Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement

It’s Halloween, and I’ve come as myself. Fifteen, perhaps even ten years ago, this was the worst night of the year — the night I hid in the living room while Mum was at work, curled up out of sight below the window, praying on a loop. When I was younger, I believed Satan was everywhere — believed he whispered to me in the night, haunted our house and worked via my dad; believed he possessed me when I was eight; believed that on this night, his unknowing unservants came to our door. Today, as an atheist, Halloween is my Christmas, rite of all once-forbidden things.

We’ve got our monsters, atheists. In the media our public faces are racists, warmongsters and men to whom sexual harassment allegations cling like a stench. Online, our community is riddled with sexism, right wing politics and abuse. I’m sorry that’s the case, and as a result of saying so, I’ve been called any number of slurs and four letter words, been threatened and had my address published. (Female, trans and non-white friends’ harassment is much worse.) And yet I’d take this community over my former religious one in a heartbeat. I make that choice on a constant basis.

Every so often, some friend or other from the atheist SJ scene will post that they can no longer stand it round here — that movement atheism now is simply too toxic, that belief matters less than politics, and that they’d rather work with progressive believers than vile atheists. I can’t say I blame them — I’ve seen too many good people driven from this community — and yet I can’t help noticing: the trend, consistently, is that the friends who say this didn’t grow up religious. For them, inhabiting atheist space has always been a choice. For apostates like me, it’s frequently a need.

I need an atheist community — need space to speak frankly about my own abuse, find others who went through similar things and give voice to what I experienced. Like many apostates, I need a movement that affirms my anger as valid and doesn’t confuse it with the pubescent bile of the Dawkbros. I need a community that doesn’t respond to depression with prayer, to kink and queerness with polite non-acknowledgement at best, hostility at worst, to sex and poverty with vain moralism — and for me, that means a secular one. I can’t leave atheism: I have nowhere else to go.

Continue reading “Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement”

Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement

Cucumber’s “radical approach to sexuality”, and its normalisation of rape and relationship abuse

I hoped Cucumber and its partner shows would be as good as Queer as Folk. I feared they’d be nothing like as good. As it turns out, Cucumber is a show you need to watch – at least, that is, if you thought Looking‘s characters were unlikeable, Vicious was the nadir of queer TV or having your molars slowly drilled without anaesthesia was excruciating.

For its entire 45-minute running time, I cringed. Episode one of Cucumber was so non-stop wince-inducing that by the time its credits rolled, I found myself feeling the weight of my own face. I knew there and then that I’d pay a considerable sum never to see another episode – yet also that I’d rewatch it this morning, cataloguing every last thing I hated about it.

Because Cucumber isn’t merely crap. It’s a well written, well-produced, well-executed show that achieves its apparent aims. The trouble is, its aims are fucking regressive – at times even outright dangerous. Continue reading “Cucumber’s “radical approach to sexuality”, and its normalisation of rape and relationship abuse”

Cucumber’s “radical approach to sexuality”, and its normalisation of rape and relationship abuse

To the atheist tone police: stop telling me how to discuss my abuse

This post is currently getting a lot of traffic. If you like it, here are some of the other things I write.

As an undergraduate I chaired a group for student atheists — at least, that’s what I assumed it was. The finalist who’d stopped being in charge officially a year before I got elected, but who most people still answered to in private, disagreed. When we ran a stall at freshers’ fair together, he insisted I not tell punters Oxford Atheist Society was for people who didn’t believe in God, in case this stopped religious people joining.

It turned out what the ex-president wanted was a humanist discussion group welcoming believers and working with them for church-state separation, so once he’d done a lot of talking, we became the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society. Supposedly this made us all-inclusive, but anything deemed antitheist was discouraged lest it put believers off — things I had to say, for instance, about being taught I was satanically possessed or trying to kill myself because of the things I believed.

* * *

I hear a lot about constructiveness, especially from fellow atheists convinced people like me should pipe down and behave. Calling religion harmful, they’ve told me, is immature and stops us ‘breaking down walls’. What, they’ve asked me, does it achieve?

Since I started talking publicly (mainly in print) about it, I’ve been informed I’m inflammatory; that I need to keep things civil; that I’m hateful, encourage stereotypes and impede mutual understanding; that atheists like me are a liability, holding the movement back; that I need to smile more.

I’ve noticed that often, atheists saying these things have no real religious past.

