Women in Secularism Speakers Letter to CFI Board

This letter was emailed today to the Center for Inquiry board in care of board secretary Tom Flynn. I am one of the speakers who signed it.

June 3, 2013

Board of Directors
Center for Inquiry
c/o Secretary Tom Flynn
PO Box 741
Amherst, NY 14226-0741

Delivered via email.

Dear members of the board:

We write to you as speakers at the Women in Secularism conference last weekend to say that Ron Lindsay’s conduct during this conference was unwelcoming, obstructive, and highly unprofessional. From his opening speech to his use of social media during the conference to his use of the CFI blog to attack a speaker during the conference to his interactions with conference-goers to his current silence on several matters, his behavior as CEO of the conference’s sponsoring organization was unique in our experience as speakers. It made our work at the conference more difficult and has increased the level of ongoing harassment that some of us face as women working in the secular movement.

Whatever Lindsay’s intentions for his opening speech, the end result was a confrontation with speakers and audience members. Lindsay drew attention to the fact that he declined to welcome us. A diverse group of feminists was patronizingly informed that feminism is not a monolith. He shared his grudging acceptance of one of the initiatives to have come out of the discussions after last year’s conference. He warned us that the secular movement has limited resources to pursue our interests. He presented us with the task of answering questions during the conference that none of us had been asked to prepare to address until that moment.

After this, Lindsay spent nearly half the opening speech—of the Women in Secularism conference—arguing against straw-feminist dogma in the secular movement, including the patently false notions that feminist women in the secular community don’t want to hear any ideas about feminism from men, and that we are attempting to silence men. He then ended with a plea for us to respect the humanity of men by allowing them to continue to speak, perpetuating the myth that feminists are trying to (or are in any position to) silence men while ignoring the very real silencing behavior that has been turned on many women in this movement. To say this is unacceptable would be an understatement. This is bizarre behavior.

The equivalent opening remarks at CSICon would decline to welcome everyone, announce that there are competing strands of skepticism, shrug that he’d come to see some of a new pro-vaccine group’s points, announce he’d suddenly decided that speakers should justify their use of the skeptical movement’s resources, spend almost half the speech talking about how some unnamed people might misuse logical fallacies, and warn the audience about the consequences to the world should they turn denialist and get themselves elected to public office. Such a speech might not be designed to leave the audience confused and hurt, but it would do so just the same.

This is a disservice and a discourtesy to speakers. A conference opening statement exists to pull an audience together and prepare them to listen to and engage with what they about to hear. Instead, Lindsay handed over an audience that was unsettled and distracted, making the job of every speaker more difficult.

The difficulties were increased off-stage as well. Conversations with attendees and CFI staff primarily revolved not around the talks and shared activism but around that opening statement. The energy and passion for activism that the first Women in Secularism conference inspired was noticeably dimmed in the hallways at the second—or routed into dealing with the insult we had all been dealt.

The situation was made worse by Lindsay’s conspicuous absence during talks on both Saturday and Sunday. It was made worse again by his failure to attend Saturday’s fundraising banquet. It was made far, far worse by his decision to use the time he was not at the banquet to publish a post on the official CFI blog calling one of CFI’s invited speaker’s mild, reasoned response to his concerns about silencing “the most intellectually dishonest piece of writing since the last communique issued by North Korea” and saying that she “inhabits an alternate universe.” By Sunday morning, several of us were actively propping up CFI staff morale.

To be quite clear, every other CFI employee and volunteer—both from CFI U.S. and from CFI Canada—we dealt with during the conference was helpful, friendly, and engaged. They exhibited extreme grace under fire and deserve a very large part of the credit for making this conference the success it was, Melody Hensley in particular. (Out of deference to those who are already dealing with a difficult situation and potential conflicts of interest, we have not given Melody Hensley, Lauren Becker, Debbie Goddard, or Elizabeth Cornwell an opportunity to sign this letter though they spoke at the conference.)

To pile on the insults, when asked to give examples of the “silencing” behavior to which Lindsay devoted so much of his speech, he failed (in addition to failing to demonstrate any actual silencing) to name one single secular woman. At this conference, CFI’s CEO used his opening remarks to pick or continue a fight with a man in the audience and to suggest that we women should comment on this fight from our stage.

Then there is the question of harassment. Someone who has harassed several of the Women in Secularism speakers over the past year was allowed to attend after making known his intentions to confront those speakers in person at the conference. CFI was aware that these speakers had concerns about his attendance and were aware of his intentions because those speakers contacted Lindsay and provided documentation of this harasser’s public statements on the matter.

At the conference itself, Lindsay had no contact with two of those speakers. He did not address the problem of harassment in his remarks, although one of last year’s speakers has since dropped out of the secular movement due to the harassment she received. He did not address the use of the official conference hashtag by other long-time harassers, which was obvious to everyone tweeting and everyone using Twitter to follow the conference. He did, however, shake hands with the harasser and give him an official welcome to the conference, an action that was promptly broadcast by the harasser in attendance.

