Eight choices we can make to help move beyond the rifts in the atheist and skeptic communities

by Michael Nugent on March 15, 2013

I decided a week ago to take time out from the recent discussions about the rifts in the atheist and skeptic communities, in order to get some perspective on what I had learned from the discussions up to then. I would also like to thank the people who have contacted me privately to make helpful suggestions.

Many of these issues have been most visible in disagreements between members of some specific websites and forums. However, the way that the issues have been addressed has had a knock-on effect on the wider atheist and skeptic communities in real life.

Many people have been unfairly misrepresented and hurt, and many have been alienated in recent years from what was evolving into a stronger international support group and advocacy voice than we have today.

Here are eight choices that I think it would be useful for each of us to voluntarily adopt, not because we are obliged to do so, but because we believe it would be useful to do so, all things considered, as a starting point for productive dialogue.

The first five choices are general

1. We can choose to robustly debate our disagreements about ideas, while not personally insulting or mocking people who disagree with us.

2. We can choose to want to de-escalate, rather than escalate, the hostility and hurt that has been one outcome of how we have addressed some disagreements.

3. We can choose to accept that, just as we know that others are mistaken about our motivations, we may also be mistaken about their motivations.

4. We can choose to charitably interpret ambiguous statements, or ask the person to clarify them, rather than unilaterally attacking the worst interpretation.

5. We can choose to give people the space to reconsider previously stated beliefs, and to either clarify or easily disown off-the-cuff statements.

The next three choices relate to specific issues

6. We can choose to actively tackle the problems of sexism and harassment in our communities, regardless of the scale of those problems.

7. We can choose to robustly debate disagreements about aspects of feminism, without labeling people based on our interpretation of their motivation.

8. We can choose to unilaterally retract any statements that we personally have made that, in retrospect, we now believe were wrong or unhelpful.


These suggested choices are intended for people of good will who want to discuss these issues reasonably, and who also want to make it easy for people of good will who disagree with them to discuss their disagreements reasonably.

I would welcome any feedback.

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{ 262 comments… read them below or add one }

251 John Greg March 19, 2013 at 9:52 pm

Lumen222, I get the impression that you are having some difficulty coming to terms with the fact that the Pit is not one homogenous group with a set goal or ideology to which we all agree and to which we all aim.

That is not what the Pit is at all.

The Pit is a widley, maybe even wildly, diverse group of people with an endlessly variable range of opinions and perspectives, often in conflict. As some people have described it, the Pit is a neighbourhood pub, with a vast variety of different people with different interests, but wherein we all agree that discussion and debate demand freedom of thought and expression.

About the only thing we almost generally all agree on, topically speaking, is that the FfTB, Skepchick, and latterly A+ communities, bloggers, and commentariat, and some tangential but related individuals within the so-called skeptic / athiest communities are toxic, dogmatic, deeply fanatical, profoundly hypocritical, and often quite deceitful.

And most of the Pit population seem to feel that that unhealthy environment needs to be uncovered and exposed and opened to the public in general so that fewer people are taken in by the mendacity and the fanatical, divisive, deceptive, ideolgy.

PeeZus, Watson, Zvan, et al, are merely the carriers and spreaders of this diseased fanaticism and hypocrisy, and therefore the focus of the expose.

As for what is wanted, we all, each one of us, individually, want a variety of things; different things; the range is vast.

As for me, personally, among other things, I want the FfTB, Skepchick, and A+ communities to be exposed for the toxic sludge they are.

252 Thaumas Themelios March 19, 2013 at 10:17 pm

“236 Lumen222 March 19, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Eu March 19, 2013 at 11:06 am
“rorschach, are you just fucking trolling, or are you seriously implying that pitters don’t also talk about atheism?”

Perusing the Slymepit itself and reviewing the comments made by self identifying “pitters” here and in other places I will point out that from what I’ve seen the majority of your conversations and posts reference FTB, PZ, RW, A+, and OB. Even conversations that are supposedly not about this controversy often seem to contain asides about these people/organizations. Certainly the majority of the posts are dedicated to ridiculing the enemy and documenting in great depth their misdeeds. ”

Lumen222, I’m a member of dozens of groups on Facebook, subscribe to over 50 blogs and podcasts, and comment occasionally on about 10 of them, subscribe to hundreds of YouTube channels, nearly all atheism-related, and have been an active contributor at one forum for just over 7 years now, and another one prior to that for about 2 years. I’ve confronted hundreds of theists of all stripes and helped other atheists/rationalists to refine their arguments through debate and demonstration.

