drama and politics, now with less science!

August 28, 2012


After posting my review of how the current leaders of the skeptical movement are failing to lead and unite, I’ve been alerted to a new idea percolating around the Free Thought Blogs collective. It’s a brainchild of several bloggers notable in the feminist “civil war” being called Atheism+ and while it does pay some lip service to the need for scientific education and promoting skeptical inquiry, it’s primarily a social activism platform which isn’t too dissimilar from the agenda of many liberal political groups with the exception of equating atheism with good scientific education. Now, there’s much to be said for the positive aspects of non-belief, but in the agendas being outlined by Atheism+ the secular, non-theistic worldview is simply a vehicle to address social inequalities, particularly the kind we see in the typical post-modernist monologues; white male privilege.

Granted, the rants aren’t nearly as awful as the notion of complex physics equations expressing male nerds’ fear of women seen in the most egregious example of post-modernism tackled on this blog, but the concept seems to have some rather uncanny similarities. Basically, they posit, the atheist movement is now overburdened with holier-than-thou white men who condescend to women and minorities, pay too much attention to other white men whose books they read, and ignore the concerns of the women and minorities in their quest to lead the movement to the One True Atheism. Therefore, they continue, the only sensible course of action is to create the One Logical Atheism to counter it and demand equal rights for all women and minorities as part of the platform, call the whole thing Atheism+, and rhetorically marginalize critics by loudly wondering why they oppose equal rights and safe space for women and minorities when they question the wisdom of this splintering, regardless of whether the critics are women or minorities themselves. All right, I’m satirizing, true, but this is how the rhetoric has been shaped. Criticize them and you’re a monster and an apologist for rape, harassment, and white male privilege.

There is some truth in the fact that skeptical and atheist movements do have a disproportionate representation of white males between 18 and 50 and as all large homogenous groups tend to do, they don’t concern themselves with making others feel more welcome. Of course this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re just self-absorbed know-it-alls who only want to dictate the rules of atheism and skepticism to the unwashed masses with different skin color, genitalia, and sexual preferences. It just means they haven’t considered how to make sure they appear welcoming of others. The proper course of action is to highlight this issue and ask whether there’s something they’re doing that drives women and minorities away. And yes, that’s been tried. However, what followed all these attempts were litanies of complaints about all those white guys taking over the movement, harassing the womenfolk, and ignoring all the minorities around them by the virtue of being predominantly white and male.

How does this help? It only makes the problem worse! There were “privileged white males” like PZ Myers asking why the movement failed to attract a more diverse audience and the responses from self-promoted leaders of the atheist movement from the Skepchick/Atheist Feminist camp was to describe the whole group as a bunch of homogenous leering perverts. Gee, what woman, or ethnic or sexual minority would like to join what sounds like a country club for secularists? And what’s even worse is that when a legitimate, reasonable point was made, i.e. Rebecca Watson’s initial handling of Elevatorgate ending up as a simple suggestion that propositioning someone in an elevator is kind of creepy and probably shouldn’t be done, she and her friends would double down on the “ZOMG! Rape in potentia!” sensationalism put forth by PZ and Phil Plait. Who, by the way, were the while privileged men who supposedly care nothing about their plight. Suddenly, an aside about creepy behavior after last call at a skeptical conference turned into a cautionary story of a rape narrowly avoided and brought out all the worst insecurities in the movement.

Not only is this terrible leadership — if starting a huge fight over hook up protocol after 3 AM and triggering fights among your movement’s followers is not a leadership failure, I really don’t know what is — but it makes the very movement they’re trying to expand and diversify seem even less welcoming in the basest way possible. Instead a follow up such as “but despite this incident, the conference was great and we had a great crowd,” they allowed Elevatorgate to define skeptical conferences in general and the only criticism to which they chose to respond came from random vicious trolls spewing misogynistic obscenities. The impression was that the only people who had disagreements with their handling of the incident were women-hating throwbacks to the 1940s. Well shit, I can pull tricks like that too if I respond to creationists or fundamentalists commenting on this blog only when they declare that I’m an atheist solely because I’m a sexually compulsive drug addict neglected by his parents, rather than when they try to argue a point that raises some questions that have scientific answers.

And now, they not only want to control the discussion by removing what they say are threatening and abusive threads, and ridiculing their critics into submission, they’re hiding behind lofty social goals and declaring that you should either be with them or you’re an apologist for inequality and crass discrimination. It doesn’t matter if you agree that the atheist and skeptical movement does need to be more diverse, that women need be treated better in the STEM field, and that minority viewpoints should also have a platform, but see their handling of these issues as promoting a lot more division than unity. You become a persona non grata to be verbally drawn and quartered on the web, you will not be invited to conferences, and you will be marked with an e-scarlet letter that will make it difficult to become a professional activist in the very groups which seek to help women and minorities. You must become a yes-man or a yes-woman. You’re either on board or part of the problem. You’re with them or against them. It’s an attitude much better fit for a hyper-partisan PAC or a fundamentalist group than for scientific skeptics.

