Why atheist and skeptic groups should be inclusive, caring and supportive

by Michael Nugent on July 26, 2012

Since we hosted last year’s World Atheist Convention in Dublin, there have been escalating online debates about sexism, harassment and bullying in the international atheist and skeptical communities. Good people including friends who I respect, who have expressed different opinions about these issues, have been victims of unfair personal attacks, based on distortions of what they have said or written or represent.

This escalating hostility is now an extra problem on top of the problems that triggered the debates. It hurts people and makes them feel alienated or ostracized or fearful. And it makes it harder for us to work together where we agree, to discuss things reasonably where we disagree, and to address the underlying problems that triggered the hostility. We can and we must reverse this hostility, starting by tackling issues not attacking people.

As atheists and skeptics we should focus on the core issues that unite us, which are atheism and skepticism, where we have literally endless work to do promoting reason and secularism in society. And as ethical atheists and skeptics, we should work together to make our communities inclusive and caring and supportive. This includes actively tackling prejudice and discrimination, and also harassment and bullying, within our communities.

Why we should tackle prejudice and discrimination

As ethical people we should tackle racism, sexism, homophobia, and other prejudices and discriminations, both within the atheist and skeptical communities and in wider society. We each have our own unique mix of random birth advantages, based on our race and gender and sexuality and physical and mental ability and family; and personally earned advantages, based on our education and career and income and relationships. All of these factors influence how we interact with each other socially, and can cause us to face prejudice and discrimination, or to perpetuate it, often unknowingly, every day.

As atheists we should empathize with other groups facing social discrimination, because we know what it is like to face it ourselves. It is different to discrimination based on birth disadvantages, but it is analogous because of the impacts. Most religious people do not even realize that they have unearned social advantages. They see being religious as a natural default position, they genuinely wonder what we are worrying about, they believe we are attacking their rights, and they call us militant and strident. But we notice the prejudice and discrimination, because we experience it every day. And so we should take care not to act in the same way towards other groups.

As skeptics we should objectively examine the impacts of social discrimination, and identify the best ways to promote diversity and inclusiveness. By definition, prejudice depends on not having all relevant information, and as skeptics we are ideally suited to develop and promote arguments for inclusiveness and human rights, based on the evidence of the benefits to individuals and society. We could use this research to tackle the emotional and irrational thinking behind racism, sexism, homophobia, and other prejudices and discriminations. It’s at least as interesting a topic as many we discuss, and a more useful topic than most.

Why we should discuss things reasonably and support each other

We should discuss these issues reasonably, without unfair personal attacks or bullying. We should do this for both ethical and practical reasons. Good people and inspirational activists, who were friends and allies just over a year ago, have been personally hurt and are alienated from working together. This is unfair to these people, who have worked hard and effectively to advance atheism and skepticism, and who are now misrepresented and stereotyped on various websites. It is also unhelpful to the wider project of promoting reason, atheism and skepticism as being better approaches to reality and beneficial to society.

On top of that, some different people have written disgusting personal attacks on women activists, at times dressed up as rape jokes, which go beyond being hurtful and into the realms of hate speech. And others have defended this. This is overt misogyny aimed at specific women, and all decent people must stand together on this issue. We must not become desensitized to the line that it crosses. It goes beyond any sincere disagreements that people of goodwill may have about the level of sexism in our communities and how best to tackle it.

There is a complex tangle of causes and effects between the underlying levels of sexism, legitimately expressed disagreements about its nature and scale, misrepresentations and unfair personal attacks, people becoming hurt and defensive, escalation of the disagreements into hostility, people becoming desensitized to the escalating hostility, and the casual publication of overtly misogynistic hate speech. And this relentless pattern raises obvious concerns about where we are heading, if we cannot reassert the primacy of discussing things reasonably and supporting each other.

How we can start to be more inclusive, caring and supportive

I believe that we can reverse this pattern. I believe that we have enough reasonable people, with different beliefs about these issues, to be able to calmly reassess where we are, how we got here, where we are heading, and where we want to go. Most of us are involved in atheist or skeptical communities because we want to interact with like-minded people, and we also want to help to improve the world a little bit. We now need collective leadership to do this effectively.

I believe that we should start with first principles. If we focus on designing positive policies to make our communities more inclusive and caring and supportive, and work hard to implement those policies, then actively tackling prejudice, discrimination, hate speech, harassment and bullying will flow naturally from that. And it will be as part of a coherent strategy, not just dealing with particular examples as they arise.

