An Open Letter to the Secular Community

April 5, 2013

An Open Letter to the Secular Community

April 2, 2013

  • The leaders of major secular organizations have issued a united call for more civility in online discussions, pledging to use their best efforts to improve the tone and substance of such discussions. The entire letter can be found on our website. Ronald A. Lindsay, president & CEO for the Center for Inquiry, and Tom Flynn, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, are signatories to the letter.

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    An Open Letter to the Secular Community

    It is an amazing time to be part of the secular movement. Look at what’s happened in 2012 alone.  We held the Reason Rally, the largest event our community has ever had, which brought over 20,000 atheists, humanists, and other secular people together on the National Mall. We are growing, attracting new people, and drawing more attention than ever before.  A big part of that growth is thanks to our large and dynamic online community.  Online secular communities have helped people encounter new ideas, deepen and broaden their thinking, and even change their minds.

    A Problem with Online Communication

    At the same time, the fact that so much of our community is online brings with it certain challenges.  Communicating primarily online can make it difficult to recognize each other’s humanity. Online we don’t have the same vocal and physical cues to tell us what another person means by his or her comments, so it’s easier for misunderstandings to develop. The instantaneous and impersonal nature of online communication also makes it much easier for these misunderstandings to escalate, or for civil arguments to turn into bitter fights. Like many online communities, our comment and forum threads all too often become places for name calling and even threats, rather than honest dialogue based on mutual respect. Between the small but vocal number of abusive participants (often called “trolls”) who hurl threats and insults, and the overheated rhetoric of some ordinarily friendly and reasonable people, our online environment is in danger of turning toxic. Fortunately, our secular values of reason and compassion give us tools to rise above the lowest common denominator of online communication.

    Our Position and Our Pledge

    We, the leaders of the undersigned national secular organizations, pledge to make our best efforts toward improving the tone and substance of online discussions. The secular movement as a whole is friendly, welcoming, and committed to the use of reason and evidence as a means of resolving disagreements. We refuse to allow the deplorable conduct of a few to debase the reasonable, appropriate, and respectful conduct of the overwhelming majority of our community.

    We seek to promote productive debate and discussion. We firmly believe open and candid discussion is the most reliable means of resolving differences of opinion and bringing about needed change.  

    Insults, slurs, expressions of hatred, and threats undermine our shared values of open and candid discussion because they move us away from an exchange of views supported with reasons. 

    Of course we will disagree with each other on some issues, but we can do a better job of expressing our disagreements. We can resolve to avoid mischaracterizing the positions of others, relying on rumors as the basis for our opinions, and using inappropriate tactics such as guilt by association. Instead, we can give one another the benefit of the doubt, strive to understand the whole story, and de-escalate rhetoric to foster more productive discussions. We can become better at disagreeing by treating each other like reasonable human beings.  

    It takes patience to educate people, but we can change how people think by having a constructive dialogue.  If that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t bother in the first place to communicate online about important issues.

    The Debate over Sexism and Feminism

    Before listing some specific recommendations regarding improvement of online communications, we have observations about one particular set of interrelated issues that has engaged much of the secular community in the past year, namely sexism within the secular movement, the appropriate way to interpret feminism, and the extent to which feminism, however interpreted, should influence the conduct, policies, and goals of movement organizations. This set of issues is worthy of careful consideration, but in a few areas our positions should be very clear.

    The principle that women and men should have equal rights flows from our core values as a movement. Historically, there has been a close connection between traditional religion and suppression of women, with dogma and superstition providing the rationale for depriving women of fundamental rights. In promoting science and secularism, we are at the same time seeking to secure the dignity of all individuals. We seek not only civil equality for everyone, regardless of sex, but an end to discriminatory social structures and conventions – again often the legacy of our religious heritage—that limit opportunities for both women and men.

    Unfortunately, the discussion of these issues has suffered from the same problems that plague online discussion in general—although arguably to a greater extent.  Some blogs and comments actually exhibit hatred, including rape threats and insults denigrating women. Hatred has no place in our movement. We unequivocally and unreservedly condemn those who resort to communicating in such a vile and despicable manner.

    Our Approach

    Here are some things that we plan to do to make our online secular community a place where we can exchange ideas and views instead of insults.  We hope that others may also find this approach useful.    

    By improving our online culture, we can make this movement a place that engages, fulfills, and welcomes a growing number and increasing diversity of secular people.  


    David Silverman, President, American Atheists
    Rebecca Hale, President, American Humanist Association
    Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director, American Humanist Association
    Chuck VonDerAhe, President, Atheist Alliance of America
    Richard Haynes, President, Atheist Nexus
    Ayanna Watson, CEO, Black Atheists of America, Inc.
    Mandisa L. Thomas, President, Black Nonbelievers, Inc.
    Mynga Futrell, for Brights Central, at The Brights’ Net
    Amanda Metskas, Executive Director, Camp Quest
    Ronald Lindsay, President and CEO, Center for Inquiry
    Tom Flynn, Executive Director, The Council for Secular Humanism
    Jan Meshon, President, FreeThoughtAction
    Joseph McDaniel Stewart, Vice President, FreeThoughtAction
    Margaret Downey, Founder and President, Freethought Society
    D.J. Grothe, President, James Randi Educational Foundation 
    Stuart Jordan, President, Institute for Science and Human Values
    Jason Torpy, President, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers
    R. Elisabeth Cornwell, Executive Director, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science
    Edwina Rogers, Executive Director, Secular Coalition for America
    August E. Brunsman IV, Executive Director, Secular Student Alliance
    Todd Stiefel, President, Stiefel Freethought Foundation
    Fred Edwords, National Director, United Coalition of Reason