Let me preface this post by saying that I accept that I might be mistaken in anything that I write, and that I am open to changing my mind on the basis of reasonable civil discussion. Also, I assume that I have done variations of at least some of the things I am complaining about others doing here.
I believe that atheist and skeptic people and groups, like all people and groups within society, should promote compassion, empathy, fairness, justice, equality and respect for people, combined with robust rational analysis of ideas. I believe that this should include tackling sexism, racism, homophobia and other discriminatory biases in society.
I believe that the approach taken by PZ Myers, and by some other people on (for shorthand) the FreeThought Blogs perceived ‘side’ of some disagreements, is counterproductive to these aims. It is also unjust and harmful in itself, because it routinely demonises decent people who support equality but who have a different approach to it.
I am also concerned that distorted versions of these disagreements are now leaking into more mainstream media, as evidenced by recent sensationalised newspaper articles about Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and by Mark Oppenheimer’s recent article, ‘Will Misogyny Bring Down The Atheist Movement?’, which is more comprehensive but not fully informed.
The many overlapping atheist advocates and movements
Some of these more mainstream media analyses imply that there is a single ‘atheist movement’, and that it is best analysed through some opinions of some mostly American bloggers and activists who, while committed and sincere and doing good work, are not representative of atheist activism worldwide.
Actually, there are many overlapping atheist and secular movements around the world, and one better filter through which to examine the state of their progress would be through the work of Atheist Alliance International and its affiliated groups in different regions.
There is a great deal of patient, hard, sometimes dangerous work being done to protect atheists and promote secularism in the developing world, with its often overt theocracies, and to protect and advance secularism in the developed world, which is typically more democratic.
There are also many excellent authors and broadcasters and bloggers and lawyers and foundations promoting a better understanding of science and secularism, of the dangers posed to people and societies by faith and dogma, and of the need for compassion, empathy, fairness, justice, equality and respect for people while robustly criticising ideas and beliefs.
The current state of atheist advocacy and movements
The world is gradually becoming less religious and more secular, as evidenced by the work of the World Values Survey, a team of interdisciplinary social scientists who survey and analyse human values around the world. Atheist and secular groups and authors both reflect and advance that trend.
Atheist Alliance International has NGO consultative status with UNESCO, and worked with Atheist Ireland on our recent successful intervention at the UN Human Rights Committee’s investigation of Ireland under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
AAI has also worked with the IHEU and Center for Inquiry Transnational in gathering and submitting cases of discrimination against nontheists in the 2013 Freedom of Thought Report and promoting the discrimination reporting website Freethought report, as well as helping atheists who are seeking asylum when their lives are in danger.
AAI has also helped the Philippines Atheist and Agnostic Society to raise funds for short-term disaster relief after a hurricane, has helped the Gambia Secular Assembly to build a kindergarten, and has helped to raise funds for the Kasese Humanist School in Uganda.
Current priorities of AAI and its affiliates include improving internal operational efficiency, counteracting the effects of religious superstition and corruption in Africa, promoting human rights and religious tolerance in Muslim-dominated Asian and Middle-Eastern countries, and seeking greater separation of church and state in Latin American countries where Catholic dominance is being challenged by Evangelical Christian missionaries.
In the United States, AAI affiliate The Freedom From Religion Foundation continues to promote nontheism and defend the constitutional separation between religion and government, through a combination of its legal work, its publications and conferences, and the strength of its 20,000 members.
And that is just some of the work done by Atheist Alliance International and some of its many affiliates around the world. There are many other atheist advocates, activists and groups around the world who are not affiliated to AAI or indeed to any other group. Any analysis of ‘The’ atheist movement should recognise this global complexity.
Atheist advocacy and secularism empowering women
This global context is not presented in some recent articles. Instead, ‘The’ atheist movement is presented as if it was primarily an ongoing personalised and regional battleground about sexism between some mostly American bloggers and activists, some mostly American conference organisers, and some prominent atheist advocates who the mainstream media tend to quote.
I believe that sexism, like racism and homophobia, is a problem within society, and that it is therefore inevitable that sexism is also a problem within some atheist groups, and that we should tackle that problem.
Atheist Ireland has a policy of actively being inclusive to women and members of all groups who may be underrepresented or discriminated against in society. We work actively with other groups campaigning for abortion rights and equal marriage rights for gay people in Ireland.
Last year we organised an international conference in Dublin on Empowering Women Through Secularism, with speakers and participants from around the world. We discussed and adopted the Dublin Declaration on Secularism Empowering Women. The participants agreed policy priorities on secular values in society, human rights, separation of religion and state, reproductive rights and politics and campaigning.
