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, 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. Thank you for writing this. While my journey was somewhat different we both have arrived at the same place. I was born in the early 60s, raised an atheist by two doctors, one who was a feminist as well and one of only two women in her graduating class. I grew up privileged but aware of sexism, systemic prejudice and how lucky we were not to be poor and lacking in opportunities. All of this meant that organized atheism and skepticism seemed like a boys club where the boys were unwilling to even look to see if they may have biases (or, you know, be human and fallible like the rest of us). I also grew up aware of how systemic prejudice and cultural beliefs could influence science (what questions are asked, how they’re asked, etc). It was such a joy to discover Skepchick and to see public voice for those of us atheists who think critically about society.

    1. Oh you mean like this blog and Mad Art Lab and our podcast Mad Art Cast and the science conference Skepchick helps organize every year and the Women’s Atheist and Agnostic group in Los Angeles that I run that meets every month?

      1. As an almost walking checklist of privilege (white, male, cis, hetero, etc) it can sometimes be hard for me to recognize some of the injustices around me, although I do try. Thanks for writing pieces like this, because even though I don’t think I’m the intended audience at all, it is really beneficial for me to see a little bit from a new point of view like this, and so I do appreciate the opportunity.

        I’m happy to read your response (and be reminded to read the bios), and know that there are other more welcoming skeptical organizations out there, beyond just what’s in my local area.

        1. I hope this isn’t an attempt at the Spike Lee defense. e.g.
          “Hollywood is too white!”
          “Well, go make Black movies then”
          “Sure, people are doing that (Spike Lee)”
          “Well, if he exists, then I guess Hollywood is fine?”
          It would be a mistake to argue that as long as those things are there, then she’s unjustified in calling out the ways in which the space is unwelcoming.

          But, o course, I might have totally misinterpreted what you meant.

          1. I appreciate that you ask and no. That article talks about those backward organizations as if they were the only legitimate ones and ends up saying that rationalists are terrible persons. My point is that it should have concluded that those terrible persons are not real rationalists since they promote prejudice and the only legitimate way to promote rationalism is to use it for the betterment of society, therfore to the resolution of social problems. It may be just a question of wording but it’s important not to leave them the grounds of legitimacy, which would squeeze us out into nowhere

    2. I seem to recall an effort to create a place where atheists who wanted to include this things could get together. That thing was called atheism+ and the old guard threw a fit and giggled until the whole idea was forgotten.

      1. “giggled”? No, it was more like organized hate campaigns on social media and trolled the group and did their damnedest to poison it.

        The hatred that it inspired among the regressive element in atheism was…hmm. “Surprising” isn’t the right word any more.

        1. I still find it mind boggling how something so simple and benign attracted so much venom and bile. It’s like Jen McCreight asked, “Hey let’s try and build an Atheist movement that’s fun for everyone involved” the the response was “Burn the witch!”

        2. The hate was the fit I mentioned, but I also remember people making fun of the very ideal but I didn’t think laughing was the appropriate word because quite frankly the reaction wasn’t funny. At all.

          A bit of understatement on my part.

  2. I consider Bigfoot, aliens and such things to be the skeptical equivalent of training wheels. It’s a fine way to get started and learn about how to evaluate evidence, how to reason properly and the general pitfalls of the mind.

    However, eventually the training wheels are supposed to come off.

    1. Training wheels, indeed. I tend to agree, the “softball” (if thats the right phrase) of injustices.

      What does everyone believe the root of the problem to be?

  3. I’ve also noticed that it’s taken as a given in skeptic/atheist circles that anti-vaccination people cause needless suffering and death, which I agree with. But it’s completely forbidden to discuss the body count of “fiscal conservatism” or libertarianism, that comes with their reduced access to healthcare, increased poverty, and elimination of clean air/water regulations. Poisoning the water supply of a large city in order to save money is something that just happened, and was completely predictable under a “fiscally conservative” governor. But anti-vaxxers are sooooo dumb and atheist billboards are manically important.

