Women in Secularism: The Good, The Bad, The Awesome

Earlier this year I had to make a financial choice — I could either afford to go to DC for the Women in Secularism conference or I could afford to go to Vegas for The Amazing Meeting.  I say this not to denigrate TAM, but I could not have made a better decision.  The Women in Secularism conference is far and away the best atheist/skeptic conference that I’ve ever been to.  If you missed it, and you probably did, you need to not miss it again.

One of the things that I have trouble with in this movement is the lack of focus on issues that “matter”.  I came to the secular movement from the LGBT movement, fresh off of the Prop 8 loss, I discovered that out-and-proud atheists also had a movement, and I was eager to join a fight that I thought impacted everything, including LGBT and women’s issues.  So I went to the OCFA conference, to local skeptic and atheist meetups, I went to TAM, to Dragon*Con’s Skeptrack, to the SCA lobbying training, I wrote about it here, I wrote about it for secular.org, I gave speeches.  In short, I got involved.

Photo by Brian Engler

This month is my two year anniversary of being involved with this movement and, as someone who cares deeply about social justice, it has very often been a very difficult movement to be a part of.  For me the great appeal of secularism, the great tragedy of religion, and my own personal passion for this cause is all centered around the fact that religion is the source of many evils or used to justify those evils perpetrated against humanity.  As was said several times over the weekend, UFOs and Bigfoot aren’t that important to me, skepticism is much more interesting when applied to issues that impact people’s lives in serious ways.  Children, minorities, people of color, women, poor people, the disabled, the elderly, LGBT, and other marginalized groups would benefit so much from having the tragic consequences of religious bigotry removed from their lives.

So when people in charge of important organizations speak on a panel at TAM to say that social justice isn’t and shouldn’t be within the purview of skepticism, or people in my local atheist group leave because they think it is inappropriate that someone posted a link to a story about the Rally Against the War on Women because who cares about that feminist bullshit, or important people in the movement tell me not to bother submitting something to TAM if it has anything to do, even tangentially, with women’s issues, I start to doubt why I am even involved.

This conference was the antidote to that.  If you are someone in this movement who wants it to be about creating change in the world, this is the conference you should have been at.  If you are someone who thinks all that atheists and skeptics should do is talk about is why the bible is stupid and why UFOs aren’t real, then it really wasn’t for you.  I think that UFOs and critiquing the Bible and all of that are important discussions, but I think they are a reflection of an old, traditional, white male scientist way of thinking, and it’s not why I want to be involved.

I know why I am involved, and this conference was it.  In reality, it wasn’t the “Women in Secularism” conference, it was the “Secularism for Social Justice” conference.  I am proud to have been a part of it.

HIGHLIGHTS (all quotes paraphrased)

  • Typing 13000 words while liveblogging
  • I place as much value on anonymous comments made on blogs as I do on statements of eternal love made after a late night drinking at a bar. – Susan Jacoby
  • This conference is a good start, the first of its kind, but these panels BELONG in regular conferences. There are places for these issues at every conference we hold. Especially on science and education. Things have not changed enough, and women are the primary educators and caregivers. Secular organizations, if they want more women, are going to have to address this. The reason men aren’t here isn’t because the conference isn’t welcome, but because men in the movement don’t give a shit about this. – Susan Jacoby
  • Both religion and sexism are hard to give up. They’re ingrained and it’s tough to overcome, especially because it’s not conscious. Giving up religion feels freeing, but giving up sexist beliefs as a man isn’t necessarily freeing because it means examining, acknowledging, and confronting privilege. It feels like reentering a place where you’re made to feel guilty. But sexism impacts men too, and men don’t seem to realize it. Men get called girly as an insult and are driven away from being themselves if they’re not “man enough”. They don’t care about reproductive rights. As though they don’t have to deal with getting a girl preggo. – Jen McCreight
  • Sikivu and Ophelia disagreeing strongly, and talking about it rationally and pleasantly.
  • Recognition of the underground acknowledgement of the bad guys in the movement and how women are afraid to speak up about it because it will hurt them instead of the well-known man.
  • Panel arguments that were over details of implementation and how to fight, not over whether there was a problem in the first place
  • I have never found a trace of morality in my own religion – Wafa Sultan
  • The complete rejection of the Prime Directive and everyone agreeing that helping women in other cultures is a moral duty, not cultural imperialism.
  • It’s cultural imperialism to help these women? Tell the to the girl who had her clitoris cut off, tell that to the girls who had acid thrown on their faces for going to school, tell that to the women being stoned to death for the crime of being raped. Tell that to them and then FUCK YOU.  – Greta Christina
  • Having a military base in Saudi Arabia isn’t imperialism but opening a school is? If you can invade a country how can you not open schools? We need more secular schools, not more army bases! – Wafa Sultan
  • Wafa Motherfucking Sultan.  For many personal reasons, it was a very difficult and traumatic talk to sit through and I was nearly sobbing by the end of it, if I hadn’t been transcribing, I’m sure I would have been.  I hope that this talk goes up first, it needs to be seen.
  • A lot of people are talking about issues that apparently have nothing to do with secularism, should Catholic hospitals get public funding and refuse to give the morning after pill, should black boys be frisked without probable cause in NYC, we are skeptics, we’re good with numbers, we should care about it. These stories, we who are skeptical, we who believe that morality does not come down from on high, we who understand that it is our obligation as humans to first do no harm and make sure that others are not harmed, have to — HAVE TO — tell our stories. – Jamila Bey
  • We’re so foundational. If I can convince people to spend more time thinking about things, using critical thinking, it’ll fix a lot of these other problems I’m fighting for. Because our message is so basic and foundational, I think that it is a part of everything else. – Debbie Goddard


