Is the Skeptic Empire dying?

A new employee of Americans United for Separation of Church and State has already started receiving death threats and harassment just for mentioning feminism.

A quote from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that’s relevant to what we’re seeing right now. We call ourselves rationalists but we devolve into hyperskepticism and denialism about real, demonstrable problems in our community. Problems like irrational hatred of feminism to the point of excusing harassment, death threats, rape threats et cetera as “trolling”. To the point of being unable to criticize our leaders for their well-evidenced transgressions.

Ezri Dax: I think that the situation with Gowron is a symptom of a bigger problem. The Klingon Empire is dying; and I think it deserves to die. I tend to look at the Empire with a little more skepticism than Curzon and Jadzia did. I see a society that is in deep denial about itself. We’re talking about a warrior culture that prides itself on maintaining centuries-old traditions of honor and integrity. But in reality, it’s willing to accept corruption at the highest levels.

Worf: You are overstating your case.

Dax: Am I? Who was the last leader of the High Council that you respected? Has there even been one? And how many times have you had to cover up the crimes of Klingon leaders because you were told that it was for the good of the Empire? I… I know this sounds harsh, but the truth is, you have been willing to accept a government that you know is corrupt. Gowron’s just the latest example. Worf, you are the most honorable and decent man that I’ve ever met. And if *you* are willing to tolerate men like Gowron, then what hope is there for the Empire?

What kinds of rationalists are we? What claim do we have to being decent human beings without our dogmas if we act like this?How can anyone take us as a movement seriously if we can’t clean our houses? How the hell do we even drain this swamp?


  1. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    I don’t know that it’s dying, but I think it’s reaching a very niche-y (I can’t think of a better word) phase. The whole attitude of “ignore the complainers (even though they have an important point) and let’s just cater to THESE people” that seems to be running rampant through organized skepticism right now. I think the major organizations are going to find their audience slowly dwindle as well as become even more “dudebro” until they either stop altogether or try to desperately avert the rot.

  2. says

    yeah they seem very interested in stagnating and catering to a small niche. Reminds me of the american comic industry from what I’ve read recently….

    Just for more scifi nerdery “It’s not enough to survive one must be worthy of survival.”

  3. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    In our history most empires have been broken up into smaller entities. Same thing’s happening here. As long as assholes (racist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic etc.) are tolerated there’ll be DEEP RIFTS in this community.

  4. carlie says

    I think “If *you* are willing to tolerate men like Gowron, then what hope is there for the Empire?” should turn into a catch phrase.

  5. carlie says

    Not just to be a catchy reference, but it gets right at people – “I think you’re honorable, so what the hell are you doing supporting someone like this?” That could be a good way to get people to look at what they’re doing, I think.

  6. mofa says

    I apologise if I have repeated stuff…it is very hard to keep up with all comments at FtBs the moment (with PZ’s post at over 4000 comments!- this post should have been taken down by now, by the way, and has not…this makes things very interesting!) I wait with interest on your critique of the comedian (please remember, although subtle, clever and cutting it is only comedy after all…or is it?)

  7. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    How the hell do we even drain this swamp?

    Blood tests and polaron radiation emitters?
    Wait wrong episode.
    @carlie #4:

    I think “If *you* are willing to tolerate men like Gowron, then what hope is there for the Empire?” should turn into a catch phrase.

    @mofa #6:
    *jaw drop*

  8. ajb47 says

    Great analogy. Though I am far from a fan of Ezri. (And since Farrell also ditched Becker in the last season, I have to “wonder” if there’s a problem with the actress) I just posted a comment on Butterflies and Wheels about a comment (whoa — nested comments) I saw on Manboobz about the idea of “They are someone I think highly of, therefore what they did couldn’t be harassment/assault/rape”.

    I think Gowron is a great leader, therefore all the unethical stuff he does is OK. Not much difference.