I also *happen* to be a member of the Slymepit forum, and recently have been more focused on dealing with this issue *within* the atheist/skeptic movement(s) because *they* want to exclude *me* from expressing my opinions. And not just me, but hundreds of other people as well. All based on an ideological dogma.

So, yes, I use the Slymepit the same way I use other fora, to share ideas and links, to commiserate and laugh with others facing the same insanity, and to try to help others in any way I can (which admittedly is not much).

Many of the members of the Slymepit are veterans of the atheist movement. Certainly all the folks from Abbie’s ERV threads (the original ‘slimepit’) are. The Slymepit does not define us. It’s a forum. We are individuals.

253 Thaumas Themelios March 19, 2013 at 10:47 pm

” I went there and have looked at comments on other websites by people who self identify as “Pitters” and pointed out that the identity is presented online with a very narrow focus. When people talk about being a “Pitter” they are generally focused primarily on reacting to very specific individuals and organizations. Huge swaths of the slymepit focus on these organizations/people or reference them. This is the face you are presenting as “Pitters”. If you have other faces and identities they are not well represented on the slymepit website, so I don’t think it’s reasonable for you to expect others to know about them. ”


So what? Do you go to a forum about cars and get surprised that people there only seem to talk about cars? It’s like they’re *obsessed*!!! with cars.

Except they have lives and interests outside of that one forum. And maybe they’re a little shy about revealing personal details on the car forum. So? If you want to find out what I’m about, there’s a link on my name just above. You’ll find almost *nothing* about FTB through that, unless you dig *really* *really* deep. Because I keep my atheism-advocacy stuff separate from my anti-atheism+dogma stuff. They don’t mix well. It would be pointless of me to go on to the Slymepit and try to convince all the atheists there to give up theism because they’re not theists. Duh. Likewise, it would be pointless of me to go to an AvT forum and tell all the theists about the internal problems we’re having in the atheist movement with dogmatists attempting an ideological hijacking of the atheist/skeptical movement(s). (Though if a theist was interested in that, I would have no qualms about explaining the situation and my take on it, I just wouldn’t bring it up myself.)

254 Thaumas Themelios March 19, 2013 at 11:07 pm

“However, as I said, the focus is very much on a handful of people and there is a lot of yes Obsession with their minutia. ”

I guess you’ve never been involved in debunking someone like Kent Hovind or Ray Comfort. When they Hovind was active, there was indeed a lot of focus on him and ‘obsession’ with the minutia of his rhetoric and unethical practices. Do you really think ‘obsession’ is the right word for that? And indeed, we made great fun of him and his insanity. He said and did ridiculous things, we ridiculed him for it.

And you know what? He’s in jail now. For breaking the law. The moral ‘authority’ turns out to be an immoral scumbag. Who’da guessed it?!

It’s the same deal here, Lumen, though we haven’t yet seen anything as egregious as tax evasion. But, just as if no one scrutinized Hovind, he’d have gotten away with a lot more, the same is true of these folks, who have already been documented doing *clearly* unethical things (e.g. threats of violence, interfering with peoples’ employment, spreading demonstrably false rumours, etc.), if not quite illegal (yet, and hopefully never).

We see harmful behaviour, we scrutinize it and disassemble it, hunt down inconsistencies in public claims, and seek to find ways to prevent this ideological hijacking from succeeding in the long long term.

As for myself, I am strongly committed to ensuring that I only undertake in activism that I can defend as ethical. I cannot speak for others, but I *can* say that I *will not* cooperate with anyone who has been confirmed as doing something clearly unethical. As yet, I’ve not seen anything that could be so categorized from members of the pit. I stand ready to be corrected on that, pending adequate evidence. But so far, I’m satisfied with their ethical boundaries, as far as I’m aware. (If anyone can point out something clearly unethical, please point it out and I’ll join you in condemning it. But, fair warning, mere accusations and/or rumours are not enough for me. I need actual, verifiable evidence.)

I was pretty heavily involved in online social activism against the second George W. Bush campaign too. I even joined forums like the DailyKos to engage in that activism. Most discussions on that forum at that time focused on ‘major figures’ and ‘minutiae’ too. There were even crude jokes and photoshops and everything. Does that make all those people ‘obsessed’, or just concerned and socially, politically active?

255 Thaumas Themelios March 19, 2013 at 11:43 pm

“There is very little emphasis on convincing people that Rad Fem/SJW is a problem and a lot of evidence on discrediting specfic individuals who you feel represent it. Do you really think that if you somehow succeed to vanquish these foes that your case will be made?

