Shouting arson in a crowded theatre: rape reports, reputations and reasonable suspicion

Greta, over on her blog, has a summary of statements made to date against Michael Shermer.

As of this writing, August 20 2013, 12:19 Pacific time, according to Jason Thibeault’s timeline: We have one unnamed source reporting that Shermer, to use her own phrasing, coerced her into a position where she could not consent, and then had sex with her. We have one unnamed source reporting that this first unnamed source told them about this incident shortly after it happened, and was visibly distraught. We have one unnamed source reporting, not that Shermer assaulted her, but that he deliberately got her very drunk while flirting with her — a story that corroborates a particular pattern of sexual assault. All of these are people PZ knows, and whose reliability he is vouching for.

In addition: We have a named source, Carrie Poppy, stating that she knows the woman who said that Shermer coerced her, that she knew about the assault, and that she’s the one who put her in touch with PZ. We have one pseudonymous commenter, Miriamne, reporting in 2012 that she was harassed by Shermer. We have one pseudonymous source, delphi_ote, reporting that they personally know a woman who was assaulted by Shermer. (Important note: These other reported assault victims may be the woman who said that Shermer coerced her, or they may be different people: since they’re unnamed or pseudonymous, we don’t at this point know. It’s deeply troubling in either case: these are either multiple independent corroborations of the same assault, or they’re multiple independent reports of different assaults.) We have one named source, Brian Thompson, saying he personally knows a woman who was groped by Shermer.

In addition: We have one named source, Elyse Anders, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. We have another named source, Naomi Baker, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. We have a pseudonymous source, rikzilla, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. To be very clear: By themselves, these wouldn’t be evidence of anything other than creepiness. But added to all these other reports of sexual assault, they corroborate a pattern.

It’s quite a list. I’m prepared to say now that personally, in light of all these accounts and their consistency, contextualised by the compelling rarity of false reports, I find the case against Shermer significantly plausible and not to be dismissed, if ever it justifiably could have been, as baseless gossip. It may not meet criminal standards of proof required in court – not being a lawyer, I can’t speak to that – and certainly doesn’t provide grounds to conclude with no time for new data or room for doubt that he’s guilty of what’s been reported. It does, however, provide grounds in my view for a reasonable person at least to entertain that suspicion, and more than sufficient grounds for investigations to be made.

In terms of our community’s reaction, to comparable situations elsewhere as well as to this one, whether criminal standards of proof have been met is not the sole point of concern. When a serious question mark overhangs an individual’s prior conduct, event planners – conference-holders especially – have to decide whether they want them present. That judgement call, whichever way it goes, means gambling with the potential safety of their attendees. As in Pascal’s scenario, there is no way not to bet.

If as a conference official I received the range of reports above stating someone’s behaviour was abusive, severely unethical or inappropriate, I would not be comfortable inviting them to my event. Could I be certain? No. But I’d have to err on one side or the other. Personally, my choice would be to err on the side of caution, apparent likelihood, and not placing someone among my guests whom a reasonable person could suspect had raped. If it transpired the allegations were all false, falling within a tiny number of such reports (which I don’t deny is possible) – if it turned out those making them conspired at great personal risk to smear someone blameless – then in my opinion it would still, at the time and with the facts at hand, have been the most responsible decision.

What statements we have don’t warrant certainty and may or may not meet legal standards of proof. But they do meet what standards we need to ask ourselves, ‘Should this person attend our conference?’ or ‘Should we invite them to our group?’ – and to answer these questions reasonably, if provisionally. This does not amount to pitchfork-laden mob rule; it does not amount to vigilantism; and the evidence we have, while many no doubt would welcome legal proceedings, should not in my opinion be deemed wholly meaningless in the absence of court action.

The ‘Take it to court or else’ approach – the all-or-nothing suggestion that until and unless a trial is held and a guilty verdict reached, no statement can ever be more than idle gossip or demand concern – is naïve and illogical. We know only a tiny percentage of rapes end in conviction. Refusing to entertain, even hypothetically, the notion someone may at some point have raped because no court has deemed them guilty is likely to mean ignoring almost every instance of rape in the real world. It evokes, too, the ‘Just tell the police’ response to conference harassment.

I wouldn’t want legality to be the sole requirement for conduct at my event, and reporters of harassment don’t always want punitive action anyway (they might just want a sympathetic ear; they might want organisers to look out for them throughout the conference, have a private word with someone who’s bothered them or keep an eye on that person; they might want to be placed with a friendly, reliable group or companion during social hours, so as to feel less stranded). But things like expulsion from conferences do not, in any case, require criminal convictions or the standards of proof those demand. Innocent-till-proven-guilty, with no shades of intermediate, probabilistic grey is how court systems work, rightly, when incarceration or registration as a sex offender is on the cards; it’s not how the rest of the world, where degrees of reasonable suspicion exist, has to work – and the idea accusations less than totally airtight must never be made is a dangerous, damaging one which silences a great many victims.

