The approach taken

Michael wants me to respond to his post without the sarcastic paraphrasing. Fair enough. I can at least try, although it’s a very long and winding post, which does make it difficult. This won’t be complete, therefore, but it will be something.


I believe that the approach taken by PZ Myers, and by some other people on (for shorthand) the FreeThought Blogs perceived ‘side’ of some disagreements, is counterproductive to these aims. It is also unjust and harmful in itself, because it routinely demonises decent people who support equality but who have a different approach to it.

That’s not a good shorthand. There are a lot of bloggers on this network, and many of them don’t write about disputes within Anglophone atheism and secularism at all. It’s not fair to them to keep using the name of the network as a “shorthand,” especially when so many people use it not as a shorthand but as a code for “what we all hate.” I think Michael was hinting at that himself, frankly.


Some of these more mainstream media analyses imply that there is a single ‘atheist movement’, and that it is best analysed through some opinions of some mostly American bloggers and activists who, while committed and sincere and doing good work, are not representative of atheist activism worldwide.

There’s a whiff of xenophobia there. The claim isn’t really true, and it’s a little bit creepy.


In the last year or so, he has publicly accused Richard Dawkins of seeming to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children…

On the basis of things RD wrote, no? I myself think Richard Dawkins has been displaying a callous indifference to the sexual harassment of women lately, because of things he’s said on Twitter. I’ve replied to Richard directly, and I’ve also blogged about what he’s been saying. I think people who have large influence and visibility have a particular responsibility to be fair and reasonable in what they say about such things.

Michael Shermer of multiple unreported serious crimes…

What are people supposed to do then? Keep the secrets forever? Never make any public warnings about guys who get handsy or ply women with alcohol in hopes of scoring? Just shut up, always, no matter what?

Item, the penultimate paragraph.

I believe that we should robustly question the ideas and behaviour of people who are, or who are perceived to be, authority figures in our own spheres of activity. I also believe that everyone, on various sides of these disagreements, should reconsider what I describe as the ethos of “You must be more compassionate, you fuckbrained asshole!”

Probably a good suggestion.

Updating to add, at Michael’s request –

There’s probably much in the post that I agree with. I skimmed much of it, and I probably agree with the skimmed part. I certainly agree that the Atheist Alliance International is a great thing. One of the many rewards of the Empowering Women Through Secularism conference in Dublin last summer was meeting and talking to Carlos Diaz.


  1. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Plus it’s an easy way to sound mighty and rational whilst not having to pay any attention to what people are saying.

    “I saw a ‘fuck’, your argument is invalid!”

  2. Anthony K says

    Stephanie Zvan writes, by and large, without sarcasm. What is Michael’s (or for that matter, the Atheist Brovement’s) excuse for ignoring her? Or for making photoshop memes of cows fucking and labelling it “Zvan and Laden” or whatever their clever “hyuk, hyuk,…fat. Fart” meme is supposed to be?

  3. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    I wonder how long before Nugent blocks me on Twitter (if he hasn’t already). No swears, no “sarcastic rephrasing,” but not giving him ANY benefit of the doubt. And how much do you want to bet he’ll either ignore me completely or tone troll me?

  4. stakkalee says

    I’m a bit surprised that Michael hasn’t pruned through the comments to those articles yet. I remember the slight brouhaha when he updated his comment policy during another moment of “Can’t we all just get along?” and from what I’ve read in those comment threads there are an awful lot of personal attacks over there. We know he’s visited his blog, because he had time to respond to Ophelia’s earlier, snarky post; the longer those comments stay up, the worse Michael Nugent looks.

  5. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    I pointed that out to him in one of my tweets his way. No response. Don’t expect one. He can’t be bothered. He’s just too gosh darned important.

  6. Jason Dick says

    I dunno. “Dude, you’re being a fuckbrained asshole right now. You should stop.” seems a pretty reasonable response to many of the things that Dawkins has said recently.

    It’s somewhat debatable whether or not being abrasive can be an effective arguing technique. Certainly the immediate psychological response to an abrasive critique is to dig in one’s heels, but is by no means clear that this is the long-term result. But the fact remains that nobody is obligated to have infinite patience in the face of bigotry. Being calm and collected might be more effective, but it’s really not our responsibility. Especially when people like Dawkins are saying exceedingly inflammatory and hateful things.

