Categories: FeaturedFeminismSkepticism

Assholes and Heads

I met a woman about 5 years ago who was working for a skeptic organization doing PR. At the time when I met her I was super enthusiastic about the idea of organized skepticism and immersed in the mindset that religion was the greatest plague on all humankind. I had just finished reading The God Delusion and Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World* and Hitchens’ God is Not Great. I was very moved. I was new. I was raised without religion but I didn’t realize there were more people out there like me and that science was something I could learn too. I could be part of a community? Count me in! I was doing a photoshoot with this woman and she said to me, and I’m paraphrasing here:

“Skeptics are all awful people because if you think that the biggest problems one faces in life is whether or not there is a bigfoot or if someone thinks they are psychic, you’re actually a huge asshole. There are much bigger problems in society. Ignoring those bigger issues to pick on people who you think you are smarter than makes you a terrible person who is blind to the real problems in the world.”

I heard what she said but at the time I didn’t let it sink in. I couldn’t. I was just so damn excited to finally be part of something. I really thought the skeptic and atheist communities were going to do real good in the world. At that time our blog was doing a lot of work raising awareness about vaccine preventable diseases and fighting the myths being spread by the likes of Jenny McCarthy that vaccines caused autism. We were sponsoring vaccine clinics at skeptic events and working with the CDC. We were teaching people the facts about homeopathy. I was raising thousands of dollars to send women to conferences in the hopes that more women would pick up the fight and learn the wonders of a scientific mindset.

It felt like we were making progress. Making a real difference. We were making friends and bringing people together. So I filed away what that woman said to me back in the dark corners of my brain and completely ignored it for almost a year.

Then Richard Dawkins made fun of Rebecca in the comment section of another blog. Literally within moments of that happening all of the women on Skepchick who were active writers at the time (most of them long gone now) became targets of an online hate campaign. It literally happened so fast that I didn’t have time to process it. One day I was a Dawkins and SGU fan who was dedicated to making the world better by encouraging more people to get involved with organized skepticism, atheism and critical thinking and then the next day I was told I was part of a clique of radical feminists who should be raped and killed.

I tried to fight it for a long time. I tried to stand up for myself and for Rebecca and remain part of the overarching community that put on events. I wanted to help still. But as the years went on I began to see the light behind the curtain as I noted who acted to stop the hate and who encouraged it.

I educated myself on feminism. If I was being called a feminist I sure as heck should learn what that meant. And I learned that yeah, sure, a lot of what feminism stood for applied to me. I identified with that word and through that self-education of feminism I began to learn about inequality and racism and shockingly how much feminism is for white women. I learned about trans issues. I learned about bigotry. I learned about privilege. All of these issues were things that one could apply skepticism or more specifically critical thinking skills to in order to process ways to end the suffering associated with these issues- to make lives and the world and directly around us better. Things like poverty and lack of healthcare could become game changers in the skeptic communities. These issues were so closely linked to the vaccine work we had started that I’m surprised the connection wasn’t made sooner. But anytime anyone would bring up one of these issues it was met by the skeptic and atheist community with violent or dismissive rhetoric.

The only issues that were acceptable, were issues that rich white men could joke about over an expensive scotch. Wage gaps, gun control, healthcare for women, the school to prison pipeline or police violence in black communities were not something that skeptics could be bothered with. Theirs is a game of Bigfoot and blaming religion which comfortably allows them to slip back into making fun of people they think they are smarter than. Skepticism is for white men.

The words that woman told me during our photoshoot crept back to the forefront of my mind.

There was a group that met once a year called “Heads” I’m not sure if they still meet because I stopped being involved with organized skepticism and atheism a few years ago but I assume they do. “Heads” was a meeting where the heads of large skeptic and atheist organizations would meet privately, usually in a nice hotel to make plans for the future. Obviously, I was never invited to one, neither was Rebecca or anyone here. But my understanding is that it was basically CFI, JREF, RDF, American Atheists and some of the Humanist orgs. I think once they invited someone from Secular Woman Org but they didn’t like what they had to say so I’m not sure if they were invited back. So here you have a group primarily, if not entirely composed of wealthy, upperclass older white men deciding what is to be the goals and actions of organized Skepticism and Atheism moving forward.

And now we have those groups merging together. The inner circle has closed even tighter.

Modern day organized skepticism and atheism is not a welcoming space for the less privileged or the “others” of society. It is not a space for enlightenment. I was wrong when I thought it was. In its present incarnation it is about self-preservation, elitism and not the betterment of average people. You are only welcome in the inner circles where you can actively make change if you are wealthy or if you truly tow the line and towing the line is certainly not about making change.

That woman all those years ago was absolutely correct. If making fun of women on Youtube, or Muslims building clocks, or planning events around putting psychics on a stage when you know they are going to fail, or mocking people who believe in ghosts, or belittling that guy who chases the elusive Bigfoot is top of your list of plans and priorities, you really are a terrible person.

* I still highly recommend Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World. The other books, not so much.

Amy Roth :Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics. She is the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+. Tip Jar is here.

View Comments (55)

  • Thank you for writing this, Amy. I got interested in skepticism around 2007/2008, but was done by 2010. The "movement" kept revealing its white/cis/straight/male supremacy again and again. By the time things really hit the fan (with Dawkins' comments and the ensuing explosion of misogyny, as you describe) I sadly wasn't shocked at all. I stuck around for some of those arguments, foolishly, but then decided the best decision was to walk away from organized skepticism and atheism altogether.

