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Posted by on Dec 26, 2012 in Atheism, Drama, Feminism, Freethought Blogs, Humor | 40 comments

How I Unwittingly Infiltrated the Feminists’ Club & Why It’s Time for a New Wave of Freethought

It’s been five years now since I first became involved with the rationalist movement. And for most of those five years, I felt like I belonged. I never intended to be an activist and I’m not much of a joiner, but atheists were so actively recruiting women, that I immediately got sucked in, and before I knew it I was doing a presentation on a panel at DragonCon (definitely not my cup of tea). Mind you, I’m a terrible public speaker and should never be invited to do such engagements. Ever. Unless they’re in my area of expertise. And even then, beware: I might faint from stage fright.

Until I realized that this movement had become about feminism and no longer cared about skepticism, secularism, equality, or rational thought.

You see, my previous atheist activism was non-existent. I’ve never believed in god, and I assumed most people were like me. Having grown up in Communist Russia, that wasn’t a particularly unusual way to be.

I’ve never fully considered myself a feminist because I was one of those teenagers who just wanted to fit in and didn’t care much about school, politics, or anything other than a good party. As I got older, I became more aware of the importance of women’s rights and equality in general, but I also felt that I was very lucky to be living in the West, where real misogyny and oppression were almost nonexistent. In fact I found that I cared far more about racism and discrimination against LGBTQ people, since these things were significantly more pronounced and pervasive in the States. However, I also understood that sexism and gender problems remained, and that they wouldn’t be solved by bickering on the internet. And scarier still, I believed that straight white men were valuable human beings who should have rights too.

So I started speaking up about dirty little issues like diversity of opinion and rational discourse and critical thinking because I thought messages like “please let’s debate this civilly” would be simple for skeptics and rationalists. But I was naive. Like clockwork, every feminist I disagreed with called me a sister-punisher, a chill girl, a liar, a handmaiden of the patriarchy, and a slut-shamer. Despite the insults I received, I continued to publicly support rationalism and stress that the haters were just a tiny minority. I thought this flood of abuse I had never experienced before was just a consequence of being an extremely annoying internet voice, and had nothing to do with these movements in particular. I can’t count how many times I told myself that people who act like twits on the internet are actually nice in person.

But now I recognize that I was trying to convince myself that this is true.

I don’t feel safe as a human in this community – and I feel less safe than I do as a human in the legal profession, or a human shopping for designer shoes, or hell, as a human walking down the fucking sidewalk.  People boiled over with rage at the suggestions that online harassment and abuse of others should cease. PZ Myers, a prominent blogger and a biologist who’s published at least four papers, blamed men (aka rapists) and chill girls for all the problems on the internet and elsewhere. I’ve become used to being called mentally ill, as well as a bitch, an attention whore, a sick puppy, a misogynist, or having people try to destroy my reputation because I tagged someone in a Facebook post they didn’t like, complained about defamation, or commented on the wrong blog.

I now realize I was never truly welcome in this movement. I just managed to unwittingly sneak in before the feminists realized I had a different opinion on a few far-left issues.

I was exactly what a Feminists’ Club wanted for a scapegoat. I was a woman who didn’t fully support their cause…

I don’t want good causes like secularism and skepticism to die because they’re infested with people who see issues of dogmatic ideological feminism as being of primary importance. I don’t want Deep Rifts. I want to be able to truthfully say that I feel safe in this movement (even though I’m rational enough to realize that we live in an unsafe world and true “safe spaces” don’t exist). I want to help teach the misandrists, misogynists, racists, homophobes, trans-phobes, and downright trolls in the movement that there are better ways to behave and more productive and enjoyable ways to live. Atheists throw up billboards claiming they’re Good Without God, but how are we proving that as a movement? Litter clean-ups and blood drives can only say so much when you’re simultaneously threatening your fellow activists with assault and attempting to trigger PTSD.

