A missionary

The new Free Inquiry appeared a few days ago, but it’s not online yet, and I haven’t received a copy yet. Other people have though, and one tweeter reached out to me as a result.


TheAtheistMissionary @AtheistMission

Just read @OpheliaBenson’s lame response to @michaelshermer in Free Inquiry. Ophelia, don’t “bend a knee” – tell someone who cares.

Tell someone who cares? That’s a dumb fuck thing to say. Somebody does care, or I wouldn’t have been invited to write it, would I. Also I know a few people who care. “Tell someone who cares” is just a stupid retort to a published article. I didn’t tell “The Atheist Missionary” personally, I simply wrote a response to something that was written at and about me. If “The Atheist Missionary” doesn’t care then he (it is a he) doesn’t have to read it. I didn’t “tell” him anything.

And as for lame response – it isn’t, actually. In a way I have Shermer to thank for that – he made it incredibly easy for me. But at any rate it isn’t lame.

I’m not sure I should post the whole thing here before the issue is online, but I’ll post the last few paragraphs (it’s only 922 words, much shorter than Shermer’s piece) so that you can see what “bend the knee” refers to.

So why is Shermer so angry? He did after all say what I quoted him saying. (He twice says I “redacted” it but that’s offensively incorrect – I did no such thing.)

He seems to be furious simply because some underling had the gall to criticize him – as if he were beyond or above criticism. Well why would that be? A cat can look at a king, after all. Shermer seems to see it as some sort of lèse majesté, as if we were in Thailand, where it’s an actual crime to criticize the royal family. But Shermer’s elevated status is – ironically – as a prominent skeptic. A skeptic. If there’s anything skeptics don’t subscribe to, it’s the idea of infallibility.

Shermer however genuinely does seem to think that “prominence” should confer immunity to challenge. After he mentions the putative purge of “such prominent advocates as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris” he says that “I have stayed out of this witch hunt against our most prominent leaders.” Our what? Whose “leaders”? I don’t recall joining any army, or even a party. I don’t consider Dawkins and Harris my “leaders”; I don’t consider anyone that.

No, I’m sorry, that won’t do. I’m not going to bend the knee to “our most prominent leaders” and I’m not going to refrain from criticizing them and go looking for less prominent people to dispute. On the contrary: the prominence itself is a reason to dispute a bit of thoughtless sexism. The honcho dudes are influential, so it’s all the more unfortunate if they’re recycling dopy sexist stereotypes.

As a lot of people have pointed out, Shermer could have just said he misspoke, as happens in live conversations, and moved on. Instead he chose an explosion of outraged vanity. So much for skepticism.

That’s what it refers to.



  1. doubtthat says

    Let me just say that:

    1) Your analysis was right on the merits from the beginning, and you’re correct here, and
    2) I admire the fact that you wrote that knowing what the response will inevitably be.

    That’s intellectual courage.

  2. says

    This was on my mind today, not Ophelias reply but Shermers awful “witch hunt” diatribe as I subscribed to Free Inquiry and my first one has Shermers 2.5-page whine fest in it. Then today yours came with the response! So presumably they back-dated it or something as I wasn’t expecting both….

    Anyway looking forward to reading the whole thing as that snippet is far from lame.

  3. says

    You’ve got yours all the way over there? Gee I wonder why I don’t have mine yet. Grumble grumble. Maybe contributors’ copies get a later bus.

  4. says

    And you know…wouldn’t you think he would notice that? When he read it over, even if not while he was writing it? It’s not as if it’s not obvious!

  5. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    It’s yet another reminder of what this schism is over: content and control. Entitled assholes like ‘TheAtheistMissionary’ don’t want to hear about anything that doesn’t make them feel superior to the religious/woo-soaked, since that’s the main reason they bother to be part of the vocal atheist community.

    And, thanks to their experience as the privileged core demographic, they fully believe it’s their right to command you to not go against that.

  6. says

    Because my hobby is the difficult art of pulling people’s eyelids up and inserting text underneath them and then adding adhesive, all while the people sleep. It’s challenging, healthful, fun, and naughty. Perfect!

  7. says

    our most prominent leaders


    Just because someone is an atheist doesn’t mean they aren’t an authoritarian I guess.

    There’s something that seems to go hand in hand with needing leaders and being an authoritarian.
    I forget what it’s called, but I think it starts with “P.”

  8. says

    That’s what bugged me about that “A” t-shirt.
    Some guy who started a foundation with his own name on it (correct me if I’m wrong and instead it;s some guy let others start a foundation with his name on it…) and then I’m supposed to but a T-Shirt with an A (nice idea) but with some guy’s name also plastered on it?

    Never bought one. I don’t have idols, leaders, or heroes. People whose work I admire, sure, but I’m not going to wear a freaking t-shirt with their name on it. Not while they’re still alive anyway. And even dead they’d have to be pretty damned awesome. I’d wear a Darwin shirt, maybe… but not a “reverential” one.


  9. Stacy says

    After he mentions the putative purge of “such prominent advocates as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris” he says that “I have stayed out of this witch hunt against our most prominent leaders.”

    Oh, man–I didn’t even notice that.

    Shermer, you’ve been pwned.*

    * Is that what the kids are calling it these days?

  10. great1american1satan says

    Is there a chance Shermer is a cokehead? When I see people acting with that peculiar combination of egotism and illogic, I tend to assume cocaine has something to do with it – a safe bet in my burg. Then again, maybe it’s just celebrity. That does strange things to people as well.

  11. Bjarte Foshaug says

    tell someone who cares.

    …like TheAtheistMissionary, since he obviously cares enough to tweet about it.

  12. Brian E says

    like TheAtheistMissionary, since he obviously cares enough to tweet about it.

    Delicious irony that. You trolled TheAtheistMissionary there Ophelia.