  7. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    I don’t know Michael Nugent, so I may be completely wrong in this, but as I said earlier, I truly believe he’s using civility as a cudgel so that he doesn’t actually have to listen to or respond to any criticism. It’s infuriating, and way beneath him.

  8. Hj Hornbeck says

    Nugent’s article really rubbed me the wrong way. If we were discussing the sexual abuse of children by the clergy, and someone replied with “but what about all the great charitable works the Church has done?,” we’d call that an attempt to derail the argument. If we were discussing how women were effected by sexual assault, only to have someone cry “but what about the male victims?,” we’d call that derailing.

    So to respond to all this sexism with “but the atheist community does so much good! And isn’t PZ Myers a nasty person?” is also to derail the conversation, regardless of how true those things are. And I have my doubts about even that, as off the top of head I could refute half of them.

  9. Anthony K says


    Yes, and apologise for any implication that Michael Nugent supports or endorses that kind of thing. It’s pitters or pit-sympathizers who appear to do so (and not all of them, I’m sure.)

    What I meant to get across is that we well know that sarcasm- and invective-free posts do not grant immunity from the kind of harassment or dismissal we’ve seen.

  10. Anthony K says


    I don’t know Michael Nugent, so I may be completely wrong in this, but as I said earlier, I truly believe he’s using civility as a cudgel so that he doesn’t actually have to listen to or respond to any criticism. It’s infuriating, and way beneath him.

    I don’t know really him either, but I disagree. I think he really thinks his idea of more civil discourse will do…something. I also think he was genuine in thinking his dialog, way back when, would achieve some good. I simply think he’s naive, as well as privileged.

    At the very least, I don’t see evidence that he’s doing what you say, at least not consciously.

  11. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Anthony: You’re probably closer to the truth than I am. I just wonder how someone who has clearly seen enough of what’s been going on the past three years can possibly be as naive as Nugent would have to be to actually believe what he says. And why he feels the need to paint PZ as the bad guy in all of this, while hand waving away the ‘Pitters and their enablers as just disagreements we could get over with enough dialogue.

  12. HappyNat says

    It’s very easy to say civility is important when you sit atop Privilege Mountain. I guess that’s why Nugent doesn’t see that from my perspective the quotes from Harris and Dawkins are in no way civil. Sure they dress them up with fancy words and say they are using “logic” but the ideas are toxic and evil.

    Not to mention Shermer’s behavior. How is preying on women civil? I’m sure he has a smile on his face when he does it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not disgusting. In short fuck those guys. Oh shit I just lost Nugent now didn’t I.

  13. says

    It is amazing how someone like Nugent can create an insulting, dishonest, completely insulting piece of slime like this, and consider himself some sort of paragon of civil virtue because he didn’t use any dirty words. That’s even beyond the fact that he dodges the fact that the criticisms of his heroes are VALID.

    There’s nothing civil about pretending that critics of famous atheists are doing so in bad faith, or describing valid criticism as demonizing, or anything else in what Nugent says. Nugent is orders of magnitude worse than what he criticizes because he’s a dishonest hypocrite.

  14. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    If Nugent is arguing in good faith, why did I see an exchange on Twitter where someone questioned him, he responded as long as the questions were easily handwoven away, but as soon as the questions got hard and pointed, radio silence.

  15. PatrickG says

    consider himself some sort of paragon of civil virtue because he didn’t use any dirty words.

    Don’t forget: he wasn’t sarcastic, either!

  16. R Johnston says

    Jason Dick @9:

    It’s somewhat debatable whether or not being abrasive can be an effective arguing technique. Certainly the immediate psychological response to an abrasive critique is to dig in one’s heels, but is by no means clear that this is the long-term result.

    Being abrasive in a one-on-one argument situation is kind of useless for that reason, but it serves a very important purpose in the kind of public forum Dawkins has been engaged in. It’s important to express to bystanders the degree of contempt which Dawkins’s bigotry deserves. Dawkins may dig his heels in, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is letting everyone watching the debate know exactly how contemptible it is to behave the way Dawkins behaves. People need to know that he’s not just wrong, that this isn’t just a matter suitable for polite debate, but that anyone who dismisses the basic equal humanity of women should be castigated in the strongest terms possible and excluded from polite debate. There is no way to express the contempt Dawkins has earned, to show observers the proper way to treat his insane and bigoted ramblings, without being abrasive.