It’s time for a new wave of freethought, just like there were different waves of feminism. I’d argue that it’s already happened before. The “first wave” of freethought were the traditional philosophers, freethinkers, and academics. Then came the second wave of “New Atheists” like Dawkins and Hitchens, whose trademarks were their brilliant prose and unabashed public criticism of religion. Now it’s time for a third wave – a wave that isn’t just a bunch of middle class, educated internet geeks congratulating themselves for the fact that they figured out there’s no magic daddy in the sky. It’s time for a wave that cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime. We can criticize religion and irrational thinking just as unabashedly and just as publicly, but we need to stop exempting ourselves from that criticism.

Changing a movement seems like a mighty task (especially when you lack a witty name – New Wave of Freethought doesn’t have a great ring to it). But the reason I’m not throwing my hands up in the air and screaming “I quit” is because we’re already winning. It’s an uphill battle, for sure – in case you’ve forgotten, scroll up and reread this post. But change is coming. Most public intellectuals already realize that dogma and freethought are incompatible, and though they support equitable feminist principles, they are not willing to throw away the work of many because of the irrational fears of a few. I’m speaking with many others in the hope of starting a process of healing between atheists who have been waging online battles against each other, and I’m optimistic that eventually we’ll all realize that we have much more in common than not.  And although the response from the haters might seem louder and viler, they’re now vastly outnumbered by supportive comments (which wasn’t always true). This surge of hate is nothing more than the last gasp of a faction that has reached its end.

There will inevitably be people who use this post as evidence of some misogynistic conspiracy and will hunker down even more. There will be organizations, conferences, communities, and individuals that will never care about civility and true equality. There will be some that continue to devote their free time to harassing and threatening the rest of us instead of going outside for a walk or reading a book. Though these people claim to love reason, no amount of reason will ever get them to admit that they’re wrong. So to them, all I have to say is have fun as you circle jerk into oblivion. Keep unintentionally or intentionally excluding alleged sexists, intellectuals, men, women, minorities, libertarians, moderates, republicans, non-feminists, and progressives while cluelessly wondering why you’re losing members, money, and clout. The rest of us will be moving on.

If you’re ready for this new wave of freethought, now is the time to speak up. Say that you’re ready. Vocally support organizations and individuals that are already doing it right. Firmly criticize the inappropriate and hateful behavior so the victims of such actions know you’re on their side. Request that your organizations and clubs evolve, or start your own if they refuse.

The Feminists’ Club may have recently ruled the movement, but they don’t own it. We ALL can.

(A big thank you to Jen McCreight for the original idea, and for a good bit of the parodied text. I hope you get back to blogging soon, if you haven’t already. And I’m glad that you’re advancing women’s causes and rights by becoming a scientist yourself. Best wishes to you.)

  • TheDevilsTowelboy


  • Oh, it’s a parody, now I get it. That explains why some of the stuff up there didn’t make any sense at all.

  • Karmakin

    Scary thing is that’s pretty much exactly how I feel. Although I would say this. I didn’t leave feminism, feminism left me, really.

    For what it’s worth I didn’t have too much of a problem with what McCreight originally wrote…although to be honest elevating “misogyny” over sexism should probably have been a massive red flag (I’m a sucker that way), but from the comments it definitely triggered a NOPE reaction from me, from people who saw it as a call to war.

    Sad thing is that they’re embracing an overly sexist (and quite frankly racist/homophobic/transphobic etc) fashion of group think and I’d argue most of it don’t even see it coming. Again, I’m overly charitable.

    • bluharmony

      Oh, as soon as you adopt modern feminist theory, trans-phobia is the logical conclusion (though I’ve read arguments against this idea, just visit the rad fem hub for a sickening display of all the trans- hate). There also seems to be a lot of projection going on with the overly-feminist/atheist men. If you’re living in the West and seeing misogyny everywhere, chances are it’s inside you. Women do enjoy a lot of “privileges” in our society, especially young and/or attractive women, and most don’t want to give those privileges up. What right do men have to force them to? What right do other women have to force them to? Most importantly, since when is discussing certain topics openly the equivalent of a crime against humanity?