  • Some of the talks were either too broad and not focused enough.  I say this with absolute love, because there was not woman who spoke that I didn’t want to hear more from, but many of the talks were so detail rich on such a broad topic that they were very difficult to follow.  Annie Laurie Gaylor was particularly guilty of this, I’m afraid I didn’t retain very much of what she talked about because it was basically just a list of names.  Her argument, which was that women have historically been freethinkers, could have been made in a way that wasn’t as hard to follow.  I just didn’t know any of the names or have any point of reference.  Susan Jacoby did a lot of the using names without explaining who they are thing as well.
  • Using cards to take questions was great, but I didn’t have access to any and would have had to interrupt the session or leave to get cards to be able to ask questions.  I think there needs to be a stack under each chair.  Especially since my neighbors all grabbed all of the cards immediately when they sat down so I had none!
  • The talks were too long, I’d rather have heard shorter talks from more people and some of them felt a little stretched out, I’m thinking of Bernice Sandler’s in particular, but just generally I think hour long talks are excessive when you’ve got so many other people who didn’t get to speak.  The panels were the perfect length.
  • Attendance.  I would have liked to see a lot more men and people of color in the audience.  I said it was the Social Justice in Secularism conference, and I think that’s how it should be advertised, because it wasn’t just about women and it wasn’t just for women and women’s issues are human rights issues.  So much of what we covered this year was new territory for these conferences, I hope that the conference continues and continues to expand into covering topics like prison reform and drug policy — things that impact women even though they aren’t traditionally thought of as “women’s issues” and were brought up several times over the weekend.
  • I admit that, because I work in media and I study media, I am unusually focused on this, but I wish that there had been more time spent on addressing the representation of women in the media.  And if you need someone to rant about that next year, I’m sure I’m only one of a whole lot of women in the movement who could go on and on for hours.
Readin’ a list; Photo by Brian Engler

And my final complaint, which is not a nitpick and not the fault of the conference, is the tragic performance of Edwina Rogers, who literally read a list from an old power point presentation over the course of 15 minutes and then left the conference entirely without taking any questions.  She had been there before the speech, available to be approached, so she wasn’t hiding entirely and I wouldn’t accuse her of that, she was just avoiding having to publicly answer questions.  And she clearly was not hired to be a charismatic public speaker and I never missed the overly enthusiastic rabble rousing of Sean Faircloth more.  This wasn’t just my response, I heard this from several people who didn’t know anything about her background.

I also had the opportunity to meet her and I was disappointed in that as well.  She just threw talking points at me about opening state chapters, and she and Woody, her handler from the SCA, both acted like they didn’t know who I was.  This despite the fact that I was recruited by the SCA to be one of the the first bloggers for their organization’s website, I spent hours and hours last year with Woody, led a panel discussion for the SCA last year, and have sent them much feedback and, admittedly unsolicited, advice about Edwina.  If they don’t know who I am, it’s insulting, and if they do know and they acted like they don’t, that’s even more insulting.

That said, Melody Hensley did an amazing job with this and deserves all of the credit in the world.  Conferences, especially first ones, are incredibly difficult to pull off.  This was so much better than I had hoped for, I have come away impressed by everyone involved.  Well, almost.

I will be adding a list of resources mentioned while I was taking notes over the weekend, for people who want to read more or watch videos that were recommended.

Women in Secularism: The Good, The Bad, The Awesome

18 thoughts on “Women in Secularism: The Good, The Bad, The Awesome

  1. 1

    I love this post. Thanks. You are of course completely correct especially about this: UFOs and Bigfoot aren’t that important to me, skepticism is much more interesting when applied to issues that impact people’s lives in serious ways. Children, minorities, people of color, women, poor people, the disabled, the elderly, LGBT, and other marginalized groups would benefit so much from having the tragic consequences of religious bigotry removed from their lives.