This is an insult to those harassed, but it has broader effects than mere insult. Lindsay’s behavior on this topic has energized and emboldened these harassers. They are lauding him as a hero for standing up to the victims of harassment. They are crowing to those they harass that the weekend was a victory for them. They are filling official CFI blog comment threads with malicious nonsense that is being allowed to stand. They are copying him on their Twitter harassment, which has increased dramatically over the weekend and since the conference has ended. Some examples:

@jeh704: @GretaChristina @NotungSchwert I loved @RALindsay talk at WIS. please retweet and keep the hater out like Greta.

@mykeru: @SecularWoman You demand an apology from @RALindsay? How about you carpet-baggers apologize to the secular community? @Secularlyyours

@slappyhappystack: @jennifurret @RALindsay oh stfu u silly cunt

Lindsay is aware of all of this. He has not spoken out to stop it. Because of his actions during the conference and his lack of action after the conference, speakers and former speakers at the conference are facing harm. Vendors and people who raised or donated money to send people (including men) who couldn’t afford tickets to Women in Secularism are facing harm. The CEO of CFI used the Women in Secularism conference to his own ends in ways that support those who are working to drive many women out of the secular movement.

As speakers, writers, and thinkers, we support the work CFI does. We promote CFI’s programs to our own wider audiences. We provide our time and our skills to further CFI’s mission.

In return for doing all that for CFI’s Women in Secularism conference, we were insulted by CFI’s CEO and required to do more work to make CFI’s conference a success. As a parting gift, many of us face continuing unpleasant repercussions of the actions he took while we were aiding his organization. This is unacceptable.

At a minimum, Ron Lindsay owes us, his staff and volunteers, and the people who paid to attend his organization’s conference an apology that demonstrates that he understands the harm he has caused and commits to repair the damage. Anything less will make it difficult, if not impossible, for us to continue to support CFI the way we have in the past. While we support CFI’s work, we are not willing to be abused or see others abused to see that work go forward.


[13 speakers from the 2013 Women in Secularism conference]

Women in Secularism Speakers Letter to CFI Board

37 thoughts on “Women in Secularism Speakers Letter to CFI Board

  1. 2

    I think you meant anti-vaccine, didn’t you?

    Otherwise, in keeping with everything else that’s been said already.

  2. 4

    The board carved out time to receive responses and make a decision. I respect that. I used that time. That doesn’t necessarily mean they haven’t made up their minds in the meantime, though.

  3. 6

    (Snark on)

    Maybe he’s waiting for Justin Vacula to tell him he was in the wrong. After all, it seems that he’s the one who really counts in all of this, having been officially welcomed and all.

    (Snark off)

  4. 7

    I’m being ragey and frustrated today. So, I forgot to say:

    I’m very glad you did this. It’s a great letter. He showed a tremendous amount of disrespect to the women scheduled to speak that weekend, as well as most of the people in attendance, as well.

  5. 8

    I’m wondering why Elisabeth Cornwell wasn’t asked/invited to sign. She works for the Richard Dawkins foundation, not CFI (unlike the other three), right?

  6. 10

    The whole piece is spot-on and very well-supported. If they don’t understand your grievances after this it would be clear they’re willfully ignoring them.

    That said, I have come to the conclusion that asking for an apology is hardly sufficient. This sort of behavior needs to have consequences, or it will simply be something that privileged CEOs and similar enablers-by-cluelessness can repeat, marginalizing women who are standing up to harassment, and then expecting us to be the greater party in forgiving them…while they have learned nothing and will continue to marginalize us, because they can, and they have been shown that all they need to do to placate those they have wronged is issue a few contrite words without being meaningfully affected in their reputation and status.

    A few analogous issues to why being “forgiving” isn’t always appropriate is here: http://skepchick.org/2013/03/steubenville/ (The original article is excellent, and Ctrl-F for my name for some of my issues with forgiveness; I can’t seem to link directly. And, before anyone tries to willfully misinterpret–while the original post is about rape, I AM NOT trying to draw any equivalence to this situation and rape. It is simply that fixating on forgiveness has similar problems for a multitude of issues.)

    Anyone who has such disrespect for us that he would make such a speech and write such blog posts couldn’t possibly value our esteem on any meaningful level, thus rendering any apology meaningless. So, Ron Lindsay might make an apology because he’s been informed he has to…but will it really sink in? Will it actually cause him to reflect on those who have raised objections (when he didn’t care enough to read/understand all they had written about Atheism+ and harassment issues before the conference!)? Is he invested enough in valuing our opinions that he actually cares that he has to request a return to our good graces?

