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Posted by on Dec 13, 2012 in Atheism, Drama, Feminism, Freethought Blogs, Skepticism | 22 comments

Is There No Salvation for Atheists In Atheistland?

Recently, Skeptic Ink has been accused of “tribalism” in (gasp!) Ophelia Benson’s blog. This seems odd, as on this network we disagree with each other all the time, both in what we post, and in our interpersonal communications. More specifically, what instigated Benson to make the accusation is this post by John Loftus. However, perhaps to Benson’s surprise, I respectfully disagree with John on a few of his remarks. First, I don’t think that references to physical violence are ever appropriate, even when clearly disclaimed as a metaphor (a disclaimer that Benson, I’m assuming accidentally, left out of her blog post). Such comments are simply too incendiary, and provide opponents with unwarranted ammunition. In addition, they can be hurtful, and Benson has had to endure both criticism and alleged harassment over the last two years, some of which has been, at least in my personal opinion, off-topic and cruel. But everyone makes an occasional clumsy statement, especially me. So I certainly don’t fault anyone for it, and it would never stand in the way of my friendship.

Second, I was initially critical of the statement Michael Shermer made in an interview last August (discussed in greater detail in the posts linked above). What Shermer said, in response to being asked why there were so few women in public atheism, was: “It’s who wants to stand up and talk about [atheism], go on shows about it, go to conferences and speak about it, who’s intellectually active about it, you know, it’s more of a guy thing.” This is indeed, at least at first glance, a very sexist comment, and Shermer should have known better. Atheism is a “guy thing”? I come from three generations of lifelong female agnostic atheists/strong atheists, and we’re not particularly unusual. I suppose we just never bothered to think that there was anything merit-worthy about our lack of religious belief. Why have we been atheists? Mainly due to absence of any evidence for god, as well as contradictory logic in popular religious arguments for a theist god. There was never much question about this for any of us, not at any point in our lives (though the fact that we lived in communist Russia didn’t hurt, I suspect). I’ve also spoken out and given presentations on this subject, whenever requested. Although I hate public speaking, I have yet to turn down a single invitation. Further, I’m bothered by the assertion that intellectual activity (presumably in atheism) is also a “guy thing.”  No, there’s much more going on than that, and I will address it in a separate post.

However, Shermer’s subsequent apology leads me to believe that he merely misspoke and had no sexist intent. I am fully willing to accept this explanation, as stated in his response to Benson, parts of which you can see in the excerpts below. The principle of charity demands no less:

Where do I say or even imply that women are, in Benson’s characterization of what I said, “too stupid to do nontheism” or that “unbelieving in God is thinky work and women don’t do thinky?” Clearly that is not what I said, as punctuated by my preface that I believe the actual sex ratio is 50/50. And for the record I don’t believe for a moment that women are not smart enough to do nonbelief thinking, or any other type of cognition for that matter. (Emphasis mine.) […]

As well, as in witch hunts of centuries past, we should be cautious of making charges against others because of the near impossibility of denial or explanation after the accusation. (Just read the comments about me in the forum section of Benson’s blog, where I’m called a “jackass,” a “damn fool,” and other descriptors that have become commonplace in the invectosphere. Is there anything I could say that would not confirm readers’ beliefs? Denial is what true witches (and bigots, racists, and misogynists) do. Many other examples abound. Harriet Hall, M.D., the SkepDoc columnist for Skeptic magazine (one of two women columnists of our three, I might add, the other being Karen Stollznow), who lived through and helped bring about the first-wave feminist movement, told me she “was vilified on Ophelia’s blog for not following a certain kind of feminist party line of how a feminist should act and think. And I was attacked there in a disturbingly irrational, nonskeptical way.” […]

Finally, there is a deeper problem here that I have observed over the past several years that I would like to address to the larger secular community, and that is the dangers of in-group fighting and inquisition purges of those who are not “pure” enough in their atheism, skepticism, or humanism. My partner and co-founder of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, Pat Linse, was involved in the first wave feminism of the 1960s, and she recalls the lamentable in-group bickering about who were the “true feminists,” and how this led to witch hunts and purges that splintered the movement and made it a less effective political force.

PZ Myers goes even further, and accuses the highly esteemed Dr. Hariett Hall of being sexist for making this statement:  “I think it is unreasonable to expect that equal numbers of men and women will be attracted to every sphere of human endeavor. Science has shown that real differences exist. We should level the playing field and ensure there are no preventable obstacles, then let the chips fall where they may.”

Now here I must draw an even stronger line. Myers is denying the objective truth of Hall’s words, as well as her participation in first wave feminism for the benefit of all women (and not just a select, politically-motivated, frequently-illogical, puritanical group). Myers has a long history of attacking professional and successful women, especially in the sciences, for reasons that are not apparent to me. While I, presumably, go further in supporting diversity programs than Dr. Hall, I really wish that people like Myers would stop putting women down for holding our own, independent views on women’s issues (and men’s).

