Divisiveness Within the Secular Movement

September 12, 2012

Greta Christina and PZ Myers have recently suggested that is it not necessarily a bad thing to be divisive.  True, it is not necessarily a bad thing.  It depends on what one is separating oneself from. 

In her blog post, Greta Christina responded to the charge that the Atheism Plus initiative is divisive by claiming that the secular community is divided already.  As evidence for this claim, she offered several deplorable incidents and actions, principally involving hate-filled threats and comments to women, many of which would be familiar to anyone active in the movement.  She then asked rhetorically why such vile conduct has not been called “divisive.” 

But if hate-filled comments and threats to women have not been expressly called divisive, it’s because such conduct does not threaten to divide the movement. It has already been repudiated, both implicitly and explicitly, by many, if not most, of the organizations in the movement. 

Before I go further, perhaps I should indicate what I mean by “the movement,” at least as it pertains to the United States.  (It will complicate matters if I try to encompass other countries.)  There are roughly fifteen nationwide secular organizations in the U. S.  Many (but not all) are members of the Secular Coalition.  (FFRF is not, for example.)  There are also a number of significant regional secular groups, e.g., Humanists of Florida Association, Humanists of Minnesota, Minnesota Atheists.  Finally, there are also some national and regional skeptical organizations that have crossover appeal, that is, they have gone beyond the traditional limits of skepticism and in some fashion engage in critical examination of religion and have explicitly nonreligious leaders. The movement comprises these organizations, their members, and supporters.  The movement doesn’t include everyone who is nonreligious; some (many? most?) nonbelievers have little or no interest in the missions or activities of these various organizations.  Merely identifying yourself as an atheist and posting a comment on a blog doesn't make you part of the movement.

Now that we are clear about what I mean by the movement, I can say with confidence that at the national level none of the movement organizations condones hatred and threats toward women.  I believe the same can be said for the regional groups, although I am less confident simply because I do not have first-hand knowledge for all these groups. 

But do not take my word for it.  Amy Roth had the inspired idea to have some of the male representatives of movement organizations go on record condemning the sort of invective and hate that Greta highlights in her blog.  I am not privy to the individuals Amy asked to participate.  I suppose it is possible someone turned her down.  All I know is that many secular organizations are represented in her series “Speaking out against hate directed at women.” 

My point is that the haters are not threatening to divide the movement.  No matter how frequently the haters pollute our blogs, they are outside the movement already.  No one in a position of responsibility wants them in the movement.  Whatever differences may exist among the various movement organizations, we are united on this issue. 

So if the movement is united on this point, is there any need to be concerned about divisiveness?  In particular, is there cause for concern about divisiveness resulting from the Atheism Plus initiative? Or from any other source? Maybe. 

First, let’s talk about possible discord with respect to goals external to the movement, that is, the changes we’d like to bring about in society.  Obviously, not all the secular organizations are in agreement with what the precise objectives and priorities of the movement should be—otherwise, presumably, we would have just one large, nationwide organization.  Nonetheless, as demonstrated by the Secular Coalition, and events such as the Reason Rally, there is a broad consensus about many of the issues on which the secular movement should work.  (There is less consensus, admittedly, if one includes the crossover skeptical organizations.) I think it’s fair to say that all the secular organizations advocate for a strict separation of church and state, equal rights for nonbelievers, and an end to preferential treatment of religion. Most of them also want to end religious influence on public policy. With respect to this last objective, there are different interpretations about how broad our work in this area should be. As I outlined in a prior post, CFI takes a fairly expansive view of its mandate and we have worked on a variety of issues that could be described as social justice issues, including activism in support of  LGBT equality, reproductive rights, and equality for women. We’re a member of the Alliance for Justice and where appropriate we have partnered with AFJ or some of its member organizations on various projects.

Deciding how much staff time and money to expend on a particular issue is always a problem, however. We have finite resources. Real finite. Compared to Religious Right organizations our budget is minuscule.

Furthermore, our resources compared with other progressive organizations are also (usually) much smaller. For example, Human Rights Campaign does great work; it also has annual revenue of over $30 million. There is no way we could—and no reason we should—try to compete with them. It makes no sense to duplicate their efforts.

And it’s not just that we can’t effectively “me too” the work of other organizations working on social justice issues; we at CFI don’t want to. We are not primarily LGBT advocates, women’s rights advocates, or healthcare advocates. We are advocates for a secular society, one of the fruits of which, we firmly believe, will be a society with rational, evidence-based policies and much less religion-fueled prejudice. We also believe our work on this objective takes priority over other social justice objectives, however worthy they may be.