  9. Sciencewizardlol says

    I was raised and homeschooled in an isolated Christian Fundamentalist household. I went to Biola to major in Philosophy so I could become a Christian apologist. Biola is where William Lane Craig teaches and I often saw him on campus. Having lost my faith, I see no Atheist movement currently worth contributing to, even Atheism+. The reality is that knowledge of the truth is a privilege and that means, irrespective of the fact that Atheists are outnumbered (much like the super rich are dramatically outnumbered by the super poor), Atheists have a moral obligation to patiently and compassionately deconvert their fellow man.

    I can’t tell you how disappointing it was to learn that the people who ridiculed me till I was suicidal turned out to be right. I wish so badly that Atheists had befriended me and helped me out of my faith. There’s just no way you could deconvert all those Christian women and invite them to mix with the kind of people that are in this movement. But here’s the thing; they’re losing their faith anyway meaning that a day will come when Atheists wake to find themselves surrounded not be brand new supporters but by embittered ex-faithfuls, angry that the people who knew the truth did nothing but laugh and scoff instead of apply their intelligence to including them in reality.

    I want to say that this movement has maybe another decade of development before we lose the assholes and become a truly safe place for the deconverted but people may be losing their faith faster then progress is being made toward making Atheism a compassionate movement. I also fear that this isn’t an Atheism problem but an America problem, that the Christians are basically right about America’s culture being rotten.

  10. F [is for failure to emerge] says

    All empires are corrupt, there were no “good old days” in the (Klingon) Empire. If you don’t tolerate men like (Gowron), then no empire should ever have any hope. Fuck Empire.

    But otherwise yeah, I get the analogy.

  11. Linden says

    Except that there is no Skeptic Empire. An empire is a cohesive political entity with things like emperors. Terms like “skeptic community” are metaphorical because organized skepticism is composed of a loose collection of nonprofit organizations, local/internet/college groups, entertainers, and activist individuals. Each has it’s own purpose, methods, and goals and may have strong, loose or absent affiliation with other entities, but most have no connection at all. The connections that do exist are loose affiliations, not hierarchical political integrations. Often times members of one sector of “skepticism” have never even heard of other sectors.

    This is not to say the public idea of “skeptics” and “skepticism” can’t be damaged by the awful behavior of leaders of groups within it- it surely can, even to the point of particular people or organizations vanishing from that landscape, which is perhaps what you mean.

    But there is no chancellor to protect, no empire to defend, just quasi-celebrities or “heroes” such as exist in every community. Some fans will rush to defend them nearly no matter what, but the grandiose framing is unwarranted. We should hope the corrupt are exposed and removed (and we should oppose them where we find them) but this will have no impact at all on most of the skeptical world which has little or no connection to them.

  12. says

    @ Pierce

    I guess you could make a case for Putin maybe? With the original series Klingons being the soviets and the new klingons trying to be some sort of post soviet allies…

  13. says

    Well, when Klingons first appeared I think they were supposed to be more representative of the USSR. By the time you get to TNG and DS9 I don’t think it was supposed to be representing anything that concrete; more like generic aggressive and totalitarian kinda empire. And probably something about the compromises to support the lesser of evils with allies and government figures.

  14. says

    Linden: I agree the parallel breaks down significantly in that respect. My point was more the “the standard you walk by is the standard you accept”, only with a Star Trek reference instead.

  15. kellyw. says

    I remember the hope I felt when I found the atheist community 13 years ago and how awesome the people seemed. These were rational people who spoke out against dogma. These were the people who were supposed to “get it” regarding sexism, homophobia, racism and every other -ism.

    I was never very involved in the community. Most of my interaction was and still is through the internet. I had wanted to go to conferences and become more involved if I could ever afford it. I wanted (and still want) to connect with people with similar interests and I knew I could find people within the community. Then Elevatorgate happened. My hope shattered—fast forward to today and what little hope is left is crumbling away. What hurts the most is that the good people here at FtB and A+ probably won’t be enough to restore my good feelings towards the atheist community—I so much want to be a part of a community and I’m devastated that it looks like it’ll never happen. I get the impression that the rot within the community is so large that FtB, A+ and a handful of other blogs are tiny pleasant islands surrounded by a sea of shit. As nice as the islands are, I can still see and smell the shit of the community. I don’t have the energy to fight it. Kudos to those who keep fighting. Maybe one day I’ll be able to join you.

