The HEADS Meeting: Your Input Requested

January 9, 2013

I think it’s fairly common knowledge that the leaders of the various nationwide secular organizations have an annual meeting (called “HEADS”) to exchange ideas and discuss how we can best advance our shared objectives. This is your opportunity to give me some input prior to the meeting on a couple of specific topics.

First, before going any further let me mention that the discussions at HEADS conferences are strictly confidential. This policy is important if we are to have candid discussions, so I will not be reporting back on who said what at the meeting. However, there is nothing improper about soliciting your input in advance, especially as this year I’m confident some of the issues likely to be discussed are of interest to CFI supporters.

Specifically, I’d like your input on these two questions: 1. What specific steps do you think secular groups should take to increase diversity within our movement, in particular with respect to the participation of minority groups? 2. As you are aware, there are some stark differences of opinion within the movement about the appropriate understanding of feminism and how feminism (however defined) should influence the practices and mission of secular organizations. How do you think these differences can best be narrowed or resolved?

Suggestions would be most helpful to me if they were supported by a concise explanation of the reasons for the suggestion. You don’t have to write a treatise (although I promise to read it if you do) but a paragraph or so might be useful.

Please mention in your comments if you are a CFI member/donor. I will consider everyone’s input, but I will give more weight to those who support our organization. As they say, membership does have privileges.

The HEADS meeting takes place on Saturday, January 26, so please submit any comments by January 24.



#1 Kim Rippere (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 6:05pm

CFI Member, WiS attendee, and I just happen to be the President of Secular Woman.  I am looking forward to meeting you at HEADS.

I think we need to find ways to better welcome, integrate, listen to, and accept women as equal participants in the secular community and social movement.  I am including IRL and online.

Leaders need to be vocal in their support of women; otherwise, the main voices driving the conversation regarding feminism and secularism tend to be extreme and noninclusive.  They alienate women in the movement and those that are checking the movement out to see if it is something of interest.

As for feminism influencing missions . . . YES.  Secularism is about getting religion out of government.  Much of how religion infests our government has to do with religious zealots attempting (and recently succeeding) to pass religious-based legislation regarding a women’s right to her own body.  For this reason, for many women secularism and feminism are intimately intertwined.

Here is my article on this matter: 

#2 Ophelia Benson on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 6:33pm

What Kim said. Frankly I don’t have much hope at this point that the differences can be narrowed or resolved. With big name guys throwing vitriol at selected Enemy Women and all but holding them up as targets, it seems to me that women are just going to say the hell with it and stay away. I know several who have already decided that. That is of course the goal of the guys throwing vitriol, and I think they’re going to get their way.

#3 Kim Rippere (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 6:45pm

If they win and women stay away secularism will slowly dwindle and with it any hope that atheism and secularism will win the day.  Instead it will be a group of people isolated in their beliefs that have no hope of making impact at any level.  The hope that many have of a vibrant and impactful social movement rests on our ability to fully include women.  IMO.

#4 Soraya Chemaly (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 7:11pm

HI - I’m a secular feminist writer and media critic and regularly write and speak on the topic of gender in culture. As a firm and vocal believer in secularism, I too, think that it is vital that as we develop this community we are aware of how thoroughly our broader cultural norms exclude women and their perspectives.  And how easily these broader cultural norms are being seamlessly transferred into this environment as it grows.  It’s not enough to say “we’ve invited women” or “there’s a woman presenting,” etc.  Rather, we need good men who understand what is at stake and explicitly advocate as allies on behalf of women. We will not move the needle unless men engage in genuine bystander intervention to confront the perpetuation of very subtle but powerful influences that inhibit parity for women. Both as individuals and as members and usually leaders of institutions. Because of the simple fact that men literally rule - in politics, religion, media, etc. - they have a disproportionate cultural currency. How we leverage that currency in the secular world shouldn’t accidental, but should be deliberate - especially if you want to cultivate diversity and not just gender diversity. Because the understanding of difference that is the foundation of gender bias is the same one that serves to feed racial, ethnic, sexual and other biases.  It seems to me that this cultural currency can either be spent to perpetuate patriarchy and misogyny and sexism or to create an environment where women, and others who do not conform to our prevalent norms - especially of leadership and visibility -  are not only tolerated, but openly embraced as a class and where men with influence who are interested in doing the right thing and creating a more just world advocate on their behalf and are outspoken allies.

#5 Stacy Kennedy (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 7:32pm

The movement needs to deal with the abuse which is being directed at feminists within the movement. Cyberstalkers must not be tolerated. Poor reasoning used to rationalize misogyny and trolling must not be tolerated.

Freethinkers have historically supported feminism. If this movement does not take a firm stand on the issue, it will wind up utterly divided, and lose all momentum.

#6 Pitchguest (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 7:42pm

To Ophelia: I wish you would stop with the propaganda that women are not accepted at atheist and sceptic conventions and conferences. Because you happen to feel personally that you do not belong does not mean that others do and if you could abstain from thinking you represent and speak for women in the community and elsewhere, I would appreciate it. Thanks.

To answer the questions, 1) What can be done to increase diversity? Well, if you increase diversity for the sake of increasing diversity, you’re doing it wrong. You should always look at qualifications first. In my opinion, it would be immensely condescending if you invited someone because of their gender and race first and foremost, rather than looking what’s more important: expertise. Finding a balance in this would help you sort out diversity in a good way, instead of doing it in a way that would please the masses. Also, look at speakers locally rather than just go for the “big names.” If a speaker is going to do a rehash of a speech they did on a different conference or convention, and that speech can be found on YouTube, then there wouldn’t be much point.