Last year a guest in my friend’s house raped her. She was paralytically drunk, unable to stand up or speak coherently, when he had sex with her. (It doesn’t matter why she was drunk, whose fault this was or what she’d previously said. When someone is so drunk they can’t talk, sex with them is rape. This isn’t complex.) The following day, when I’d gone with her to file a report, police officers asked if she knew him, if she’d done anything to suggest attraction to him, and whether there’d been friction between them – all of which was irrelevant. She was made to choose, in the space of an hour, between pressing charges or dropping everything; she had no chance to seek legal advice, consult family members or even sleep on it. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that she let it go.

We had, as it happened, fairly incontrovertible evidence both that the man in question had sex with her and that she wasn’t able to consent. A public solicitor would, I’m quite sure, have told her as much, but she wasn’t allowed a professional’s legal view. The all-or-nothing message she got that unless and until taken to court, her report could mean nothing at all – that she had no right to be taken seriously by anyone before that point – was exactly what stopped her pursuing it. (One officer’s worldweary comment that rape was ‘just something that happens‘ didn’t help.) If you’re only willing to treat reports as plausible or act on them, even provisionally, once court procedures are in motion, I sincerely hope no victim ever needs your support: most only come forward, including via legal action, when reasonably sure what they say will be listened to rather than dismissed.

Ignoring plausible reports, refusing to act on them even provisionally since no legal verdict has been reached, has major consequences. When at school, another friend had a sister in the year below her whom, while on a school trip at the aged fourteen, another student raped. Their parents, once informed, told both police and the school, where during breaks and over lunch, my friend’s sister was so visibly distraught that teachers isolated her inside an empty classroom. This prompted a two month withdrawal from attendance and ultimately a change of schools. The student who raped her and denied anything had happened, meanwhile, saw no consequences whatsoever, since the school’s head teacher ruled that while investigations were ongoing, no action would be taken.

No course of action existed which presupposed neither that the victim told the truth nor that she hadn’t – again, authorities had no way not to bet. I presuppose the former here because I trust my friend, but also because again, only a few reports of rape – the clear exception to the rule – are false. Given this and the girl’s obvious terror, beside the prospect of leaving a pupil among the student body who’d raped, wouldn’t suspending or isolating him while investigations continued be a more conscientious choice? Like conference organisers, they had to make a judgement call: it should have been quite clear whose account provisionally to believe. (Teachers, after all, are paid to be judges of character: I don’t accept a 14-year-old girl could feign trauma, with no clear motive, well enough to fool experienced school staff.) If the report did turn out to be false – one of a tiny, exceptional few – it would still, again, have been the best approach to take given the facts they had. A choice between which student to expel certainly wouldn’t be a comfortable one – but nor, in my view, should it be such a hard one ethically.

When I say things like this, I hear responses like ‘Yes, but couldn’t this all just stay behind the scenes? Couldn’t conference organisers communicate, discreetly, amongst themselves? Someone’s reputation is at risk!’

I have three replies.

The first one is, that happened. Since the current wave of allegations broke, corroboration and agreement in most cases have rippled back – sometimes in the format ‘That happened to me too’ and sometimes in the format ‘I’ve heard that too’. (In one particular case, six people I know told me, independently of one another, that they’d witnessed or been told of the individual’s serious misconduct.)

It’s obvious that for the last few years, these discussions have gone on under the radar – in fact, much of last year’s drive for anti-harassment policies was prompted by Jen McCreight’s comments that several female activists swapped anecdotes about certain male skeptics’ behaviour. Given the rapid explosion of public namings which followed Karen Stollznow’s disclosure, it seems to me things may by this point simply have come so far – behind-closed-doors revelations and private statements spread so widely – that accusatory floodgates were bound to open sooner or later. If harassment and assault had, under the surface, grown so prevalent such a deluge could be released, doesn’t that suggest we needed to address them earlier? Might those hushed whispers and private comments, just perhaps, been insufficiently effective? (See also reply number two.)

After Jimmy Savile – a veteran British broadcaster, if you hadn’t heard the name – died in October 2011, reports from people he molested and raped as children poured in by the hundred. He may, it’s now thought, have been one of UK history’s most prolific sex offenders. Why did this happen only after his death? Because while he lived, his reputation was at stake; because victims, no doubt, were afraid to smear a much-admired celebrity; because many feared reprisals, equally doubtless, from a multimillionaire’s legal staff. In view again of the speed at which reports emerged, it seems certain confessions, accusations and intimations made the rounds in private before Savile died, as they did in skepticism till recently. Consider: how many of his crimes might have been prevented, and how many people saved a major trauma, had the kind of scandals broken decades back which are breaking for us now?

