Harassment, Rape, and the Difference Between Skepticism and Denialism – UPDATED

UPDATE: There is now a timeline of the major events in these accusations, and the responses to them, on Jason Thibeault’s Lousy Canuck blog. It includes several additional reports of harassment and sexual assault, and several additional pieces of corroboration of these reports. It is being updated as new information comes in and as new events unfold.

So I got this comment on my blog from Hannah Barnhardt:

I have a question about how to handle allegations of rape and sexual harassment. In the local atheist group that I am only now tenuously connected to (because so many members display open disdain for women and feminists), Karen’s allegations have been discussed only briefly, and with criticism and disbelief. Basically, they’re saying: “Well we ARE skeptics after all, and skeptic means we need PROOF! DUURRRR”

But with something like rape, or the kind of sexual harassment Karen experienced (and I do understand Karen has lots of proof, but I’m talking about a case where perhaps, like many cases, there’s not much proof beyond the victim’s testimony), what is the best way to handle cases where there’s not much physical proof? Because I understand how little rape/harassment is actually prosecuted and how difficult it is to accuse someone, I favor giving the accuser the benefit of the doubt.

I guess I’m asking: what’s the best way to respond to these people, who say that there must be ample physical evidence in order to actually DO something about harassment or rape? In the real world, it would be awesome if every person who experienced this kind of abuse had ample physical evidence, but it just doesn’t happen that way. I don’t for one second believe that that means we shouldn’t believe the victim. What do you think?

A good question, and one that has been much on my mind in the last few days.

Here’s what I think, what I want to say to people who are saying this sort of thing: I think you should be really careful about not letting your skepticism turn into denialism.

Here’s what I think:

1: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But claims of sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape are not extraordinary. They are depressingly ordinary. So the level of evidence we should need to believe a claim about sexual harassment, abuse, assault, or rape is substantially lower than the level of evidence we should need to believe a claim about, say, Bigfoot.

2: Sexual harassers, abusers, assailants, and rapists are typically very good at covering their tracks. They don’t generally commit their acts in front of witnesses or video cameras, or leave a paper trail. Depending on the kind of harassment or assault we’re talking about, they often don’t even leave physical evidence (and when they do, it often doesn’t get collected, since collecting it typically requires the victim to report the assault almost immediately, and subject themselves to further emotional and physical trauma). And perpetrators often cover their tracks in other ways — such as getting the victim drunk, which our culture regrettably tends to see as evidence of consent.

So the kinds of evidence we’re likely to find supporting an accusation of sexual harassment or assault are not straightforward, obvious physical evidence. The kinds of evidence we are likely to find are:
* Multiple similar claims made against the same person from different people. Especially when these claims show a similar pattern of behavior.
* Other people saying that the victim told them about the harassment/ assault shortly after it happened — with stories that are consistent both with the accusation and with one another.
* Other people corroborating behavior that falls short of harassment/ assault, but is consistent with it. Example: If an accused assailant is accused of getting victims drunk first, and someone says they’ve seen this person deliberately getting people drunk while hitting on them, or have experienced this themselves — that would support the accusation.
* Paper trails, email trails, or other kinds of evidence that either directly support the claim — or that show behavior that, again, falls short of being direct evidence of harassment/ assault, but is consistent with it.

(Note that this doesn’t refer to the types of evidence we’d accept in a court of law. See #4 below. And note that “support” doesn’t mean “absolutely prove.” See… oh, the rest of this entire post.)

To make an analogy that skeptics should understand: Think about how creationists say, “Where’s your evidence for evolution? I’ve never seen life spontaneously generate from a peanut butter jar! I’ve never seen fish evolve into mammals in one generation!” Or think about how global warming denialists say, “Where’s your evidence for global warming? Why isn’t the Antarctic turning into Florida? Why was it so cold in Minnesota last winter?” No, of course not. That’s not the kind of evidence you’d expect to see to support evolution or global warming — because that’s not how evolution and global warming work. The kind of evidence you’d expect to see to support evolution is exactly the kind of evidence we do find: evidence from genetics, geology, anatomy, fossil records, etc., all consistent with one another. The kind of evidence you’d expect to see to support global warming is exactly the kind of evidence we do find: evidence from long-term studies of weather patterns over years, decades, centuries, and millennia.

