Skeptic and Atheist Do Better Challenge

Over the years I have self-identified as an atheist and as a skeptic. But lately, I look around these communities and I don’t see much that reflects who I am or how I feel about the world. I see no need to go into details about that. If you read this blog, you know that over the years many of us who have dedicated our time and money to advancing skepticism in particular, have been let down by the majority of people in leadership positions. Those leaders are not my leaders anymore. They do not stand for my ethical principles. And the good news about that, is those leaders are not needed for the majority of us to make a positive impact in this world.

I have been thinking a lot about the value of ones life in a godless community. As an atheist, I do not get to find solace in the idea that I have an afterlife to plan for. tiger lily I have to make peace with the idea that this one life is all that I have and that every single solitary moment counts right now. It counts in moments, that are slowly ticking away. And while I also have to realize that while there is no God keeping track of those moments and my actions within them, that none-the-less they matter. They matter because each of us has in their power in every single moment, an opportunity to lead by positive example to make the world a better place each and everyday. A place where we can peacefully co-exist and grow without religion and without superstition as a driving force.

The skeptic and atheist communities have been riddled with negativity lately. But it is in our power to change that, starting today. If even half of the people who self-identify as skeptics or atheists made a promise to actively do better, we would, as a whole, become the leaders that the world needs. Not one person, not a tiny group of horseman, but all of us collectively as a movement could show that humanity (and the animals) will benefit from humankind discarding the shackles of superstition and pseudoscience and instead embracing the ideals that come with compassion, caring and empirical knowledge.

You do not need God to do good, but you do need some sustained effort to show that it can be done.

I issue you all a challenge.

Starting today, right now, make a promise to combat the negativity we face as atheists or skeptics and do a good deed.

There are a lot of ways you can do that. It can be as simple as tweeting some words of encouragement to the women or oppressed groups online that you know get regular harassment. You could dedicate your time to a local charity. You could rescue a shelter pet or vow to eat at least one vegan meal a week. You could help a local senior group by delivering meals or giving rides to the store or to the doctor. You could donate art supplies or money to a local school. You could help build a house. The list goes on and on. But whatever you do, be vocal about it.
good advice for print
The only way we are going to rise above the rampant sexism, and the harassment and the overall shitty reputation that this community has, is by actively changing and doing better. The good people need to rise up over the bad. If you are a lurker or a fence sitter, this is your call to stand up, speak up and be counted. If you never comment, now is the time. It doesn’t have to be here on this blog, but it needs to be somewhere. Because I know there are more good people than bad people out there. It’s just that the good people often don’t want to get involved, so they stay silent. But the voices of the good need to rise above the hate and negativity so we can move onward!

Periodically, I am going to write a post here on Skepchick that highlights good deeds that are being done or can be done as part of my “Do Better Challenge.” If you know of a person or group that is not a religious org, that is doing something to make the world better, then please get in touch with me through our contact form so I may feature their work.

And for this installment of the “Do Better” challenge, I challenge YOU to go out into the world either in real life or online and just say something positive to someone else. Baby steps, people. Baby steps. Just get on twitter or FB or tell your co-worker in the next cubicle, or that person at the coffee bar, or the bus driver, that you appreciate them or the work that they do. Tell someone you support them. Tell that person you know, that has been attacked online or in real life or has simply been given an unfair disadvantage in life, that you are there if they need you. That’s it. It’s literally that easy to start to change how the world is and change how the godless are perceived.

Next week I will come back with a much more specific Do Better Challenge. But I think this is a good place to start.

And to you dear commenters and to those who have been supporters of my art over the years, I want to thank you for giving me this platform to speak out and the courage and desire to make more secular inspired art. Thank you for listening and looking and thinking.

Now, it’s your turn. Lead by example. Change the world. Start today by encouraging some general kindness.

*One note, I am a firm believer that there is a place for anger and uprising in social change and I support that when it is necessary. There is also a time for rebuilding and starting something new. These tactics work together. This challenge is about the latter.

Art images © Amy Davis Roth

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 new, so forgive my ignorance, but I’m not sure what your challenge is against? You only state that there is some “negativity” in the community, but give no examples. I’ve only been reading Friendly Atheist and your blog now mostly, and some Richard Carrier…so maybe I’m not getting exposed to the ‘negative’ part of the community you are concerned about. So far everyone has been very nice and usually rational, and even deal with religious trolls gently for the most part. Also, most of the atheists I’ve encountered online also consider themselves Humanists who actively volunteer and donate to charities, etc? I’m not sure how to be vocal about my charitable effort without seeming like a braggart. Confused…

    1. Hi Jonathan,

      Much has been written–on this site and elsewhere–about the sorts of behaviors Amy is reacting to. Just off the top of my head, some recent examples of shitty leaders in these movements are Brian Dunning and Ron Lindsay, but there are countless examples elsewhere. A little time on Google and reading around various feminist blogs in these communities will shed a lot of light on this issue for you. It is incumbent upon you to go forth and educate yourself, and not expect Amy or anyone else on the site to rehash this stuff, especially when she’s making a post asking for people to look forward and try to be more positive in the face of all the crap that’s hurled at feminists in these movements.

