Guest post: Nothing to compensate for the exclusion of multitudes of diverse and valuable people

Originally a comment by Jennifer Phillips on Whom you name, and he won’t.

I hate “the atheist movement.” If this is what it is, I hate it and want nothing to do with it. If it’s going to act like a mirror image of the fucking Vatican, I want nothing to do with it.

I completely agree, and would go further to say that, as it stands, it’s professionally damaging to me to be associated with Movement Atheists, as represented by Dawkins, Harris, Shermer and their supporters.

It’s paradoxical, because when I first discovered ‘the movement’, the science and reason elements embedded within lit a fire in me. I had already been involved in science outreach throughout my academic pursuits, but listening to DJ Grothe interview the denizens of the Reality Based Community on POI made me aware of how much more I wanted to invest myself in science education and science literacy.

The intervening years have been wonderful in that regard, and I’ve tapped into many local, national, and international science outreach opportunities, particularly focusing on outreach to women and underrepresented minorities in science. Therein lies the obvious problem: By publicly associating with the movement most closely identified with Dawkins, Harris, Shermer and their allies, I risk alienating the generation of young women and minorities that I’m trying to bring into the realm of professional science and reason.

It’s not worth it. Those ‘leading lights’ offer nothing to compensate for the exclusion of multitudes of diverse and valuable people.


  1. says

    The problematic people don’t own atheism, secularism or science communications. All three are vitally important… that said…it’s hard to turn away from a three car pile up of cars filled with clowns…

    Ever so predictable how this is going though…

  2. Al Dente says

    I became an atheist as a teenager. When in my 30s I stumbled onto organized atheism and skepticism. At first I thought they were great, a chance to “confer, converse, and otherwise hobnob with my brother wizards atheists.” The first negative I noticed was that it was my brother atheists at the meetings and conventions. There were few women and fewer POCs. I mentioned this to the organizer of a CFI meeting and his reaction could have been said by Harris: “They just aren’t interested in this sort of thing.”

    I started looking hard at who was involved in organized atheism and skepticism. There was a large libertarian contingent, sexist (and, to a lesser extent, racist) jokes and slurs were common in conversation, and the few women present at meetings generally were with a man and visibly with him. This didn’t stop some of the other men from hitting on any woman present. Also I saw that the skeptics were very selective in their skepticism. Politics, economics and religion were strictly verboten topics of discussion. I dropped out of organized skepticism first because I didn’t really care if Bigfoot or Nessie were debunked, especially not for the 143rd time.

    I left organized atheism after I paid attention to Dave Silverman’s racist propaganda and saw various Humanist attempts to establish godless churches. The Uninformed Unitarians (or whatever they call themselves) are firmly squatting in that particular niche.

    Some time later I found Pharyngula and Greta Christina’s blog (I briefly flirted with Hemant Metha’s and Richard Dawkins’ blogs, but they just didn’t appeal to me). Shortly thereafter FTB was organized and I found a place that was comfortable. This is the closest I’m likely to come to organized skepticism and I’m staying here.

    Since coming to FTB I’ve found out about elevatorgate (I really hate the –gate neologism but we’re likely to be stuck with it until after I die), Dear Muslima, the Slymepit, and other forms of atheist sexism and misogyny. I also discovered how sexist I was. I’m trying to get better. I saw the rift and decided I needed to stay on the reasonable, logical, human side of it. As Martin Luther put it so well: “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

  3. Anthony K says

    Those ‘leading lights’ offer nothing to compensate for the exclusion of multitudes of diverse and valuable people.

    I wouldn’t say they offer nothing. What about eternal gratitude, uncritical worship, and a blind eye to any crimes committed?

    Whoops, sorry. I’m thinking of ‘demand’, not ‘offer’.

  4. says

    I’ve been atheisting since the day I was born and never felt the need to be part of some group. Never even understood why anyone would, until recently someone explained clearly enough that for some people who were religious previously, it’s helpful.
    I still never understood the hero worship aspect though. From the day I found out about RDF on Pharyngula, it turned me off… t-shirt with a big A for atheist on it? Great! But why did it have to also have the name of some self-promoter on it?

    And the “stay away from religion” thing as a skeptic… it’s like joining the Association of Pachyderm Enthusiasts and ignoring the elephant in the room.

    I’ve been saying for years now on FTB and its predecessors: “This is why I don’t join things.”

  5. Sunday Afternoon says

    Combining some of Jennifer’s and Al Dente’s comments together gets you very close to my thoughts on “Movement Atheism”. 15 years ago “skepticism” struck me as somewhat anachronistic – the topics I saw on the cover of Skeptical Inquirer were as Al Dente described. I never got beyond the cover.