  16. A Hermit says

    I shed my faith and became an unbeliever all my own; I read Bertrand Russel and Antony Flew and the Huxleys and I thought about what I believed and my experience of the world and came to my own conclusions long before I ever heard of Richard Dawkins (still haven’t read any of his books) or any of the current crop of skeptic/atheist stars. I didn’t have a support group, and being who I am I probably wouldn’t have joined one anyway (calling myself “Hermit” isn’t entirely ironic…).

    I just don’t understand these sycophantic, hero worshiping nit wits who think that circling the wagons to protect their icons is more important than asking them some hard questions.

  17. says

    So what about accelerating the process in an ethical way? I once proposed this elsewhere, but what about a group of skeptics who get organized and move from place to place online where such trolls are actively causing trouble?

    We are really stupidly cyclical and love our dichotomies in how our psychology works and there has to be ways of short circuiting this crap. No one is really defending these really extreme assholes, only making excuses for them to keep a social procedure moving forward. There are big cultural patterns that can be manipulated by people that have the psychological capability and skills when it comes to internet argument and popping the ego balloon.

    What if a large enough group of skeptics got together and just focused on group counter trolling as a named and defined group? And it was men and any women that wanted to do it too? These could be people who really did not give a shit about the abuse they were getting but are refusing to play along with the international social script. If there was an instance where folks were getting rape-threats and suppression, the response is organized counter groups to encourage the persons being harassed and public mockery of the harassers.

    This stuff only works if the lasting message from each of the instances is the primate marking of territory from abusers. Organized screen-grabbing and archival showing hate being excused as “trolling”. Individuals being willing to agree to show up to actually speak out against this stuff in groups! Groups are important because individuals are what get suppressed. There is a reason they threaten to sue and squeal really loud. It’s supposed to be louder than the real victims and only amplification and organized attention and history collecting is what works.

  18. Al Dente says

    I keep seeing leaders of skeptics organizations shooting themselves in the feet. Ron Lindsay has made his contempt for feminism blatantly obvious. DJ Grothe is more concerned with keeping the libertarian faction of JREF happy than keeping women safe. David Silverman’s organization is embroiled in a racism lawsuit (not surprising considering American Atheists’ racist billboard). Michael Shermer, grand poohbah of The Skeptical Society, has an unsavory reputation for his possible actions with women. Richard Dawkins wrote the Dear Muslima letter several years ago but he doesn’t appear to have learned anything from the widespread criticism of it.

    Organized skepticism and atheism has some very serious problems right now. Quite frankly, it wouldn’t upset me in the least if CFI, JREF, AA, RDF, etc. all disappeared. They don’t seem to be doing anything except giving their leaders platforms for displaying various forms of assholery.

  19. left0ver1under says

    Dying? Hardly. It’s just going through growing pains.

    The problem has been the willingness to accept anybody who self-labels as atheist without checking on who the person is. The thunderfoot debacle is proof of that, and I’m not just talking about FtB. What’s needed is tougher screening of who people associate with and who is given a voice.

  20. PatrickG says

    Jason, one small note: unless there are multiple Sarah Joneses wandering around, Ms. Jones works for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, not Atheists United.

  21. says

    I totally don’t begrudge anyone at FTB paying the bills, but there’s some terribly un-ironic ads at the top of the article, probably linked to keywords in some of the content.

    ^that ad links to this page/video \/

  22. mildlymagnificent says

    I don’t know that it’s dying, but I think it’s reaching a very niche-y (I can’t think of a better word) phase. The whole attitude of “ignore the complainers (even though they have an important point) and let’s just cater to THESE people” that seems to be running rampant through organized skepticism right now.

    To me, it seems like yesterday that all those “leaders” lined up to make their contributions to the Speaking Out Against Hate Directed at Women series at Skepchick. They talked the talk pretty well. Example:

    Now they’re being asked to walk the walk. And some are tripping over their own feet.