* * *

‘If you’re arguing that confrontationalism — arguing with believers about religion, or making fun of it, or insulting it — is hurting our cause,’ Greta Christina wrote in 2011, ‘which cause, exactly, are you talking about?’ In the same post she proposes two competing atheist agendas: working against sectarianism and for secularism with believers on the one hand, opposing religion qua religion on the other. How polite or fiery we should be, Greta suggests, depends which of the two our mission is.

Chris Stedman, constable of the atheist tone police, responded at the Huffington Post: ‘If your “top priority” is working to eliminate religion, you are not simply an atheist activist — you are an anti-religious activist. . . . I do not wish to be associated with narrow-minded, dehumanising generalisations about religious people’. Several combative bloggers, he pointed out, had said blinkered things about Muslims and Islam, therefore all attacks on religion were dehumanising.

* * *

American Atheists has launched a television channel. At Salon, Daniel D’addario calls the four hours he spent watching it horrific.

‘Despite my own lack of religious belief’, he writes, ‘I find it hard to imagine that even a casual nonbeliever would tune in . . . AtheistTV adheres to nasty stereotypes about atheism — smugness, gleeful disregard for others’ beliefs — to a degree that’s close to unwatchable.’

Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience is skewered in particular for ‘feed[ing] viewers a diet of scorn’. This translates to wearing a flame-patterned shirt, calling a Bible story ‘absolutely horrible’ and using the word ‘stupid’ about God. (No context is given.)

Fair enough if D’addario dislikes the channel, but by suggesting its tone does nonbelievers actual harm — that is, none will tune in because it hurts their movement’s image — he goes beyond writing a bad review.

AA has thousands of fee-paying members. The Atheist Experience has over twenty thousand fans and Dillahunty over thirty thousand Twitter followers. Whatever stereotypes their tone fits weren’t concocted by conservatives: obviously, it speaks for many real atheists. Smug or not, aren’t they allowed a voice?

* * *

Last month a column of mine went up at the new site of the Freethinker. I talk there about how as a queer teenager I tried to kill myself, and how I hold responsible the mainstream, nonfundamentalist Christianity I practised at the time: about letting go and letting God, convinced he never gave me more than I could handle while I was assaulted and harassed into self-harm; about declining to defend myself because the turning the other cheek was Christlike.

There’s a lot I don’t talk about there.

I don’t talk about how when I overdosed, I lost consciousness afraid suicide would land me in Hell, where aged six I’d been told relatives burned and where aged nine I’d been told I would go for lying.

I don’t talk about wondering what I’d done wrong to make that cycle of harassment and self-harm God’s plan for me and what I should learn from it.

I don’t talk about being pressured to pray in tongues once I was convinced aged eight the devil had possessed me, nor being aged seven to perform ‘faith healing’.

I don’t talk about the demons I believed entered our home, the one I believed was my father or the Hallowe’ens when year on year I hid from trick-or-treaters chanting prayers in abject terror.

I don’t talk about fasting till it hurt.

I don’t talk about the children who couldn’t visit on my birthday since they went to different churches, my childhood belief Hinduism was Satan’s work or result fear of anything Asian — yoga, Indian art, a woman in a sari.

I don’t talk about being told all Muslims practised FGM and ‘want[ed] to die for Allah’, or that Muslim men were instructed to rape Christian women.

I don’t talk about the schoolteachers I had who, sermonising, told me God ‘deplore[d] homosexuality’.

I don’t talk about the preacher in the streets of my hometown who called me an abomination, or how when I mentioned it online I was accused of ‘having a go at Christians’.

I don’t talk about my brother calling me an offence against nature and God.

I don’t talk about the magazine cutting my mother kept that said I was an atheist because I had a stubborn heart.

I don’t talk about being preached at by guests at my friends’ church wedding or glared at by the vicar when my friend’s body was buried because I hadn’t joined in with the hymns.

I don’t talk about being threatened with hell for being an atheist.

I don’t talk about being told I’d have my head cut off.

When I do talk about these things, people don’t usually suggest I smile more.

It’s other times I talk about religion I’m called bitter, hateful, counterproductive, told I need to quieten down. But when I talk about religion, I always have the above in mind.

When you tell me to speak more respectfully, this is what you’re telling me how to discuss.

