Everyone (Not You) Should Be Welcome in the Atheist Movement

It’s funny how things change.

Back in the dim recesses of history, otherwise known as about five years ago, I was ruining the atheist and skeptic movements, otherwise known as advocating for codes of conduct at conferences. It was a lonely process.

The other people working on the issue were great. I made some of the best friends I’ve ever had. There just weren’t a lot of us. Institutional support was…uneven. A few organizations were happy for our help. Others claimed we were persecuting them for the money.

Atheist media? Well. Let’s just say that we were generally spoken about, not with. We were called dogmatic and divisive, as though divisions have only one side. The interviews I did on harassment were mostly outside these movements. And the group of media hosts who stood up for our place in the movement were—I’m kidding. That didn’t happen.

Today, however. Oh, today is a glorious new day in atheism and skepticism, in which critical voices are welcomed as our movements’ immune systems. We are hailed for our work to improve our collective thinking and positions on important topics. We are, as every atheist and skeptic is, seen as a crucial part of these movement.

Yeah, I’m kidding about that too.

I’d avoided getting deeply into the recent golden mean piece blaming the left yet once again for destroying the atheist movement. It’s been done. It’s stale and trite, and anyone who’s been in these movements for a few years but doesn’t bother to address the old objections to both-sides-but-really-you-rabble-rousing-SJWs isn’t going to respond to me repeating myself.

I could have done a links post of old work, I suppose, but then Thomas Smith came out with a response. There are pieces of it I disagree with, mostly in places where he was willing to concede equivalencies I’d argue against and his acceptance of labels as demonizing, but it covered most of the bases. I could let it go and let someone else pick up the work this time. It felt like freedom.

Then came the weekend of the Gateway to Reason conference.

Don’t get me wrong. It was a good weekend. I visited a friend in St. Louis and managed to time it so I could see a number of people pulled into town by the conference.

Since I couldn’t attend the conference itself, I kept my socializing mostly to meals and the end of the open area where I couldn’t hear the talks. Listening in felt like cheating. But when David Smalley gave his talk about the atheist movement eating itself, I was outside the auditorium coordinating a ride to the airport. The door was open. I couldn’t not hear what he said, and now I can’t stay silent.

Why? Because he’s talking about me, he’s talking about people I worked alongside, and he’s being grossly dishonest in what he’s saying about us. And very few of the people who will hear this talk will understand that because these movements are singularly terrible at maintaining any sense of history.

So what the hell did Smalley do in his talk? Start with what he didn’t do: He didn’t address a single one of Thomas Smith’s criticisms. He didn’t modify his thesis, and he didn’t change his examples. The Black Lives Matter/cops have tough jobs was in the talk just as it was in the post—worded differently, but still missing the point Smith notes. He didn’t actually call out the “Regressive Left” specifically, but that’s where his examples of bad behavior came from.

You see, we’re throwing people away in this movement for not being pure and perfect. We’re excommunicating imperfect people willy-nilly, and people are leaving atheism because it reminds them of their old churches that did this. Because, you know, people didn’t actually leave their churches over the god question, despite this being the basis for the atheist movement’s claim to any kind of broad rationality. No, they left because people were mean to each other. Petty mean.

What does he mean? He means holding people to account for things like retweeting white nationalists when those white nationalists make a point someone agrees with. Or at least that’s the part of the situation he mentioned. He left out the content of any retweets in the movement that might fit his description and didn’t talk about any hypothetical tweeter’s response to being criticized for making the error.

When he did get specific about Richard Dawkins, he mentioned that Dawkins was “flawed”, having made some tweets about Down Syndrome and types of rape. Why is this dishonest? Because I haven’t seen elisions that large since people tried to explain why Rebecca Watson should want to be propositioned in elevators.

What Dawkins said was that it was immoral to carry fetuses with Down Syndrome to term. He didn’t just tweet it. He defended the position at length. If the suggestion that the “excommunication” of “flawed” people is movement-ruining, I’m not even sure what to call someone advocating that people they deem flawed be denied life.