My second reply is that frankly, we cannot always rely on institutions to take action. The BBC, we know now, failed for years to act against Savile; the Catholic Church failed for decades to act against child-raping priests; my friend’s school failed to act after her sister’s rape; it seems reasonable to conclude based on statements like Carrie Poppy’s and the apparent extent of this problem that skeptical organisations too have failed to act. If things had never reached the point where we now find ourselves – and in many cases, they wouldn’t have if organisations had trusted and supported victims – that would, agreed, have been quite wonderful. Most people who’ve spoken out of late (prompting a barrage of condemnation, bullying and legal threats) would I’m sure also agree. Unfortunately, things have reached this point. Didn’t something more need to be done? And if not this, what?

My third reply, the one I feel matters more than anything, is the following:

Reputations matter, but no reputation matters more than stopping sexual violence.

Plenty of reputations have been endangered recently, and not just Michael Shermer’s or the other leading skeptics’ accused. Individuals’ reputations – PZ Myers’, Carrie Poppy’s, Karen Stollznow’s – are on the line. Organisations’ reputations – the JREF’s, CFI’s – are on the line. Our entire movement’s reputation, and that of atheists at large, is on the line.

I am convinced none of this matters.

At least, I’m convinced none of it matters more than addressing, for the sake of our community, things like rape, harassment, assault and abuse. Damage to reputations is serious; this is more serious still.

If there’s one common lesson from the Savile affair, the Catholic Church’s history of sex abuse, the rape of my friend, the rape of my other friend’s sister, the allegations currently overrunning skepticism – it’s that sometimes, when fires in a crowded theatre are being lit or a reasonable onlooker might think so, shouting arson is defensible even if that means naming as arsonists the guests of honour in the royal box.

We share a communal stake in our movement’s safety, especially at events and conferences, and when reasonable suspicion (even if not demonstrable certainty) exists that someone’s actions there endanger others; when off-the-record conversations, on-the-record reports and open secrets have failed to prompt resolution, surely there comes a point when public statements are justified – even if making them threatens that person’s public image? Surely in certain circumstances, concern for the public safety of our movement – not based, necessarily, on certainties, but based on reasonable suspicions and reports that seem overwhelmingly unlikely to be lies – can trump individuals’ PR concerns? Isn’t there a case for the principle of public interest here?

I don’t, in the end, believe this debacle will ruin atheism’s image. I accept that, in the short term, religious critics may use it to snipe at us – but what right, anyway, does religion have to take swipes at sex abuse controversies? On the contrary, I smell an opportunity.

If two or three years down the line from now, we’ve taken painful steps to clean up our act; if the scandals breaking today have been seen through to their conclusions, with appropriate investigations made and sufficient measures taken where necessary; if guidelines for the future are established which set out clear, well-defined ethical boundaries of accepted conduct, and we rise to the challenge of fixing our community – then religion will have lost, definitively, a major fortress in the culture war. We will, as an organised community of atheists, have shown we take sexual and social ethics seriously, and done in ten years what the Catholic Church failed to accomplish in two thousand.

Isn’t that a challenge worth embracing?

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A secular state is important, but (for me) it’s not enough

Sunday’s post on humanism has gained lots of attention, including the National Secular Society’s, who shared it on their homepage. (Thanks to them for the readers that sent the blog.)

One issue I mentioned half way through that post, and that I’ve brought up a lot elsewhere recently, is that I want to focus my activities on skepticism – and in particular, atheism – not just on separating church and state. I differ in this sense from many humanists, but also from the NSS, which works “exclusively” toward a secular state.

Their president Terry Sanderson, who I’m told liked the humanism post, said two years ago “We will leave humanism for the humanist groups, atheism to the atheist groups and fix our sights uniquely on secularism.” A secular charter, illustrating their campaign aims, was announced at the same time.

Don’t read this post as a criticism of the NSS – I share their aims, support their work and am fine with that being their focus. This post is just about why, personally, mine is different.

The issues strict secularists address legitimately matter. It matters that Anglican Bishops sit as of right in Britain’s parliament, for example; that “broadly Christian worship” is required in our state schools; that parallel court systems exist for minority religions; that oaths to God are taken by our national rulers; that faith groups get exemptions a priori from a host of laws; that they effectively have automatic charity status; that religious bodies run at least a third of maintained schools here; that public money funds chaplaincies in hospitals, the armed forces and education, and that we still have an established church. These are just some of the issues the UK has – elsewhere, things are sometimes far worse – so I’m glad there are people on the case.

But in terms of religion’s impact on the world, and on this country, it’s not just these church-and-state issues that matter to me. In fact, if I had to list all my concerns, they would only constitute a small fraction.

