Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted on Jun 1, 2013 in arguments, blogosphere, critical thinking, gender, logical fallacies, philosophy, responding to arguments | 16 comments

Do atheist conferences reflect society-at-large?

In recent months, I have been engaged in ongoing discussions pertaining to atheist conferences – questioning bold claims including ‘anti-harassment policies are necessary for women to feel safe at atheist conferences,’ ‘rampant misogyny exists in the atheist community,’ and ‘atheist conferences are unsafe and hostile places for women.’

I have failed to see adequate evidence suggesting any of these above claims are true and find these claims to be extremely harmful to the health of the atheist community because women become driven away from conferences by the same people who allegedly want to increase the participation of women at atheist conferences. Men and male sexuality — additionally — are demonized; “certain male speakers” are viewed as “dangerous,” bloggers claim men oppose anti-harassment policies because they want to harass women (and believe they have the right to do so), and men are portrayed as monsters who have no concern about others’ personal space. A climate of fear is erected thanks to bloggers spreading false messages about alleged dangerous and “creepy” men at atheist conferences.

When evidence is lacking for these claims and good skeptics wonder why police reports have not been filed, conference organizers have not been alerted to these alleged ‘rampant problems,’ and numerous events ‘go off without a hitch,’ people attempting to defend their evidence-less positions employ character attacks in an attempt to, as it seems, malign people who ask for evidence or raise legitimate questions. “You think women are liars,” “you are invalidating the experiences of women,” “you lack empathy and should be more concerned about the plight of women,” “your privilege is showing,” and “you are a misogynist” are wails of those who lost the argument – those who cannot provide evidence to warrant their claims. Additional flawed reasoning mirrors that of a fundamentalist – ‘the evidence is out there, but you’re just unwilling to accept it,’ ‘you need to find the evidence for yourself,’ and ‘you are just in denial.’

More recently — diverging from the standard line of character attacks — people who cannot produce evidence to substantiate claims of rampant harassment at conferences have put forth a new line of reasoning: “Women, in society-at-large, are treated poorly; they are victims of sexual assault, harassment, and even rape. If women are treated poorly in society, and atheist conferences are in society, what makes you think women won’t be treated the same way at atheist conferences?”

This line of reasoning is a pretty clear example of a composition/division logical fallacy which is explained quite clearly on

You assumed that one part of something has to be applied to all, or other, parts of it; or that the whole must apply to its parts.

Often when something is true for the part it does also apply to the whole, or vice versa, but the crucial difference is whether there exists good evidence to show that this is the case. Because we observe consistencies in things, our thinking can become biased so that we presume consistency to exist where it does not.

Although women experience sexual assault, harassment, and rape in society-at-large, it does not follow that women experience sexual assault, harassment, and rape at atheist conferences; we need evidence beyond ‘it happens in society-at-large’ to suggest that sexual assault, harassment, and rape occurs at atheist conferences.

Armed robbery, murder, arson, forgery, computer theft, use of crack/cocaine, and consumption of child pornography occurs in society-at large. Because these crimes exist in society-at-large, should it follow that these crimes also occur at atheist conferences – at the same rate or at all? Shall we go about saying — although there is no evidence that arson, for instance, occurs at atheist conferences — that arson, because it happens in society-at-large, also occurs at atheist conferences? Armed robbery? Murder? Forgery? Computer theft? Crack/cocaine use? Consumption of child pornography? Since it is unfair to say these crimes exist at atheist conferences appealing to the fact that these crimes exist in society-at-large it is similarly unfair to say that sexual assault, harassment, and rape occur at atheist conferences.

As always, feel free to comment below.

  • Guest

    Given that atheists commit less crime than religious people due to (I assume) higher levels of intelligence and education, I would expect atheist conferences to be *less* hostile environments than the rest of society, if anything. Atheist groups certainly aren’t an accurate reflection of society at large, especially not in the US where a lot of these conferences are held.

  • Ronlawhouston

    Here’s the deal. Some women get assaulted, harassed, and (depending on whose figures you want to believe) some to few get raped. However, some men get assaulted, many get harassed (in other ways than in the workplace,) and probably very few get raped.

