I’ve had this question rattling around in my head for almost a year now: why am I here, in the skeptical and atheist communities? Why do I include the labels “skeptic” and “atheist” in bio blurbs, and why do I cover topics and follow discussions associated with those labels? Why, given how little commonality I have with many of the folks who work full-time in these communities, given that some of the causes I care about the most are derided by vast swathes of the people with whom I’m expected to break bread, should I spend my time and effort on parts of my identity that I don’t find assaulted on a daily basis?
And more importantly, why are others in these communities? What do their reasons for being here say about the makeup of these communities?
I’ve answered the question for myself, by telling my deconversion story and the winding path it took me through other social justice issues. I deconverted shortly after my Catholic “confirmation”, ironically enough, and found myself swept along by witnessed injustice with regard to women’s rights, gay rights, and human rights generally. I consider myself a humanist, but because I am unashamed of my atheism I also appreciate and support the Atheism Plus movement which advocates for better inclusion within atheist spheres for minorities, the disabled, and viewpoints that are otherwise underprivileged. I strongly feel that the skeptical and atheist movements cannot succeed as movements unless diversity is embraced and the lessons learned from inclusion are thoroughly incorporated into our methodologies and philsophies.
The pushback that we’ve seen in our communities against Atheism Plus, or really, against any attempt at creating a “side-brand” of atheism or skepticism or secularism that explicitly deals with diversity, is exemplar of the sort of division that I’m talking about when I say that we are a loosely affiliated group of communities, rather than a unified overarching community known as “atheism” and another known as “skepticism”.
We each use a number of labels to describe ourselves as a shorthand, even those of us who claim to eschew labels; the Venn diagrams of all the labels we choose for ourselves help to narrow the number of people like us to such a degree that it’s well possible you might be the only person in your specific set of label intersections. Some of these labels are more important to us than others. My believing that there are no gods is a part of my identity that I feel is important enough to not eschew the label of “atheist”. My humanist perspective is derived directly from the logical inference that because there are no gods, and because I feel the human race is generally a good thing despite its innumerable faults and horrible pockets of self-interest, so I cannot extract how I feel about our obligation to our fellow human beings from the fact that I know there are no deities around to shoulder that burden.
And in the case of specific injustices, specific aspects of daily reality that I see and loathe and find the need to fight against, I proudly wear the labels of “feminist”, “LGBTQ advocate”, and yes, despite the hue and cry from antifeminists, I also wear the label of “egalitarian”. The fact that I am an egalitarian means I cannot help but ally myself with the people whose equality are under daily legislative and cultural attack. In the case of gender politics, women are decidedly and obviously disadvantaged, despite the “manosphere’s” protests to the contrary.
So when I categorize which of the labels I associate with myself primarily and which ones are the most important to me, I find “skeptic” and “atheist” bubble-sorting lower than others. As a result, it seriously grates on me that I’m expected to cohabitate in a “big tent” with antifeminists and bigots of all stripes for the sake of furthering the causes of secularism and rationalism in our society. I can’t squelch my own desire for rationalism and humanism in gender politics or race relations or other issues just because some of my supposed “allies” in the realm of secularism are uncomfortable with what I have to say.
Every time some new revelation about secular and skeptical leaders comes out, like the most recent one, that DJ Grothe is preparing to sue Pamela Gay to get her to stop talking about the attempted sexual assault that Grothe himself intervened to prevent, I question my involvement in this community once again. I can’t help but balk that we “skeptics” are supposed to cover up the truth of what apparently happened that night in 2008 when Michael Shermer “lunged” at Dr. Gay, according to accounts by both Grothe and another antifeminist, Barbara Drescher, which they’ve themselves publicized despite their ideological bents. I am unwilling to cede the moral high ground that no matter how famous you are, attempted sexual assault with multiple (and unprejudiced!) witnesses, crosses so bright and obvious a line that that famous person has done something repugnant and indefensible and I will not stand for apologetics of these actions, nor further abuse of the victim.
I’ve asked once before: “is the skeptic empire dying?” It’s still relevant, because we’re still being asked to shut up for the good of a man who’s supposedly a “leader” and a “luminary” in the skeptical community. I can’t help but think that any person who would sue someone for having the breasts that said leader tried to lunge at, and for thereafter having the gall to not swallow that casual sexism, is not someone we should support. And I can’t help but think that anyone supporting this behaviour and enabling it by attacking those damn PC feminists is not someone with whom I’m willing to cohabitate in any-sized tent.