    So when people in charge of important organizations speak on a panel at TAM to say that social justice isn’t and shouldn’t be within the purview of skepticism, or people in my local atheist group leave because they think it is inappropriate that someone posted a link to a story about the Rally Against the War on Women because who cares about that feminist bullshit, or important people in the movement tell me not to bother submitting something to TAM if it has anything to do, even tangentially, with women’s issues, I start to doubt why I am even involved.

    1. 1.1

      Thank you. I should say that one of the things that keeps me involved is that there are so many men who either get it or are willing to work really hard to try to get it. Voices like yours and PZ’s do a lot for us all.

  2. 2

    I managed to leave without meeting you, which was one of my very, very few disappointments from this convention. The live-blogging you did on this was amazing. Thank you.

  3. 3

    Your comment ” If you are someone who thinks all that atheists and skeptics should do is talk about is why the bible is stupid and why UFOs aren’t real, then it really wasn’t for you.” made me realize why I’ve approached then withdrawn from involvement in the atheist movement . It’s the debate mentality. Not that I don’t appreciate debate skills, it’s just that it feels like all debate, all the time. Plus my inability to separate trolls from sexist assholes in online comments doesn’t help.

    I wish I hadn’t had other commitments that weekend and that I had attended. Looks like I should make sure to attend next year.

  4. 5

    Sorry about not re-plenishing your notecards Ashley! I tried to add more between sessions but I guess I missed a spot 🙁 Impressed that between liveblogging and tweeting you’d be able to write out questions 🙂

  5. 6

    Fantastic post. I didn’t properly meet you either, dammit – we just said a quick hi in passing once, right?

    Ditto about Wafa Sultan, big time. I was all on fire to tell Liz Cornwell that RDF has to take her up so that she doesn’t have to ally with Christians and right-wingers, but I didn’t need to, Liz was all over it already.

    “I wish that there had been more time spent on addressing the representation of women in the media.”

    Yes!! I did throw it in as a last minute thing near the end, but I too would have loved to go on and on about it. A Martian looking at our media would conclude that humans are about 90% male.

    One quibble –

    “an old, traditional, white male scientist way of thinking”

    I reeeeeally don’t think we should see it that way – “we” meaning anyone who isn’t all of those things. I really don’t think we should make science a male thing or a white thing. It’s universal. Yes, socially, it’s still more male in some disciplines (not all! I think biology is at least at parity now), but epistemically it’s not, and that’s crucial. That’s what I was differing with Sikivu about.

    1. 6.1

      I should be clear to say I mean white and male and scientist, not any one of those separately. I am on your side in your disagreement with sikivu, but I do think it’s really unfortunate that there isn’t more arts and culture as part of the movement. My background is as a filmmaker and writer, so I am definitely very biased, but I feel like often we focus exclusively on hard science when there are other interesting and relevant things. So I agree that science isn’t inherently white and male, not at all, but I would like to see a broader range of points of view, including outside hard sciences.

      We sort of kind of not really met by sitting near one another with our computers.

  6. 7

    Ah right. (I don’t see a reply to reply button.) More arts and culture would be good, I agree. I probably overcompensate in the direction of science because I was so stupidly hostile to it as a Young Person.

    1. 7.1

      I have to hover over the comment with my mouse to get the reply thing.

      I overcompensate in the direction of art and emotion for the same reason. I wanted to be Spock when I grew up.

  7. 8

    Thank you for the recap. I was in Kamloops, BC, with PZ Myers and we both wished to be in two places at once. I hope they don’t coincide next year. As a trend-bucking, stay-home dad with a wife in a high-level position in a male-dominated field, I consider myself both an advocate for the equalization of our movement and a well-qualified critic of that movement.

    Regarding your later comment here on the thread, I too was involved with the film industry and have noticed a slight ignorance of good cultural and emotional methods of furthering the freethinking movement. Comedians have been great for this, and so have the Family Guy and Simpsons episodes, but we have to make sure we’re just as strong when the laughter dies down. The social suicide stories of the Clergy Project are a good start, as are Seth Andrews’s videos on his “Thinking Atheist” channel, the “revelation” testimonials of my book and PZ Myers’s recent daily posts inspired by the book, the We Are Atheism campaign, and most definitely Greta Christina’s explanation of why we’re angry; not to leave out Sean Faircloth’s message of how religions avoid legislation and put children in dangerous conditions. These are all brilliant ways of getting at the heartstrings of the minds we’re trying to change, and we ignore them to our disadvantage.

