What Cost Is Too High? On Justin Vacula and Secular Leadership

Last spring, I wrote about the Secular Coalition for America's new executive director, Edwina Rogers, a Republican lobbyist whose selection raised more than a few eyebrows. While I had (and still have) my doubts about Rogers, I have to admit the SCA has been doing some good work, including setting up state chapters all across the country.

This is an excellent step, one that extends the reach and shows the increasing grassroots support for the secular movement, and they've signed up some outstanding activists to head the state chapters, including church-state hero Ellery Schempp in Massachusetts. But the SCA hit a bump along the road when they picked, as the volunteer co-chair for the Pennsylvania chapter, an activist named Justin Vacula.

If you've been following the great internet flamewars over Atheism+, this may be a name that's familiar to you, and not for good reasons. Vacula had a reputation as an anti-feminist, and while he wasn't as gleefully malicious as some of them - I've never seen him personally threaten anyone, use sexist slurs, or join in mob harassment - I think it's undeniable that he had made some very poor judgment calls. Prominently among them were:

  • Contributing to A Voice for Men, a pro-misogyny website designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
  • Posting the home address of Amy Davis Roth, a.k.a. the artist Surly Amy, on a hate forum that calls itself the Slimepit. (I had a conversation with him about this at the time, and he asserted that her address was already public information, which is true but irrelevant, and that he didn't do it with threatening intent, which is just barely possible but reflects bad judgment even so.)
  • Posting a taunting message when Jen McCreight announced she was taking a break from blogging for the sake of her own mental health, due to the volume of threats and abuse she was receiving.
  • In my understanding, the SCA did no vetting for the state chair positions (which is something, in and of itself, that worries me). Vacula volunteered during the conference call, and they accepted him without a second thought. It's not clear whether they would have accepted him anyway if they'd known about his background.

    But the wider community didn't accept this so readily. Freethought Blogs' Stephanie Zvan started a petition on Change.org asking the SCA to reconsider their decision, which quickly garnered almost 1,000 signatures. It almost certainly would have surpassed 1,000, except that she closed it when it had the desired effect: the other day, Vacula announced he was stepping down, posting a resignation letter that simply has to be seen to be believed. As I wrote on Twitter, it was probably the nastiest and most ungracious resignation I've ever seen, which makes me wonder if it was written under duress. Here are some choice examples:

    The Secular Coalition for America was founded in order to "formalize a cooperative structure for visible, unified activism to improve the civic situation of citizens with a naturalistic worldview." Unfortunately, some persons in this community who have been quite vocal in objecting to my appointment - and many who were quick to dismiss me — do not seem to be interested in that.

    Almost immediately following my appointment with the Secular Coalition for America, I was the target of a campaign of lies, character attacks, and distortions.

    My detractors have blown these mistakes out of proportion almost never bothering to mention my concessions, never to personally contact me in a constructive manner to address grievances, or correct their own mistakes — and treated me unfairly.

    As Jason Thibeault wrote on FTB, I regard this not as a victory, but as a lost opportunity. Vacula had made several decisions that were indicators of poor judgment, but nothing that I personally would consider unforgivable, and I think it's fair to say this sentiment was shared by many others in the community. In this post by blogger Emily Dietle, who asked why we didn't just forgive him and give him a second chance, the most common response was that we'd consider it if he had been willing to apologize and change his behavior. But he didn't do that, and by burning his bridges in such spectacular fashion - lashing out at everyone who opposed him, blaming his departure on a malicious conspiracy, rather than honestly facing up to the reasons why people were upset at him - I suspect he's cemented his reputation for bad judgment and ended his career as a secular activist.

    Let me say it clearly: this is not the end result I was hoping for. Contrary to what many detractors of A+ seem to think, I don't want to kick people out of the secular movement. Why on earth would I? I've been an atheist writer and activist for more than eleven years. I care about this passionately, and I have every reason to want the atheist movement to be influential and to succeed. I want to see politicians listen to us; I want our society to become more rational. If we're going to accomplish any of these things, we need all the activists and allies we can get.

    But what I'm not willing to do is to accept volunteers at any cost. People who participate in or condone sexism, racism, or any other kind of prejudice or harassment divide the movement, drive others away, and make our community weaker, not stronger. The whole point and purpose of A+ is that for the secular movement to succeed, it has to appeal to the broadest possible cross-section of people. If we tolerate bigots and trolls and condone their behavior, we'll never achieve that, and we'll ensure that atheism stays confined to the white-male demographic that's historically dominated it, even as that group becomes an increasingly smaller share of society as a whole.

    Image credit: Deep Rifts, via Wikimedia Commons

    Tesla introduces new Model 3 at $45,000

    The new version's battery has a shorter range and a price $4,000 lower than the previous starting price.