As for 2) Feminism should be a seperate entity from secularism, just as atheism is a seperate entity from secularism. They should never be conflated in any way. Sure, you can still be a feminist and an atheist and a secularist, but kept apart regarding secular concerns. Because let us be clear: you can be for women’s rights and still not be a feminist, as well as you can be a secularist and still not be an atheist. But feminism doesn’t just stand for equality for women’s rights and modern feminist concerns, as well as feminist theory, along with its fairly unsceptical and frankly fact-free scruples, confirms this. For the sake of clarity, secularism and feminism should not be intermixed. Cheers.

#7 RDW (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 7:43pm

Women should of course be made to feel welcome and secure. Tokenism in regard to race might end up being counter-productive. If simple facts aren’t enough to bring in a group of people, no special treatment should be given.

#8 Eliza (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 7:47pm

I am a not a member of CFI, though I am a member of several national and local secular/atheist/skeptic organizations, including a life member in at least 2 of those organizations and a sustaining donor to several.  I am a lifelong skeptic; my atheism and secularism stem from that skepticism.  And I am a woman. 

With regard to the 2 questions Mr. Lindsay asked:

1)  I think identifying issues important to groups of people currently under-represented in secular activism, ideally in partnership with people affected by those issues, and acting to address those issues, are probably the best steps to take to increase participation of people currently under-represented in secular activism.
While “religious zealots attempting (and recently succeeding) to pass religious-based legislation regarding a women’s right to her own body” is an important manifestation of fundamental religion attempting to act through government, it’s not the only manifestation by any means.  Religion (particularly fundamentalism) also influences the US government’s approach to Israel and the Middle East and to war.  I think it influences governmental approaches, from the federal level down to state & city level, to social services and education (perhaps in some regions more than others).

2)  I think “humanism” should inform the practices and mission of secular organizations. 

I am very concerned about “-isms” that potentially divide humans into opposing groups being given special positions & power, particularly one around which reasonable people can have different definitions and understandings and agendas.  “Feminism” currently falls into that category, particularly in the secular online community.

I think the narrowing or resolving differences has to start with discarding any assumption that you know what someone else (or another group) is thinking or what his/her/their goals, viewpoints, and motives are, particularly (of course) when you and he/she/they disagree. 

“Dissent is what rescues democracy…” (Lewis H. Lapham).  Not only should secularists dissent from the intrusion of religion in government, but also from the exclusion of different voices, and against the intrusion of dogma, in their own discussions and behind their own closed doors.

I hope the HEADS meeting discussion is fruitful!

#9 Eshto (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 7:56pm

Ignore the controversial opinion bloggers who bring their petty personal conflicts into the public discourse, spread negativity and demonize critics on their blogs. Ignore their divisive political, ideological labels. Embrace humanism and equality. Outreach to women and minority groups in positive, constructive ways. Defer to qualified social scientists, not unqualified and divisive bloggers, when dealing with complex social issues.

#10 Pitchguest (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 8:10pm

To Kim Rippere:

Regarding feminism influencing missions, I think you’re being biased. The religious may wish to pass legislation what women should or shouldn’t do with their own bodies, but rather than say it’s a feminist issue (or a feminist issue outright), it’s a human rights issue and should be treated more as such. Humanism and secularism go well together because of their lack of dogma, but feminism is an ideology (arguably the main tenet is humanist, but the rest is unequivocally dogmatic) and therefore should not be conflated with secular and humanist concerns.

#11 Kim Rippere (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 8:15pm

To Pitchguest -

Biased?  In that I am a women, yes that is true. 

You seem to simply want to put “women’s issues” into humanism . . . which is OK.  But, there are other nonlegislative concerns also.  Those that have to do with power and equality.  If you want to call that humanism; OK.  Seems like you are simply calling it another name though.  Or does your form of humanism somehow differ from feminism and the strive for equality for all genders?

#12 Soraya Chemaly (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 8:21pm

Quick addendum to my comment above. I am a current CFI member and the reason I joined was because of the Women in Secularism conference.  It demonstrated a clear commitment to the ideas discussed above.

#13 Misha D (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 8:29pm

As a layperson in these matters and as a CFI member/donor, here’s my 2 cents:

1) Diversity

a) Interfaith work as a means to awareness: This could be based on a false assumption, but my understanding is that some minority groups have a strong community connection to a church or religious tradition that makes it hard to be ‘out’ or to discuss doubts about non-belief. One possibility might be for active atheist groups to team up with religious groups and institutions to carry out community service projects and other events in an interfaith manner. This would give members of these communities more exposure to atheists while putting us in a positive (i.e., non-threatening) light. This also allows us to go directly to these potential atheists without waiting for them to come to us.

b) Socio-economic status (SES): I don’t think SES is considered enough when discussing how to improve diversity, e.g. how much does cost influence event attendance, is location reasonable to access, does the higher prevalence of middle-upper class individuals in atheist circles make lower-SES individuals feel out of place? On this note, doing community service projects that serve lower-SES individuals also allows us to directly reach out to this population.