Remembering it I return to Greta Christina and Chris Stedman, and want to say that after what it did to me, talking as rudely as I like about religion is my goal, not just a means to it. I return to every time I’ve heard atheists like me aren’t constructive, and want to say that after years holding my tongue, speaking freely is a huge achievement. If it hampers outreach by faitheists with no inkling of my experience*, I don’t give a fuck.

* * *

*A clarification: it’s in no way my intention to suggest no ‘faitheist’ has a history of this sort. Especially in Britain, where secular upbringings are much more common, I maintain they often accompany the silencing of confrontationalists – but I don’t mean to erase the trauma of people who challenge me. 

I will say this: if you’re telling me to shut up for no reason except finding my tone unpalatable – if it’s not (see below) about consequences or factual errors – it’s a charitable assumption that you’re doing it because you don’t know better. If you survived what I survived or worse, you have no more right than anyone to shush me, and (I’d have thought) more reason not to.

* * *

I return to Daniel D’addario at Salon. I want to ask: what’s it to him if other atheists are more barbed than he is? Isn’t switching off his TV enough?

I return to my atheist group’s ex-president. I wnt to ask: if a secularist mission means atheists can’t speak freely about religion, what is the point of it?

Others I know are called hateful.

Beth Presswood has family who refuse to acknowledge her long-term partner — Matt Dillahunty. Some have declared him, if memory serves, to be the devil. Except because ‘he thinks it’s nuts to rely on a book for wisdom and guidance’, D’addario can’t see why he’s ‘bothered’ by US Christianity. Could this not be at least a factor?

Jonny Scaramanga writes, occasionally snarkily, of the ultra-extreme Christian upbringing that left him alone, depressed, uneducated, socially unequipped and with wildly skewed attitudes to gender, race, sexuality and politics. Those he criticises label him bitter and his work a hate campaign.

Sue Cox has spoken publicly about the Catholic priest who raped her when she was a minor and her family’s decision to tell her this was part of God’s plan for her. When a television clip was posted on the Internet, some commenters called her an anti-Catholic bigot preaching hate.

Shaheen Hashmat lives with mental illness resulting from ‘honour’ abuse in her Scottish-Pakistani Muslim family. Because she sees Islam as central to her family’s actions, she is accused of ‘fuelling Islamophobia’ (demonisation of Muslims) and being a puppet of white racism.

These are extreme cases, but extreme manifestations of religion aren’t the only abusive ones. Many in religious communities…

…fall victim to genital mutilation. (About one human in seven or eight, specifically.)

…suffer violence, physical or sexual, in other contexts — by parents, clergy, organisations or states.

…are taught not to defend themselves from violence, as I was.

…are told traumatic experiences are punishments from a higher power.

…are terrorised with lurid images of damnation and hell.

…suffering ‘knowing’ those they care about are damned.

…have no chance to mourn loved ones properly due to religious differences.

…are seriously maleducated, including facing abusive learning environments, being fed fundamental scientific mistruths or being denied facts about sex and their bodies.

…are shunned or isolated for leaving religion or not following it as expected.

…are harassed in the workplace or at school for being skeptical.

…are denied child custody explicitly for being atheists.

…are rejected by family members or have to endure painful relationships with them.

…are forced into unwanted relationships or to end desired ones.

…are taught to submit to their male partners.

…are taught sex and sexuality are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies, when menstruating for example, are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies are a cause of sexual violence — including violence toward them — and must be concealed to prevent it.

…are taught their minds, because they live with mental illness, are gripped by cosmic evil.

…are medically or socially mistreated in hands-on ways while mentally ill.

…are told they’re sinful, disordered or an abomination because they’re queer.

…are told skepticism makes them a traitor to their race or culture.

…are denied medical care they need urgently — birth control, condoms, HIV medication, hormone therapy, transitional surgery, abortion, blood transfusions.

…give up much-needed medicine voluntarily due to religious teachings and suffer severe ill health.

…perform rituals voluntarily — fasting for instance — that seriously endanger their health.

…are manipulated for financial gain by clergy, sometimes coerced out of what little they have.

…are manipulated for social gain, often too reliant on their congregation to leave when they have doubts.

If this is true in religious communities, it’s also a reality for those who’ve fled them. Atheists who were believers have frequently been profoundly harmed; I suspect movement atheists are especially likely to have been; confrontational atheists, even likelier.

When you tell us how to talk about religion, you are telling us how to discuss our abuse.