Moreover, I’d like to say that Benson’s type of puritanical feminism has discouraged more women from the movement than it has attracted. A possible explanation of why can be found in Paula Kirby’s brilliant piece, Sisterhood of the Oppressed. I don’t agree with her on every word, but then, I rarely agree with anyone. Yes, I really am *that* disagreeable.

On the other hand, here’s a typical example of Benson’s logic (or is it hypocrisy?), which is something that I simply cannot support:





In sum, whatever our disagreements may be, I stand behind and appreciate the work that Shermer, Hall, Loftus, and Kirby have done for skepticism, secularism, and atheism. We don’t have to agree on every  issue in order to treat each other with kindness and respect, and that’s what we hope to see in the secular/rationalist “community” of the future, rather than the ridiculous weekly call-outs by the puritanical feminist faction, which gleefully attacks dissenting women as readily as dissenting men. The more vulnerable the victim, it seems, the more vicious the attack.  And the movement is led by — yes, you guessed it — powerful males. One could say that it’s a hierarchy, perhaps even a patriarchy. In the end, Ms. Benson, if the metaphor fits, own it. Politics and skepticism make awful bedfellows, and you keep demonstrating that over and over again.

  • Karmakin

    The thing that bothers me about this whole debate is that it’s not exactly going to do any good. What’s the point? I agree that what Shermer said was sexist, but his apology made it clear that wasn’t his intent, and that he understands why it was sexist. At that point, if you’re looking for progress, you declare victory and go home, so to speak. That’s what you WANT. You win. Congrats. Yay. (At least in this particular battle)

    Of course, that would be assuming that’s what people are looking for…and in these cases it’s all too often not the case. it’s why there’s the focus on misogyny and not sexism as a whole. It’s not that prejudging members in a group based on innate characteristics is wrong…just don’t make negative judgments towards women. The reality is that it’s less about misogyny and more about not bowing to their own ideological privilege.

    In any case, I do think that for the most part this is actually a class issue more than anything. Seems to me to be plenty of female writers and readers in the atheist blogosphere. I don’t know if it’s 50/50…but at least to me it feels that way, or pretty close, and that’s a good thing. But, for structural reasons, men tend to have more disposable resources in order to make the trips to these conventions, and as such I think that’s why you see the gender imbalance there. I think there are steps that can be taken to correct this, to a degree, and I applaud those steps, but at the same time it’s tied into much larger issues. I just happen to think that they’re class issues first* and gender issues second.

    *Considering that it’s an ever increasing % of the workforce, the lack of respect we have towards service economy workers is a real problem, ending up in a situation where it’s culturally accepted to underpay and overwork them in such a way that makes things like attending a convention impossible. It’s hard to do this when you don’t know your schedule until maybe a day or two before.

    • bluharmony

      It’s interesting that while the FTBers do nothing to help with the real issues that affect us, the unfairly maligned Dawkins actually did (and continues to do so). In fact, that’s one of the incidents leading to the initial explosion.

      • Karmakin

        Well, just on this issue, one could consider the whole Skepchic fundraising to send people to conventions to be doing something about it…but speaking for myself I’ve never been a fan of charity as much as I’m a fan of real systematic change.

        Of course, that means refocusing away from social and cultural issues towards systematic and political issues. But that’s hard work and not as much fun. The reality is that the structure of the SJW movement is something very similar to what has happened to the Republican party over the last few years, where as they’ve started to become focused on what (and more importantly, who) they are against than what they are for.

        • bluharmony

          Yes, law and politics. But then, RW has recently stated that she no longer supports sending women to conventions because conventions aren’t important, or some such. Also, no more nudie calendars. And in a sense, she’s right. A convention where she’s the main attraction is more harmful than helpful. Then again, I don’t think she was talking about those conventions where she gets to speak. (Actually, I’m not a fan of conventions myself, but that’s not news.)

  • As someone who just recently found this site I can say that I see no tribalism here. It appears to me so far that most of the bloggers here are left of center politically which I am not, but I have seen no hostility in the posts or the comments.

    Contrast all of that with FTB. Virtually every post and comment is hostile and good luck trying to have a discussion with those people. When I decided to look into the atheist movement several years ago I came across some of the FTB bloggers (I think it was before the site existed). I came in optimistic but I was immediately deflated after I began reading the posts and seeing how juvenile and angry they were. Then I made the mistake of commenting. And the parade of insults and ad hominems that followed left me pretty despondent. I live in a part of the US where there just aren’t atheists so the internet was the only place I thought I could find some kindred thinkers. I don’t have to agree with people because like you I a disagreeable person. But you can disagree civilly and that is something that is absent at FTB.

    So I’ll take this opportunity to say thank you for bringing back my hope that there is civility in the atheist movement.

    • bluharmony

      Aw, thank you, that’s very kind of you to say. I’m certainly not arguing that “left” is the only way to be. It’s just what I am, and for political purposes, I would have to argue that persuasively, but that’s not the purpose of my site. Moreover, even if it were, I wouldn’t be bashing people over the head with insults — that’s doesn’t help you with your political goals; it only helps with petty blogosphere controversy and blog hits.