Of course the victim here is the scientific education. The goal now is not to teach good critical thinking skills. It’s to teach how to balance out the social inequalities, oh and with a little science on the side because as we’re being told, once you become an atheist, all other reasons to treat a person of a different gender or ethnicity would vanish with religion, as if bigotry and hate ever needed a concrete, metaphysical reason for existence. Certainly, the Deicide Doctrine played a large part in the persecution of Jews in Europe, but so did half-baked conspiracy theories about greedy Jewish bankers buying up Europe for their New World Order. True, the story of Eve was used to justify treating women like property but so many men also treated women as their sexual possessions because they could. And yes, the Bible was used to justify slavery and racism, but so was Galton’s pseudoscience which cast all non-well-to-do-WASPs as less evolved.

The point is that religion is the easiest justification for hatred to which a bigot can point and yes, it can be the sole reason for his or her hate. But to think that there’s no bigotry or discrimination in any mostly atheist society is folly. Just look at the Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in Denmark, a country where a majority of the population proudly declares itself as non-theists. Not all of it is driven by religious elements. Let’s face it, there are atheist bigots, sexists, and homophobes out there and they’re not going to be swayed by Atheism+ or its doctrine that religion lies at the root of discrimination. The root of discrimination is social isolation and constant encouragements to hold all those different as untrustworthy and malicious if given any rights or voices. The talking points are up to the bigots in question and they can range from conspiracies to divine invocation with a lot of other options in between. Let’s not pretend that atheism will show hate-mongers the way and the light by the power of rational skeptical inquiry.

With all that said, we circle back to the question of how teaching science will be the panacea for all these social concerns. In my little corner of the skeptical blogosphere, I’m writing mostly about futurism, technology, and bleeding edge physics that fascinate me. I write about this because it’s what I know, these are the areas where most of my education and professional experience lies, and my goal isn’t to advance a social agenda but to tell my readers something that makes them go “gee whiz, that’s cool” or “oh, so that’s how it would really work?” and come back for another dose of that. If Weird Things grew big enough to start and host its own meetups, I would expect the attendees to come wanting to talk about the science and skeptically parse futuristic bombast they recently heard. My goal is not to create a legion of atheists to go forth and shape the world to my liking, but to help teach the need for proper STEM education and to make more informed decisions and conclusions when it comes to this area of knowledge and exploration. Even more fundamentally, to make people think, especially if they disagree with me or start a debate.

Whatever happened to all that? Where has the skeptical blogosphere I wanted to join so much gone? The blogosphere in which we the skeptics doled out posts on topics we understood to get people interested and excited about science and appreciate the threats posed by ignorance and religious fanaticism to the key engines of our progress as a civilization, science and technology? Whatever happened to letting people get there themselves rather than blast them with invective or clog the newsfeeds with TMZ-worthy gossip of what goes on after hours in hotel bars between skeptics and who was mean to whom or who made whom cry?

I’m a skeptic because I had a lifetime fascination with science and built my toys out of Legos, hoping to grow up to work on something amazing. I’m an atheist because I never saw a need for religion in my life and my parents never dragged me to synagogues. I’m a blogger because I like writing and wanted to see what happened if I wrote for an audience. If you need me, I’ll be right here writing about quantum mechanics, AI, ANNs, and squaring off with the Less Wrongians and Singularitarians. I’m not going become an Atheist+ by being shamed into it by a small clique of people who take themselves way too seriously and who want to turn their dramas and personal agendas into my battles.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Share on StumbleUpon
  • stakkalee

    Mr. Fish, I’ve been debating with myself whether to respond to this post; I read your last one, and although I disagreed with it, there was nothing in it that was too objectionable, beyond a seeming tendency to exaggerate for comedic effect. However, this latest post contains a variety of claims that I feel need more thorough examination.

    1) Do you think characterizing all post-modernist monologues addressing WMP as ‘rants’ is fair?

    2) In your second paragraph you claim that ‘they’ (presumably those pushing Atheism+) respond to critics by ‘rhetorically marginalizing them.’ Who is doing this rhetorical marginalization? Are we talking about bloggers or about commenters? Also, criticism of which people will get you tagged as a “monster and an apologist for rape…” etc.?

