do you understand why not addressing problematic behavior in public is a problem in and of itself?] I’m not an absolutist in many things, and I’m not an absolutist on this issue either, nor do I suggest that you or anyone else should be. Sometimes private communication is better; sometimes a public statement is better. It depends on the situation and also what you mean by “problematic.” See my answer to Watson #5 below.

Question 3: [Many women, this woman included, feel that the Open Letter give shelter to our abusers, a bludgeon to silence us with, and treats insults and rhetoric as equal in badness to "slurs, expressions of hatred, and threats." Can you see why this is a major issue for women and PoCs, and will prevent many of us from endorsing it?] I do not interpret the Open Letter as you do. The Open Letter explicitly condemns blogs and comments that exhibit hatred, including rape threats and insults denigrating women. The Open Letter nowhere equates a rape threat with mere rhetoric, however tendentious.

Question 4: [Holding private conversations about equal rights and problematic behavior such as racism, sexism, or ignoring minority voices has historically done little to solve these issues, while taking the conversations public has proven to be very effective. How do you respond to the concern that privacy will allow problems to fester, fail to be effective, and ends up silencing minority voices?] Again, I think you’re misreading the Open Letter. It is not recommending privacy for all communications, all the time. Sometimes public condemnation is appropriate. Judgment is required.

Question 5: [The focus on internet behavior ignores the fact that many of these problems begin and continue offline. It also focuses on tone and gives the appearance of ignoring substance. What is your response to these concerns? Were you aware of them while drafting this letter? If so, why were they not addressed?] As indicated, the Open Letter was a product of discussion among some twenty (or more) people. It was a compromise among people with different perspectives. The consensus was that we should strive for unity, and the Open Letter was a statement almost all groups could endorse. Another statement would not have achieved the same level of unity. Nothing in the Open letter precludes individual organizations from implementing policies or taking action on issues not addressed in the Open Letter. I am aware that harassment, sexist behavior, and other forms of unacceptable conduct occur offline.

Question 6: [Will there be a follow-up open letter explaining what concrete steps your organizations will be taking to end harassment in the secular community? Do you see why merely expressing support for the idea of equality, rather than committing to concrete actions, fails to impress people who have suffered abuse from or been ignored by those proclaiming their belief in equality? Do you see why the letter's emphasis on civility rather than addressing specific concerns alienates the people whose equality you claim to care about?] I cannot predict what other organizations might do. I doubt if Heads as a group will do much more in the near future simply because there is a significant problem with coordinating action between annual meetings. CFI addresses the problem of harassment in our current policies. We may adopt further relevant policies. Our policies are continually being reviewed to ensure they address issues of concern to members of our community. Regarding the Open Letter’s emphasis on civility, it should not alienate people if they understand the limits and focus of the Open Letter.

Question 7: [How do you respond to those of us who sincerely regard this letter as an attempt to maintain the status quo and ignore the serious issues of sexism in the secular community? Do you think that asking the abused to speak nicely to their abusers is actually helpful?] Regarding the first part of this question, please refer to my prior responses on the specific focus of the Open Letter. Regarding the second part, the Open Letter does not ask “the abused to speak nicely to their abusers.” There is no sentence resembling this statement anywhere in the Open Letter. This is your characterization, and, respectfully, this is a mischaracterization.

Question 8: [If the letter was advising how secular organizations should respond to harmful religious practices/beliefs/actions, or how to respond to racism in the secular community, would you still support it without reservation?] To repeat myself, the Open Letter’s focus was on online conduct, not the broader issue of sexism, so your examples are not analogous. That said, I favor civility where possible. Civility does not imply inaction in the face of objectionable conduct. It never has. Gandhi and King were civil, but they were far from passive. Similarly, with respect to religion, Harris, Hitchens, Jacoby, Dawkins, and Dennett, as well as many others, have been civil, but they have also been vigorous opponents of the harm caused by religion.

RW Section [The following questions arise from the comment you left on Rebecca Watson's post. These are questions that subsequent commenters wish see you answer.]:

Question 1: [Instead of addressing specific criticisms of the open letter made by Rebecca Watson, American Secular Census, and Secular Woman, you asked for a "fair reading" of the letter. What, in your view, constitutes a "fair reading"? How have these women been "unfair" in their reading so far?] A fair reading of the Open Letter would examine its contents in the context of the problems it specifically set out to address. Such a fair reading would proceed paragraph by paragraph and state whether the points contained therein are wrong or provide advice that should be rejected. I do not think this type of analysis was done by all critics.

