How Many Do We Lose?

Over the weekend, I talked to two professional activists in the secular movement. One had just left a job and didn’t intend to get another in the movement. The other is strongly considering getting out of the movement. Both are people whose work we are going to miss. Badly. Both are female.

This isn’t a coincidence. It’s a symptom of a movement that has let inequalities, injustices, and unprofessionalism fester too long and hasn’t been proactive about the steps needed to clean it up. This has gotten septic. We’re losing good people because of it.

I was reminded of that today when I read Sarah Jones’ post about the threats she received on Facebook and the pile-on she received on Twitter. It’s titled, “Opting Out“.

This isn’t reason in action, it’s fundamentalism. If your response to the suggestion that you take rape seriously is threaten and abuse me, then you are not rational. If your response to anyone making these allegations is to blame them for their own trauma, you are not rational. If you immediately assume that a woman who says she’s been raped, assaulted or harassed is lying, you are not rational. If you refuse to believe even the possibility that someone you admire is capable of assault, then not only are you irrational, you are actively protecting a toxic subculture.

I grew up with this bullshit. I went to school with this bullshit. I got over this bullshit years ago. My patience for it is buried right alongside my faith in God.

I will not participate in any movement that attacks survivors. I will not swear allegiance to a set of leaders at the cost of my ability to think critically. I will not do either of these things because these are the trappings of fundamentalism and I rejected fundamentalism years ago at no small personal cost.

In Sarah’s case, we’re lucky. She works for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. She doesn’t have to work directly with movement atheists. Her boss isn’t even an atheist. She can do what she needs to do for her job while staying away from the rest of us. If she hadn’t, after the reception she received as a vocal feminist? Yeah.

So it’s time for us to think long and hard about this. How many good, professional activists do we let be driven away before we put an end to this? How long does this go on as the good ones realize they can make better money and have far better working conditions somewhere else? How many do we lose?

How Many Do We Lose?

16 thoughts on “How Many Do We Lose?

  1. EEB

    Oh I’ll say it.

    I am so happy that I found atheism a little over three years ago, and I’m happy that it didn’t take very long at all, maybe a couple weeks, to jump from the Richard Dawkins website (my intro to online atheism; I’m such a cliche) to PZ and from PZ to the many amazing feminist atheist bloggers, like you, Rebecca, Ophelia, Jen, Amanda Marcotte, etc. etc. etc. and the awesome community here on FTBlogs. (Also: thank you to the many bloggers on FTBlogs that are committed to doing the super hard work of keeping their comments sections relatively safe, or at least patrolled often enough to allow a wonderful, supportive community to develop.)

    Because if I had just discovered the online atheist community in the last few months? I would have turned right around and left, I think. I don’t think I would have considered the effort of dealing with the rampant misogyny (even when not specifically directed at me) worth the payoff–where, now that I actually know people in the community, when I know the importance of the issues we are fighting for and what we can accomplish when we fight, I know that’s it’s absolutely worth it.

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if for every person who publicly, openly “opts out” there are dozens more who quietly just close out of the blog or webpage and go back to reading Sherlock fanfiction or whatever, screw atheism. And will probably join the ranks of atheists who say things like, “An atheist community is so stupid; why would you just stand around and talk about what you don’t believe in?”

    (Uh. Not to knock fanfiction. It was just an example. I’ve got another open tab with a Sherlock story, actually, which is why it was the first thing I thought of.)

  2. 5

    No worries. Stephanie. All the dudebros will just re-fill all those positions so they can get the tree house back to themselves so they can talk about all the cool ways they’re going to debunk alien-created crop circles and how they’re going to make Sylvia Browne look bad. They don’t need no stupid girls giving them cooties and making them think about the relevance of the movement to larger society or any of that stupid stuff anyway.

  3. 6

    …relevant comment over at Jason’s.

