Some Questions for the Secular Policy Institute

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Some of you may have read the recent statement from the Secular Policy Institute, criticizing/ condemning/ disassociating from/ it’s not clear what exactly but in some way saying something bad about PZ Myers. For the record: PZ is a colleague and friend, and as far as I can recall I’ve never met or worked with Michael Nugent, but I care almost not at all about the conflict between them. I do, however, care about the issues underlying that conflict, including the issue of how we should or should not talk about sexual assault. And I care about how some individuals and organizations — including the SPI — are responding to this conflict, since their responses have implications that reach beyond this particular dispute.

At the end of their statement, the Secular Policy Institute asked, “What are your thoughts?” Since the SPI invited me to join their organization not that long ago — an invitation I declined — I thought they might want to hear my thoughts. Here are some of them.

The secular movement has a problem, in that some of our foremost leaders get media attention by causing controversy.

Can you please specify who, exactly, you’re talking about — and can you give examples of the behavior you object to?

See, in my experience, words like “controversy,” “infighting,” “bashing,” and “discord” are very subjective. As I’ve written before: When we disagree with someone or think the point they’re arguing is trivial, we tend to call their arguments “infighting,” “bashing,” “discord,” “strident,” and “creating controversy”; when we agree with someone or think the point they’re arguing is important, we’re more likely to call their arguments something like “constructive debate.” If you don’t specify the people you’re talking about, and cite examples of the behavior you’re criticizing, it makes it difficult to have a discussion about the behavior in question, or to decide whether we agree with your characterization of it. Your readers will likely assume that your accusations apply to whoever and whatever they happen to not like.

So, specifically: Does the “problem” of atheist leaders “getting media attention by causing controversy” include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Peter Boghossian, or any other fellows in your institute known for making controversial statements, both about religion and about other atheists? Also, does it include Michael Nugent, who in recent months has written 32 blog posts, totaling 75,000 words, criticizing PZ Myers? If not — why not? How do you decide which controversies are acceptable and which are not — and who gets to make that decision?

While this helps them draw in followers…

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Do you have any evidence to support your statement that these “foremost leaders” cause controversy for the purpose of drawing followers? In my experience, with a few exceptions, “insider baseball” blog posts about conflicts within organized atheism aren’t the big traffic draws: they’re only interesting to the limited number of people who are already following the story. And writing controversial posts about prominent atheists comes at significant cost. It often cuts connections with people who could promote one’s work: I’m not the only person in this movement who’s alienated people who were helping with my career, and who could have helped more in the future. Do you have any evidence to support your statement that these unspecified “foremost leaders” write controversial posts for any reason other than that they think the issues are important?

…it causes an atmosphere of infighting in the secular community that hinders us from partnering, takes our eye off the ball of important issues, and makes us look crankypants to outsiders.

Can you please define “infighting ” — in a way that distinguishes it from the “constructive debate” you seem to support? I’ve written my own essay proposing some distinctions between infighting and healthy debate — I’d be interested to see yours. More specifically, can you please explain why your statement, the one I’m discussing right now, does not constitute “infighting”?

No wonder the stereotype of a secular person is condescending and angry.

Do you have a problem with the image of atheists being condescending and angry when it comes to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Peter Boghossian, or any other fellows in your institute known for their angry, cutting criticism of religion?

For that matter, did you have a problem with perpetuating the image of atheists as angry when you invited me — the person who literally wrote the book on atheist anger — to join your institute?

“We don’t bash religion…

Does this “we” include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or any other fellows in your institute known for harshly criticizing religion?

We believe the secular movement should stop rewarding those who cause discord.

Discord with whom? Again — does this apply to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Peter Boghossian, or any other fellows in your institute known for harshly criticizing other atheists? For that matter, does it apply to Michael Nugent, and his 75,000 words in 32 blog posts criticizing PZ Myers? And does it apply to your institute, and to this statement, the one I’m responding to right now? If not, why not?

We believe the secular movement should stop rewarding those who cause discord. Why are “shock jock” bloggers invited to lecture at major secular conferences?

Can you please specify who these “shock jock” bloggers are — and can you provide links to some of the blog posts you object to? Again: If you don’t specify the people you’re talking about, and cite examples of the behavior you’re criticizing, it makes it very difficult to actually have a discussion about it.

Curiously,
Greta Christina

Some other good posts on this topic:
A Little Background on the Secular Policy Institute (Updated), Stephanie Zvan
Thoughts on a movemnent: a “shock jock” blogger responds to the Secular Policy Institute, Alex Gabriel

Note: Yes, I’m back from my break.

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Some Questions for the Secular Policy Institute
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38 thoughts on “Some Questions for the Secular Policy Institute

  1. 3

    A thing that has helped to alienate me from movement atheism: the growing idea in certain circles that some celebrities in “the movement” constitute an infallible Holy See whose words are above criticism of any kind, and that to offer them criticism makes you a malcontent who just wants to cause discord and “deep rifts.” If rationality above all is the goal of organized atheism, our movement is failing at it pretty hard.

  2. 4

    Thank you, Greta for clarifying so elegantly what’s going on here.

