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Why We Need to Keep Fighting

This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry magazine.

Megaphone.svgIf we don’t speak up, the status quo wins.

Yes, this fight can be painful. When we fight against deeply entrenched beliefs, beliefs that people are emotionally attached to, beliefs that are entangled with the social and political and economic structures on every level, it can be difficult. More than difficult. We’re asking people to give up ideas that they’ve built their lives around. We’re asking people to change, often in profound ways. We’re asking people to take a leap into a way of thinking, indeed a way of living, that they know little or nothing about, and that they’ve been fed lies and myths and misinformation about. We’re asking people to admit that they’re wrong, about something really important. In many cases, we’re asking people to acknowledge that they have done harm. Of course they’re going to resist. Of course they’re going to fight back.

We’re often told that our fights against these beliefs are divisive. And the people saying this aren’t wrong. These fights can be ugly, painful, difficult. They can create bad feeling between people who might otherwise be friends and allies. They can make it hard to work together on issues we have in common.

But calling for an end to the fighting means standing up for the status quo.

When one group of people has gotten to control the conversation for centuries, indeed for millennia, and another group of people finally begins to get their voice of opposition heard… of course it’s going to create conflict. To say, “Let’s stop all this fighting,” basically means saying, “Let’s return to the way things used to be.” It basically means saying, “If there’s any pushback at all against this, the absolute top priority must always be that the people controlling the conversation don’t get their feelings hurt.” It basically means saying, “Let’s return to the good old days, when so many of us were comfortable and complacent, and the people who weren’t kept their mouths shut.”

And that is not acceptable.

The status quo is wrong. It is wrong in the sense that it is literally, factually mistaken, about questions of objective reality. It is wrong in the sense that it harms people, in real, practical, terrible ways. We cannot accept the status quo simply because fighting against it is painful. We have to be willing to fight. At the very minimum, we have to not try to stop other people from fighting.

I think now would be a good time to stop and say: I’m not, in fact, talking here about atheists fighting against a world steeped in religion, a world largely controlled by religious believers. Yes, of course, everything I say here could be applied to that. But that’s not what I’m talking about this time.

I’m talking about feminists fighting against a world steeped in sexism, a world largely controlled by men.

I’ve been noticing something interesting lately. As you may know, I’m the author of a book titled “Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless.” I’m the writer whose blog post about atheist anger went viral all over the Internet; I’m the speaker whose talk about atheist anger at Skepticon 4 has gotten over 150,000 views on YouTube. I am literally the person who wrote the book on atheist anger. And I am regularly and enthusiastically applauded by many atheists for articulating my anger about religion — anger that these atheists share — in such a passionate, uncompromising manner.

And yet, in all too many cases, the exact same atheists who applaud my passionate, uncompromising anger about religion will turn around and say that I need to be polite, diplomatic, understanding, non-divisive, and moderate when it comes to my anger about misogyny and sexism. At least, when it comes to my anger about misogyny and sexism within the atheist movement.

If it didn’t piss me off so much, I’d think it was hilarious.

screaming statueYou don’t get to have it both ways. You don’t get to be inspired and motivated by my uncompromising rage about religion… and then tell me that my uncompromising rage about sexism and misogyny in the atheist movement is divisive, distracting, sapping energy from the important business of atheist activism. You don’t get to cheer me on for being such a badass when I stand up fiercely against religion in society… and then scold me for being a bad soldier when I stand up fiercely against sexism and misogyny within the atheist movement. You don’t get to applaud my outspoken fearlessness when I demand that social and political and economic systems be made safe and welcoming for atheists, and when I point out the ways in which they are not… and then call me a divisive, attention-hungry professional victim when I demand that atheist groups and organizations and events be made safe and welcoming for women, and point out the ways in which they are not.