    Personally, I am getting interesting feedback from theists regarding my book and it would appear that the emotional angle is doing a fine job of rattling their biases toward thinking that our ancestors were all religious, and that even if they were atheist it didn’t mean that they were mean about it. Turns out they were atheist, and they were mean about it. They were quite aware that religion was no friend to justice, truth, fairness, or morality, and they were vehemently angry that it was getting all the credit. The fact that these thoughts aren’t all from scientists, but rather farmers and housewives, is another wonderful attack against those biases that would easily dismiss “smarty pants,” “university” types. The other side is flummoxed by this. You may see a similar event happening with Hank Fox’s “Red Neck, Blue Collar Atheist” book. The face of atheism is beginning to shift to a non-threatening, familiar face, and once people have that familiar identification, whether it be a homosexual or “non-white” friend, or (GASP) one’s own mother or father!, their prejudices end up dissolved and we can finally get on with our lives.

    30% of the letter writers in my book were women, two of them under 19 years old, and so I’ve linked to a few women that Susan Jacoby mentioned by name (but didn’t describe) and a few that even she may not have known about…






  8. 10

    Good report on the Women in Secularism conference. Just like with the opportunity cost that you experienced precluding you from attending all the atheist and skeptic conferences you’d want to attend this year, I’m sorry that I couldn’t make this event in D.C.; I was at a skeptics conference in Europe over that same weekend.

    Leaving aside your conflation of atheism, skepticism and secularism, allow me to respond to a few of your remarks.

    I appreciate that you reference the diversity panel I programmed into last year’s TAM schedule. JREF is happy to have taken the lead in such programming at conferences, having had both a panel and a workshop on women’s issue in 2010, and a panel on diversity in 2011. We plan some similar programming along these lines in 2012. And I am personally proud that half the speakers at TAM last year were women, and about 40% of the attendees were women (we programmed TAM this way not out of some commitment to quotas, but because we know that skepticism in general and the event in particular are better off if we include the talents of everyone, not just one half of the population). This is a marked improvement over where these allied movements were 15 years ago when I first got involved professionally.

    As the only organization in the skeptic/atheist/humanist world run by a gay man, JREF takes issues of diversity seriously ( http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/1430-diversity-at-the-amazng-meeting-9.html ), including political and religious diversity. (I might add that this one reason why we find it very important to avoid conflating skepticism with atheism; to repeat what I have said elsewhere: JREF is not an atheist organization (http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/1081-new-atheist-directions-at-the-jref.html ). Similarly, even though Randi and I are both gay men, JREF is not a gay rights organization..)

    But to clarify, I never argued that skepticism should be completely removed from social issues. Indeed, I argued quite the opposite, both in that diversity panel and in a number of previous talks (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/05/10/d-j-grothe-skepticism-and-humanism/) that I have given over the years. The skepticism JREF advances is motivated by our interest in the well being of others, and out of our commitment to make the world a better place, not just from a petty desire to prove others wrong. When skeptics rail against the use of the ADE 561 dowsing rod as a bomb detector at checkpoints in Afghanistan and Iraq, we do so because that unfounded belief kills people. When skeptics rage against psychics who prey on the grieving, we do so not only because belief in psychics in bunk, but because belief in psychics really hurts people.

    I do believe it is important for nonprofits to remain focused on their unique missions, and to avoid “mission creep.” The JREF’s mission is to “promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today.” Obviously, there are many other important missions and causes for folks to commit themselves to, in addition to JREF’s cause. Indeed, for nearly 20 years I’ve been involved with LGBT activism, as well as with atheist activism, and with environmentalism. But I would never join, say, PETA and insist they focus on other causes I care about like global warming instead of their mission, nor would I join the NRA and demand they start advocating for gay rights instead of the right to bear arms.

    That said, JREF’s work over many years has been precisely to address the harm that results from undue credulity, and often within marginalized communities. Consider that Peter Popoff preys mostly on socio-economically disadvantaged communities of color, or that there is a lot of harmful pseudoscience peddled about and within the gay community. Or look at the work of Leo Igwe, the Nigerian skeptic and activist who works with the JREF to combat persecution of “witches” in Africa.

    Lastly, I might correct the misinformation or misunderstanding that there are people who go around insisting that skeptics only focus on UFOs or Bigfoot; a quick review of the program over the last few TAMs should disabuse you of the misunderstanding, or combat the misinformation. And I’d also enthusiastically take issue with your claim that Biblical (or Koranic) criticism is a reflection of a “white male scientist” way of thinking: I know of many important women Biblical critics and exegetes, and I wouldn’t dismiss the worthwhile project — one that has so many implications for social justice — so easily as you may be doing.

    Thanks again for the review of the Women in Secularism conference. I think dialogue about and between diverse communities broadly supportive of the skeptic, humanist and atheist agendas only serves to strengthen our movement(s), especially to the extent that such dialogue is conducted in the forward-looking and constructive manner that some of it is done in these days. And FYI, we will be posting the diversity panel from last year’s TAM in it entirety in the weeks ahead, in an effort to curtail further possible misunderstanding or misinformation about what was said and what wasn’t said.

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