    Silver lining—– SPI provides an unmistakeable demonstration of how to project one’s own faults onto others.

    How oblivious of one’s own behavior can one be and still be able to breathe.

  3. 7

    32 blog posts totaling 75,000 words sounds like some pretty serious infighting to me. I feel bad for Nugent, having the SPI call him out so harshly. But I suppose they have no choice if they don’t want to reward discord.

  4. 8

    Please correct me if I’m mistaken, but didn’t Dawkins speculate some time ago about the idea that certain people stir up controversy to get blog hits and profit off ad revenue? And didn’t you provide evidence that this wasn’t the case (for the reasons you describe in your second block of questions above), which he seemed to accept? And didn’t he then float exactly the same balloon some months/years later, as if it had never been addressed? IIRC Stephanie documented the odd memory lapse at the time (and reiterated the refutation, or linked to you doing so).

    Striking to see an already-refuted claim trotted out like that, by people who (if they just asked their own Fellows, never mind if Dawkins had any direct say in drafting the statement) should have easily been able to find it addressed. Makes you think maybe other Fellows have a history relevant to the questions being asked, the omission of which looks a tad disingenuous.

  5. 9

    Some of us still have quite vivid memories of how once there was quite a bit of agreement between PZ and most of these folks about the need to generate controversy together. We didn’t end up on different sides because some people sought to create artificial infighting. We ended up on different sides, because, a very serious problem was discovered, and some people suffer from it, while others benefit.

    There’s anger and controversy because the issue at hand is a problem that causes a fair amount of harm, and so there’s no way to talk about it accurately without upsetting people … especially those who benefit from the current situation.

    When you’ve got problem that benefits some people, while causing other people suffering, those people will not be able to agree, not because of rhetoric, but because of facts. And controversy will result. There’s no way to “work across the aisle” without perpetuating the problem.

    When the truth is that certain ideas cause a great deal of harm, you can’t “work across the aisle” with the people who love those ideas, without making the people who love them very upset. That’s why most attempts of atheists to work with religious people have either failed or backfired. Where they’ve succeeded, it’s almost always been with very “liberal” religious people, who have few or no extreme beliefs, and instead have beliefs which say almost nothing about the world. In other words, “working across the aisle” only worked, because all the important differences were already gone.

    There’s no “working across the aisle” on slavery, or bigotry, or abortion, or global warming, or sexual assault, or extreme religions, because there’s no way to talk about these problems accurately without saying that some peoples ideas are causing enormous harm.

    Tolerance is only good for solving little problems. When it comes to big problems, tolerance can only help perpetuate the problems.

  6. 10

    It’s been my experience that when people talk about “unity” and/or criticize “infighting”, what they really mean is “shut up and know your place.”

  7. 14

    picklefactory @5

    “Crankypants”? Really?

    If you’re a true thinky thought leader whinging about an alleged poopyhead then you can channel your inner six year old and use playground terminology like “crankypants.” “Nanny-nanny-boo-boo” and “nyah” are also acceptable terms but only for the true thinky thought leader.

  8. 15

    Superb takedown of the kerfuckle from the neocons. Nugent writes 32 articles about something or other, but the neocons complain about Benson’s 127 articles on Jaclyn Glenn and Michael Shermer. “What about them?” The fucking neocons slur Well, the difference is, Benson is not a fucking neocon.

    PZ has to be right because he opposes neocons – a lot of people simply don’t get that. The fucking neocons keep coming up with the same lies over and over again. Some complete bullshit about a “self-confessed child rapist” being given a safe haven at Pharyngula? Wot! Where? Bullshit! The neocons just keep pulling shit out of their New White Supremacist Atheist asses.

    Encouraging to see a high profile atheist, PZ Myers, call out New Atheism for being a “white supremacist” movement.

  9. 18

    They could have made it far shorter and to the point, something along the lines of: “We used to like PZ when he targeted the people we felt deserved it, but now he’s asking us to hold ourselves and our friends up to the same standard, as a result we think he’s icky and should be shunned. Also, please give us money.”

  10. 20

    Martin Wagner @3:

    A thing that has helped to alienate me from movement atheism: the growing idea in certain circles that some celebrities in “the movement” constitute an infallible Holy See whose words are above criticism of any kind

    That doesn’t so much alienate me from movement atheism as establish that the ostensible movement atheists are not, in fact, atheists. Infallibility is a sufficient but not necessary characteristic to establish an entity as a god–even the catholic church recognizes the pope as infallible only when speaking as the voice of god–and when these schlubs act as though high-muckity-mucks are infallible they declare themselves to be theists whether they realize it or not.

  11. 23

    Nope. I had to ban her at Pharyngula for repetitively spamming “n*ocon” and “N*w Wh*te Supr*macist Ath*ist” — one idea is that we’ve got a crackpot trying to seed FtB with those terms so that they’ll seem like common phrases used around here to google.

    Or she could just be obsessed with neocons.