2) Feminism - Language & Approach

I have no direct answer to the question, but I want to make an observation:

We know that the word ‘feminist’ is problematic when trying to discuss issues of feminism. CFI and other leaders should really consider adopting evidence-based models of communication to put into practice on hot-topic issues such as this. My guess is that the language used in this question, especially the word ‘feminism’, is going to bias opinions from the start. And while I have no expertise in communication, my guess (and suggestion) is that knowing what language and approaches to take regarding the discussion of this issue will influence the responses you are going to get.

#14 CommanderTuvok (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 8:31pm

Ophelia Benson:

“What Kim said. Frankly I don’t have much hope at this point that the differences can be narrowed or resolved.”

Of course they won’t, Ophelia, with you, PZ, Rebecca, Lousy Canuck, and Svan (plus others) launching into one witch-hunt after another, throwing the baby out of the bathwater when faced with any legitimate criticism (eg. Svan’s attempted defense of Watson’s anti evo-psych talk), and your constant nit-picking over the most trivial nonsense you can find by trawling through Shermer’s past (cyberstalking???) articles, and then getting angry when he soundly rebutted your silly arguments. You can only shout “sexist” and “misogynist” so many times before people realise you are full of it. I realised right from the start, naturally.

“With big name guys throwing vitriol at selected Enemy Women and all but holding them up as targets, it seems to me that women are just going to say the hell with it and stay away.”

Oh, riiiight! It’s only women in the movement who are criticised and called out? What complete and total BS. Further, nobody throws around more vitriol than Svan, Laden and PZ Myers. Svan recently launched an online harassment campaign to remove a hard-working atheist activist (someone who does things other than type angry rants from heir computer, Ophelia!) removed from a newly acquired voluntary position. Then there is the constant barrage of Creationist-style DMCA false flagging.

“I know several who have already decided that. That is of course the goal of the guys throwing vitriol, and I think they’re going to get their way.”

Like who? I know several who won’t turn up if the likes of PZ, Laden, Rebecca and Svan are present. So what? Plus, some of the people you refer to were simply ridiculed and criticised for their own horrid behaviour (such as Surly Amy). Oh, and for all your talk of knowing several people, the MAJORITY of women oppose your radical agenda, and feel safe and welcome at these events. Your plan to scare women away failed.

#15 Pitchguest (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 8:46pm

To Kim Rippere:

Biased in that you’re a feminist, not a woman.

We both know that there is a dogma to go with feminism that doesn’t go with either humanism or secularism. The radical notions of feminism has, in my opinion, no place in the freethinking community, of sceptics and atheists. We both know how badly it went when they tried to combine the two (A+), how it crashed and burn and that it’s now on the brink of dissolving.

I believe that feminism still has some merit in its main purpose, but beyond that it’s unsalvageable unless you’re willing to deal with the baggage that comes with it. You might, but do you think the unwilling participants along for the ride would? And the unwillingness has nothing to do with treating women right at conventions, or that women shouldn’t attend conventions; it’s about modern day feminism, plain and simple.

#16 Stacy Kennedy (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 9:22pm

If I may presume: I don’t think Ron intended this thread for debate, still less as a platform for people with an animus against feminism.

Having expressed my opinion upthread, I’ll say good night, all.

#17 Kim Rippere (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 9:24pm


Seems like you have some notion of how my feminism and humanism diverge.  Please enlighten me.

#18 Mary Ellen Sikes (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 9:26pm

I am no longer a supporter of CFI although I once had a very close relationship with its associate organization, the Council for Secular Humanism. I have served on the staffs and/or boards of several regional and national organizations. Presently I am the founder and president of the American Secular Census, whose registrants answer demographic and viewpoint questions very relevant to what is being discussed here, and I am one of the founders of (and now an adviser to) Secular Woman.

I am also a woman, one of those who is taking a break from the organized secular movement until I see that 1. it reflects humanistic values as I understand them and 2. it is capable of transforming itself from what many minorities see as an aging white men’s club to a sustainable movement that includes all secular voices. I hope my break is not permanent, but like Ophelia I’m afraid I see few indicators to give me hope. And I’ve looked in several places.

If I were queen for a day in the secular movement, I would take the bold step of choosing the masses over the privileged few whose influence and connections and money appear, to many on the outside, to be the organizations’ top priority. I would replace leaders who’ve served organizations for more than 4 years with new staff and board members. I’d have a zero tolerance policy regarding membership, events, and positions of responsibility for those who engage in online harassment, make public videos to mock or argue with other secularists, or engage in similar unprofessional behavior. I’d offer communication training to local affiliates, but not till the national boards/groups completed it themselves.

I was involved in the formal secular movement for almost twenty years and am now a grandmother. I hope my five little ones will find a more vibrant, effective, and rewarding secular community than I have.

(BTW, I am not interested in arguing these points with other commentators. Mr. Lindsay has invited feedback on his organization’s site and we are all guests here. Abusing his hospitality by attacking others is as stunningly rude and juvenile as it is painfully illustrative of the challenge faced by the secular movement.)

#19 Justin Vacula (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 10:30pm

Zero tolerance policy for those who argue with other secularists?

#20 Stacy Kennedy (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 10:39pm

“Zero tolerance policy for those who argue with other secularists?”

That’s an odd way to read my comment. Perhaps you honestly misunderstood?