* * *

There are times when rhetoric should be policed or at least regulated through criticism. It’s true many attacks made on religion, especially by those still forming atheist identities, are ill-informed, sectarian or oversimplistic — and that such attacks often punch down, reaching for racism, classism or mental health stigma as antitheist ammunition. (There are many other examples.)

It needn’t be so. I’ve challenged this because I think we can and should go after God without harming the downtrodden through splash damage. Doing so on everyone’s behalf who’s been downtrodden by religion is itself, I adamantly believe, a mission of social justice. Failing at it by making substantive errors or throwing the marginalised under the bus invites and deserves criticism; a rhetoric powered by justified anger needs to be carefully controlled.

But that is not a question of tone.

And it does not discredit the mission.

Bigotry and imprecision in antitheism have often been treated as intrinsic to it, conflated with the very notion of (counter)attacks on faith. Stedman, who states in his book Faitheist that he once ‘actually cried — hot, angry tears’ because of atheist vitriol, is especially guilty of this, treating racist comments on Islam like they invalidate all opposition to religion. D’addario’s attack on AtheistTV as smug and scornful has, similarly, covered my feed where secular ‘social justice warriors’ congregate.

If this is you — if you’re an atheist progressive who wants barbed, confrontational atheists to shut up — we’re likely on the same side most of the time… but there’s something I need to say.

People like us are infamous for words like ‘privilege’, ‘splaining’, ‘problematic’; part of the power of concepts like these is that when transferred between activist contexts they expose parallels. I’m deeply aware there can be only limited analogy between atheism and the concerns of more marginalised groups, and would hate to devalue their language. But I’m convinced of the following:

It is a form of privilege to be an atheist who’s never experienced religious abuse, as many of us have who are antagonistic.

It is privilege blindness to expect — without a clue what we’ve experienced or what it means to us — that we give up our self-expression so that you can form alliances with faith communities that deeply injured us.

It is tone-policing if when you’re not telling us to shut up about it, you’re telling us how to talk about it. How dare you tell us to be more respectful.

It is splaining if your answer when we detail histories of religious abuse is ‘Yes, but’ — or if you tell us we can’t blame religion for it since not all believers do the same. We know the details. You don’t.

It is gaslighting dismissing justified anger about widespread, structural religious abuse by telling us we’re bitter or hateful.

It’s civility politics implying our anger, bitterness or hatred is just as unacceptable, siding with the aggressor by prioritising believers’ feelings over ours on the false pretence of neutrality.

It’s respectability politics implying we need to earn an end to bigotry we face by getting on politely with believers, throwing those of us under the bus who can’t or won’t sing kumbaya.

It’s internalised bigotry shaming atheists for being stereotypical — smug, scornful and the rest — for letting the side down, instead of asserting our collective rights however we express ourselves.

It is victim-blaming to treat atheists who are stereotypical as a legitimate cause of anti-atheist bigotry or hatred.

It is tokenisation to impose on any individual the burden of representing atheists so our collective status can be judged by how they act.

And it is deeply, deeply problematic to cheer for snarky, confrontational firebrands of social justice who take on mass structures or beliefs that ruined their lives… then boo snarky, confrontational atheist firebrands off the stage who’ve survived religious abuse.

* * *

I must talk about religion and the things it did to me, and must do so however I like. This is my goal, not just a means to it — it’s my hill to die on and matters enough that nothing can compete. I don’t care if it sets back my career, hampers others’ work or hurts religious feelings.

Actually, hang on — yes I do.

If you feel your texts, traditions, doctrines, revelations, fantasies, imaginary friends or inaudible voices are licence to ride roughshod over other people’s lives, I want to hurt your feelings.

If your god, in whom billions believe, tells you to terrorise or mutilate children, deny them basic knowledge of their bodies or their world, jeopardise their health, inflict physical violence on them or assault them sexually;

If he tells you to inform them their trauma is deserved, that their own bodies were to blame or that their flesh and broken minds are sinful; if he tells you to instruct them against defending themselves or if their thoughts of him drive them to suicide;

If he tells you to preach racism, queerphobia or misogny; if he tells you what consensual sex you can and can’t have and with whom, or to destroy loving relationships and force nonconsensual ones on others;

If he tells you to threaten and harass others, subject them to violence or deny them medical aid;

If your god, in whom billions believe, inspires the fear, abuse and cruelty I and countless others lived through:

Fuck your god.