  13. bad Jim says

    Criticism of our beloved leaders is a big part of this whole mess is about, isn’t it? Some of it is just hurt feelings, much if not most is business-as-usual sexism, but quite a bit is defense of the stars of the movement. “Comrades, we must close ranks behind the leading elements of the cause.”

  14. Ant (@antallan) says

    Excellent. But… 

    Just a nagging doubt about “leaders”. “Leader” also means “an organization or company [or maybe a person] that is the most advanced or successful in a particular area” [NOAD]. Undeniably, Dawkins et al. have been the most successful in “the” atheist movement in terms of book sales, TV appearances, mindshare (among the general public, at least), &c., &c.

    But, I doubt that Shermer had this meaning in mind. If he’s been so described in this sense, his ego will likely have assumed the other was meant.


  15. Bjarte Foshaug says

    @bad Jim
    My thoughts exactly. And if you add an element of the halo-effect, a need for consistency, and a strong urge to justify one’s choice of heroes to the mix, you have the ideal habitat for cognitive dissonance.

    As I have previously written elsewhere, Dawkins used to be the closest thing I had to a hero since I decided not to have heroes. I have read all of his books and devoured every online article, interview, podcast, or video I could find. For a couple of years I donated a monthly pledge to the RDF (that money goes to FTB and B&W now). I have defended him in debates, both from religious apologists, whether they were believers in God or believers in belief, and from “philosophically sophisticated” atheists who insisted that the special pleading and sophistry of people like William Lane Craig deserved to be taken much more seriously than Dawkins gave it credit for.

    When Dawkins wrote his infamous “Dear Muslima”comment, I freely admit that my first instinct was to look for something to accuse Rebecca of that would make her deserve the criticism personal attack while absolving Dawkins. Luckily, I had read enough about the psychology of self-deception to recognize my own reaction for what it was. You don’t need critical thinking to continue supporting your idols. It takes much more critical thinking to realize that they are assholes and your support them has been misplaced.

  16. whysoskeptical says


    Is there a chance Shermer is a cokehead

    There’s no need for ridiculous speculations, is there?

  17. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    I don’t think I’ve ever used the term ‘leaders’ to describe anyone in the atheist community. ‘Prominent members’ is about as far as I’d go.

  18. says

    About the “leaders” / prominent whatevers – one complication is that Dawkins, for one and in particular, is constantly subject to unfair namecalling and attack. Just a year ago there was that ridiculous nonsense about a male ancestor some eight or ten generations back who made money via slavery. Remember that? And UK newspapers just routinely refer to him with some pejorative or other – you know, “the militant atheist” or similar – whenever a conflict over secularism arises. Chris Mooney spent several months doing that when Unscientific America was published.

    So, some of the foot soldiers think we have to compensate or prevent by never breathing a word of criticism ourselves. They’re wrong, but you can see where the idea comes from.

  19. Sili says

    Maybe contributors’ copies get a later bus.

    That would explain why His Shermerness waited so long before blowing up at you.

  20. says

    Oh gods, Shermer is still whining about his sexist comment? Only now he cranks the dial up to 11 by claiming immunity for being a ‘leader’?
    Here is some advice Shermer: if you want to be a leader, set an example. You made a statement that very much sounded sexist. You should have clarified, but instead you denied and doubled down. Not to mention your hyperbolic claims of witch hunts or people being purged. At this point, the hole you have dug is deeeep. Now might be the time to drop the shovel and walk away.

  21. says

    No, not still in the sense of still right now – this is from his response in the Free Inquiry that came out two months ago. But my response to his response came out in the new Free Inquiry last week, and this Missionary guy tweeted at me about it.

    But he hasn’t said anything about it since January, that I know of.

  22. eveningperson says

    Shermer is a ‘libertarian’, and the reason so many ‘libertarians’ are authoritarians is, I think, because they suppose that ‘leaders’ emerge spontaneously based on their own innate qualities and, therefore, if someone has become well-known they must have some kind of innate leadership qualities that require that they be respected over other people.

    I think his own attitudes and his exploitation of the milieu he is embedded in show how powerful social pressures are, and he is consciously or unconsciously exploiting them (and refuting the ‘libertarian’ position as he does so).

    I was always doubtful about Shermer as a ‘skeptic’ since I read ‘Why people believe weird things’, which was a collection of weird things and not at all about why people believe them. They appeared to be weird to him simply because they were things Shermer happened not to believe, and his credulity in the economic field, to me, rather belied his claimed skeptical stance.

  23. says

    Shermer is a ‘libertarian’, and the reason so many ‘libertarians’ are authoritarians is, I think, because they suppose that ‘leaders’ emerge spontaneously based on their own innate qualities and, therefore, if someone has become well-known they must have some kind of innate leadership qualities that require that they be respected over other people.

    It’s all the free market BS, innit? The only thing driving success or power is the uninhibited invisible hand of the market; there’s no need to consider other factors. If someone is a popular writer/speaker/figure in a movement, then it must be that their skills and abilities are necessarily better than other writers/speakers/figures in said movement. Thus, any power or prestige they had, they must have earned, and therefore it’s what they deserve. If other people don’t have that power/prestige/success, then it’s because they’re doing something wrong or there’s something wrong with them or their message. All they need to do is work harder or change the message, and then (because there are no other factors to consider) they’ll have equal success, power, and prestige.

    A little bit of just world fallacy, a little bit of oversimplification, a little bit of cherry-picking for social factors, and a hefty dose of privilege and wishful thinking. Mix all together and half-bake, and you get libertarianism.

  24. eveningperson says

    Ayn Rand, of course, is the patron saint of libertarianism, and she was desperately, pathologically needy of exaggerated respect, requiring total control and suppression of criticism (reflected in the characters of her heroes).

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