So to return to Atheism Plus, here’s a concern: because the A+ advocates want to work on social justice issues, but have not yet specified how they plan to go about this, including which issues they will emphasize, there’s a worry that they will divert resources from the secular movement and weaken it. Moreover, this diluting of the strength of the secular movement will come right at a time when we have begun to make some progress, but we’re still far short of achieving our goals. When both major political parties still feel free to give us the back of their hand and treat the nonreligious as second-class citizens (as evidenced by the recent conventions), it may be premature to declare victory and move on to other projects. And, of course, that’s just the United States. When one looks at the influence of religion in other countries, especially the Islamic world, it’s even clearer that we have much work to do.

I’m not asserting that Atheism Plus is divisive with respect to the secular movement; I don’t see how anyone can at this stage as it’s still very much a work in progress. It’s possible this initiative will actually have the effect of energizing the secular movement by getting people involved who otherwise would remain inactive. But because its objectives, priorities, and plan of action have not been clearly formulated, it’s not irrational for someone committed to the secular movement to be apprehensive about its effect. In any event, I don’t think one should be indifferent to its potentially divisive impact.

OK, now let’s turn to divisiveness about goals internal to the movement. Here’s where the friction really is, isn’t it? As is well known, both A+ advocates and some others have called for a continuation of the scrutiny of sexism and other forms of prejudice within the movement, a process that began in earnest a little over a year ago. In the abstract, there’s nothing wrong with getting one’s own house in order. To the contrary, it’s obviously something we should do. Moreover, if it were simply a matter of “prioritiz[ing] the inclusion of women over the inclusion of hateful, misogynist assholes,” as Greta puts it, it would seem to be relatively simple matter. As indicated, no one in a responsible position in the movement wants to include hateful misogynists.

But it’s not that simple. It’s not that simple because while everyone agrees that telling a woman you want to kill her after you rape her is intolerable and in and of itself marks you as someone who has no place in the movement, the label “misogynist”  is sometimes thrown about carelessly. For example, Russell Blackford, the Australian philosopher (and Free Inquiry columnist) has been called a misogynist shitbag. Yet, as far as I know, Blackford has never made any hateful comments or threats to women; indeed, he has condemned them. He has expressed doubts about the wisdom of harassment policies adopted by some organizations and, if I recall correctly, he has taken exception to some of the criticism directed against TAM (the JREF’s annual meeting). But although Blackford’s views on these issues may be misguided, that hardly qualifies him as a misogynist.

I don’t mean to suggest that the stigmatizing and slurs flow only in one direction. Obviously not. Those calling attention to the problems of harassment within the movement have been dismissed as attention whores, feminazis, or man-haters. Again, even if the incidence of harassment within the movement and its seriousness were overstated (the reality is we don’t have reliable statistics, so anecdotal evidence is all anyone can point to), this would not imply that those emphasizing the problem are engaging in unacceptable conduct. They can be mistaken without being self-centered fanatics.

In a sense, Greta and PZ are right: the movement is divided, but it’s not divided for any good reason. It’s divided because too many in the movement are not willing to recognize that their fellow secularists can be mistaken without thereby being bigots; that their fellow secularists can have different understandings of the implications of feminism without being misogynists or “sister-punishers”; and that their fellow secularists can have can have different perceptions of the problem of harassment without being feminazis.

We’ve divided the movement because we’re not talking to each other; we’re just insulting each other.

Contributing to this type of divisiveness is not a good thing, because it’s fostering divisions that are unnecessary and can be avoided; it’s fostering divisions that will weaken the secular movement; it’s fostering divisions that will allow the religious dogmatists to require a new lease on life. We’re arguing about who’s the true feminist while state legislatures are drafting bills restricting abortions.

We should not cut ourselves off from fellow secularists who agree with us on core principles such as a woman’s right to be in control of her reproductive choices, to enjoy economic, social, and political equality, and to be free from harassment and hostility. If there are secondary disagreements about how best to secure these rights, we should try to resolve them through dialogue, not denunciation.

I don’t think of myself as being part of the language police, but in reading various blogs and tweets in preparation for writing my post, I think I saw enough references to douchebags, shitbags, fuckwads, and assholes to last a lifetime. Intemperate language isn’t the cause of the disagreements currently roiling the movement, but it certainly is a contributing factor. And it’s tiresome.


#1 Marc David Barnhill (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 5:23am

Thank you, Ron. Finally a clear, temperate call for rational discussion and active and empathetic listening on all sides. The invective has been childish and, I agree, tiresome. Here’s hoping reason and compassion prevail.

