UPDATE: Hoffman has now corrected the error about the source of my ranking as one of the top ten most popular atheist bloggers, and has graciously apologized for the error.
I don’t feel a compelling need to respond to every bad thing that’s said about me on the Internet. JT Eberhard‘s dad once said something that really stuck with me — “You don’t have to show up at every fight you’re invited to” — and whenever someone says something annoying/ wrongheaded/ unjust about me or tries to suck me into an Internet fight, I try to remember that. I simply don’t have the time or energy (or indeed the desire) to show up at every fight I’m invited to. And in the all-too-common case of writers who I think are trying to build a reputation and gain undeserved gravitas by picking fights with more prominent writers, I don’t want to give them what they’re looking for. Remembering what JT’s dad said helps the water roll off my back, and gives me a measure of peace.
But when I see accusations about me that are flatly, factually untrue, made by someone with a reasonably sizable audience, I feel more compelled to respond. Especially when one of the accusations against me is a fairly serious accusation of deception and fraud.
R. Joseph Hoffman at The New Oxonian has written a screed against the so-called New Atheists, and has declared us to be obsolete. Okay, fine. He’s entitled to his opinion; time will tell if he’s right about our obsolescence. And I suppose it’s flattering, in a bizarre way, that I’m considered one of the “headlights” of the so-called New Atheism by someone who despises it so much. The article is pretty much the usual anti-New-Atheist rhetoric, though, without much new to contribute, and I wouldn’t normally bother taking it on. (Especially since PZ and Ophelia have already done so.)
There are two flat-out factual errors about me in this piece. One is simply annoying, in a baffling and frankly somewhat entertaining way. But the other is a fairly serious accusation of deception and fraud. So I’m going to address that one first.
She is ranked by “an independent analyst” (actually no: the Secular Student Alliance) as one of the Top Ten most popular atheist bloggers.
Actually — no.
The independent analyst who ranked me as one of the Top Ten most popular atheist bloggers was not the Secular Student Alliance.
The independent analyst who ranked me as one of the Top Ten most popular atheist bloggers was Hemant Mehta, on the Friendly Atheist blog.
Here’s why I take this accusation somewhat seriously. The Secular Student Alliance is an organization that I’m professionally involved with — I’m on their speakers’ bureau, through which I earn a very modest income. If the SSA were, in fact, the ones who had ranked me as one of the Top Ten most popular atheist bloggers, it would be deceptive of me, to say the least, to say that this ranking had come from an independent analyst.
But it wasn’t. This ranking was done by Hemant Mehta. My page on the Secular Student Alliance Speakers’ Bureau site references it — but the SSA are not the ones who did it. They had nothing to do with it.
And Hemant is, in fact, an independent analyst. Hemant and I have a friendly but fairly loose professional relationship: we like each other, and we sometimes link to each other’s blogs, send each other tips, speak at the same conferences and share meals or drinks when we do. But our relationship ends there. His analysis/ ranking of the most popular atheist bloggers was done without my participation, and indeed without my knowledge until he posted it on his blog. In fact, at the time this analysis/ ranking was done — February of 2009 — our professional relationship was even more loose than it is now. (I wasn’t even on the SSA speakers’ bureau then.)
And if Hoffman had taken thirty seconds to email me and ask, “Who was the independent analyst who ranked you as one of the Top Ten most popular atheist bloggers, and what was their methodology for determining this?”, I could have cleared this up. He didn’t. He chose, instead, to publicly accuse me of deception and fraud, without doing even minimal fact-checking to see if this accusation was correct.
I am asking him now to immediately issue a public correction.
Okay. Now to the second factual error about me in this piece, the less serious but far more baffling and entertaining one:
She sees everything as a weird sexual joke.
Citation desperately needed.
What, exactly, is he talking about?
I’m looking over my blog posts for the last week. The last month. The last year. And I literally have no idea why Hoffman would say this.
I write about a wide range of topics: atheism, religion, skepticism, feminism, sex, politics, fashion and style, science, LGBT issues, popular culture, cocktail recipes, movement strategy, how cute our cats are. And I write in a wide range of tones: passionate, calm, serious, funny, blazingly outraged, patiently empathetic, coolly logical, icily venomous, casually chatty. To say that I see everything as a weird sexual joke is so wrong that it’s bizarre. Where — in this piece on misogyny on atheist internet forums, or this piece on skeptics and atheists playing “more rational than thou” about one another’s personal subjective choices, or this piece on gross economic inequality in American public education, or this skeptical/ atheist take on “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus”, or this piece on the differing goals of people in the atheist movement, or this piece on anti-atheist bigotry and atheists’ increasing refusal to just accept it without a fight, or this piece on Christopher Hitchens’ death — did I say anything even resembling a weird sexual joke? Much less frame everything I wrote through that lens?
Yes, I sometimes write and speak about sex. When I do, I sometimes use humor — as I sometimes do when I write about other topics. I even occasionally make humorous passing references to sex when I write about other topics. And I suppose a fair amount of my sexual humor could be characterized as “weird,” depending on the listener. So yes, weird sexual jokes do make it into my writing now and then. More so than some other writers, for sure — sex is and always has been one of the central foci of my writing — less so than others. But it’s just flat-out factually wrong to say that I see everything as a weird sexual joke. Even a cursory glance at my blog will make this abundantly clear.
In fact, this accusation is so far removed from reality that I literally have no idea why Hoffman would make it. I don’t know if (as is the case with many people) he sees any reference to sex that isn’t deadly serious as a weird joke; or whether (as is the case with many people) he’s uncomfortable with the topic of sex and therefore tends to exaggerate in his head how often any given writer brings it up; or whether (as is the case with many people) he’s uncomfortable with the topic of sex and tends to react to any reference of it with nervous laughter; or whether (as is the case with many people) he’s not used to women talking about sex in a casual, matter- of- fact, down- to- earth manner, and therefore exaggerates in his head how often they bring it up and reacts to it with nervous laughter; or whether (as is the case with many people) he sees any discussion of sex as trivial and therefore laughable; or whether something entirely different is going on. And honestly, I don’t care all that much. I’m not that interested in doing the armchair psychoanalysis of the motivation behind this accusation. I’m utterly baffled by it, so I’m moderately curious as to what’s behind it…. but ultimately, it doesn’t really matter.
What matters is that it’s wrong. R-O-N-G Wrong. And Hoffman didn’t even bother to link to my blog, so readers could find my writing and see for themselves whether he was wrong or not.
For someone who supposedly cares so much about intellectual honesty, he hasn’t shown much of it here.
I could go on for days about this piece and everything else that’s wrong with it — about what he wrote about me, and what he wrote about other atheists, and what he wrote about the atheist movement in general. (His suggestion that I should take on “serious issues,” i.e. the ones he wants me to write about, is particularly patronizing — and particularly ignorant, since I have, in fact, discussed the very issue he proposes for me.)
But again: I don’t want to get sucked into every fight I’m invited to. I’m willing and indeed eager to engage with thoughtful people who disagree with me, and who want to debate that disagreement in good faith. I don’t think Hoffman qualifies. So I’m going to point out his gross factual errors, and leave it at that.