I thought this was a thread for suggestions, not an invitation to a flame war. If you feel otherwise, Justin, that’s your prerogative. I won’t be joining in. Just don’t want my refusal to engage to be read as ceding the argument.

#21 Justin Vacula (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 10:49pm

I’m responding to MaryEllen’s

“I’d have a zero tolerance policy regarding membership, events, and positions of responsibility for those who [...] make public videos to mock or argue with other secularists, or engage in similar unprofessional behavior.”

#22 Dorion on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 11:01pm

Yeah, I noticed that too (zero tolerance for arguing). Gave me quite a shiver.

#23 Jimmy Russell (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 11:21pm

I hope those people who are taken in by the FTB FUD, scaremongering, witch hunts etc, do eventually go away. They are not skeptics, they are ideologues. This movement does not need ideologues, it needs people who are capable of rational thought, who can take criticism and when holes are poked in their ideas, they can change their ideas to better fit reality. I think the creation of A+ is great, because it gives a safe space to those who can not handle criticism of their ideas, hopefully they will stay in their bubble.

#24 Jimmy Russell (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 11:24pm

“I’d have a zero tolerance policy regarding membership, events, and positions of responsibility for those who [...] make public videos to mock or argue with other secularists, or engage in similar unprofessional behavior.”

Cool, PZ, Jen, Watson, Jason, and Laden will be gone for good.

#25 Stacy Kennedy (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 11:26pm

Mary Ellen Sikes:

“I’d have a zero tolerance policy regarding membership, events, and positions of responsibility for those who engage in online harassment, make public videos to mock or argue with other secularists, or engage in similar unprofessional behavior.”

I assumed she meant zero tolerance for those who harass others. Harassment is a real problem in our community right now.

Nothing wrong with robust argument. I agree that “argue” was a poor word choice there, but it seems uncharitable to assume it was anything other than that.

Good night and really good night!

#26 dave (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 11:42pm

1a - Spend more time promoting the humanities. Science will always hold a privileged place in secularism, but it is only half of the picture of human experience. The arts have always been a subversive force for equality, and many of the communities you would like to reach out to would identify more readily with them than scientism.

1b - Reclaim the meaning of ‘secularism.’ It doesn’t mean anti-religious, it means irreligious. Ardent supporters of rationalism like Ken Miller should always feel welcome under the umbrella of secularism. As a community of mostly nonbelievers—we should also honor our debt to such people for their past contributions to secularism.

2a. Please stop equivocating about feminism. Opposing the the academic dogma of women’s studies does not mean opposition to actual women’s rights. There’s a certain brand of feminism—brand, not definition—popular with certain internet personalities right now that does nothing to advance women’s rights and everything to alienate a mainstream audience from the value of secularism. Coupling secularism with an unyielding, unpopular, and unreasonable vision of a worthy goal only marginalizes us further from the mainstream we need to reach.

2b. Reaffirm the importance of free speech to free thought. Free speech is not only a legal principle, it is a value that any honest debate requires. The forces within the movement that openly mock this fundamental virtue (i.e. “freeze peach”) should not be considered for leadership in the movement. If you will call yourself the “center for inquiry”, you must accept the value of dissent to inquiry, and repudiate the people that seek to silence it.

Thanks for letting me have my say.

#27 Justme (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 11:43pm

She specifically said “zero tolerance” for those who “argue with other secularists.”

Gave me a shiver too.  This hivemind groupthink will suffocate us as a movement if we don’t resist it.

#28 Justin Vacula (Guest) on Wednesday January 09, 2013 at 11:54pm

“1. What specific steps do you think secular groups should take to increase diversity within our movement, in particular with respect to the participation of minority groups?”

As far as conferences are concerned, I’d suggest inviting new voices into the movement rather than the ‘same same’ crowd who have many recorded speeches already archived(often on the same topic) to speak at conferences. Perhaps have some ‘big names,’ but don’t focus on them. Focus on attracting speakers local to the conference, lower ticket prices, and include a diversity of topics. Hold conferences in hotel/conference centers rather than auditoriums so that persons can stay in the same building for the entire experience and be provided with an easier way to socially interact.

Conferences can be expensive affairs and can greatly limit many from attending because of high ticket prices, travel costs, hotel costs, etc. As a student working part-time, I can’t afford to attend many conferences. Thanks to those who provide discounts, though

At this point in the ‘movement,’ more people are becoming engaged. A lack of a certain demographic, though, is not necessarily evidence of something the ‘movement’ is doing wrong, but rather can be lack of interest and may be accounted for by other factors (I’m thinking financial concerns are a top concern).

#29 Mary Ellen Sikes (Guest) on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 12:18am

My point was that uploading a video to a megasite like YouTube to pick apart someone’s blog about a problem within a very specialized community like ours is an inappropriate way to handle a disagreement of opinion about what is essentially an internal matter. It practically guarantees that our movement will be seen as amateur hour by the media, politicians, and prospective members and donors. This should concern not just individuals but the organizations that have worked so hard to gain us what visibility we have. A principle like rational discourse is hardly threatened by choosing modes and venues more wisely.

#30 Justin Vacula (Guest) on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 12:25am


Do you approve of people like Watson who air their grievances in Slate, USA Today, etc.? How about Amanda Marcotte in Raw Story?

#31 Mr. Ed's Ghost (Guest) on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 12:37am

“The forces within the movement that openly mock this fundamental virtue…should not be considered for leadership in the movement.”