My comment was not specifically directed at any one individual, although obviously I did have Rebecca’s post in mind when I made my comment. One statement by Rebecca I thought was particularly unfair. She suggested that the leaders who endorsed the Open Letter “stop etching tablets” and instead “start actively participating in the massive feminist fight against the Religious Right.” CFI has been advocating on behalf of women’s rights for years. It is an integral part of our mission. We’d love to do more. Give us more funds and we’ll do more. I’d be thrilled to have another staffer who could focus exclusively on advocacy for women’s rights, especially in the area of reproductive rights, which are currently under a coordinated assault.

Question 2: [Not one person criticizing the letter has demanded that it "solve all the world's problems." They have pointed out how its call for online civility fails to address the serious problem of sexism in the secular movement, which is the source of much of the incivility. How do you address those specific criticisms?] I think everyone who belongs to Heads recognizes that sexism isn’t confined to the Internet. There were differences of opinion on how best to address sexism. Consequently, at this time there was no consensus on the wording of a statement that would address sexism apart from this one paragraph:

The principle that women and men should have equal rights flows from our core values as a movement. Historically, there has been a close connection between traditional religion and suppression of women, with dogma and superstition providing the rationale for depriving women of fundamental rights. In promoting science and secularism, we are at the same time seeking to secure the dignity of all individuals. We seek not only civil equality for everyone, regardless of sex, but an end to discriminatory social structures and conventions – again often the legacy of our religious heritage—that limit opportunities for both women and men.

Question 3: [You take issue with Rebecca's characterization of the letter as delivered from "on a mountaintop," but several people offering criticism have explained why the letter gives the impression of a top-down approach. They note that it contains "you statements" – prescribing the conduct you expect from others – and does not contain concrete actions you will take to address these issues, other than a problematic boilerplate pronouncement against insults etc. and moderating comments. How do you respond to these specific criticisms? Do these criticisms help you understand why the letter presented itself as a series of "thou shalts" rather than "we wills"?] I still take issue with the characterization of the Open Letter as being issued from a “mountaintop.” I admire the craft that went into this rhetorical flourish, but am disheartened by its unwarranted suggestion that those who put the letter together view themselves as religious leaders issuing dogmatic pronouncements. There is no justification for this. I presume the members of the secular movement want their leaders to talk about issues and where possible commit to taking unified action. If one is disappointed that they did not address all the issues that one thinks should have been addressed, then, fine, state that. But there is no basis for attributing to them a Moses-like mindset.

You are mistaken, as are others, in implying that the Open Letter has lots of “you” statements. The “you” statements are confined principally to the one paragraph that has drawn so much attention (that is, the paragraph suggesting private communications as a possible alternative to public communications.) The “we” statements in the Open Letter far outnumber the “you” statements. Perhaps the signatories can be accused of inconsistency in pronoun use, but bad grammar does not equate to a top-down approach.

Question 4: [Many of us have no desire to "heal the rifts" between us and our abusers. Would you insist that battered women "heal the rifts" with their batterers? Should we reach out to appease those who write for hate groups like A Voice for Men?] Please reference prior answers. This set of questions, as with others, attributes to the Open Letter advice that is not contained therein.

Question 5: [Did you pick up the phone and speak to Rebecca before writing your comment? If not, why did you neglect to follow the procedure laid out in the open letter that you signed?] No I did not speak to Rebecca before writing my comment and I do not accept your suggestion that my failure to speak to her somehow indicates I was neglecting advice set forth in the Open Letter.

These questions seem inspired, again, by that one paragraph in the Open Letter which recommends that private communications be considered as an alternative to a public communication. However, to infer that one must always talk or write to someone before posting a comment on a blog is to misinterpret the intent of the Open Letter. The intent of that one paragraph of the Open Letter was to suggest private communications as an alternative — where feasible — to starting a public battle. Sometimes this may not be feasible, in part because battle lines are already drawn. Other times, private communication may not be necessary because one’s comment is of the type not likely to be considered incendiary. I think my comment was reasonable, not inflammatory.

But the fact of the matter is I did write privately to Rebecca, Stephanie Zvan and Kim Rippere after my comment. I had some concerns which I did not raise in my public comment. These were discussed. There was still disagreement at the end, but I made a deliberate decision not to go public with my remaining concerns because I thought it might create an unnecessary battle, yielding divisiveness instead of respectful disagreement. Private communications are not always better, but they are sometimes better.

