One of the main complaints we’ve seen recently about our ongoing conversation with regard to sexism in the skeptical and atheist communities, is one about mission creep — that we’re a community defined by our common ground, e.g. atheism/skepticism, and we shouldn’t try to hash out other differences about other things.
I couldn’t agree less.
When I was growing up, I believed in some of the usual stuff — UFOs, bigfoot, psychic powers, what-have-you. I started to question religion early, on realizing all the religions cancelling each other out, as there were so many of them and they all couldn’t be true, despite attempts by some theists to say “many paths, one God” — but they COULD all be FALSE. And from the starting point that a lot of people believed in a god that I was pretty sure didn’t exist, I figured out that there were probably a lot of other beliefs, including ones I had, that weren’t true.
I came to skepticism quite some time later, though the seeds were planted with my nascent atheism. I spent a short period of time believing in karma, because it fulfilled the cognitive processes that bias us to believe in a “just world”. When I figured out that often bad people are rewarded, and good people are punished, I realized karma wouldn’t work in this universe since I’d already disposed of a deity in my epistemology. So I also discarded karma, and was left with something like cynicism. Cynicism, and a deep and abiding respect for science, as it actually produced demonstrable results to “show its work”.
Only I was also an optimist, despite having a rather cynical view on how the world is. I raged about things that pissed me off, and they pissed me off because I believed that justice should be served in this world, and that it wouldn’t if we all did nothing about it.
Eventually I came to a realization that to fight for justice was to fight for everyone’s justice, especially for those who exist on the fringes of society. In university, I took a course called “Social Deviance” in my minor in anthropology (focus sociology). Whereas to that point I had effectively figured that all drug users were horrible people and/or victims of money-hungry dealers, I learned that there were whole matrices of reasons that people might engage in a counterculture, even ones that involved altering one’s own mental state. Thus another meme drummed into me by society crumbled. I also took a women’s literature course and learned a good deal about male privilege as a result, though without the name “privilege” yet being introduced to me. This prompted me to take a women’s studies course, which mostly educated me in how women’s rights intersected with a number of other fights for equality, including black and gay rights. And I realized all of them heavily intersected with religious ideologies. To that point, though I had previously read the Bible when I deconverted myself when I was 13 — King James, though I was Catholic originally — I ended up reading it again explicitly to see all the ways that my former religion implicitly and explicitly denigrated, devalued and objectively harmed women.
And then, shortly thereafter, it hit me that I had just come full circle.
All of these things intersected, not just the ones I saw bumping up against religion. Women, gays, racism, religion, bigotry, ableism, ageism, gender, atheism, skepticism, all interconnected and interlocked such that you for all intents and purposes can’t talk about one in total isolation without mentioning one of the others.
I became an egalitarian — I wanted everyone to have the same right to be, to have the same rights as everyone else, and to not face subtle or overt tilts in the playing field at the hands of anyone else. It was the only just way to do things. I wanted everyone to have the right to believe whatever they want, as long as it didn’t inform their decisions to tilt that field in their favor intentionally. That quickly became insufficient though. Simply demanding egalitarianism was advocating the status quo, when there were already so many tilts to this playing field that wouldn’t be corrected if left unchallenged.
I was an atheist, and could hardly speak about my beliefs without being absolutely certain to offend someone, even when there was only one other person in the room. I recognized that as a tilt to my playing field. I could project this tilt onto what I perceived to be imbalances against gays, though I recognized that gays were way, WAY more likely to end up beaten and tied to a fence. The news of Matthew Shepard was formative to my present philosophies — especially the hateful Westboro Baptists protesting his funeral. I could further project my impressions of my own axis’ tilt onto women’s lot in life, and onto blacks and other minority races in my country, and onto the poor who are seldom poor as a result of their own behaviour, and onto drug addicts. And onto transsexuals in whom I recognized a desperate psychological catch-22 where many either had to live with the cognitive dissonance of being “in the wrong body” e.g. assigned a physical sex that wasn’t theirs by the genetic lottery, or elect to transition via surgery or other medical means and end up shunned — and even still, preyed upon by alt-med practitioners. And onto the business world, where the gap between the rich and the poor, which is supposed to drive capitalism and maintain a working class that’s happy and healthy, keeps getting larger and larger to the point where the economy suffers because the working class are all working-poor, and the rich have the money to buy politicians to help them get richer regardless.
