On Shunning Fellow Atheists and Skeptics

November 25, 2012

Shunning and boycotting may be gaining acceptance in the atheist and skeptic communities.   In particular, it appears they are being adopted as tactics against fellow atheists and skeptics.  This is regrettable.

By shunning I mean deliberately avoiding association with an individual, even when the association is as attenuated as attending an event or conference where the shunned individual is speaking.  By boycotting I mean deliberately avoiding association with anyone or any entity (such as an organization that sponsors an event) which does not support one’s shunning. 

I am motivated to write about this topic for a couple of reasons. First, Russell Blackford has recently announced via Twitter that he will not attend any conference at which Rebecca Watson or PZ Myers is speaking.  Second, in the last few months, a number of individuals have advised me that CFI and its affiliates should never invite certain persons as speakers.  This advice has often been accompanied with a statement such as “If X speaks, I will not attend the conference.”  There was a flurry of such advice around CSICon, the Nashville conference of our affiliate CSI, presumably because our speaker list reminded people of objections they had to this or that individual.  Some of the advice was prompted by an essay by Watson that appeared in Slate around the same time as the conference, which, among other things, contained a mischaracterization of one of my blog posts.  This was offered as convincing proof that Watson was beyond the pale and should be considered persona non grata by CFI. 

In any event, the list of individuals that CFI has been advised not to have any dealings with is long.  In no particular order it includes: Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Ophelia Benson, Harriet Hall, Russell Blackford, Edwina Rogers, Rebecca Watson, PZ Myers, and Sharon Hill.  I am sure I am forgetting several more. 

This is advice which I decline to follow.  Let me explain why. 

CFI is an organization that has as part of its core mission the promotion of free inquiry.  We try to fulfill that mission in several ways.  One way is to campaign against government restrictions on speech, in particular, speech deemed intolerable because it offends the sensibilities of the religious.  We also try to promote discussion of important issues, often by inviting speakers to events or conferences who have contrasting views.  For example, we will be holding a symposium in Washington, D. C., on April 27, 2013 which will focus on Brian Leiter’s new book, Why Tolerate Religion?  Leiter has a provocative thesis and CFI firmly believes that the best way to examine this thesis is to have other speakers who disagree with Leiter and will be able to point out what they perceive as flaws in his arguments.  (The speaker list for this event has not been finalized, but it will be announced shortly.)  Put simply, contrasting viewpoints are something we intentionally try to present at many of our events.  Our conferences are not designed to be the atheist/skeptic counterparts of Unification Church assemblies. 

Accordingly, it is inconsistent with CFI’s mission not to invite someone to speak at a conference merely because that person has expressed views with which other atheists/skeptics disagree.  Nor is it a sufficient basis for exclusion that the person has offended others while expressing his/her views.  We certainly hope atheist sensibilities are not more fragile than the feelings of the religious. 

Of course, there are persons who combine controversial opinions with outrageous, intolerable behavior or express their opinions in such a fashion that they do not allow for a meaningful exchange of views (e.g., their “views” consist largely of a string of racist epithets).  Similarly, there are persons who repeatedly make demonstrably false claims, whose every word out of their mouths, including “and” and “the” (to paraphrase Mary McCarthy), are lies.  Such persons would not be invited to speak at CFI events. 

Without scrutinizing every statement that has ever been made by the individuals listed above, I am confident that none of these individuals falls into the “unacceptable” category.  We will continue to invite them to CFI events when warranted. 

Naturally, if a significant percentage of the pool of potential speakers adopts a position similar to Russell Blackford’s, it will make assembling a roster of speakers for a conference more difficult.  (And Blackford is not the only one who has taken the position that he will not attend conferences where certain individuals are speaking; he just happens to have made his position public.)  If we want to comply with the various preferences of these speakers, we will have to keep in mind that speaker A does not want speaker B or C; speaker B does not want speaker A or D; speaker D does not want C or F; and so on.  We’d need a computer program to keep track of everyone’s objections.

We’re going to avoid that problem by not going down that road. As indicated, we’ll continue to invite individuals who we think can make a meaningful contribution to a particular event.

Let me also respectfully suggest to my long-distance friend Russell that his position that he will not attend conferences where Watson or Myers is speaking does not rest on a sound argument. One has to be very charitable when trying to interpret a tweet, but Russell appears to believe his position is justified, in part, because an organization “supports” an individual by having them speak at a conference.  Not so.

Clearly, “support” cannot mean endorsement because CFI does not endorse the views of every speaker it invites to a conference. Indeed, CFI probably doesn’t endorse all the views of any speaker it invites to a conference, including me and other staff. Inviting a speaker to a conference means, as indicated, we believe this person will contribute in some fashion to the conference. It doesn’t mean we agree with this person about the dangers from moderate religion, the wisdom of libertarianism, the poverty of philosophy, or the implications of feminism. It also doesn’t mean we vouch for the person as even-tempered, pleasant, and agreeable.

And as Russell knows from his own experience of speaking for us, “support” cannot mean financial support because typically we do no more than cover expenses. Occasionally we offer honoraria, but the amounts involved are so small as to constitute mere tokens of appreciation.  Certainly, they cannot supply a meaningful source of income.

