More Observations on the “atheist/skeptic movement”

From another atheist:

There’s a subculture with a healthy Internet presence, centered around passionate advocacy for a particular ideological cause. It has several popular male leaders. These men enjoy comfortable jobs, speaking engagements and publishing credits. That places them in a position of power in this subculture, and they’ve got the dedicated followers to prove it.

And then these leaders are accused of abuse: sustained sexual harassment, even rape, all directed at women, an under-represented demographic in this community. Rather than treat these allegations with respect and serious inquiry, there is backlash. These women, people say, are sluts. They are liars. They exaggerate. They can’t take a joke. They shouldn’t have been drinking. Their allies are traitors. They should be sued.
[….]
The subculture in question is the mainstream atheist/skeptic movement, as it exists in the United States. I’m referring, specifically, to the backlash now facing Karen Stollznow, Carrie Poppy, and other survivors, in addition to their allies, like PZ Myers.
[…]
I didn’t accuse Shermer or anyone else of rape. I said, simply, that I was disturbed by Stefanelli’s post for the reasons I described above.
Cue the abuse. I got immediately swarmed by atheist anti-feminist men and the situation escalated until one of them threatened to kill me. Several times, in fact. Al’s since deleted the threats, but as far as I know, he still acknowledges that the threats were made. The person making the threats is possibly unwell; he also told me he’s a genetically engineered soldier. But that doesn’t make me feel any better about the fact that someone repeatedly threatened to kill me.

Which seems reasonable–unless you’re EllenBeth Wachs. Wachs, who identifies herself as the past president of the Florida Humanists Association, told me I’d brought the death threats upon myself for being so easy to troll. She repeated those statements on Twitter. I’m not sure why Wachs is so convinced the person was joking; there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that’s the case. I have no idea if I was being trolled or not, but ultimately this doesn’t matter: making death threats crosses a line. It’s never funny. It’s totally inappropriate behavior and if Wachs was in the least bit invested in actual rationality, rather than the fevered defense of Michael Shermer, she would have acknowledged that.

But she hasn’t. She still thinks it’s hilarious that someone threatened to kill me and the abuse didn’t end there. Shocked that I called her behavior sociopathic, she demanded an apology–for obvious reasons, she didn’t get it. And that’s when she name-dropped my boss and threatened to call him.

Summary: she laughed at me for getting threats, told me I deserved it, then threatened my job.

Y’know, when atheist activists used/use tactics like these against religious people, they high five each other. But when they use them against each other, then there is a problem.

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6 Responses to More Observations on the “atheist/skeptic movement”

  1. I am a member of the atheist/skeptic community and I find myself at odds with the very people you mention. The issues are many and they are complex, and you touch on one tiny fragment of the whole.
    But I think that despite the over simplification of the issue here, you hit upon an underlying factor that nobody seems to be addressing: that atheists do tend to be rather uncivil towards those who disagree with them. I’m not necessarily making a sweeping generalization, because I’m quite certain that most atheists don’t behave that way, but those who are the most vocal do seem prone to overuse of ridicule and expressions of contempt. This has always bothered me, even when the ridicule and contempt was being consistently leveled at religion.

    I prefer to think of our movement as a debate, and name calling, making threats, and alienating those who disagree are not good debating tactics. And, let’s be honest here, they’re also not very nice things to do. Every person deserves to be treated with a modicum of respect, no matter how ridiculous their beliefs or actions are. I find it morally reprehensible to act in the way many of my fellow atheists and skeptics have acted on both sides, and find myself neatly tucked into the vast gray area that spans the gulf between the two sets of extremists.

    There is hope, though. Because like any movement, the people you read about are the ones that make the most noise and behave outlandishly. But the extremists on both sides of the issue are a small but vocal minority, and I see this issue evaporating in the future as we all learn from the mistakes of the past. Despite the fact that I am in disagreement with the feminists on a number of issues, I have stated publicly and even in private emails to some of the offended parties that I feel horrible that they have received such treatment from obviously deranged individuals. I am so sorry these threats and horrible things have been said.

    However, in the interests of fairness, I might offer the advice that you seem unaware of the nature and scope of this disagreement. It is not about fair treatment of women, as this is a given on both sides of the issue. It is about something much more fundamental. I’ll let you do the research to determine it for yourself.

    If you’d like to read about the recent rape allegations, I have compiled an posted a comprehensive list of the “evidence” on my blog which might prove helpful. I think if you read that you’ll see that this schism isn’t about the treatment of women at all, it is about the dogmatic insistence that a particular ideology be adopted by the entire movement, despite its obvious flaws. Thank you.