    Looking at the current edition advertised online and I see “Mount Ranier UFO Magnet”? Your honour, I rest my case.

    But it gets worse: Who are the authors of the selected articles advertised? 6 out of 6 are older white men. See:

    Nothing has changed in 15 years in some parts of atheism. There are however, some much better places – FTB among them.

    There is absolutely no way I will ever describe myself as “A Skeptic” or affiliated with “Skepticism”. I am perilously close to older white male-ness myself, but recent events even more prompt me to avoid the label “Skeptic” entirely. I do not wish to be associated with “Skepticism” as it presents itself to the public.

  6. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    I always found Dawkins style a turn off. He wasn’t really targeting the religious bigots, he was ridiculing people for being religious. Thats not really the same thing.

    And he is a very divisive an polarizing figure in the movement. A lot of people don’t want to discuss Dawkins, they want to drop cans of garbage onto his head. So it isn’t very important to some people that their attacks are logical and coherent. The only test is whether he deserves it.

    The UK press is currently busy trying to pry the lid off a much bigger scandal than the Saville scandal or the Profumo affair or Snowden. It is big, ugly and reaches into the heart of the establishment including parliament, special branch and MI5. What Dawkins has said on Twitter in the past few months is going to make him a major liability. Shermer is already bolting the skeptics movement to become a peddler of woo. No bad thing to visibly kick the liability off the bus.

  7. G A Southgate says

    I’m not a great joiner of things except trade unions and have problems with power relationships in general 🙂

    But someone who is part of ‘the movement’ needs to stand up to these people or at least expose their ridiculous incoherent ramblings for the thing they are – and I’d rather it was you than me ‘cos you’re better at it. Why? because these people have traction & presence in the media etc. To leave them to their own devices will make life worse for everyone.

    However, I also understand completely the feeling.

  8. jenniferphillips says

    GA Southgate,
    I have seen a lot of people over the past several years do exactly as you suggest, standing up to the perceived leaders and trying to work within for change. It hasn’t gone well. Not only have those leaders not responded well to criticism, but the organizations for which they are the big-draw speakers haven’t been particularly receptive either, to say the least. So here we are today, with the slime of sexism and privilege so thoroughly slathered over everything that can properly be considered ‘movement atheism’ that many atheists can’t bear to go near it due to personal, ethical or professional concerns.

    The funny (not funny) thing to me is that this is a novel problem compared to the usual reasons why people in the Western world don’t want to come out as atheist. It’s not that I fear being labeled as an atheist because of public misperceptions about what terrible people atheists are, it’s because so many atheists turn out to actually *be* terrible people. 🙁

  9. Brony says

    My opinion is also along similar lines. If the “atheist/skeptical movement” or large parts of it won’t deal with the elements of human behavior that we have historically complained about in religion in itself, screw being part of the atheist movement. Or screw being part of those parts of it at least. If someone is not an ally to me and actively undermines what I oppose in religion, I won’t pretend even a little.

    In the long run as we discover how the dynamics work for group-think, sexist, racist and other bigoted behavior, victim blaming, mythological characterizations of social conflicts, and more , those parts of atheist/skeptical will look backward and hypocritical. There is room for atheist/skeptical branches that deal with race issues, sex/gender issues, mental illness/disability issues and more.

    The reaction that we have seen over the last 3-4 years has been devoted to defending turf and preventing these branches from forming. Not any sort of actual disagreement, but something similar to a natural conservative/liberal split via conflict over irreconcilable differences. There is a dynamic in human behavior that I have seen more and more over the last five years where common types of motivated reasoning, biased thinking, and conflict tactics merge into a “group form”. For example gaslighting on an individual level turns into group dismissal, deception, and denial of the core concerns of the other party in the conflict. Thus you have the mythology being spun about why people on this side of the rift are upset and the need to avoid what we are actually complaining about at all costs.


    The funny (not funny) thing to me is that this is a novel problem compared to the usual reasons why people in the Western world don’t want to come out as atheist. It’s not that I fear being labeled as an atheist because of public misperceptions about what terrible people atheists are, it’s because so many atheists turn out to actually *be* terrible people.

    My way of dealing with that is just to admit it openly and honestly. I basically tell people that atheism and skepticism have just as many bad people in it as any other group and those people are not my allies. It gives religious and other people nothing on their side of other conflicts to use to judge you. Regardless of the selective use of logic, reason, and skepticism by some people we can still use the tools to our advantage and bad people are no argument for religion or anything else.

  10. G A Southgate says


    I agree that it hasn’t gone well for many people including myself in other spheres of work & political activity. The “slime of sexism and privilege” (great phrase) and other things too are there and difficult to eradicate. Someone needs to call-out these people otherwise, as you say, we all get ‘slimed’ with the same brush. Not everyone is up to it, including myself, I’m just hopeful that someone is and that they make an impact.