If Russell believes that Myers and Watson trade in bad arguments, or perhaps no arguments at all, but just unsupported assertions and accusations, then the best remedy for that is the time-honored one of pointing out the flaws in their claims. Or, if one thinks enough effort has been spent on rebuttal, simply ignoring them. Shunning and boycotting are extreme responses best reserved for truly exceptional cases.  I would hate to see the atheist and skeptic communities dissolve into a snarl of dueling fatwas.

Which brings me to the above-referenced observations by Watson about me.  In her October Slate article, Watson suggested that I was a person who, with respect to the controversy over feminism and harassment within the atheist/skeptic communities, “play[ed] the ‘both sides are wrong’ game, insinuating that ‘misogynist’ is just as bad an insult as ‘cunt.’” Her characterization of my position in the blog post to which she linked is incorrect and should have been known to be incorrect to anyone who read that post carefully. First, my pointing out that various people with contrasting positions have arguably made unsupported accusations, such as “misogynist” or “feminazi,” does not imply both sides (if, indeed, there are just two sides) are substantively wrong or mistaken to the same extent.  Second, I make no attempt, explicitly or implicitly, to equate the accusation “misogynist” with the insult “cunt.” I don’t even use the word “cunt” in my essay. Moreover, it should be obvious to anyone that these terms don’t admit of an easy comparison because, in their most typical use, they fall into two different categories. One is an accusation of bias which can seriously damage one’s reputation. The other is a term of contempt, a hateful dismissal of another’s humanity.  Trying to compare “cunt” and “misogynist” is like comparing “spic” and “anti-Semite” or “kike” and “racist.” These terms are harmful but in different ways.

In short, Watson mischaracterized my views and her observations manifest either poor reasoning or a lack of reasoning.

However, if CFI were to disassociate itself from everyone who ever mischaracterized my views or the views of others at CFI or displayed flawed reasoning we’d have a very thin roster of potential speakers.

A couple of years ago Jerry Coyne claimed that CFI had declared war on atheists. No, really. Moreover, he specifically mentioned me as someone who had gone out of his way to criticize CFI’s atheist supporters. No statement by me was provided as evidence. And I assure you this this declaration of war on atheists was news both to me and Tom Flynn, who never suspected we might declare war on ourselves. Presumably, it was also news to Richard Dawkins, who at roughly the same time, received an award from us for being the person who had most contributed to the advance of freethought in 2009. But despite Coyne’s unsupported claim, he’d be welcome to speak at CFI events. 

And don’t get me started on PZ Myers, who has raged against those alleged accommodationist “wankers” at CFI, stating that CFI stood for the “Church of Fatuous Incompetence.”

(Remember when accommodationism and not sexism was the big issue in the atheist community? Ah, the good old days.)

My point is that occasional sloppy research or poor reasoning resulting in unsupported claims should not necessarily result in someone becoming a pariah. We need to cut each other some slack. Nor should criticism of one or the institution with which one is associated necessarily result in placement of the offender on the “To Be Shunned” list. We need to develop thicker skins. Critical thinking and a commitment to free inquiry do not mix well with hypersensitivity.

As I have said before, we should not cut ourselves off from fellow atheists and skeptics who agree with us on core principles. Disagreements should be resolved through dialogue, not denunciation.

Comments:

#101 CommanderTuvok (Guest) on Sunday November 25, 2012 at 10:55pm

Re: Notpologies.

You will notice that folk like Rebecca Watson, Greg Laden, Ophelia Benson, Stephanie Svan, etc. are very quick to order someone to apologise. Naturally, any explanation of apology is simply not good enough for them.

But you will also notice how slow these same people are in not apologising (esp. Miss Watson).

#102 John Greg on Monday November 26, 2012 at 12:13am

Tuvok said:

“But you will also notice how slow these same people are in not apologising (esp. Miss Watson).”

Watson, Stefunny, Laden, and the rest of the puerile toxic crue are not slow in apologizing; it is far more accurate to say that apology is simply something that they do not do nor comprehend. Ever.

They are very sick people.

They are intellectually dishonest people who are convinced that they are right in all things.

Basically, most of them, in particular, Laden, Myers, Watson, and Zvan, need serious professional counselling. They are deeply emotionally, intellectually, and psychologicaly damaged, sick, unhealthy, and potentially very dangerous people.

#103 Acathode (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 2:14am

Are white supremacists welcome at CFI, so that they can speak about their “very narrow, prescriptive, white supremacist and patriarchal version of atheism”?

I’m guessing no? Does that mean that Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett no longer are welcome?

The reason I’m asking is because this is, word for word, exactly how “The 4 Horsemen” were described by Sikivu Hutchinson at CFI’s own Women in Secularism conference in May this year. On the same panel was Rebecca Watson, Ophelia Benson, and Jennifer McCreight, who seemed to nod in agreement to this description.

The only one raising an objection was Benson, though the only thing she objected to was calling the “4 Horsemen”-atheism scientific. One has to conclude that she agrees with the rest of Hutchinson’s description?

Video of this event: bit [.] ly/XJonDU

Personally, I find it pretty natural that people react negatively when CFI lends a stage for this kind of slandering and smearing.

I certainly wouldn’t donate money to an organization that sponsored slander of this kind, and I wouldn’t want to see these toxic speakers invited ever again.