It also matters to me…

  • …that according to a 2006 Ipsos MORI poll, only 48 percent of British people believe in evolution, and that in a 2009 survey by ComRes, 32 percent said it was probably or definitely true “that God created the world sometime in the last 10,000 years”, and that 51 percent said intelligent design was probably or definitely true. It matters that many children are presumably taught this by their parents and not just in school, that entire churches of typically-educated adults believe something so clearly absurd, and that students at well-respected universities boycott lectures on Darwin.
  • …that in churches and living rooms everywhere, people are taught that God created humans as two separate genders, whose function was to “cleave unto” one another, and that this is used to justify misogyny, transphobia and bigotry toward queer people in general. These beliefs manifest themselves as dirty looks in the street, heteronormative language and other entirely legal microaggressions.
  • …that people in enjoyable, consensual relationships put huge amounts of effort into not having the sex each of them wants, because they think it will make baby Jesus cry – because they think creating the universe gives someone else authority over their sex life.
  • …that people give up sometimes-huge quantities of money to their churches or religious organisations, many of which spend that money on egregious or dishonest things, when they could use it to help loved ones, vulnerable people or good causes.
  • …that people die when they stop taking their medicine, because they believe prayer will cure them of serious illness. Advertising regulations will not stop this happening, because these beliefs are often acquired in pews, over coffee with friends or family members, from reading holy books or from prayer itself.
  • …that people with serious mental health issues are taken, or go willingly, to ask pastors, priests and other religious leaders for advice, who it’s presumed on no evidential basis have access to ultimate knowledge but who frequently have no medical or psychiatric training whatsoever. It matters when totally unqualified believers and religious leaders go out of their way – entirely legally, most of the time – to tell people they have depression or other MH issues because they lack humility before God, rather than because they’ve got an illness.
  • …that parents tell their children they’re possessed by demons, and sometimes perform vivid, traumatising rituals to drive them out.
  • …that the same parents and other adults terrify children with vivid, traumatising statements about Hell.
  • …that children are threatened with Hell for not believing, and that adults are too. Not rarely. Not even occasionally. Like, all the fucking time.
  • …that children are indoctrinated with unfair, unbalanced presentations of beliefs as obvious facts.
  • …that people who aren’t especially religious feel a sudden need to “do God” on becoming parents, and lie to their children about what they believe. It matters that children grow up believing sometimes-absurd things because their parents were dishonest.
  • …that people who aren’t especially religious feel they need to have religious weddings, child-naming ceremonies or funerals. Particularly at funerals, this can be enormously alienating for some attendees.
  • …that when some atheists die, believers insist they have religious funerals which don’t represent their lives and which they wouldn’t have wanted. For some attendees, this makes bereavement even more heartbreaking than it is already.
  • …that believers with no knowledge or understanding of other religions spread hateful, dehumanising propaganda about one another, including when the religions at stake are in many respects highly similar from an outsider’s perspective.
  • …that believers with no knowledge or understanding of atheists spread hateful, dehumanising propaganda about us – and that educated believers do that who ought to know better.
  • …that when I stood at a secular stand on a busy Oxford street with slogans like “Not religious?” and “Living without religion”, a passer-by with several children shook his head, in slow revulsion, as if witnessing a fascist parade.
  • …that while representing an atheist student group at a freshers’ fair, I had to explain to a fellow student – at Oxford University – what an atheist was, something I learned aged 11.
  • …that some believers, including relatively educated ones with very large audiences, claim that “our laws, customs, traditions, language, music, architecture, diet, everything you care to name, [.] are all based upon Christianity“.
  • …that some believers, including ones I’ve met, say the genocides of the Old Testament were justified explicitly because God (rather than people) ordered them.
  • …that some people, including some atheists, think sinking a sharp knife into the genitals of an eight-day-old baby and cutting them apart without anaesthesia is okay, if done for religious reasons, and should be legal. (I’m not even talking about people doing it. It concerns me simply that some people think it’s okay, which they still would if it were banned – which it should be.)
  • …that civic and secular authorities are failing to enforce the existing laws against female genital mutilation, perhaps in fear of appearing racist or religiously intolerant. (Imagine the results if, instead of Muslim immigrants’ daughters, white girls in Britain had their clitorises cut off.)
  • …that civic and secular authorities refrain from using existing laws against churches and religious bodies which for decades have deliberately, knowingly concealed sexual abuse of children.
  • …that when it’s suggested these churches not be trusted with children, some believers and atheists react as if something indescribably intolerant, bigoted or aggressive has been said.

None of these issues will be addressed just by separating church from state. If no clergy sat in parliament, all state schools were wholly unreligious, no church had undue exemptions from any laws, and so on – anything above could still be happening. Each results from people’s actual beliefs about the universe, and not necessarily from public funds going to religion. In most cases, we can’t and shouldn’t tackle them with changes to the law, infringing on people’s freedom to believe whatever they want; but by fostering a climate of skepticism where people choose their beliefs carefully, subjecting religious claims to appropriate scrutiny, we might.

I’m glad there’s someone taking the “secularism-only” approach – specifically the NSS – and not focusing on criticising superstitious modes of thought. As Maryam Namazie puts it, “Secularism is a precondition for basic rights and freedoms. It’s inclusive unlike religion”; separating church and state can be desirable to believers, and secularist campaigners need as many foot soldiers as they can get, so it makes sense that they don’t religion-bash.

Some of us want to focus on secularism, and some want to help persuade people out of irrational beliefs. It’s entirely up to the individual which to emphasise, and there are very good reasons to keep those efforts separate. Personally, I want to be one of the latter.