    2. You’re looking for examples of negativity in the community? Posts like YOURS are a good example!

      AMY: “Hey, everyone. Let’s actively try to be nice, so we don’t come across as negative!”
      YOU: “I’m skeptical, so I doubt and dismiss your experiences. Why should I be nice? It’s all so confusing!”

      Being positive and supportive isn’t a difficult concept. Instead of immediately challenging someone whose experiences are different than yours, LISTEN TO THEM. Instead of demanding someone dish because you want gossip, TRUST THEM ABOUT THEIR FEELINGS. Instead of starting a pedantic argument about what it means to be nice, JUST DON’T SAY ANYTHING.

      The idea of being friendly and supportive to others within our community and to the rest of the world SURE AS HELL SHOULDN’T BE CONFUSING!

      1. delphi how about you trust that the questions asked by JD were sincere rather than jumping to what seems like a rather unfair and uncharitable interpretation? I see no attempt to start an argument – only a polite inquiry.

        JD: hey I’m new here and have some questions… “So far everyone has been nice…”
        YOU: Stop being so negative! NEGATIVE!

        1. Ah, the “polite inquiry” gambit, also known as “JAQing Off.” Since we’re all just asking polite questions here, I want a turn.

          Why is the concept of being nice confusing to you? Do you not have a lot of experience being nice? Why do you think it’s “polite” to question the idea of being nice? Will you be advocating a “polite” discussion about the merits of the Holocaust denial next? Why are you so quick to demand a charitable interpretation of a post made under a male name, but you’re completely silent about their uncharitable interpretation of the original post made under a female name? Could it be that you think some voices are more deserving of charity than other voices?

          I’m just asking questions!

          1. The concept of being nice is not at all confusing to me. Why do you ask? What makes you think I or anyone else is confused about that?

            I feel like I have quite a bit of experience trying to be nice.

            I didn’t say or imply that it was polite to question being nice, nor did I see any reason to do so. Again, why do you ask? What have I or anyone else said that makes you think we are questioning the idea of being nice?

            No I would never advocate holocaust denial and I am baffled as to what would make you suspect that I would. Truly baffled.

            I didn’t demand anything. I merely suggested that you follow your own advice and that of the post. What words, exactly, are you interpreting as some kind of demand? Also I didn’t see the original post as uncharitable at all. I think ALL voices are deserving of charity regardless of any other variables.

            I don’t mind your questions at all. Have a wonderful day, peace.

          2. Any idea can be politely questioned. And, neither Johnathon nor bmchell were non-nice.

            I, for one, would definitely advocate the merits of a polite discussion of Holocaust Denial. I can give you speeches by Christopher Hitchens explaining the merits of free inquiry even on the matter of holocaust denial. He did a speech on freedom of speech in Toronto in 2005 or 2006 that is fantastic. Also, I’ve seen Michael Shermer debate and write about the subject. Phil Donohue has an old show of his on Youtube that you can watch a nice debate on holocaust denial. Discussion of extreme topics can be really great.

            Regarding the interpretation of the original post, it doesn’t seem as if Johnathon uncharitably interpreted the post. He only asked if people could enlighten him with examples of the non-nice behavior. He was, literally, just asking for more information, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. The joke about “Hey, I’m just asking questions…” really relates more to questions which are themselves baseless accusations — like if someone says, “Is Obama really a Kenyan Communist who wants to destroy America? — Hey, I’m just asking questions….” That kind of thing is a non-good faith inquiry designed to be more of an accusation that he is, in fact, a Kenyan Communist. In this case, Johnathon just asked for some expansion on the factual basis for the assertions made in the article. He didn’t oppose the article. He didn’t argue with it. He seems to be looking to educate himself.

            Whether they think that some voices are more deserving of charity than other voices is a question only they can answer. In my view, yes, some voices are more deserving of charity. Like, I don’t view the voices of Nazis and other fascists charitably, and I think they are less deserving of charity than other voices. I think the writer of the article above, however, deserves the same charity as Johanathon and other posters here. And, it seems that the same charity, in fact probably more charity, has been afforded to the article writer than to Johnathon.

            Yes, you’re just asking questions, and there are answers to them.

            Your question “do you not have a lot of experience being nice?” — not the most probing question, in my view. But, the persons to whom you direct that question may well have an answer to it. Some people may not have a lot of experience being nice. Were that the case, the person you’re talking to might be the most valuable person with whom to have this discussion. That person may benefit from the information the most. People who have lots of experience being nice don’t generally need to sign onto “be nice” movements. They already are nice. If the article is calling on people to “hey, be nice for a change” then wouldn’t it be the people who tend not to be nice that are the intended audience?

          3. delphi_ote: you left out “why didn’t you bother to look at back articles here or Google any of the names here?”

            And: “Why is it the obligation of people here to be polite to people who come here to derail the discussion with ignorant questions and comments?”

            Oh, and one other: “What _evidence_ do we have that you are commenting in good faith, and aren’t just trying to disrupt?” (You’ve provided us with a lot of evidence for the latter.)

            Just Asking Questions!

      2. Ouch..okay I get it. Don’t ask questions, don’t ask for examples. I was just trying to learn more….I’m obviously in the wrong place I should just keep searching Google and not try and talk to other skeptics or atheists (y’all are kinda mean, wow)…thanks, bye.

        1. The negativity goes way way back, you can watch a video on it with Christina Rad, Greg Laden, Heina Dadabhoy, Jason Thibeault, Rebecca Watson and Stephanie Zvan

          Have a look at the YT comments after, not looked but I bet they are nicely making the point.

          Oh and … “Don’t ask questions, don’t ask for examples. I was just trying to learn more.” … Cut it out, the first comment gave you links and was not at all “mean”. A flounce like this makes you look like a troll Jonathan. Despite having missed all the strife in the atheist/skeptic community I’m pretty sure this is not your first day on the internet.

    3. Hi Jonathan,
      It’s such a long and ugly story that it’s hard to know where to begin, but these should provide some background:
      It Stands to Reason, Skeptics Can Be Sexist Too by Rebecca Watson
      Atheism, Sexism and Harassment. The Price of Speaking Up. by Amy Davis Roth
      Page-o-Hate by Rebecca Watson (to give you an idea of the ugliness as well as the sheer volume of abuse)
      Sexual harassment accusations in the skeptical and secular communities: a timeline of major events by Jason Tibeault
      Harassment policies campaign – timeline of major events by Jason Tibeault
      As far as the leaders in the skeptical and atheist movements are concerned, several of them have indeed seen it fit to Speak Out Against Hate Directed At Women, largely thanks to Amy’s great work. One of the most disappointing things to become clear since then is that in practice many of these same leaders (Lindsay, Nugent, Silverman…) appear to be far more concerned with not alienating misogynists than supporting women, and at least as many leading figures (Dawkins, Shermer, Grothe…) are actively contributing to the harassment.

  2. OK, I’m willing to be nice and all but only if every one else is nice in exactly the same way I think they should be nice. Also, I’l try to accrete a cadre of nicers that all gang up on everybody who is not nice in exactly the same way we decide everyone else must be nice. Or else.

    But seriously, Amy, I agree with you and it is worth a try. I hope the people in this community can do this and make some change. But I will be watching from a distance.

    I have not walked away from feminism, social justice, secularism, supporting science, and addressing major problems like climate change, but I have given up on the skeptic and secular communities as places where I can get very much of this done. I regard Skepchick, Free Thought Blogs, and all the different sub-communities that exist on the Internet (twitter feeds, facebook communities, etc.) as places where people I love and/or respect put their important work and I regard those places as loci where important things are being said. They are like the channels I tell my TV remote to remember, or library shelves I make sure to browse regularly. But that’s it. They are not places where I go to find support, allies, or mutual aid in activism, because those things are not there, or if they are, they are contingent on things I don’t accept or are highly unreliable. Dangerous, sometimes, even.

    The dysfunction isn’t only in the leadership, or only among those with certain perspectives that you and I would certainly agree we don’t like. It is much more widespread than that.

    My recommendation is to pay attention to the individual voices, or even, the individual messages made by individuals. When there is something you don’t like about X (where X is a blog post and it’s author, for example), feel free to comment or critique, of course, but don’t extend that dislike to all aspects of all things X-related and everybody who knows and has not publicly denigrated X and all that is X-ness or X-linked. As it were. If someone doesn’t act, that does not make them a bad ally. It makes them someone that was not paying attention at that moment, or had something important to do, or perhaps, even saw the situation as not something they could do much about or as a dangerous one for them to get involved. Keep evidence based thinking on the table at all times and don’t throw it out the window when it is politically or socially expedient. But at the same time, in my view, humanistic principles should guide action and intention. All that and more are approaches we can mostly agree on and that have nothing to do with who is a leader, who is in what camp, who is in what clique, who has gotten some sort of seal of approval or scarlet letter stuck on them.

    This might require some forgiving, or at least, forgetting or at least, acknowledging strange bedfellows.

  3. Great post. Debate and criticism have their place, and will hopefully lead to more truly welcoming SKeptical and Atheist communities in the fullness of time. But looking outward and trying to make the world a better place, if only in a small way, has to be every bit as important for skeptics and atheists

  4. As an atheist, I do not get to find solace in the idea that I have an afterlife to plan for. … I have to make peace with the idea that this one life is all that I have and that every single solitary moment counts right now.

    And not just for you. If there is no afterlife, then those who are suffering and dying in the here and now have no future “life” of eternal bliss to look forward to. There’s no future “reward” to compensate them for their present suffering.

    If, like me, you value other people’s lives (not just your own), it makes the prevalence of oppression and abuse even more intolerable than if you believed in an afterlife, because they _avoidably_ ruin the very limited number of days that people have. You don’t have to believe in an afterlife to believe in Hell on Earth, or to consider intentionally leaving people there an abomination.

    Unfortunately, it appears that a large (or at least noisy) number of atheists figure atheism relieves them of any responsibility for anyone else or for any evil that doesn’t impact them personally.

  5. Hey everyone! Just a heads up, I will not be letting anymore comments through moderation that are derailing this conversation with the hyper-skeptical claim that there is nothing bad in secularism.

    When I first wrote the post I actually did include a lot of links to the terrible harassment that the women on this blog and the other secular-feminist blogs have been subjected to over the last few years. I was also going to include links to people in the skeptic community who have in the last few years been exposed as the frauds they claim to fight against. BUT this post and this project is NOT about that, so I removed them. It is about rising above the bad and doing good things for the community at large.

    I’m am confident that every single one of you is capable of finding many examples of the negative and awful shit that humans do. The skeptic, atheist and humanist communities are far from exempt. You all have Google. And this blog even has a search box and a “page of hate” posted on it that has documented some of this vile behavior. But quite frankly, I am tired of such a large portion of my time being encompassed by bigotry and harassment. So I am now intentionally dedicating the majority of my free time to helping make the world a better and more beautiful place. I would appreciate it if you would follow my lead, at least when reaching for the comment button on this particular post and the ones that will follow in this theme.

  6. Fantastic idea, Amy.

    One of the issues us rank-and-file skeptics have regarding being vocal is that even at our loudest, we still can’t reach nearly the audience that sites like Skepchick can. To alleviate that, I offer a counter-challenge.

    I challenge Skepchick to become the hub of positive skeptic activity on the Web. Let the hoi polloi skeptics leverage the status and popularity of Skepchick as our megaphone. For instance, set up a section where we can announce our good deeds or planned events. Or have one of the writers here post a weekly wrap-up of good deeds by skeptics. The possibilities are endless.

    What do you say?

    1. Sounds great to me. We actually already have an Events section. You can see the link up at the top of the page. That space is used for announcing events so if you have something you would like to share that you are involved in, please send it in to the contact link and Melanie or one of the other people will be happy to post it. And yeah, this “Do Better Challenge” is something that I plan on continuing indefinitely. I want to do weekly posts highlighting the people and groups doing good things. So please contact me here via the contact link or on twitter @surlyamy if you have, or know of anything positive that should be shared! I can either do an interview or a quick summery post and I’m happy to encourage positive action!

  7. This is a GREAT idea!!!

    And as far as this first challenge is concerned… do it as often as you can for a week, and then try to stretch it out to two weeks. I promise you that it will become a habit, because it feels so good to make a positive connection with another person even if only for a few seconds. And at least for me, it helps me the most when I feel the worst… I can pretend to be positive and treat other people in a positive way and more often than not it makes me feel at least a little better too. It isn’t a cure for my depression, but sometimes it can make the difference between tolerating my depression or not. And if it helps me, maybe I’m making a difference for the people I’m positive towards as well.

  8. Well…the comment replies got off to a roaring start…

    Jonathan Duran, don’t be dissuaded from joining, your voice and questions do matter. Maybe they are repetitious to the regulars here, but for someone hovering/lurking, trying to decide to join in or not — the questions, and the way they’re replied too, are of great importance.