    Now it seems skepticism's bright light of reason only attracts proponents of white dude ideas from further and further on the fringes: armchair eugenicists, Islamaphobes, men's rights, rape apologists, racists, sexists, and bigots of all colours. And because they generally have no analysis of privilege, the men who don't share those beliefs still make friendly places for bigots to have a platform, while they wonder aloud where all the women and minorities went. I just can't fake pleasantries with people who hold despicable ideas.

  • It's hard not to see the parallels between organised atheism/skepticism and organised religion.

    What I'll call "liberal religion" exists, and it isn't tiny. It's even in the majority in most places in the developed world (i.e. outside the US or in the right parts of the US). However, it doesn't have a lot of time or money to spend on cable TV shows, private jets, or buying legislators. The public face of religion, to most outsiders in the US, is the crazy fundamentalist wing run by rich white men who seem to only care about themselves and how superior to everyone else they are and imposing their opinions on people who are not rich white men.

    I have a suspicion that the atheist blogosphere meme that fundamentalism is the only "correct" kind of religion and everything else is "cafeteria" or "cherry-picking" or "dishonest" is pure projection: clearly, the rich-white-male form of anything is "correct", and anything else is an aberration.

  • Great article. I can kind of relate; the whole elevator incident and fallout was a teachable moment for me too. I never really gave much thought to feminism or social justice issues before that but I was horrified and disgusted by the reactions of many of my fellow atheists, including the reactions from atheists that I foolishly idolised at the time. Maybe that ugliness was always there, but it was the first time I noticed it (I should probably mention that I'm a cis-gendered straight white male.)

  • I was in the "Freethought Heads" group from 2005 to 2007, representing an atheist organization that only existed online. My fellow rep and I spent much of our time trying to convey the need for "another Godless march" to the Heads group. At the time, there was still a territory issue with both American Atheists and the FFRF having competing conferences on Easter weekend. The FFRF finally relented, but the groups were all very insular and unwilling to collaborate on anything like a rally. I was one of three women in Heads, and we were pretty much ignored. We didn't seem to have the right "equipment" to be thought of as equal to our male group leader peers.

    I quit organized atheism at the end of 2007, and some time after that, I'd say after Ellen Johnson was released from American Atheists, the Heads groups eventually listened to the thousands of members who were calling for a rally or march on Washington. That led to the successful Reason Rally in 2012. Pretty much every atheist and skeptic and secular group in the country had joined forces to put on a united front.

    I'm hoping the Reason Rally 2016 will be a success, as well, but I'm not as interested in it as I once was. With all of the MRA/SJW nonsense, I'm disinclined to get involved again.

  • I think I'm pretty fortunate to have discovered the overall Skeptical movement at the same time as I discovered Skepchick. (And I was even here to see first hand Rebecca's simple "Guys, don't do that" receive thermonuclear retaliation as it happened.) I've grown disappointed with supposed pillars of the community becoming the skeptic/atheist equivalent of the current GOP presidential nominees (before them!), but moreso with the rank and file not fucking calling them out on it, even if they aren't joining in.

    This is why the Skepchick group of sites is so important to me. I may not always agree (or sometimes understand) a perspective, but I appreciate the forums. Skepchick is my #1 favorite Skeptic/Feminist site. And I don't really separate the two philosophies (I don't see how you can).

  • I have a hard time with the question of whether I'm standing in a circular firing squad taking shots at people who I agree with about some things that I consider important, but can't stand their views on others.

    Or whether, indeed, Dawkins hating on the disempowered isn't just a matter of opinion, and I'm not just fulfilling a filter bubble of people who I agree with even more precisely.

    Am I feeding my cognitive biases seeking out only skeptics who I view as having a reasonable, fair, and compassionate view of their fellow human beings?

    I mean, it seems like yes those should be fair requirements to expect from someone trying to analyze the world, but the question still haunts me.

        • I have a habit of leaving joke comments and immediately deleting them. Apparently, I can't do that here and I'm sorry about that.

          • (Maximum comment depth reached. This is a reply to Amy.)

            To Infinity and Beyond!

            To answer Gilbert's question, I propose the Zeroth Law of Skepticism: People (and the world) are, in general and for the most part, significantly better off with lives based on science and logical thinking than they would be mired in ignorance and superstition. That's the whole point of doing this.

            It's hard to prove this is true, except maybe in retrospect after homo sapiens is extinct or we have destroyed the planet through greed and ignoring the consequences of our own actions, but as a fan of science and technology and people and the universe, I certainly want it to be true.

      • Mental hedonism? I'm willing to allow for other people to be a bit hedonistic in their life about food, sex, love, and art if they really want.

        I get so uncertain where my line is drawn sometimes.

  • Like mattf, I am also a "walking checklist of privilege".

    I created account to just say "Thank You" for this. The more I look into the social inequities that *don't* affect me, the more I find myself disenfranchised by people like Dawkins and Harris (to name only a couple). I am continually frustrated by their inability to look even one inch past their own experiences at the challenges faced by anyone not white, male, or middle class and up.

  • I agree completely. I'm a middle-aged white male. I attended quite a number of Skeptic meetings and began to realize everyone (men) was acting just as you describe. It wasn't I was planning on changing the world; it was simply the fact that sitting around drinking with guys that constantly gloated about how much smarter "we" were than everyone else got old fast. What's the point? Fine you're free to do as you wish, but it wasn't advancing anything of any importance. They all talked as if "we" were doing something important. Nonsense.