  2. TFBW says:

    … I see this issue evaporating in the future as we all learn from the mistakes of the past.

    That’s jolly optimistic of you. Is there any evidence that we learn, in an enduring sense, from the mistakes of the past? It seems to me that errors follow a cycle of fashion. Our predisposition to chronological snobbery means that we tend to regard “old” as “quaint”, “outmoded”, or “obsolete”, and by implication “false”, regardless of the actual value of the idea in question. It’s standard practice for New Atheists to disparage the Bible on the basis of its vintage, for example. We might learn from the mistakes of the immediate past, but the immediate past doesn’t stay immediate for long, and the mistakes thus become ripe for repetition.

  3. Well, I don’t think anyone disparages the Bible based on its vintage as there are so many other more devastating ways in which to disparage it (speaking of the Bible as the inspired word, not as literature)

    But the rest of your point is probably somewhat valid. I am an optimist, to be sure. And it may be that in another generation a similar schism will flare up in our ranks, but that is their battle to fight. But to say that a movement cannot learn from its mistakes is short sighted. As an example, the fact that a century ago hearing sermons about hellfire was common and now it is barely whispered in most churches. I consider that an adjustment made to circumstance. I’m sure we atheists are up to the task.

  4. Crude says:

    Well, I don’t think anyone disparages the Bible based on its vintage

    I have lost count of the number of times I’ve encountered New Atheists specifically attacking the bible on the basis that it was written thousands of years ago.

    As an example, the fact that a century ago hearing sermons about hellfire was common and now it is barely whispered in most churches.

    According to what data do you make this claim?

    And frankly – while I applaud your polite manner – there’s one error you’re making, which I see made again and again:

    I’m not necessarily making a sweeping generalization, because I’m quite certain that most atheists don’t behave that way, but those who are the most vocal do seem prone to overuse of ridicule and expressions of contempt.

    I’ve run into this before – the claim that most atheists are very civil, polite, and respectful of people who disagree with them. It’s just these ‘louder’ atheists who are making a bad name for atheists.

    The problem is… whoever this large group of atheists is, they seem remarkably unconcerned with their leadership having, even as a stated rule, an utter lack of civility and respect for people who disagree with them.

    The polite, calm, civil atheists don’t raise a fuss when PZ Myers gets awards from major atheist groups. They didn’t care when Bill Maher was given awards, or Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens. They didn’t object to Blasphemy Day, they didn’t seem too concerned when Kurtz was run out of his organization for objecting to the insulting methods of the new leadership. Whoever these atheists are who value civility, politeness, and courtesy, they seem collectively willing to tolerate the continuation of Madelyn Murray O’Hair’s approach to these discussions – apparently, the movement needs more than 20 years to learn its lessons.

    Now, you can turn around and tell me that sure, most atheists don’t care about these organizations – but that’s because they’re not a part of them, or really, any organizations. They’re just atheist individuals who ignore what all the actual atheist organizations are up to. But at that point, any optimism about atheists collectively ‘changing’ in the forseeable future should be dashed: the very people you’re relying on to be a source of change happen to be the ones who are the most apathetic about the entire ‘movement’.

    You used the example of ‘a hundred years ago’. But the funny thing is, a hundred years ago, anti-theist atheists were pretty much behaving exactly the way they are right now. Granted, things got a lot more dire at that time due to the political power they picked up – but everything down to the championing of science, the casting of religious people as insane, irrational, or even dangerous, was all there. The fact that most outspoken atheists aren’t even willing to owe up to the recent history of anti-theism at all, and certainly don’t seem to have learned from it, isn’t exactly encouraging.

  5. Michael says:

    I think Crude is right. The problem with the atheist movement is that it is founded on hate. It’s one thing to argue that God does not exist or there should be separation of church and state. It’s quite a different thing to demonize and dehumanize religious people, implying religious parents are child abusers and insisting they are mentally ill (just two examples). Those latter claims have a long, bloody history that the atheist movement refuses to acknowledge.

    My blog posting has two sentences from me: Y’know, when atheist activists used/use tactics like these against religious people, they high five each other. But when they use them against each other, then there is a problem.

    HM does not like it when PZ Myers slimes another atheist/skeptic. But does he really think PZ has changed? He has always been the same PZ Myers, but back in the good ol’ days, he mostly slimed the religious. Since PZ is now using the very tactics against other atheists that made him famous as an atheist, suddenly, we have a problem. If atheists cannot oppose such tactics on principle, but only oppose them when their portion of the movement is getting skewered, then there is no reason for optimism. What’s more, there are atheists who oppose such tactics – they are ridiculed as “accomodationists” by the entire atheist movement.

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