Does this fight get in the way of unity? Probably. As I wrote in my blog last May:
I do not want to be in unity with atheists who tell me to fuck myself with a knife. I do not want to be in unity with atheists who say they hope I get raped, who tell me to choke on a dick and die. I do not want to be in unity with atheists who say that I’m a whore and therefore nobody should take me seriously. I do not want to be in unity with atheists who say that I’m an ugly dyke and therefore nobody should take me seriously. I do not want to be in unity with atheists who post their opponents’ home addresses on the Internet; who hack into their opponents’ private email lists and make content from those emails public. I do not want to be in unity with atheists who alert the Westboro Baptist Church to atheist events, and ask if they plan to attend. I do not want to be in unity with atheists who bombard other people with a constant barrage of hate and threats of rape, violence, and death. I do not want to be in unity with atheists who call me a cunt, who call other women cunts, again and again and again and again and again. And I do not want to be in unity with atheists who consistently rationalize this behavior, who trivialize it, who make excuses for it.

I will now add to that list: I do not want to be in unity with atheists who sexually harass or sexually assault women: at workplaces, at conferences, or anywhere else. This was not in my original post from May or my original Free Inquiry article — but it should have been.

And I do not want to be in unity with atheists who consistently rationalize this behavior, who trivialize it, who make excuses for it, who blame the victims of it, who tell us to just ignore it, who say we’re participating in a “culture of victimization” for talking about it, who tell us that we have to set aside these “differences” in the name of unity.

And I don’t think I should be expected to. I don’t think anyone in this movement should be asking that of me. I don’t think anyone in this movement should be asking that of anyone.

megaphone 2If feminists in the atheist movement don’t speak up about sexism and misogyny in this movement, the status quo wins. And the status quo is one in which most atheist organizations are led by men, one in which most of our prominent public figures and spokespeople are men, one in which most conferences and meetups and groups and events are primarily attended by men. The status quo is one in which movement leaders say and do unbelievably stupid sexist shit… and double down when they’re called on it… and still continue to be movement leaders, with few consequences or none at all. The status quo is one in which the most moderate, non-controversial proposals for making the community welcome to women — such as having clear policies at conferences barring sexual harrassment — turn into a firestorm of controversy that eats the Internet for months. The status quo is one in which questions about why all this might be, and suggestions about what might be done to change it, are routinely met with anger, bafflement, dismissal, patronization, calls for moderation, excuses, elaborate rationalizations for why any explanation at all other than unconscious sexism must be the real reason for this pattern, and an insistence that our absolute top priority in this conversation has to be that men’s feelings don’t get hurt.

Yes, this pattern is changing. The degree to which this pattern has been changing is the degree to which people have been speaking out about it, and pushing back against it. This pattern has been changing, and things have been getting better for women in the atheist movement, and more women are participating in the atheist movement at all levels, because people have been fighting for it.

And yes, these fights are hard. We’re fighting against deeply entrenched beliefs, beliefs that people are emotionally attached to, beliefs that are entangled with the social and political and economic structures on every level. We’re asking people to give up ideas that they’ve built their lives around. We’re asking people to change, often in profound ways. We’re asking people to take a leap into a way of thinking, indeed a way of living, that they know little or nothing about, and that they’ve been fed lies and myths and misinformation about. We’re asking people to admit that they’re wrong, about something really important. In many cases, we’re asking people to acknowledge that they have done harm. Of course some people are going to resist. Of course some people are going to fight back.

But that doesn’t mean the fight isn’t worth having.

Comments

  1. PatrickG says

    I don’t have much substantive to contribute at the moment, so I’ll just go to my newly-coined acronym: YWGS.

    Yeah, What Greta Said.

  2. Drolfe says

    Additionally, this script applies directly to bigots/racism. The constant refrain from the white community is that being called a racist is worse than racism.

    No it’s not.

  3. voidhawk says

    Perhaps another book should be added to your growing library:
    “Why Are You Feminists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off Women.”

  4. F [is for failure to emerge] says

    How very relevant, Mabus. That’s a spectacular additions to Greta’s excellent post.