Yes, this is important. It’s foolish to think “free speech” means “everyone must listen to me whenever and wherever I choose to speak!” or “bloggers aren’t allowed to have commenting standards!” or “every speech platform should be open to everybody!” Anybody who makes such an elemental mistake probably shouldn’t be considered for a leadership position in a movement that prides itself on rational thinking.

#32 Justme (Guest) on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 12:56am

@29 @30

I see what Mary Ellen Sikes is getting at, and Justin makes an excellent point too.

Not everyone visits YouTube, and to find the videos she talks about, they’d have to be looking for them.

Better to start with the people who are taking their squabbles to the mainstream media just to score points against a person or group they’re mad at, for whatever reason.  This has hurt us and set us back more than a thousand YouTube videos.

#33 Dorion on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 1:24am

Mary Ellen Sikes: “A principle like rational discourse is hardly threatened by choosing modes and venues more wisely.”

I do agree that the manner in which we discuss, debate, and yes even argue, does matter, both internally and externally. This is why it frustrates me to continue to see people engage where they shouldn’t even bother.

I’ve seen too much emphasis lately on the so-called “online [atheist/skeptical/whatever] community.” It seems that being online is making people believe they can—or in fact must—scream at the top of their lungs, make up as many meanspirited nicknames as possible, and hunker down on their latest position with all the tenacity of an ill-mannered Hobbit, all while driving the conversation absolutely nowhere, let alone any “movement” they claim to espouse.

And getting involved in those discussions is like arguing with a 3 year old: no matter what the end result, you’ve lost.

I’d like to answer Mr Lindsay’s questions a little more directly, but I just don’t know. I suppose I’m naive in thinking that working hard, being truthful, and producing a good “product” should attract the desired audience. (Yeah, I’d also like to live in a meritocracy; I know, I’m ridiculous.) As an atheist AND a skeptic AND a woman, I can smell when I’m being pandered to from a mile away. The worst possible thing someone can do to win my favor is to try to tell me “what women want/need,” I don’t care who is saying it. So in an interesting, but significant way, I’m not even the audience for this question. Which frustrates me even more, because invariably, I’m going to read, in this comment thread, about all the ways I’m being oppressed, excluded, and otherwise mistreated. According to other people.

I can’t list out the ways in which I support CFI/CSI, because it happens individually, when I find events or causes I want to support. I’ve been to many conferences and talks (including the past two CSICons, which have been the highlight of my year), I subscribe to and read the magazines (yes, actual printed material), attend periodic local social events, etc. Not once have I ever thought either “oh finally, something for women!” or “what, nothing for women?”

But I can tell you I’d take a 20 minute conversation with Ron Lindsay over 300 blogposts every single time.

#34 Steersman on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 3:19am

Well that is certainly good news about CFI addressing some rather problematic issues. However, while question 1 – meat and potatoes for the ways and means committee – is certainly important, it seems that they are strongly influenced by the bedrock principles which CFI subscribes to – a central one of which is going to be its views and policies on feminism which will in turn have some influence on how CFI, as per question 2, resolves those differences.

And before CFI, and the other secular organizations with which it is allied, can elucidate those principles which will determine or influence various resolutions and consequential initiatives, it seems crucial to start with a definition of the term and its various implications and consequences. Which is a major stumbling block right out of the chute as there is no end of issues that come in under the rubric of “feminism” – a Wikipedia article describes 17 different feminist ideologies – even though most seem to promote at least some quite credible principles that most of the public are likely to support, notably equal civil rights and equality before the law.

However, where the wicket gets decidedly quite sticky is on those issues which largely differentiate those ideologies, which seem to be the source of a not inconsiderable amount of animosity and fractiousness between those groups, and which is probably not surprising as many of their claims appear to be little more than pseudoscience at best. For instance, while it appears to be an open question as to the relative merits and claims of gender and equity feminism, the former seems to have more than a small amount of influence which, one might argue with some justification, seems little short of pernicious. As an article by Ed West in The Telegraph last August on Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate put it:

Gender feminism is no more scientific than astrology, yet the idea of total equality of outcomes is still some sort of vague official goal among the European elite, largely because “people’s unwillingness to think in statistical terms has led to pointless false dichotomies”, between “women are unqualified” and “fifty-fifty absolutely”.

The end result of gender feminism has been the blackening of the name feminist, which many women and men deny because they associate it with radical, unscientific ideas about “gender” being a “social construct”, ideas which are still taught as fact in British universities despite being as factual as creationism.

And it is that lack of a factual basis and the dearth of skepticism which is exhibited in evaluating those claims which leads to some rather extremist positions which negatively effect all organizations which attempt to encompass those different varieties of feminism. For instance, the fairly well-known Freethought blogger and feminist Ophelia Benson has argued that “Connecting the word ‘feminism’ with the word ‘virulent’ … is misogyny”. That it doesn’t take much effort looking through the annals of the feminist movement to find cases of some rather egregious behaviours and claims by self-styled feminists which might readily justify the epithet “virulent”, tends to give the lie to Benson’s assertion as well as to suggest that the charge of “misogynist” is leveled with some rather cavalier if not irresponsible abandon which has, in turn, contributed to the poisoning of the well which has necessitated CFI’s questions.

