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:

#151 AvidAlker (Guest) on Tuesday November 27, 2012 at 5:53pm

I would hope that, as rational people, we might make an extra effort in these times of increased stress to focus on who the real enemy to free-thinking really is.If you have a beef, and I’m saying this as an outsider, with some other skeptic-athiest-Freethinker, try to just calmly, rationally explain your differences and agree to disagree. I’ve not agreed with every idea I’ve ever read or heard coming from the skeptic community, I won’t mention what, but for the most part, I’ve gotten some comfort from their wisdom. If you allow yourselves to fall into a frenzy, you’re losing track of what the real problem is; not just ignorance and superstition, but narrow-minded, whorish, hypocritical dogma. If I were one to believe such things, I’d think Bertrand Russell were rolling over in his grave. On the other hand, though, I am a total outsider, and I really am not familiar with what the boycotting amongst yourselves is about.I hope I’m not making an ass out of myself by hoping for a little calm.

#152 Gra_factor on Tuesday November 27, 2012 at 6:17pm

@#149 I think this is Justin Griffith’s alleged stalker.

#153 Mrs. A.S. (Guest) on Tuesday November 27, 2012 at 7:18pm

@ Dennis #144

I agree with your analysis, although I’m not sure it’s only youthful exuberance at work.  Skepticism requires an intellectual rigor and discipline that is difficult to maintain in the best of times and is too often the first thing to be jettisoned during emotionally stressful times or with issues which people feel passionately about.  And nuance tends to get lost when communicating with large crowds of people, whereas emotive displays work well.

So skepticism may not ever make it as a popular movement.  It certainly won’t if we have arsonists as spokespeople, fanning the flames of emotion, rather than firemen to keep those flames under control.

#154 Priscilla Parker (Guest) on Tuesday November 27, 2012 at 8:31pm

@ #149 My comment was in response to accusations made about me in comment #80:

” Regarding Laden, I did not initially take the situation public, and was honestly considering abandoning activism altogether (still possible, actually, but for many reasons - including a disturbing stalker who actually does show up to my house. Did you know that anti-stalker / anti-cyber stalker laws are very often manipulated by stalkers? Yeah, me either.)”

I was informed that this individual has yet again accused me of stalking him. (The only place I have any connection or dealings with him are in court.) This individual started formulating this label for me back in May in an attempt to “blacklist” me from the atheist movement (tried to get me kicked out of a local atheist group that I had been organizing and heading for over a year)and apparently still is. If this person stops attacking me publically, I will stop attacking them publically but if he is permitted to use this site as yet another platform to make ridiculous accusations, I’m going to defend my-self. Because of this individuals actions, I am no longer associated with the “atheist movement.” All the work I did “behind the scenes” this year (co-organizer for Rock Beyond Belief, head of a local atheist group, protest against local pastor,food drive for local homeless veteran’s, etc.) has been completely overshadowed by this person simply because he holds two public positions and has not been called on what he did by either of the groups he is associated with. While I don’t agree with blacklisting people, as has happened to me, I don’t support using the internet to defame and harass people but if that is the medium people are now using to bully others, I’m going to use it right back. Don’t make claims unless you can back them up and if all you have are lies, you can eat your own words!

BTW, I did take a class with CFI this past July and enjoyed it very much.

#155 Theo Ffensivatheist (Guest) on Wednesday November 28, 2012 at 3:33am

So happy to see there’s no Schism in the Atheist “movement”. While CFI has every right to invite whomever it chooses to speak at a particular conference, people also have the right to decide whether or not to attend & hear something they’ve already heard (possibly) from someone they happen to dislike. I guess “you reap what you sow” is sometimes true.

#156 ben (Guest) on Wednesday November 28, 2012 at 5:51am

Not much use trying appeasement CFI.  The fascist stench of Myers and Watson has already circled the earth several times.

#157 Hero on Wednesday November 28, 2012 at 6:49am

Ladies and gentlemen,

It has been brought to my attention that http://elevatorgate.wordpress.com/ has been suspended.

So, the links previously mentioned may not work.

With kind regards,
BH

#158 Zenspace (Guest) on Wednesday November 28, 2012 at 11:35am

#157

Well, can’t have all that evidence spread about where just anyone might see it, you know. Think of the children!

#159 Hero on Thursday November 29, 2012 at 7:44am

Ladies and gentlemen,

I present to you a short video made by Johnny, the white Mexican:

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

I wish to take the time to extend my gratitude to Johnny, without whom, I would still be very much in the dark.

