Lyz Liddell reached out to me to talk about the Reason Rally, including the concerns I had about diversity and the response I got regarding the current line-up. We agreed to do a written interview. Here on, everything italics is me, otherwise, it’s her.
Hi! I’m Lyz Liddell, the Executive Director of the Reason Rally Coalition. My job is, first and foremost (and almost exclusively) the coordination of the 2016 Reason Rally. Prior to this position I was a staff member at the Secular Student Alliance, directing the organization’s programs for more than seven years – my most recent success being the Openly Secular campaign. I’ve been involved in the secular movement for more than a decade — since grad school — and a secular American for most of my life.
Ashley’s blog postwent up on January 15, while I was living out of a suitcase doing site visits for the Reason Rally. But I knew that she had a pretty good point, and so I reached out to her. I really appreciate Ashley’s response to that outreach, and her offer to do this written interview. She and I both want the Reason Rally to be successful and we both support the secular community. So we decided to get out here and chat about it a bit.
I sent a web form message to Reason Rally expressing concern about the people who were speaking and their ability to appeal to a broad base of non-believers. I thought, especially with both Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins in the line up, that they might need a nudge to understand that they were turning off a lot of potential attendees. They should consider finding more women and people of color to speak. I submitted it via web form quite a while ago, so I don’t remember the wording exactly, but that was the gist — be more inclusive, add diversity, get a bigger audience.
This is the email I got back.
Thank you for your interest in Reason Really. We appreciate your concerns regarding minority speakers. Please visit the website to view the 7 confirmed speakers thus far.
You mention James Randi, who is homosexual. Of the remaining 6 confirmed speakers, 3 are women, and Lawrence Krauss was raised Jewish. At this moment, the 7 speakers are 71% minority and 42% female.
Of course, we are always striving to improve and hope to bring a diverse and interesting variety of personalities together in an effort to appeal to a very wide audience.
Atheists, we need to talk. We need to talk about our tendency to think we are better than other people and better than religious people in particular. We need to talk about how we think that religion is the reason that bad things happen in the world. We need to talk about our culture of turning a blind eye towards the despicable behavior we see among ourselves. All of those things we do are exactly the problem with the religious institutions we hate: tribalism at the cost of morality.
Reason without decency is useless. If it’s unreasonable for the pope to hide rapists, why do we accept it from our organizations? If it’s unreasonable for the Catholic Church to trivialize child molestation, why do we accept it from our supposed leaders? If we don’t like Christian politicians peddling untrue stereotypes of Muslims, why are we ok with it when it comes from bestselling atheist authors? Atheists heal thyself.
There is anger and fear from atheists today upon the revelation that the most recent of the mass shooters in America was a non-believer who targeted Christians. They will blame us, they will think this is all atheists, they will think we are all the same as him.
Yes. They will. Just like we do to Muslims and Christians. “Oh look,” we smirk, “another religious person killing a dozen people. Just goes to show religion poisons everything.”
Hitchens was wrong. Human institutions and tribalism poison everything, regardless of creed, and atheism is no different. Radical atheists who want to kill people are not different from radical Christians and Muslims doing the same thing.
This is not the first atheist shooter, there have been many throughout history. Earlier this year, Craig Hicks took the lives of three brilliant humanitarian Muslims over a parking dispute. Atheists tried to distance themselves and label him as “anti-theist” and others thought he was secretly really a Christian. Still others labeled him as a redneck from NRA-land, because hatred of the ignorant South is acceptable among educated atheists. I am sure atheists will be eager to point out that the current shooter was a Republican and No True Atheist.
I don’t know enough about the current shooter to say. But Craig Hicks was a typical atheist until he pulled the trigger. He was friends with a lot of atheists on Facebook, we had many mutual friends. If you went through his Facebook feed, he did not come off as an Islamophobe or a racist or someone likely to go on a shooting spree. The guy acted like literally hundreds of atheists I know on Facebook. The majority of his posts were reposting things from George Takei. He was friends with feminist activists. He hated right-wingers and country music, but loved Obamacare.
