Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Dec 13, 2012 in Atheism, Drama, Feminism, Freethought Blogs, Skepticism | 22 comments

Is There No Salvation for Atheists In Atheistland?

Recently, Skeptic Ink has been accused of “tribalism” in (gasp!) Ophelia Benson’s blog. This seems odd, as on this network we disagree with each other all the time, both in what we post, and in our interpersonal communications. More specifically, what instigated Benson to make the accusation is this post by John Loftus. However, perhaps to Benson’s surprise, I respectfully disagree with John on a few of his remarks. First, I don’t think that references to physical violence are ever appropriate, even when clearly disclaimed as a metaphor (a disclaimer that Benson, I’m assuming accidentally, left out of her blog post). Such comments are simply too incendiary, and provide opponents with unwarranted ammunition. In addition, they can be hurtful, and Benson has had to endure both criticism and alleged harassment over the last two years, some of which has been, at least in my personal opinion, off-topic and cruel. But everyone makes an occasional clumsy statement, especially me. So I certainly don’t fault anyone for it, and it would never stand in the way of my friendship.

Second, I was initially critical of the statement Michael Shermer made in an interview last August (discussed in greater detail in the posts linked above). What Shermer said, in response to being asked why there were so few women in public atheism, was: “It’s who wants to stand up and talk about [atheism], go on shows about it, go to conferences and speak about it, who’s intellectually active about it, you know, it’s more of a guy thing.” This is indeed, at least at first glance, a very sexist comment, and Shermer should have known better. Atheism is a “guy thing”? I come from three generations of lifelong female agnostic atheists/strong atheists, and we’re not particularly unusual. I suppose we just never bothered to think that there was anything merit-worthy about our lack of religious belief. Why have we been atheists? Mainly due to absence of any evidence for god, as well as contradictory logic in popular religious arguments for a theist god. There was never much question about this for any of us, not at any point in our lives (though the fact that we lived in communist Russia didn’t hurt, I suspect). I’ve also spoken out and given presentations on this subject, whenever requested. Although I hate public speaking, I have yet to turn down a single invitation. Further, I’m bothered by the assertion that intellectual activity (presumably in atheism) is also a “guy thing.”  No, there’s much more going on than that, and I will address it in a separate post.

However, Shermer’s subsequent apology leads me to believe that he merely misspoke and had no sexist intent. I am fully willing to accept this explanation, as stated in his response to Benson, parts of which you can see in the excerpts below. The principle of charity demands no less:

Where do I say or even imply that women are, in Benson’s characterization of what I said, “too stupid to do nontheism” or that “unbelieving in God is thinky work and women don’t do thinky?” Clearly that is not what I said, as punctuated by my preface that I believe the actual sex ratio is 50/50. And for the record I don’t believe for a moment that women are not smart enough to do nonbelief thinking, or any other type of cognition for that matter. (Emphasis mine.) […]

As well, as in witch hunts of centuries past, we should be cautious of making charges against others because of the near impossibility of denial or explanation after the accusation. (Just read the comments about me in the forum section of Benson’s blog, where I’m called a “jackass,” a “damn fool,” and other descriptors that have become commonplace in the invectosphere. Is there anything I could say that would not confirm readers’ beliefs? Denial is what true witches (and bigots, racists, and misogynists) do. Many other examples abound. Harriet Hall, M.D., the SkepDoc columnist for Skeptic magazine (one of two women columnists of our three, I might add, the other being Karen Stollznow), who lived through and helped bring about the first-wave feminist movement, told me she “was vilified on Ophelia’s blog for not following a certain kind of feminist party line of how a feminist should act and think. And I was attacked there in a disturbingly irrational, nonskeptical way.” […]

Finally, there is a deeper problem here that I have observed over the past several years that I would like to address to the larger secular community, and that is the dangers of in-group fighting and inquisition purges of those who are not “pure” enough in their atheism, skepticism, or humanism. My partner and co-founder of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, Pat Linse, was involved in the first wave feminism of the 1960s, and she recalls the lamentable in-group bickering about who were the “true feminists,” and how this led to witch hunts and purges that splintered the movement and made it a less effective political force.

PZ Myers goes even further, and accuses the highly esteemed Dr. Hariett Hall of being sexist for making this statement:  “I think it is unreasonable to expect that equal numbers of men and women will be attracted to every sphere of human endeavor. Science has shown that real differences exist. We should level the playing field and ensure there are no preventable obstacles, then let the chips fall where they may.”

Now here I must draw an even stronger line. Myers is denying the objective truth of Hall’s words, as well as her participation in first wave feminism for the benefit of all women (and not just a select, politically-motivated, frequently-illogical, puritanical group). Myers has a long history of attacking professional and successful women, especially in the sciences, for reasons that are not apparent to me. While I, presumably, go further in supporting diversity programs than Dr. Hall, I really wish that people like Myers would stop putting women down for holding our own, independent views on women’s issues (and men’s).

Moreover, I’d like to say that Benson’s type of puritanical feminism has discouraged more women from the movement than it has attracted. A possible explanation of why can be found in Paula Kirby’s brilliant piece, Sisterhood of the Oppressed. I don’t agree with her on every word, but then, I rarely agree with anyone. Yes, I really am *that* disagreeable.

On the other hand, here’s a typical example of Benson’s logic (or is it hypocrisy?), which is something that I simply cannot support:





In sum, whatever our disagreements may be, I stand behind and appreciate the work that Shermer, Hall, Loftus, and Kirby have done for skepticism, secularism, and atheism. We don’t have to agree on every  issue in order to treat each other with kindness and respect, and that’s what we hope to see in the secular/rationalist “community” of the future, rather than the ridiculous weekly call-outs by the puritanical feminist faction, which gleefully attacks dissenting women as readily as dissenting men. The more vulnerable the victim, it seems, the more vicious the attack.  And the movement is led by — yes, you guessed it — powerful males. One could say that it’s a hierarchy, perhaps even a patriarchy. In the end, Ms. Benson, if the metaphor fits, own it. Politics and skepticism make awful bedfellows, and you keep demonstrating that over and over again.