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.

life is on the line
Tweet from “Mabus.” In the beginning he was the only known harasser in the Skeptic community. Now he seems tame in comparison to the multitudes of others we see who primarily target women.

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.

Album cover art by Brian Dunning that sparked my first public discussion on sexism in the skeptic community.

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.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. I’m sure I couldn’t stand up to a quarter of what you all have been through. But I’m reading, I’m listening, and I am looking forward to the future.

  2. Hear hear. Beautifully stated, if on an ugly subject. Thank you to you and all the other Skepchicks and other activists and bloggers who have stuck through the unreal amount of hatred and vitriol.

  3. Hard to believe it’s been two years now since the famous words “guys, don’t do that” have been uttered. Keep fighting the good fight! I really hope one day to make it to a skeptic event.

  4. As I see it, the biggest problem we have is a failure of leadership. Reading over your post and thinking of the events of the past couple years, that’s what strikes me. I can’t think of a single instance when, during one of these crises, someone in a position of power and influence stepped forward and did the right thing. That is how we got to the place we’re in now.

  5. If it makes you feel any better the sameeeeeeeeeee garbage is happening in the animal rights movement as we speak…we may have more women, but the power dynamics, harassment, and legal threats are just the same. In many ways you guys are making more strides than we are.

    1. Leadership? What leadership? Skeptics and atheists on the forefront of our movement are speaking up, but since we don’t actually have a pope…

  6. That album cover still is so freaking awful. So. Awful. Anyhoo. I’ve been lurking here for years, watching, watching, watching. I think y’all are good eggs, doing hard and unpleasant work. I haven’t got anything useful to add, just my solidarity.

  7. Keep up the good work, Skepchicks! You’ve always been refreshingly honest about the way the world is. Skepchick.org is one of only a handful of places on the internet where women can express rational ideas without being pooh-poohed by a gang of patriarchal assholes. Well, we might still be pooh-poohed (and even attacked), but we’ve got our rational companions right here to help us stand up to the ignorant horde. Thank you for being here.

  8. You have to turn on the lights and do an extermination to get rid of the cockroaches, and it seems the atheist/skeptical movement has an infestation. The really sad thing is that none of the names yet named surprise me.

  9. Nicely done Amy and the rest of the Skepchick gang! Recently my boss made a comment about me being the most progressive person he knows. Though he may need to expand his social circle, I did realize that I had learned a lot over the last few years (with still a lot to learn) and I give a TON of credit to Skepchick and their links and their commenters. All of it has definitely have expanded my worldview and I just want to say thanks to all of you. So thanks for being awesome and thanks for putting up with a ton of BS from people not as awesome.

  10. I agree with delphi_ote most strongly. Just the *public* online harassment is bad enough, but the fact that the harassers have institutional support is most disheartening. The president of a prominent skeptical organization has made a point of supporting several harassers, including at least two who literally publicly threatened sexual assault, while at the same time blacklisting a number of skeptical feminists. Numerous other instances of sexism by this same president are now coming to light, including one where he privately disparaged supporters of a feminist group by saying that they just “want pussy.” He followed that delightful observation by making a rape joke to someone he just met. The Twitterfeed of the organizations annual convention was filled with harassers gloating about the wonderful time they were having now that “all the troublemakers were gone.” It is impossible for me to support this skeptical organization because of its leadership’s support of harassment.

  11. Thanks for the response to all of this, and I’m happy that you all have finally been vindicated about this. I mean, I wouldn’t call myself truly *happy*; I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that I wish that Radford, Grothe, Shermer, et al weren’t all jerkbags. However, given that they are this way, I’m glad that this information came forward, and now that this stuff is coming out I really do think that your response to this kind of thing back in 2011 was, if anything, rather muted, light (in the sense that you were trying to be nice to as many people as you could be nice to), and subtle.

    I have to say again, kudos to you all for keeping this issue out there so that nobody could reasonably say “what? This is completely unexpected.”

  12. You mention the religious right’s attempts to rewrite history in the first paragraph. Keeping history straight is important and this post is an important contribution to that.

    I’ve had several conversations with people (basically on the sidelines, not active contributors to the hate-storm) who had completely inaccurate understanding of the sequence of events in the elevator incident, for example. They had obviously never watched Rebecca’s original “Guys, don’t do that” video, nor had they even skimmed the subsequent Skepchick or Pharyngula posts and seemed to be getting all their info from the Internet equivalent of Fox News. They had no idea of the shitload of shit you and others had to endure. (I hope I set them straight.)

    Fighting the constant rewriting of history is an endless job, thank you for doing it.

  13. “[S]trong conservative and libertarian leaning in audiences” — I’m sure you’re more deeply involved in skeptical circles than I am, since I’ve only been to a few small groups in the East and South, but my experience was that most skeptics/atheists self-identify as “secular humanists” with heavily liberal leanings. I raised a stir when I suggested that people who are skeptical about gods and paranormal phenomena should be equally skeptical about the many extraordinary claims made on behalf of governments, such as their justifications for war, compulsory education, and so forth. There is perhaps no organization in the world which receives such shallow criticism in the media.

  14. My history with organized skepticism and atheism is short but my history with the church is lifelong so my cynical response is “Welcome to church!” because, since forever, we’ve been crowning guys and silencing women. When my denomination sought an apology to women over a decade ago, it was mostly women who argued they didn’t need to be apologized to; they were pissed at the women who had brought it up. So I’m not surprised although I am so deeply sorry that we (the human family without reference to gender, gender identity, race, sexuality, nation, football preferences, etc., etc.) cannot find our way forward from this and so, too, deeply sorry that so hatred and pain is rooted in a misogyny that is undoubtedly faith-based.
    However, I believe that I get to do the work I do (irritating the church beyond belief) because I am a woman. Because my forebears (the ones who actually bore the children), like so many of us today, were never given a place in the circle of power. We’ve been outside all this time, watching, seeing with a clarity those in the circle cannot acquire. As those without power, we’ve nothing to lose. (Interesting, I just tweeted this morning the quote from Bobby McGee – Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose) and so we can risk more, press toward truth a little harder, speak more honestly. Being outside the circle has its benefits.
    The question for me is what are the structures we will put in place that can replace what has stood and still stands? It felt right when my denomination shunned me – I could understand that. But now my work is being noticed by those in the circle, the men and women who are comfortable there with the old forms and the practice of traditional power. They want to bring it inside, check it out, figure out how to mine it for their purposes. It would be easy to slide in amongst them, preen a bit for finally “making it”, and begin the metamorphosis into something I never wanted to be. SAVE me from THAT!
    We must find new ways to create structures (we do need structures) that will encourage truth. As William Sparrow, 19th century dean at Virginia Theological College used to say at the conclusion of his lectures “Seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will, lead where it might.” Little did he know that the truths he was challenging his students to pursue would be found out to be fictions and the real truth so much harder to live with than the fantasy. So, thank you, Amy, for the call to “community” that lies within your post. I believe community creates the opportunity for sitting with truth and holding it, all of it – the good, the bad, the incredibly ugly – to lament and celebrate, to open wounds as is needed and to hold faith with one another into healing and, tentatively, into hope. Thank you for this and for your courage.

  15. My experience is that there is a big split between liberal atheists/skeptics and libertarian atheists/skeptics, and it really depends on where you are in the country to see where you see more of them. When I was in Atlanta, my experience was that the community was mostly libertarian (with some kind of bizarre views about women, for that matter). In Seattle it was mostly liberal but only around 60/40 or maybe 70/30 at the most. Indianapolis seems to be mostly liberal (the members all seem to come from IUPUI), but the community is so small it’s hard to make assessments based on sample size.

  16. Thank you for a great post! I have been so angry the last few days reading the various background posts on sexism in secularism, now that names are being named, that I wrote a post “How to kill a volunteer organization in 10 steps with secular sexism.” at http://www.skepticmoney.com/how-to-kill-a-volunteer-organization-with-secular-sexism/. I don’t know if it will help but at least I can add another voice to the harmony. Good luck and best wishes!

  17. Many excellent points! Thank you for writing this.

    Although the atheist and skeptic communities involve people who have formally rejected religion/superstition, I’ve come to realize that not every atheist or skeptic has taken the time to unload and cast off the many ridiculous and irrational assumptions of religion and pseudo-science. And I think that’s precisely why there are still many nasty remnants of sexism, racism, and homophobia in this “more enlightened” community of atheists and skeptics.

    I was personally reminded of this the other when, on a popular FB page for atheists, many were surprisingly uncritical of calling out Russia on their heinous anti-gay laws it passed recently. Although initially disturbed that people in our community could act and think in such ways – even going so far as to belittle us LGBT atheists – I do have to remember that only about 75% of non-believers (atheists, agnostics, and otherwise) support LGBT rights. That means 25% of non-believers could not care less. Sad, but true. But knowing that gives me the insight to be able to see that patriarchy, homophobia, misogyny, and racism still manage in linger in people’s minds. Staying silent about this is precisely the wrong strategy to deal with that. Let us all keep speaking out when we see any of those things in our community. Otherwise they will simply recalcify in our minds.

  18. Great post! I think you’re providing important leadership on this issue.

    I’m pretty new to the atheist/secularist blogosphere, but not to atheism or feminism. I’m a PhD student in History researching gender and atheism in 18th century Europe. I hope you’ll visit my blog at http://atheistical.net.

  19. What is going on is simply outrageous and I have nothing but the greatest respect for you and every other blogger/tweeter/writer who are carrying on this essential work of enlightenment. I’ve been lurcking around FTB and Skepchick for the last couple of years as I take time to learn from people whose lives are different from mine, whose experiences and challenges are different from mine, a 50-odd year old cis white male living and working in rural Scotland. I have learnt a huge amount about gender politics, feminism and the quotidian experience of harrassment of women, people of colour and LGBT people. And I have learned from you all more about how my own learned behaviour and attitudes have to change if we are to make the world a better place. I am increasingly convinvced that there is no greater nor more important project in the world than feminism – the kind of feminism that educates and empowers girls and women, that challenges micro-harrassment in all its forms and builds a world where every human being can flourish and irrational thinking and prejudice will whither away. It’s an aspiration, but our reach should always exceed our grasp, because there are giants on whose shoulders we can stand.
    I saw Rebecca’s video (“Guys, don’t do that”) and considered it to be assertive, witty and to give an essential message to men who may have been brought up with inappropriate ideas about what was OK and what wasn’t in those circumstances. It should be part of the social education of all boys.
    So, please take courage and encouragement – this is a good work, and essential work and it will make the world a better place.

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