He was one of us. So was the shooter yesterday.
I want us not to flinch away from that fact, because it’s not useful to us to ignore it. Stop with your buts and your wells and whatever you want to add, just sit with it and live with it for a minute. Let it make you uncomfortable.
Atheism can motivate terrible crimes, just like religion can. This is a thing we have to get used to. Atheists are so used to being exceptional, to being smarter and less criminal than other Americans, that the fact that someone was an atheist and did a bad thing seems to be exceedingly difficult for us to understand. Atheist exceptionalism cannot survive the exponential growth of atheism — all atheists are not better than all religious people.
Furthermore, the atheist community is culpable of spreading bad ideas. We share memes and the belief that religious people are bad and that all religions and expressions of those religions are bad. That people who are religious aren’t worthwhile and are certainly too stupid to be respected. We dehumanize people who disagree with us instead of arguing about ideas. This is because we are human, but we have to guard against. Atheism itself doesn’t create these ideas, but atheist culture does — just like religions don’t encourage the bombing of abortion clinics, but some religious culture does.
My article, “The Non-Religious Patriarchy,” delved into why removing religion did not remove sexism from the atheist movement, but we have to remember that removing religion is not going to remove any basic human behavior or system of power. Humans are tribal, humans are sometimes sociopaths, humans are power-hungry, humans get angry. The atheist demographic being dominated by young white men means that it’s not surprising that there are mass shooters who are atheists, shooters are predominately young white men (the Oregon shooter was mixed race).
Atheism is a rejection of a belief, but it is not a philosophy or creed. The atheist community online builds up creeds and philosophies in light of that absence. It is reactionary. Many of us have come from environments that were hostile to our non-belief and so we respond with hostility to the kind of beliefs and people who were responsible for our unhappiness. We, like nerds have always done, take refuge in our intellectual superiority to salve wounds of rejection and, in doing so, think other people are less worthy than we are.
We have to let it go. We have to stop thinking we are better than other people just because we know something they don’t — that’s exactly why religious people act the way they do. We aren’t better than anybody and we never were.
If you’re at all interested in how Dylann Roof decided to murder 9 black churchgoers, the internet has discovered his manifesto.
One of the most interesting things about it, though not at all surprising, is that internet hate sites were key to Roof’s development of racial animosity. He claims he was raised in a non-racist household and in a mostly non-racist environment.
The event that truly awakened me was the Trayvon Martin case. I kept hearing and seeing his name, and eventually I decided to look him up. I read the Wikipedia article and right away I was unable to understand what the big deal was. It was obvious that Zimmerman was in the right. But more importantly this prompted me to type in the words “black on White crime” into Google, and I have never been the same since that day. The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens. There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was very wrong. How could the news be blowing up the Trayvon Martin case while hundreds of these black on White murders got ignored?
The Council of Conservative Citizens was formerly the White Citizens Council. They are dedicated to the separation and segregation of the races. The first post on their website today is them mourning the loss of the 9 lives in Charleston. An early post says this (they obviously haven’t seen the manifesto yet):
It is Secular Students Week this week — which means I get to share an interview with one of the students and I share with you that they’re fundraising! The SSA is trying to get 500 donations by the end of June 17 to unlock a $20,000 challenge grant — the great thing about this goal is that it’s about how many people give, not about how much they give, meaning that everyone can have a big impact regardless of how much they can give.
I was a member of the SSA as a PhD student, it’s responsible for my meeting many amazing activists, including my fiancé, and I am now on the board of the organization to help it meet its goal of being more social justice oriented.
If you’re looking to understand the work that SSA is doing on the ground and how it’s helping students, one of the Secular Student Alliance’s scholarship winners from last year, Kendall Lovely, took some time to talk about the scholarship, her activism, and the SSA. It’s an interesting read whether you’re interested in donating or not, and I’m particularly excited about the way Kendall is dedicated to both secularism and feminism in her activism. Close to my heart!