To the atheist tone police: stop telling me how to discuss my abuse

Shouting arson in a crowded theatre: rape reports, reputations and reasonable suspicion

Greta, over on her blog, has a summary of statements made to date against Michael Shermer.

As of this writing, August 20 2013, 12:19 Pacific time, according to Jason Thibeault’s timeline: We have one unnamed source reporting that Shermer, to use her own phrasing, coerced her into a position where she could not consent, and then had sex with her. We have one unnamed source reporting that this first unnamed source told them about this incident shortly after it happened, and was visibly distraught. We have one unnamed source reporting, not that Shermer assaulted her, but that he deliberately got her very drunk while flirting with her — a story that corroborates a particular pattern of sexual assault. All of these are people PZ knows, and whose reliability he is vouching for.

In addition: We have a named source, Carrie Poppy, stating that she knows the woman who said that Shermer coerced her, that she knew about the assault, and that she’s the one who put her in touch with PZ. We have one pseudonymous commenter, Miriamne, reporting in 2012 that she was harassed by Shermer. We have one pseudonymous source, delphi_ote, reporting that they personally know a woman who was assaulted by Shermer. (Important note: These other reported assault victims may be the woman who said that Shermer coerced her, or they may be different people: since they’re unnamed or pseudonymous, we don’t at this point know. It’s deeply troubling in either case: these are either multiple independent corroborations of the same assault, or they’re multiple independent reports of different assaults.) We have one named source, Brian Thompson, saying he personally knows a woman who was groped by Shermer.

In addition: We have one named source, Elyse Anders, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. We have another named source, Naomi Baker, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. We have a pseudonymous source, rikzilla, reporting on behavior from Shermer that wasn’t assault but was inappropriately and uninvitedly sexual. To be very clear: By themselves, these wouldn’t be evidence of anything other than creepiness. But added to all these other reports of sexual assault, they corroborate a pattern.

It’s quite a list. I’m prepared to say now that personally, in light of all these accounts and their consistency, contextualised by the compelling rarity of false reports, I find the case against Shermer significantly plausible and not to be dismissed, if ever it justifiably could have been, as baseless gossip. It may not meet criminal standards of proof required in court – not being a lawyer, I can’t speak to that – and certainly doesn’t provide grounds to conclude with no time for new data or room for doubt that he’s guilty of what’s been reported. It does, however, provide grounds in my view for a reasonable person at least to entertain that suspicion, and more than sufficient grounds for investigations to be made.

In terms of our community’s reaction, to comparable situations elsewhere as well as to this one, whether criminal standards of proof have been met is not the sole point of concern. When a serious question mark overhangs an individual’s prior conduct, event planners – conference-holders especially – have to decide whether they want them present. That judgement call, whichever way it goes, means gambling with the potential safety of their attendees. As in Pascal’s scenario, there is no way not to bet.

If as a conference official I received the range of reports above stating someone’s behaviour was abusive, severely unethical or inappropriate, I would not be comfortable inviting them to my event. Could I be certain? No. But I’d have to err on one side or the other. Personally, my choice would be to err on the side of caution, apparent likelihood, and not placing someone among my guests whom a reasonable person could suspect had raped. If it transpired the allegations were all false, falling within a tiny number of such reports (which I don’t deny is possible) – if it turned out those making them conspired at great personal risk to smear someone blameless – then in my opinion it would still, at the time and with the facts at hand, have been the most responsible decision.

What statements we have don’t warrant certainty and may or may not meet legal standards of proof. But they do meet what standards we need to ask ourselves, ‘Should this person attend our conference?’ or ‘Should we invite them to our group?’ – and to answer these questions reasonably, if provisionally. This does not amount to pitchfork-laden mob rule; it does not amount to vigilantism; and the evidence we have, while many no doubt would welcome legal proceedings, should not in my opinion be deemed wholly meaningless in the absence of court action.

The ‘Take it to court or else’ approach – the all-or-nothing suggestion that until and unless a trial is held and a guilty verdict reached, no statement can ever be more than idle gossip or demand concern – is naïve and illogical. We know only a tiny percentage of rapes end in conviction. Refusing to entertain, even hypothetically, the notion someone may at some point have raped because no court has deemed them guilty is likely to mean ignoring almost every instance of rape in the real world. It evokes, too, the ‘Just tell the police’ response to conference harassment.