    3) When raising these issues has been tried in the past, who responded with a ‘litany of complaints?’ Again, are we talking bloggers or commenters? Also, do you think these complaints are invalid in the context of creating a more diverse movement?

    4) Do you really want to characterize the whole SkepChick response to questions of diversity in the movement as “describ[ing] the whole group as a bunch of homogenous leering perverts”? As I recall, the SkepChicks originally formed as a way to raise money to send more women to TAM.

    5) By ‘rape in potentia’ are you referring to Schroedinger’s Rapist? If so, I think characterizing it as sensationalism is wrong – the article is simply an explanation of the concerns many women need to keep in mind just to navigate their daily lives. Also, I’ve never read anyone characterize the ElevatorGate incident as a ‘rape narrowly avoided’; I don’t believe anyone has claimed that Rebecca was in any danger during the initial incident.

    6) Who has allowed the ElevatorGate controversy to define skeptical conferences in any way? Again, my understanding is that in response to the initial incident the SkepChicks started a push to have anti-harrassment policies in-place at skeptical conferences, a push which has resulted in many conferences now having anti-harrassment policies. Rebecca Watson did give an interview where she points out that skeptical conferences aren’t ‘safe spaces’, but she was using ‘safe space’ in the feminist sense, for a space where a person’s emotional as well as physical well-being is protected.

    7) Who, apart from Richard Carrier, has shown a “With Us or Against Us” attitude? Again, are we talking bloggers or commenters? Also, I’ll point out that Carrier has moderated his point and apologized for some of the dismissive language he used in his original post.

    8) Your point that misogyny and racism exist independent of religious belief is a good one; has anyone claimed that atheists as a group have a lesser rate of incidence of these attitudes? Or are you calling the Atheist+ folks bigots for hating on people with valid criticism?

    9) Your goal of fostering critical-thinking skills is laudable. If other atheists have different goals, perhaps even the goal of ‘creat[ing] a legion of atheists to go forth and shape the world’ why does that matter to you? Do you disagree with the world the Atheist+ folks are trying to shape?

    10) Why do you feel like people are trying to shame you into joining this movement? As I understand, most of the proponents have been quite clear this is an ‘opt-in’ movement – if you agree with the (currently amorphous) goals of Atheism+, join up! If you don’t, do you plan to stand in their way? On which issues?

    Thanks for reading. I look forward to your responses.

  • Brett

    I wouldn’t worry too much about the Atheist+ label becoming permanent. There simply aren’t enough vocal atheists out there in the US for us to start playing identity politics and “get rid of the bigots” without it leading to a stifling, stagnant echo chamber that only makes the atheist community weaker.

    That’s really the root of the problem with these kinds of identity arguments. Atheists in the US are still a distrusted minority, and so when we have common goals across otherwise diverse political, social, and economic groups, we need to work on them for the greater good instead of all the infighting. For example, I thought the late Christopher Hitchens’ politics were repugnant, but that didn’t stop me from supporting his fights on behalf of atheism and secularism.

  • Greg Fish

    @stakkalee, Mr. Fish? My, how formal. Greg will be more than adequate. As for your points…

    1. I didn’t say that all post-modernist treatises of white male privilege are rants, I was comparing the rants calling for the establishment of Atheism+ as the preeminent orthodoxy at FTB to these pieces.

    2. The rhetorical marginalization was already described as the Skepchics, particularly Rebecca Watson choosing only to respond to the most egregious insults she got rather than more nuanced points. The same also happened among the commenters who support this approach. You can see the this from Jen McCreight and Greta Christina too as they’re busy relaying every time they were called an “ugly c**t” or a “rabid femnazi.” And as for trying to portray critics as apologists for rape or bigotry, take another look at Richard Carrier badgering his detractors as to why exactly they won’t support an anti-discriminatory activist agenda when they’re trying to offer pointed criticism and questioning the wisdom of driving a wedge into the movement.

    3. The litany of complaints flowed from the previously noted usual suspects and their fans.

    4. No, I don’t want to characterize all of it as such. You’re putting words in my mouth. But after the Elevatorgate caper, that line of argument got more and more pervasive as Watson took to every platform she had to battle the critics of how she handled Dawkins’ response. In you note, I actually call her original complaint as perfectly legitimate and fair, but the response to Dawkins et al. as a doubling down on hyperbole.

    5. Schroedinger’s Rapist is a horrible analogy. As I said to its author personally, all of us have to live with a Schroedinger’s something. When I walk to my office I could be kidnapped by terrorists, robbed by a gang, beaten by thugs, stabbed by a serial killer, ran over by a drunk driver, etc. This is basically Stranger Danger, rape edition. As for Elevatorgate being characterized as narrowly avoided rape see Phil Plait and PZ on the subject. They in no uncertain terms say that Watson could have been raped and that such sexual assaults are rampant, therefore Dawkins’ dismissal of what happened to her was callous and she could well have been sexually assaulted.