I got into skepticism because I care that people are being objectively harmed by charlatanry. I care that anti-vaccination advocates deny the mountains of evidence that shows vaccines are safe, effective and save human lives. I care that global warming denialists work to preserve a status-quo pattern of human carbon burning that endangers life on this planet in toto. I care that the shoddy state of education in general results in adoption of pseudoscientific views that endanger lives. I care to a significantly lower degree, but I do still care, that people believing in astrology or psychics are throwing their money away on wishful thinking and enriching the lives of the intellectual predators who may or may not themselves truly believe the nonsense they’re peddling. I care very significantly less, but do still care to a degree, that people might actually believe in El Chupacabra, eroding their own ability to distinguish fact from fiction.
I want movement skepticism to be about debunking the bunk, educating the public. And yet I know that movement skepticism was founded largely by magicians — people who have long since made a living on lying to others, even where they admit that they’re lying (e.g. the “honest liar” meme). Movement skepticism was built primarily by magicians and libertarians, and it draws more libertarians to the detriment of any group that might find their political policies repugnant. It draws people who, as with movement atheism, are looking for a way to boost their own egos, preening and back-slapping one another over the fact that they are right about something that everyone else has gotten wrong. It draws people who are self-interested.
It even draws people who, while advocating for skepticism and against charlatanry, are themselves dirty con-artists, and like everyone else in the movement, their corruption is given a pass. And it even draws people who think that by being skeptics, by merely adopting the label without wholly adopting the methodology, they are inured against the mere possibility that they’re being manipulated by cynical and power-hungry actors at the top. Their “webs of trust” are so un-tuned, so naive, that they think that people who speak well on the topics of skepticism and atheism are de facto better people and the Halo Effect and hero-worship both kick in and they become “helpful idiots”, fighting the people who dare criticize their dear and glorious leaders.
The only people who generally get drummed out of movement skepticism are those who advocate for better morals or who disagree with the “luminaries” — corruption is given a pass, and advocacy for justice is derided (cross-reference the epithet “Social Justice Warrior”). It’s pretty disheartening that all it takes to make you persona non grata in this community is to disagree with the chosen heroes — that there’s enough intellectual capital behind the idea that you cannot disagree with a Shermer or a Dawkins or be put off by witnessed behaviour by these luminaries lest you find yourself thrown out of the room and the movement over even a disagreement of tactics.
So why do I stick around? Some days, I don’t quite have an adequate answer, and that demoralizes me to the point of clamming up. (Look around. Have I been as talkative as usual lately? I won’t deny it.)
But then I realize that we’ve already self-selected into a group of people that generally intersect on most of these issues — that FtB, while not a monolith, is a significantly less toxic environment for my particular brand of humanist intersectionality than any other major hub that I can think of. Yes, it is absolutely less toxic an environment for me than other places, even while I have significant and irreconcilable differences even with the fellow bloggers on this network, and even and more often than I’d like with the supposed overminds of our hive, PZ Myers or Rebecca Watson — whom the hero-worshippers in other camps project that we all hero-worship ourselves. And believe it or not, the simple fact that the more toxic, more odious advocates of anti-humanist, anti-social policies, who defend the “old guard” from their own indiscretions and who are willing to destroy the careers of people as gentle and good as Pamela Gay, find places like FtB to be so loathsome, heartens me.
Yes, it truly heartens me that they’ll go out of their way to smear and target us and attack us for being willing to disagree with or hold people to account for their positions or actions, that they’re willing to call what THEY do “disagreement”, and what WE do “rage blogging” or “drama”, that they’d be so dismissive of us advocating for humanist positions even while they themselves advocate against them, that they define themselves as being against us while we define ourselves as being for certain inalienable principles. We are for something and fight against people who are against it, and our enemies define themselves as against us. They self-arrange around the nucleus of being against us.
They want these labels for themselves, to purge us from them. I’m unwilling to cede the labels, especially not where their rank immorality is exactly the sort of thing I got into the community to fight against. I didn’t join the community TO fight sexism and hypocrisy and immorality in the ranks, but that’s the fight that needs to take place, and so I’ll keep fighting.
Now, to the question in the title of this post: why are YOU here? Why did you join the various atheist and skeptical communities that you’ve joined? And are you willing to be purged from these supposedly-overarching movements because you disagree with the leaders of a more localized subset of them? Are you willing to agree that the movements are owned by people you disagree with?