    I guess being sort of a foot soldier in the gender wars for a long time gives me a much different perspective. Having been on both sides of the issue gives you a vastly different perspective.

    No atheist conferences don’t reflect society at large. It amazes me that people want to infer either to or from a small self-selected sample onto society.

  • Jack.Rayner

    I’m willing to accept that atheist/skeptic conferences reflect society at large when it comes to rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment when EVIDENCE IS PRODUCED.

    …Is that too much to ask for?

    The issue with the people launching accusations of moral/thought crimes at those who won’t immediately accept their bald assertions as truth, is that they cannot distinguish the *broad* differences between “I’d like to see evidence that women are being raped/assaulted/harassed at these conferences” and “I think it’s Ok that women are being raped/assaulted/harassed at these conferences”.

    For any dummies that may need it spelled out for them: No one is saying the latter.

    • Caias Ward

      Yeah, Dan’s leading questions and exasperation when he didn’t get the answers he wanted was frustrating.

  • sezit

    Justin, I am a woman who has been bullied at atheist events, by guys who used both aggressive and sexist verbal tactics. One even admitted that bullying was his intent when I confronted him. Wow, is this evidence you will accept? Maybe not – there is no recording or police report. Just my word, which apparently is not good enough for you. My evidence for that statement is that you doubt other people’s word as well. Jeeez. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The claim that you are skeptical that sexist behavior is present at atheist events is extraordinary, knowing how prevalent it is in society at large, and how ingrained it is in our earliest and everyday experiences. Larceny and arson are not actions that the average person can experience dozens of times every day of their life. Micro-aggressive sexism, such as your skepticism of people’s reported experiences, is present every day, every where. Even if sexism is present in atheist circles at a far lower rate than it is in society at large, which it very well may be, what is the goddam point of not wanting to be prepared to address it in a professional manner if it does happen? Many times, acknowledging that a problem will be dealt with prevents egregious manifestations of those problems. Just because some people are sexist does not mean that all people are. Men and male sexuality are NOT being demonized. That is you painting with that straw brush.
    These protestations of yours are disingenuous at best. I am skeptical of your skepticism.

    • Eric Youngstrom

      Is sexism and bulling present at skeptic/atheism events? Yes. Now is it anywhere even close to what happens outside of the event in society? NFW! I don’t think that Justin is saying it never happens but is way down on the totem pole of what we need to be focused on.

      What PZ, and the rest of those in the Free-from-thought-Blogs are doing is wrong and they are not helping atheism, skepticism and feminism. They are hurting it.

      • sezit

        Eric – YOU think addressing sexism should be a low priority. I and others disagree. YOU think addressing it hurts Atheism. I and others think addressing sexism will help grow Atheism. I understand that people disagree. What I don’t understand is that you can’t even seem to bring yourself to comment that my being bullied at Atheist events was bad. I don’t want anybody treated badly at Atheist events.

        Rebecca Goldberger recently said that “Empathy is a fundamental act of equality”. If the collective “you” show by your lack of empathy that you aren’t all that interested in equality, well then, I’m not all that interested in you.
        Frankly, I can’t figure out what you guys are trying to accomplish.

        • Caias Ward

          First off. Yes, you being bullied was bad. Is your word enough? I don’t know you or the person in question who you said harassed you. This is why I support convention policies which focus on information gathering in a neutral fashion, with no presumption of guilt. Investigate the matter in a way that if it is credible, then it can be handed off to authorities or dealt with by the convention (who as a private event can eject someone if they are a problem).

          Did you go to convention security? Did they act on the matter?

          I think lots of the arguments are in implementation. We keep on hearing “We need harassment policies!” but I haven’t seen what people consider an appropriate policy, or posted an example policy as a model. If one or more suggested policies had been posted by people please direct me to them as I would like to see them.

          Harassment is a concern. But it seems that many of the people involved are announcing the problem but not mentioning what they consider an appropriate solution. If I’ve missed it, my apologies; I don’t track many of the more hostile bloggers so I may have missed signal among the noise.