  5. voidhawk says

    Someone contact the Montrealian authorities, Mabus AKA Dennis Markuze has been arrested more than once for harassing atheists and sending threats, seems that he’s broken his probation… again.

    Sigh, I hoped he’d been getting mental treatment in his absence.

  6. Greta Christina says

    FYI: The comment that F [is for failure to emerge] and voidhawk are referring to has been deleted.

  7. taxesmycredulity says

    Thank you for fighting the good fight, Greta. The status quo is Patriarchy and has been for several millennia. Having previously been Matriarchal in the ancient world, the battle to change the status quo to Patriarchal was a long-sustained and ugly attack on the feminine, a lot of which we still suffer with today.

    Happily, it seems the current battle with pure Patriarchy isn’t so that we return to pure Matriarchy, but to merge in some way the best of both as a humanity that is aperspectival of gender, race, class, yada yada. Optimistic, sure. The wisdom of the masses inspires me.

  8. Drolfe says

    One of of the facets of this problem — systemic misogyny or perhaps femiphobia — is that as education has been feminized or de-linked from masculinity such that knowing shit has come to be effete* or generally distrusted. (Transition of teaching as a profession away from male dominance, coeducation, women and girls’ performance in school and college, the ascendence of professional and men’s college sports, the advance of anti-intellectualism, etc.)

    You’d think science nerds (and I am one) would want to undo that, either by joining feminists’ goal to make society less shitty or by detoxing and redefining masculinity in such a way that has roughly the same end point. Doubling down on the general “women can’t do stem, skepticism, or atheism because it’s thinky” is at odds with the greater societal idea that “thinky is for nerds and squares and other beta eunuchs that can’t do a man’s job.” (Probably why legions of MBAs to gamers contextualize their efforts in violent rhetoric.) Point being, patriarchy hurts nerds too.

    I hope I’m not derailing.

    *look up the etymology for effete if it’s not apparent.

  9. says

    I agree that it’s pretty hypocritical to be cheering on anger at one target, and then turning around with the ‘be nice’ for another kind. But then I find quite a bit of the anti-feminism hate to appear so irrational and angry that I can’t understand it.

  10. Johnny Vector says

    PatrickG has the right idea. YWGS. I wish I could write with one tenth the clarity and precision you do.

    I do think the pattern is changing, with the naming of the names being a historic turning point. That said, there’s still a long road ahead. Remember how many years ago Stonewall happened. It’s gonna be ugly for a while, but if we all keep fighting I do think it can get better.

    Thank you.

  11. allencdexter says

    Keep it up, Greta. As a man, I’m appalled at the attitude some men who call themselves atheist give themselves over to. I always respected and tried to treat women as equals even when I was embroiled in a patriarchal-minded cult. The older I get, the more incensed I get over the subject. Such attitudes have to go!

  12. John Phillips, FCD says

    Sometimes, being divisive is the right and only course of action left. I now know there are plenty I don’t want to associate with in the skeptic and atheist community, and it isn’t the bloggers or regulars on ftb I want to avoid.

  13. marcus says

    Very well said. And so patently fucking obvious it should not even need to be said, and yet it does.
    *sigh*

  14. jamessweet says

    And yet, in all too many cases, the exact same atheists who applaud my passionate, uncompromising anger about religion will turn around and say that I need to be polite, diplomatic, understanding, non-divisive, and moderate when it comes to my anger about misogyny and sexism. At least, when it comes to my anger about misogyny and sexism within the atheist movement.

    If it didn’t piss me off so much, I’d think it was hilarious.

    Yeah, this. In my case, it was my association with uncompromising atheism, the whole “accomodationism wars”, that made me realize the value of people with not-necessarily-diplomatic approaches to other issues. I used to have the whole “Well I agree with your point, but you go too far and you aren’t nice enough about it” thing going — until I started being on the receiving end of it. For me, it wasn’t difficult to see the analogy, and I realized that even if I choose to take a more diplomatic approach on certain issues, people who are more extreme but still paddling in the right direction are helping in their own way, and I shouldn’t throw them under the bus.