I wouldn’t want legality to be the sole requirement for conduct at my event, and reporters of harassment don’t always want punitive action anyway (they might just want a sympathetic ear; they might want organisers to look out for them throughout the conference, have a private word with someone who’s bothered them or keep an eye on that person; they might want to be placed with a friendly, reliable group or companion during social hours, so as to feel less stranded). But things like expulsion from conferences do not, in any case, require criminal convictions or the standards of proof those demand. Innocent-till-proven-guilty, with no shades of intermediate, probabilistic grey is how court systems work, rightly, when incarceration or registration as a sex offender is on the cards; it’s not how the rest of the world, where degrees of reasonable suspicion exist, has to work – and the idea accusations less than totally airtight must never be made is a dangerous, damaging one which silences a great many victims.

Last year a guest in my friend’s house raped her. She was paralytically drunk, unable to stand up or speak coherently, when he had sex with her. (It doesn’t matter why she was drunk, whose fault this was or what she’d previously said. When someone is so drunk they can’t talk, sex with them is rape. This isn’t complex.) The following day, when I’d gone with her to file a report, police officers asked if she knew him, if she’d done anything to suggest attraction to him, and whether there’d been friction between them – all of which was irrelevant. She was made to choose, in the space of an hour, between pressing charges or dropping everything; she had no chance to seek legal advice, consult family members or even sleep on it. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that she let it go.

We had, as it happened, fairly incontrovertible evidence both that the man in question had sex with her and that she wasn’t able to consent. A public solicitor would, I’m quite sure, have told her as much, but she wasn’t allowed a professional’s legal view. The all-or-nothing message she got that unless and until taken to court, her report could mean nothing at all – that she had no right to be taken seriously by anyone before that point – was exactly what stopped her pursuing it. (One officer’s worldweary comment that rape was ‘just something that happens‘ didn’t help.) If you’re only willing to treat reports as plausible or act on them, even provisionally, once court procedures are in motion, I sincerely hope no victim ever needs your support: most only come forward, including via legal action, when reasonably sure what they say will be listened to rather than dismissed.

Ignoring plausible reports, refusing to act on them even provisionally since no legal verdict has been reached, has major consequences. When at school, another friend had a sister in the year below her whom, while on a school trip at the aged fourteen, another student raped. Their parents, once informed, told both police and the school, where during breaks and over lunch, my friend’s sister was so visibly distraught that teachers isolated her inside an empty classroom. This prompted a two month withdrawal from attendance and ultimately a change of schools. The student who raped her and denied anything had happened, meanwhile, saw no consequences whatsoever, since the school’s head teacher ruled that while investigations were ongoing, no action would be taken.

No course of action existed which presupposed neither that the victim told the truth nor that she hadn’t – again, authorities had no way not to bet. I presuppose the former here because I trust my friend, but also because again, only a few reports of rape – the clear exception to the rule – are false. Given this and the girl’s obvious terror, beside the prospect of leaving a pupil among the student body who’d raped, wouldn’t suspending or isolating him while investigations continued be a more conscientious choice? Like conference organisers, they had to make a judgement call: it should have been quite clear whose account provisionally to believe. (Teachers, after all, are paid to be judges of character: I don’t accept a 14-year-old girl could feign trauma, with no clear motive, well enough to fool experienced school staff.) If the report did turn out to be false – one of a tiny, exceptional few – it would still, again, have been the best approach to take given the facts they had. A choice between which student to expel certainly wouldn’t be a comfortable one – but nor, in my view, should it be such a hard one ethically.

When I say things like this, I hear responses like ‘Yes, but couldn’t this all just stay behind the scenes? Couldn’t conference organisers communicate, discreetly, amongst themselves? Someone’s reputation is at risk!’

I have three replies.

The first one is, that happened. Since the current wave of allegations broke, corroboration and agreement in most cases have rippled back – sometimes in the format ‘That happened to me too’ and sometimes in the format ‘I’ve heard that too’. (In one particular case, six people I know told me, independently of one another, that they’d witnessed or been told of the individual’s serious misconduct.)

