Thank you for the various open letters and emails regarding the ongoing conflicts between some atheists and skeptics on an interacting range of issues including sexism and harassment, feminism and free speech, personal abuse and bullying, and the impact of these issues on the Empowering Women Through Secularism conference in Dublin on June 29 and 30. I will respond separately from a personal perspective, and as chairperson of Atheist Ireland.
Firstly, from a personal perspective, I know from experience of much more vicious conflicts than these that it is likely that there are good people on all perceived ‘sides’ who are unfairly hurting other people because they or people close to them have themselves been unfairly hurt, and who are unfairly attributing malign motivations to other good people who in turn are unfairly attributing malign motivations to them.
Since I started facilitating the paused online dialogue on these issues, I have been listening to and considering what people on all perceived ‘sides’ have to say. I have had the pleasure of working with moderators and participants in the online dialogue who have been acting with integrity and reason despite unfair criticism of them from people opposed to dialogue.
I have read a great deal of the online material that shows how various issues have both escalated and became entangled with each other in recent years. And I want to add to my understanding by talking to some of the people involved when they come to Dublin, because I think that face to face discussion can be more useful than online discussion.
Whenever I think I understand enough about the issues to be able to make a useful contribution to the substantive discussions, I will do so. In the meantime, I have chosen to mostly listen and not to publicly respond to speculation about my motives or opinions. That does not mean that I am approaching the issues in an ethical vacuum. I have written elsewhere about the values that I am bringing to these issues:
- Why atheist and skeptic groups should be inclusive, caring and supportive
- A draft Manifesto to promote Ethical Atheism
- On the primacy of reasonable dialogue in the atheist and skeptic communities
Atheist Ireland perspective
Secondly, as chairperson of Atheist Ireland, I want to make clear that the Empowering Women Through Secularism Conference is not ‘my’ conference. It is an Atheist Ireland conference, and it is disrespectful to the committee members of Atheist Ireland, and particularly to the conference chairperson Jane Donnelly, to frame it as something which I control personally.
The conference has a structured agenda covering reproductive rights and Irish abortion law, promoting secular values in society, promoting separation of church and state, protecting and promoting human rights, and involvement in politics and the media. Each session will feed into a declaration on empowering women through secularism, which will be adopted on the Sunday.
We invited speakers to contribute to this important agenda, and not on the basis of their involvement in the ongoing conflicts. We won’t be uninviting any speakers, and we won’t allow our ongoing work as an advocacy group to be used as a vehicle for adding to the escalation of the conflicts by unfairly maligning any speakers or any other person who is attending the conference.
We considered having a session during the conference to discuss the ongoing conflicts, and we decided against doing this. The background would require too much explaining for conference attenders, many of whom function mostly in real life and are blissfully unaware that these conflicts even exist. Also, we do not want it to unduly dominate the focus of the conference.
We are asking speakers and participants to focus on the agenda for the conference, and to leave discussion of the conflicts for the many opportunities that exist to discuss them elsewhere. Please be respectful to all of the speakers and to all of the other participants. Please do not attribute malign motivations to any person who is attending the conference.
Ultimately we need to resolve the ongoing conflict issues in some manner, and I have been actively trying to work towards this by facilitating dialogue. But please let’s try to make this particular conference a reminder of how we can work together effectively on important issues despite having differences of opinion on other important issues.