Deep Rifts: A Fairy Tale

A pale, wrinkled face approaches. Its owner clears his throat and proceeds to tell what he calls a true tale of absolute horror:

Once upon a time, in a place very like this one (but not quite — plate tectonics and all), there was a community of people dedicated to reality-based thinking. All they talked about was how Bigfoot doesn’t exist, psychics are frauds, and homeopathy doesn’t work. There were no disagreements within the group. They never made statements about anything but taking down claims of the paranormal and debunking pseudoscience. All of these people just happened to be white and male, but they never actually said people who weren’t white and male couldn’t join.

Then, one bleak day, some people who weren’t white and male came along and ruined the whole thing by complaining about stuff that had nothing to do with the True Meaning of the movement. They wouldn’t stop. Some of the white males even joined up with these fight-picking types. The True Meaning of their movement became sullied and the Actual Goals diluted. Never before had people not wanted to join for any reason, but now, people disgusted by all the squabbling left or decided not to join. The True Heroes who bravely proposed that nothing but Bigfoot et. al. ought to be discussed were silenced, and darkness overtook the land.

The End.

This tale about the early days of skepticism and/or atheism (but especially skepticism) serves as the foundational myth in the minds of not only explicitly anti-feminist skeptics, but has also taken root in the minds of those who claim disdain for “both sides”/”all that unnecessary fighting” as well as those who long for what they see as a past where skepticism was “real” skepticism, without any hint of feminism, anti-racism, and LGBT advocacy. Some in the latter group might even be sympathetic to the plight of marginalized groups but feel that skepticism should be kept free and clear of those issues.

To them, I present an alternative creation story.

Someone approaches. You might be curious as to what they look like, but it appears that their face is glued to their palm.

The palm pivots to one side a bit to reveal a mouth, which begins to recount a curious tale:

In a time not so long ago, I was treated unfairly because of something about me that set me apart from the rest of the overall population. I heard whispers of a community of people who defined themselves by their dedication to reality-based thinking. I was heartened to hear of such a group — where no claim went unexamined — and was sure that I’d be able to find a place with them. When I finally made my visit, I immediately saw that all of these people were white and male. Although I felt some suspicion and wondered why it was so, I reminded myself that they never actually said people who weren’t white and male couldn’t join, so I joined anyway.

I soon discovered why. Their constant “jokes” about what made me other to them, their comments and remarks, their insistence that I act and think exactly the way that they did, their refusal to apply skeptical principles to what they held dear, their general inability to see beyond their own perspective, and, worst of all, their silence towards those who blatantly insulted me — all that wore me down. I thought about quitting, but realized that I had as much of a right to the principles they claimed to uphold as they did.

Still, I didn’t want to make too big of a deal out of it. Then, I started talking about it, quietly at first. I found out that there were people like me who left or didn’t join in the first place because of the treatment they received. This outraged me. The principles in which I believed so dearly were becoming associated with prejudice and oppression and rejected based on that by people like me. I decided that I would fight to end this sullying of the reputation of my community by working to improve it. I applied the very principles we all claimed to hold dear to their own prejudices and….

The Beginning


Just as “New Atheism” is sometimes viewed as more combative, confrontational, and aggressive merely because its members do not stand by as their rights are violated, the new faces of skepticism are seen by some as unnecessarily divisive. In reality, those divisions have existed for a long time and were invisible to those who were not directly affected by them. Closeting these issues forced those hoping to change them to feel alone and unable to gain allies in their fight.

Replace the Bible with “asshole behavior” and re-caption it “Non-Male/White Skeptics, Before and After”

A separation between social justice issues and rest of the concerns of skepticism is the luxury of those who do not belong to a group that has been — and indeed, some that still very much are — marginalized by skepticism. The struggles have been obvious and painful to many of us long before they became readily apparent to everyone else. While I (and everyone else, likely) wish the changes could have happened with less vitriol, they’ve still made skepticism a better place for more and more people by, among other things, thoroughly dispelling any false notion that skepticism (and atheism) are the exclusive province of white men.

Since when was more of what we all claim to hold dear a bad thing?

Deep Rifts: A Fairy Tale

49 thoughts on “Deep Rifts: A Fairy Tale

  1. 3

    The community drives people away because it is self-isolating. This is probably due to the fact that people in skeptic/atheist communities have some kind of deep-seated need to feel superior/special.

    This kind of patronizing polemic is a good example of everything that’s wrong with every social justice/atheist/anything-ist community ever. Nobody’s mind is being changed. Two things happen.