    Tesla Model 3 (Photo: Tesla)
    Technology & Innovation
    • Tesla's new version of the Model 3 costs $45,000 and can travel 260 miles on one charge.
    • The Model 3 is the best-selling luxury car in the U.S.
    • Tesla still has yet to introduce a fully self-driving car, even though it once offered the capability as an option to be installed at a future date.
    Keep reading Show less

    Denmark has the flattest work hierarchy in the world

    "It's about having employees that are empowered."

    Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

    Denmark may be the birthplace of the Lego tower, but its workplace hierarchy is the flattest in the world.

    According to the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report 2018, the nation tops an index measuring "willingness to delegate authority" at work, beating 139 other countries.

    Keep reading Show less

    The surprising psychology of sex with your ex

    We all know sleeping with your ex is a bad idea, or is it?

    Sex & Relationships
    • In the first study of its kind, researchers have found sex with an ex didn't prevent people from getting over their relationship.
    • Instead of feeling worse about their breakup after a hookup, the new singles who attempted sexual contact with their ex reported feeling better afterwards.
    • The findings suggest that not every piece of relationship advice is to be taken at face value.
    Keep reading Show less

    Relationship hack: Why class clowns make better partners

    Want a happy, satisfying relationship? Psychologists say the best way is to learn to take a joke.

    Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
    Sex & Relationships
    • New research looks at how partners' attitudes toward humor affects the overall quality of a relationship.
    • Out of the three basic types of people, people who love to be laughed at made for better partners.
    • Fine-tuning your sense of humor might be the secret to a healthy, happy, and committed relationship.
    Keep reading Show less

    Yes, Mega Millions just passed $1 billion. What does that look like?

    It's hard to imagine such a number. But these images will help you try.


    The Mega Millions lottery just passed $1 billion for tonight's drawing.

    What does that even look like, when represented by various currencies?

    It takes just 6 numbers to win. You can only, however, purchase tickets up until 10:45 ET tonight.

    Keep reading Show less

    Single algae cells can help deliver targeted medicine

    Tiny and efficient, these biodegradable single cells show promise as a way to target hard-to-reach cancers.

    Credit: O. Yasa et al./Adv. Mater.
    Surprising Science
    • Scientists in Germany have found a potential improvement on the idea of bacteria delivering medicine.
    • This kind of microtargeting could be useful in cancer treatments.
    • The microswimmers are biodegradable and easy to produce.

    Metin Sitti and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute in Germany recently demonstrated that tiny drugs could be attached to individual algae cells and that those algae cells could then be directed through body-like fluid by a magnetic field.

    The results were recently published in Advanced Materials, and the paper as a whole offers up a striking portrait of precision and usefulness, perhaps loosely comparable in overall quality to recent work done by The Yale Quantum Institute. It begins by noting that medicine has been attached to bacteria cells before, but bacteria can multiply and end up causing more harm than good.

    A potential solution to the problem seems to have been found in an algal cell: the intended object of delivery is given a different electrical charge than the algal cell, which helps attach the object to the cell. The movement of the algae was then tested in 2D and 3D. (The study calls this cell a 'microswimmer.') It would later be found that "3D mean swimming speed of the algal microswimmers increased more than twofold compared to their 2D mean swimming speed." The study continues —

    More interestingly, 3D mean swimming speed of the algal microswimmers in the presence of a uniform magnetic field in the x-direction was approximately threefolds higher than their 2D mean swimming speed.

    After the 2D and 3D speed of the algal was examined, it was then tested in something made to approximate human fluid, including what they call 'human tubal fluid' (think of the fallopian tubes), plasma, and blood. They then moved to test the compatibility of the microswimmer with cervical cancer cells, ovarian cancer cells, and healthy cells. They found that the microswimmer didn't follow the path of bacteria cells and create something toxic.

    The next logical steps from the study include testing this inside a living organism in order to assess the safety of the procedure. Potential future research could include examining how effective this method of drug delivery could be in targeting "diseases in deep body locations," as in, the reproductive and gastrointestinal tracts.

    Gary Shteyngart: reality catches up to dystopian fiction

    Our modern-day Kafka on his new novel Lake Success and the dark comedy that in 2018 pretty much writes itself

    Technology & Innovation
    • riding the Greyhounds of hell, from New York to El Paso
    • the alternate reality of hedge fund traders
    Keep reading Show less

    How lifelong learning makes you shine in the job market

    Here's why the school you went to is less relevant than ever.

    • Learning agility is the ability to learn new things quickly and be aware of the trends that are emerging in your industry. It's the most important job skill hiring managers should be looking for and job seekers should be putting forward, says Kelly Palmer.
    • Want to test your learning agility? Answer this practice interview question: "What did you learn last week?"
    • Hiring people based on the school they went to is less relevant than ever. Why? Palmer explains: "If I asked you, "Tell me about your health," and you told me you ran a marathon 10 years ago, does that really tell me what your health is like? Not really." It's what you can offer now and how agile you are that matters.
    • Kelly Palmer is the author of The Expertise Economy.