So be a good skeptic. Think about how sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape usually work. Think about what kind of evidence you’d expect to see for them. And then think about whether that kind of evidence is present in this case.

3: False allegations of sexual harassment and rape are actually very low. The consequences of making allegations of sexual harassment or rape are very high indeed: public shaming, having one’s personal history — especially one’s sexual history — being subjected to extreme public scrutiny and censure, being traumatized by callous law enforcement officials if the crime is reported, harassment, threats, and more. And the consequences are especially high when the person you’re accusing is powerful: if they’re famous, if they’re rich, if they’re influential, if they have political power.

4: In the conversations we’re having about these incidents, we’re not talking about what kind of evidence would support publication in a peer-reviewed journal, or a judgment in a court of law. We’re talking about what kind of evidence would support judgment in the court of public opinion. We’re talking about what kind of evidence would support staying away from people if we’re at an event with them. Exercising caution if we have to deal with them. Warning other people to exercise caution around them. Not inviting them to speak at conferences. Not attending conferences, or speaking at conferences, where they’re speaking. Not buying their books. Not continuing to cite them as shining examples of skepticism at its best. In the most serious case, we’re talking about what kind of evidence would support firing someone. (And yes, for the record, I would want more evidence to support firing someone than I would to support not inviting them to conferences.)

This is a generally well-understood principle. The severity of the consequences affects how much evidence we need to believe an accusation. If several of my friends tell me, “Hey, your friend is a creep, they kept cornering me at your party,” and one person tells me, “Hey, your friend is a serious creep, they cornered me at your party and groped me”… that’s not going to be enough evidence for me to call the police, but it sure is enough evidence for me to stop inviting that person back to any more parties. Even our legal system has different standards of evidence for different situations: there’s a higher standard of evidence for criminal charges, for instance, than there is for a civil case. And the court of public opinion, and of of personal opinion, have different standards as well. Which they should. The standards shouldn’t be trivial, or non-existent — and for accusations of sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape, they should be pretty darned high. But there is a wide, wide world between “These accusations could lead to a conviction in a court of law,” and, “These accusations are entirely without merit.” It is a huge mistake to treat these as the only options.

*****

So. Think about the accusations that are being made. Think about the fact that sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape are, unfortunately, very ordinary. Think about the rarity of false accusations. Think about what kinds of consequences are being considered here. And perhaps most importantly, think about what kind of evidence you’re actually likely to see with sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape… and whether you’re seeing it here.

So.

As of this writing, August 12, 5:21 p.m. Pacific time.

In the Ben Radford situation: There is an email trail. There is independent corroboration from more than one person, who witnessed the behavior or who Stollznow told about it. There is the acknowledgement from CFI, after an investigation from an investigative firm that they hired, that Radford behaved inappropriately at conferences, and harassed Karen Stollznow with unwanted correspondence.

In the Michael Shermer situation: There are multiple reports from different people. There are other people saying that the victim told them about the harassment/ assault shortly after it happened. There are other people corroborating behavior that falls short of harassment/ assault, but is consistent with it (in this case, Shermer getting the person very drunk while flirting with them).

In the Lawrence Krauss situation: I can’t say anything about that right now, because the blog posts reporting on the accusations against him have been taken down, apparently under threat of lawsuits. If you’ve been following the story, you can probably remember what was reported before it was removed, and you can look at these questions — are there multiple claims from different people, are there other people saying that the victim told them about the harassment/ assault shortly after it happened, are there other people corroborating behavior that falls short of harassment/ assault but is consistent with it, is there any sort of paper trail or email trail — and decide how you would answer them.

