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.