  17. says

    I think his emphasis on “civil discourse” is elitist and classist or worse.

    What’s worse? Well, it’s simply an attempt to gain a toehold of control over the conversation by establishing a boundary. It doesn’t have to be a useful boundary, one that actually makes any difference – but if I can get you to accept a boundary, I’ve gotten some control over you that I didn’t have a moment ago. You are now perhaps not dancing to my tune, but you’ve accepted my idea that we’re dancing at all. It’s a subtle rhetorical trick – much more sophisticated than Sam Harris’ heavy-handed well-poisoning – but it’s still a trick. And you’ve got to wonder why someone would rely on a trick when what they’re pretending to want is a discussion. What Nugent is doing is self-assigning the role of referee and implicitly un-levelling the playing field.

    Here’s two other ways the “civil discussion” trick is a way of gaining control over a conversation:
    1) it grants the arbiter of civility a priority interrupt; at any point where someone is being “harsh” they can throw them off stride by popping a red flag and potentially diverting the discussion.
    2) it gives the arbiter of civility a tool that they can use to declare victory; now all they have to do is irritate their opponent into losing their cool, then they can pop a red flag and say “you’re clearly unable to be civil, so this discussion is over and I win

    It is entirely reasonable to mistrust someone who’s controlling who handles the deck in a poker game.

  18. says

    I don’t think I am going to discuss anything with anyone that doesn’t tell me to “fuck off” at least once. I can’t possibly think they’re serious and mean what they say if they’re not worked up enough to cuss me out.

  19. chrislawson says


    I’m not one for swearing in comments, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want you to take my arguments seriously! I’m a big fan of civil discourse…but you’re right that it can be used as a way of controlling the discourse, and it can also be used disingenuously (as in deleting comments from people using swear-words while allowing blatant well-poisoning from others). My resolution to this problem is pretty simple — I try to maintain a civil discourse on my end, don’t try to impose it on others, accept that people (myself included) will get emotional about emotionally-charged subjects, and don’t reject other people’s arguments just because they use coarse language.

  20. says

    The thing I noted to Nugent on twitter is that his article doesn’t actually address the criticism of Dawkins. It just whines on about how the “style” (the name calling or other nebulous “lack of civility” he thinks is so horrible) of PZ and reminds us that atheist/secular organizations are doing good around the world. If the criticism were factually off base, why complain about the style and why the lengthy diversion about the movement as a whole? Why not explain why the criticism is wrong? Could it be that the criticism is accurate?

  21. Brony says

    It’s nice that the Atheist Alliance International is going good things.

    It’s also the same kind of thing that does not matter when the catholic church has members that do shitty things.

    Am I missing something?

  22. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Just read his “response.” Did it have anything to do with anything any of us have said? It basically reads, “You’re Americans.” Uhhh, what?

  23. says

    “Civility” is often used by the privileged to dismiss or discredit the views of the disenfranchised. We see a variation of it it in race issues all the time–the respectability politics that media plays every time an innocent person of color is gunned down: they wore baggy clothes, they listened to “violent” music, they had pot in their system, they flashed “gang signs” in pictures, etc. Once you’ve accepted a vague, ill-defined guideline that can be used to dismiss a viewpoint, it’s easy to find things that fit that vague criteria. And even if you can’t, it’s easy to make them up. I’ve been in arguments online that were perfectly calm and respectful, where the other person repeatedly made accusations of anger or sarcasm or condescension or whatever that they were reading into the “tone” of my written words. Sometimes that’s valid, but there’s often enough wiggle room in print to interpret it even if it’s not there.

    And if that doesn’t work, well, a lie told often enough becomes believable. See, for instance, how often Rebecca Watson is accused of reacting hysterically and hyperbolically to the Elevator incident. See how often she’s accused of claiming she was almost raped in that instance. See at least half of what gets said about the Pharyngula commenters.

    “Civility” is not a boundary, it’s a set of motorized, remote-controlled goalposts. Stop using curse words, and they’ll say your sarcasm is uncivil. Stop using sarcasm and they’ll say that you’re not interpreting people charitably. Bend over backwards to interpret people charitably, and they’ll say you shouldn’t call people out by name. Stop calling people out by name and they’ll say you’re being too emotional, etc.