  12. 24

    Ashley banned her after more of her word soup recently. I strongly suspect “melanie” is doing exactly what PZ is suggesting — trying to seed the place with nonsense like that, arguing for strawman positions as terribly as possible, with little understanding of the actual thread or original post. To me, that smells like a Channer “Op” tactic.

  13. 25

    Quoting melanie (April 13, 2015 at 8:28 pm),

    Encouraging to see a high profile atheist, PZ Myers, call out New Atheism for being a “wh*te supr*m*c*st” movement.

    I think there’s your explanation — that statement about PZ is nothing less than a complete fabrication. There are several possible things it might be used for: one of which is to seed the idea that this is a typical statement by an FTB blogger or commenter about ‘New Atheism’ that would go unchecked, or to pave the way for later Google bombing or quote mining. Dirty pool.

  14. 27

    criticizing/ condemning/ disassociating from/ it’s not clear what exactly but in some way saying something bad about PZ Myers.


    Sounds like a fair summary. As for the answers to your questions, lorn in #6 nailed it … and there is not much to add, I’m afraid.

    What was the point of publishing a statement so devoid of content, I wonder? Seriously, why did they do it? On the face of it, it looks to me like a feeble nod in the direction of Nugent and AI – something like “let’s make a gesture towards our coalition member, but let us carefully avoid saying anything on the way!” Or was it something different? I’m not sure what to think.

  15. 28

    Great commentary on this fiasco! Personal disagreements are being fought via “institutes” and other organizations that are typically run mainly by small groups of individuals, some with personal vendettas. The supposed contents of this conflict are “much ado about nothing,” though digging under the surface does reveal some real and important issues (internet harassment, rape vs. consent while using alcohol, what are the criterion for being considered “official spokespersons” or “official organizations” of atheism, the potential for abuse of power among well-known members of the community, free speech, vitriol and hyperbole on blogs, and more I’m sure I’ve missed). And some unfair accusations and misrepresentations are being flung around–though I should say not all in one direction. I hope this rift can be healed, because there are some good intentions and incredible talent on both sides of it.

  16. 29

    It just astonishes me how insufferably coy they are in stating their case. “Some people are making us look like crankypants…!” Oh really. Just come out and fucking say what the problem is and who is causing it you disingenuous fucking cowards.

    Re Melanie @ #14: Can anyone make heads or tails out of what she’s talking about?

    Almost cerainly a slymepitter, going ‘covert’ to drop a bunch of anti-ftb talking points reworded to look less accusatory. “PZ has to be right because he opposes neocons – a lot of people simply don’t get that” – is just their usual ‘FTBers never question PZ’ shtick in disguise; I believe the hope is that it is accepted without demur by the commenters here so that ‘Melanie’ can go back and crow about us being a hivemind.

    Note also that the “self-confessed child rapist” comment is practically diagnostic by itself, as it is a not very well disguised repeat of the slymepit favourite: attacking Ogvorbis.

    The fact that such stand out due to their monumental silliness never seems to deter them.

  17. 30

    Oh and I thought the whole ‘we don’t bash religion’ is a particularly silly line, since we know that most of that group were tight buds with Hitchens, easily the most aggressive of all the ‘horsemen’ when scorning religion.

  18. 31

    I can’t help but think that the SPI has shot themselves in the foot with this one. It’s made people pay attention to them and actually look at where they came from and what they stand for. They were sort of flying under the radar before and not many really bothered to look at them closely.

  19. 32

    I love the contradictory claims that PZ does his thing to draw in followers AND that he’s driving people away from atheism. At least craft a consistent like, SPI!

    ********

    We get folks like [email protected] over at We Hunted the Mammoth, too. They’ll come in and spout a bunch of really horrible shit in the name of fauxminism, and then hope we all jump on board. (Wishing prison rape, in graphic terms, on bog-standard sexists is a common form of it.) They usually get spotted and shut down in just a couple posts. It’s almost like they’re not as clever as they think they are.

  20. 33

    The Secular Policy Institute looked, from day one, like a bunch of right-wing reactionaries creating a sock-puppet organization to sow division within the skeptic/atheist movement and neutralize it from within. Their “leader” is, after all, a longtime Republican whose entire scitick consists of demanding that secularists be nicer to Republicans who hate them. And the following quote from them only proves it:

    The secular movement has a problem, in that some of our foremost leaders get media attention by causing controversy.

    Um…isn’t getting attention and highlighting controversy what movements are FOR? The fact that they suddenly think this is a BAD thing, clearly proves they don’t anyone else to accomplish anything.

  21. 36

    It is classic agenda denial: Refuse to discuss the issue and instead attack people for bringing it up.

    Usually agenda denial is used to prevent discussion of a policy position that can’t be argued against, like when the NRA try to claim that it is wrong to bring up gun control after one of their supporters has murdered two dozen children in another of the school shootings their disgusting hobby results in.

    In this case however, the agenda denial is an end in itself. It is obvious that Dawkins feels his position under threat from younger folk. Dawkins would like the leadership of the new atheist movement to be restricted to lofty academics such as himself whose credentials are unassailable. Rebecca Watson then goes and proves that you don’t need to be a Regis professor to debunk wu-Science, let alone religion which is wu all the way down.

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