As for Dawkins and rape, we have minimizing the trauma of childhood rape, making spurious claims about “types” of rape and repeating those claims after being corrected, and trying to suppress and minimize rape allegations. I admit that this is a lot to cover in a talk, but if an accurate and full description of the complaints about someone (which this isn’t; there are far more) would take the bulk of your talk, it’s not honest to reduce those complaints in order to call them trivial.

While we’re talking about minimization, let’s revisit one section of Smalley’s blog post:

If you accept the existence of a deity based on someone else’s personal experience, you’re called an idiot.

But if you refuse to avoid particular people due to harassment allegations based on someone else’s personal experience, you must approve of all harrassment.

I’m not going to tell you that Smalley approves of all harassment. I don’t know of anyone who would. But look again at that link about Dawkins caping for Shermer. How many people’s personal experience can you look at and dismiss before it’s entirely reasonable to say that someone who interviews him doesn’t care whether the people they promote are harassers or rapists?

That’s not an insinuation. I want a number, especially since we know harassment and rape actually exist in this universe. I assume it falls somewhere between zero and Cosby. When does it become reasonable to look at a person’s behavior and draw conclusions about this? Because right now, Smalley is insinuating that I’m unreasonable despite the fact that I’ve laid out my argument on the topic. For all his talk about active listening, he’s representing it quite poorly too.

Before you start trying to tell me he’s not talking about my views or behavior, stop. I’ve been in arguments around harassment where Smalley said he was being treated unfairly. I know the people he’s objecting to. I know what they said. Some of them are those friends I made working on codes of conduct. He’s talking about me and people like me, even if the examples he uses don’t sound like it. That disconnect is part of the problem here.

I wish I could say Smalley’s alone in this. He’s not. Like every other part of this, this too has been done before. Zach Weinersmith posted a comic on the phenomenon several years ago while attending a skeptical conference. I’m not fond of the wording, but choosing to engage with your most-challenging critics instead of your least-coherent is an important part of active intellectual engagement.

Once you do that, you’re in a better position to understand all the bundled arguments and explanations that less-skilled opponents incorporate by reference and slogan. You know what they’re saying rather than what you’re hearing. And if you hear something that seems weird to you, you can ask people who are skilled at translating those arguments into terms you understand instead of getting hung up on a word.

Or you can choose to continue to get emotional over people you know being called “racist” or “sexist”, or being informed that what they’ve said is classic rape apology. Whichever. I mean, it’s a choice. It’s an ironic choice for someone making the argument that they should be treated better and given the benefit of the doubt, but it’s at least predictable, because pieces like this are never about everyone treating each other better.

Allow me to illustrate.

Five years ago, in the second round of Burn the Divisive! I was part of the atheist/skeptic movement for (the first being about confronting religion head-on), I had a number of people working to push me out. In one incident, when I’d been tipped off that JREF was planning to get rid of their anti-harassment policy for TAM, I applied pressure to keep that from happening. (It did anyway.)

In response, people literally argued that I should be shunned. I should be ignored. People who were responsible for the safety of their attendees should refuse to answer my questions about how they were planning to do that. Also that I should suck someone’s dick.

The person who did that? Well, he tasked someone to tell Smalley that his Gateway talk was “perfect”. No, he hasn’t had a change of heart. No, he hasn’t apologized to me. No, he hasn’t said it’s important for our movements to embrace their internal critics instead of shunning them.

Neither has Smalley. He continues to shun his own critics as he takes people to task for blocking others. He continues, as people did five years ago, to say his critics are only in it for the money and fame.

I could call this hypocrisy, but I don’t think it quite is. When Smalley says “we” as a group shouldn’t do these things, he means it. (More or less; his views aren’t that well argued through, so I’m not always sure he understands all the implications of what he says.)

What I actually see when I hear Smalley talk about these things is an embrace of a hierarchical movement where everyone has their role to play. Some people are just supposed to be the leaders. They’re supposed to be the celebrities, the listened-to, the leaders. Other people are supposed to support, to listen, to follow. And if everyone embraces their natural role, all will be well. If not, well, some people are disposable.