    His behavior has harmed people. It is the responsibility of CFI to remove him from a position where he can do harm until he has satisfactorily proven that he has learned from his mistakes–with ACTIONS, not just words. It is the responsibility of CFI to demonstrate that they hold the CEO of their organization to the highest standards of ethics and professionalism, and that they are more concerned with the well-being of their members and allies that coddling their executive structure. For these reasons, I feel it is essential that Ron Lindsay at the very least take a leave of absence after this episode, and should probably resign.

  7. 11

    Thanks for the clarification, Stephanie. And thanks too for sharing the letter. I look forward to the response…

  8. 12

    including the patently false notions that feminist women in the secular community don’t want to hear any ideas about feminism from men, and that we are attempting to silence men.

    Nobody sees the irony?

  9. 13

    This is a very well-worded letter and I agree with the authors and signers.

    In the aftermath of the debacle, maybe we could explore whether technology makes it possible to have 80% of the value of a conference doing something virtual at 20% of the cost (or less).

  10. 14

    No, Bill, we don’t. It’s not silencing anyone to say, “We’ve already looked at those ideas, taken them apart, looked at the evidence, and found them wrong.” Why, did you think it was?

  11. 15

    It seems to me that Ron Lindsay should resign, or announce his resignation, by a certain date. Someone as clueless as he is is really irredeemable. If that day passes without the resignation then a new host organization should be sought for next year’s conference. Stephanie just happens to be associate president of an organization that I think would love to host it.

  12. 16

    Clueless? Or malicious? Or is that question totally beside the point? We don’t really need to know the motive to evaluate the harm in the action, I think. I too think resignation, or getting the boot, is more useful than an apology, as I suspect it would be a backhanded “I’m sorry you were offended” bit of crap. I too will be awaiting the reaction.

  13. 19

    This is outstanding. I was at WiS2, but I missed the first day, including Lindsay’s address. When I read it, a lot of things that felt a little strange about the rest of the conference suddenly made sense. WiS1 and 2 have so far been my only forays into organized secularism, and it’s really demoralizing to see how much good work by so many hardworking, clearheaded people can get derailed by one clueless leader.

    Thanks for laying out the grievance so clearly. There is absolutely no excuse for the CFI Board not to understand the problem now. If they fail to make an appropriate response, it will be extremely disappointing.

  14. 20

    I’m planning to write to the board to suggest that Dr. Lindsay go through a training program to help him understand what he did wrong, and learn not to do it again.

  15. 21

    I think the most gobsmacking weirdness of his statement is his taking advantage of being the head of CFI to make an unopposed argument that women’s concerns aren’t important, and that he feels personally silenced about it? I mean, how much more privileged a position to speak can you be given with regard to a conference than to give the opening address, and he uses it to complain how if we’re not careful, we won’t be able to hear him?

    FFS, it’s a completely egregious throwing-of-toys-from-pram by a man who can’t bear the idea that he might have to actually listen to a woman making reasoned arguments, ever. And a wilful unwillingness to perceive the very privilege he’s using to make the complaint about how he is being silenced?

    I’ll say again, the reason people like Lindsay worry about women having a chance at sharing the reins of power, is he’s afraid we’ll treat him the way he’s treated us and thought about us.

  16. 23

    Oh, good, I’m glad there’s going to be official discussion about this. Since this is presumably the same board that thought WIS was a good idea in the first place, I’m more hopeful than I might otherwise be that good things will come of it. I’m glad you sent (and shared with us) this well-argued letter.

    Tangentially, I’m curious about the tactics of your conspicuous refusal to name in the letter the “harasser” you mention. (Justin Vacula, wasn’t it?) You’re so careful about not naming him that it must have been a conscious decision, but on first inspection I can’t see why it matters. I’m sure everyone involved knows who you’re talking about. Was it perhaps to keep the focus of the letter on Lindsay’s actions rather than Vacula’s?

  17. 24

    Maybe this is too obvious to mention, but I’ve often regretted not saying something because it might be obvious.

    Does anyone know who the biggest donors are to CFI? They might be people who would stop donating if Dr. Lindsay didn’t do any grandstanding like that. In 2010, one donor stopped donating whose donations had been about 25% of the total. No matter how much the board disapproves of Dr. Lindsay’s grandstanding, they might rather let him do it, than lose a large portion of their income, possibly more than they’re getting from women’s groups. If CFI is important to you, it might be better not to put them in that position, as long as Dr. Lindsay isn’t actually *doing* anything to obstruct the progress of women in secularism. Is he? Of course his grandstanding is a little demoralizing and distracting, but I mean, is he taking any consequential actions that obstruct your goals?

  18. 25

    Uh, Jim? If the donors to CFI are as profoundly anti-feminist as you hypothesize, how would the organization ever manage to take consequential actions that aid our goals?

