Why the Petition Matters

Earlier this week, I posted a petition asking the leaders of atheist and secular organizations to support feminism and measures to improve diversity and stop harassment. The petition went up at 9:30 PM on Thursday night, and as of this writing, on Saturday night, it has around 1,300 signatures and is still accumulating more at a healthy clip. I think that's a very good response, and I'm grateful for the attention it's gotten and the many messages of support people have left along with their signatures. If you've signed already, thank you! You're the people who give me hope for the secular community.

Of course, not everyone is impressed. Here's a troll comment that was posted on Change.org:

"I'm signing this petition because why the fuck not? The First World Problems-contingent in the atheist movement is hemhorraging fans anyway, as demonstrated by the anemic support for this petition. You'd think their putative millions of fans would make a bigger impact. Or maybe they're just lazy."

So, this particular hater thinks that 1,000+ signatures in a day for an anti-sexism petition is "anemic support". But that begs the question: compared to what?

I can suggest a point of comparison. Let's examine the site that's probably the largest and most prominent den of sexist and misogynist atheists, a forum that proudly calls itself the Slymepit. I did a WHOIS lookup, which shows that the domain name was registered on July 3, 2012. And in all that time, how many members does that forum have?

Total posts 49115 • Total topics 204 • Total members 495

So, in less than 48 hours, my little petition has attracted more than twice as many supporters as the Slymepit has garnered in six months. Granted, some of the signatures came from obvious trolls like the one quoted above, but on the other hand, we also can't assume that everyone who's registered on the Slymepit supports its goals.

This is the same pattern we see elsewhere. The AtheismPlus.com forum, which was registered on August 19 last year, has 2,400 members, almost five times more people than the slime. The r/atheismplus forum on Reddit has 2,600 subscribers, whereas the r/antiatheismplus one boasts the grand total of 250. In every case, the atheists who support social justice are the large majority, whereas the hateful trolls are a minority - vindictive and vociferous, yes, but a small minority nonetheless. They can harass and bully individuals, but they have no broad appeal or power to shape the direction of the secular movement.

And this matters all the more because of something I didn't even know about when I created the petition, something that Stephanie Zvan brought to my attention: later this month, there's going to be a meeting of the heads of secular and freethought organizations, appropriately called HEADS. Among other things, they'll be discussing issues of feminism and diversity in our community and what steps atheist groups should be taking to address them.

This makes it even more important to prove that there's strong grassroots support for making the secular community a more diverse, welcoming, and inclusive place. It shows our leaders that this is something the rank and file wants, by large margins, and it means that going into the HEADS summit, those who've already spoken out against sexism will have the wind at their backs. An ever-greater focus on social justice is the future of the atheist movement, and that's a development to be welcomed!

Image credit: Shutterstock

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