#160 Hero on Thursday November 29, 2012 at 8:02am

Ladies and gentlemen,

I also think this snapshot between Hayley and Mel is germane: http://storify.com/ElevatorGATE/conversation-with-hayleystevens-and-melodyhensley-3 

I also highly recommend this article on “followcrime”: http://wp.me/p2y6j4-hu (especially relevant in the context of shunning)

With kind regards
BS

PS - A reminder that I am now part time, as I edge towards my retirement. I intended to retire a few short days ago, but an overwhelming sense of public duty bought me back.

#161 Chanel #4 (Guest) on Thursday November 29, 2012 at 11:21am

“You are correct that inviting a speaker does give them a stage, although the majority of speakers CFI invites are well-known already (some more than others, obviously.)” - Ronald A. Lindsay @ #45

How did this guy get to be the president and CEO of CFI? No, seriously. Was it the Peter Principle or the Dilbert Principle?

#162 Morgana (Guest) on Thursday November 29, 2012 at 3:40pm

Lindsay doesn’t speak for all CFI.  CFI of Washington DC’s position is opposite.

Have any other branches of CFI weighed in yet?

#163 Dorion on Thursday November 29, 2012 at 8:11pm

“My point is that occasional sloppy research or poor reasoning resulting in unsupported claims should not necessarily result in someone becoming a pariah.” Understood. But at what point DOES such a speaker fall off the list? Not shunned, just no longer invited to speak?

#164 jj on Saturday December 01, 2012 at 6:07am

I am really sad to watch this continue. I’ve been (and am) part of quite a few volunteer and hobby organizations, as well as professional societies. In all of them, I’ve seen things like this, where “a isn’t talking to b so you can’t either” in all sorts of fashions.

In the best case, it gets better (most professional societies manage to some extent), but in many of the volunteer organizations it tears them apart, much like we see with CSICOP, JREF, SGU, etc, where a group of people fragments themselves into a sea of battling, ineffective fragments that get little done beyond moving toward the heat death of the universe maybe a teeny-tiny bit faster (but even that’s arguable).

I’ve seen this very strongly in several atheist organizations, and I’ve seen people badly hurt as a result. In fact, the battling I’ve seen is perhaps the worst in the atheist organizations (but hobby aquarium clubs come in a close second), and it helps nobody. 

If A doesn’t like B, A should not seek out B. Seeking them out in order to hurt them is just making matters worse for everyone.

#165 Zenspace (Guest) on Saturday December 01, 2012 at 6:37pm

Possibly the best reference article on why some people should NOT be invited to skeptical conferences:

#166 Zenspace (Guest) on Saturday December 01, 2012 at 6:41pm

Ah, well, even my broken link would not post. Sorry, but worth a try.

Just go to Skeptic Ink Dot Com and reference the Science Denialism at a Skeptic Conference entry in the Incredulous blog. An impressive and important bit of analytical reporting.

#167 Raymond (Guest) on Monday December 03, 2012 at 11:30pm

Man, GODDAMN it WTF??!!I expect more from atheists but this damn place sounds like the atheists community is going to end up dissolving into religion’s 30,000 plus sects cuz’ they can’t agree on god, Wholly Shit ya’ll Just stop it, damn, people laughed and made fun of the guy who when there were riots in LA over an LA court verdict he pleaded in the media,“Can’t we all just get along?“with tremor in his voice he stood up and did the right thing as he was so sincere and concerned, yet people joke about the man, and even a sci-fi movie with Jack Nicholson as president used that line mockingly. So, make fun of me, too, but can’t we all just get along, are there really that many differences among non-believers?Can’t we treat each other with respect and accept differences and learn from each other&concentrate; on what’s really important,as time’s awasting?? Richard Carrier is not my idea of a model atheist whom I think started this whole rift of shunning when he wrote the “you’re with us or against us” crap when folks didn’t agree with the new Atheist plus. But surely he knows we(if I can be presumptuous here and include myself in the Freethinker/Atheist/CFI/Skeptic crowd)as a group are anti-injustice from whenceever it comes, right?Against women, LGBTs, race, ethnicity, Palestinians in Gaza, etc. Just sayin’

