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.
- 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.