Here are 25 next-step suggestions that we could consider.

Atheism and skepticism

  • Keep working together to promote the primary issues that unite the atheist/skeptical communities, which are the approaches to truth and reality that lead us to atheism and skepticism, and how reason and secularism can benefit society. We have not yet come near to winning these arguments within society, and we have to stay focused to bring about change.
  • Continue to rigorously criticize bad ideas wherever we find them. Use reason, logic, evidence, humour, satire and ridicule to undermine the bad and harmful ideas that people promote, and to positively promote better ideas and better ways of thinking.
  • Criticize or satirize people only for their ideas and behaviour, not their personal identities. And there are enough charlatans and abusers of human rights within the religious and pseudoscientific communities to keep us going for years without turning on allies with whom we disagree on tactics.

Promoting fairness

  • Discuss and take action to help to bring about a fairer society. This is an inherently good thing to do as ethical people, and we should do it for that reason. It also helps to combat prejudice about atheists and morality.
  • Take positive actions to help others through community outreach projects. Hold charitable events. Help existing charities. Visit people in institutions without preaching to them. Do something new and imaginative.
  • Objectively examine the impacts of social discrimination, and identify the best ways to promote diversity and inclusiveness, so that we can develop evidence-based arguments that can guide our ethical instincts.
  • Build alliances with other groups who also face prejudice and social discrimination. Identify and work together on specific issues of mutual interest, and generally support and empower each other.

Inclusive, caring and supportive

  • Aim to build real-life and online communities, where atheists and skeptics can enjoy interacting with like-minded people, while helping to advance reason and secularism in wider society.
  • Design positive policies to make the atheist and skeptical communities as inclusive, caring and supportive as possible for people of all races, genders, sexualities and abilities. This will include policies on how to help people to feel safe and enjoy themselves at our activities.
  • Start not by identifying specific outcomes, but by agreeing the principles upon which outcomes should be based: principles like rigorous criticism of ideas, mutual respect for people, promoting fairness, empowerment, diversity and inclusiveness.
  • Measure our responses to specific issues against those agreed principles, which in effect become independent criteria, not by our instant emotional reaction to the most recent thing that somebody has said or written that we disagree with.
  • Focus outward. Design our inclusiveness policies by finding the opinions of the people who we want to include, but who are not already involved. By definition, we who are already involved cannot accurately answer the question of why others are not yet involved.
  • Include people of diverse backgrounds on our organizing committees and event panels, so that we gain from the variety of life perspectives that this brings to our decision making and our events.
  • Try to make others feel safe and comfortable at our events. As a base line, don’t make them feel unsafe or uncomfortable. If we’re not sure, err on the side of caution. Read and respect whatever policies the organizers have published about this.

How we communicate

  • Online debates can magnify misunderstandings and intensify hostility, when compared to real-life conversations. Remember that we are dealing with real people who have feelings. Don’t humiliate, marginalize or ostracize people who are seeking to discuss things.
  • It’s important to be angry when anger is justified, but it’s often not helpful to publish what we feel while we are angry. Instead we could write what we feel then wait to review it before publishing it, or else share our anger privately with a friend. The best use of anger is for it to motivate us to take practical actions to make things better. We can best do this when we are thinking clearly about what we are doing.
  • When responding to something we disagree with, assume good intent. Respond to the issues. Point out what we agree with as well as what we disagree with. Ask them to also assume good intent on our behalf.
  • Don’t stereotype people who disagree with us. Engage reasonably with people who sincerely disagree with us on issues. Seek explanations and apologies from people who post disgusting personal attacks, but otherwise don’t let them dictate our agenda.
  • Try to find creative ways to advance the underlying interests of both us and the people who we disagree with, rather than just compete with them or capitulate to them on the specific examples we are discussing.
  • Be prepared to back down from our positions when we realize that we were mistaken. This can be harder to do on the internet, because our positions are permanently published not merely spoken. Do it anyway.
  • Avoid telling racist or sexist or homophobic jokes, unless perhaps if they are empowering because the target of the joke is the racist or sexist or homophobe. Don’t ever target specific real people with jokes or suggestions about rape or anal self-abuse.