          • sezit

            yeah, Caias, you missed it. there are reasonable policies everywhere. what is not reasonable is to say that we don’t need policies, because if we have them and then don’t need them, then we all should be happy, right?

            The argument seems to be with those people who think having such policies in place is damaging. I can’t understand that position at all In fact policies are for the times that our social mores break down, and bad behavior is not called out when it starts..

            BTW, I read your doubt of my experience to show that you really don’t think harassment is a big deal. After all, skepticism is not the same as doubt. Skepticism is based on probability and knowledge of the real world. (Harassment of women happens all the time, amirite?) Your doubt seems to me a broad brush with which to deny that anything should be done. In other words, “I don’t have to do anything until it is proven.” Well, I call bullshit on that. Even if it is only suspected, what does it hurt to say that we don’t want to see it because that is undesired behavior?
            Now, I have a strong personality and stand up for myself. The several people who have witnessed the bullying of me didn’t say anything in support of me. Even when the one guy admitted it in front of several people. When I see others being badgered, I speak up. See, that is what I would wish for. Observers jumping in and saying something about bad behavior, even if they disagreed with the argument, shows that people are valued. Why should someone be responsible for 100% of their own defense from bullies? Where are all the people who will say things like “Whoa, man, back off” or “that’s not ok”?
            Would YOU be a silent observer of bad behavior or a challenger? In fact , that’s not just for Atheist events. How about calling out bad behavior whenever you see it (and it is not dangerous to address it?)

            • Caias Ward

              Never said we don’t need policies.

              And your reading is incorrect. I’m trying to get more information, such as the policies that are being suggested.

              I haven’t been a silent observer. In fact, I’m a damn loud one.

              As for you, maybe I just don’t consider you trustworthy.

              • sezit

                I meant, do you speak up to SUPPORT people who are being treated unkindly? You are pretty outspoken about your mistrust of me (based on ….what?) But, do you really think that the scenario I describe is so extraordinarily unusual as to have not happened repeatedly in the Atheist community? If you say it hasn’t, that’s what I would call denial of the problem. If you agree it has, then it makes no difference if my statement is true (it is) because the situation is true. We need the community to welcome in good people, and put a check on misbehaving people.

                • Eshto

                  It actually kind of makes a difference whether your statement is true or not…

                  • sezit

                    Sure. It just seems to me that your doubting my truthfulness is a way to avoid addressing the issue. If you guys are so keen to doubt me, why would you treat ANY statement on the intertubes that is not 100% verifiable as real? I can’t help concluding that there are some people who can’t stand the thought that they ought to call out bad behavior, so if instead they can wrap the argument around “Don’t believe you!” then they have won, and can pretend they never see bad behavior, and/or can ignore it if they do see it. It looks like it’s easier to challenge me than to challenge yourselves. I am still left to wonder what you all are trying to accomplish. Me? I want everyone in the atheist community to be treated with respect, AND I WORK TO ACCOMPLISH THAT. Do you?

    • MosesZD

      Honestly, I am very skeptical of your claims. Being older and having watched in action through-out my life, I am quite well aware of ‘me-tooism’ and false claims of victimization. Christians, feminists, ‘Constitutionalists’ and other ideological zealots, routinely use this tactic to address the ‘truth of their victimization’ even though they actually have never suffered any persecution whatsoever.

      • sezit

        Yeah, yeah, so what. My claims are in the past. I only care about the future. What I am interested in is what our community supports for future growth. That’s why I can’t understand why not ONE of you will commit to call out bad behavior whenever you might see it IRL or on-line. Don’t you all want to make our movement welcoming for all good people? If not, then WHAT is it that you guys really want?

  • Brive1987

    Anti harassment policies are a values statement about what we consider acceptable as a group. I think it not inappropriate to showcase these values given the prevailing gender imbalance in the atheist community that seems to make every female at secular conferences an object of curiosity to a disproportionate number of attendees.

    It doesn’t need to create such a ballyhoo. The 2014 GallIfrey Doctor Who conference has anti harassment clauses but nobody there is freaking out. Calm down and redirect. Focus on the main game.