    It’s sad that so many people seem incapable of seeing that parallel.

  15. Martha says

    The truly vile misogynists (TVMs) may always be with us, but I dearly hope that this fight will lead to their being effectively quarantined away from serious discussion.

    To be honest, they trouble me much less than their apologists, who may see the irrational basis of the TVMs’ behavior, but fail to see that their own views are also derived from irrational beliefs. I really wish we could get people who value their own logic to realize that all the beautiful logic in the world isn’t worth a damn if it begins with erroneous (usually unstated or even unconscious) assumptions. You know, like the idea that false accusations of sexual assault are more common than actual sexual assaults.

  16. says

    I think we need to make bracelets that have the initials “YWGS” on them.

    Akin to the “WWJD” bracelets, but with much much (MUCH) less worshipful mindset behind them.

  17. Randomfactor says

    Very well said. I can live with division in the freethought/atheist/skeptic movement, considering those who seem to be on the other side of the divide.

  18. says

    It saddens me that there is such ugly mysogyny in the atheist community. I suppose there is nothing in atheism itself that promotes positive values other than general skepticism perhaps – it is just a statement of disbelief. I wonder if the situation is better in the “Humanist” community, which emphasizes equality, toleration etc.. Not wanting to spark a debate about humanist vs. feminist, I am just assuming that there are no rabid mysogynists in the “Feminist” community. I just wonder if my assumption about humanists being almost universally decent and enlightened individuals is more justified than it is for the atheist / skeptical community.

    I realize there are large overlaps between these communities. And of course there is some gradation between those who wish you a violent sexual death, and those who are too clueless or insensitive to the existence of sexism (which probably includes me to a degree).

  19. Félix Desrochers-Guérin says

    Is it just me or are Mabus droppings getting more frequent these days?

  20. double-m says

    In my opinion, an important element would be some kind of group, maybe a website, that incidents within the secular community can be reported to. This would give people targeted by sexual predators a place they’d know they could turn to. But it would also help document how widespread exactly the problem is.

    One thing that would be important to me, if I ever had to file such a report: the people collecting abuse reports should be women and not PZ Myers. Ideally they’d be people who’d do this professionally, because it’s obviously not an easy job to do, but that might not be realistic. At least not at first. And at this point, I’d like to suggest that they should be older women with the life experience to do both, treat survivors with appropriate compassion and tact, but also review the reports and get a sense of the people they’re dealing with to maintain the project’s credibility. I’m in my early 30s, and I wouldn’t consider myself experienced enough to do something like this.

    Also, since the secular community appears to be split into camps at the moment (I try not to learn too much about that), the people running the project should not be associated with any “camp”, including Atheism+. This would prevent any one group from being able to accuse the project of being associated with their opponents, and thus enhance its credibility. Finally, I’d like to see Women of Color represented there. No, actually I’d like the majority of them to be WoCs.

  21. johnthedrunkard says

    #22. I can’t see expecting a special caste of people being needed or wanted for this. Why the hell not PZ?

    It is still hard to grasp how the atheist community became (or secretly included) such a pit of misogynist vipers. There isn’t anything about the absence of belief in Jehovah, or Zeus, or fill-in-the-blank to correlate with this hatred.

    It IS true that a lot of the low-hanging fruit that the older ‘skeptical’ organizations addressed: astrology, fortune-tellers, Sylvia Browne etc. etc. had a disproportionately female audience. Though just how disproportionate may be hard to determine. And a good deal of the ‘fashionable nonsense’ that Butterflies and Wheels was founded to counter WAS exemplified in a subset of pseudo-feminist academics.

    All that is a drop in the bucket next to the track record of supernaturalism’s never-ending quest to crush women into a cultural mold determined by the most undeveloped society that allowed each particular belief to thrive. e.g. bronze age shepherds, desert bandits, magic-stone ‘scryers,’ etc.