UPDATE REMINDER: There is now a timeline of the major events in these accusations, and the responses to them, on Jason Thibeault’s Lousy Canuck blog. It includes several additional reports of harassment and sexual assault, and several additional pieces of corroboration of these reports. It is being updated as new information comes in and as new events unfold.

I’m not asking what verdict you’d come to if you were on a jury. I’m not asking what you’d decide to publish if you were the editor of a journal. I’m asking you to pay attention to the difference between skepticism and denialism. And I’m asking you to not be a denialist.

Being a good skeptic doesn’t only mean knowing when to reject claims. It means knowing when to provisionally accept them. It means not demanding more evidence for sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape than you would for Bigfoot. It means not continually moving the goalposts of what kind of evidence you’ll accept to believe these reports. It means not telling victims who don’t name names that their vague accusations can’t be taken seriously… and then telling victims who do name names that they’re just trying to ruin reputations, and shouldn’t make public accusations outside of a courtroom. It means not saying to religious believers, “No, I can’t prove with 100% certainty that there is no god, there’s almost nothing we can prove with 100% certainty — but based on the available evidence, I can conclude with a reasonable degree of certainty that there is no god”… and then saying to victims of sexual harassment or rape, “Can you absolutely prove that it happened?”

Skepticism is not denialism. Don’t be a denialist. This shit is too important to be in denial about.

God Won’t Cure Mental Illness: What’s Wrong With Rick Warren’s Sermon

rick_warren“We’re all mentally ill.”

“You have fears, you have worries, you have doubts, you have compulsions, you have attractions…”

So said Rick Warren, founder and senior pastor of the megachurch Saddleback Church and author of “The Purpose-Driven Life,” in a sermon largely about his son’s mental illness and recent suicide.

Warren was clearly trying to help de-stigmatize mental illness, and I commend that. But this is not the way. We are not, in fact, all mentally ill. And saying that we are does not de-stigmatize mental illness. It trivializes it. It contributes to the stigma. And it makes it harder to recognize and treat.

*****

Thus begins my new piece for Salon, God Won’t Cure Mental Illness. To read more about how Warren’s sermon trivializes mental illness, stigmatizes it, dismisses evidence-based treatment, and frames atheism and religious doubt as a mental disorder, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Processing: The Sexual Harassment And Abuse Floodgates In General… And CFI In Particular (UPDATED AND CORRECTED)

FINAL UPDATE (I hope): There is now a timeline of the major events in these accusations, and the responses to them, on Jason Thibeault’s Lousy Canuck blog. It includes several additional reports of harassment and sexual assault, and several additional pieces of corroboration of these reports. It is being updated as new information comes in and as new events unfold. Rather than continuing to update this post as new reports come in or get taken down or whatever, please follow Jason’s post for an updated timeline.

Updated again, to include the anonymous report made to PZ Myers about Michael Shermer. (CORRECTION: PZ wasn’t told this account anonymously. He know the person’s name. He posted the account without revealing it.)

(Updated and corrected, as noted below.)

In case you’ve been on Mars, in a cave, with your eyes shut and your fingers in your ears: The floodgates have started to burst. Reports about sexual harassment and abuse in the atheist and skeptical community are starting to come out… and prominent names are being named. This is kind of a big fucking deal.

A quick recap, pulling some of these together in one place for those who haven’t seen them:

Ashley Paramore released a video describing being sexual assaulted at The Amazing Meeting. She did not name her assailant.

Skeptical writer and speaker Dr. Karen Stollznow, research fellow for JREF and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, has written a piece for the Scientific American blog, “I’m Sick of Talking about Sexual Harassment!”, recounting her years-long experience with on-the-job sexual harassment and sexual assault. It has since been reported that the workplace in question was CFI, and the alleged harasser/ assailant in question is Ben Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer and host of Monster Talk — both projects of the Center for Inquiry. (CORRECTION: Monster Talk is not a CFI project.) (UPDATE: Forgot to mention that CFI has issued a response to this matter. On which I will almost certainly be commenting.) (UPDATE: Scientific American has taken down Karen Stollznow’s blog post. Here is a cached version.

Carrie Poppy, former communication director for the JREF, has written a post confirming that Stollznow told her about these incidents, and describing how this information was… handled by D.J. Grothe and Chip Denman at JREF. This piece also reports a pattern of misogyny and disrespect for women at JREF. It also — very importantly, in my view — includes copies of correspondence between Karen Stollznow and JREF, informing JREF that CFI “have admitted that Ben has behaved inappropriately at conferences and harassed me with unwanted correspondence.”

Sasha at More Than Men has reported on an incident in which D.J. Grothe “made an hilarious horrendous “joke” about how I should pay him a visit down in Los Angeles so that he could drug me and let some of his friends have some fun with me.” His post details other troubling incidents, including Grothe saying that “the reason everyone loved the Skepchicks was because they ‘want pussy.'”

Ed Cara at The Heresy Club has posted about a widely-discussed-behind-the-scenes incident on a CFI cruise, in which special guest speaker Lawrence Krauss sexually propositioned an attendee — an incident that Cara describes as inappropriate, but which he points out did not qualify as harassment or assault. (UPDATE: This post has now been taken down. The bulk of it has been preserved at Lousy Canuck.)

Jen McCreight at BlagHag has reported — among other things — that “When women come to me to warn me about what speakers to avoid at conferences or confide in me sexual harassment they’ve experienced, Lawrence Krauss is by far the most common name I hear.” She has also reported that Ron Lindsay, president and CEO of CFI, knew about this — because she’s the one who told him, at the first Women in Secularism conference in March May 2012. Before the cruise that was discussed by Ed Cara. (CORRECTION: Women in Secularism 1 was in May 2012, not March; the CFI cruise in question was in May 2011, after and not before before and not after Women in Secularism 1.) (UPDATE: This post has been edited, after McCreight was threatened with a lawsuit. She is currently getting legal advice.)

UPDATE: PZ Myers on Pharyngula posts this, told to him anonymously (CORRECTION: PZ wasn’t told this account anonymously, he know the person’s name, and posted the account without revealing it): “At a conference, Mr. Shermer coerced me into a position where I could not consent, and then had sex with me. I can’t give more details than that, as it would reveal my identity, and I am very scared that he will come after me in some way. But I wanted to share this story in case it helps anyone else ward off a similar situation from happening. I reached out to one organization that was involved in the event at which I was raped, and they refused to take my concerns seriously. Ever since, I’ve heard stories about him doing things (5 different people have directly told me they did the same to them) and wanted to just say something and warn people, and I didn’t know how. I hope this protects someone.” (UPDATE: PZ’s post now includes corroboration of this story from other sources.)

Is there anything I’m missing? I’m going to try to keep updating this if and when new reports are made.

So.

I know that I need to say something about this. Other than just, “This is serious as a heart attack, CFI needs to do the right thing, stat,” which I’ve already said. And other than just a huge “Thank You” to everyone who has been speaking out and telling their stories. It’s hard to do — it typically gets you targeted with a huge load of denialism, trivialization, and outright hostility and hatred, and speaking out against powerful people can have serious consequences — and I want to voice my immense gratitude to the women and men who have had the courage to do it anyway.

I know I need to say something else. I know that many people are expecting me to say something about this: especially after the part I played in the recent CFI controversy. And yes, right now I am thinking very carefully indeed about my future with CFI. (I haven’t had any kind of relationship with JREF in a long time, so that’s a non-issue.)

But I think I need to hold off on any extensive comment for at least a day or two. New reports about all of this are coming in thick and fast; new information is coming out very quickly. I want to hold off on coming to any important conclusions, or making any big, irrevocable decisions, while things are changing so rapidly.

Also… it’s kind of ridiculous that this random thing should be in the mix, but I’m about to undergo this medical procedure, a capsule endoscopy to look at the inside of my stomach. Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong (we don’t think), this is a precautionary test being done because of my Lynch Syndrome.) But the prep for the procedure is stressful and unpleasant, plus it’s required me to eat nothing but clear liquids all day, and nothing at all for another day. I’m stressed, I’m hungry, I’m going to be even more stressed and hungry tomorrow, and I know I’m not thinking clearly right now. So because I try to be a good skeptic, I try not to come to important conclusions, or make big, irrevocable decisions, when I know that my mind isn’t working at its best.

This is serious as a heart attack. Processing. Processing.

Karen Stollznow’s Complaint About Ben Radford – Do You Have Evidence Backing It?

If you have evidence or personal accounts that will back Karen Stollznow’s complaint about Ben Radford, please send them to CFI — and please make them public if you can.

The CFI Board of Directors can be emailed via the Corporate Secretary, Tom Flynn, at tflynn@centerforinquiry.net. They can also be reached by snail mail, at:

Center for Inquiry Board of Directors
PO Box 741
Amherst, NY 14226-0741

This Needs To Be Handled

In case you haven’t read it already:

Skeptical writer and speaker Karen Stollznow has written a piece for the Scientific American blog, “I’m Sick of Talking about Sexual Harassment!”, recounting her years-long experience with on-the-job sexual harassment and sexual assault.

It has now been reported that the workplace in question was CFI, and the alleged harasser/ assailant in question is Ben Radford.

Assuming that these reports are true, and that Radford is the person discussed in Stollznow’s article: This is serious as a heart attack. CFI needs to do the right thing, stat.

Ashley Paramore (Healthy Addict) Speaks Out About Conference Assault

Ashley Paramore, a.k.a. video blogger healthyaddict (@healthaddict), has made a YouTube video describing and discussing her experience (only one of them) being assaulted at a skeptical conference. In this case, TAM.

If you see any more denialist (I’m not calling it hyperskeptical any more, I’m calling it deniaist, since that’s what it is) bullshit about “I’ve never seen any harassment or assault at conferences, therefore it doesn’t happen,” please point them to this video.

Godless Perverts Story Hour at Skepticon! With Rebecca Watson, Heina Dadabhoy, and Keith Lowell Jensen! Plus Upcoming Events in San Francisco!

skepticon 6 logo

The Godless Perverts Story Hour is taking the show on the road once more — this time to Skepticon! Skepticon is the mega-awesome and totally free skeptic/ atheist convention is Springfield, MO. And this year, as part of their Friday night festivities, they’re playing host to the Godless Perverts Story Hour! Plus we have events coming up in San Francisco — one a week from Tuesday, and one at the end of August!

The Godless Perverts Story Hour is an evening about how to have good sex without having any gods, goddesses, spirits, or their earthly representatives hanging over your shoulder and telling you that you’re doing it wrong. And we’re so excited to be bringing it to Skepticon! Co-hosted by Greta Christina and David Fitzgerald, and with readings and performances by Rebecca Watson, Heina Dadabhoy, and Keith Lowell Jensen (along with Greta and David), we’ll be bringing you depictions, explorations, and celebrations of godless sexualities, as well as critical, mocking, and blasphemous views of sex and religion. The evening’s entertainment will have a range of voices — sexy and serious, passionate and funny, and all of the above — talking about how our sexualities can not only exist, but even thrive, without the supernatural.

We’ve only got one life — what better way to spend it than an evening of sexy godless fun?

Please note: This event is for people 18 and over only.

If you support Skepticon and the whole idea of major free conferences, please consider supporting them with a donation. There’s a really fun fundraiser going on right now with Shelley Segal: people are voting with their dollars on song topics, and Shelley will write a song about the winning topic and sing it at Skepticon. And she’ll personally serenade the highest bidder!

And the Godless Perverts have two events coming up soon in San Francisco! Mark your calendars!

The Godless Perverts Social Club is now meeting in San Francisco on the first Tuesday of every month — and our next gathering is on Tuesday, August 6. Community is one of the reasons we started Godless Perverts. There are few enough places to land when you decide that you’re an atheist; far fewer if you’re also LGBT, queer, kinky, poly, trans, or are just interested in sexuality. And the sex-positive/ alt-sex/ whatever- you- want- to- call- it community isn’t always the most welcoming place for non-believers. So please join us at Wicked Grounds, San Francisco’s renowned BDSM-themed coffee house — 289 8th St in San Francisco, near Civic Center BART — for an evening of conversation and socializing. All orientations, genders, and kinks (or lack thereof) welcome. There’s no admission, but we ask that you buy food and drink at the counter, or make a donation to the venue.

And join us for another evening of blasphemy and depravity at our next performance event, the Godless Perverts Story Hour, on Saturday, August 31!

Jen-Cross-150x150 Virgie-Tovar-naughtyface-150x150 Kate-Sirls-150x150 VictorHarris-150x150

M-Christian-150x150 SImons_head_shot-150x150 PamRosenthal-e1370489619352-150x150 Chris Hall

Dave-Pic-sideways-150x150 Greta-big-150x150

Our performer lineup for August 31 includes Molly Weatherfield (aka Pam Rosenthal), Victor Harris, Jen Cross, Virgie Tovar, Kate Sirls, M. Christian, and Simon Sheppard — plus your charming hosts Greta Christina, David Fitzgerald, and Chris Hall. The Godless Perverts Story Hour will be at the Center for Sex and Culture, 1349 Mission St. in San Francisco (near Civic Center BART). $10-20 sliding scale donation; no-one turned away for lack of funds; benefit for the Center for Sex and Culture. Hope to see you there!

FtBCon: Videos Are Up — and a Survey!

ftb conscience

FtBConscience, the online conference hosted by Freethought Blogs, is over. But all the sessions are available online! I wasn’t able to attend a lot of it (I had an all-day thing I was doing on Saturday), but Ingrid and I are going through a bunch of the sessions we missed… and so far, they’ve been fascinating.

If you missed some or all of this conference, and want to check them out… well, that’s the glory of an online conference. All the sessions were recorded as they were happening, and you can check any or all of them out right now! Just go to the conference schedule, click on the title of the session you want to watch, and scroll down to the video!

If you’re particularly interested in the sessions I was part of, you can go directly there: Sex & Skepticism (with me, Ginny Brown, Franklin Veaux, Benny, Sophie Hirschfeld, and Miri M.), and Atheism and Grief (with me, Rebecca Hensler, Nicome Taylor and Hank Fox).

And if you did watch/ participate in some or all of the conference, please take a moment to fill out our survey! We’re hoping to do more of these in the future, and your input will help us make it even awesomer. (And yes, “awesomer” is a word, Haven’t you heard the line in that song, “A trip to the moon on awesomer wings”? That’s how it goes, right?) Anyway.

Secular Meditation: “Energy,” and Attention/ Awareness

energy-perspectives-problems-prospects-michael-b-mcelroy-hardcover-cover-artSo what does this “energy” thing mean, anyway?

I don’t mean literal, physical energy. I more or less understand that. I mean “energy” in the supernatural/ metaphysical/ woo bullshit sense. And specifically, what does it mean for a meditation practice?

Here’s what I’m talking about. As regular readers know, I’ve recently begun a secular meditation/ mindfulness practice, based on the evidence-based Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction techniques. I do a few different practices, depending on where I am and how much time I have… but the core of my practice, at least for now, is something called a “body scan,” in which I focus my attention on each part of my body in turn, starting with my feet and moving up to the top of my head, noticing thoughts and distractions as they arise and acknowledging them without judgment and then gently letting them go to return my attention to the body part in question. When I first started doing the body scan practice, I basically had to say the words to myself, in my head, “Heel. Heel. Pay attention to your left heel. Heel. Okay, moving on to the big toe. Big toe. Pay attention to your big toe. Okay, that’s an interesting thought drifting into your consciousness: notice it, don’t judge it, let it go, return your attention to your big toe. Big toe. Big toe. Okay… now little toe.”

But as I get more familiar with the practice — more practiced, I guess — this has been shifting. The verbal instructions to myself are becoming less necessary. It’s becoming easier to just experience my body, to just feel it, without having to name the parts. If I’m more tired, or more stressed out, I need more of the verbal directions… but I’m needing them less and less. (In a “two steps forward, one step back” way.)

And as I get less dependent on the verbal catalog to keep me focused on my body, and become more able to just experience my body for what it is, this… thing has been happening.

Instead of controlling or directing the body scan, it’s just been happening by itself. [Read more...]

Does Social Justice Activism Mean Mission Drift for Atheism and Skepticism?

If the atheist and skeptical movements focus on political and social justice issues, will that constitute mission drift?

No.

Okay. I realize that’s not a very satisfying answer. How about this: Nothing that anyone I know is advocating in this department constitutes mission drift. Sure, there are some ways this could hypothetically happen, if that does ever wind up happening it’d be worth commenting on or even pushing back on… but it doesn’t automatically and by definition constitute that, and the kinds of things that the social-justice crowd are advocating don’t fall into that category at all.

That may not be satisfying, either. Let me spell it out in a little more detail.

mission statement bookMyself, and the other people I know of who are advocating for the atheist and skeptical movements to focus more on social justice issues, are not proposing that these movements change their basic missions in any way. We simply want for these movements to expand the appeal of atheism and skepticism to demographics we haven’t traditionally attracted, by focusing part of our attention on issues that these people care about and that are still totally in our wheelhouse. We are basically advocating for two things:

(1) that these movements expand the focus of their existing missions into new areas having to do with politics and social justice, in ways that are consistent with those existing missions and that constitute clear overlap between those missions and these issues;

(2) that the organizations in these movements pay attention to these issues in internal matters, such as hiring and event organizing.

Let’s take #1 first. And let’s look first at skepticism.

The skeptical movement, and the main skeptical organizations, are focused (at least in theory) on doing activism and education around applying rationality, critical thinking skills, the scientific method, and the prioritization of evidence to address testable questions about non-subjective reality. It’s not about advocating for any specific conclusions — it’s about advocating for the methods, and the principles of valuing reality and truth that underlie those methods. In practice, it often doesn’t play out this way — in practice, for instance, the skeptical movements are strongly pro-vaccination and anti-creationism, and are pretty comfortable supporting the one position and opposing the other quite vehemently, and doing so qua skeptics. But yes, at least in theory, you could be a skeptic and a vaccine denialist: there’s no position that constitutes a litmus test for being a skeptic.

Sure. Fine.

So why can’t all that rationality, critical thinking skills, scientific method, and prioritization of evidence be applied to testable claims having to do with social justice?

DEA: DEA agents in Detroit, Michigan Spike TVTestable claims about social justice issues get made all the time. Yes, some social justice questions have to do with basic values that can’t really be settled by methods of rationality… but a whole lot of them don’t. Lots of them are questions about what is and is not factually, testably true. The claim that people have unconscious racial biases which affect our behavior is a testable claim. The claim that children raised in same-sex relationships grow up with deep psychological problems is a testable claim. The claim that people act significantly differently towards infants we think are male and infants we think are female is a testable claim. Proponents of the drug war make testable claims that certain practices and policies have certain results: that zero-tolerance for drug law violations, long sentences for people who break drug laws, significant resources being spent on investigation and enforcement of drug laws, etc., will result in less drug use and fewer negative consequences from drug use. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Why would it constitute mission drift for the skeptical movement to focus attention and research — and the advocacy of rational, evidence-based thinking — on these claims?