Across society and around the world, a conversation is taking place about whether and why religious beliefs hold water or not. I want to be part of that conversation, and there are several reasons I think this is what I should be doing:

  • I’m not a lobbyist. As I said in my “humanism” post, secularist work – not always, but often – involves meeting with politicians or national and local authorities, examining legal frameworks and legislation, preparing long term strategies and choosing pragmatic goals – that isn’t me. I don’t have the patience or diplomacy for that kind of work, and I don’t have access to Westminster.
  • I’m good at responding to evangelism, and I like doing it. I couldn’t put together summaries of Britain’s complex laws or give speeches to the UN about the Vatican’s history of child abuse, as some of the NSS’s people have – but I do feel at home giving point-by-point responses to arguments the Gospels are reliable. That kind of thing is important too.
  • I used to be religious, so I have an understanding of belief – and Christianity in particular – some atheists don’t have. I get what it’s like to belong to a church, and I’m happy to dig into Bible quotes. I understand the differences between different churches. This makes me better informed than some atheists are, and I find specifically that many pure secularists have been raised in atheist households, and don’t always fully appreciate things like deconversion.
  • I’m angry – about the things religious leaders do, the things done to atheists in the name of belief, the things done to believers in the name of other beliefs, and generally the harmful ways religion affects the world. Spreading skepticism and organising explicitly in atheist terms, rather than working for secularism in non-confrontational ways, satisfies me; I want to be confrontational. (That doesn’t mean I want to be rude, unfriendly, aggressive or generally a dick – it means I want to have the argument, as part of a broad social movement if not in person.) If I focused on separating church and state, I wouldn’t feel as fulfilled, and that means I wouldn’t be as good at it as I am at atheism-centric work.

You could offer me a job with the NSS, or a similar group, starting tomorrow, and convince me totally that in five years I’d have made a huge difference – but if it meant I had to shut up about religion and not have the “beliefs” conversation, the cost to me personally would be too high.

I know that, since secularism is important, not everyone can take that stance – and happily, not everyone does. I’m glad there are people most fulfilled by church-and-state activism. (Tessa Kendall, who formerly worked for the NSS and to whom this post is in part a response, is one of them.) Sadly, and as I suggested in Sunday’s post, my happiness to part ways isn’t always returned.

If U.S. atheists are reading this, I know this may seem strange, but I’ve heard it said by pure secularists, and especially by humanists, that the kind of activism I and lots of other atheists pursue – the kind which involves persuading people out of their religions, making them look critically at their beliefs, encouraging atheists to come out in religious communities and talking about harm caused by irrational beliefs – gets in secularism’s way. The implication is that by criticising religion, we put believers off supporting a secular state.

I want to ask: what’s the point in secularism, if it means we all have to be nice about religion? Isn’t that enormously object-defeating? I’m a secularist because I think bashing beliefs should be allowed, and I’m as happy for people to bash mine as I am to bash theirs.

But I’m going to take a moment and say just what else I think is wrong-headed about that, because I think that activism promoting skepticism and combating irrational beliefs is of great use to secularism.

If more people are skeptics and atheists…

  • …it’s very likely more will be secularists. How many people join the NSS due to getting involved in atheism – at least in part, say, because they read The God Delusion or went to a Tim Minchin concert? Quite a lot, I bet. We can talk, legitimately, about why religious people should be secularists, but the fact is that an emphatic atheist is likely to want bishops out of parliament far more than, say, an Anglican – in fact, if you meet someone at their local atheist group, you can be almost certain they want that. Whatever extra members those groups get, the more potential memberships fees, donations or volunteers the NSS might get.
  • …fewer will be in religious groups, for church leaders or theocrats in general to use against secularists. We know that the Catholic church, for example, takes every opportunity to rally its schools and congregation against marriage reform, something the NSS supports, and we’ve seen Evan Harris lose his parliamentary seat, due at least in part to the organised smearing by Christian pro-life groups. Let be clear, cold-blooded and Machiavellian: when it comes to achieving secularist political goals, the fewer people the churches have, the better.
  • …religion’s privileged status, and Christianity’s in particular, will be further questioned. The 2001 census, which misleadingly suggested 71 percent of Britons were Christians, has been waved like a flag by Christian theocrats and evangelicals (also known as The Daily Telegraph). The suggestion is that since Christians are numerous, we ought for example to retain the Lords Spiritual – even on its own terms, that argument is bad, but the more people in our country tick “No religion”, the more absurdly unrepresentative bishops’ seats will look. Bigotry shown toward emphatic nonbelievers, like the man’s our “Not religious?” slogan disgusted, will presumably be rarer too, since more people’s friends and relatives will be atheists.
  • …more people will see religions just as ideas, like political philosophies or economic schools of thought, which have to earn their keep in the marketplace of ideas. They’ll stop thinking of them as inherent parts of people’s identities, like where their parents come from or their gender identity, and understand that it’s entirely fair – and helpful – to criticise them, just like any other ideas. That helps create an environment where no one’s beliefs get a free ride or an unfair advantage over anyone else’s. Isn’t that what secularism’s about?
  • …fewer theists will be theocrats, and some theocrats will become atheists. One inherent problem with selling secularism to believers is that some feel they know without doubt that their religion is the right one – as far as they’re concerned, it’s simply a fact that Christianity is the truth, and so of course no other worldview should get seats in parliament. To them, treating other religions the same is like treating flat earth-ers and astronomers the same. Atheist activism, if it deconverts these people, can make them secularists; and if it doesn’t, it might at least help them understand that their beliefs aren’t watertight facts.