#2 Reba Boyd Wooden (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 6:09am

Right on, Ron!!!  I couldn’t agree with you more if I had written it myself.

#3 Dennis Griebenow (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 6:34am

Very well put.  Thank you.

#4 Kelly Grey (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 6:46am

What a fantastic piece Ron! And I second what Reba said! Hopefully this can be a starting point for more open dialogue and a lot less name calling and more listening.

#5 Stephanie Zvan (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 7:17am

Ron, with a great deal of respect, I’m going to have to disagree with much of what you use to create your argument here. To be more precise, I’m going to have to fill in missing details.

You point to Amy’s series of guest posts and recent changes by atheist groups as an indicator that things are largely all right in organized skepticism. Those moves are much appreciated. I think you’ve felt that in the feedback you’ve been getting.

They are, however, all *very* recent moves. They are all also moves that have come after years of mostly polite complaint from female atheists about the treatment they’d received. Those complaints did not lead to changes. The nearly a year of abuse hurled at Rebecca and others of us who took part in those discussions did not lead to the changes. The converstations at Women in Secularism about harassment did not spontaneously generate promises of anti-harassment policies. My blog post documenting the problem, which was framed as a FAQ because these discussions were becoming almost rote, did not spontaneously generate promises of anti-harassment policies.

What made that particular change was Erista stepping up to say, “This is bullshit. These organizations are not entitled to my attendance, and unless they change, they won’t have it.” What made that change was me sharing that message with people and telling them to make the same demands.

What led to Amy’s series of posts were a bunch of people stepping up to say, “This harassment is bullshit. Why are the guys in charge of our institutions treating it like a non-problems? What douchebags.”

I appreciate the eagerness with which many of you spoke up and with which many of you adopted policies, but it was not spontaneous. It didn’t happen until the discourse had already become quite accusatory.

(I apologize to Dave Silverman if he already had something in the works beyond merely thinking a policy had become necessary. I acknowledge and appreciate that many other changes over recent years have opened, in particular, leadership of our movement to women. I appreciate your role in these changes, Ron. We’re talking about the source of the discord right now, however.)

You’ll notice as well that there was some swearing and invective involved in the important tipping points. That is not accidental. It is not because these people are inarticulate. It’s not because they’re abusive. It isn’t even simply because they were justifiably angry. It’s because this kind of langugage serves a purpose when there is a power differential.

This has been explained a number of times in a number of ways, but I’ll do it again here. The people at the top of a power hierarchy set the rules for what constitutes “polite society”. Those rules are frequently arcane and look pointless until you understand that they are the shiboleths of power. Seriously, there’s no reason to use three forks over the course of a meal. Clothing designers don’t suddenly go from good to bad or vice versa in a season. These things are used to determine who is “us” versus “them”.

The same is true with the language of insult. There is no real difference between “You cannot compel me to talk to you” and “Fuck off” except the difference assigned to protect the social order. Similarly, there is no difference between “You’re unfairly opposing my interests as a woman in this situation” and “Douchebag” except the difference assigned to protect the social order. The first example in each case defers to the social order. The second challenges it while conveying the same information.

I think that by now you’ve noticed that we are challenging a social order that did not work for us as women—and several as other minorities—trying to be active in atheism. The swearing and invective serve a purpose in that. The evidence suggests that they are, if not effective in themselves (because they have never been used on their own to test this), then part of an effective strategy. The strong challenge to the current order has brought about change where other strategies haven’t.

If you want them to stop, the best way to make that happen is to work toward a movement in which that strategy isn’t needed. When that happens, we’ll all be part of the power structure, with interests in it to protect, and this sort of thing will end up strongly discouraged. Until then, you’ll need to get used to it, or at least to understand better why it bothers you, as an important part of the existing social order.

In the meantime, however, the movement is still stratified, well beyond any leadership model that is useful in getting things done. That is a division, it is an important division, and it is a division that the kind of harassment and misrepresentations we’ve been subject to have been designed to uphold. Many of our official and unofficial leaders have enthusiastically heeded the calls to change. Several others gone far beyond what is ethical to protect the current order.

Russell Blackford’s behavior in this regard consists of much more than what you describe here, but others will tell you all about that. The point is that he is entrenching power and division, often in ways that add to the harm being done. What you see in his treatment is a reaction to that. If he insists that others must remain down, he will be reduced to the same level. It is ugly, but power politics are generally ugly. And they’re happening here and now in reaction to that stratification.

That stratification is the division. What you complain about here? Those are symptoms.

#6 Thomas Lawson (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 7:25am

It’s quite evident how easy it is to include the right tone and inflection when “speaking” to people on the web that the sarcasm in this comment is glaringly obvious.

