On harassment policies protecting religion

They don’t.

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.

And later:

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.

On harassment policies protecting religion

58 thoughts on “On harassment policies protecting religion

  1. 51

    On re-read, that wasn’t very clear. There are two options in that post:
    1) Eliminate the link between harassment and an unmodified use of “offensive.”

    2) Specify that debate, discussion, and criticism is not inherently offensive and create a “reasonable person” or “reasonable attendee” standard so someone can’t come in and say, “I’m offended that you guys say there isn’t a god.”

    That allows the conference operators to interpret any given incident according to community standards.

  2. 52

    Yup. The bad part about “draw muhammad day” is that it became nothing more than a racist circlejerk. Why?… lemme serve some copy-pasta from a couple reddit comments of mine concerning a catholic/pedo::muslim/pedo juxtaposition comic that hit /r/atheism many times, always incurring racist comments. link

    So let’s go back to the Muhammad/Pope comic that earlier I said was not racist. Well, I was only talking about intent and the content of it’s particular argument. However, can we say that it still does harm to racial relations? Does it inadvertently (or maybe not so inadvertently) utilize racism for its success?

    Yes. Because of that motherfucking nondescript turban that doesn’t exist in real life. At least it’s not spherical like in so many other racist cartoons The bomb, like I said, is paying homage to a dutch cartoonist who did the same thing and had to run for their life. And in his cartoon, it was spherical. So the author did put some thought into not engaging in that stereotype. Some. What bothers me about the turban here is… there are lots of kinds of turbans. I really doubt that the author, much less his intended audience, and much much less his unintended audience, know jack shit about the many kinds of headwear that is worn in the middle east and southern asia, whether currently or 1,900 years ago. And only a fraction of these many religiously or culturally important wraps is called a turban. Compared to the detail given to the trimmings of the pope’s robe, that is one bland turban. No real thought given to it. Even compared to Muhammad’s face, it’s blandness stands out. It doesn’t even look like a wrap, it’s like… Michelin-Man style fluffiness.

    So this comic has this additional message that says that the religion of islam is so disgusting that any real effort into knowing the culture of a character that happens to be muslim isn’t worth our time. Like.. Remember what Yasser Arafat wore? When’s the last time any Middle Easterner or Arab was drawn with something on their head with anywhere near that complexity and style? Can you name a political cartoon that has ever? Me neither.

    So there it is. The comic ends up racist anyways because of this attitude: “hey, a 3-dimensional Muslim? Too much work. Too long, did not read.” And you know, racists have this problem. If a character isn’t 3-dimensional, they fill it in with whatever they want. The comic author has stereotyped Muhammad racially by not filling him in as a real person beyond his popular name in history.

    That’s the responsibility of an author. If the character isn’t supposed to be anybody, then the character has to be somebody.

    And that’s another reason the comic that this comment thread is spawned by, the one posted by personafiles, is so racist. It goes through every effort to make sure that the Muslim character is anybody within a racial demographic. It’s not a somebody. It’s an any-[Arab].

    Thunderf00t invites all his fans and participators to engage in the same crap. This is why he’s been outed by other youtube atheists as not only kind of a turd, but a racist.

    I mean think about it. I think we all know very well that every time somebody says “desert people” or “desert folk” or whatever, combined with crap like this, it only encourages people with racist inclinations to hear “sand nigger.” Tf00t and most of those comics do nothing to dissuade against that inclindation. In fact, they mostly invite it.

  3. 53


    Wouldn’t that policy make wearing a draw Mohamed day t-shirt unacceptable.

    No. According to the policy only verbal comments are harassment. Thus a t-shirt saying “Women are bitches” or something similar would be okay too.
    I don’t know why the limitation to verbal comments. It nearly seems that people wanted to create a loophole for offensive t-shirts.

  4. 56

    […] about harassment policies again. The first post talks about concerns about whether claims that criticism of religion could be considered harassment under the AA policy. I think that some of the normal criticisms of religion could be, and Thibeault himself does allow […]

  5. 57

    [RH]: Well you tried but those policies would be even worse. Calling someone fat who is, or hot who is would be ‘true’ but still harassment.

    You have a standard by which you can access whether someone is “fat” or “hot” as true? Matters of fact? I’d sure like to hear it.

    Those are opinions. They cannot be verified. They are wholly subjective, no matter what percentage of the population you might survey to support them.

    Making a statement to the conference at large or that was overheard that All women are just…. fill in whatever should be treated as harassment even if it does not target an individual.

    Conference speakers may need to be subjected to higher standards than the general population in attendance.

    In any case, your example is extreme. That can be thrown out on grounds of prejudice or bigotry, and should be addressed in any policy specifically as such. You’re going to have to come up with a much more nuanced example.

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