And all of these issues intersect, forming a vast landscape with tilts for and against any individual person on so many axes it can be difficult to track. For women’s axis, this is patriarchy, with cultural norms self-propagating the memes that kept women for the most part subservient to men even where they gained so much ground. If you include all of these tilts for all of the axes, a term for the interlocking structures that keep the field tilted such is kyriarchy (though some debate the usefulness of this word and just use “oppression” or the even more general “power structures”).
And here I am, in movement atheism, where we often confront the religious folks’ religiously-motivated bigotries against women and gays and transsexuals and even the poor (if you can believe it), and their utter hatred of us Godless heathens to top it all off. And we can’t effectively rail against them for something they’re doing that’s horrible and inhumane when we’re engaged in the same practice. Hell, there’s even a Bible quote for that, about looking to the plank in your own eye before pointing out the mote in your neighbor’s. So while we’re telling the religious that their bigotries against women are horrible, we’re sending a message to women that “hey, we got’cher back”. If we’ve only got their back so we can put their asses in better reach, that is a problem.
And that’s why we’re having this harassment fight. Because everything intersects, and we are BETTER THAN OUR CURRENT BEHAVIOUR.
Or at least we should be.
What’s more, it seems every other social justice cause has over time evolved convergently toward this point. Feminism and black liberation movements converged, became allied, intermingled and grew stronger for it. Third wave feminism explicitly incorporated many elements of the fight against racial bigotry, as well as anti-LGBTQ bigotry, as well as postmodernism as a sort of counter to the embrace of the gender binary and spirituality (both dogmatic social constructs) that came in the second wave. And while postmodernism is generally ugh, if you divorce it from the “ways of knowing” nonsense that apologize for woo and religion as Natalie Reed has, it certainly merits incorporating, especially when combined with skepticism. Fourth wave feminism (which I contend we’re in now) apparently attempts to incorporate skepticism and scientific rationality in its efforts to excise the bigotries still inherent in its present form, which helps to counter the postmodernism. There are branches of feminism that are about misandry and cis-superiority, but they’re as odious to us as the religious — they are certainly the fringe, and the source of all the Straw Feminist memes used to beat us feminists down. Feminism should have already evolved beyond those philosophies, and to see such atavistic behaviour is often disturbing.
Skepticism itself is a social justice movement, fighting “woo-peddlers” who take advantage of those prone to cognitive biases or irrational magical thinking by exposing bunkum that’s dangerous either financially or mentally or physically. And once you’re a skeptic, applying that skepticism to religion most often leads to atheism (or a sacred untouchable magisterium where your skepticism dare not go, often jammed into the tiniest of gaps). Skepticism of gender roles, inculcated since birth and impressed on us through society, leads to questioning the gender binary, with each society’s gender roles being subtly different exactly like the different religions’ subtleties that led me to question religion. I realized society had constructed gender around the seed of sex, just like it had constructed religion around the seed of wonderment at the layout of the universe. Seeing blatant sexism in our movement today reflects that same sort of behaviour I would like to make atavistic.
And like in my story, atheism leads to questioning the religiously motivated bigotries. Those bigotries are aimed at certain other groups that are underprivileged in society, because religion surely does love punching down. And questioning the reasoning behind those bigotries leads you to general skepticism about all things, which reinforces the sense that there are other social justice issues that might need your attention. As you incorporate each of these, you evolve toward a general humanism, an integration of the thought that humans deserve basic dignity, and that there are structures in place (of which religion is one, magical thinking another) which take advantage of our brain’s bugs and reinforce those unjust tilts to the playing field.
Every social justice issue intersects, overlaps, informs and is inextricable from every other social justice issue, once you get to the nub of it. If you’re down with one, you should be down with them all. And these problems won’t fix themselves. They won’t go away if left unchallenged.
That’s what we’re seeing in movement atheism today with this current harassment policy debacle, and all the pushback it entails. A bunch of atheists and skeptics who are unwilling to question their privilege to assert dominance over women, to put aside their desire to get sex via pick-up-artist tactics (e.g. becoming a serial lech and general creepazoid). If we want women in this movement, to help inform us of other points of view and round out our ability to help people recover from religion or other (similar) bullshit, then we have to do something to stop the privilege tilt that’s given them the impression that movement atheism is a chilly climate because they keep getting harassed and shouted down and ignored. We have to fix that climate.
While we’re carving out a safe space for women, we do the same for gays, and trans folk, and minority races, and all other walks of life. All simultaneously, if we can manage it. Our mission is creeping because we’re growing and evolving.
And that’s a damn good thing. Natural selection shows us that that we ought to evolve or die.
You’d think we scientists and rationalists and atheists would get that!