  23. wellerpond says

    This whole thing is just bizarre. I am sickened by how despicable people have been to Rebecca Watson and the rest of the Skepchick crew. How do these people live with themselves? Do they have sisters or mothers?

    And the accusations about Michele Shermer and the disturbing sexual assaults at conferences, I don’t even know how to process that. Is it really so pervasive? Because I feel like we know these people – these intellectual leader in a movement I am passionate about– and either respect their ideas, or at least the concept of having alternate ideas, this feels like a deep, personal betrayal.

    PZ is saying you need to pick a camp or you are passively allow things to continue. I don’t like any of the camps; it’s absurd to compartmentalize objective reality and critical thinking. It is only the human ego, ancient tribalism, and pervasive real or perceived inequality that makes us do so. The fact that our unity is crumbling is evidence of this self-destructive path.

    Over the years I have championed critical thinking and the people that inspire me. Now, I am left with disgust and disappointment. I have to believe there is nothing inherent in the critical thinking movement that encourages this kind of behavior. People are postulating that, like any large group, we just have a representative group of the general population. I still have faith in the scientific process, but I have lost faith in humanities ability to think maturely and be kind to one another.

  24. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    I just don’t understand these sycophantic, hero worshiping nit wits who think that circling the wagons to protect their icons is more important than asking them some hard questions.

    Same here. I stopped believing in god(s) over 20 years ago. I only discovered the atheist “community” post-Elevatorgate, so I don’t get the hero worship thing at all (the fact that I was heavily into the whole indie/punk DiY/no-more-heroes thing as a teen/early 20-something probably helps).

    I hang out here. I like the FtB bloggers. But if credible stuff came out about any of them abusing people in any way, I would immediately stop my support of that blogger. (Obvs not accusing Jason of anything, just a hypothetical.) I don’t know why the other side can’t do the same.

  25. Matrim says

    *snorts* Well, looks like I can add Mr. Deity to the list of people I won’t patronize, barring sincere apology. Then again, I never really watched him in the first place. So it’s mostly a symbolic gesture.

    I don’t think the skeptical movement is dying, I think it’s reached a point of critical mass. For a tree to grow healthily it needs to be pruned. If we can successfully weed out the bigots, misogynists, and other assorted jerkasses, the skeptical movement will continue on just fine. If we can’t, the tree will begin to rot, eventually it will burn down or fall over, and new growth will take its place. So long as there are atheists, skeptics, and freethinkers there will be atheist, skeptic, and freethinker movements. Certainly there may be setbacks, major ones at times, but they will never go away.

  26. xyz says

    @sciencewizardlol: I hear you and I am sorry that happened to you. I hope you can find a safe and comforting place to be.

  27. Sven says

    Let ’em croak.

    Personally, I never saw the appeal of all these organizations anyway. When it comes to legal challenges, people like the ACLU are there to help level the playing field against Christian-supremacists. I also appreciate organizations that debunk pseudo-scientific junk (the Randi Foundation for example). Aside from that, I’ve never remotely cared about any sizable atheist organization or convention. They all fall victim to the same factional friction and cults-of-personality that bring out the worst in religion.

    Atheism doesn’t need an “empire”. In fact, I’d prefer it if there wasn’t an “empire” at all. De-conversion is a personal process, and it’s done best at a grassroots level, not with a bloated multi-million-dollar club.

  28. says

    Sketicism will thrive but not as an empire.

    What do I mean? Loss of belief in the Greek god Artemis hardly was the basis of a new empire forming. Empires are built on some belief or shared value.

    Clearly the A+/skepchick values are not universally shared in the skeptic community. Its not something that can unite the skeptics. What can? It’s like trying to find something to unite non-believers in Artemis…

    So like the loss of belief in Artemis grew but did not result in an empire, so will the skeptic empire go. If the end goal was to see less religious belief, that will happen, but it will not result in an empire. I don’t see why skeptics should lament this since the notion of some common creed or profession of faith or profession of values or profession of how to behave should be revolting to a true skeptic. If I were a skeptic I’d resent anyone telling me how to behave even if I agreed with them about what is right or wrong. Skeptics ought to hate the thought of some intellectual emperor telling them what is right or wrong, and without an emperor there will be no empire, and that’s not a bad thing.