I’m unconvinced.”

So, you don’t consider blocking/banning/deleting/modifying dissent is a problem in a *skeptical* movement?

How about spreading demonstrably false rumours about a real person, of committing a serious crime (upskirt photography), all over the internet in communities he’s a part of, with *no* evidence that such activity had taken place? (This went on for *weeks*, by the way, resisting all reasoned attempts to shut it down, until finally they could no longer deny the emptiness of their rumour. And *these* were so-called *skeptics*.)

How about spreading smears against ideological opponents. Is that a problem, in your view? What would be your reaction if you found someone spreading a false allegation that you had openly admitted to being a *literal* rapist? Would that be a ‘problem’ for you?

The reason these things get personal is that they *make* them personal. Character assassination is their modus operandi. It seems rather ridiculous to me that we should not be allowed to insult them, or even *joke* about them, while they are not merely insulting, but spreading false allegations and accusations around.

Note that I largely (not always) refrain from insults in this affair. That is my choice, as Michael’s post explains. But I reserve the right to use insulting language, if I should feel the need. There’s nothing *actually* wrong with that. It may result in unhappy circumstances for me if I over-indulge in it, but that’s my risk to take, and I get to judge when I should or shouldn’t say something offensive. My words, my choice. (To paraphrase.)

As long as I do no *actual* harm to anyone, there should be no problem. People may not like me for it, but again, that’s a consequence I negotiate on my own.

Where I draw the line is *actual* harm. *Actual* reputation-damaging smears, allegations, or accusations. Not mere insults.

So, insult me all you like till the cows come home. But accuse me of something I haven’t done, or of being something I’m not, and you have made it personal. Do it to another person — cause actual harm to them or their reputations — and you’ve made it personal to them, and if I’m able, I’ll attempt to counter those behaviours as well. (Indeed, I have opposed certain claims made by certain opponents (including some Slymepitters) of FTB/A+ers when I’ve felt they’ve crossed this line; if you want examples of that, I can provide them).

Most importantly, however, try to impose a dogma on me or my communit(ies) (or any community I can help), and I’ll *definitely* oppose that to the best of my ability, and within reasonable ethical constraints.

256 Eu March 20, 2013 at 12:01 am

You know what? I am getting tired of the same old statements on the pit. They are an exaggeration (as well as the opposite of an exaggeration depending on how you see it) to the point of a… L-word. To the point of being plain false.

257 Thaumas Themelios March 20, 2013 at 12:13 am

I agree, Eu, on some occasions I feel the same, and on some of those where I wasn’t ‘late to the party’, I’ve spoken up about them. Since the pit moves so fast, and I’m a relatively infrequent poster there, most of the time I’ve done this outside of the pit per se, But if you read my intro post there, you’ll see that from the beginning I’ve been trying to find ways to handle this conflict in ways that reduce these kinds of ‘escalations’, which can get one’s point across without resorting to snipes and jabs, and which — most importantly — doesn’t ask anyone to ‘sell out’ or go ‘accommodationist’ or anything like that: http://www.slymepit.com/phpbb/viewtopic.php?f=17&t=95&p=1052

258 Eu March 20, 2013 at 12:33 am

Aww, you were always a little thinker huh? Very cool. I would expect you to at least start out christian as a toddler.

259 Eu March 20, 2013 at 3:31 am

Ooo, Lumen222 if you ever feel up to it try to participate in the atheism+ forum or at least look around. The abusive is prevalent.

260 Michael Kingsford Gray March 20, 2013 at 12:16 pm

Lumen222 March 19, 2013 at 9:17 pm

What disturbs me greatly is I’m getting the impression that you guys don’t actually care about convincing anyone of any articular argument or bringing about any change

Your observation is quite accurate, as it happens.
“Most” of “us” care not about vapid short-term political outcomes, but instead care PASSIONATELY about what is TRUE.

261 Eu March 20, 2013 at 2:20 pm

Lumen222 how desperate would we be if we continued to care so much if we got to say anything to them or set anything straight considering it’s been a while annnddd nothing like that has happened?

Why should that be a great disturbance to you? What matters is if what is said is true and if it *should* be convincing someone to change.

262 Brenda March 24, 2013 at 10:08 pm

Thank you for this. I’ve appropriated your awesome “choices” and we’re encouraging members of our atheist group here in Oklahoma to read them and take them to heart. Of course I’ve cited you as a source and directed folks to your blog. Keep going, it’s a hard slog but civility is well worth the effort!

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