    6. Did you notice that you answered your own question there? In all the sexual harassment policies, Elevatorgate mentions were front and center in posts pushing for them. As for the safe spaces thing, that bothers me even more. I can get 117% behind an effort to get rid of creeps at conferences and beef up security for women who feel threatened. Hell, make it 127%. But when we’re now also talking about making sure no one’s feelings get hurt too, we’re crossing the line from safety and security to censorship and mollycoddling. As skeptics, we’re supposed to be about vigorous debate, not creating an all-accepting utopia of good vibes.

    7. Let’s see… There’s Jen McCreight, Greta Christina, Natalie Reed, and of course Carrier. They’re off making new logos, a new site, and so on. The most recent post on McCreight’s blog? A tweet from a woman skeptic saying that she’s never been harassed by male atheists and skeptics and hinting that probably not all of them are misogynists being called full of shit and a front for Dawkins. Carrier’s apologies are meaningless at this point and his use of moderation to make himself look better after the fact speaks volumes to me. Very negative volumes.

    8. Carrier’s post claims that once you take away religion, you take away the justifications for hate and bigotry. As for your second question on this point, you’re just trying to cram words in my mouth.

    9. My beef with the Atheism+ folks is that they’re overreaching and being aggressive to a fault. When you declare that a new movement must be started because the old one is broken, you’re diving those with common goals, not uniting them under the same banner.

    10. Yes, Atheism+ is “opt-in.” I mean, as per Carrier and McCreight, why wouldn’t we join? Don’t we support the end of misogyny, bigotry, and discrimination against secularists and atheists?

  • Greg, thanks for posting this. I’ve had a detailed post in the works for some time now, addressing the hyperbole and outright hypocrisy of too many feminist-related discussions, and have never finished it off to my liking.

    Unfortunately, the diligence and careful considerations applied to such topics as alternative medicine and paranormal experiences are nowhere to be found in most of the feminist discussions that I’ve seen, and I actually stopped reading two blogs solely because of the ridiculous responses to making these points. While most people who call themselves skeptics would react strongly to any argument stemming from emotional appeals and anecdotal evidence, somehow the same cannot be applied to feminism without a shitstorm of word-twisting, accusations, and slippery-slope arguments. The blatant polarization of the topic is pathetic, and only serves to diminish the efforts to address real concerns about equality and bias.

    When I worked for a humane society, organizations such as PETA were the thorn in our side; even though we had nothing whatsoever to do with such extremism, what remains in people’s minds are the ridiculous accounts and tactics, and they tend to paint all humane efforts with the same brush. I see the potential for focused, legitimate efforts to ensure gender equality to become overwhelmed by movements that cater to creating victims from the affronted, which is something that completely destroys the definition of ‘victim.’

  • Johnny

    I for one don’t understand the focus on atheism. It’s an important and interesting question, but it’s not the only one out there. My impression of Dawkins, despite that he is probably most well-known for being an atheist advocate, is that he is a scientist first, atheist second (as an outcome of his scientific understanding of the world, especially evolution). Honestly, I think that makes the most sense rather than focusing on what atheists should and shouldn’t do. Being in favor of skepticism and science will likely make you an atheist, but it’s not necessarily the case that an atheist will favor skepticism and science (Bill Maher).

    Living in Europe, I do think that western Europe (and even more so eastern Europe) is more racist than the US on a general level. Particularly so against Gypsies but also against Jews. I don’t know if Denmark deserves to get singled out though. European countries are founded on ethnicities (they are classical nation-states), the US not so.

  • Sam

    I first visited the Atheism+ forums, and then after conducting a little google powered sleuthing to read up on “elevatorgate” I was eventually lead me to your blog. I have to say that I find the entire affair laughable. The calls of sexism due to a probably inebriated man politely propositioning a woman after a night of drinking reeks of American puritanical thought in a feminist suit. While I am sure the conversation was awkward for both involved, the one who propositioned wasn’t insulting, didn’t touch or block Watson from leaving, and respected her decision. While it may of been unpleasant for Watson to receive an unsolicited invitation, and perhaps a little disconcerting as they were alone, that is the cost of human social interaction and is unavoidable due to the inability of our species to read minds. Watson seems to be uncomfortable with sex or male attention in general.

    I think what this debate really boils down to is that some in the atheist movement will never be happy, either because they are anti-everything or because they feel the need to make a name for themselves by way of extremist hair-splitting criticism. Unfortunately the side-effect is that atheists will only be taken even less seriously.