I hope this answers your questions.

So I got this email, and read it a few times, and while I was grateful he’d taken the time to answer lil ol me, I was still left with a few odd flavors on my tongue:

1. It might have just been me, but I felt like I’d just been lectured to by a condescending jackass.

2. He never did understand that the questions I was asking were synthesized from the questions and concerns of dozens of people in the comment sections of several posts, regardless of the fact I reminded him of that several times. This did not boost my faith in his reading comprehension skillz.

3. He’s relying on “fair reading” and “misconception” to protect his ass. It sure as shit didn’t work for me.

But, y’know, whatevs. I was willing to give him the bennies of the doubts, and chalk it up to him being in a rush and all that, and figured that he probably wasn’t such a bad sort at heart. But then came WiS2, and there are no more bennies of the doubts. Not when the man’s so busy with a backhoe digging his way to the opposite side of the Earth that he can’t hear the united chorus of people who are extremely put out by his extraordinary bullshit. You are all welcome to read the above exchange in light of subsequent events and form your own conclusions. And should you wish to see the entire email chain, I will publish it.

And Ron? If you’re reading this and bristling at my tone, I invite you to pause and consider how your own tone might be improved, and how in the future you might manage to avoid pissing off nearly every woman (and a good chunk of the decent men) in our movement. I wish you every success with your contemplative endeavors.

Help Folks Forcibly Evicted by a Tornado

Y’all have heard about what happened to Moore, Oklahoma, right? You already know an atheist gave Wolf Blitzer the what-for? And there was the good news about the lady and her dog? Coolio. So I don’t have to pitch why you might want to throw some spare change their way.

Lots of atheist orgs are helping out:

Atheists Giving Aid

Foundation Beyond Belief

Humanists of Florida

Oklahoma Atheists (note “Rebecca Vitsum”)

I’m sure I’ve missed some – let me know your favorites if I have.

Also, Donors Choose is starting a fund for the teachers who will have to put their classrooms back together from scratch – you can donate to that fund here.

Thanks for lending a hand, my darlings!

50 “Simple” Questions, Me Arse

I thought we were in trouble. Guy P. Harrison’s introduction to his new book 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian set alarm bells a-ringing. “This book is not an attack on Christian people,” the first line says. Fair enough. But then there were all sorts of weaselly, mealy-mouthed words that seemed to shout “Retreat!” “Humble and far less threatening,” forsooth. “Clichéd and cartoonish angry atheist attack on crazy Christians,” indeed! “No interest in scoring debate points,” even so! “Proud to say I’ve walked away on friendly terms,” for fuck’s sake. Despite assurances punches would not be pulled, I was positive I was in for 324 pages of forelock-tugging, bowing and scraping deference to Christianity. This looked like it was going to be one of those kumbaya books, and I almost packed it up and sent it back to Prometheus Books with a note saying, “No. I can’t do this.”

50 Simple Questions for Every Christian by Guy P. Harrison. Image courtesy Prometheus Books.

50 Simple Questions for Every Christian by Guy P. Harrison. Image courtesy Prometheus Books.

But I read on, with much trepidation, and within about twenty pages wondered if any Christians would make it so far. Guy wasn’t kidding when he said he was pulling no punches. Despite the occasional irritating elbow thrown at “both sides” (with no evidence that our side ever did anything equivalent), this is mostly a full-on series of knockout blows. Oh, it’s all very civil. But we all know civil language doesn’t mean the content itself is gentle. I don’t know if I’d give this book to any Christian whose faith wasn’t already wavering, because I suspect they’d close it after two pages and never open it again. But it’s an excellent addition to any skeptic’s library, because it gives us 50 questions to use as wedges to insert into any cracks of faith and hammer home.

I like that he led off by asking, “does Christianity makes sense?” That’s an excellent question to explore beyond your Christian conversation partner’s first, “well, of course it does!” And the questions, simple on their surface, keep getting harder, as do the points Guy makes about each one. He presents the atheist/skeptical perspective regarding each question clearly and completely. No quibbles from this New Atheist.

By the end of the book, the common arguments most Christians make for their faith are out cold. Miracles? Dispatched. Prophecies? Punctured. Loving God? Revealed as a complete shit. Intelligent design? In tatters. Good only with God? More like good without God. Pascal’s Wager? A foolish gamble indeed. The Bible? As The Doctor once said, “Atrociously writ!” Guy says it’s not about the content or contradictions. “No, the real reason the Bible hasn’t been able to convince everyone everywhere that Jesus is the only path to heaven is that it is poorly written and structured.” That’s it. That’s the only argument we need; the rest is mere detail. If God existed, he would have been a better writer, and selected excellent editors.