It’s obvious that for the last few years, these discussions have gone on under the radar – in fact, much of last year’s drive for anti-harassment policies was prompted by Jen McCreight’s comments that several female activists swapped anecdotes about certain male skeptics’ behaviour. Given the rapid explosion of public namings which followed Karen Stollznow’s disclosure, it seems to me things may by this point simply have come so far – behind-closed-doors revelations and private statements spread so widely – that accusatory floodgates were bound to open sooner or later. If harassment and assault had, under the surface, grown so prevalent such a deluge could be released, doesn’t that suggest we needed to address them earlier? Might those hushed whispers and private comments, just perhaps, been insufficiently effective? (See also reply number two.)

After Jimmy Savile – a veteran British broadcaster, if you hadn’t heard the name – died in October 2011, reports from people he molested and raped as children poured in by the hundred. He may, it’s now thought, have been one of UK history’s most prolific sex offenders. Why did this happen only after his death? Because while he lived, his reputation was at stake; because victims, no doubt, were afraid to smear a much-admired celebrity; because many feared reprisals, equally doubtless, from a multimillionaire’s legal staff. In view again of the speed at which reports emerged, it seems certain confessions, accusations and intimations made the rounds in private before Savile died, as they did in skepticism till recently. Consider: how many of his crimes might have been prevented, and how many people saved a major trauma, had the kind of scandals broken decades back which are breaking for us now?

My second reply is that frankly, we cannot always rely on institutions to take action. The BBC, we know now, failed for years to act against Savile; the Catholic Church failed for decades to act against child-raping priests; my friend’s school failed to act after her sister’s rape; it seems reasonable to conclude based on statements like Carrie Poppy’s and the apparent extent of this problem that skeptical organisations too have failed to act. If things had never reached the point where we now find ourselves – and in many cases, they wouldn’t have if organisations had trusted and supported victims – that would, agreed, have been quite wonderful. Most people who’ve spoken out of late (prompting a barrage of condemnation, bullying and legal threats) would I’m sure also agree. Unfortunately, things have reached this point. Didn’t something more need to be done? And if not this, what?

My third reply, the one I feel matters more than anything, is the following:

Reputations matter, but no reputation matters more than stopping sexual violence.

Plenty of reputations have been endangered recently, and not just Michael Shermer’s or the other leading skeptics’ accused. Individuals’ reputations – PZ Myers’, Carrie Poppy’s, Karen Stollznow’s – are on the line. Organisations’ reputations – the JREF’s, CFI’s – are on the line. Our entire movement’s reputation, and that of atheists at large, is on the line.

I am convinced none of this matters.

At least, I’m convinced none of it matters more than addressing, for the sake of our community, things like rape, harassment, assault and abuse. Damage to reputations is serious; this is more serious still.

If there’s one common lesson from the Savile affair, the Catholic Church’s history of sex abuse, the rape of my friend, the rape of my other friend’s sister, the allegations currently overrunning skepticism – it’s that sometimes, when fires in a crowded theatre are being lit or a reasonable onlooker might think so, shouting arson is defensible even if that means naming as arsonists the guests of honour in the royal box.

We share a communal stake in our movement’s safety, especially at events and conferences, and when reasonable suspicion (even if not demonstrable certainty) exists that someone’s actions there endanger others; when off-the-record conversations, on-the-record reports and open secrets have failed to prompt resolution, surely there comes a point when public statements are justified – even if making them threatens that person’s public image? Surely in certain circumstances, concern for the public safety of our movement – not based, necessarily, on certainties, but based on reasonable suspicions and reports that seem overwhelmingly unlikely to be lies – can trump individuals’ PR concerns? Isn’t there a case for the principle of public interest here?

I don’t, in the end, believe this debacle will ruin atheism’s image. I accept that, in the short term, religious critics may use it to snipe at us – but what right, anyway, does religion have to take swipes at sex abuse controversies? On the contrary, I smell an opportunity.

If two or three years down the line from now, we’ve taken painful steps to clean up our act; if the scandals breaking today have been seen through to their conclusions, with appropriate investigations made and sufficient measures taken where necessary; if guidelines for the future are established which set out clear, well-defined ethical boundaries of accepted conduct, and we rise to the challenge of fixing our community – then religion will have lost, definitively, a major fortress in the culture war. We will, as an organised community of atheists, have shown we take sexual and social ethics seriously, and done in ten years what the Catholic Church failed to accomplish in two thousand.

Isn’t that a challenge worth embracing?



Shouting arson in a crowded theatre: rape reports, reputations and reasonable suspicion