So, it seems that CFI’s apparent willingness to encompass various feminist issues is, at least potentially, fraught with some dangers. Being too broad in incorporting, if not pandering to, all feminist ideologies is going to leave it open to crippling and unending discussions on those ideologies. And being too narrow might well offer nothing of any value to any of them or to the larger society which would then be a waste of time and effort. A reasonable compromise might be to seek some maximal set of principles on which most would agree, and to explicitly state those which are open questions – foremost of which is, I think, the degree to which gender is a social construct or genetic bedrock. At which point CFI might also promote further discussions on that latter question, and ones of a similar nature, as it seems to be a primary bone of contention.

#35 Stacy Kennedy (Guest) on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 3:58am

Apologies for posting yet again (I plead insomnia.) But I forgot to mention at comment #5 that I am a member, and also a regular volunteer (at CFI-LA) of 7 years and counting.

I feel compelled to reply to this:

“Which frustrates me even more, because invariably, I’m going to read, in this comment thread, about all the ways I’m being oppressed, excluded, and otherwise mistreated.”

I doubt anyone will presume to tell you that you are being mistreated, Dorian. Some women have pointed out that they, or women they know, are being mistreated. Others may be concerned with the position of women in the broader world. Please don’t dismiss the concerns of others with an appeal to ridicule.

#36 Nicole Harris (Guest) on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 5:16am

I think one major step is to develop and more importantly support/enforce harassment policies that encompass race, gender, sex, sexual preference, and disability. 

Women In Secularism 2 will be my first secular/atheist conference.  In light of the backlash on feminists in the community, at this time it is the one that I feel safest attending.  I cannot thank CFI and Melody Hensley more for putting on this conference.

Keeping people with a history of abusive behavior out of leadership roles is also important.  Justin Vacula (HI Justin!) stepping down after the amount of pressure put on the Secular Coalition of America for appointing him was a good step.  We need to be able to trust people in these roles, and displays of disrespect to fellow humans (male or female) shouldn’t be tolerated. 

I don’t know how to resolve this.  I think if someone could resolve the piss poor treatment of women or other minority groups they’d be in the running for a Nobel Peace Prize.  I certainly cannot wrap my limited brain power around why the atheist community seems to have this rift.

#37 Rebekah (Guest) on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 7:30am

When I first heard of the Women in Secularism conference, I was really excited! But recently I haven’t been a fan of the clique-ishness of some of the movement, from either ‘side.’ I’m rapidly becoming disillusioned with it all, in fact. I was a longtime supporter of CFI, but since I’ve let my membership lapse.

#38 Scott Clark (Guest) on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 9:19am

1. the only way to increases diversity in the Atheist movement is to increase the number of Atheists. You can’t focus and force target minority groups into being atheists.

2. if women are being abuse and harassed at conferences that should all be addressed, and not allowed to exist, the perpetrators prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But when you looks at the facts.

3 women on Supreme Court 0 Atheists
0 Atheist Senators, 0 Atheists in the house
0 Atheist Governors

I don’t care if it is a woman or a man I just want Atheists to be represented.

There are several groups exist to address feminist issues and discrimination against women. Many more than address Atheist issues.

it is a lot harder to find another atheist in your community than finding another woman

#39 fodigg on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 9:25am

1) I think focusing on new personalities, highlighting up-and-coming skeptics of all stripes, is a great way to improve diversity. Merit and diversity are not diametrically opposed or mutually exclusive. If you can’t find diverse candidates doing worthy work, you’re not looking hard enough. Bring in younger, more diverse speakers, highlight their work and their specific concerns, and that will show others we have a place for them.

2) Humanism should very much be concerned with gender-based discrimination, harassment, and inequality. Not just by religious groups, but everywhere and anywhere. If that should be defined as feminism or just as a component of humanism is a superficial debate. I self-identify as a feminist, but my brand of feminism is a natural component of my humanism. Some have more complicated/specific definitions of feminism that mark it as bad or good, but outside the span of humanism regardless. This is unfortunate because it causes strife, but is ultimately a distraction, not a genuine rift in humanism.

Show how “women’s issues” is a central concern of humanism. Make it clear that harassment of women based on their gender (or simply for self-identifying as a feminist or publicly discussing gender issues, before considering their individual views) will not be tolerated in any context, and promote serious skeptical inquiry into the cause and resolution of these issues over crusading bloggers.

#40 wmichelle on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 9:25am

I am not a CFI member. I am a member of Secular Woman. I follow the local atheist community group online, but haven’t attended IRL. The one secular community conference that I make sure to read transcripts and catch video of (unable to attend due to work):  Women in Secularism.

1. What specific steps…?
Feature topics in meetings/conferences/blogs that the under-represented groups prioritize.
Feature the individuals from under-represented groups already on board in your meetings/conferences/blogs.
Be visible/table/etc. for attending and listening/recruiting/presenting at gatherings where the under-represented groups are in the majority.

2. How do you think these differences can best be narrowed or resolved?
Top-down silence hasn’t resolved this. I wish the organizations (I know there’s no secular community equivalent to the US Supreme Court, but still) would more actively address the differences and attempt public adjudication rather than leaving it to individual bloggers/vloggers/speakers to fill the vacuum.

#41 Stephanie Zvan on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 10:08am

I am a member of CFI and a sustaining donor as well as being a member of other organizations that will be represented at this meeting. As might be expected, my answer to #1 got a little long. I blogged it here:

I’m still thinking about the organizational perspective on #2.