    I can’t tell you how disappointing it was to learn that the people who ridiculed me till I was suicidal turned out to be right. I wish so badly that Atheists had befriended me and helped me out of my faith. There’s just no way you could deconvert all those Christian women and invite them to mix with the kind of people that are in this movement. But here’s the thing; they’re losing their faith anyway meaning that a day will come when Atheists wake to find themselves surrounded not be brand new supporters but by embittered ex-faithfuls, angry that the people who knew the truth did nothing but laugh and scoff instead of apply their intelligence to including them in reality.

    link to comment

  4. 7

    To paraphrase Patrick Stewart, the power is in the hands of us men… The power to not be assholes! We can do it!

    Every moron like myself who watches the train wreck thinking “gee there are lots of asshole men in the atheist movement” who says nothing and doesn’t offer support to the women who want to be part of the movement but might feel unwelcome is part of the problem.

    Men who aren’t assholes but aren’t speaking out against assholes… If you read this, it isn’t like voting, your voice really matters cause assholes are the ones speaking for us! Drown em out!

    (Dammit how many times must I spell assholes before swype realizes it is a word?)

  5. 8

    I’ll won’t go to a gathering of atheists socializing. not enough good people. by which I mean, not enough good people being actively good. That said, if I wound up in a room full of socializing atheists I know who I’d make a beeline for and stick close to because those good people being actively good really stand out.

  6. 9

    I too have basically given up on just associating with atheists. I’m now looking into local humanists and others because I don’t socialize with anyone outside of the internet. I’m not sure why I ever thought that socializing around non-believers was a good idea, and all sorts of people use skeptical skills, even bad people. I think what this community really needs is a solid organizing principle and some really top-notch symbology.

  7. 10

    My experience with organized skepticism/atheism parallels my experience with my field of expertise — I cannot stand the people who represent/typify the group, so much so that I must actively talk myself into publicly acknowledging my association in cases where it is absolutely necessary to do so; otherwise I neglect it or obfuscate. This is sadly not a rare experience.

    I’ve lost count of my associates who never acknowledged themselves as Pre-Med, Pre-Law, Computer Science, Fine Arts, Criminal Justice, or pre-whatever as undergrads because they loathed the other whatever-majors and refused to associate with “them” even though they were set on going, and did go, into that whatever-field. The cohabitants, or rather prospective cohabitants, of that space were really that repellant to them, despite their love of the field. Some may even have been driven away forever. Are we losing skeptics or atheists? Well, the law of large numbers just about guarantees it.

    Am I a skeptic? An atheist? A humanist? Yes. Are there asshats who are also these things? Yes. Well, that sucks, but it is no damned reflection on me. Fuck those asshats. I’m not taking any shit for their worthlessness. And it is about damned time that everyone stop putting up with crap because crap is willing to be on our team. Better to be solo that teamed up with crap.

  8. 11

    I have a different take on this problem in that I don’t see it as being endemic to atheism.

    We’re seeing the same problems in the field of computers and consumer electronics, in fantasy and science fiction writers’ organizations, in academia (as Corvus and others have pointed out), and elsewhere. These are not groups that “organize around not doing things”. So, I don’t see that as the problem. Instead I think we are all reaping the whirlwind of the anti-feminist backlash. And dismantling that backlash will take time, and the effort of many people across many communities.

    These other groups talk about what they do (programming, writing, teaching, etcetera) all the time. So do atheist and secularist and skeptic groups, but maybe we haven’t done this enough to change the stereotype about us. While our kinds of atheist and skeptic groups should continue to popularize counter-apologetics, maybe we need to talk more about what we do after the philosophy lecture. These include lobbying, visibility campaigns, court cases, summer camps, science education, etcetera, which might not be getting enough attention by the not-we’s.

    And the progressive atheist groups should also talk more about what our values are (including equality of the sexes). Would that get the attention of those people whom we want to get involved? (Boom! Pro-science moms with kids in school. There’s one right there.) Would having even more women visible in media saying these things get the attention of more women? (Boom! The teenage girl who thought she was the only female atheist, seeing a woman interviewed on television about freedom from mandatory school prayer.) I think that emphasizing our values would also sharpen the contrast between our kinds of atheist/skeptics and the old bigfoot-and-aliens crowd.