On secular values in society, we concluded that the secular values that will empower women are science-based reason, equality and empathy in alliance with the principles of feminism. The priorities in democratic states were that secular values will protect and advance already-established freedoms, and that cultural and religious beliefs must not be used to deny or limit these freedoms. The priorities in nondemocratic states were that, where secular values are not recognised or protected by laws, such laws should be established and applied, and address the issues that deny women full participation in society and government.
On human rights, we agreed that human rights are universal, and should be applied equally in democratic and nondemocratic states; and that women’s rights are human rights, not separate rights for women. The priorities in democratic states were that women should have equal sexual, reproductive and economic rights in practice as well as in legislation. The priorities in nondemocratic states were the right to autonomy, self-determination as an individual, and fully equal treatment at all levels of society for men and women taking precedence over religious or idealogical dogma.
You can read the full declaration here. I believe is a useful resource, given the quality and experience of the feminist activists from around the world who formulated it.
The role of PZ Myers in the culture of demonising people
I believe that the approach taken by PZ Myers has been central to the escalation of what some people call ‘the deep rifts’. He is by no means the only person responsible, and he has been the victim of many unfair and vicious personal attacks himself. But, given his influence and responsibility, his role has been central in shaping how things have developed.
Whenever I have met PZ, he comes across as a decent person, motivated by a desire to promote reason and science, and to promote social justice and defend victims of injustice. He is quiet, polite, civil and friendly. He works tirelessly to promote his vision of a better world. I like him.
But something seems to happen to him when he gets behind a keyboard. He routinely demonises people in a way that he doesn’t do in person, and that he recognises as unfair when others do it to him. He routinely attacks people as individuals, as opposed to merely attacking their ideas or behaviour.
Whenever we have met, I have raised concerns about this. Each time, he has responded that he will tone it down, which to some extent he has. He no longer encourages his commenters to tell people to shove a rotting porcupine up their ass, and they no longer tell people to die in a fire or fuck themselves with a rusty chainsaw. But ceasing such vitriol, while obviously welcome, is a low hurdle for a blog promoting empathy and social justice.
In the last year or so, he has publicly accused Richard Dawkins of seeming to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children, Michael Shermer of multiple unreported serious crimes, and Russell Blackford of being a lying fuckhead. He has joked about Rebecca Watson shanking Phil Mason in the kidneys, and about himself stabbing Christians and throwing people off a pier.
Last month he described Robin Williams’ suicide as the death of a wealthy white man dragging us away from news about brown people, said that a white lady who made racist comments looks like the kind of person who would have laughed at nanu-nanu, then added that he should have been more rude, because asking him to have been nicer about the dead famous guy is missing the point.
I believe and hope that he has now passed the apex of this approach. Some of his recent posts have been informative and science-based, he has written a sensitive account of his first kiss as a teenager, he has argued that people are complex rather than good or bad, and some of his recent criticisms of those he disagrees with have been more balanced and nuanced.
However, old habits die hard. In recent days, he has written that Richard Dawkins has been eaten by brain parasites and is grossly dishonest, that Christina Hoff Sommers promotes lies about feminism and claims them as inalienable truths, that Michael Shermer is a liar and an assailant, and that Sam Harris has scurried off to write a tendentious and inexcusably boring defence of sticking his foot in his mouth.
I have no idea what PZ thinks he will gain by continuing to publicly attack named people in this personalised way. I don’t think it is a response to ‘the deep rifts’. He was personally hostile to creationists before that, and many people, including me, did not challenge that, I assume partly because it did not affect us directly and partly because he was also citing objective scientific facts about the topics under discussion.
Atheist activists and groups and authors around the world are working hard to promote reasoned evidence-based world views, and to counter the harm caused by faith and superstition, in difficult and often dangerous circumstances. If we talk about the future of ‘The atheist movement’, that global context is what we should be talking about.
I believe that we should do this work while also promoting compassion, empathy, fairness, justice, equality and respect for people, combined with robust rational analysis of ideas. I believe that this should include tackling sexism, racism, homophobia and other discriminatory biases in society, and making our groups and events welcoming to everybody who wants to be involved.
I believe that we can do this without routinely demonising good people who support equality but who have a different approach to it, without uncharitably misinterpreting tweets and impromptu comments as if they were formal pronouncements of misogyny, and without ignoring the principles of natural justice by publicly accusing named people of serious alleged crimes.
I believe that we should robustly question the ideas and behaviour of people who are, or who are perceived to be, authority figures in our own spheres of activity. I also believe that everyone, on various sides of these disagreements, should reconsider what I describe as the ethos of “You must be more compassionate, you fuckbrained asshole!”
Let me conclude by repeating from my preface, that I accept that I might be mistaken in anything that I have written here, that I am open to changing my mind on the basis of reasonable civil discussion, and that I assume that I may have done variations of at least some of the things I am complaining about others doing here.