Yep, it’s another post about Atheism+. Just because Jen McCreight is on vacation to take a break from being trolled and harassed, doesn’t mean the rest of us still aren’t interested.
First things first: There’s a new episode of Godless Bitches. Have you heard it? You should hear it, it is made of win. Beth, Tracie, and Jen were broadcasting in front of a sizable live audience at the Atheist Alliance of America national convention in Denver, along with special guest Greta Christina, who as far as I’m concerned ought to be on every week. Tracie had some inspired commentary on how she became interested in being more than a dictionary atheist and take on these issues. I can’t sum up in a way that does it justice, go listen.
As you have probably heard, a lot of people have expressed discontent with the whole idea of Atheism+ on the grounds that it is somehow divisive, or an attempt to form a splinter group. But one of the odder accusations I’ve heard is that it’s a high school clique-like, jocks vs. nerds effort to punish “socially awkward” people for not being cooler.
As an atheist who also plays video games and attends ultra-nerdy events like the totally awesome Austin Barcraft tournaments, I have a general interest in the social scene that gamers inhabit. So I’m no stranger to large groups of geeks, and to some extent the same conversation has been happening there for the last few years.
Recently, Dr. Nerdlove wrote an excellent post discussing the sexual
harassment assault incident that occurred at a party during PAX, the yearly convention hosted by the artist/writer team responsible for the gaming themed comic strip Penny Arcade. (Not familiar with Dr. Nerdlove? It’s time to get acquainted. This is one of those blogs that, once you discover it, I hope you’ll spend hours surfing. Check out the podcast too!)
Anyway, at this particular incident a woman was approached by a guy who, after engaging in a minimal amount of uncomfortable small talk, unzipped his pants, grabbed her hand, and put it down there. Which — regardless of how cool you might think you are in general — is not the most frequently recommended way of introducing yourself. The
harassment assault sparked a significant amount of conversation, but just as important as the actual incident is how the various actors responded. The woman, who had obviously done nothing wrong, was embarrassed and humiliated. The nearest security guard, who was in a position to actually do something about it, said something to the effect of “So… what do you want me to do about it?”
And just as predictably as always, some commenter showed up in the post I just linked to try to derail the conversation by saying “What I still don’t get though, is why socially awkward, sexually reserved guys get branded as creeps.” Seriously, I’m psychic about these things. Before I wrote this paragraph I had no idea whether anybody did that, but I said to myself, “Hey, I wonder if anyone in the comments tried to turn this into an argument about how unfair everyone is to men in general?” And what do you know, I found something that EXACTLY MATCHED UP with the thing I was saying a minute ago about social awkwardness.
Saying that the problem has anything to do with “social awkward guys” is really dismissive and trivializes the actual issue. Seriously, of all incidents that relate to making women feel safe and welcome in a traditionally male dominated social scene, holy shit, this is not a case of some poor hapless guy with a pocket protector who’s being shunned because he loves Legend of Zelda so much.
Stories like this have been popping up semi-regularly in association with the world of gaming. Earlier this year, Dr. Nerdlove also wrote about professional gaming coach Aris Bakhtanians, who filmed himself while he was aggressively sexually harassing a female member of his team. Lots of people said he was way out of line. But lots more reacted by saying stuff like “Hey, look, competitive gaming is a man’s world. Women should accept that this is just the culture, or shut up and GTFO of our tournaments.”
The problem is not that some guys don’t know how to act around women. The problem is being so territorial as to systemically alienate women from the group, and THEN angrily backlashing against people who try to discuss or deal with the problem in any way. Not only do many people apparently feel that such actions are acceptable, but they are regularly given cover by many of their peers who insist that, yes, that is how the gaming culture works, and it is how they want it to remain. That is a serious issue that has long term implications for the inclusiveness for any sizable social scene. It is, in fact, directly exclusionary. Referring to it as “social awkwardness” is doing the conversation a huge disservice.
The relevant point, though, is that this issue isn’t really a “problem with gamers,” nor is it a “problem with atheists.” It’s a much larger cultural issue in general. More often than not, men in public discussions (hi there) receive criticism that is focused on defeating their arguments, while a significant amount of the time, people discuss women’s arguments in terms of how fat, ugly, or slutty they supposedly are, and send the women rape threats as a punishment for talking. This is, of course, true in a lot of places on the internet, and also pops up when women appear on TV. It’s not just gamers.
Is the atheist community unusually bad about this problem? In my opinion, no. But atheism as a social force is growing fast enough that it’s dealing with some of these issues for the first time. It would be a huge mistake to say that because atheists are “rational” they are somehow immune to this influence. In fact, the personal stories that Jen told in “How I Unwittingly Infiltrated the Boy’s Club” really should make it clear how many members are openly hostile to creating a more welcoming environment for women. I know from direct acquaintances that Jen’s experiences aren’t that uncommon. When you come right down to it, this is the same problem that the gaming community is facing, even if it’s on a smaller scale.
And to their credit, atheists are in a strong starting position to deal with an undercurrent of sexism. Some people who object to Atheism+ don’t think twice when they wonder whether atheists should take on a prominent role in fighting for good science education, or for equal marriage rights for homosexuals. This is true even though most atheists aren’t scientists, and most atheists aren’t gay. They are still natural atheist issues, because the primary opposition to science education and gay marriage have religious roots, and no obvious secular justification. Similarly, many of the sexist conventions that exist today also stem from religious influences, and so overturning those conventions is an atheist issue by the same logic.
However, just as not every atheist actually cares about evolution or gay marriage, and so only some of them take it up as a pet cause, it’s also the case that clearly only some atheists think that the issues surrounding Atheism+ are worth focusing on. That’s fine. Not everyone puts equal priority on every issue.
Even so, I’d like people to think back to episodes of The Atheist Experience where Charlie Check’m, a.k.a. “Evolved Atheist,” called in to argue against gay marriage. (Here, have some transcripts.) In our opinion he held a ridiculous and indefensible point of view, and we said so on several repeated calls. Lots of people who commented on the episode came away from the exchange with a very negative impression of the guy, and it may have hurt his reputation. Hopefully you don’t think that that was inappropriate or divisive; we simply have to discuss individual arguments and situations as they come up. I have no doubt that the similar high concept arguments will take place going forward, as atheists wrestle with the question of what are appropriate ways we can encourage more diversity.