Guy makes a clear and convincing case for skepticism throughout the book. One of my favorite moments is on page 107, where he says, “One unfounded belief sets us up to fall for the next one.” Absolute truth. He hits hard at verses in the Bible used to degrade and subjugate women, and he won’t let modern Christians get away with saying all that’s in the past. He hammers away at the notion that Christianity has anything to fear from science – why would it, if it’s true? By the end of the book, any Christians still unwilling to subject their faith to the rigors of modern science should be feeling thoroughly ashamed, and wondering how true their faith could possibly be if they’re unwilling to let science near it.

Geology gets its rock hammer in – you lot will love the discussion around the “Did God to drown the world?” question, wherein geologists get more than a mere mention. Guy displays a clear understanding of how the geologic record works. Allow me to quote a bit of the passage on page 239 that left me all warm and fuzzy:

Ten thousand years is an extremely thin sliver of time in geology. It’s certainly not so long ago that modern geologists would not have confirmed the flood. A global flood would have been an extraordinarily massive event in the Earth’s history with a colossal impact. It would have left behind a very clear and obvious record. Evidence for it would be everywhere, and the world’s geologists would be the first to see it.

You bet we would!

I also learned of the “Well to Hell,” which I’ve never heard of (pages 257-8). How did I miss this? It’s hilarious – and it provides some teachable moments in geology that I’ll be putting to good use soon. “Center of the Earth,” my arse. Snortle.

The “scientists are arrogant” trope is dispatched with no muss or fuss on page 252. Hard to come over all arrogant when you’re running around admitting and correcting mistakes, and saying you haven’t got all the answers, innit?

This book also contains some shocks for us atheists. As in, “There is no such thing as an atheist.” It’s true! Who are the gods we believe existed, thus killing our atheist cred? Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Ramses II, among others, all of whom were really-real historical figures deified after death. Checkmate, atheists! (This came by way of showing how crappy definitions of God are – see page 167, and chortle along.)

Upshot: I think this is a handy volume for atheists and skeptics to own. I’d encourage brave and/or questioning Christians to get it, as well. And if you want to send the die-hard believer in your life into screaming apoplexy, this might be the ideal gift. Regardless, these are excellent questions, thoughtfully answered from the skeptic’s perspective with plenty of stories and statistics to illustrate. It’s not a kind book. But it deeply respects the Christian’s intelligence, which is more than we can say for the religious leaders who feed their flocks nothing but pap. I’ll be recommending it to anyone who wants to know more about the skeptic’s perspective, or counters to common Christian tactics. And I’ll happily pull it out the next time missionaries darken my doorstep. Combined with the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, I have a feeling I might scar a few innocent young things for life.

Funny how they always seem to skip my apartment… Perhaps I should put a note on the door saying I have a Bible and a few simple questions. Heh.

Hey, Richard Dawkins! Women Aren’t Invisible

So stop treating us like we are.

Really, you only seem to notice women when you can use them to conveniently bludgeon religions. You’re super-concerned about how women are treated in the Muslim world because Islam. You call the Judeo-Christian god a “misogynistic…bully,” because hey, great point of attack, amirite? So women might get the idea you’re on their side, but when it counts, when we’re fighting against sexism and misogyny in the atheist community, you “Dear Muslima” us. When it comes to abortion rights, you’re more for pigs and parasites than you are women. You don’t see us, actual human beings with fundamental rights to bodily autonomy and respect. You see a rhetorical device. And you don’t even seem to be aware you’re doing it. I hope you’re not. I hope you’re not the kind of man who would deliberately erase a woman from the picture. But unintententional or no, that’s precisely what you’re doing.

How the religious right (and, later in pregnancy, Richard Dawkins) view pregnant women. All they can see is a fetus.

How the religious right (and, later in pregnancy, people like Richard Dawkins) view pregnant women. All they can see is a fetus.

Do you know who else erases women? The right-wing anti-abortion fanatics. They’re more thorough about it than you are, but you’re no slouch. I mean, look what happened when a woman tried to correct you on the fetuses-feel-pain thing:

You can see the full tweet stream, with awesome commentary, courtesy of Znikki at Storify. I encourage you to read the whole thing, because it is particularly relevant that Znikki sent actual scientific studies to correct Dawkins’ position and he ignored both her and the studies while responding to her husband.