I’m 100% behind civil disagreement and letting all sides voice their arguments, but trying to paint Dawkins, Dennett and Harris as white supremacists… that’s just BS, and the people who engage in that sort of crap have no business being speakers at skeptic events.

#104 Stacy (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 2:38am

“trying to paint Dawkins, Dennett and Harris as white supremacists… that’s just BS, and the people who engage in that sort of crap have no business being speakers at skeptic events…”

Trying to claim that Sikivu claimed that Dawkins, Dennett and Harris are “white supremacists” is just BS, and the people who engage in that sort of crap ought to be ashamed of themselves. She claimed they promote a science which is “scientistic” and white supremacist, etc. Her claim is certainly arguable, but misrepresenting it in order to further a trolling narrative is despicable.

If her claim isn’t being misrepresented, then the people pushing this narrative are incapable of understanding the difference between “this institution is (or is grounded in) white supremacy” and “these individuals are white supremacists.”

They may be unable to parse what she actually said, or they may be deliberately dishonest. In either case, here they are, more than a year after “Elevatorgate,” still busily trying to inject their hateful spin wherever they can.

Get lives, folks.

#105 mordacious1 (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 2:54am

@Stacy

“She claimed they promote a science which is “scientistic” and white supremacist, etc. Her claim is certainly arguable, but misrepresenting it in order to further a trolling narrative is despicable.

So, replace the old white male scientists with middle-aged, middle class, privileged white female non-scientists (who like to blather on about science)? No thank you. I think Richard has done more than anyone to get diversity into the movement, without an agenda of his own. You can’t say this of Watson, Svan, Benson, etc.

#106 Acathode (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 3:23am

Stacy:
I linked the video of the event for a reason.
Her exact words are:

“In a certain segment of mainstream America we have now obviously the four horsemen of apocalypse model. Superstar white male atheist that have institutionalized a very narrow prescriptive, white supremacist, patriarchal version of atheism for the masses.”

She is saying that Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Dennett’s version of atheism is white supremacist, and that they have institutionalized it. How is this not painting them as white supremacists?

If I where to say that the version of Christianity that Phelps had institutionalized in Westboro Baptist Church was deeply homophobic, do you really think that I could deny that I also didn’t strongly imply that Phelps also was homophobic?

#107 noone in particular (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 3:27am

as an observer with no stake in any of this… so many of these problems look like the same problems that occur whenever people try to make a career or pay their bills within an activity that a community generally treats as a hobby.

It’s the money, or the perception of the money.

Bloggers with ads have a financial interest in hits, or selling branded merch, and even if they’re not deliberately doing it, merely being able to be criticised for drumming up a controversy for the hitcount effectively compromises their position.

People making merchandise to sell to a specific community are always going to be able to be seen as putting their personal-reputation-dependant sales first when there is a (perceived) conflict of interest.

What’s a solution? Why not cut the supply of money? Don’t support “professional” skepticism.

Take your wallet on strike.

Don’t buy “skeptical” merchandise - go all Naomi Klein and adopt a NO LOGO policy towards skeptical branding merch. Support the art of artists who are skeptical, not skeptically-themed art/craft.

Don’t pay to see people who are professional skeptic conference speakers - support the free events like the various skepticamps.

Block the ads, avoid the dramalama blogs, donate directly to bloggers you want to support, break the cycle of hits and money.

Scorch and salt the earth so that it becomes impossible to actually earn from the skeptical community or from the practice of skepticism in of itself, and then see who’s left in the absence of a financial motivation.

Or, just dose all the “professional” skeptics with adrenaline & crystalmeth, tie their hands behind their backs, and toss them into an arena to eat / fight each other to the death for our amusement.

That, or only pay attention to to people when they speak about topics they’re specifically qualified to talk about.

#108 John-Henry Beck (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 3:38am

I understand the urge to try to get people to get along.  I have that too.  It almost physically hurts me to watch people miscommunicating, missing each other’s points and points of view, and ending up unable to come together on shared values.

But one thing I’ve learned in the last year or so is that there’s more to shared values that just science and skepticism.  We may think that skepticism would lead us to the same place based on the evidence, but there are clearly other values on the input side.  This division is over more than “drama” over some bad word choices and hurt feelings.  Is there a line between misogynists and people who don’t want to be called misogynist just for saying misogynist things that is clear enough that you can have a middle ground between them and women where you won’t just alienate or piss off both sides?

#109 Stacy (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 3:55am

“She is saying that Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Dennett’s version of atheism is white supremacist, and that they have institutionalized it. How is this not painting them as white supremacists?”

As I said, there is a difference between “this institution is (or is grounded in) white supremacy” and “these individuals are white supremacists.”

I believe Hutchinson has criticisms of the historical record of science when it comes to race and gender, and she believes these problems, and their legacy, should not be overlooked. She also thinks that a movement led exclusively by white men is going to make assumptions and priorities that can marginalize other people.

PZ summarized her use of the term “white supremacist logic” in a post on 6/7/12:

“I agree with her completely” he said, “That the New Atheist movement has largely been about science and politics: and that’s OK, those are real issues, and we need to deal with them. But problems arise when we assume that those are the only issues, and that a utopia will follow if only we teach science and math in the elementary schools and get around to enforcing the separation of church and state. That’s what she means by ‘white supremacist logic’, the idea that white men’s priorities are the only priorities that matter….”

