Atheism, Sexism and Harassment. The Price of Speaking Up.
When I first started writing for this blog I was a relative newbie to the concept of organized skepticism and atheism, and feminism wasn’t even on my radar. Feminism was some shit hippies did by burning their bras on the White-House lawn, not something for me. And I was raised without religion, so I took the concept of atheism for granted. I figured it was a simple question of either you believe or you don’t. I didn’t. And organizing around the answer to that question was something that the church goers do. The non-believers don’t gather around non-belief, they gather around rock concerts and campfires because, in my mind, there were better things to do. I hadn’t fully considered the notion that some people are so damaged by a religious upbringing that when they lose faith, they may need help transitioning to a life without the support structure that their faith and churches provided. I hadn’t considered how religion seeps into our schools and tries to rewrite history by literally rewriting textbooks and how religion seeks to change the rules of science to fit better with the concept of faith. When I first started writing here, I hadn’t considered any of those things, I just knew I didn’t believe.
I know better now.
I now know that having a community built around the concept of atheism and non-belief is important. It is important if we want to transition our community from minority to mainstream. We are social creatures who sometimes need support to deal with the tragedy inherent in life. Death and mourning are universal experiences that are often hard to endure. We are soft, squishy, emotional and often flawed humans. We need compassion, understanding and other soft and squishy humans to lean on when tragedy strikes. We also need other people to share the joy of love and the landmarks in each of our lives. Organized atheism can provide the community that the churches have. It needs to do better, but the foundation is there.
Publicly speaking-out about atheism, either online or away from the keyboard can often leave you open for vicious attacks by people who strongly believe that you are evil, or a blasphemous sinner for going against their cherished faith. Being a public atheist, in a time when being an atheist makes you a minority, can be a scary thing. You can lose friends, families, jobs and in many cases your freedom or your life. Luckily for me, I just get the occasional nasty note from a believer or a vague threat.
Involvement of the women.
This blog has always been a destination that was designed to encourage the participation of women in skepticism and that also encompassed atheism- though that was a secondary goal in the beginning. When writers were brought on board they were asked to focus on skeptical issues that are important to women. We began by following Rebecca’s lead by getting involved in conferences like TAM and local events such as Skepticamp and IIG. We put ourselves out in the public more. We talked about issues that effected us as women. We looked around the rooms and out into the audience and slowly began to notice that at these gatherings the women were far outnumbered by the men.
No big deal.
At first it was not a big deal in our minds that there were less women, we were there and having fun and that’s what mattered. BUT we were capital S skeptics and took that seriously and so it was our duty to examine these experiences and so we began, like good skeptics, to question why. Why were there less women involved in these events? Why did many of the women attend one event but then not come back? We wanted to share skepticism with other women because women are often the targets of the major pseudoscientific scams focused around care of family like faith healing and homeopathy and other scams like psychics and The Secret. We needed to find ways to encourage participation so we could help people not get taken in by charlatans or put their health in jeopardy. We wanted to help other women. We had knowledge that we figured everyone needed!
Our critical analysis continued.
Time and time again when we looked around the rooms we saw a disproportionate amount of white men. We saw a lack of diversity, not only in genders but in sexual orientation and skin colors too. We also began to notice the sexism and a strong conservative and libertarian leaning in audiences. We slowly began to speak out about this and the need for inclusivity by secular organizations and event leaders. We began to question our own choices and actions. We were by no means a feminist blog when this started. We made our mistakes but we wanted to do better. We wanted to be inclusive so more underrepresented groups would join the movements so the ideals and tools of secularism, skepticism and rational and critical thinking would spread and would ultimately make the world a better place. Simple right!
Doing what’s right can go terribly wrong.
So we began to speak out about why we felt there were fewer women at events. We began to read other feminist writers. We called for more diversity on panels. We began to speak out about the rape threats women recieve online and how we are often treated as objects and the microaggressions women face. We mentioned the need for harassment policies at conferences. We basically began to report on the obvious. It was feminism 101. We reported what we saw and experienced. We began to critically examine equality and feminism and it’s place within skepticism and atheism. And that is about the time when things fucking exploded. The moment Richard Dawkin’s hit enter after typing his infamous, “Dear Muslima…” comment in response to Rebecca commenting on how she felt being approached by strange men in enclosed spaces on P.Z Myers blog our lives were forever changed.
Starting on that day in July, 2011 this blog became a target.
Everyday since, those of us on this blog and many from the FTBlog network who speak out about sexism or feminism are threatened with rape, death, bodily harm or just generalized hate. We have been mocked, parodied, picked on, lied about, threatened with lawsuits and in some cases sexually harassed.
And so this is where the journey has led us.
This journey that was started by a naively enthusiastic relationship with skepticism has taught me the importance and need for community based around non-belief while simultaneously showing me how absolutely toxic and damaging the existing structure is for anyone who dares try to alter the status quo. I started out full of hope and confidence that I knew OH-so-much only to realize that I knew very little. It’s taken years and a lot of strength from a collective group of amazing writers and thinkers to slightly jam that door open just enough for us to let enough disinfecting sunlight into this community to show that we have a lot of cockroaches left to scare away and a lot of myths yet to shatter. The more you know, the more you realize there is to learn and do. My hope is that the path we are walking- full of brambles and uneven footing – will be much smoother for the skeptic and atheist women and other minority groups who follow after us. And I hope that those who keep trying to block that path will realize their mistakes. I also hope that those voices that we have recently heard speak out will continue to rise up. Because the louder our voices are in unison the lesser the price each individual will have to pay.