Okay, I suppose I owe you more than that, don’t I?
One of the big concerns that people have about the American Atheists’ strong harassment policy is that, among the protected classes mentioned, religion is right there, despite this being an atheist conference.
American Atheists is dedicated to providing a harassment-free conference experience for everyone, regardless of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion.
We have many different folks attending this conference: sexualities, genders, gender identities, races, ethnicities, abilities, beliefs—these are just a few. Blatant instances of racism, sexism, homophobia, or other stereotyping and harmful behaviors should be reported to conference staff immediately.
But then that would prevent us from talking about atheism or countering certain religious memes, wouldn’t it? Err, no, not unless you think it’s fundamentally important to use religious criticism as cover so you can bash the people who believe those things.
Remember Draw Muhammad Day? That day where you’re supposed to draw Muhammad in defiance of the religious proscription by some Muslim clergy against drawing their prophet, which may not actually be all that bad according to the Qu’ran? Yeah, some people use it as cover to bash Muslims.
Really, though, are you surprised? In America, with its predominant Christian sentiment, Islam is often depicted as a race of violent brown-skinned turban-wearing terrorsts. Yes, I said “race”, not “religion”. So whenever an event criticizing a specific tenet of a religion like Islam comes along, people use it to bash the Islamic people as a whole. Except, that wasn’t the point of the event. Remember, associated with this event was an image that clearly delineated what we were actually discussing, that said “beliefs don’t deserve respect, people do”. (I’d embed it here, but it seems to be missing from my media library. If someone could point me to that image, I’ll embed. My ability to use multiple tabs and Google Image Search is severely curtailed on this low-memory netbook.)
Anyway, the policy goes on to describe harassment:
Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.
This is the clause people are worried about — they think that discussing religion is in some way disparaging a person’s specific religious identity. CFI and other cons have included specific language expressly stating that discussion of beliefs is not discussion of a person’s characteristics, even if a person holds those beliefs.
I don’t entirely think that’s necessary, because the very nature of the convention assumes that people will be discussing religion, and because it assumes that a person’s religious identity is somehow an intrinsic trait of that person. The proscription is, effectively, against harassing people for holding those beliefs. We do want to welcome people of other religions to our conferences so they can hear what our side has to say, we may want to hear their beliefs so we can discuss them, and we’re even likely to try to convince them that they’re wrong. But if someone were shouting “death to the infidels” or “you’ll burn in hell” at the atheists (a threat, you’ll note!), that’s far more likely to be classified as harassment than “there is no God” (a statement of fact). Even if the religious person is far more offended by the attack on their beliefs than the atheist is by the threat of being sent to eternal torture.
The fact is, the convention handlers are the ones who determine what constitutes an incident of harassment. I think if you were to follow a person in a burka around and yell at them that they’re stupid or ignorant or a terrorist (or worse — demanding they show you their face so you can judge their appearance), that’s something that should be dealt with, even if we’re going to discuss how religions like Islam demonstrably oppress women.
It’s simply laughable to think that an atheist or skeptic convention might institute a harassment policy to protect people’s beliefs. The goal is to protect people, because people deserve respect if we want to build a stable society. Their beliefs are well open to discussion, and I see absolutely nothing about that policy that suggests that we have to treat those beliefs with kid gloves. Where someone shouldn’t claim all Muslims are terrorists or all Catholics are child-buggerers (thanks julian), or follow around someone who has expressed a religious belief and insult them repeatedly and — yes — harass them, one can certainly say that Islam or Catholicism are wrong because they depend on an entity that does not exist — a deity.
Harassment is a different animal altogether from criticism. Harassment is targeted, it is insulting, it is dehumanizing, and it is essentially a way for a person to do chipping damage to another to control their behaviour. It is thus a form of bullying. People in our community are presently being harassed for having feminist principles that are informed by our skepticism and rationality in order to stop them from talking about what they’re talking about, and that harassment has real-world repercussions. If you want to see what harassment looks like, look at the people who’ve made it a personal crusade to, for an absurdly extended period of time, target and silence certain members of our community.
Dana posts her thoughts on the CFI policy’s language expressly stating that vigorous debate about beliefs is still on the table, along with sexy fun times as long as they’re consensual. And PZ expresses astonishment at the reductio ad absurdums coming from some supposed rationalists in this debate.