Many people are becoming increasingly fed up with what I will call ‘the Rift’ that has occurred in atheist and skeptic communities. Largely, the Rift is confined to online spaces, but seemed to originate around mid 2011 in the conference scene. It seems to only affect a subset of atheists and skeptics, as when I speak to atheists I encounter in my ordinary life (and by far most people I know are ‘non-card-carrying atheists’), they have no idea that it even exists. So the problem, albeit something we should try to fix, is not really something that affects atheists or skeptics as a whole, but just those who inhabit one corner of the Internet.
Michael Nugent, of Atheist Ireland is one of the people fed up with the Rift. He would like to move beyond it, and has admirably taken the trouble to propose a dialogue to try to sort things out. I strongly believe that it won’t work, for two main reasons:
- In this situation, a dialogue is in principle non-workable.
- The dialogue itself is not structured in an appropriate way for its purpose.
I want to start with the second reason, as it is the weaker of the two.
The structure of the dialogue
So far, I have talked about ‘the Rift’ without saying what it is, or what it is about. That’s on purpose – I think I have some idea what it is about, but it is very difficult to summarise accurately. Describing the conflict itself is crucially important if we are to settle it. Is it feminists vs anti-feminists? Women vs misogynists? Vocal women vs ‘men’s rights activists’? Good honest folk vs vile Internet trolls? ‘Radical feminists’ vs ‘real skeptics’? I’d say that none of these correctly summarise what is going on.
Nugent himself describes the Rift as comprising issues of:
sexism and harassment, ideological disagreements about issues including feminism and free speech, personal abuse and bullying, and a tendency to hype up disagreements and attribute malign motivations and escalate hostility.
That’s a good effort, in my opinion, but unfortunately it says nothing at all about what the apparent ‘sides’ represent, who is on each one and why they are on that side rather than the other. If there really is a Rift dividing the movement then there must be people who find themselves on each side of the divide, although there are some exceptions (for example Nugent himself). Of course, that isn’t to say that a member on one side is ideologically similar to other members on that side. For instance, I try to promote civility and dispassionate argumentation, while some on the same ‘side’ seem to do the very opposite. So why are we on the same side? I believe that’s an important question; of the sort that the dialogue ought to be dealing with.
So what’s the Rift about? Well, so far the dialogue hasn’t even attempted to come to an answer. The first issue on the agenda (already addressed) is “How we can work together on core issues on which we broadly agree, including promoting reason, critical thinking, science, skepticism, atheism and secularism in the real world.” Who is working together? Who is broadly agreeing? We are not told. Instead we’re expect to consider how two (unspecified) groups or (unnamed) individuals can agree on certain issues, in spite of the fact that they disagree on some other (unspecified) issue!
I therefore doubt that the dialogue will really get to the bottom of things. Indeed, if you read the first two statements, you’ll discover that they seem to have little to do with the Rift, and neither statement says anything particularly disagreeable. So perhaps we’ll end up agreeing on X and Y, but if Z is the core issue of the Rift and we don’t talk about it, I don’t see how the dialogue is going to stop the fighting.
Another issue with the structure is that comments don’t appear immediately, so one cannot have a productive discussion. This appears to be a temporary issue, while they work out how best to moderate it (hint: just delete irrelevant personal attacks and ban trolls, etc.). If you want to comment on an article, you have to say whether you agree or disagree about each point. Nothing could be more boring and pointless! So far all we have is lots of people, many of whom I have no idea who they are, saying “agree” or “disagree” to each item (perhaps with a reason). I have to say, I have no idea how this will move things forward. And so far the ‘discussion’ area has a total of three comments. That’s less than one per day.
They don’t want to fix it
The question discussed so far in the dialogue, “how can we [unspecified] work together?” also depends on another consideration, so far not made very explicit. We have to want to work together, and the truth is that the majority of those engaged in the conflict don’t want to! One of those at the very centre of the conflict, PZ Myers, referred to the Rift recently as a “joyous implosion“. You can find other examples, but perhaps most puzzlingly, one of the moderators of Nugent’s dialogue, Monette Richards, recently signed a rejection of an open letter proposing that we put the Rift behind us and work together. So part of the team moderating the discussion doesn’t believe that the dialogue should even be taking place. I don’t want to restrict this to ‘that side’ but I won’t bother looking for examples since I take it as already evident there are many on the other side who also would like the Rift to continue.
Another issue is that stopping the in-fighting involves essentially agreeing with me, and those with similar views. Why? Well, if the dialogue:
…is aimed at those of us who want to move beyond the rifts and to build strong, inclusive, caring and supportive atheist and skeptic communities and groups, that promote robust and rational debate of issues while avoiding needlessly hurting people.
…then they are doing exactly what I want. I don’t even have to compromise! All I ever cared about was having robust and rational debates while avoiding needlessly hurting people. If everybody wanted this from the outset, there wouldn’t have been a Rift in the first place. Many don’t want this, and that’s the point.
I personally would like the conflict to stop, but I don’t believe it will until everybody gets bored (and they will eventually – they have to!). You can quote me on that. I wish Michael Nugent well in his endeavour and admire his effort, but I really do believe it will fail.