      There are important women’s issues to address (such as balancing a career with childcare), but what we’re blogging about for years now is nonsense. And there are serious issues that men face, too. I never realized just how much men had to go through until I truly started paying attention to these squabbles.

      We don’t need to check our privilege; we need to exercise our empathy.

      • Karmakin

        Yeah, that is a very important issue IMO (I’m a supporter of public daycare programs). I originally wrote ideology at the bottom, but it’s not really an ideology. It’s a group think built around protecting one’s personal privilege and “comfort” at the expense of everybody else. It’s why you see the demands for a pristine environment, as that’s what they’re used to.

        I really do think, however, that a lot of the followers probably do think that they’re doing something unique and different and not going down the same path that many of them have criticized themselves in the past. (What comes to mind was the Slacktiverse/FTB dust up a few months ago, the Slacktiverse being a quite good example of one of these toxic communities)

        • bluharmony

          I don’t think the followers are bad people. They’re just followers of powerful & compelling personalities. This happens all the time.

          • Karmakin

            That’s true. To be honest, I actually feel sad for a lot of them, as I think they’re going to get hurt by it all, and hurt bad.

          • Maybe true for some of them. Many of them strike me as angry women who feel empowered by the culture of blogs like pharyngula to spit nails and blame all men for being unable to make it safe for them to walk through Compton at midnight in a bikini. Doesn’t matter at all to them that a man walking through Compton at midnight would probably wind up dead. It’s as if they are angry teenagers expecting Daddy to make the world safe for them.

          • Mel

            “Expecting Daddy to make the world safe” – there it is right there. We’re not supposed to fight (or expend any effort at all) to succeed on our own because that is victim-blaming and wrong. Not to mention – how can we convince the world that we’re oppressed if some of us are succeeding? Instead, we should sit on our butts and depend on men to take responsibility for our behavior and our precious feeelings (see: Rapist, Schroedinger’s) and our failures. Women who accomplish something magnificent despite actual, real sexism (Harriet Hall, for example) are dismissed, or worse. So, yes, in a nutshell. This so-called feminism brings us right back to dependence on men. And this is feminism how, exactly?

          • zenspace

            Unless I’ve missed something, the difference is that said dependence is still supposed to be served by men, but from a subservient position.

          • Mel

            “Spock’s Brain.”

      • David Brunton

        If you don’t mind, could you give me an example or two of this trans phobia? Because that is not something i noticed. Using the word ‘privilege’ as a rhetorical bludgeon to get anyone who disagreed with them to shut up, yes. But I have not run into any transphobia…could you link?

        • bluharmony

          There was the incident of PZ’s inappropriate joke about transpeople & the Catholic clergy w/a transsexual getting banned and anti-trans slurs being used as a result (Becky incident). But most of this is in the rad fem hub; it’s not happening within atheism/skepticism, at least not yet. But if you read Carrier’s blog (his A+ posts), for example, you’ll see that he prioritizes the rights of women over the rights of trans-people.

      • Barbara Drescher

        …we need to exercise our empathy.

        And that, my friends, is at the root of a lot of this.

  • Vic

    This is one of the times when I can’t quite decide whether to simply appreciate the parody or scratch my head over how accurate the parody describes reality in some instances.

    I think I’ll just go with the former.

  • Copyleft

    Feminism–at least the dogmatic/radical feminism that has come to predominate the movement–is fundamentally incompatible with skepticism. You made the right choice in deciding which to keep and which to discard.

    • Barbara Drescher

      ALL ideology is incompatible with scientific skepticism because it’s incompatible with science. Science is rooted in a single ideology: that knowledge is good.

      • bluharmony

        Right. Even my own.

  • Sheldon Cooper

    Feminist extremists like the FTB crowd need to be disowned by the skeptic movement at large, they are harmful to the movement.

    Ignore them, let them fade into oblivion, and let us all advocate true gender equality without them.

    • zenspace

      Exactly the case I’ve been making for some time now. Let them pound angrily away at their keyboards. Meanwhile, in the real world we can move forward by real action and example.