I vote that any discourse be moved to phone calls, private emails, “hangouts,” and one-on-one conversations at conferences. Anything else is bandwagon baiting and theatrics.

Great post, Ron.

#7 Melody Hensley on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 7:25am

I believe that we are so desensitized towards sexism and misogyny, most people don’t see it when it’s in front of their faces. Does every sexist comment make someone a sexist? No. However, we should become more aware of male privilege, sexism, and misogyny as a movement. We should call out sexist comments where we see them. If someone consistently makes disparaging comments towards women or continuously refuses to recognize their privilege, we shouldn’t be afraid to call it as we see it. We certainly don’t do so with religion and we shouldn’t with sexism and misogyny either.

#8 Melody Hensley on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 7:28am

Thank you for your thoughtful post, Stephanie.

#9 julian (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 7:40am

I hate to be that guy but ok

I agree Russel Blackford is not a shitbag misgynist. But you’re not portraying his behavior fairly. He has been one of the people decrying the “feminazis” and “antisex” people calling for anti-harassment policies. He has also has been giving implicit support to the worst offenders (through retweets, links, sharing the same space among other things) since this started.Russel Blackford is hardly the victim of overzealous feminists.

And that kinda leads me to my next point. Leadership can hold whatever position it likes. What’s relevant is how the general populace behaves and conducts themselves. Lookout at Schools with bullying problems or football clubs with hazing rituals. The people in charge are rightly opposed but their condemnation doesn’t reflect the reality of the problem.

It’s the same way with atheism (or whatever you want to call it) and the perceived rise of sexism. Yes we can trust on the leaders to hold fairly enlightened beliefs. Of course we can. They’d get the boot otherwise. But the conduct and ideals of leaders don’t reflect the conduct or priorities of the larger population.

((Typing on phone. Hopes that’s legible/makes any sense))

#10 Richard (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 8:40am


Please cite this evidence that you point to about the efficacy of swearing and invective.

#11 Nathan Bupp (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 8:48am

A fine example of a moderating intelligence. Thank you for this well-reasoned piece. I’m sure that it will be appreciated by many.

#12 Stephanie Zvan (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 8:52am

Richard @#12, that wasn’t the claim.

Counter Point @#11, the successes achieved by a more confrontational strategy and the reasoning that they were achieved by this strategy are described in the first several paragraphs of my comment. Citation already included.

#13 vexorian (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 8:53am

But if hate-filled comments and threats to women have not been expressly called divisive, it’s because such conduct does not threaten to divide the movement. It has already been repudiated, both implicitly and explicitly, by many, if not most, of the organizations in the movement. 

Did it? To be honest, it seems quite not. It actually appears that the movement has failed in repudiating these comments and threats. Perhaps it did too implicitly instead of explicitly and let the misogynistic voices stay loud and clear.

This is a movement that makes a big deal of people calling others misogynistic. But does not really make such a big deal of those guys accused of being misogynistic for keeping overusing the “feminazi” insult and for dismissing all the problem.

And it’s not just that we can’t effectively “me too” the work of other organizations working on social justice issues; we at CFI don’t want to. We are not primarily LGBT advocates, women’s rights advocates, or healthcare advocates. We are advocates for a secular society, one of the fruits of which, we firmly believe

Isn’t this the whole point of the creation of atheism+? It has become self evident that “Atheism” seems secularism as its only priority and believes other topics are drifts from its priority. But that’s clearly not what many of the atheists that have embraced “Atheist+” want. Surely it is divisive, but it seems to me the division in intentions has existed long before the idea of “Atheist+” appeared. It will diversify funds and we can claim it is a zero sum game, but as long as “Atheism” keeps being only about secularism and these people want far more than just it, then I think creation of a subset is the healthiest solution.

#14 Franc Hoggle on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 8:57am

Regarding Zvan’s comment, perhaps folks would like to compare it to her item posted today on Jerry Coyne -


As for the articles that have been written “in support” of Amy Roth - has anyone considered how much influence the possible consequences of refusal had in their creation?

As for the continuing threats - the community had absolutely no problem bringing Dave Mabus to the attention of authorities regarding his activities. One has to wonder why, if these threats are so numerous and relentless, there is no similar action being taken to pursue them?

#15 Richard (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 9:00am


Stephanie; please explain how this isn’t a claim;

“The swearing and invective serve a purpose in that. The evidence suggests that they are, if not effective in themselves (because they have never been used on their own to test this), then part of an effective strategy”

I’m not trying to be petty, but this is a relatively common claim I’ve been hearing over this “discussion”, and it’s not helping… Please cite.

