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.