  11. Brony says

    I should have said this in the comment at #9, but it was not meant as some kind of advice to do anything in particular. You have your own situation to deal with. It was just meant as an example that may or may not be useful.

  12. jenniferphillips says

    Yeah, Brony, I understand. And in my personal life I take your suggested approach a lot. Professionally, my worry is that I won’t get that chance. If someone’s looking for a STEM mentor and my name pops up in a search with some connection to organized atheism, then maybe I just get scratched off the list without the benefit of the doubt. This is as it should be, of course–I were a woman and/or POC seeking a mentor, I probably wouldn’t bother contacting someone with an open affiliation to a cause that was hostile to me and asking them specifically how much of those sentiments they personally subscribed to.

    GA Southgate, I too remain hopeful. There are some courageous people sticking it out, and I am very grateful for their efforts. And again, I consider the personal consequences as completely distinct from the professional ones. I’ve had some personal run-ins in the past, disagreeing with the anti-feminist contingent that have had some real-life repercussions. The level of harassment (what amounted to prank calls and mailings to my physical home and work addresses) were extremely mild in comparison to what Ophelia and other women in the movement receive in bulk, but still unsettling. Still not enough to shut me up or keep me out of the movement if that were the only consideration. Professional impact is a lot different.

  13. leni says


    (what amounted to prank calls and mailings to my physical home and work addresses) …

    I don’t want to be presumptuous, so please correct me if I am wrong, but it seems like this is an attempt at intimidation.

    It seems like it’s saying “I know where you live and work. Be glad this time it’s just a prank.” Which, while being profoundly creepy, also strikes me as a total admission of failure. Their arguments were so ineffective that they needed to resort to intimidation to “win”.

    All they have are threats and they still expect people to take their “intellectual” arguments seriously? If you need to threaten someone to get them to agree with you, or at least to shut up if they don’t, then you have just ceded the goddamn argument. You have just advertised to the world that your ideas are so bad, that you are so incapable of rational discourse that the only motivation for even listening to you is fear. That isn’t a win, it’s a spectacular fail.

    It reminds me of the protesters at the abortion clinic I had to deal with. There’s a 24 hour waiting period in my state. So on the first day when you go in, they pretend to be nice. They tell you they’ll pray for you, that Jesus loves you and your little precious baby. All life is sacred- you know the drill. On the second day, when they know they didn’t convince you, things change. The screaming starts. The taking photographs of your licence plates start. The death threats start. Suddenly “life” is miraculously a little less precious.

    They aren’t there to help anyone, they are there to intimidate. The pretension of civility is only one thing: a calculated lie designed to soothe their egos once they resort to threats. After all, they tried to be nice. What else could they do?

    It’s all bullshit. They do that because they know they lost they intellectual fight, and they knew that from the beginning or they wouldn’t be there every day. All they have left is intimidation and a fresh crop of new targets every day. Same bullshit, different crowd.

    Oh, except to the anti-abortion protesters’ credit, they didn’t actually stalk or harass me after the fact. They just threatened to.

  14. Brony says

    @ leni

    I don’t want to be presumptuous, so please correct me if I am wrong, but it seems like this is an attempt at intimidation.

    I think this is one of those frustrating things that is simultaneously more than one thing depending on the perspective because of how it plays out in reality. It’s why you often get the defensive response from harassers that “it’s a joke” or other things because often they are used to dealing with other aggressive personality types that actually microagress on one another as a normal means of communication. My niece and I are both aggressive ADHD types and we do this to each other in weird ways, but we still have to learn to control our excesses with others and account for people like us that are honestly bullying others.

    It’s frustrating because often we have to treat these things as one thing functionally in order to deal with it as a group efficiently, but often the best way is to keep the multiple meanings in mind for strategic value while acting on the most important one in a given situation. In this situation and the abortion protestor situation the harassment angle matters most because jenniferphillips felt harassed, and those people just want abortion to go away at nearly any cost.

    On a social level it is a form of intimidation because the group tends to take on an aspect made up of the combined individuals choosing particular angles out of strategic conveniance (a contextual
    “social sameness” that makes things go smoother. They are micro-aggressions with a purpose that can add up depending on a bunch of factors:
    *perceived amount and type deviation from social norms
    *the threat level of the target leading to Ophelia getting more than someone that was not considered an authority
    *personal relationship with the target
    *an instinct to see just how important the social change is to the person (“sticking to your guns” = paying attention to something that someone else is willing to put up with abuse over)
    * an instinct to make the threatening social change “go away”

    I wish it was easier.

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