#16 jr (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 9:03am

Excellent post.  I totally agree with this.  Thank you so much.  I hope it gets spread far and wide.

But Melody: I don’t think you should talk about disparaging comments toward women right now:

#17 Michael (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 9:07am

Vulgar language (and even action!) can at times be effective at helping induce social change, but calling someone a “douchebag” does NOT convey the same information as stating that they “unfairly opposing my interests as a woman in this situation.”

There have been many thoughtful and well-articulated statements about what type of social change is needed in the secular/atheist community, but those efforts should not be equated with a general admonition to “fuck off” (even if that admonition is absolutely warranted in a given situation).

This is not a matter of feminism or misogyny. It’s about recognizing what kind of language clearly and effectively communicates a message and what kind of language may be necessary to “shock” certain social structures into action, and the difference between them.

#18 Melody Hensley on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 9:09am

Jr, don’t believe everything you see on the internet. Things I have said been taken out of context, my views conflated with other people’s views, and some things of written about me are nothing but lies. Other comments that do not fall into those categories, I stand by. They were not made because the person is a woman, but because those individuals have been anti-woman. A vagina doesn’t make a feminist.

#19 Stephanie Zvan (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 9:09am

Richard, you’re kidding about not understanding this, right? You really do understand the difference between “effective” and “part of an effective strategy” and can tell that the sentence you quote eplicitly differentiates between the two, yes?

#20 Stephanie Zvan (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 9:13am

Michael, if this were about clear language that articulates the problems women have experienced in the atheist movement, these problems would have been fixed years ago. Decades, even. Women have been quite articulate about these matters for a very long time indeed.

#21 Melody Hensley on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 9:22am

If we continue with the lie that “the truth is somewhere in the middle” and believing that moderation is the best method when dealing with sexism rather than stamping it out, this movement will continue to fail women. If we continue to cover for prominent “thought leaders” that have campaigned against feminists and tried to discredit them, we are just as guilty.

#22 Michael (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 9:27am

Stephanie, the “this” I was referring to was my post (I suppose I should have articulated that better!), not recent efforts to change secular/atheist culture. But I stand by my statement that we must not conflate well-reasoned and dispassionate calls for social change with the use of simple vulgarities, even though they both may be part of an effective strategy.

#23 Greta Christina (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 9:33am

I don’t have the time or the energy to reply to this fully right now. (Among other things, my energy has been greatly drained by the cumulative effects of a solid year of being targeted with abuse, harassment, threats, invasion of privacy, and more—all of which has stepped up to a significant degree in the last few weeks.) So for now, I’m going to repeat something I wrote in my piece on divisiveness, linked to above:

“The people who are hand-wringing about how Atheism Plus is ‘divisive’ are basically saying that they are entitled to me. They may not intend to say that — but that’s the upshot. They are saying that they are entitled to my work, my ideas, my fundraising efforts, my late nights, my grueling travel schedule, my passion, my exhaustion, my efforts to make atheism stronger and more visible. They are saying this about me… and about every other feminist woman in the movement, and every feminist man, and every feminist person who doesn’t identify as either male or female. They are saying, ‘If you want to be in this movement, it has to be on our terms. And if those terms means putting up with hate, abuse, harassment, violation of privacy, threats and more… well, I guess those are the breaks.’ And they are acting as if a group of people in the movement deciding that they get to choose who they work with, and deciding to form a subset of the movement with people who share their core values, is some sort of horrible betrayal.”

When you express a worry that Atheism+ “will divert resources from the secular movement and weaken it,” that is essentially what you are saying.

Everyone does not agree that telling a woman you want to kill her after you rape her is intolerable. The people in the atheist movement who threaten to rape and kill me do not agree. And the people who dismiss, rationalize, trivialize, derail discussions of, and defend these attacks apparently do not agree, either. The reality is that outspoken feminist women in this movement are being pushed out by a deliberate, ongoing campaign of hate.

The fact that Atheism+ exists, and is a safe haven from these attacks, is not “diverting my resources.” It is one of the few things in this movement that’s giving me the strength to carry on. But even if it were… you are not entitled to my resources. I have every right to apply my resources where I see fit.

#24 Greta Christina (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 9:37am

Michael and Richard: Yes. By all means. Please continue to derail an important conversation about the ugly reality of sexism and misogyny in the atheist movement, and the best way to deal with it, with a discussion of whether it’s bad to use swear words. That’s really the most pressing concern in all of this. m-/

#25 Stephanie Zvan (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 9:39am

Michael, I’m not conflating them. I’m not calling “You cannot compel me to talk to you” a “well-reasoned and dispassionate call for social justice”. What I am saying is that “vulgarities” are not as simple as many people assume they are.