  • Nothing is more frustrating than arguing with the ideological mindset which dictates that any disagreement with then, not following them jot and tittle, means you are some bogeyman that exists in their minds only. If you recall, I joined this glorious shit-storm by proposing the radical notion that a bunch of people showing up with box cutters to menace a lone guy putting up posters expressing equal rights for everyone was idiotically Orwellian.

    Then I put up a video that was transcribed on A Voice for Men questioning the right of mostly educated middle-class white women to claim that little old blue-collar me and my immediate ancestors were privileged.

    You do stuff like that and suddenly you become terrible, inexcusable, the reason we can’t have nice things. A troll (satirist, sorry), misogynist (nope), woman hating (not generally, just the assholes) Men’s Right’s Activist (So? Unlike some people I don’t see rights as a zero sum game) and a bunch of other things leading to Ophelia Benson making the ludicrous claim that my voice “vibrated with rage” (disgust, actually) and that I was no doubt going to shoot Rebecca Watson (Really, go fuck yourself, Ophelia).

    None of that leaves me much choice. Do I try to convince people with a vested interest in painting people whose opinions they don’t listen to, because all they require people to use their voices to agree and no more, that I’m not a “rape enabler”, or do I just abandon them to themselves and console myself that real critical thinkers, rational people, won’t be swayed by their increasingly shrill and self-serving crap?

    I can content myself with just making fun of these people, as that’s perhaps the best way to channel my disgust with what this group of con artists, ideologues and neurotics have done to the skeptical community. I am also content to allow people like Maria to make the substantive arguments in favor of equality, egalitarianism and the right to agree to disagree without which the community is doomed.

  • allisonki

    A courageous and on-target post, thanks. The “atheist movement” (whatever that is) needs more women like you and fewer professional victims and whiners like Watson, Svan, Benson, etc. Happy New Year!

  • Ingemar Oseth


    Thank you for this brilliant essay. The movement desperately needs more representatives of your ilk to counterbalance those who as you point out, have willingly forsaken rational discourse, reason, and critical thinking in favor of their own brand of dogma.

  • Mel

    It’s fascinating to see A+’s treatment of passionate, motivated, eager newbies! First, they are required to read all the 101 material and adopt the group’s re-definition of words and concepts, and they discover that their own ideas of skepticism and critical thinking are now “wrong.” To fit in the group they have to (for example) accept that anecdotal evidence carries more weight than science, that you can’t trust scientists because they’re old white men, that logical fallacies are not only encouraged but required. FTB/Skepchick has become Logical Fallacy Central, especially Myers, Watson, Svan and Benson. A+ is even worse.

    It’s like, being so excited to find a vegetarian’s club – and then be told that you had it all wrong. “Real” vegetarians eat meat! Or to walk into a clinic to discuss options for pregnancy termination and find it’s one of those pro-life fronts and you’re getting pummeled with bible verses.

    It really seems absurd that vegetarians would ever have to rise up and take the word “vegetarian” back from the meat-eaters, but that’s exactly where we’re at now.

    • bluharmony

      That’s a perfect observation. White is black and black is white in their world & they’re capable of convincing *vulnerable* others that that’s the case, too. I don’t know if you caught their “hugs” wars, now deleted. But it would have been comedy gold if only it weren’t so sad.

      Makes me think of sociopaths and cults.

      • Mel

        I think they’ve had to promote their ideology behind the front of skepticism/atheism because that’s the only audience they have. Outside of that, nobody’s ever heard of Rebecca Watson, PZ Myers, et al. Watson’s clever in taking it to the mainstream media (Slate, etc.) where there aren’t so many critical thinkers and her BS is more likely to fly. Otherwise, their plan seems to be to re-educate their audience. Vegetarians do eat meat!