    I also want to repeat a thank you to those who have finally broached ‘civility’ enough to NAME NAMES. Two years of polite silence should demonstrate that, even if in this case Silence≠Death, it HAS equaled a licence for threats and harassment to continue unabated.

  22. thinkfree83 says

    @frood, I feel the same way. Part of the problem is, as you said, the fact that atheism is simply a philosophical position, regarding the existence of one or more deities. Atheism only becomes significant when we attach meaning to that position. In the past, atheism never stood by itself, it was always part of a larger ideology or thought system. Perhaps, humanists will have to separate itself from “mere atheists” to shake these ugly misogynists once and for all, and create new, more egalitarian institutions.

    I also think that this rabid sexism comes from the fact that the offenders are finally being called on it. It’s easy for many atheists to tsk tsk about how Islam treats women, because it’s not an issue that affects them directly. Whether a woman in Kabul wears a burka or pants, has no direct bearing on us here in the West. When it comes down to it, women in Islam will only be empowered if they do it themselves, and no amount of criticism from Western atheists or anyone else will change that. Thus, it’s easy for male atheists to complain about the burka, honor killings, forced marriages, etc. and feel like they’re really enlightened, because 1. they don’t have to change anything about themselves 2. being opposed to these things is the norm in the West (even Pat Robertson doesn’t believe in the burka, so it’s not like you’re making a heroic stance by opposing it). But when Western atheist women complain about sexism, it forces Western atheist men to face some nasty truths about themselves and even possibly change their behavior. Now sexism isn’t something “those people” do, something “those religious people do,” but something that exists even among “enlightened” atheists.

  23. says

    I’m glad to be here. On the point these bigots make about “unity,” I once asked and received no answer for a question I thought was important:

    Why should I want this unity?

    It doesn’t benefit atheism or skepticism to push away half the population. I’d feel slimy if I knowingly associated with these bigots, especially since such bigotry pushed me away from religion. Letting their fallacious arguments pass without comment means their “unity” requires the abandonment of outspoken skepticism.

    The sense of entitlement doesn’t help. On one day, one such bigot argued that we have to be united as one big happy movement despite the highly dubious merits of such an arrangement and the unpleasant, unnecessary costs we’d have to endure for their sake. Two days later, he posted that he didn’t want to be associated with us A+ers. It’s like they’re spoiled children who can’t stand the idea that we want to quit their club and form our own. They alternate between trying to assert authority as if they have the undisputed wisdom of what the greater good is (with a toxic dose of The Complainer is Always Wrong mixed in with the message), puffing up how generous they are to offer us membership with no special benefits for the low, low price of our silence, and then crying sour grapes when we bluntly tell them we don’t want to be in their club and that we’re disgusted by their presence for the same reasons we’re disgusted by religious bigots.

  24. believerskeptic says

    I made this video in response to the seemingly never-ending stream of “Where is all this alleged misogyny in the skeptic movement? Where’s your evidence?”

  25. says

    Wonderful. The hateful, anti-woman sentiment I see all too often in skeptical and atheist blogs is a big part of what keeps me from being more active and involved in any kind of community. Indeed, the only atheist community I’m a part of is one primarily composed of women.

    I just want to ask these people why they don’t turn that highly tuned skepticism onto this issue, too. If you’re such a good skeptic, why haven’t you prodded a little further into studies on sexism, blogs from a female perspective on the issue and other sources? You mock someone for believing in something like homeopathy without truly understanding it, then turn around and parrot things you’ve heard but don’t truly understand about sexism. Atheists, at least some, just want the religious to try seeing it from our perspective, yet are unable or unwilling to do the same thing when the issues are ones that they hold tight to.

    It’s discouraging and disgusting. I really hope that it can be dealt with effectively. I long for the day when women feel truly safe to fully join the community.

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