#26 lurker666 (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 9:40am


jr was presumably referring to when you mocked Sara Mayhew by tweeting “Hey, I can get more attention, speaking gigs, and the boys will like me if I keep ragging on Skepchicks!”

Which was that—taken out of context, conflated with others’ views, or a lie? If you wrote it (not a lie or ‘conflated’) then there’s either some ‘context’ it was taken from which makes it OK, or you stand by it as-is.

jr seems to have a valid point.

#27 Ophelia Benson on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 9:42am

Franc Hoggle is weighing in! Fabulous. Hey, “Franc,” would you like to defend your much-repeated hypothetical that if you were a girl you would kick me in the cunt? Would you like to explain what a stalwart of unity and non-divisiveness you are?

#28 Melody Hensley on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 9:48am

Lurker, I believe Sara fits some of the bill, but that tweet was not about her specifically. I don’t believe that she has gotten speaking gigs for her anti-feminism for example. That tweet was about a compilation of women that I believe have attacked feminists and been rewarded for it in different ways. By the way, I will no longer answer anymore questions about Sara Mayhew or anyone involved in an organized effort to discredit me.

#29 SocraticGadfly (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 9:53am

Sometimes the truth IS somewhere in the middle. And, from what I see it, the confrontationalism of Greta, et al, goes beyond issues of harassment. When you have people like Jen McCreight wearing T-shirts about wanting to “destroy religion,” that’s clear.

Second, third wave, or ninth wave, feminism no more represents all feminists than Gnu Atheism represents all atheists.

Period. End of story.

(Not that plusers or Gnus want to hear either one.)

#30 Horse (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 9:54am

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard given so far was to the effect of, “Just shut up for once and listen to what women are actually saying.”

I continue to hope that not nearly enough people have heeded that advice rather than the depressing conclusion that enough just still aren’t getting it.

#31 Dex34 on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 9:55am

Stephanie & Melody,

While you bring up some interesting points, why do people like Amy get a free pass to harass/be mean-spirited towards another? Amy is a speaker at CSICon and yet she is breaking the policy on their page with disparaging comments towards a fellow speaker (Sara). Constructive criticism is vital to critical thinking, but mean-spiritedness is wrong and anyone guilty of it should be held to their words. If you believe Amy did not wrong, then that is a bias and thus completely counter-intuitive to the essence of critical thinking, and merely supports the “tribalism” that is starting to run rampant in the movement.  Here is the link to what I am referring to in the event a citation is needed:


Lastly, excellent post Ron. Cheers.

#32 lurker666 (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 9:58am

Melody, you should be aware that you just admitted to intentionally employing sexist mockery of a fellow female rationalist, because you felt she fits a category of people who deserve it. This is precisely what so many of us here are trying to prevent.

I understand why you don’t want to answer any further questions about this.

#33 Melody Hensley on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 10:00am

That is not sexist mockery. Please get a grasp on what feminism and sexism mean. You are derailing this discussion by trying to discredit me.

#34 Stephanie Zvan (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 10:08am

Dex34, I’m not sure what you mean by “free pass”. It is my understanding that some tweets by Melody and others by Amy in response to a harassment campaign against Amy have resulted in a second, organized campaign to get Melody fired and Amy shunned. They have certainly come up any time either Amy or Melody has tried to make a point or has been mentioned positively.

I have no idea how that could possibly be considered to be a “free pass”. What do you mean by the term?

#35 B-Lar (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 10:10am

There does appear to be a natural divide.

There are those who believe that hatefulness directed at oppressed groups is unnaceptable, and should be actively stamped out. 

There are those who believe that hatefulness directed at oppressed groups is unnaceptable, and that the problem will sort itself out if we just ignore it hard enough.

In order to challenge stubborn erroneous perceptions, someone has to stand up and say no and refuse to sit down again until the problem has been solved. Every civil rights movement in history proves this point as fact. If you are looking at the fighting rather than looking at what the fighting is for then you have tragically missed the point.

Are you trying to rationalise your position on this topic by complaining that a dispute is even happening? What does that say about you?

#36 Michael (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 10:20am


Greta, I’m surprised that you feel a discussion of the most effective way to deal with important issues does not include an examination of the words we use, and that is “derailing.” I think that view is mistaken and will end up doing more harm than good.

