I’m sorry we need to be.
Jaclyn Glenn’s ‘video about Atheism+ and pussies’, in which she at no point actually mentions Atheism Plus, has been praised and pilloried seemingly in equal measure. I have the same problem with it that I did with Phil Plait’s ‘Don’t Be A Dick’ speech a few years back, which also polarised responses. Plait, whom generally I like, never says who or what it is that ‘in some specific places’ he finds objectionably venomous, and similarly, Glenn’s entire attack on feminists in atheism consists of a parodic tiff between two animal rights advocates, never naming any actual feminists, quoting them or taking to task their real views.
Speaking persuasively in platitudes, abstract principles and innuendo is easy, but no substitute for the stubborn, meaty specificity of facts. I’ve been accused of writing personal ‘hit pieces’, but when you don’t say clearly who and what you’re arguing with, this is what happens. In a more recent video, Glenn admonishes her critics for failing to address her argument, but rebutting something so nonspecific is like trying to catch smoke: there’s no outright assertion to challenge.
Based on her characters’ lines, Glenn seems to dislike atheist feminists a) because we start unnecessary and divisive arguments and b) because we can’t stomach disagreement. These objections appear to refute each other, but the first one is worth discussing. ‘My respect requires full agreement with every position that I hold’, her imaginary SJW tells the figure insisting they’re on the same side, ‘and therefore I would rather fight with you than with people who aren’t even activists [for our shared cause] at all.’
Strawish as this is, it contains a mustard seed of truth. I don’t post about religion half as much as a year or two ago, and I know I’m not alone in this among the writers I work with. I wish I did – I’m considering focusing next month’s posts, in fact, specifically on atheist topics just to get back in the game – but the truth is I’ve felt unable to. I’d love to spend my every waking hour bashing puritanism, superstition and the notion drinking the Kool-Aid is a valorous way to live one’s life, but every time I’m about to I lay eyes on my own congregation. It is, as Geoffrey Howe said of serving under Margaret Thatcher, ‘like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.’ (Americans, click here.)
To supply the specific details Glenn leaves out, ours is a movement in which…
- High profile feminists regularly receive graphic threats of physical and sexual violence, as well as verbal abuse.
- Men who make these sorts of threats on record – one of whom, cited by her, has been quoted saying adult men having sex with 12 year old girls can’t ‘under any reasonable definition constitute “rape”’ and is on record making consistent comments [edit: he's since retracted this view, but... still] – maintain devoted audiences of hundreds of thousands.
- Numerous men in positions of power and influence have been multiply accused of sexually harassing and/or assaulting women.
- In many of these cases, legal threats and expensive lawsuits have been used (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) to intimidate those speaking out into silence.
- 14.4 percent of women answering the 2012 American Secular Census said they’d ‘felt unwelcome, discriminated against, or harmed’ participating in secular activism, yet…
- …feminist bloggers were blamed for lowering female attendance at a major event when they wrote about cases of conference harassment both – by speakers and ordinary attendees – at around the same time.
- Efforts to establish anti-harassment policies and codes of conduct at secular conferences, while ultimately highly successful, faced heated and intense resistance – despite almost all other conferences having such codes of conduct.
- The treatment of women in Islamic theocracies like Iran has prominently and notoriously been used, in the words of ex-Muslim feminist and ‘honour’ abuse survivor Marwa Berro, ‘to trivialize harassment and misogyny in the United States’ and ‘to bolster anti-feminism’.
- Cyberattacks have caused prominent atheist-feminist sites including this one to shut down involuntarily until permanent defences could be installed.
- Members of this specific site have repeatedly had private, confidential emails published by antifeminists as an intimidation tactic, revealing sensitive personal details that placed some people’s physical safety at risk. (Kaveh Mousavi, who blogs here currently at On the Margin of Error, is an atheist blogging pseudonymously in Iran. If his real identity leaks, he could literally be executed.)
- Feminist atheist bloggers have had their home addresses published, had their businesses sabotaged, had petitions demanding colleagues remove from their own podcasts, been blackballed from speaking at major rallies and had entire websites devoted to abusive comments about them – simply for blogging as secular feminists and criticising atheist misogyny.
- One prominent atheist feminist, after prolonged attacks of this kind, was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and then further harassed because of it.
- Female atheist figures have consistently been inappropriately and unwantedly – as well as sometimes violently – sexualised while doing things like organising skeptical demonstrations, speaking at conferences and posting ‘selfies’ with Carl Sagan books online.
- Skeptical organisations have hosted speakers who describe transgender women as male, call for their exclusion from feminism and the legal definition of womanhood and defend descriptions of them as ‘chicks with dicks’ and ‘bedwetters in bad wigs’, and trans female atheist bloggers and vloggers have faced deluges of pseudoscientific transphobia from atheists online, denying among other things their womanhood itself.
- Leaders of major organisations have offered up reproductive rights as a rhetorical bargaining chip to attract prolife atheist conservatives as new members.
Since I’m responding to Glenn’s video, this is to speak only of misogyny and the exclusion of women in atheism; I could give similar lists of our collective failings when it comes to class, race, disability or queerness, but that’s another post. (Actually, it’s several.) None of this is cricket.
When I remind myself and others that the people who carry out the above are supposed to be my allies, I find myself much less worried that I argue with them more than with believers. I’d be embarrassed if I didn’t: if I weren’t so divisive, and there were no rifts between us, I’d be fighting for the same new world they are, and that thought terrifies me. With friends like these, who needs religion?
If colleagues and I are creating the divisions Glenn describes, I’m proud of it, because unlike her I do find them necessary. We all want the same, she says, but I’m less sure: I want a secular movement as accessible to women as men, that challenges religious sexism with authority and isn’t the preserve of powerful men and misogynists. If building one requires rifts today, then like Jen McCreight, I want deep rifts.
I’m not sorry atheists are divided. I’m sorry we need to be.