    Also, it seems to me (though I’m observing this whole fracas from the outside) that you’re minimizing Lindsay’s impact. A convention (or for that matter a movement) is a social phenomenon to start with, powered largely by volunteer work and donations, so it seems misguided to assume that social disasters like Lindsay’s can’t do any real harm. By all accounts, Lindsay was seriously disruptive – when the speakers at a convention need to worry about providing moral support to the staff, as the letter above describes, something is badly wrong.

  19. 26

    Robert, yes I understand that. I’m not at all sure of what I’m saying. This is pure speculation. I haven’t been able to find any current information about donors. I don’t know how important CFI is to the women in secularism. From some things I’ve read, there is a lot of support at CFI for women in secularism, and most of the donors might be in favor of that, or at least not against it. I’m just speculating that there might be one or a few anti-feminist donors who donate a large portion of the budget. *If* CFI is important to the women in secularism, and *if* Dr. Lindsay’s grandstanding is the only way that CFI can see to keep getting those donations, and *if* the demoralizing and distracting effects can be managed well enough, and *if* that grandstanding is all he does, then *maybe* it would be better not to back CFI into a corner on this.

  20. 27

    Robert, sorry, I forgot to address this:

    “If the donors to CFI are as profoundly anti-feminist as you hypothesize, how would the organization ever manage to take consequential actions that aid our goals?”

    LOL! I don’t see why not. CFI might be able to do plenty to aid your goals, without losing contributions from anti-feminist donors, if Dr. Lindsay’s grandstanding is good enough, and if you don’t back CFI into a corner. Besides, you can use his grandstanding to highlight the problem.

  21. 28



    So, basically you’re saying to stop saying stuff that will earn you a black eye? Because the man of the house is the one who brings home the bacon, and by god he can smack the little woman around anytime he feels like it?

    Fuck off.

    If the CFI donors are that anti-feminist, then I want to know about it so my money doesn’t co-mingle with theirs. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.

    If the prospect of losing my money is outweighed by some misogynist fat cat’s, then that’s not an organization I wish to be associated with in any event.

    So. Win-win all around.

  22. 30

    “he can smack the little woman around anytime he feels like it?

    No. In my view he should be penalized in some substantial way, and/or sent into some kind of training, in feminism for example, or a treatment program for men who batter women.

    None of that requires backing CFI into a corner with a publicized demand for a public apology. That’s just more empty grandstanding, and I imagine just as much a performance for donors as Dr. Lindsay’s chest-pounding.

  23. 31

    ! It looks like I just nullified my own idea. The demand-an-apology grandstanding of Women in Secularism might be just as indispensable to keep their donors as Dr. Lindsay’s chest-pounding might be for CFI to keep theirs.

  24. 32

    jimhabegger, if you’d like to keep suggesting that everyone asking for an apology is just being insincere and money-minded, take your fucking opinion elsewhere.

  25. 33

    I don’t think that everyone who is asking for an apology is just being insincere and money-minded, but I see how it would look that way, and I apologize.

    What Dr. Lindsay did looks outrageous to me, and did from the very start. I think he does owe everyone an apology. The letter expresses very well my feelings about it.

  26. 34

    Also, for information, for whatever it might be worth, I deplore the defamation campaigns against you and other FtB bloggers, including the trumped-up doxxing allegation against Ophelia.

  27. 35

    Okay, Jim, you’ve said your piece; given that seven of the past ten comments on this thread are yours, it might be a good idea to take a break.

    Stephanie (et al.): I presume it was a deliberate decision not to name, in the public posts carrying the text of the letter, the thirteen signatories. (Or am I just being too lazy to get the full WIS2 speaker roster, subtract the CFI employees, and notice how many are left?) What were the reasons for that? Were some of the thirteen concerned about making themselves targets for (further) harassment?

    And please note that I in no way intend to imply that there isn’t a good reason, or that it was the wrong decision. …Or even, for that matter, that I or other readers of this blog have a right to know.

  28. 36

    Some advice…
    You aren’t sure what you’re saying?
    You dont know how important CFI is to women in Secularism.

    You know one of the things Ron whined about–men being told to shut up and listen?

    Try it out.
    Read more.
    Listen to what women are saying.
    Use what you’ve learned to formulate an educated opinion so that you can be more confidant in what you’re saying.

    I won’t apologize for being condescending to you, because that was a deliberate choice on my part because I find what you’ve said to be ignorant and offensive**.

    Only YOU can correct that.

    **if you’ve read the OP you should see the harm done. Women in Secularism, among other things, should be welcoming and inviting to women who are interested in Secularism. If there are donors more concerned with Ron being able to grandstand (which, incidentally, is another offensive thing you said, as it minimized what was actually done) they aren’t terribly concerned about women being involved in the movement.

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