  29. sumdum says

    I never get it when people say they’ve had it, give up and leave the skeptic community. What are you going to do, NOT be a skeptic? NOT stand up for equal rights? To quote, here I stand, I can do no other. I’ll always be a skeptic, I’ll always be (or try) to stand for equality, I don’t turn my back on this community, they turned their back on us. If we become a minority within a minority, so be it.

  30. imthegenieicandoanything says

    The swamp’s really comfortable to the snakes and toads and leeches who have adapted to it. They certainly would suffer should it be even partially drained.

  31. CaitieCat says

    De-conversion is a personal process, and it’s done best at a grassroots level, not with a bloated multi-million-dollar club.

    …and also isn’t actually a part of every atheist’s life, as some of us were never subjected to faith-based reasoning in the first place.

  32. Anthony K says

    I never get it when people say they’ve had it, give up and leave the skeptic community. What are you going to do, NOT be a skeptic? NOT stand up for equal rights?

    Not at all; I think people are just saying they’re not going to associate with self-described skeptics for the sake of being around self-described skeptics. (And, as we’ve seen, there’s nothing especially “equal rights” about the skepticism movement.) One doesn’t have to be a part of the community to be a skeptic, either.

    Or am I misunderstanding your comment, sumdum?

  33. left0ver1under says

    Tony, The Queer Shoop: Undefeated Pictionary Champion (#26) – Yes, that was what I was getting at but worded it wrong.

    To continue the “growing pains” analogy, I’m sure most of us have someone or something in our past that we regret, that we say to ourselves, “What the @#$% was I thinking?” It could be a decision we made, a “friend” we hung around with, someone we dated (read: thinking with the wrong body part), an action we took (smoking, drugs, tattooing, piercing) that we later regret or even something else.

    The young make mistakes, it’s inevitable. The smart thing to do is learn from them and not to repeat them.

  34. F [is for failure to emerge] says


    Yeah, you’d think the first rule of skepticism would be don’t follow leaders.

    That generally means people stop paying money to attend cons and stop donating to orgs that just don’t seem to be safe and tend to promote, allow, or excuse sexism (bigotries), and seem entirely incapable of addressing such with any real skepticism at all – rationality and critical thinking have left the building. Speakers, bloggers, commenters, org operators with this faux skepticism (hyperskepticism seems to be the popular term) won’t be joined for fun and games as friends so much. That part of the community who are the vocal apologists and harassers, and the imposition-rapey spectrum types will be fought.

    I think that is what people mean when they say they’ve left the movement/community. They’ve cut ties, over time, with many of the old groups they used to think of as the “community” to them. The parts of the wider skeptic or atheist culture that don’t think privilege is worthy of examination (in a similar fashion to skeptics who refuse to consider religion as a target for skeptical thought, only scarier) are on the other side of this rift.

    I’m sure some people walked away from any further engagement in any aspect of the community, because they don’t feel safe anywhere. Maybe they still read blogs or something occasionally, maybe not.

    (And that’s my theory, which is mine…)

  35. theignored says

    This is a step…people like you and Myers calling this shit out when it happens, and damned if those responsible are our “leaders” or not!

  36. Jim Phynn says

    I hate to point this out to you, Jason, but Andy Schlafly saw the title of this entry and used it as an argument that somehow being an atheist is the wrong position to take. He obviously didn’t read this entry or any of the comments, but you should be aware that you’ve made it onto the radar of that bastion of stupidity and ignorance, conservapedia…

  37. says

    Well that explains the sudden latecomer troll @45. Thanks Jim. Maybe I should post about people using TITLES of pieces to argue for positions that the posts, themselves, don’t bear out.

    Of course, this is Schlafly. Nothing so nuanced could get through to a guy who thought reality had too much liberal bias that he had to correct it by building his own conservative encyclopedia.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *