Sexism, atheism, and the volatility of internet discourse

My post on the topic of sexism in the atheist movement generated a lot of comments. As is often the case with heated discussions, a lot of different issues quickly got added into the mix and so it might be good to step back a bit and look at the big picture.

My original question was whether the atheist community had a problem with sexist attitudes towards women as evidenced by the response that Rebecca Watson received when she reported on her blog about an incident in an elevator at an atheist gathering.

But soon other issues entered the discussion, such as whether:

  1. what she experienced in the elevator was indeed a proposition;

  2. her own behavior might have encouraged it;
  3. she herself has clean hands, in that she supposedly reacts angrily to others when she is criticized; and
  4. she over-reacted to something minor by publicizing it.

I have to admit that when it comes to the first two items, I am hopelessly out of my depth and will not even try to venture a judgment, since the world of singles dating is completely foreign to me. For the third point, one commenter made the case that Watson and her supporters also dish it out as much as they get. As to the last point, whatever led up to the incident, I think (hope?) we can agree that Watson had every right to talk about it on her blog. Even if one thinks that it was hopelessly trivial and she was hypersensitive, the fact remains that she was talking about her own feelings on her own blog, and surely she has the right to do that? (After all, there are people who are known to use their blog to even complain about film trailers, an undoubtedly petty topic of no consequence whatsoever.) Similarly, people have a right to respond to her post. This is part of the robust nature of internet discourse.

But I am not sure if any of the above points are germane to the issue at hand. What I feel should be focused on is whether the nature of the responses to her post (irrespective of her personal qualities or even the incident itself) reveals anything about sexism among atheists. And I would venture that it at least raises the prima facie case that a problem exists (which may or may not be greater than the level of sexism in general) and that we would do well to address it.

As an aside, I want to comment on the robust nature of internet communication and how easily people seem to get angry on the web. I am always somewhat taken aback by the flame wars that erupt on the internet, where tempers flare and angry accusations can spring up about minor things.

My first experience with such anonymous anger arose in the very early days of the internet. This was in the good old days of dial-up connections using modems transmitting data at 1200 baud rates. I was part of a statewide movement funded by the National Science Foundation to improve math and science education in Ohio. The movement was a network of mostly middle school teachers sprinkled with a few college faculty like me. Since I had slightly greater familiarity with the internet than most of the other people, like the proverbial one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind, I was designated as a moderator for the listserv that was set up for communication. My moderation role was not in the sense of having to give prior approval to people’s postings but to provide general guidance on the use of the listserv and address any technical questions that might arise.

There was one teacher who seemed to have the ‘caps lock’ setting in the ‘on’ position all the time so that the entire message was always in upper case. After receiving a few such postings, I sent out a message to the list saying that internet protocol used upper case purely for emphasis and usually limited it for single words or a phrase and that a message entirely in upper case meant the author was angry and seen as yelling. I suggested that people might want to unlock the caps setting so that others might not misinterpret their messages as having been written in anger. My whole message was in the tone of being gently helpful, or at least so I thought.

Well, before you knew what, I received a furious message from the perpetrator, sent to everyone on the list (and in upper case of course) asking who the hell I thought I was to try and tell him what he could and could not do and that he had a perfect right to use all caps if he wanted to and by golly he would. I was surprised at this hostile reaction to say the least, since this was not the tone that he would have taken during any face-to-face meetings of the statewide group of which we were both a part. But there was something about the distancing afforded by even our fairly small list that seemed to eliminate the decorum that was the norm.

I let his message go without any response, because once people get into such a stiff defensive posture, there is really no reasoning with them, and it is better just to walk away. In addition, the person who usually gets harmed by such displays of anger is not the recipient of the message but the sender, since almost everyone else wonders why they are being petty and getting so angry about something so relatively minor.

So I am no longer surprised by this phenomenon. But I still do not quite understand it. What is it about internet communication that seems to foster anger and rudeness? Or maybe it doesn’t foster it at all but that such impulses were always there but in the pre-internet days it took time to convey those emotions because we had to wait until we met the person or it took time to write a letter or to make a phone call, and by that time we had calmed down. Maybe what the internet does is allow us to act on our impulses immediately without time intervening to cool us off.

Sexism in the atheist community

It is fairly obvious that women are a minority in the atheist community. The high-profile atheists tend to be men, even though there are many women who are making important contributions to atheist thought. This naturally raises the question: Is the atheist movement sexist? Is the atmosphere at atheist gatherings hostile to women? Are female atheists overlooked when it comes to providing high profile platforms as conference speakers?

I ask this because of a long simmering controversy that began when Rebecca Watson, who writes at Skepchick, posted a YouTube video where she recounted her experience, as a woman at atheist gatherings, that male attendees at these gatherings tend to unduly hit on women. She had been on a panel at an atheist conference in Dublin in 2010 and gave an example of an encounter with someone in an elevator late at night after her talk who invited her to his room for coffee. She declined. It was a minor incident and she treated it as such but used it to give generic advice to men to not too readily assume that women at atheist gatherings welcomed such advances, especially if they had given no prior indication that that was the case. The segment that deals with this starts at the 2:45 mark.

What happened next was astounding. Watson received an enormous outpouring of vitriol, presumably from members of the atheist community who form the readership of the blog, calling her names and accusing her of all manner of things. The comments quickly crossed the border from sexism to outright misogyny. What was worse was that Richard Dawkins heard about her post and also chimed in, belittling her concerns, in the form of composing a sarcastic letter to a fictitious Muslim woman in an oppressive country like Saudi Arabia telling her that her dire situation was nothing compared to the hardships that American women faced being propositioned in hotel elevators. And Watson says that she still continues to receive abuse and that people devote entire websites to attacking her.

Dawkins’ response to Watson’s comment is remarkably obtuse but illustrates the danger that always exists when you start thinking that you are fighting ‘big battles’ and that ‘lesser’ battles don’t count. The fact is that different people are immediately affected by different things and thus may be aroused to action by different passions and comparing them is generally not productive. For example, the battle for wage equality for American women does not cease to be a valid cause merely because women in many underdeveloped countries experience enormous hardships. My own approach is that as long as you are fighting for justice and equality and basic human dignity and rights, one does not gain much by belittling the efforts of those who are not fighting the same specific battles as you are. We should avoid the temptation to give too much weight to ranking social justice struggles in terms of importance. Instead we should support each other in our different struggles, though we obviously have to choose where we devote our own energies.

For example, I think male circumcision is wrong because it violates the bodily integrity of a child and should not be allowed until the child is old enough to give informed consent. But I am well aware that female circumcision is a much worse practice and is given the more graphic but accurate label of female genital mutilation. Now there are some who would argue that people who oppose male circumcision and try to abolish that practice are wasting time on a relatively minor problem as long as the bigger problem of female circumcision still exists. There are others who are offended that people who oppose female genital mutilation are not equally vocal about abolishing male circumcision. Both these attitudes seem to me to be wrong-headed because they make the assumption that other people should care about the same things that you care about, and with the same intensity. The fact is that people who see a wrong done anywhere are perfectly entitled to take action against it and try and recruit others in their cause without having to justify why that cause is more worthy than other causes. My suggestion is that we should devote our energies to fight for what we believe in and not undermine those who believe in other causes, as long as they all promote justice.

But this still leaves the question of whether sexism and misogyny is commonplace in the atheist community. It is hard for me to judge because I am not a very sociable person and do not hang out much with groups of any kind to notice these things first hand. I do occasionally attend a few freethinkers groups in my neighborhood and though the crowd has slightly more men than women, I have not noticed any overt sexism. I am also the faculty advisor for my university’s Center for Inquiry student affiliate. In the early days of that group I was a little concerned because the leadership and membership seemed to be almost entirely male but that has changed in the last year with two women taking leadership positions and doing a great job. But just because I have not noticed anything obvious does not mean that sexism or misogyny does not exist.

There is nothing intrinsic to atheism that would warrant sexism so any that exists must arise because for some reason the atheist movement tends to attract sexist males. This is disturbing and merits investigation. Is the level of sexism the same as in other sectors but that we notice it more and think it should be less because of the heightened social awareness of the community? One recalls a similar situation during the civil rights and antiwar struggles of the 1960s when those movements were also accused of rampant sexism, treating the women in the movements as either support staff or sex objects. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that just because one is fighting one form of discrimination that one has immunity from the charge of discriminating against others.

Whatever the cause, we should work to eliminate sexism and misogyny from the atheist community, as part of the effort to eradicate it completely.

The ontological argument for god

Here’s an attempt to explain Saint Anselm’s original argument that theologians love. Apparently Immanuel Kant pretty much destroyed it in its original formulation. But in this clip, theologians like Alvin Plantinga claim to have resurrected it in a better form that shifts the burden onto some thing that he refers to as a theorem in modal logic.

In this next clip Plantinga tries to explain what this ‘new’ modal argument is.

I must admit, I just don’t get it. As I have said many times, I simply do not see how you can answer an empirical question of the existence of anything using pure reasoning without any supporting data. Just because you can conceive of something or because something is possible to exist cannot lead to any firm empirical conclusions as to its existence.

Another philosopher Colin McGinn tries to explain to Jonathan Miller what the ontological argument is and the problems with it. This part begins at around the 11:30 mark and continues for the first 30 seconds of the second part.

If this is the best argument that theologians can come up with, then god is done for.

The coming godless generations

Adam Lee points to data that show the rapid rise of nonbelief among young people, and points to stories of young people challenging the religious privilege that their elders took for granted.

Most of the student activists I named earlier have faced harassment, some from peers, some from the teachers and authority figures who are supposed to be the responsible ones.

But what’s different now is that young people who speak out aren’t left to face the mob alone. Now more than ever before, there’s a thriving, growing secular community that’s becoming increasingly confident, assertive, and capable of looking out for its own.

The Secular Student Alliance, a national organization that supports student atheist and freethought clubs, is growing by leaps and bounds in colleges and high schools. (This is especially important in the light of psychological experiments which find that it’s much easier to resist peer pressure if you have even one other person standing with you.) Student activists like the ones I’ve mentioned are no longer just scattered voices in the crowd; they’re the leading edge of a wave.

All these individual facts add up to a larger picture, which is confirmed by statistical evidence: Americans are becoming less religious, with rates of atheism and secularism increasing in each new generation.

[T]he more we speak out and the more visible we are, the more familiar atheism will become, and the more it will be seen as a viable alternative, which will encourage still more people to join us and speak out. This is exactly the same strategy that’s been used successfully by trailblazers in the gay-rights movement and other social reform efforts.

This is why it is important for atheists to not rest on our laurels just because we have won the argument. We have to continue to be a very visible and vocal presence in public life, so that those who are hesitant to speak realize that atheists are everywhere and that they have a support network.

I myself have been heartened by the number of people in my own institution who tell me that my atheist presence via this blog has helped them.

Victory for atheists in Little Rock

I wrote earlier about how a bus company in Little Rock, Arkansas asked for prohibitively high insurance for an atheist group to place the message “Are you good without God? Millions are” on its buses, claiming that they feared vandalism by religious people, providing an unintended ironic commentary on religion.

Now a federal judge has ruled in favor of the atheists saying that the bus company’s policy violated the free speech rights of atheists.

My article in The New Humanist is now online

You can read it here.

The article is titled No Doubt and suggests a short and simple new definition of the term atheist that more accurately and unambiguously captures what that label represents to those who choose to adopt it. This new definition leaves little room for agnosticism.

I’d be curious to hear from the readers of this blog what they think of my suggestion. If you think it is an improvement, maybe you could spread the word to the other atheist forums and groups that you patronize.

Limits to consensual actions

Although I do not consider myself a libertarian, I do agree with some libertarian principles, especially the ones that says that adults have the right to privacy and be able to engage in solitary or consensual practices that do not harm others free from interference from the state and society. But Michael J. Sandel in his book Justice: What’s the right thing to do? (p. 74) provides a story that sorely tests my allegiance to those principles

In 2001, a strange encounter took place in the German village of Rotenburg. Bernd-Jurgen Brandes, a forty-three-year-old software engineer, responded to an Internet ad seeking someone “willing to be killed and eaten.” The ad had been posted by Armin Meiwes, forty-two, a computer technician. Meiwes was offering no monetary compensation, only the experience itself. Some two hundred people replied to the ad. Four traveled to Meiwes’s farmhouse for an interview, but decided they were not interested. But when Brandes met with Meiwes and considered his proposal over coffee, he gave his consent. Meiwes proceeded to kill his guest, carve up the corpse, and store it in plastic bags in his freezer. By the time he was arrested, the “Cannibal of Rotenburg” had consumed over forty pounds of his willing victim, cooking some of him in olive oil and garlic.

I had not heard of this shocking story before, even though it occurred quite recently. That two hundred people responded to the ad at all, even assuming that most of them thought it was a joke of some kind, was weird.

Is the negative reaction that most people will feel towards this story a result of revulsion towards cannibalism? And is that feeling rational? After all, once a person is dead, no further harm can be done to that person. When someone dies, we are allowed to use the body for research or to bury it or burn it. In the Zoroastrian religion the custom is to leave dead bodies out in the open to be eaten by vultures, so we could take the extreme position and say it is acceptable for it to be eaten by humans too.

Or is our feeling of revulsion due to the idea that a young and seemingly healthy person in a state of sound mind should voluntarily choose to have himself killed and eaten at the request of a stranger? The whole episode was videotaped (which is why we know that this bizarre transaction was consensual) but the tape also indicates that the dead person had some truly weird ideas of his own and was not of sound mind as we would understand the term, except in the narrow sense that he knew what he was doing.

As you can imagine, the case posed extraordinary problems for the justice system and made me glad that I was not the judge assigned to oversee it.

When Meiwes was brought to trial, the lurid case fascinated the public and confounded the court. Germany has no law against cannibalism. The perpetrator could not be convicted of murder, the defense maintained, because the victim was a willing participant in his own death. Meiwes’s lawyer argued that his client could be guilty only of “killing on request,” a form of assisted suicide that carries a maximum five-year sentence. The court attempted to resolve the conundrum by convicting Meiwes of manslaughter and sentencing him to eight and a half years in prison. But two years later, an appeals court overturned the conviction as too lenient, and sentenced Meiwes to life in prison.

Sandel reflects on what this might tell us about the limits of libertarianism as a philosophy.

Cannibalism between consenting adults poses the ultimate test for the libertarian principle of self-ownership and the idea of justice that follows from it. It is an extreme form of assisted suicide. Since it has nothing to do with relieving the pain of a terminally ill patient, it can be justified only on the grounds that we own our bodies and lives, and may do with them what we please. If the libertarian claim is right, banning consensual cannibalism is unjust, a violation of the right to liberty.

The weirdness of the story does not end there. Sandel says that, “In a bizarre denouement to the sordid tale, the cannibal killer has reportedly become a vegetarian in prison, on the grounds that factory farming is inhumane.”

There are some truly strange people in the world.

Atheist groups in the US military

Some non-religious members of the US military at Fort Bragg in North Carolina have formed a group called MASH (Military Atheists and Secular Humanists) and applied for official recognition so that they receive the same benefits as religious groups. There are 20 similar unofficial groups of non-theists in US military bases around the world, according to the president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.

This is not a trivial development. The US military has long had a ‘God and country’ mindset that is hostile to nonbelievers. These developments show that more and more atheists feel comfortable declaring their nonbelief. The numbers are potentially large. A Pentagon report “concluded that about 20 to 25 percent of military personnel have no religious preference. Up to 3.6 percent identify themselves as humanist — a catchall that can refer to a nonreligious ethical philosophy.” Religious non-preference, like saying one is ‘spiritual’, is often (though not always) a temporary refuge for those who seriously doubt the existence of god but are uncomfortable coming right out and saying so.

We are rapidly approaching a critical point when religious beliefs will collapse because their lack of any rational basis will become increasingly apparent as people in every walk of life begin to point it out.