Her argument is a lot more nuanced than “these guys are White Supremacists!” But I cannot speak for her. She has a book out called Moral Combat; you can read that if you’re interested in what she actually has to say.

#110 mordacious1 (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 4:21am

The Fifth Horseman was originally to be Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but due to other commitments and safety concerns, she wasn’t able to do it. Richard, Sam and Dan still want her to be the fifth member. She’d be an excellent choice and this doesn’t sound white supremacist to me. There are several non-white women and men who would make excellent additions to the club. It’s just that I wouldn’t want the club’s standards lowered by including Watson, Greta, Svan, Benson or PZ. These people are not qualified at the same level as a Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris or Dennett.

#111 Poorly Informed New Person (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 4:38am

Mr. Laden,
On your twitter account you stated in regards to the comments in this thread:

“Greg Laden ‏@gregladen
Go watch how the slymepit, now including Justin Griffith who’s ass I would love to kick even though he is a bla bla bla, .....
.... moves into a thread on a perfectly respectable blog, takes over, and proceeds to push people around, making the rules, spreading ...
... lies… etc. I do wonder if Abbie Smith would like me to publish, again, a detailed account of my “efforts to get her fired”...
... (which were no such thing, but instead, a rather embarrassing situation for her) or if she’d prefer her minions SFTU. Anyway….
anyway, check it out…” {link to this thread}

I would like to take you up on your offer to publish your detailed account of your “efforts to get her fired.”

I have heard that you tried to get her fired by sending multiple letters to her supervisor… and maybe other organizations. I am new to this subject matter so I am a bit fuzzy on the facts. I would love to hear your side of the story. As it stands, it sounds like your actions have been rather horrible.  Please include copies of all letters you sent so that we may properly assess all of the facts in this case. Feel free to redact the names of the people addressed, mailing address, phone numbers, email accounts ect.  But I do want to see the content of those letters so that I can fairly review the facts of the case.  As a skeptic, you can understand my desire to see all of the readily available information at hand.

Thanks.

#112 Justin Griffith (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 5:46am

I too would like some explanation, Greg. I don’t know how to interpret stuff like this:

———

“Greg Laden ‏@gregladen
Go watch how the slymepit, now including Justin Griffith who’s ass I would love to kick even though he is a bla bla bla, .....
.... moves into a thread on a perfectly respectable blog, takes over, and proceeds to push people around, making the rules, spreading ...
... lies… etc. I do wonder if Abbie Smith would like me to publish, again, a detailed account of my “efforts to get her fired”...
... (which were no such thing, but instead, a rather embarrassing situation for her) or if she’d prefer her minions SFTU. Anyway….
anyway, check it out…” {link to this thread}

——-

I really do not understand this. Greg, what is the meaning of this? Is this unintentional ‘threat speak’  caused by the shorthand nature of twitter? Is there a reference I’m not getting?

Why the threat(?) to “kick my ass”, given our history?

#113 Acathode (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 5:58am

Stacy: She did not say grounded in, she explicitly says that the version of atheism that Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Dennett have institutionalized is white supremacist.

Now, this version of atheism would have to consist of the ideas and opinions that these four horsemen hold on matters of religion, skepticism, humanism, morals, and so on.

So if this collection of ideas and opinions that form the four horsemen version of atheism is white supremacist, and the four horsemen have these ideas and opinions, then it naturally follows that the four horsemen are white supremacists, to one degree or another.

It’s no different than if someone have homophobic ideas and holds homophobic opinions, then it also follows that this person is homophobic.

As for your excuse, sure, there might be other perspectives that the current A/S movement are lacking. However, there’s proper ways to express that (like for example, in the way you just did), and then there’s blatantly ridiculous ones that consists of throwing vile accusations of white supremacy around.

#114 KarlVonMox (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 7:31am

“Trying to claim that Sikivu claimed that Dawkins, Dennett and Harris are “white supremacists” is just BS, and the people who engage in that sort of crap ought to be ashamed of themselves. She claimed they promote a science which is “scientistic” and white supremacist, etc. Her claim is certainly arguable, but misrepresenting it in order to further a trolling narrative is despicable.”

Indeed, this is a distinction without a difference. Saying that someone promotes a “science that is white supremacist” (whatever the hell that means) is the same as labeling that person as a white supremacist, because otherwise they wouldn’t be promoting it. This isn’t rocket science.

#115 Barael (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 7:40am

Sam Harris has long since been convicted as a pro-torture racist and a genocidal maniac (and more recently as rape-apologist) by the People’s Court;
Dawkins is also a serial offender misogynist and an occasional rape apologist.

Dennett’s crimes against humanity (or at least one half of it) seem a bit less well documented but I’m sure something can be produced (he for instance seems a bit too enamored with evolution, which of course is very suspect since it often used to shore up sexist claims).

With all that background, adding “white supremacist” is just a drop in the bucket.

#116 Nicole Introvert (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 7:44am

Well CFI, I registered super early for Women in Secularism 2 BECAUSE Rebecca Watson and Ophelia Benson are speaking.  Take that black list!

#117 Avid Alker (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 7:55am

Being Autistic,and of a nature as to feel ill at ease and uncomfortable in almost any social setting, especially when meeting new people or where I am some sort of focal point,it’s not likely I’d ever attend any conferences. But I know that if I’d put forth an effort to arrive and take part in a gathering, and someone were rude to me or someone I admired, it would certainly lower my opinion of them. I’d think people would save their vitriol to be applied where it belongs, and not heap it on people with very similar ideas, in the big scheme of things, as themselves. Or better yet, convert non-believers over to their way of thinking by some other means than bitterness. Social climbing is unappealing, especially so when you’re clawing and climbing over someone who might very well be someone you need.

#118 Iamcuriousblue (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 8:12am

#109 and related posts -

The thing is, I’m aware that Sikivu Hutchinson comes out of a far-left “social justice” milieu, where terms like “white supremacist” and “patriarchal” are thrown around all-too-casually. I’m not sure if these people have any clue as to what bombshell accusations these come across as to the larger public who aren’t immersed in that particular ideology.

#119 Iamcuriousblue (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 8:23am

I also want to note that it’s no small irony Sikivu Huthinson referred to Wafa Sultan as a “highlight” of the last Women in Secularism conference:

#120 John Moriarty (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 8:28am

@Ron Lindsay
please kill this thread it reflects poorly on CFI to provide such a platform for squabbling

#121 Iamcuriousblue on Monday November 26, 2012 at 8:34am

(Forgot to login)

I also want to note that it’s no small irony Sikivu Huthinson referred to Wafa Sultan as a “highlight” of the last Women in Secularism conference:

http://blackfemlens.blogspot.com/2012/05/return-of-welfare-queens-feminism.html

Considering that Wafa Sultan and the group she belongs to are on the SPLC shitlist as ostensible “Islamophobes” (and indeed, I think she really is on the outer fringe of Islamic critics), something social justice warriors love to invoke when playing guilt by association, this is no small irony:

http://www.splcenter.org/blog/2012/08/03/anti-muslim-activists-to-gather-in-stockholm-tomorrow/

#122 fodigg (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 9:00am

I’m torn on this topic. On one hand:

- I don’t think every speaker appearance can be considered an endorsement, let alone an endorsement of all opinions of the speaker ever.
- I don’t want to see community events beholden to speaker blacklists dictated by influential groups or individuals.
- I think public shunning of someone over a disagreement, especially in a context that doing so could derail the target’s academic career, is petty.

On the other hand:

- I think organizations should recognize that—endorsement or not—providing a platform to speaker does provide exposure to that speaker, and regarding personal misconduct or offensive viewpoints, a line should exist prior to hate-spewing monster that gives a con pause before providing that platform. (Of course, judgments like this should be decided by the con, not dictated to them.)
- I think attendees have a right to vote with their attendance on who they want to see, and part of that process involves expressing (respectfully, mind) why they are refusing to attend.
- I think principled stands on where you, as a speaker, choose to appear can have positive influence generally. (The example I think of is the refusal to appear on a panel of all male creators at comic book conventions, which I see as a positive attempt to force inclusion.)
- I think victims of harassment have a right to refuse to put themselves in a position where they’ll be subject to further harassment, and to be public about their reasons. (I think this led to some positives, such as the development of anti-harassment policies at many cons.)

So, depending on the context of WHY a person is refusing to attend if X person is also attending, as well as how they go about implementing this “shunning” in public and private contexts would probably be what determines if the practice is acceptable or not. At least, such would determine my opinion. That’s a messy and convoluted perspective, however, so I understand why CFI would take a stance of blanket refusal to honor such requests. I just disagree that there’s never a reason to take such a stance as a prospective speaker.

#123 Callum Hackett (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 9:03am

I’m extremely pleased to read a post like this. Not that I should have to qualify my position, but I consider myself a hardline atheist of the Dawkins variety, and even I soon tired of P. Z. Myers’ abrasive childishness, as well as the frequent antagonism of his cohort. I don’t want to pretend that I know what’s going on in these people’s heads, but I suspect that we atheists are - quite rightly - filled with such contempt for irrationality for all the damage it’s done that we are prone to becoming unreasonably angry and divisive over certain issues in a self-detrimental manner. I find the blacklisting particularly pathetic for a movement that is supposed to be based on enlightenment values - do they not see that they are giving in to our mammalian capacity for in-group, out-group pettiness? Do they not realise that homogeneity will only stifle the advance of the movement? And just what the hell is the point of attending a conference where you have made sure beforehand that everyone already agrees with each other? If I was blessed with the opportunity to speak at such an event, I would relish to opportunity to disagree and argue with someone whose views I found laughable.

#124 ben (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 10:29am

I have to disagree with Ron: Myers and Watson are exceptional..in a hysterical sort of way.

You’d have to question the integrity of an organisation that actually invited them to speak though.

#125 F. Bacon (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 10:42am

If you want to get someone’s panties in a bunch, invite Shackelford from Oakland University and let him teach some Evo Psy. It’s absolutely delightful to see the feathers fly.

#126 Marc J (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 11:33am

I think as a simple solution to all of this, for the attendees, is if you don’t want to attend a conference because the speakers list is filled with people you find objectionable, then don’t go.  There are enough organizations out there with conferences to suit everyone’s tastes and that should be enough. 

Also, I don’t see the problem with a potential speaker refusing to attend a conference with several other speakers he/she finds objectionable.  I can understand how the conference organizers might be inconvenienced by this but a speaker has a right to protect their reputation as they see fit by refusing to associate themselves with people they find distasteful, rather than leaving that calculation in the hands of an org like CFI, as Lindsay seems to be suggesting that they do.  Why should a speaker leave it up to CFI to make the determination of who is acceptable or not when it is the speaker’s reputation that is being sold to attendees at the conferences?  I don’t believe that a US senator, top CEO, or any person of the sort would take a high profile speaking offer or share the stage with people they find objectionable.  And asking them to ignore these speakers who have a history of saying things they vehemently disagree with, things that might damage their reputation would be laughable. It should be the same with speakers on the ‘atheism/skepticism circuit’.

#127 Al Stefanelli on Monday November 26, 2012 at 12:19pm

The whole practice of shunning just reeks of religiosity, immaturity and outright cultish behavior. It’s positively shameful.

For the shunned, it’s bad enough when you *know* who is responsible for the sudden and inexplicable ceasing of speaking invitations. It’s worse when you have no idea where it comes from.

There are no rules I am aware of regarding whether or not one speaker is required to agree or disagree with another speaker, or that they should even like them.

I’ve shared a dais with people I absolutely abhor, not because I support them or their positions on various issues, but because I respected the organizations and their desire to put forth a variety of points of view and I had something to present that was of importance, relevance or pertinent to the theme of the event.

Boycotting attendance as a speaker at a secular event because you don’t like someone else who will happen to be speaking there isn’t a noble attempt to stand on principle. It’s a boorish example of behavior typical of your average twelve-year old.

#128 lurker (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 1:14pm

As folks like Myers and Watson along with AtheismPlus and much of FTB are moving away from skepticism, I don’t think there’ll be shunning, per se, but CFI and other skeptical audiences will be less and less interested in hearing them speak.  Skeptics/atheists come to conferences (and read blogs) with the conviction that skepticism is a good thing, not to be lectured on why some things must be believed either without evidence or with evidence to the contrary.  That’s faith.  We’re past that.

The term “hyperskepticism” has been introduced to silence difficult questions.  Matt Dillahunty came right out and stated (regarding Rebecca Watson’s ever-changing elevator story) that it’s not important whether or not a “true story” is in fact true, if it is used to illustrate a real problem.  Atheism Plus teaches that questioning a woman or member of a marginalized group is “oppression” and not to be tolerated.

“Celebrity appeal” might work for a while, but I don’t think skeptics/atheists as a whole are going to buy it in the long run. Watson’s already figured out that skeptics ask too many questions - readers of “Slate” don’t.  Myers and the others will likely follow suit.  This will all settle out over time.

#129 Mrs. A.S. (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 1:35pm

@Al Stefanelli

There is a difference between engaging in well-reasoned debate with those with whom you disagree (something skeptics should applaud) and hurling personal insults, dismissive snark and vilifying one’s opponents (something which people of reason should avoid).

I think if I am going to support an organization because of the principles they claim to advocate, I should rightly expect that the speakers at their conferences and the writers for their periodicals be decent role models for those principles, if they are claiming to be a people who wish to promote those principles.

These aren’t pseudoscientists and religionists who are being included for a diversity of opinion.  These are all self-proclaimed skeptics.  If you claim to be a skeptic, then I expect you to behave like one and show some introspection and circumspection when engaging with others in the community. Particularly if you feel you deserve a place on stage.

#130 multiversalist on Monday November 26, 2012 at 1:54pm

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gb_qHP7VaZE

#131 Ferneysien (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 2:39pm

A sensible post, parts of which are arguable. But the comments come straight out of kindergarten. You folk sound like a bunch of sectarian religionists fighting over the the location of a prophet’s finger-bone. Sink your individual egos and grow up. Atheism/skepticism is NOT a dogma, at least over here in Europe it’s not. And its adherents have no right to dogmatism. Any religious propagandist chancing on the infantile bickering that appears in these comments would be delighted at such a disservice to the ongoing cause of Enlightenment.

#132 Baldeo Hurkoo (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 3:08pm

Rebecca Watson may be an attention-seeking narcissist, but that would not put me off attending an event at which she was speaking - it would depend on the balance of good and bad speakers, and how much navel-gazing they proposed to do.

#133 Iamcuriousblue on Monday November 26, 2012 at 3:39pm

#131 The problem, Ferneysien, is that once you argue against dogmatism, you too are part of the battle, like it or not. There is a subset of atheists/skeptics who want some very specific political dogmas joined at the hip to the atheist/secular movement. It you don’t like that, you can either stand up to those people or be satisfied to take it lying down. Not much choice any other way, I’m afraid.

#134 Jane Doe (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 4:41pm

You know what would be awesome?  If you squabblers would just shut it.  You’ve made the same points endlessly.  You’ve convinced those that can be convinced, and hardened the negative opinions of those who are opposed to you.  There will be no changing of anyone else’s opinion, and the rest of us are sick to death of watching your tiresome bullshit playground battles in threads that used to be interesting.  I am amazed that you all aren’t reading your own comments back and just cringing in embarrassment to be participating in such pointless drivel.