This can and does work. It’s often said that you can’t reason someone out of religious beliefs – but very clearly, that’s untrue. I was reasoned out of mine. A significant number of people at any atheist gathering you care to attend, I’m willing to bet, have been reasoned out of theirs. Across society and around the world, more and more people are generally leaving religion; and in relatively unreligious societies like Britain, my experience is that fewer and fewer atheists are apathetic.

Atheist-specific activism is a valid option. It works. It isn’t pointless.

‘Problems with the humanist brand’ and why I’m not one

There’s recently been much discussion over A+/atheism plus, and whether or not it’s just humanism. Here’s something James Croft, of the Harvard Humanists, said about it:

Many seem to be responding to the “Atheism+” language more readily to the language of “Humanism” … And that speaks to some problem with the “Humanist” brand which people like me should think about carefully.

I’d like to give a personal slant on that, and talk about what puts me off saying I’m a humanist. Specifically, I want to talk about differences I’ve experienced with humanists – some of which are differences over emphasis or personal goals, which is perfectly fine, and some of which involve them doing things I wish they wouldn’t.

I warn you now: this will be a long post.

Some humanists, for example, talk about “replacing religion”. To me this seems odd. It suggests religion is some kind of vital organ, whose excision causes impairment and thus demand we put something new in its place. On the other hand, I see religion more like a tumour – something nonessential and generally harmful, despite being a product of benign natural processes, without which we’d probably be better and which doesn’t need replacing. But I do see the argument that secular communities should be supportive for their members, as churches often are, and this isn’t usually a stance that threatens my goals, so I’ll happily agree to disagree.

Some humanists, specifically, sing secular hymns. James Croft and Ian Cromwell discussed this previously, and according to its accounts from the most recent year, the British Humanist Association spent £5,518 on music. This includes on the BHA Choir, who I’ve had the pleasure of hearing in the flesh – but while they, perhaps like many humanist musicians, are extremely impressive, I’m personally not comfortable expressing beliefs by singing in a congregation. Again this seems determined to replace religious identity, but I’m rather glad I lost mine, and I don’t particularly want to feel now how I felt in church. Other people needn’t share my feelings, though, and if people like learning humanist hymns, I’m glad for them.

I do understand those hymns are often written for ceremonies, though, and aren’t just recreational, since some humanists have their own ceremonial rituals ­– weddings, for example, child-naming events or funerals. Compared with many skeptics, I’m not unsympathetic to symbolic ritual, but I don’t desire the former two since I’ve no desire to marry or have children. As for death, I often feel religious funerals exclude non-believers, and I wouldn’t want mine to belong to any particular worldview. In other words, I’d want it to be secular in the “non-religious” sense, but also in the “neutral” sense, so that non-humanists didn’t feel like outsiders. Again that’s just my personal response, and I can see the appeal.

I’m more uneasy when it comes to deifying Darwin, because some humanists put evolution on a pedestal. I’m talking here about using things like the “tree of life” in logos (see below), but more so about celebrating Darwin Day in humanist groups, walking a so called “biological pilgrimage” and specifically composing hymns to natural selection. (I’ve heard at least one of these from the BHA Choir. It was very well sung, but it made me wince a bit.)

I acknowledge the importance of The Origin of Species in scientific and cultural terms, and I’m no less concerned than anyone about the need to teach evolution not design. But it’s not the basis of my non-belief, something I use for ethics or otherwise a part of my ‘worldview’ – I appreciate Darwinism’s significance, but I don’t frame my life around it. That, once again, seems too religion-like. On this issue, I am concerned when other people do it, because it risks reinforcing the idea of evolution as another religion, or that atheists worship Darwin. Ultimately, I think I’m still okay with people doing this who choose to, as long as it’s presented as specific to humanists and not something that describes all nonbelievers.

These are all activities which seek to replicate the atmosphere of a congregation, and some humanists are keen on group dynamics. This was a key element of James and Ian’s discussion on the use of hymns, and it also figured heavily in his disagreements with Stephanie Zvan about humanist temples. (I confess, the phrase itself makes me fidget in my seat.) I get why group social norms can be useful tools, and why someone might desire them. Personally, I’m just not into that: I’m a stander-out by nature, the kid at school who wouldn’t answer the register, preferred stairs to escalators and wore outrageous socks – don’t try to change me. Group-centric settings have much in their favour, and more power to you if you feel at home in them. Like Stephanie, I just don’t.