    1. People looking to feel like they are unique latch on to this contentious viewpoint and parrot it to show how progressive they are

    2. People who this is attacking feel, well, attacked, and get defensive. They move on with a bad taste in their mouths for what ever ‘ism they just got smacked in the face with.

    That’s not to say you aren’t correct. Just that your approach only damages your cause while providing more spooge for the circlejerk.

    1. 3.1

      My point is that we used to drive away people who weren’t white and male. Now, we drive away people who can’t handle being around people who are openly against the marginalization of people who aren’t white and male — and I’m okay with that.

      I wonder what you mean by “your approach.”

      1. Again, I think that only exacerbates the problem by making these people defensive.

        Your approach is along the lines of “Look at these idiots. Aren’t we way better than them?” with some SJ buzzwords and slogans sprinkled about.

          1. More a comment on the body of your writing as a whole.

            No, you did not specifically use the word idiot, but phrases like:

            “Then, one bleak day, some people who weren’t white and male came along and ruined the whole thing by complaining about stuff that had nothing to do with the True Meaning of the movement.”

            “The True Heroes who bravely proposed that nothing but Bigfoot et. al. ought to be discussed were silenced, and darkness overtook the land.”

            They come across as very, very condescending. One does not condescend to someone they consider a peer.

          2. Yeah, Heina, the fairy tale language made pretty clear to me, and always indicates character simplification. Very nicely done.

            While I agree that the hard-core misogynists or homophobes aren’t going to change their minds from reading it, I took the main point of the article to be stating the same events from 2 points of view, with equal assurance-of-rightness voiced on both sides. Every marginalized group needs a safe place to air what they mean and how they feel, to know others share their point of view and are allowed to vent the hurt. Yes, it can become a circle jerk of hot air, but it’s also a necessary and affirming step of coming out of the closet for many groups.

            In short, I don’t think -every- article on Skepchick needs to be written for the nurturing, welcoming persuasion of the aggravated white male skeptic. Yes, we should have those, too, but it’s not all about them.

        1. You’re assuming the positions of the silent majority. We are a group who is used to attacking ideas, and used to having that attack on ideas be perceived as attacks on the person.

          But honestly, “X is too harsh and you’re making Y more defensive and it isn’t helping” ignores the “Z” crowd that sees both sides of an argument and weighs it. It’s why arguing with fundamentalists in private is a waste of time, but in public serves a purpose. The same is true here, except the bubble of indoctrinated “majority” is white males rather than theists.

          And honestly, and this is just me as a white male speaking, I don’t see a discussion of problems as an attack on me any more than someone saying I have bad breath is. Yeah, at first, ‘how dare you?’ and ‘I can’t help it!’ But I guess I’m glad in the long run and will go take some mouth wash and stop breathing on you.

          1. The Z crowd is not the problem. I am one of the Z crowd.

            Also, arguing with fundamentalists in public is serving a purpose- for both of you. Making a public show of debating atheists does just as much good for their cause as it does yours. (This is a tangent, but it’s astonishing how many organized atheists fail to recognize that their embrace of empiricism is a form of faith. Unless you have personally verified every single relevant scientific principle that supports your viewpoint, your views are faith-based).

            There’s a difference between saying “I’m sorry, your breath is a bit unpleasant” and “GTFO sewermouth!” They have similar intent, but the former identifies the problem and its effect on the smeller, whereas the latter attacks the person for a problem they didn’t even know they had.

          2. Can you cut it with the tone trolling and perhaps add something to the discussion? Finger-wagging adds NOTHING. Do you have something constructive to say about the actual content?

          3. Our cause is visibility and dispelling myth (at least for me). Their cause is conversion and quelling dissent (although sometimes it’s also victimized moaning, which I’ll admit, is prevalent on our side too. It’s just more accurate on ours.)

            The zealot (be they religious or misogynistic) is insulted by differing opinion. Anyone that hops back over the fence because I sound too insulting… they can have.

  2. 4

    Hooray for the tonal criticisms. Honestly, it takes me back to the seventies when everyone was telling my mom she came across as “shrill” if she demanded her rights to, say, own property.

    It’s a pretty good way of dismissing an argument without actually criticizing the argument itself. Just tell someone to tone it down. That’ll hold ’em for awhile.

  3. 5

    “Again, I think that only exacerbates the problem by making these people defensive.”

    And? So what? Given the people Heina describes in her fairytale, fuck em! I really don’t see why their sensibilities need to be protected from the horrible non-white, non-male sceptic-atheists being mean to them by saying their behaviour is excluding them.