In fact, the skeptical movement is already focusing on political and social justice issues: with its focus on global warming denialism, for instance, or its questioning of the value of organic food. Given that this is true, why is there such strong pushback from so many people against the very notion of the skeptical movement focusing on other political and social justice issues, and such fear that this will pull skepticism away from its roots?

And now let’s look at atheism. The atheist movement, and the main atheist organizations, are focused (at least in theory) on advocating for the acceptance and civil rights of atheists, advocating for church/state separation, creating communities and support systems for atheists, and opposing the harm done by religion. (With different focuses from different organizations, of course.)

abstinence chalkboardSo why would it constitute mission drift for the atheist movement to focus on how religion harms people by undermining social justice? Why would it be mission drift to focus on the harm done by abstinence-only sex education; by the influence of the religious right on reproductive rights; by the influence of the religious right on public education and economic policy; by fraudulent preachers and psychics preying on impoverished communities? Why would it constitute mission drift to work on making our communities and support systems more welcoming to a wider spectrum of people, and to look at ways that these communities might be alienating some populations without intending to? Why would it constitute mission drift to look at ways that advancing acceptance and civil rights for atheists might work differently in different communities and demographics, and to adapt our work accordingly?

And in fact, just like with the skeptical movement, the atheist movement is already doing this. The atheist movement has, for instance, taken on the issue of gay rights and same-sex marriage, and has done so with passion and energy. Religious bigotry against gay people, and the myriad ways this bigotry has injured so many people, is one of the most prominent issues for the atheist movement, and has been for years. Given that this is true, why is there such strong pushback from so many people against the very notion of the atheist movement focusing on other political and social justice issues, and such fear that this will pull atheism away from its roots?

Why should the people who are already in the skeptical and atheist movements, the people who have been in the skeptical movements for years, be the ones to decide which topics are core issues for atheism and skepticism, and which ones are on the fringe?

Why is the very idea of expanding the appeal of atheism and skepticism to demographics we haven’t traditionally attracted, by focusing on issues that these people care about and that are still very much in our wheelhouse, being viewed with such suspicion and hostility?

Why should the agenda get to be set by the old guard?

Okay. So now let’s take a quick look at #2: asking skeptical and atheist organizations to pay attention to social justice issues in internal matters, such as hiring and event organizing.

This one won’t take long. It’s kind of a no-brainer. Or it should be.

equal opportunity employer logoDoes it constitute mission drift for skeptical and atheist organizations to adopt fair hiring practices and be equal opportunity employers? To have day care at meetings and conferences? To have student rates for conferences? To have meetings and events near public transportation, as much as possible? To have sign language interpreters at events? To have events at locations that are wheelchair accessible?

How would any of this change the mission of these organizations? Any more than it would change the mission of IBM, or the Audubon Society?

And if it wouldn’t… then why would it be mission drift for skeptical and atheist organizations to adopt affirmative action practices in booking speakers? To oppose the overt harassment and misogyny persistently aimed at women in our communities? To have codes of conduct at conferences?

You might agree with all of these policies, or with none of them, or with some but not others. You might agree with some of them in principle, but have issues with how they’re currently playing out in practice. But why are objections to these policies being presented as “mission drift”?

Why should the people who are already in the skeptical and atheist movements, the people who have been in the skeptical movements for years, be the ones to decide which internal policies are core issues for atheism and skepticism, and which ones are on the fringe?

Why is the very idea of expanding the appeal of atheism and skepticism to demographics we haven’t traditionally attracted, by changing internal policies in ways that these people care about and that are still consistent with our missions, being viewed with such suspicion and hostility?

Why should the agenda get to be set by the old guard?

I know. It’s really one of those questions that answers itself… isn’t it?


Note: Since I’m starting to have issues with writings about controversies and debates within the movement that don’t say who and what exactly they’re responding to: This piece was written in response to Jamy Ian Swiss’s talk at the Orange County Freethought Alliance conference. However, it’s a idea I’ve been thinking about for some time: this talk was simply the catalyst.