  4. Old white men everywhere are circling the wagons as they realize that they lost their clubhouse. Skepticism was the whitest, man-est thing this side of analytic philosophy and so the last to have its grossos sink beneath the waves. But your kids won’t know who Michael Shermer is.

  5. This old white guy hears you Amy. I’ve been following you and Rebecca over the years and saddened by the treatment. Disillusioned by the assholery. I run a skeptics group in Santa Cruz and I strive to follow examples you and Rebecca have provided me.

  6. I only discovered organized skepticism a few years ago, but I have definitely become disillusioned in the past few months. I do think going after psychics (who are manipulating people for money) and violations of separation of church and state are worthwhile endeavors though. You can care about those things AND social justice. Though I understand your point that they seem to care about only the former and not the latter.

    Much of my frustration lies with ‘skeptics’ who constantly attack the low hanging fruit. Particularly this new group of skeptics trying to make a name for themselves as ‘science communicators’. I found myself unfollowing most of them and disengaging from the groups. They spend most of their time shaming people on anti-vax or anti-gmo message boards and then posting those conversations to their pages to say, ‘look how smart I am’. Strangely enough, several of them are young, white women who do, occasionally, address feminist and social justice issues.

  7. Speaking as a middle-aged white guy and an atheist not active in the skeptic community, I’m sorry to hear that went so poorly. Thank you for helping to create a place where the conversation can move forward without the distractions and abuse.

    Also, yeah, The Demon-Haunted World was a great book, wasn’t it? Sagan. We need more like that one.

  8. I don’t find it particularly shocking that skeptic organizations fail to apply their amazing logic to issues of social justice, or that their leadership of old, white men think that social issues are something that should be off-limits for skepticism. Social justice issues are complex, difficult things. With ghosts, psychics and bigfoot you can cite a lack of evidence and smugly say that it’s not your job to prove that these things don’t exist, it’s the job of the person claiming they exist to provide proof.

    You can’t be that smug and lazy with complex social issues like institutionalized racism and how it perpetuates violence against and the oppression of people of color, the impacts of gender bias on women’s opportunities and lives, how transphobia translates into horrifyingly high rates of violence against trans people, etc., etc. Those issues actually take work to understand, let alone figuring out and critically evaluating potential ways to fix those problems. It’s difficult. It’s not suited for the “skeptic” types that I so often encounter.

    Understanding these issues also far too often requires bouncing your analyses off of others and getting critical feedback. Often people will see things you miss, or will see things from a different perspective, and they’ll have valid criticisms of your ideas. It’s kind of like peer-review. It’s also difficult for so many skeptics to be told that they don’t know everything, or that they may actually be wrong about something.

    Those organizations need to circle their wagons, because they are dinosaurs, unable to adapt to changing times. They proclaim that they are beacons of logical and rational thought, yet they are unable or unwilling to apply those skills to difficult problems. They occasionally bemoan the fact that there are so few women and people of color involved in skepticism and atheism, but are far more comfortable laying the blame of that on women and people of color rather than entertaining the idea that maybe they need to adjust their behavior. They play at logic.

    1. Well said, Liz. Not only are social issues more complex issues with less clear cut answers but these issues require being able to question your own biases and also questioning the systemic prejudices of institutions that many of these older white men are a part of. It can require questioning and thinking critically about some of the very sources of their privilege and power.

  9. I’m sorry this has been your experience. I was introduced to skepticism by a Demon Haunted World and it really opened my eyes.
    Later I took a class in skepticism in college and read Shermer and met Penn and Randy and, to be honest, they kind of seemed like assholes.
    I never got into the whole horsemen thing because, wtf just the titles.
    Then years later I found the SGU and then via that skepchick. And then… Dawkins and Shermer and Thunderfoot and Penn and the fight against sexual harassment policies and.. the abject complacency of everyone else who it doesn’t impact.
    Organized skeptick/atheism does seem to mostly be run and populated by people who are interested in other people being wrong more than they are in finding better ways to be right. Which would be normal, if annoying, if it weren’t for the fact that the whole rai·son d’ -fucking -ê·tre of the movement is supposed to be the opposite.