Why did you apply for a scholarship from the Secular Student Alliance?
I was looking for outside sources of funding, just enough to get through graduate school applications, and I thought that I could make a case for my activism through the SSA scholarship. I don’t often come across scholarships out there specific to the sort of organizations that I’m involved with as a secular person and a feminist, so I decided to give this one a try.
How has getting an SSA Scholarship helped you with your activism?
Crash Course is one of my favorite things in the universe. Before they were on Patreon, I supported them on Subbable, and before they were on Subbable I supported them by watching everything they produced on YouTube and evangelizing to my friends. It is run by John and Hank Green, the Vlogbrothers, and my personal heroes. I highly, highly recommend their history courses.
We create free, high-quality educational videos used by teachers and learners of all kinds. That’s all we want to do. After 200,000,000 views, it turns out people like this. And our videos aren’t just for schools; the majority of our viewers, around 60% – 70%, watch Crash Course without being currently enrolled in an associated class.
So far, we’ve taught Chemistry, World History, Biology, Ecology, US History, Psychology, Big History, Literature, and we’re in the middle of Anatomy and Physiology, Astronomy, US Government, and World History (again.)
I have been holding my breath for, I don’t know, maybe a month, waiting for Taslima to get to the US. It’s been in discussion for a while, but it was made to happen only recently. Taslima was named as a target by the same people who’ve killed 3 Bangladeshi atheist bloggers and I’m so, so excited that we got her safe. It was a covert rescue operation, and it was successful.
Of course, Taslima is now in the US without a job and relying on the support of atheists for her basic needs. The CFI is raising money to help support her and, once they’ve met the financial goal for that, they’re going to put the money towards getting more atheist bloggers out of unsafe spaces. The tragedy, of course, is that we’ll never be able to raise the money to get everyone out who is in danger, but no one deserves to be killed for their beliefs.
Because of the very real danger to her life, Taslima has decided to leave India. We at the Center for Inquiry are doing all we can to keep her out of harm’s way. But we need your help.
Please give now so we can help Taslima and other courageous defenders of free expression and secularism.
If we raise more than is needed for Taslima, we will use the remainder to establish an emergency fund to help assist other dissidents in similarly perilous situations. Without going into detail, CFI has already been contacted by other writers on the subcontinent who have received threats against their lives and who have requested assistance. We are withholding their names for their own safety.
This was too long to fit on Twitter and I didn’t want to take to your comments section.
I recognize that you don’t owe me a response, and I feel like you are almost certainly working on one, but I would like to discuss the fact that you saw fit to respond to Richard Carrier before you responded to the “more considered posts” by me, M. A. Melby, or Secular Woman. It’s worth pointing out that you haven’t entirely ignored M. A. Melby’s post because of “having” to respond to Richard Carrier, just the “quite reasonable,” as you put it, part of it. I would like to highlight the not unreasonable conclusion that one could draw, that indeed we were already discussing: You prioritize getting into petty internet fights about tone over everything else. In this case, you prioritize getting into petty internet fights about tone over serious-minded discussion about an accused rapist in the movement.
You’ve sat with our discussion for over a week now. There are nearly 1000 comments between the two blog posts on my site about this topic. Two other women have chosen to write about this. And done so in a tone that is much more to your preference than the tone of Mr. Carrier. And yet you choose to write a blog not in response to the women who are trying to have a discussion with you about something that they are deeply concerned about, who are writing in what you consider an appropriate tone. You choose instead to respond to a blog post written by a man relying heavily on the posts written by those women — indeed over half his post is dedicated to linking to the other sources on which he’s based his post. You choose to prove the point that if one writes in an aggressive tone, one will get attention and responses, while if one writes in a reasonable tone, one will be put on hold. I now wonder if I might have gotten a faster blog response if I’d written in a less reasonable tone myself.
And I get it, that’s an easy 3000 words to write, just like it’s easier to write 3000 angry words calling someone a fuckhead than it is to write something nuanced. But I think in choosing to respond to the angry tone instead of the nuanced tone you’re guilty of promoting the same thing you’re saying you’re against.
Mr. Nugent, you also state at the beginning of the article that you “have to” respond because of how Mr. Carrier has portrayed you and Atheist Ireland. You really didn’t. You chose to. There are always going to be people misrepresenting you on the internet. There are always going to be people whose tone you’re going to want to correct. There’s always some new fight to be had if you’re itching to write 3000 words about how someone is wrong on the internet. And, to be clear, you chose to respond to that one. And that’s fine, but I want you to understand the message that all of this sends, because it’s the same message you were already sending: Michael Nugent cares more about tone than he does about women.
I don’t think that’s the message you want to be sending, based on the mission of Atheist Ireland, I know it’s not.
ETA from comment below: The point of this, like the previous posts, is not that Michael Nugent is a bad guy. It’s that he keeps doing things online that make him look like a bad guy and he’s either unaware of them, in which case hopefully writing them out calmly in a blog post and explaining why they look how they look will help him understand why people see them the way they do, or he doesn’t care about the people who are interpreting his actions that way and he’d just as soon write them off as engage with them, in which case I think his tone arguments are hypocritical. Either way, I don’t see a course of action for myself that is more rational than to call his attention to the interpretations and see what he makes of them.
I wanted to respond at length to both Michael Nugent, who I’ve spoken with over Twitter, and to many commenters who agree with him in the previous post and on Twitter.
I don’t have a problem with Michael Nugent’s distaste for PZ’s tone. I don’t agree in general, though like Nugent, I found PZ to be lacking in his posts about Dawkin’s childhood sex abuse and Robin Williams’ suicide. PZ has always been a pit bull, and it generally gives his posts clarity and humor, both of which I appreciate. But, I don’t really care if you hate that, that’s fine, to each his own.
I also don’t really have a problem with Atheist Ireland’s dissociation with PZ. Again, freedom of association, to each their own. I do think that, while they’ve made an exhaustive list of why they don’t like his tone, they’ve failed entirely to even try to make a case as to why an American blogger’s tone has any relevance to the work they are doing. I’m not sure what harm PZ has actually caused to Atheist Ireland, beyond making Michael Nugent very unhappy. Why Atheist Ireland’s agenda includes breaking up with bloggers is beyond me.
The problem I have with Michael Nugent fundamentally boils down to his 9/17/14 blog post in which he equivalizes his complaints about PZ’s tone in his posts to PZ agreeing to post a firsthand account of rape in which the victim names her rapist. This post by Nugent is in response to a lengthy, in-depth article by well-respected journalist Mark Oppenheimer, known for his work at the New York Times, in which Oppenheimer details multiple accusations of misbehavior on the part of Michael Shermer.
Edits from earlier versions: Two major edits from information sent to me via Twitter by people who were, I think, trying to be hostile, but who I appreciate sending me the information. Ron Lindsay did not ask Rebecca Watson to take down her post, he asked her to reword it and the link to his post has been reworded to reflect that; this was a misremembrance on my part. The second is that I added screencaps and reworded the description of the Slymepit to be more accurate. The inaccuracy previously was the suggestion that they stalked people’s hospitals, which seems to be a game of telephone garbled interpretation I heard of an event that is linked to, in which they took PZ’s hospitalization as an opportunity to make up STD rumors about him. While I did have 2 editors fact check the post, they missed these, as did I.
So in recent days, there’s been a bit of drama in the atheist movement over Atheist Ireland and PZ Myers that I’ve spent a bit of time trying to fully understand the background of. Since I spent all the time getting a big picture overview, I thought other people might like to have access to it as well. I don’t regularly follow any of the main players’ blogs, and I’ve been ill for the last 8 months, so I haven’t regularly followed anything during that time. That said, the tl;dr version of the story is that it’s about Michael Shermer, and the longer version follows. It’s not convoluted, it’s just happened over a long period of time.