#135 Iamcuriousblue on Monday November 26, 2012 at 5:05pm

#134 - You could just not read this.

#136 Michael Dorian (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 6:37pm

“We need to develop thicker skins. Critical thinking and a commitment to free inquiry do not mix well with hypersensitivity.” Right on. We nonbelievers get sidetracked with far too many issues that keep us from larger, collective goals.

#137 cn-tu (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 7:19pm

@Jane Doe

I’m sure it is tiresome. However it is also the topic under discussion, and the subject of the OP.

It also seems to be a phenomenon that many people are noticing independent of one another in the atheist/skeptic movement.

I wish it would stop too, but as the OP mentioned this becomes more unlikely when one side attempts to shut down this sort of debate, and seems unable to engage with even the slightest criticism.

#138 David Leech (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 8:33pm

No offence but can’t you yanks go back to believing in god, ufo’s and bigfoot. I’m not being funny but you seem to have a problem with anything that is not black or white. You seem to make mountains out of mole hills and get upset when there is a difference of opinion. I don’t think you are mature enough for scepticism just yet. I think Randi, Dawkins and Hitchens where too soon for you to grasp. Losing one dogma just to embrace another just seems silly to me.

It is probably for the best if you just keep going to church and reading your horoscopes for the time being. Sorry to be patronising but you are not yet up to the task of thinking through the difficult questions as shown by your childish behaviour. Just let us in Europe tackle the big questions and don’t you worry your pretty little head about it. It is for the best and one day you will be all grown up and able to deal with reality, it is just not right now it seems.

Yours.

Concerned sceptics in Europe.

#139 Julian E Francisco (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 8:58pm

Ignoring the thread (judging from the crowd, not my kinda place really. not that i’m a neutral, i just see too many names i wanna avoid)

I’m going to echo what badrescher said with a few caveats

1.There’s an organizations goals and then there’s the theme of the events and gatherings they host. While the organization’s mission obviously influences what types of events these are, their focus is often more narrow and even tangential to the organizations purpose.

For example, a bank firm holding an event to combat homophobia. You would not be able to gleam much from looking at the speakers list of such an event.

2.While a personal boycott is generally a statement of personal views than anything else, it can easily be used to try and influence a person or organization. How effective they are varies but it’s still one method (a passive aggressive one, maybe) people use to try and influence others.

#140 Julian E Francisco (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 9:01pm

oh my god. wow, it’s always nice to see Europeans pretend they’re superior to the rest of the world.

#141 Mr. Dank (Guest) on Monday November 26, 2012 at 9:25pm

#140 That’s because, for the most part, they are better than Americans. Better on many different levels. America is the Jr Highshool of countries.

#142 Bruce Press on Tuesday November 27, 2012 at 5:25am

Wow.  Just wow.  Ron writes about finding common ground, civility and reason in the community.  It didn’t take more than 10 comments for the sniping to start. *sigh*

“What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding”—Elvis Costello

#143 Frost (Guest) on Tuesday November 27, 2012 at 8:20am

I think the atheist community and cfi have better things to do than involve themselves with what other people have to say. Yes, I understand my hypocracy in this statement.

I think the boycotts are ridiculous. I think the blogosphere and twitters are non-acting.

Not everyone is free, we don’t have time to fight amongst ourselves, we have things to do. The big bad world sees us as criminally unfaithful, as liars, heathens and heretics. Can’t we work together to change that before we start fighting over brand-rights?

#144 Dennis (Guest) on Tuesday November 27, 2012 at 8:22am

@#138 David Leech:

Let’s see: Randi lives in the states, Hitchens moved to the states, and Dawkins’ greatest book sales are in the states.

The modern skeptics movement began and is most strongly supported in the states. One could argue that it is the growing popularity of the movement which has drawn all manner of folks into the fold, increasing the chances for disagreement, while in Europe it is still the lofty preserve of the few, where organized religion may have long been in decline but fairies, spirits & homeopathy are big business.

Moving on, the people who had the better arguments in the “New Atheist” vs. accommodationist feud are losing a significant number of their fellow hard atheists in this battle, and the ultimate cause I find fascinating; the very traits of argumentativeness and take-no-prisoners, straight forward confrontation which were generally effective when they were on solid logical grounds, now work against them!

Others have described the toxic atmosphere at their blogs, so I’ll just add another, more general observation I don’t often see addressed: whenever a movement becomes popular and begins to attract the young (who were noticeably absent from most conferences I attended 20 years ago), there is a new sense of urgency, a sense of it all having recently been discovered, or at least some important part of it which the young are determined to introduce.

After a talk at Harvard back in the nineties, a student expressed her reservations about secular humanism because there had been no mention of “ecofeminism”. Attempts to explain the broader principles of humanism and its concern for social justice were not enough; the movement was not sufficiently enlightened to this idealist.

This type of thinking is now pervasive what with the great influx of the young, owing to the internet and the higher profile of many who had been less direct and outspoken before. “New Atheism” has worked, but now we pay the price; those of us who are old New Atheists (who were keepers of the flame long before it was fashionable) must either step aside or - embarrassingly - suck up to the hip newbies and their smarmy admonishments (“Guys! Don’t do this”).