#168 Raymond (Guest) on Monday December 03, 2012 at 11:43pm

Man, GODDAMN it, WTF??!!I expect more from atheists but this damn place sounds like the atheist
community is going to end up dissolving into religion’s 30,000 plus sects cuz’ they can’t agree on god, Wholly Shit ya’ll Just stop it, damn, people laughed and made fun of the guy who when there were riots in LA over an LA court verdict he pleaded in the media,“Can’t we all just get along?“with tremor in his voice he stood up and did the right thing as he was so sincere and concerned, yet people joke about the man, and even a sci-fi movie with Jack Nicholson as president used that line mockingly. So, make fun of me, too, but can’t we all just get along, are there really that many differences among non-believers?Can’t we treat each other with respect and accept differences and learn from each other&concentrate; on what’s really
important, time’s awasting?
BTW,Richard Carrier is not my idea of a model atheist whom I think started this whole rift of shunning when he wrote the “you’re with us or against us” crap when folks didn’t agree with
the new Atheist plus. But surely he knows we(if I can be presumptuous here and include myself in the
Freethinker/Atheist/CFI/Skeptic crowd)as a group are anti-injustice from whenceever it comes, right?Against women, LGBTs, race, ethnicity, Palestinians in Gaza, etc. Just sayin’

#169 Ray9845 on Tuesday December 04, 2012 at 3:44am

Man, GO**AMN it, WTF??!!I expect more and better from freethnkers/atheists but this damn place sounds like the atheists community is going to end up dissolving into religion’s 30,000 plus sects cuz’ they can’t agree on god, Wholly Shit! all ya’ll Just stop it, DAMN IT, I for one am sick and tired of it. you know, people laughed and made fun of the guy who when there were riots in LA over an LA court verdict of his beating the man stood up and he pleaded in the media,“Can’t we all just get along?“with a tremor in his voice he stood up and did the right thing as he was so sincere and concerned, yet people joke about the man, and even a sci-fi movie with Jack Nicholson as president used that line mockingly. So, make fun of me, too, now, but can’t we all just get along, are there really that many differences among non-believers?Can’t we treat each other with the respect and accept our differences and learn from each other&concentrate; on what’s really important, time’s awasting, we are the models of reasoning and logic and as religion definitely is not and this is all we have, petty bickering, threats to take the ball and go home?
BTW, maybe I’m wrong, but Richard Carrier is not my idea of a model freethinker/atheist whom I think started this whole rift of shunning when he wrote the “you’re with us or against us” crap when folks didn’t agree with the new Atheist plus. But surely he knows we(if I can be presumptuous here and include myself in the Freethinker/Atheist/CFI/Skeptic crowd)as a group are anti-injustice from whenceever it comes, right?Against women, LGBTs, race, ethnicity, Palestinians in Gaza, etc. Just sayin’ For example.
I’m mostly a lurker not a commenter, but I had to say something before I burst, youse guys are better than this, there are real things we need to address, and granted atheists are not perfect as illustrated here in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s comment, but her attitude needs changing regarding her elitism as Ms Ali says here(I wholeheartedly disagree with her): “I will give you the example of the man who murdered Theo van Gogh, who [i.e. the murderer] was on welfare. Based on that principle, a 26-year-old, healthy young man, and what I took from that and I think what many Dutch people learned from that is he had the time to plot a murder, which in the United States he would not be. He would be busy trying to feed himself and find a roof over his head.” WTF?? Again, WTF??!!So, is she in the camp of those who divide the world into the slackers and the job creators and but for van Gogh’s killer being poor, had he instead been working at slave wages like here in the USA, he wouldn’t have had the time to plot the murder. Wow, just wow, is she serious, it is things like her attitude we need to address among atheists not all this bickering over BullShit like Atheist Plus, as Atheism as I understand it needs no further clique divisions, if you ask me, and is good as it is since we are for justice to begin with as it was partially the injustice of religion that brought us together. Thnx for taking the time to read here.

#170 Ray9845 on Tuesday December 04, 2012 at 3:48am

I am so sorry about same multiple posts, my PC’s been acting up and I didn’t know it was posted, again sorry.

#171 Marcel Kincaid (Guest) on Tuesday December 04, 2012 at 12:04pm

We have now become Israel (RW/PZM/Ophelia et. al.) vs. Palestinians (intellectually honest skeptics). Unless the bullies are confronted by organizations like CFI, this conflict last as long.

#172 Kevin Solway (Guest) on Thursday December 06, 2012 at 9:12am

Any conference where Rebecca Watson or PZ Myers are speaking is necessarily a very low-grade event, with extremely low standards.  So you can’t blame discerning people for not wanting to attend such events.  I certainly wouldn’t.  Having Rebecca Watson or PZ Myers on the list of speakers is like shouting at the top of your voice that the event is not for thinking people.

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