#37 Monette Richards on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 10:23am

There are, obviously, many people who are not happy with the way things currently are in this community. It doesn’t matter how many leaders of the various organizations stand up and say “Sexism is bad. Don’t do it.” if the behavior doesn’t stop. Something else, then must happen to stop it.

The haters are forcing a division because they ARE part of the movement. The people they are blasting with their vitriol are being forced out. You may not want them as part of the movement, but they are here. They are interacting with other members of the movement in negative ways. How is that not divisive?

#38 Ophelia Benson on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 10:23am

I have to take issue with you on one thing, Ron.

“My point is that the haters are not threatening to divide the movement.  No matter how frequently the haters pollute our blogs, they are outside the movement already.  No one in a position of responsibility wants them in the movement.”

The italicized “no one” overstates it a little. Only a little, I think and hope, but more than zero.

There are also people who seem to be in a position of responsibility but aren’t really. A lot of people think Paula Kirby is an official of the RDF, but she isn’t. This has, I think, caused a lot of damage to Richard himself - he is thought to approve, at least tacitly, Paula’s calling vocal feminists (including me by name) Feminazis and Femistasi, and even her passing around that nasty caricature of Rebecca, PZ, Richard Carrier, Greta, Jen, and me.

That’s seriously unfortunate - and divisive. Paula doesn’t speak for the RDF.

#39 Melody Hensley on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 10:23am

She can feel badly about it, but it doesn’t make the description an accurate one.

Funny how a post about PZ and Greta have brought in people to smear *me*. It’s not a coincidence. It’s well known that there is an organized effort to discredit me and get me fired. You’ve been successful at pushing other women out of the movement. I’m here to stay and I’m going to make it better.

#40 SimonSays on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 10:30am

OK, so let me get this straight. We have a blog post that name-checks all sorts of well-known atheists like PZ Myers, Greta Christina, and Russell Blackford discussing a fairly controversial topic.

And somehow, there are four brand new handles within minutes that are up in arms about the organizer of Women in Secularism (Melody), going so far as to accuse her of “sexist mockery”.

On the other hand in this same thread these same people take no apparent issue with Franc Hoggle chiming in. The same Franc Hoggle who is held up as a hero among misogynists for stating that (profanity warning) Ophelia Benson:

“is a poor woman’s Catharine McKinnon. If I was a girl, I’d kick her in the cunt. Cunt”

The misogynists are so proud of this that they even have a blog devoted to capturing this timeless piece of wisdom: http://internationalcuntkickday.wordpress.com/

#41 Dex34 on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 10:34am


I am simply saying that there is too much tribalism/bias right now (that is from everywhere/every side), if someone speaks up in a way that is deemed harassment/sexist mockery, it should be dealt with and not ignored. Amy tweeted mean-spirited remarks towards another in the movement, publicly, and should be held accountable, the same as every other person. Trolls, are stupid and live for the sake of being a-holes, but genuine people who have criticisms should not be met in return with mean-spiritedness. If Amy is to be considered one of the shining people in the circles, then actions like those she has done via her words towards another should be frowned upon. I used the word “free pass” in the same way I felt that Greg Laden was handled with no responses on his wrongness on any of the blogs, as though it was alright for what he said. I only mention that as to give a second example to aid in clarification.

There just needs to be more positive ways to conduct ourselves instead of lowering ourselves to the lowest common denominator by being mean-spirited. If we in the skeptics/atheists cannot communicate within our own movement (whether it be to give a differing opinion, or to add more insight into something while accepting differing opinions, or to engage in a debate that leads to good things and not a witch hunt), then how comical must we all appear to those on the fence or looking in from the outside perspective. Sorry for the long-winded comment.  Cheers.

#42 Melody Hensley on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 10:35am

This blog isn’t about Sara. I am not at the heart of this post. You are part of a pathetic organized effort to discredit me. If I insulted Sara, because I believe her actions to be anti-woman, that has nothing to do with this post. I’m not the first person in this movement to insult someone. I can hardly think of someone of prominence that hasn’t insulted someone, because of their poor thinking and damaging actions. I apologize that I didn’t write a blog post about these anti-feminist people’s actions so you could delve deeper into my thought process. You are focusing on a tweet that was partially taken out of context. Move on.

#43 am (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 10:36am

“As for the continuing threats - the community had absolutely no problem bringing Dave Mabus to the attention of authorities regarding his activities. One has to wonder why, if these threats are so numerous and relentless, there is no similar action being taken to pursue them?”

Because its being done by other atheists and toward women? That’s a bad argument anyway. “A different situation happened differently so this one is a lie!”

#44 lurker666 (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 10:38am


You’re starting to sound like a conspiracy theorist. A ‘well known’ and ‘organized’ effort to discredit you?

