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Response to Ron Lindsay on Atheism Plus

Ron Lindsay, president of the Center for Inquiry, wrote a column about Atheism Plus. I think he has some valid points, but also some concerns that I think are misguided. Here’s my reply to those points I found most noteworthy.

But if hate-filled comments and threats to women have not been expressly called divisive, it’s because such conduct does not threaten to divide the movement. It has already been repudiated, both implicitly and explicitly, by many, if not most, of the organizations in the movement…. I can say with confidence that at the national level none of the movement organizations condones hatred and threats toward women.

Lindsay says that the haters aren’t threatening to divide the movement, but that’s wrong. We know there are prominent women who’ve either said they’re leaving the movementor have contemplated leaving the movement because they’re sick and tired of dealing with a constant stream of hate-filled and threatening messages. If this isn’t “dividing the movement”, then nothing is.

Obviously, the leaders of our movement can’t just snap their fingers and put an end to this hate. But they can make it absolutely clear that it’s unacceptable behavior. Standing by, saying and doing nothing, under the assumption that everyone already knows they don’t condone it isn’t nearly enough. As stories like this one show vividly, it makes harassment far worse, and causes far more shame and self-doubt in its victims, when women experience it while men around them are silent. Lindsay does mention Surly Amy‘s series of male atheist leaders responding to sexism, and I agree this is a good start. But, as Stephanie Zvan pointed out in the comments, it’s also quite recent.

And then, of course, there are some prominent figures in our movement who seemingly do condone harassment, or at the very least, fault women for speaking up about it. Richard Dawkins, I’m very sorry to say, is one of them. Another name that comes to mind is D.J. Grothe, who blamed a drop in female attendance at his convention not on sexual harassers, but on women who speak out about sexual harassers (a comment which, to my knowledge, he’s never retracted).

It’s divided because too many in the movement are not willing to recognize that their fellow secularists can be mistaken without thereby being bigots… and that their fellow secularists can have can have different perceptions of the problem of harassment without being feminazis.

This strays dangerously close to a fallacy of false equivalence: “Why can’t the people who want everyone to get along and the people who don’t want to get along just get along?”

Make no mistake: it’s proponents of A+ who want to make the secular movement better – more numerous, more inclusive, more reflective of wider society – by putting a stop to hateful prejudice. We ask for reasonable harassment policies, for a basic degree of consideration and respect shown to everyone, for secular groups to consider women and minorities for leadership roles and to be responsive to their concerns, and for good people to speak up if and when they see others not doing these things. This doesn’t seem like a lot to ask.

On the other hand, the diehard enemies* of A+ (and they aren’t hard to find; just look on Twitter): what do they want? Judging by their behavior, there are many among them who want to bully, to harass, to intimidate, and to terrorize, and many who cheer on these behaviors. There are people who wallow in obscene and sexist slurs; people who try to impersonate prominent advocates of A+to post vile sentiments under their name; people who make violent threats and maliciously try to trigger psychological trauma in others; and people who leak private information from mailing lists they’re not entitled to be on.

Is there a compromise to be reached here? Should we try to split the difference between these views? No. The people who do these things have no place in our movement, simple as that, and they deserve to be shamed and ostracized until such time as they’re willing to change their behavior and act like decent human beings.

Lastly, on the matter of secular groups and their political priorities:

Deciding how much staff time and money to expend on a particular issue is always a problem, however. We have finite resources. Real finite. Compared to Religious Right organizations our budget is minuscule.

I do agree with this, at least partially. It’s true that no one has the time or the resources to focus on the entire breadth of social justice issues, and this is especially true of budget-constrained secular groups. But I think we can usefully pitch in when those issues intersect with our mission of diminishing religion’s social and political power. Consider some possibilities:

  • A politician introduces a bill to ban all abortions, because he believes that every fetus has a soul and this makes it equal in moral worth to an adult human being.
  • A political party argues against laws to regulate carbon emissions, because they say the climate is under God’s control and he won’t let it change too much.
  • A religious right advocacy group tries to repeal laws against gender discrimination, because they say that the Bible sets clear and distinct roles for men and women and society shouldn’t protect people who transgress those.
  • The tax exemptions afforded to storefront churches reduce the tax base, ensuring that poor and economically depressed communities with many of them have an even harder time generating real economic growth.
  • These are all social justice issues, and they’re also examples of religion motivating harmful public policy in exactly the same way as, say, a bill to divert tax money to churches or teach creationism in the classroom. Secular groups are well-positioned to fight them: we have the expertise and the credibility. Even if it’s something as simple as issuing a press release or signing onto an amicus brief, why shouldn’t we get involved?

    * To forestall misunderstanding, I want to stress that by “enemies”, I don’t mean people who simply choose, for whatever reason, not to identify with the A+ label. I’m specifically referring to those who clearly hate the idea that such a thing even exists and who have supported, implicitly or explicitly, the campaign of bullying and harassment waged against its advocates.

    Image credit: One Thousand Needles


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