    In the meantime, how do atheist, secularist, and skeptic groups who want women to join them get noticed by more women who might be interested in atheism and atheist activism? We need to shout louder, and wave our arms more, and divert traffic from the sexist groups to the safer groups. But I don’t know how to do this, especially when the dinosaurs are so big. Should we also actively recruit, going out into the field to find these women (and people of color, and LGBT folks, and working class people, etcetera), and make sure they don’t get stuck in the sausage-fest?

    And maybe forming networks with other people fighting the same fight will help us. Look at the attention the Block Bot got in the coverage of Caroline Criado-Perez’s banknote campaign. Consider that a lot of these other groups that are fighting internal sexism are “geek”-related. If we are going to change society, I think we’ll have to work together.

  9. 12

    The irrational misogyny of atheists I knew in real life, followed by the dismissiveness that big-name atheists had towards feminism, kept me from taking this movement seriously–or even considering joining it–for nearly a decade.

  10. 13

    The serious potential of a lot of people reacting to the movement’s toxicity with a decision to “Opt Out” seems to be growing, as does the alternative meme, “Burn it Down and Rebuild.” Of course, the apocalypse is a sci-fi scenario. In real life it doesn’t happen all at once, and people make the decision every day to walk away and try starting something that won’t fall into the same traps.

    So the key questions MAY be, how do we (the disenchanted) recognize and validate those new attempts, and how do you (the leaders who believe in change) find us, convince us something has changed, and reengage us in the new thing?

  11. 14

    While I still try to keep abreast of what’s going on in the movement to an extent, I no longer go to meetings or atheist events, even when they’re local, cheap, and easy to get to. A large part of this is that I’ve graduated college and moved away from the group I know and am comfortable with, but I have to admit, I came into that group knowing no one, just wanting to make connections and have discussions with people with a similar mindset to mine. I could do it again, but things have happened in the meantime that have made me very wary of stepping into a new group of organized-atheist strangers.

    Part of that is just the stories of abuse and harassment that keep coming up. Don’t get me wrong, these are things that badly need to be addressed. But their existence, and the dangerous vitriol of those who deny or belittle the seriousness of these abuses scare the living hell out of me. I don’t want to expose myself to that.

    But the last part of it is an excessively uncomfortable and awkward conversation that occurred between a number of attendees (myself included) and one of the conference organizers at the one atheist conference I attended, during which the organizer described, for no apparent reason and in graphic detail, how he had recently had rather violent sex with an unnamed woman, and then stole her silverware. Rumor had been going around my local group that an acquaintance of mine had slept with this man, and she had, at the last moment, cancelled her plans to accompany us to this conference. While the organizer seemed to expect us to take this whole story as a hilarious joke, everyone listening was flabbergasted and had no idea how to respond to something so wildly inappropriate. As the only woman at the table, I felt beyond uncomfortable by these words coming from someone who was highly respected within the community, had a job within it, and had, in fact, at one point called me to check in that everything was alright after something awful and traumatic had taken place at an event I had organized.

    Those few moments of conversation eclipsed, for me, the awesomeness of that convention. I had no clue how to act, how to talk about my experience, whether I should even bring it up. Elevatorgate had just gone down, and I didn’t want to get drawn into what was looking like a more and more awful and divisive cesspit of awfulness. But I also didn’t know how to talk about the conference without bringing up this thing that had killed it for me, and my promise on my fledgling blog to cover my experience there went unfulfilled, because I didn’t know what to say. And more and more, that confusion and fear ate up my desire and ability to contribute or interact with the movement.

    I’m only one person, and I’ll certainly admit that many women in this movement have suffered abuses far worse than anything I’ve ever seen. I have a hard time even calling that conversation harassment, as it seemed far more directed at the majority of males at the table than it was at me. But that little thing was enough to make me much more wary of the movement at large, and if such a little thing can do that (strong evidence of systemic sexism though it is), I cannot imagine how many more women have been driven away by the much more serious, harmful, and disgusting abuses that are being exposed as disturbingly prevalent in the ranks of organized atheism.

    (Sorry for the essay…)

  12. 16

    I may indeed be opting out. I am a chronic volunteer and tend to support with money, as well. But all this … is very uncomfortable. And there are other organizations who need me and are willing to treat me like a human being – and who treat other women like human beings. I haven’t fully decided yet, but . . .

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