Some humanists want to preach morals by discussing virtue, “goodness” and writing secular bibles – The Good Book for example, written by A.C. Grayling who seems to like discussing “the good life” and was in line for a time to be the BHA’s ceremonial president. (During the fallout when his private, £18,000-a-year university was announced, this was called off for some reason.) If that’s your goal, I’m all right with that. For me though, it’s about addressing beliefs people have for bad reasons – by no means an amoral aim, because persuading people out of those beliefs often stops them doing heinous things as a result.

Some humanists use “humanism” as a word for all ethics or empathy. This irritates me; it implies if you have any impulse in the format, “[behaviour x] is (un)desirable and should be (removed/)encouraged”, you’re a humanist and have to call yourself one. You don’t.

Some humanists insist morality’s objective and that morals exist the way hydrogen does. I don’t agree. That’s fine. (Incidentally, if believers are reading: I still wouldn’t agree if a god existed.)

But some imply you have no standards if you dispute that ­– i.e. that if you’re unconvinced there are “moral facts”, you can have no objection to acid attacks on little girls. This isn’t a post about that discussion, but please, don’t suggest that.

Some aspire to be “good without God”. If that’s right for them, cool. But some of us are fine being bad without God. I don’t feel a need to gain people’s approval who claim to love the god of the Bible – someone with a fetish for baby-killing, genital mutilation and genocide, to name a few things. If you see me as a bad person and this is your idea of goodness incarnate, I can’t say I’m worried for my image.

Certain humanists are uncritically nice about Jesus, and some humanists are fond of platitudes and abstractions. I generally don’t like aphorisms – the so called golden rule, for example, strikes me as highly overrated. (Why do to others as you’d have them to do you, when not everyone wants to be treated as you do?) And when I hear things like “It is love that makes sex human“, I feel like vomiting. I see why truisms and maxims appeal to some, but in general I like putting things as plainly as I can.

One major gripe for me: some humanists want everything to be about humanism. I’ve heard humanists say non-humanist groups need to change their names (and indeed pressure those groups to that effect), dismiss the work of non-humanist identified groups – the National Secular Society, for example – and generally insist all discussion and action taken be centred around their own worldview. I often get the sense humanism is rather insular, with groups like the BHA, the Humanist Society of Scotland and the International Humanist and Ethical Union sticking mainly to themselves and not interacting much with other bodies – but that’s just my subjective view, and it may be wrong, or specifically a European issue. In any case, humanists don’t get to set the agenda for all sceptical or secular discourse, and consistently I’ve run into ones who feel they should, as if godless activism at large is just a subset of humanism and not the other way around.

As a recent post of Greta’s just pointed out, some humanists have huge diversity problems – more so than atheism at large – and moreover, don’t seem to acknowledge them as problems. The Humanist Society of Scotland’s conference last year, I’m told, was “mainly old white men”; the AHS (‘supported and facilitated’ and non-independent of the BHA financially and logistically, thus a humanist body in terms of this post) has a terrible diversity record at its past conventions and conferences. More than once I’ve brought this up with humanist officials and they’ve ignored it. More than once, I’ve heard other people say that happened with them.

Some humanists are political liberals. This is, I think, more typical of British humanists, and I use the word “liberal” in its European sense, i.e. what tends to be called “libertarian” in the U.S., and certainly nowhere near me on the political spectrum. I personally don’t agree with the BHA line on marriage reform, for example – I think we should scrap the civil register and marriage as a legally defined state institution, something much more easily done in Britain the U.S.A. – and the promotional video of the Campaign for Equal Marriage (vocally supported by the BHA and its leaders), made every queer and left wing part of me wretch. This isn’t the position of all humanists, especially not North Americans ones from what I can tell, and everyone can have their own opinions, but it’s still a negative association which helps stop humanism from attracting me.

Some humanists need everything to be “positive” – for them, it’s vital to discuss what they do value and believe in, rather than what they don’t. (Specifically, religion.) Again, different strokes for different folks: I understand why, but I’m all about addressing bad beliefs, which requires me to say “I’m against [x]”. It’s wholly okay to stick with smiley, happy humanism if that floats your boat. Just don’t tell everybody else, as some humanists will, that they have to do the same. What other people emphasise is their decision.

Some humanists focus on civil secularism, and I’m glad they do. In my eyes, the BHA’s most valuable and important contribution to activism is their work to remove bishops from the House of Lords, oppose state-maintained faith schools and separate church from state in general. In terms of where I put my time and energy, these are not the goals to which I’m personally most drawn: I want to contribute to a reduction of religious belief, help people leave their religions if that’s their choice, build communities of atheists and spread skepticism in general. This is partly because of my personal background, partly because of the skill set I think I have and partly because of other factors – because these are all personal things, I’ve no objection to humanists working differently, and I’m positively happy that they do, at least in this respect.