    And all the while, they’re sitting, as HappyNat said, on Privilege Mountain, where they have the luxury of treating these issues with detachment. They can lay down these rules as if this were a high school debate club meeting, because they’re not actually affected by the issues anyway. It’s all academic and philosophical and hypothetical to them, no different than discussing the economic policies of some distant nation or the number of angels that can dance on a pinhead. Which is why the civility game works so well for them, because the moment someone whose life is affected by these issues shows a reasonable emotional reaction, they can lay down the civility card and declare victory.

    People like Nugent like to think that their detachment and emotional uninvolvement grants them objectivity, and makes them better suited to discuss and determine these issues. In reality, it means they’re trying to discuss things they only have a third-hand understanding of, if that, and that they have no investment in the outcome. Sitting atop Privilege Mountain doesn’t give you an objective view, it just prevents you from seeing any of the details.

  24. PatrickG says

    @ Marcus Ranum:

    if I can get you to accept a boundary, I’ve gotten some control over you that I didn’t have a moment ago.

    The question that comes to mind, for me, is if this is deliberate on Nugent’s part. He attempted to set himself up as an arbiter of the Deep Rifts previously (which was an abysmal failure), and it seems like he’s still viewing it in the same way. “If only I can bring the sides together!”, he says, without noticing that he’s taken a side.

    I find it plausible that he actually thinks he has the ability to affect the situation through mediation. Unfortunately, even if he has the best of intentions, it’s a deeply egotistical viewpoint and he’s …. yeah well, read Tom Foss’s comment above. Whatever his motives, he’s doing active harm.

  25. Maureen Brian says

    Someone who preaches civility yet provides food, shelter and a happy hunting ground to slyme pitters and their enablers just cannot be taken seriously.

  26. karmacat says

    The fact is, if you want to create a “civil discussion,” you have to first acknowledge a person’s feelings and point of view. For example, “I can see why you have strong feelings about this topic” and then repeat the other person’s main points. Then, “this is what concerns me about the issue.” So, if you acknowledge emotions on both sides, you can move the discussion forward. But you can’t do it by demanding everyone swallow their feelings.

  27. kevinkirkpatrick says

    My parents were huge fans of enforcing civility between us kids. As such, winning arguments (and, bonus, seeing the loser punished) was *always* about taunting one another to the point of an emotional outburst. Under that paradigm, we quickly learned that it didn’t matter who was right or wrong. All that mattered was who could be the most cruel.

    If he’s actually interested in seeing these issues resolved in terms of who’s right vs. who’s wrong, I have to wonder Nugent is so hung up on them being worked out under a civility-first paradigm.

  28. canonicalkoi says

    I’m not sure which I dislike more: Dawkins pearl-clutching over every “naughty” word or Nugent’s tone-trolling.

    It’s like being in the grocery store and wanting a can of baked beans. Someone’s blocking the shelf, lovingly considering the garbanzos. You say, “Excuse me?” and are ignored. You try it several more times and, though you see the person’s eyes flick in your direction so you know they’re not hearing-impaired, they continue block the shelf. Finally, in frustration, you say, “Hey! What’s your problem? Can I get a freaking can of baked beans?”. A clerk hurries over to tell you to watch your tone, that people will ignore you if you lose your temper or say anything naughty. You try to explain that you were being ignored, but you’re told to be the “bigger person”, to control your tone and you’ll get what you want. Eventually. When the garbanzo-gazer determines you should get what you want.

    For *decades*, we’ve tried, “Um…excuse me? Would you mind not harassing/groping/raping me?” and been ignored, totally and completely. Now that we’ve moved on to raising our voices, we’re told that our tone is abrasive, that we shouldn’t be so pushy or confrontational (while, simultaneously, being told by Harris that women don’t raise their voices and get confrontational), to just be patient and, by being “good girls”, we’ll eventually get what we want. Just wait. Quietly. Politely. Wait.


  29. Bernard Bumner says

    I see that Nugent is still hosting personal attacks in the comments section of his hatchet piece (and directed at indivduals who aren’t even mentioned in the OP).