        Here’s something to watch: How far will “big name” skeptics bend/abandon their principles to support their friends? Myers has gone to the dark side completely. Dillahunty is on his way, with his statement that lying is okay if it’s for the greater good. That was huge for him after so many years maintaining that nothing, but NOTHING, is more important than truth. I’m not sure he even knows what he’s done and I think (hope) he might pull back once he realizes. Phil Plait likes to play celebrity daddy and admonish the chilluns to “not be a dick” and “stop that” but (as far as I can tell) he’s an actual scientist in an actual scientific community apart from “the movement.” How far can he afford to bend?

        • bluharmony

          Yep. There’s quite a bit more at stake that some chick’s (I don’t believe the “skep” part) elevator phobia at this point. Is the rationalist movement willing to turn its back on science to satisfy a minority of loud and demonstrably irrational women and their white knight followers? We’ll see.

          • Barbara Drescher

            Well, this is how giving people rope works. They either hang themselves with it or pull themselves up. I’ve never liked that the stage is given to people unqualified to use it, but eventually the mistakes become big enough to matter–rejecting mainstream science, for example.

          • bluharmony

            If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a post of interest: What I’m wondering is how much of sociology has become infested with un-scientific thinking. At this point, I tend to view identity studies as beyond all hope. Talk about storification, mind/body dualism, historical revisionism, and scientific denialism all in one tidy little package.

            And all this exists why? Because women and/or minorities are inferior? They’re absolutely not.

          • Barbara Drescher

            I think you’re seeing sociology from the wrong side of the trend. We (psychologists) used to make fun of it, actually. But, like nursing, evolutionary psychology, and other fields, it’s changing for the better. All soft sciences look a lot like pseudoscience as they’re working the bugs out.

            I just wish that education would make some strides forward. That field is a wretched mess right now. The science is pretty good, but it’s not being taught to teachers. Instead, they’re learning the pop-psych BS.

        • Barbara Drescher

          “Watson’s clever in taking it to the mainstream media (Slate, etc.) where there aren’t so many critical thinkers and her BS is more likely to fly.”

          I don’t think it’s a matter of there being fewer critical thinkers, but a matter of getting her version of events (events that most people wouldn’t even think to share with the rest of the world because they’re not relevant and because we’re not in the practice of vilifying people) out there. If I knew nothing about what had/had not happened in the community in the past few years (or about RW herself), her Slate piece would have made me angry at an entirely different set of people.

  • Barbara Drescher

    Whenever I see a post like this I marvel at just how different our perspectives can be, even when many of our opinions are similar.

    I don’t see the people you’ve alluded to as “ruling the movement”. At all. But I also don’t see “the movement” from the atheism angle. Skepticism, despite some serious growing pains in recent years, Has remained mostly on its track and the focus is returning as more people realize that growth is double-edged sword.

    Also, the web of the community brings us each a completely different view of its make up. 3-4 years ago I was very concerned, but I think we are headed back in the right direction now. The ideologues seem influential in some corners of the atheist community (mostly corners I avoid) and are a growing problem in the humanist community, but I don’t see them as having a foothold in skepticism. It’s where these areas overlap that I encounter them and they’re more like annoying flies than a storm that will ruin the picnic. That’s just a difference in perspective.

    I have to disagree with you, though, about the attention you want to give to social justice issues. Most everything you’ve said here could be and/or has been said by the very people you’re criticizing between the lines; the difference is one of humility. Those same people would accuse you of not being open to criticism because their definitions of “criticism” and “reason” are different from yours.

    What drives the skepticism and secularism movements is an ideology (i.e., a naturalistic world view). Humanism and atheism are more complicated, but it’s really in practice of promoting that ideology that things go wrong. I submit that they go wrong because people fail to understand that ideology itself and, as a result, tend to think that because they value a naturalist world view, all of their other ideologies are in line with it. It’s a product of the dread ought/is problem and a very human lack of objectivity.

    From the perspective of the people you’re criticizing, anyone who disagrees with them ideologically is irrational. If you can’t separate ideology from epistemology, of course you will think this way.

    And this is the problem with ideas like “Atheism Plus”. As soon as we add an ideology (e.g., social justice, religion, etc.) the one we share (a naturalistic worldview), groupthink is required to maintain any sort of cohesion. That’s the opposite of freethought.