  • pablo

    I have just one nitpick with your post. Harriet Hall would be a second
    wave feminist. A first wave feminist would make her a suffragette, and I
    don’t think she’s that old.

    • bluharmony

      I think you’re right, though she seems to be advocating first wave (equity) feminist principles, and the second wave is where the often-toxic radical feminist theory popped up. But that’s exactly what she doesn’t believe. So I’m not sure whether to define waves of feminism by time period, by beliefs or by some combination of both, at this point. Thanks for the comment. This is neither here nor there, but when this issue first came up while I was being attacked on Benson’s boards, they didn’t even seem to know about the different waves. If it wasn’t exactly what was being preached right then and there, then it wasn’t feminism — “clown school of feminism” was the exact language used to describe my disagreement with their positions.

      • pablo

        I haven’t done research on this but I always thought second wave feminism of the 60’s and 70’s was closer to what we call equity feminism and radicalism within that movement produced third wave which is where we got theories of “rape culture”, and nonsense about “other ways of knowing”. I could be wrong though and welcome correction.

        • bluharmony

          I think that’s basically right — during the second wave, we had a combination of both — and arguably, the second wave isn’t yet over (and nor is the first). Now we have concepts like socialist feminism, radical feminism, reformist feminism, liberal feminism, libertarian feminism, equity feminism, and confused combinations of all of the above (as appears to be the case with FTB). There’s also confusion about science vs. politics. Some people seem to think that they can prove their pet political theory using the scientific method. But they don’t even bother to say what theories they subscribe to, other than by referring to the general notions of privilege (which is flawed for two reasons: 1) too many factors affect privilege beyond gender, and 2) just because you’re “oppressed” doesn’t mean you have access to the “truth”) and “rape culture.”

          • Karmakin

            I think that the “wave” descriptors of feminism for this reason is terribly flawed, as they don’t really tell the layperson much of anything. It’s obscuring the issues behind academic/inside baseball jargon. And even then it doesn’t seem to tell us anything, if we know it, as the “waves” tend to be more cultural than ideological (I.E. they change)

            There’s been a very real change in modern self-described third-wave feminists over the years, as an example, as they have moved away from the gender role model to an oppressed/oppressor model. And I do mean it when I say I think it’s more cultural than anything else. The O/O us vs. them model makes for a much more socially intense experience, for lack of a better word. (That’s why it feels like a religion to a lot of people, because they’re looking for the same “high”. And it has the exact same problems with ideological privilege claiming)

            But generally speaking most people who know about wanting to communicate with the public know that hiding things behind academic or inside jargon is a bad thing, and one should avoid it as much as possible.

          • bluharmony

            I agree.

        • Clare45

          I think you are right Pablo. Second wave feminism was from the early sixties right through to the nineties. Main advocates were Betty Friedan and Germain Greer with her book, “The Female Eunuch” in the sixties and editor of Ms. Magazine, Gloria Steinem, in the 70’s. Patriarchy theories,rape culture and white male privilege are relatively new concepts that are certainly not embraced by all or even the majority of feminists.

  • Ronlawhouston

    Recently, Skeptic Ink has been accused of “tribalism”

    Hmm, am I the only one who thinks about the concept of psychological projection?

    • bluharmony

      Oh, that’s going on in all sorts of ways. For instance, when PZ accuses someone of misogyny…

      • We now have this joke in the atheist community. A misogynist is anyone who criticizes Freethought Blogs.

  • Chill Chick

    Hi Maria, I just wanted to say I always love your blog posts and I am constantly impressed with what a humane, compassionate, understanding person you are. It’s very telling of A+ that there is no counterpart of you on their side, at least not that I’m aware of. They always march in lockstep, frantically looking for the next victim for their witch hunt. As a friend of mine said, if they can call Harriet Hall a sexist, it’s only a matter of time before they call Neil deGrasse Tyson a racist. They are so full of hatred, I feel really sad for them. Hopefully the inevitable implosion of A+ will take place sooner or later, but it will take years to mend fences. Which makes your kind of common sense and compassion all the more important!

    • Karmakin

      I wouldn’t go that far. I do think there are some people people who are torn (myself included…although I’m less now than I was) between the two sides. I don’t think it’s as much of a black or white thing as that. That said, I do think that the general language used in terms of this sort of gender conflict is problematic in and of itself and as such tends to create conflict where it might not otherwise exist.

    • bluharmony

      Thank you. It’s so encouraging to hear things like that. I don’t wish them ill, I just hope they come to their senses and learn to make peace with life. It’s the only one we have. xo

  • ThePrussian

    Very good post. Very good indeed.

    PZ takes exactly, and I mean _exactly_ the same line that the anti-vaxxers, climate denialists and creationists do.

    • bluharmony

      Yes, to the extent that he’s ready to deny not only EP, but evolution, it appears.

  • Is There No Salvation for Atheists In Atheistland? No. But there is plenty to make fun of in this esteemed land.