However: some don’t see different goals as valid, when pursued by other people. I’ve heard Atheism UK, the British branch of AAI whose work involves “challenging religious faith” and supporting “the advancement of atheism”, criticised by a professional humanist because “they take a very anti-theist line”. I think persuading people out of religion, and supporting a reduction in irrationality, is highly desirable in and of itself, and will aid humanists’ and secularists’ causes. We don’t all have to be accommodationists, and we don’t all have to do things the way humanists do.

On the contrary, I don’t think it aids secularism that some humanists want to share religion’s privilege, not abolish it. I’m thinking here of humanist chaplaincies on campus and in local government, funded through tax; of humanism’s status (according, again, to a humanist campaigner who spoke to me) as a “protected belief” under British law; of the humanist, worldview-promoting BHA accepting public money; of its famous, otherwise excellent promotional adverts on buses owned by Transport for London, a local government body; its campaign to “make humanist weddings legal marriages“, rather than removing any legal powers based on worldviews?

None of these seem to me compatible with separating church and state, as I understand it. We shouldn’t want government to treat us how it treats religion. It shouldn’t treat any belief group how it treats religion. If humanist groups (or indeed atheist ones) are taking public money or tax-supported adspace, it makes it easy for people like Joanne Bogle to say – entirely fairly – that in name of neutrality, religions should get the same. If humanist celebrants have legally recognised marital powers and views somehow “protected” by the state, it makes it easy for minority religions to say – entirely fairly – that so should they. I’m just one person on the internet, and not an influential public figure or mass lobby group, but as a secularist I’m categorically against this.

I’m not saying everyone must be a firebrand. I’m happy not everyone is. Some humanists like being non-confrontational and “friendly”, which is perfectly fine. This is, I think, why many identify that way and not as “atheists”.

Like Jen McCreight, I personally want to “keep using the word atheist until it becomes destigmatized“, but that I get that not everyone does. People’s attitudes are different, and there are contexts where avoiding it’s very understandable. Debbie Goddard’s organisation, African Americans for Humanism, is an obvious example: it targets a community known widely for religiosity, which therefore could reasonably be expected not to react well to “atheists”. I like to be direct about my non-belief, and lots of A+ people have said they like that label more than ‘humanist’ because it’s direct. But if “humanist” is a label you prefer, I won’t get in your way.

I’d ask though that you give me the same respect, since some humanists object to others calling themselves atheists before all else. They’ll say it’s “meaningless” because it isn’t an entire worldview or a positive statement of values – which, for me and many others – it doesn’t mean to be, or imply there’s no significant thing such as “atheist activism“, like helping people come out, helping them recover from religious abuse or putting the claims of believers to the test. Humanists, don’t do that. We let you use the labels you want.

Some humanists call all non-believers humanists, or apply their own label to those who don’t self-identify that way. The BHA, for example, claimed at one point that there were “17 million humanists in Britain”, based on answers people gave in a Mori poll about their attitudes.

I imagine that if you asked them, most of those people wouldn’t describe themselves that way – I imagine many wouldn’t even know what a humanist was. In fact, I imagine if you asked 1000 people in central London if they knew what atheists and humanists were, you’d get a “yes” for the former much more often; using “humanists” as shorthand for “secular people” speaks to some humanists’ need, mentioned above, to make humanism far more central and important to non-belief in general than it is or needs to be. And if humanists are going to campaign for things I don’t necessarily agree with, I don’t want to be co-opted by being named a humanist.

Some humanists even tell us we’re humanists too, even if we say otherwise. Let us alone, already. If we don’t want to call ourselves that, we don’t have to.

This has been a long list. (To be fair, I did warn you.) There are two responses I can already predict certain humanists will have. Both make me uneasy, and both make me laugh.

The first is outrage. From my experience of the UK humanist community, I feel sure some people will read this post, or parts of it, and feel I’ve been incredibly rude – some people, I’ve no doubt, will think this is disrespectful, childish, tribalistic or whatever else. I’ve observed that however mild your criticism of groups like the BHA, or however fine you are with other people being humanists even though you’re not, certain people will stop being your friend if you’re not In The Club.

The second is the “no true humanist” argument. Few if any of the things I list here is true of all humanists, and some of it applies to very limited numbers, so I’m sure people will turn to a Humanist Manifesto – hello, James Croft, if you’re reading – and declare “That’s not in accordance with proper humanism.”

To start with, I’m don’t really care. This is about my feelings toward a ‘brand’, and that means everything I associate with the word “humanist” – whether those associations are rationally justified or not. Like it or not, that’s the baggage the term has. For another thing, I don’t want to have that discussion. I’m not interested in arguing doctrine; in disputing how manifestos should be interpreted, or which humanists are “doing it right”. I like the “atheist” label precisely because it’s not a worldview. I don’t have to be concerned with principles and how to apply them, or what the ideal reading of a certain text is. For me, that discussion would be counterproductive – it would distract me from the sceptical activism I want to focus on.

In case you’ve skipped to the last paragraph then, reader, and not read the list: I’m a non-humanist, and I’m fine with other people being humanists. I just wish they always felt the same.