Starting to heal the rifts

  • Accept that each of us is likely to be right about some issues and mistaken about others. Try to approach each issue on its merits, rather than on the basis of which side you think the person is on.
  • Accept that we might be mistaken about what other people are trying to communicate to us, and what their motivations might be. Accept that we might have made mistakes when communicating to others, and that we might have unfairly hurt people without realizing it.
  • Accept that the first step to identifying either harassment or bullying is to listen to the people who tell us that they feel harassed or bullied. The fact that they feel harassed or bullied means there is a problem to be addressed, whatever the detail and however we address it.
  • Start the process of healing the rifts ourselves. Identify something that we ourselves did that may have been unfair or hurtful, and apologize to the person who we we think we may have hurt. Do this regardless of whether or not they reciprocate.

How we can reinvigorate our atheist/skeptical communities

Adversity can sometimes build strength. If we get this right, we can heal at least some of the recent rifts, and start to build reinvigorated, positive atheist and skeptical communities. We should also focus outward. There are many atheists and skeptics who are not even aware that our communities exist, never mind being aware of the minutia of our disagreements. They may be more likely to be attracted to positive proactive groups, who combine promoting our core ideas about atheism and skepticism with an inclusive and caring and supportive value system. As reasonable people, we should at least test this hypothesis.

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{ 268 comments… read them below or add one }

251 Jimbo August 10, 2012 at 4:20 pm
252 Paul Moloney August 10, 2012 at 4:38 pm

So you think his actions were ethical? Interesting, since you yourself use a pseudonym.


253 Jimbo August 10, 2012 at 5:05 pm

It clearly isn’t safe for detractors of FTB to use their real names.

I don’t know what the extent of his actions were, so it’s difficult to say. But I’m a utilitarian. I do think it’s ethical to steal a car to stop a murder. Whatever Thunderf00t’s actions were, it seems he may have unveiled some very unethical behaviour on behalf of FTB and in the process helped someone out who had become a target of what I consider to be bullying.

254 Zachariah August 10, 2012 at 9:14 pm

Yes, because talking about how somebody has pissed you off is EXACTLY like planning to murder somebody.

TF broke into a listserv and disseminated information for the purpose of damaging peoples reputations. That is horrible behavior and can’t be defended.

255 jimbo August 10, 2012 at 11:38 pm

Wow you guys sure do struggle with the
Concept of analogy

256 Zachariah August 11, 2012 at 12:11 am

I’m not the one who used a bad analogy. An analogy actually needs to contain the same element of truth as the reality. You used committing a crime to prevent a worse crime (car theft to prevent a murder).

My point was that obtaining and releasing private communications (and illegally no less) is a worse offense than backchannel bitching, so your analogy sucks. Is that clear enough for you, or do you require more detail?

257 PatrickG August 11, 2012 at 12:27 am

Good lord, Jimbo is still here? Just walk away Zach, and he’ll go back under his bridge.

258 PatrickG August 11, 2012 at 12:28 am

Though I’m irritated by how phrases like “good lord” can still trip off my tongue/fingers. Damn childhood upbringing. :)

259 Jimbo August 11, 2012 at 9:34 am

No, you’re one of these idiots who thinks an analogy has to be exact in every measure of scale even where scale has NOTHING to do with the point being made.

The point of my analogy was not to demonstrate utilitarian ethics which suggest it could be ethical to commit a minor unethical action in order to prevent a major unethical action.

If thunderfoot commited a minor unethical act to expose a number of major unethical acts, then what he did WAS analagous to stealing a car to prevent a murder.

To demonstrate that concept via analogy does not in any way imply that what thunderfoot did is equivalent in scale to steaking a car, nor does it imply that what the FTB bloggers did is equivalent in scale to murder! FFS

You’re probably far too enveloped in your little bubble of FTB rage to think clearly on this topic, but please try to quell your ignorance.

Please also pass this on to those in your hierarchy who made the same mistake as you in response to Paula Kirby coining the term Femistasi.

260 Jimbo August 11, 2012 at 9:47 am

In the interests of ever being able to have any kind of fruitful conversation with you people, I will attempt to educate you on the concept of analogy.

Many others at FTB made exactly the same mistake in response to Kirby’s coining of Femistasi.

In the case of my analogy, it’s the concept that was analagous, not the scale.

The concept of commiting a minor unethical action in order to prevent a greater one.

If you have any interest in ever debating anyone on any topic at any point in the future, I suggest you read this…

261 Zachariah August 11, 2012 at 3:14 pm

“No, you’re one of these idiots who thinks an analogy has to be exact in every measure of scale even where scale has NOTHING to do with the point being made.”

Are we straw-manning to win arguments now? Because if you really think that is what I said, then you didn’t read very carefully.