    • bluharmony

      Well, this is mostly a parody of Jen’s post, and I included that language exactly as she wrote it because the same social justice issues are, indeed, equally important to me. I don’t, however, think they need to be addressed within the skepticism movement per se (since that’s not the focus of traditional skepticism, and nor do I want to impose any ideology — not even my own — on free inquiry), but I do believe that critical thinking is something that we should exercise in all aspects of our lives.

      In other words, I don’t think it’s wrong to use skepticism expansively, while various organizations can focus on that which is most important to them and define their own goals. The key problem with Atheism Plus isn’t that they want their own “safe space,” it’s the divisiveness they’re imposing on the greater (substantially overlapping) community as a whole. “If you’re not with us, you’re against us; if Speaker A is speaking, I won’t!” Personally, I think you can be skeptical about social justice issues or hold a particular ideology and still participate in organized skepticism at whatever level fits your needs best. And you’re an atheist if you don’t believe in gods, period. No one can take that away from you. Humanism is a bit more complex, and that’s where my personal interest (and activism) is greatest. Also, I tend to focus on secularism.

      But don’t worry — I’m not actually trying to toss all of these things into one barrel. The idea is that people holding different views on a variety of issues should feel comfortable discussing them or congregating in the same spaces when goals meet, and that’s a concept tied to more to freethought than skepticism.

      Although thinking back a bit, I was disappointed to see some non-atheist skeptics literally forced to leave the movement and JREF (not by the leaders, but by the community). That kind of thing is simply beyond me. I don’t believe in excluding people, unless necessary for actual safety.

      • Barbara Drescher

        I think I understood all of this from your post, but my thoughts went in that direction as I read it.

        You really nailed it with the issues of “safe space”, tribalism, and cult-ish groupthink. This momentum can’t continue without a clear leader and, right now, there are too many fighting for that top position. They appear to be cooperative right now, but that can’t last long.

        A good demonstration of why is the set of problems with the A+ forums that people have already described in the comments here. It creates a list of criteria for membership that nobody can ever meet because it constantly changes to suit the author’s needs. Without a single author, it’s doomed.

        Jen re-wrote history in that post in order to make it fit with her needs at the time. For example, she reveled in the attention that she got from “Boobquake”, but complained that CNN kept asking about her boobs. Skepchicks repeatedly defended their approach by saying that their readers, “Come for the sex and stay for science” (which is ridiculous, btw) and now defend having done that by saying that the problem isn’t with the approach, but with the evil, sexist culture (read Rebecca’s post about calendars a few months ago). What’s okay/not okay, misogynist/feminist, safe/unsafe, etc. changes to suit what’s best for each of them at any given moment. That kind of thing just can’t sustain itself unless one person takes the lead, but when that happens the community as a whole will have to recognize that what has formed is a cult.

        • bluharmony

          Agreed on all points. 🙂

  • zenspace

    Nicely done!

  • Ingemar Oseth

    “PZ Myers, a prominent blogger and a biologist who’s published at least
    four papers, blamed men (aka rapists) and chill girls for all the
    problems on the internet and elsewhere.”

    Four papers? Hell, I’ve published twice that many in my own field since I retired a few years ago! As an academic Myers is something of a loser. No wonder he is mad at the world.

    • MosesZD

      It was all early work. Grad school, post-Doc. He’s now a teacher at a 4th rate college where no respectable ‘scientist’ in the field of Biology would ever go to..
      In fact, when I mentioned one of the UMM job offerings he puts on his blog to my wife and suggested that as a semi-retirement step-down from the grinding world of research, she about ripped my head off and let me know in no uncertain terms she was not dropping down to some 4th rate cow-town college.
      I was like “Oh, I see… That’s what you meant when you said “PZ Myers is ‘right where he should be…'” I’d thought she meant it as a compliment… Silly me…

  • Gandolf

    Well said Maria your thoughts are often like a breathe of fresh air.

  • The A+ movement was never born as much as it was a writhing aborted fetus on the surgical table waiting to expire.