#42 Steve Schlosnagle on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 10:15am

I am a CFI member.

Ok, let’s get the definition of the contentious term out of the way:

I define feminism as a subset of my humanist ethics, and a comprehensive definition of those can be found with the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).

I identify as a feminist.

I do not have much input on Ronald’s first question of “What specific steps do you think secular groups should take to increase diversity…” other than noting: You attract members from minority groups in the same manner that you attract any member: your organization’s goals and missions are relevant to the prospective member’s. This is a decidedly simple tenet that is frustratingly hard to implement.

I am surprised that when Ronald asks about “increasing diversity” most of the posters here only got as far as “white women”. And the people that did get beyond that, started talking about “tokenism”, basically missing the point of making outreach to under-represented communities a mission.

How are we supposed to increase our community diversity when we are, frankly, having some problem being inclusive of white women, the majority population group in the US?

I see two parts to Ronald’s second question of “How feminism should influence the practices and mission of secular organizations.”:
1. Should secular organizations follow humanist values?
2. Should secular organizations have missions that promote humanist values?

The answer to part 1 is an obvious “yes”.

All organizations should, by this point, have internal practices and public mission statements that are compatible with humanist ethics. While a given organization’s particular missions may not include active work on humanist (and by extension feminist) goals, they certainly should be supportive of those goals!

For Example, “Secular Organization A” may not have any active “marriage equality” missions, but their internal structure, as well as their public position statements, should be supportive of it.

Part 2 is the question every activist organization constantly asks itself: “What should we be doing?” And as such it is up to that organization to figure out. There is no “right” or “wrong” answer here, just “will our constituency get behind it” or not.

There should be no disagreement on “Should we all follow humanist principles?” Or to say it another way: We should not have to “tolerate” groups or individuals that do not follow humanist principles.

The question of “What proportion of our missions should be ones promoting humanist values” is a valid one, but it is the same question that activist organizations always have faced: “What are our priorities on working towards change”.

#43 Monette Richards on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 11:59am

In all honesty, I only originally joined CFI because it made the over all cost of the Women in Secularism conference cheaper. That conference changed so much for me.

Now, I’m heading the programming for our chapter and organizing a state wide lobby day for secularists. I’m on the board of Secular Woman and I’m more involved in atheism, politics, and, yes, feminism than I ever have been before.

Specific steps I would like to see the organizations take to be more inclusive would be to actively work to promote the works, accomplishments and efforts of women and minorities. Take the time to address specific concerns women and minorities are facing. Work with them to find ways to accomplish their goals within the community. Have conversations with the leaders of the minority communities. Ask them what specific concerns they face, what can be done, what others can do. And then take steps to do those things.

Some women asked organizations to have written (defined) harassment policies. Many organizations quickly put these policies into place. This was a good example of how to liten and react.

Unfortunately, this was replied to with derision from a significant number of members.

You are asking how to bridge a gap between women who felt the need for organizations to put harassment policies into place and people who reacted to that request with bile, antagonism and contempt. I’m not sure I can tell you how to do that.

#44 SylviaMB on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 12:14pm

I’ll limit my comments to the alleged gender imbalance, since I have little organizational knowledge about minority involvement, given that we operate in a comparatively white city in an even whiter state, and given that we have not yet found a successful method for broadening our reach to minority populations.

Before I add my suggestions, however, I want to pose questions, in case someone can point me to the necessary data: What are the actual numbers? How many males and females are there both among membership and leadership in secular organizations? How many male and female event attendees? By age group? I have not seen numbers and sources to support claims of female underrepresentation. Usually, we get informal observations about event attendance (and those mostly from the kinds of events that tend to be attractive to men, see below.) I’m not saying women are not underrepresented, only that I do not have information that would persuade me that this is the case. My own informal observations do not confirm that there is a gender imbalance, but we may be a special case. The recent FFRF convention in Portland looked a lot more imbalanced, both in terms of gender and age, than our local events. I assume that you have access to good statistical data about this, Ron, so let me proceed on the assumption that women really do represent a minority in our organization. The next question is whether this means that we are numerically *under*represented. Belief in religious claims, as well as New Age, altmed and other esoteric claims, is significantly higher among women than among men (by a margin of 2:1, if I recollect correctly), which probably means that women make up a smaller portion of our “natural constituency” to begin with. So if women make up, for argument’s sake, 30% of atheists, does that still mean that we should make up 50% of the movement? Let’s see if we have a problem before we try to fix it. If we find we do, let’s proceed.

Input about your first question:
Let me start with my own observation about events. While I don’t see a drastic gender imbalance at our lecture events (caveat: this is Portland, Oregon, the weird city), there is some. We find that some of our events are attended more by men, some more by women. Discussions are overwhelmingly attended by men, lectures draw somewhat more women, but still have a male overhang. Our potlucks, hikes, and cultural programs attract somewhat more women than men, on average. We see some, but very few men in our children’s programs, which are mostly run and attended by women.

If we have decided that the goal is to draw more women, I would advocate an approach based on observation of what is already working. I have seen no evidence that focusing more strongly on women’s rights will increase women’s attendance (though I am happy to change my mind, if someone wants to show me why I should), but we have evidence that certain types of programming draw women disproportionately. A practical approach would be to focus on providing more of that type of programming and use it as a kind of “gateway” for women into the movement. Within such programs, female leaders tend to emerge who can then be invited to join committees and boards, and eventually, national leadership bodies.