Gatherings these days remind me of junior high school, with various cliquish types (the students) skittering about looking for the right after-party to attend, while the ever present aging white male authority figures (the teachers) run things and frown upon your having sat where an important person was expected to be (some things never change).

Growing pains, and quite predictable ones, I’d say.

#145 jj (Guest) on Tuesday November 27, 2012 at 8:51am

I have to say that the tsuris in the comments more or less is confirming my conclusion that many people who associate with the skeptical bent lack social skills. I would never claim to be a slick politician, I know my limits, and as a grouchy old research scientist in a field full of crunchy, composted codswallop, I tend to be, as it were, direct.

This is the way of science, seeking the truth. It is not a personal attack to say “that idea is bad”. The problem is the idea, not the person.

Skeptics by and large do not understand that, among other things.

I’m not going to comment on Elevatorgate, or any of a variety of other things that have gone by recently, I frankly don’t have enough knowlege to speak with meaning on most of them, other than to say that many people’s public performances have lived right up to the right wing’s portrayal of atheists and skeptics as hateful, socially incompetent outcasts. The right wing, of course, is happy to see this confirmation, and you may be sure it’s being used against the skeptical movement every waking minute, of every day, in every week since it all started.

This accomplishes nothing more than teaching people to dislike skeptics, science, and truth.

That’s why I have stopped supporting skeptical organizations. There’s no hope here, you’ve screwed the pooch for an entire generation, you bloody idiots.  Tp the opening post I say ‘Amen’ but it’s too late for that.

That is all.

#146 Copyleft (Guest) on Tuesday November 27, 2012 at 1:27pm

Excellent position to take. Skepticism and rationalism are what matter; everything else is secondary.

The irrational and fanatical (such as radical feminists) will weed themselves out in short order as long as CFI maintains a focus on uncompromising, rational skepticism and demands evidence for every claim.

#147 Slurms McKenzie (Guest) on Tuesday November 27, 2012 at 3:46pm

While I think David Leech’s (#138) comment is unnecessary and condenscending as hell and brings nothing of value to the discussion, he does raise one good point I think. And that is that this current bickering, shit slinging and outrageous behavior seems to be very US centric.

I can’t say I’ve really seen any European, Asian, African or Australian skeptics have gotten all that involved in this on-going debacle. Maybe they’ve commented on it every now and then on Twitter or Facebook or somewhere else, but I can’t say I’ve seen any of them being very vocally active in it. Like blogging extensively about it or constantly mentioning it on various social media.

I might be wrong (and please prove me wrong if I am) but from what I can see, it seems to be mostly American bloggers involved in this.

I agree to some extent what jj says (#145) about this putting us in a bad light publicly but I think it’s important to remember that the drama seems to be pretty much only online. It doesn’t seem to have really affected “meat space” yet. Perhaps there’s still hope.

However I disagree that we’ve “screwed the pooch for an entire generation”.

#148 Priscilla Parker (Guest) on Tuesday November 27, 2012 at 4:00pm

I would say who this is directed towards but they would just claim that me defending my-self against erroneous accusations is STALKING. You see this person went to the local courts to have a No Contact Order placed against me and it was dismissed on the face of the complaint (that means it was denied outright.) Then they went to the magistrate and due to lack of evidence and other reasons, was denied recognition to have charges brought against me. So then they went to a local agency that works with the military and a detective was asked to investigate the claims he was making because they were pretty serious. The detective found I had not done anything I was being accused of doing and due to the severity of the claims, suggested to CID (Criminal Investigating Command) that this person undergo a psychiatric evaluation. This person then hired a private attorney to have a No Contact Order, which they had previously been denied a month prior, filed against me. Guess where that went, no where. This person is facing criminal charges for posting a defaming blog about me in which he used my married and maiden name, a photo of me, a video of me, and personal correspondence between them and I that they edited to paint me in a false light. Oh yeah, he also accused me of raping him, TWICE! And after I raped him, he appeared in an interview with me a couple weeks later with a local pastor. People still support this individual in the atheist community, aka. FtB, WHAT? Well, guess who doesn’t support him, the courts and perhaps soon, the military, we’ll see;)I guess if one can’t face reality they can just make it up as they go along.

#149 Dennis (Guest) on Tuesday November 27, 2012 at 4:20pm

@#148 Priscilla Parker

What in the world is that all about!!?

Where are you, and who is this person you speak of?

Please tell me this is just an isolated incident and we haven’t descended into loonyland.

Unless this is somehow directly relevant, I really don’t see the need to go on about detectives and courts and restraining orders here.

#150 Karla Porter (Guest) on Tuesday November 27, 2012 at 5:44pm

It’s absolutely sad but comical a CEO with a Ph.D. and J.D. from Georgetown has to write about people calling one another curse words and talk about playing nice in the sandbox. In my opinion only, this convoluted scene - right out of As The Atheist World Turns, is the fault of the community for giving so much weight and credit to the names mentioned in the post. This handful of squawk boxes learned how to push buttons for treats, and the community allowed itself to be conditioned to give them.

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