Isn’t that interesting? I wonder why your eyes would edit out a female so easily. Oh, I’m certain you treat the women you know quite well, and you believe in equality and all that. You’re at least willing to grant a woman control over her body up until that mythical point when a fetus comes to feel pain, which is better than the anti-abortion zealots who banish women from the equation from the get-go, but you still have trouble with seeing women as complete, autonomous human beings. Your gaze slides right past them to the fetus parasitizing them, or the male they’re married to. Perhaps you should stop and ask yourself why that is.

You know what? I had to ask myself the same thing. Yeah, really. Even thought I’m a woman, I had a distressing tendency to fall for sexist tropes and erase my own gender from the picture. Good people brought me up short and forced me to reexamine certain of my assumptions. It wasn’t easy, but it’s easier than treating half the population on planet Earth as if they’re no more than incubators and rhetorical devices.

But I get it. I’m not being facetious: I really do get it. It’s hard. You’re a male, you’ve not got the anatomy necessary to ever be at risk for pregnancy. You don’t spend all day every day trying to avoid becoming a rape statistic. It’s hard to walk in other people’s shoes, I grant you that. So here’s a little thought exercise to help you out:

A fanatical Jain sect gains ground. One of their major beliefs is that killing parasites is murder. That sect controls nearly every aspect of the culture you live in. They support political parties and influence the laws of the land. You can’t escape their influence. And some of their ideas regarding parasites are pretty scary for anyone who could become infested.

  • The most radical ones say you can’t take medicine that would kill or evacuate parasite eggs before they implant.
  • Even the milder Jain sects say you must allow the parasite to mature within you, no matter how burdensome. Some make exceptions for life of the host, but in practice, hosts (that’s possibly you!) have died because doctors refuse to remove the parasites – even though not doing so means both the parasite and the person dies.
  • Many Jains think parasites are a consequence of fun activities such as swimming, and you should just accept the risks. If you don’t want to get a parasite, don’t go swimming. Oh, and refrain from eating most food, too. It’s your own fault if you eat food that hasn’t been completely checked for parasites, and end up having to host one.

Would you allow Jains to force you to carry parasites? Or would you fight them for control over your own body with everything you’ve got?

And how would you feel if a member of your secular community, a leading light, stood up and said, effectively, “Well, the Jains are wrong about forcing you to carry a parasite before it reaches a certain stage of development, but after that, parasites should not be removed. They can feel as much pain as an adult farm animal, therefore they should be allowed to grow.” How would you feel if that leader placed a parasite’s pain above your own, never even considered your pain as part of the equation - when that leader is immune to parasites and will never, ever have to face carrying one himself?

I doubt any of this will really get through to you, Richard. For you, it’s a thought experiment. For me and other uterus-bearing humans, it’s a distinct possibility. And we really don’t need men such as yourself coming along and throwing in with the make-pregnant-humans-invisible crowd, even partially. We’re fighting a hard enough battle without your misguided and flat-out wrong input.

I do hope you eventually take a moment to consider the fact that no other human beings are regularly forced to give up their bodily autonomy to have someone attached to and feeding from them for nine months. If you would refuse to have a person coupled with your body for an extended period of time, even to save their life; if you wouldn’t go into surgery today to donate half your liver or a kidney to an utter stranger who doesn’t even have a self-aware brain yet, much less the same hopes, dreams and plans that you do, why do you think you can blithely tell women to suck it up and give birth to a parasite? Pain is a ridiculous measure to go by. You’ll call me an absolutist, and think yourself superior for being otherwise, but I’m drawing the consequential line in a different place than you. I’m drawing it where the parasite is no longer physically attached. Then we can call it a baby. Then we can say that its life has equal worth, and that it must be cared for, if not by the birth mother then by someone else. Before that, all that matters is the person carrying it. That person can no longer be erased. Not by religious fanatics, not by social conservatives, and certainly not by you.

The whole picture is quite different, isn't it?

The whole picture is quite different, isn’t it?

Image badly modified by moi. Original here. Look, I’m no artist, m’kay?

Before you comment, read the policy. Know it. Respect it. Be aware I haven’t any patience with people who can’t see women, so if your comment erases women from the equation, elides important details, or in general annoys me, you won’t get through. There are some things not up for debate. Women’s status as full human beings is one of those.