      1. Nonpareil, your commitment to being willfully obtuse isn’t remotely cute or interesting. But I will grant you this: you’re a great example to point out to my son and say, “See this guy? Don’t be this guy.”

          1. Hypocrite. Why is it ok for you to come in here and demand we mold out tone to fit your ideals, but perfectly fine for you to be a condescending pricked in reply to someone? Get over yourself.

            Also, this comment is stupid and makes no sense.

      2. Gosh, I wonder why no one ever thought of that.

        This might sound strange to you, nonpareil, but the non-confrontational way was tried. You didn’t hear it? That’s because no one listened when we were non-confrontational.

      3. Oh, it’s better, huh? Oh, really? Why? Do you have any studies to prove this? Or are you just presenting your PERSONAL FEELINGS about one single post as some sort of proof that Heina is, I don’t know … what is she doing? Are you trying to imply that she’s harming someone or something?

        Can you fucking stop repeating yourself? You dislike her tone. WE GET IT.

  4. 8

    Feel free to delete my posts (except for this one, so evidence remains that I condoned this action). The psychosis of some posters is unsettling, and I would rather not stoke it.

    1. 8.4

      My psychosis is more solipsistic. Which is good, because most of this thread has been the inactive parts of my brain engaging each other.

      For what it’s worth, I don’t get all the rancor toward you. I mean, I think you’re -wrong-, but I don’t get the rancor.

  5. 11

    ” …they’ve still made skepticism a better place for more and more people by, among other things, thoroughly dispelling any false notion that skepticism (and atheism) are the exclusive province of white men.”

    I find this the best part of this article.

    It’s odd that any such notion ever came about (at least, to me it is), given the variety of skeptics I’ve seen over the years.

    Time for this myth to be busted.

  6. 13

    My feeling is the skeptic movement had to grow the way it has – there’s no other way it could grow. Bigfooot, UFOs, they were the nursery for the movement. Baby steps, where the concepts of critical thinking could be introduced in an almost abstract way. Why it was originally white and male is pretty obvious too, as is why it now has to be more about real world “mysteries” such as homophobia, sexism and racism. (I’m now imagining a slightly strange version of “In Search Of..”)

    The tone thing… mmm, yes, I’m a middle aged very polite white englishman, so I do find things get a little abrasive for my ears now and then 🙂 but once you’ve spoken in a soothing voice and your child is still waving the carving knife around, you sometimes have to yell to get them to PUT IT DOWN!!!

  7. 14

    It’s disheartening to see – skepticism and atheism should have been a natural allies to the feminist and social justice movements. Heina’s right. I think that the feminist and social justice movements stepped on the toes of the white male atheists and skeptics in simply being a greater movement with more universal goals. The WMA&S were patting themselves on their backs for being so much better and above the religious when suddenly they are not the hot shit anymore. Oh well, boo hoo. Grow the f* up.
    On the other hand, it’s great to see that not all WMA&S are still 5.

  8. 15

    Nice post, Heina.
    I remember when I used to get Skeptic Magazine, and mostly enjoyed it, but found the undercurrent of smugness and glee over other people’s stupidity unpleasant (and thought it bizarre that they always quoted the Spinoza line: “I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them” while at the same time including the particularly horrible Darwin Awards section which is all about laughing at people, including children, that get themselves killed in stupid accidents).
    It seemed that a large number of skeptics would have been unhappy if the entire world ceased to contain thoughtless, irrational, unskeptical people, since the whole point of being a skeptic was to feel superior to others.
    But of course there’s nothing like smugness to blind one to one’s own errors. Smugness is antithetical to skepticism.

  9. 16

    Psychotic 6th Class, Jack, reporting!

    Great post, Heina!

    You would have to be pretty badly up yourself to take umbrage at such an inoffensive little story. I guess that’s the whole point.

    As for Tone Troll #989,998 – wow, really? No shit, Sherlock! We never heard that before.

    Maybe there needs to be an award for being TT #1,000,000? The Titanium Tone Troll Trophy or something?

  10. 17

    Sometimes engaging in this movement on even a passive level is exhausting. There’s just so much negativity and anger surrounding topics that are important to me and should be important for people identifying as skeptics to address.

    I need posts like this every once in a while, to be able to remind myself that it is worthwhile, and that we’re not just railing against a monolithic movement that doesn’t give a shit about us. Because the movement doesn’t belong to the monolith — it’s ours too : )

    Great article. It definitely made my day a little better.

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