You became a subject of this thread because you posted a comment here about sexist behavior, when very recently you appeared to some to exhibit that very same behavior you claim to repudiate. Even if you don’t see the conflict there, you are a public figure and certainly should be concerned about how others may view your statements. jr pointed that out, albeit not explicitly, and when you responded in a way that made me think you might really not understand what you did, I commented to flesh out jr’s point. Another Lurker added some relevant commentary as well.

You may think your tweet wasn’t sexist, but Sara sure did, I sure did, and I think many people did. And even though you don’t agree, you must surely see how it’s reasonable we came to our conclusions.

Rather than except the opinion of others, or even consider it a possible alternative viewpoint, you characterize us as participating in a conspiracy to attack you. This is not rational.

Yes, this is a digression (apparently: a ‘derailing’), but it’s an important one, a relevant one, and, well, you started it.

Meanwhile, I have to get back to work—the secret anti-Melody organization hasn’t paid me yet.

#45 Melody Hensley on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 10:41am

No, I don’t care how Sara feels. I do care that you are calling what I said something it is not - sexual mockery. It’s absolutely absurd. She’s wrong. She’s misrepresented me and so are her followers. I believe she is a part of the bigger problem of sexism in this movement.

#46 Ophelia Benson on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 10:42am

Well, “Franc”? How about it? Care to tell Ron what a great (and non-divisive) idea the whole “kick her in the cunt. Cunt.” thing was?

#47 bastionofsass (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 10:46am

Seems to me it’s rather presumptuous for you, who did not—and could not—experience what some women in the “movement” have experienced, to explain to them what happened to them and how they should have reacted.

And then, to opine that the action they decided to take after months of abuse and threats, was misguided and perhaps injurious to the movement?

Maybe if more of the secular/atheist movement “leaders” had acted sooner—and explicitly, and forcefully so, rather than “implicitly”—to quell the escalating disrespect, harassment, and threats, instead of waiting until after those most affected decided they’d had enough, A+ would never have been necessary.

Maybe if more of the concern now being expressed about the potential damage to organizations in the movement instead had been more publicly expressed concern for the ongoing harm to women in the movement, A+ would never have been conceived.

Maybe if all the words now being written about why A+ might be, or is, a mistake, had instead been written in support* of the women who were mistreated, A+ wouldn’t have been created.

And, seriously, you’re going to trot out “no true atheist” to explain why the women got it wrong? And you get to define who is in the “movement” and decide who’s a “leader” in order to give your argument some weight?

*In some cases, the *ahem* “support” offered by some who might be considered to be movement leaders, like Blackford, was support of the abusers, not the women being abused.

#48 Stephanie Zvan (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 10:51am

Dex34, so a “free pass” is being removed from a blog network, being harassed for months, someone coordinating a campaign to have you fired, seeing any thread you comment on derailed because you’re the one making a point. I see.

There is no point in attempting to discuss anything with you. You’re not using English. There’s no basis for communication.

#49 SimonSays on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 10:55am

Responding to Franc’s comment on #16 directly (even though it has little to do with Ron’s post):

As for the continuing threats - the community had absolutely no problem bringing Dave Mabus to the attention of authorities regarding his activities. One has to wonder why, if these threats are so numerous and relentless, there is no similar action being taken to pursue them?

This contains one outright falsehood. It took more than 15 years for the authorities to do anything to Mabus, someone who was known by everyone and not even great at concealing his identity. Only when he threatened journalists and a petition was circulated after this was he arrested. I say this because you’re making the insinuation that somehow all threats people receive are dealt with by law enforcement efficiently. They aren’t and the example of Mabus illustrates this difficulty perfectly. More info on this by Tim Farley: http://skeptools.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/case-study-notorious-spammer-brought-down-twitter-tumblr-social-media-mabus/

The other portion of your comment is par for the course. You’re basically insinuating that the threats people in the movement receive aren’t credible. Given your comments elsewhere, your attitude bears a strong similarity to denialism. For example, here’s what you had to say about the same subject elsewhere. Specifically, this is the text of the image you approvingly posted:

If you can’t see it, you’re a rapist and/or rape enabler

The text is under a white background to imply that the threats don’t exist.

Source: http://slymepit.com/phpbb/viewtopic.php?f=31&t=73&start=11900#p13348

#50 Anonymous Jerkwad (Guest) on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 11:20am

Melody Hensley: “No, I don’t care how Sara feels.”. Yeah. Sounds as if you don’t give a damn. Hint: Intent isn’t fucking magic. Keep on digging.

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