  10. This is precisely why I never joined a skeptics org. I came out of a fundamentalist religion, and the skeptic orgs smelled an awful lot like that with a different set of dogma and holy books–and the same punishing ways if you didn’t toe the line. If skepticism isn’t the kind of thinking that can be used to help make this a better world for all of us, what good is it? It’s just another form of indoctrination then.

    I would love to see skeptics in general focus more on exactly the issues you talk about here. One of the biggest ones involves what a fellow educator friend calls “education deform,” which is not just undermining but abolishing critical thinking skills in K-12 by mandating so many standardized tests which must be taught to. That same mindset is also infiltrating higher ed and encouraged by the replacement of protected tenured faculty with insecure contingent faculty who cannot teach controversial or uncomfortable issues that challenge conservatism, religion or the status quo. If you’d like more information about what’s happening to educators in Higher Ed, come on over to New Faculty Majority http://www.newfacultymajority.info/or our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/newfacultymajority/. We’d love to have some skeptic allies speaking up for education.

    1. It’s interesting how much of this seems to have become less about critical thinking and more about left wing vs right wing politics (or individualism vs collectivism) in some ways. I’m not sure if this was somewhat precipitated by Hitchen’s converting from being a hard left wing ideologue living in the UK to a right wing ideologue living in the US or if it’s just what happens when establishment old white male atheists (and the odd older female allowed into the club) get challenged and circle their wagons. There’s also the (in my view) unfortunate convergence of old white guy establishment atheism with Randian Objectivism and the menz rights movement, a sort of clusterbomb of reactionary desire for a time of unquestioned male authority and privilege. The second two basically ignore science or use pseudoscience to assert their positions and tend to believe/promote unscientific but once popular beliefs on the Social Darwinist spectrum. I really think being stuck in an ideological left vs right type of thinking actually gets in the way of critical thinking, particularly in terms of being able to look at one’s own beliefs and biases critically. But when we start building our identities out of an ideology we adopt we’ll always get defensive if someone attacks that idea and be unable to look at it as an idea instead of a part of who we are.

  11. Amy, I understand and echo your frustration. I sympathize with the impulse to write off the entire movement, especially given the sustained harassment that you, Rebecca, and the other Skepchick contributers have been the target of.

    As a board member of Secular Woman, I do want to mention that our leadership attended Heads this year and expressed that they felt much more welcome than in past years. They saw great strides made in terms of female and minority representation among the leadership. We all recognize there is still a long way to go, and the announcement of the CFI-RFDS merger has quashed some of my optimism, but I am more hopeful for the future of the movement than I was a year ago.

  12. I generally divide it into harmless if quirky beliefs, such as Bigfoot and UFOs, and dangerous beliefs, such as alternative medicine. But that’s just me.

  13. I’ve noticed that skepticism tends to attract a lot of those white guys. You can tell when they think “But Paris Hilton is more privileged than some random homeless dude, right?” (Which is, of course, true. This doesn’t mean male privilege doesn’t exist.)

    It’s a critical misunderstanding. Like, if your doctor says “You have cancer. You have a year to live.”, you don’t call him a quack if you’re still alive 366 days later. Yet that’s exactly what this particular brand of white male ‘skeptics’ would do.

  14. I ran into the president “if that’s the right term” of our local skeptics group the other day, after not seeing him or any other members for a couple of years. He asked if I was still involved in the skeptics movement. I said “no” and tried in vain to explain why, but it was like trying to water an orchid with a firehose, and he left probably feeling like he had no idea what had just happened. In the future, I’ll just point people to this.

  15. Thanks loads for this excellent and important article.
    For some time I’ve been disappointed off with “skeptics” for inadequately critiquing their own practice (especially the psychologists) and too-often contenting themselves with going for low-hanging fruit like fraudulent psychics.
    This article makes me realise that the issue is a whole lot bigger than that.

    1. Yup, I love (hate)when some prominent atheist (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins etc.) say something like ” X Religion (usually Islam or Christianity) is horrible because it is sexist” and then turns around and sais something really sexist.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.)

  19. 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.

  20. 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).

  21. 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.

      1. 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.

          1. (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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

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