    Is he dishonest, or just pathetic?

  30. John Horstman says

    Blah blah tone trolling blah blah. We’re yelling at people who are advocating harmful (and utterly false) biological gender essentialism or playing rape apologetics or worse. I don’t give a shit about Nugent’s delicate sensibilities, and unless he stops so badly misidentifying aggressors and choosing to spend his time/energy drawing false equivalences between stalking, harassment, and outright terrorism on the one hand and sarcastic and profanity-containing criticism on the other, I’m not about to start caring about what he says or thinks. Try to be more compassionate toward, for example, women who have been stalked, harassed, and threatened for years, Michael, you BEAUTIFULLY UNIQUE SPARKLEPONY.

    @Jason Dick #9: As I understand it, being abrasive is a rather bad way to change someone’s mind (definitely in the short term, unclear in the long term, as you mention). My intent behind being abrasive is not to try to change the mind of the person at who I am directing vitriol, it’s to create a discourse where certain destructive ideas are condemned and marginalized, e.g. where expressing racist sentiment is met with swift and vicious objection. It’s not rational argumentation about philosophical perspectives between detached observers, it’s emotional social engineering that seeks to make discursive spaces safe for the unjustifiably-marginalized by making them unsafe for bigots and their apologists (like tone-trolling assholes engaged in privileged projection). Nugent is perfectly free to have as many calm, reasoned debates in some sort of bubble isolated from the everyday concerns of the oppressed as he like; I’d rather try to do things like dismantle rape culture by making rape apologetics unacceptable in public discourse. There is a place in this movement for the kind of interaction Nugent wants, but he’s deeply mistaken about the size and scope of that place.

    @kevinkirkpatrick #33: Nice observation. I tend to interpret calls for civility as excuses to dismiss arguments with which one does not wish to grapple for reasons like this.

  31. says

    It is also unjust and harmful in itself, because it routinely demonises decent people who support equality but who have a different approach to it.

    Bolded part jumped out at me. There is a significant distinction to be made between supporting equality and tipping your hat to it.

    Dawkins knows that equality confers huge advantages on its population and is all in favour in principle, but when it comes to actually supporting it, he doesnt have a clue where to begin (and of course, he might lose some followers if he stopped being omniscient)…

    This is the reason to “demonise” those who just “have a different approach to helping”… Because they are not actually helping. Here’s a clue:

    If your words could be used by even one rapist to diminish responsibility for their actions,
    if your words cause even one victim to suffer in silence,
    or if your words prompt even one person to disregard a potential victim as deserving of their fate:

    You are contributing to the problem.

    If you then also have the temerity to claim that you are helping, then you should be grateful for every scrap of demonisation that you don’t get, because you deserve all of it.

    In case Michael is reading, The “you” I refer to repeatedly here is whoever you are defending from their moral and intellectual responsibilities. Consider my middle finger extended proudly. No need to thank me.

  32. says

    I find it plausible that he actually thinks he has the ability to affect the situation through mediation

    I find it equally plausible that he’s attempting to make himself seem more important by placing himself at the fulcrum of a discussion (even though he hardly seems unbiassed).

    I don’t judge people on what they may or may not think they are doing; I just look at their actions and what I think they are doing.

  33. mildlymagnificent says

    Maureen Brian

    Someone who preaches civility yet provides food, shelter and a happy hunting ground to slyme pitters and their enablers just cannot be taken seriously.

    I haven’t been back to Nugent’s site yet today, but I was pretty steamed up by the end of yesterday’s excursions.

    He’s got dozens of comments spitting insults, outright lies, bile and venom all over everything, and he seems happy with it so long as there are no norty werdz. I used to think he was nice but naive. I still think that to some extent – but it’s much more about averting his eyes from what he’d rather not see, and setting up his involvement in a way that ensures that he doesn’t have to. The parallel between his conduct and the conduct of the undoubtedly upright, moral and worthy senior members of the Catholic hierarchy who couldn’t bring themselves see, let alone to deal with, their unworthy, immoral fellow members of the priesthood for what they were/are is all too apt.


  1. […] suppose this could be viewed as a response to Michael Nugent’s recent finger-wagging at PZ, and in a way I suppose it is. Really, though, his post is just a nucleation point for a number of […]

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