The point I made is that your analogy is bad not because of the difference of scale, but because of the inversion of scale. Most people would agree with the utilitarian principle for car theft and murders.

But here is the kicker: breaking into private communications and disseminating that information publicly is WORSE than bitching on some back channel e-mail list. The FTB folks were exercising their freedom of speech, TF violated trust and possibly broke the law to expose their speech. It’s more analogous to a stalker taking voyeuristic pictures and then trying to pass them around to make the victim look like a slut.

See, I can play the analogy game too!

262 Jimbo August 12, 2012 at 10:27 am

OMFG, you cannot seriously expect me to buy that.


“Yes, because talking about how somebody has pissed you off is EXACTLY like planning to murder somebody.”

…is a clear reference to scale. It’s very clear that your problem with the analogy was that you didn’t consider the magnitude of the unethical behaviour in the analogy matched the magnitude of the unethical behaviour in the real life example.

If the content of those emails as reported by TF is accurate, then the people in the mailing list damaged their own reputations by conspiring to engage in a vicious bullying campaigns.

As far as I’m concerned, trying to get someone fired from their job for the crime of sending a single dissenting tweet is utterly reprehensible. Far more reprehensible than any kind of whislte blowing.

But as I said, we don’t know exactly what it is that TF did or how he got hold of the information he did. Nor do we know that he has accurately and completely reported his side of the story or the content of those mails. So I don’t claim to know anything.

263 A Hermit August 19, 2012 at 7:08 pm

“As far as I’m concerned, trying to get someone fired from their job for the crime of sending a single dissenting tweet is utterly reprehensible”

Except that wasn’t what happened. No one tried to get anyone fired, they just discussed how best to respond to an ignorant tweet, this is just a lie TF has invented in a desperate attempt to justify his own despicable behaviour.

Thunderfoot has done exactly what the “climategate” hackers did; illegally stole other people’s private communications and dishonestly used selected excerpts to try and smear them.

And he was reading and passing their private mail around BEFORE the discussion bout the CFI guy’s tweet, so its dishonest of hi to use that as a justification for his ethical lapse. He’s not a whistleblower, he’s more like a peeping Tom.

We do know exactly what he did, by the way, you can read all about it here: http://freethoughtblogs.com/entequilaesverdad/2012/08/11/thunderf00ts-illegal-immoral-crusade/

Try educating yourself before shooting your mouth off.

264 Anon August 26, 2012 at 5:23 pm

The comment about talking things in person is better. I agree but it’s not foolproof.

I think I will go ahead and say it. The skeptical community is full of aspergics. I have so observed so many weird behavioural things when attending meets and cons. The thing is that aspergic people are prone to meltdowns over nothing. Rageful shouting and accusations of harassment during friendly discussions.

This isn’t of course every skeptic, nor is it all people who have aspergers, but a subset who will cause trouble because their social skills are horrendous. A lack of listening and jumping to conclusions half way through a balanced discussion e.g. Explaining the pro and cons of a touchy subject, finishing explaining the pros, about to start with the cons and having that responder suddenly start screaming their tantrum. Also the situations where you explain a thing maybe a bit of woo to someone and they will (because of poor listening and social skills) just think you are advocating what you are explaining. Also the whole aspect of aspergics explaining what is right to people in their harsh and half-empathic manners is an off-putter generally to anyone, especially newcomers.

There is the harsh and abrasive put downs and hubris that comes across in the podcasts. I mean what better way to dictate what morality as aspergics use logic to compensate for a lack of knowing how to socially empathise.

Calls to not criticise our own are not likely to be fulfilled with critical thinkers, thinking critically, about their contemporaries. Face it, the true believers are wonky headed in their ways, but the skeptical freak parade is wonky in their own ways. You can make those calls and their is validity in it, however trouble and calls for calm will cycle over and over again.

As a neurotypical and like the Dude, I try to abide, but the Walter’s of this world are as difficult as they are.

As for ‘anal self abuse’ -how is that a topic that has emerged and why can’t I laugh about that.

265 Rebecca 9000 August 28, 2012 at 1:34 am

I will always be an individual atheist. Fuck anyone who wants to superglue atheists together with some manifesto.

266 mofa January 2, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Michael’s article is hard to fault..he says sensible things. FtB and A+ are not the means to acheive the noble objectives that Michael points to, they are one of the serious problems. They are devisive and the puppeteers of this group are talentless, bland, maniacle, conceited, autocratic, megalomaniacs.

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