Charting the travails of the skeptic movement

Amanda Marcotte uses the current discussion swirling around allegations of predatory sexual behavior by noted physicist and skeptic Lawrence Krauss to chart the recent history of the skeptic movement. She describes and how it initially gave hope to unbelievers of all stripes, especially women, that they had found a welcoming home but that the less than unequivocal backing of some of the organizations (the Center for Inquiry emerges as a major problem though it seems like it is belatedly trying to make amends) for the right of women to be free from a hostile environment has led to a great deal of disillusionment. The angry reception that Rebecca Watson received for her gentle hint about how women would like to be treated at secular events marked the nadir.

The women expected a positive reception for these gentle requests for basic respect, but [Stephanie] Zvan said, “What happened instead was a massive backlash, and frankly, eventually, a pretty successful one.”

“There was a big rise of people who decided that wasn’t good and that feminism was bad and that they had to harass women,” explained Monette Richards, the president of Secular Woman, which was created in large part as a response to the hostility that feminists were experiencing.

Richards called it the “Great Rift,” a divide that erupted between women who “were saying, no, we are not debating feminism,” and those who were either outright anti-feminist or those afraid “to embrace the feminists or feminism, because they felt that they would be shunning a lot of the people who were anti-feminist.”

A massive harassment campaign formed, organized primarily through a forum called the Slymepit, targeting anyone who spoke up against harassment or for feminism with a barrage of online abuse. It was, in many ways, a precursor not just to Gamergate, but to the army of Donald Trump-loving alt-right trolls on social media that followed. They employed the now-familiar tactics of dogpiling on Twitter, creating photoshopped memes to mock their targets, doxxing and ruining people’s Google search results to make them unemployable.

But while that was terrible enough, what was really upsetting was the lack of support from institutional atheism and, in many cases, leaders exhibiting outright complicity with the harassment.

“There are a bunch of women who left entirely,” Richards said. “I’ve seen a lot of women, especially, leave to go work with UU churches and stuff, because they would rather work with the faithful who aren’t jerks about harassment than they would be in a movement that condones harassing.”

Others have stuck in the movement, both trying to change the existing organizations and creating their own, like Secular Woman. In some ways, they argued, progress has been made. [Sikivu] Hutchinson highlighted the upcoming Secular Social Justice conference held by the American Humanist Association. Richards noted that Secular Woman is having a training seminar of their own this summer.

Still, Richards felt that there is still a huge amount of institutional resistance to feminism, noting that Secular Woman got disinvited from an annual meeting of secular organizations, after members spoke up about these issues. The reaction to Buzzfeed’s story about Krauss is disheartening, as well. While the American Humanist Association issued a statement of support for Krauss’ accusers, Center for Inquiry still has Krauss as an honorary board member. The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science have been silent, even as the foundation’s Twitter account snarked, “The #Bible is disturbingly unaware of the concept of ‘bodily autonomy’.”

Monette, while president of Secular Woman, is also the head of the local CFI in Northeast Ohio. I am glad to see that she has become a go-to spokesperson on secular issues and not just its intersection with feminism. She is a terrific person and a tireless and passionate advocate for secular rights and social justice and I am proud to consider her my friend.

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