Why do I hear this? Because he’s championing the people who already have power. Because he describes critiques very differently depending on where they come from. Because he finds nothing odd in using the face or words of two black atheists—who’ve been very clear in their own speech that elements of these movements require strong critique—to support his own opposing point.

Because the guy who screamed red-faced about me sucking his dick while being ushered out of these movements heard the same thing. And liked it.

Is shunning/excommunication religious? Shunning over shibboleths and rules that don’t create strong communities is. Shunning is used much more widely, however. Shunning over damage to communities is how communities protect themselves. It’s a social immune system.

Photo of a wooden kneeler with a green velvet cushion in front of a low altar.
None for me, thanks. Crop of “100_1829” by ttarasiuk, CC BY 2.0

Hierarchies and “natural” roles are also religious, though. They exist outside religion as well, but I’d argue that they’re more required for religions to propagate than shunning is. They’re also often very harmful to communities, and they themselves use shunning.

So when I hear Smalley talk like this, I know what my place in this “united” movement is supposed to be. I’m not planning to stay there, so I also know what consequences I’m supposed to accept. I’ve seen them before. I see other people, more active in critique than I’ve been lately, being subject to those consequences now.

That’s not the movement I want. I didn’t sign up as an activist to play a support role to people who can’t be bothered to support me. I didn’t sign up to nod along to any kind of nonsense because certain people aren’t supposed to be accountable. I’m not here to endorse a new priest class.

Does that make for a messy movement? Apparently, since plenty of people do seem to want that priest class. Does it make for churning communities? Well, no, because any community that isn’t strictly controlled from the top does what we do here. Have you met knitters?

If you want my cooperation in creating a less divisive movement, start with the dissidents. Show me how you actually intend for everyone to be heard and respected and protected from shunning when they demand accountability. Show me how you’re keeping them from being eaten.

Because me? I stand pretty close to the top of these movement hierarchies. If you can’t even stand up for someone like me, there are huge swaths of people you’re leaving behind. And that’s not a community.

Everyone (Not You) Should Be Welcome in the Atheist Movement

4 thoughts on “Everyone (Not You) Should Be Welcome in the Atheist Movement

  1. 1

    Sounds like some folks take God out of it but just can’t leave the worst of religions behind: the hierarchies, the power struggles, the paternalism, the “you must believe exactly what and how I do”, which is nothing more than a different theology, capped by segmenting into different sects which define others as the enemy. I wonder how long before an atheistic Torquemada comes along.

  2. 2

    Always enlightening to read your in-depth takes on these issues, alongside your ever-present well-documented linkage. I stopped listening to Smalley some time ago, because he felt too sugary and do-goody, pretending atheism and skepticism were the Most Important Causes on Earthâ„¢ with only religious people or religious thinking doing anything wrong, ever. Either luck or good instincts, because this nonsense is much worse. False equivalences and bothsideism are much more divisive to the movement than actual internal criticism and accountability (both much needed).

    Thanks Stephanie.

  3. 4

    I like hierarchy, but I’m absolutely and utterly opposed to this pernicious and twisted idea that those in power should be able to get away with abuses of power.

    And that’s what the pro-rape atheists, which now include Smalley, are pushing. As far as I’m concerned, the proof that Michael Shermer is a repeat rapist is completely overwhelming (it was catalogued in detail a while back with ample evidence from over a dozen people… and Shermer kept changing his story, proving that he was lying). But these awful people continue to employ him and treat him as if he’s an acceptable invitee to conferences.

    Haven’t they ever read Spider-Man? “With great power comes great responsibility” Those in power must be held to *higher* standards of behavior than those without power, not have excuses made for them.

    The pro-rape atheist movement hierarchy is not just replicating a priest class, they’re specifically replicating the Catholic Church style *abusive* priest class. Even supporters of meritocratic, responsible hierarchies should find this appalling.

    I think the thing to do is to call them what they are: objectively pro-rape.

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