As for your second question: Given that I think the recent hyperventilating about alleged hostility to women “as women” (as my Feminist Theory Reader likes to put it) in the secular movement to be a failure of reason, making me anything but neutral on the issue, I have no recommendations for soothing tempers or promoting a consensus. I am not even sure we have the power to do that. We can, however, advocate for a discourse that is reasonable and civil despite being aggressive. A joint statement to that effect by several organizations might help set a standard for those on all sides of the issue who want to be taken seriously in adult society.

#45 Georgina Capetillo (Guest) on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 12:15pm

I am a member of various different secular organizations including CFI. As a latina/bisexual/atheist feminist, I do see various problems the secular community has in regards to inclusion. First and foremost, trying to deny white male dominance is like trying to deny evolution. Sexism/white male dominance clearly exists and it is ongoing. Although people have the right to discuss it freely, we should recognize that this is not a valid stance. Neither is it fair, because our pain and cause are very real- that is why it is a human rights issue. Furthermore, many should be made aware that white/male privilege is not an insult or personal attack. It is a fact. It is likely that those who are accused of being privileged felt attacked, and this is where the conflict with women/feminism began. Our community is already so marginalized, so small that leaders have to use conflict resolution education to work towards reconciliation. As a graduate student in conflict resolution, holding an “intervention/mediation” is really the only way we can deal with these issues. The conflict resolution field has made so many breakthroughs already. I am sure it can help the secular community thrive.

#46 Aubrey A. (Guest) on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 12:26pm

I know a lot of Atheists who aren’t interested in the movement.  Many of them have some friends and family who have accepted who they are.  Many of them have figured out how to fit it in and aren’t interested in change because they have, in a sense, figured out the system, and a change to the system means a disruption of their carefully constructed lives.  They live in a bubble wear they have convinced themselves that the religious and nonreligious are doing fine together as things are.  They don’t see any relevance in the movement because they are happy.  Awareness is the best way to bring these people in.  I wasn’t even aware of a movement until I had children, and I started looking for resources, and ideas on how I could raise my children in a religion-free environment.  So I think parents are a good target and creating more resources will help draw them in is a good idea. I would also tread carefully on how you choose to raise awareness.  People don’t want to join what appears on the outside to be an extremist group.  For example, I like many of the billboards I have seen.  That’s a great campaign, but some of them particularly from the American Atheists appear to be intentionally offensive.  I would never join that group based on their billboard campaign alone.

#47 Adriana (Guest) on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 12:44pm

Question 1) I’m not an expert in social movements or how to increase diversity; I’m a scientist and I can tell you that whichever small steps are taken to make members of minorities feel welcome and encouraged to be seen as important contributors to the field (or movement) will work in the end. It’s a snow ball effect.

Question # 2) I think if we substituted the term “feminism” with “gender equality” it should become clear to all why secular movements need to be concerned with feminism, the same way that secular movements should be involved in LGBT rights or any other human or civil rights. Feminism is not a radical ideology, unless you think that gender equality is a radical idea.  Perhaps dispelling notions that feminists are radicals who despise men and want special accommodations or rights for females, will help bring people together. It would help if the leaders of the organizations speak up every time a person speaks about feminism as if it was a “radical ideology”. That is a strawman argument that creates only division.  And if a person happens to call herself/himself a feminist and also happens to be uncivil, would you then decide that feminism is an ideology to be combatted? If I were to decide on my beliefs on the basis of how many uncivil, willfully ignorant, illogical atheists I met, I would have become a theist a long time ago!

#48 Sara Mayhew (Guest) on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 2:09pm

Have more minorities and women speakers and panelists on programming NOT related to diversity or women’s issues. Eugenie Scott, Harriet Hall, Sharon Hill, Julia Galef—these are just a few of the many women in skepticism who spend their time speaking about science and critical thinking rather than feminists issues.

As a young woman in skepticism and a speaker myself, I don’t want to be considered a “woman skeptic” in the same sense than Neil Tyson is rarely referred to as a “black scientist”.

With limited resources for skepticism and secular humanism, our time/money/effort should be focused tightly on these areas; there are plenty of other movements to contribute to if your main concerns are around social justice and feminism.

Improvements will come by having showing more of the talented women and minorities doing great work in science and humanism. Lets start cutting back on giving popular bloggers who speak beyond their expertise a platform for their same-old personal musings.

#49 Ophelia Benson on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 3:42pm

Good idea. Let’s eliminate popular bloggers altogether. Let’s drum them right out of everything, so that they’ll never come back.

#50 Ronald A. Lindsay on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 3:45pm

Thanks to everyone for their comments and suggestions.

I do want to clarify one thing. I am most interested in receiving answers to the questions I presented as opposed to starting a debate among commenters. That’s not to say you can’t respond to, and disagree with, a point someone else has made, but I really do want my questions addressed. If you do respond to someone else’s point, please keep it substantive and not personal.

Secondly, a couple of people have emailed me with their comments and suggestions. It occurred to me that, for whatever reason, some individuals interested in this set of issues would prefer to email me directly instead of commenting on the blog post. That’s fine. If you want to do that my email address is [technical glitch—see the next comment]. I may not be able to respond to your email, but, as is true with all the comments, I assure you all emails will be read and carefully considered

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