    As Amy and others here have said or implied, the atheist and/or skeptic community has no more/less inherent positivity or negativity, friendliness or hostility, open-mindedness or fair-mindedness, sexism or tolerance than any other community, e.g., religious or superstitious. It is up to every individual to decide which side of those dualities they are going to stand on. Personally, I’ve been attacked in almost every social media forum I’ve been a member of or left comments in, by those with opposing/different beliefs, but sometimes most viciously so by those with similar beliefs — because I dared not fit into their orthodoxy. Support nuclear energy in a left-leaning forum — attacked. Point out sexism in the atheist/skeptic community — attacked (BTW, I’ve found the best way to respond to ad hominem is not directly, but in another post that points out such attacks, without naming the attacker, which only encourages them). Ask questions that you need to ask — attacked, instead of simply being directed to resources where you will find many answers and learn the depth of the issue.

    Amy, I accept your challenge, and I guess, Jonathon, by supporting your right to ask valid questions — not be attacked for asking them — I am here for you.

    1. On the whole, I agree with you. But context matters. Perhaps this particular thread was not the best place to post a question asking for evidence of the stuff Amy is talking about. The problem that causes is that it puts the focus on those problems rather than on what Amy is asking us to do, which is to be positive, look forward, and change the ethos of these communities.

      I think the best course of action for Jonathan would have been to send a note through the contact form asking to be pointed towards more information on the things Amy is talking about.

      All that being said, I do agree that delphi_ote’s response was overly harsh, but I do understand why that response was given. We have a ton of people who come here and pull the “just asking questions” (JAQing off) in threads and try to be hyperskeptics, doubting the experiences of marginalization that various people have experienced in the communities mentioned. Jonathan’s comment comes across as doing both of those things in the context of this site.

  9. One thing I would really, really like to see happen and that I think would really help to defuse some of the negativity in the movement is if everyone would be a little more mindful of the principle of charity when engaging in comment sections. Ironically the need for this is very clearly demonstrated in the first comment to this very article.

    Here’s what I propose: “Dr Dan’s 100% All-Natural Good Time One Comment Solution”

    Basically, everyone gets to make one comment, and unless they are obviously 100% beyond a shadow of a doubt trolling (or unless they are a known troll to you personally) it should be considered completely unacceptable to accuse them of trolling, being disingenuous, JAQing off, or otherwise assuming ulterior motives without giving said commenter the opportunity for further clarification.

    That’s it. One comment. If, upon getting the chance to clarify or expand upon their original comment, the commenter turns out to be trolling then have at it. But all too frequently I have seen people (here and elsewhere) dog-piling on someone even in very borderline cases where the most one could say is that the commenter is a little naive. I don’t blame anyone for “flouncing” if they come back to a thread after asking one question and finding themselves compared to holocaust denialists.

    Yes, I know we’re all tired of people who come in trying to pose as naive and who turn out to be trolls, and many of us think we can hear those secret motivations behind even the most banal types of questions. But the reality is, a lot of people who really are being genuine and trying to to better do get ruthlessly attacked on the basis of other commenters’ assuming the worst (including me, both before and after I became a network contributor).

    So give them one comment. If you suspect JAQing off, then something as simple as “the issue being discussed in this thread is well known to the community, so please read through the archives to come up to speed; if have trouble finding information and need specific links please ask and perhaps someone will provide them” is more than sufficient to see if they are being genuine or not.

    For the record, I am adding the One Comment rule to SoD’s official policy (though thankfully we haven’t needed it yet), and commenters who don’t follow it will be banned.

    1. While I am always weary of the “principle of charity” (I’ve seen it used many times to try to silence people who are speaking out in righteous anger), I think this is a great rule. We don’t have this problem on Queereka, either, but if this starts to become a problem there I will institute this rule.

      For the record, I did not intend my first response to Jonathan to be snarky or mean at all. I did read his comment as a genuine expression of confusion or ignorance of the stuff going on in the communities. But, I also wanted to point out that it is incumbent upon him to go educate himself so that this did not become a thread full of demands for evidence.

    2. FSM knows I’ve asked enough ignorant questions over the years, but I think it would be good to have a “newbie FAQ” with a link to a commenting information page that includes this information and maybe links to some classic examples. Then put a link to that page right where it says “Leave a Reply” (just above the comment box) so people always can find it. In fact, I think there used to be such a page that maybe could be spiffied up with some common derailments to avoid… you know, like the one right at the top of every page under the drop-down menu at “About”. <emilylitella>Never mind.</emilylitella>

  10. Thank you, Amy, for suggesting kindness. I am grateful for your leadership here. Thank you, Will, for your question. A newcomer, I hold similar questions. Thank you to those who offered specifics and links so I can better educate myself. While I take very seriously my responsibility to educate myself, I am grateful for those who have walked the path ahead of me for pointing out helpful / accurate sources.

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