As skeptics, atheists and humanists prepare to gather for their largest meeting in Las Vegas this weekend, attendance by women is expected to be down significantly.
But in the weeks preceding TAM, another possible explanation has roiled the nontheist community. Online forums have crackled with charges of sexism in TAM’s leadership and calls for the ouster of D.J. Grothe, the male president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, TAM’s organizer. In June, Rebecca Watson, a skeptic blogger and speaker, canceled her TAM appearance because, she said on her blog, she does “not feel welcome or safe.”
Other nontheists — both male and female — have shared stories of unwanted sexual attention at nontheist gatherings, including propositions for sex and unwelcome touching. Chatter has ranged from calls for more women to attend nontheist events to personal attacks on prominent female skeptics for discussing harassment. Meanwhile, two more skeptic/feminist bloggers announced they will not attend TAM.
Last year, at another skeptic conference, Watson said she was approached late at night in an elevator by a man she believed was seeking sex. When she blogged about it, the “atheosphere” erupted in comments, both supportive and negative. British biologist Richard Dawkins, the best-selling author of “The God Delusion,” wrote that Watson should “stop whining” and “grow a thicker skin.”
“We are a small movement, so it might be very important for some men and women to find a partner who shares their beliefs,” said Maggie Ardiente, director of development for the American Humanist Association, which recently adopted a sexual harassment policy. “That does not mean sexual attention, when it is clearly rejected, is allowed. We need to be clear that these events are a great way to meet people, but there are appropriate ways to conduct yourselves. There are common-sense ways to address this for both men and women.”