Don’t Shit Where You Eat

Edited to tidy up some of the writing/spelling. This blog doesn’t normally get this much attention so I just ‘splurge’ into it.

I’m torn on whether to simply ignore Atheism Plus or to continue to criticise it. I see it as a dangerous, divisive and ultimately pointless effort that’s doing a lot of harm.

When it comes to regular atheist issues I tend to concentrate on Christianity. Christianity is more of a problem where I live (the UK) than other religions such as Islam, no matter how much more horrible and illiberal they are. It’s Christianity that has the influence and it’s a matter of prioritising the things that are the biggest problem in the public arena.

Atheism Plus is a problem to me, to us, because it is close to home. It’s occurring within the atheism/sceptic movement and it doesn’t get much closer to home than that. It’s destructive and undermining and so it is a problem that’s worth addressing rather than ignoring.

I’m going to give this entry the form of a reply to Greta Christina’s FTB ‘Atheism Plus, and some thoughts on divisiveness’ which you can find here. Though I’ll probably expand a bit from that as we go along.

Is it divisive to create a subset movement of atheism that focuses on atheism plus social justice — an “atheism plus” wave that explicitly focuses, not just on atheism, but on the intersections between atheism and racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other social justice issues?

In short. Yes. Atheism isn’t a community. At best it is a loosely corralled mass of cats who have only one, single thing definitely in common.

That they don’t believe in god.

When you start tacking on other things you start losing people. You narrow yourself down, you create fractures and oppositions. In this case you’re also setting yourself up as being ‘better’ than other people, which, perfectly naturally, they find insulting and presumptuous.

It’s already been tried and failed utterly for much the same reasons. It’s like nobody remembers what happened with the whole Brights thing.

Face it. This community is already divided. And it is divided in a way that is making many, many women feel cut out. For a solid year, far too many women in this community — and especially feminist women — have been relentlessly subjected to a torrent of hatred, harassment, and abuse… and to a torrent of people ignoring this behavior, rationalizing it, trivializing it, or getting angry at us for even talking about it.

And how are you helping, exactly, by creating a splinter group? How are you helping by propagating the myth that atheism is, somehow, a hotbed of misogyny and violence towards women? It most certainly is not.

Yes, people are subjected to a torrent of abuse, that’s the price of doing business on the internet, whether it’s for good or bad (protip: bad). It’s a price we pay for the upsides of relative anonymity and free expression online. The same anonymity that lets, for example, rape victims speak up without fear of reprisal and sceptics and atheists in repressive countries to gain a sense of community and support without being killed for blasphemy.

This is not a phenomenon unique to women, to feminist women or to feminist women atheists. It happens to everyone.

What does seem to be different is the reaction to such behaviour. For whatever reason the wing of the atheist movement (a better word than community I think) that seems to be instrumental in forming A+ takes these threats and trollings seriously. It seems like the internet wisdom of ‘Don’t feed the troll’ has utterly passed them by. Indeed the very idea of A+ can be seen as one of the greatest trolling successes of all time. The provokers and trolls have created a massive reaction an a huge amount of internet drama. The very thing they set out to do in the first place.

A+ assumes – insultingly – that people ignore the behaviour because they condone it. Rationalise it because they condone. Trivialise it because they condone it. Any attempt to explain or to point out that – however upsetting – it most likely is trivial is:

a) not an attack upon you and…
b) not an approval of such behaviour.

It’s just the facts.

Why is it “divisive” for some atheists to create one space in the world where we don’t have to deal with this shit? Why is that, when some atheists form a subset of the movement that’s dedicated, in part, to speaking and acting against these kinds of abuses, and to carving out a place in the movement where the people who perpetuate them are not welcome, it sends so many people into a frenzy of hand-wringing about “divisiveness”?

Well for one thing, that’s not what you’re doing. You’re sticking an enormous fucking target on your back that says ‘kick me’ to the arseholier-than-thou end of the internet. An easy target that they know they can get a reaction out of.

There’s also the implicit and insulting assumption that anyone who doesn’t buy into this is somehow part of the problem. ‘With us or against us’ is about as divisive an attituude as you can get.

A leader of a major skeptical organization speculated on the causes of low female attendance at his conference… and blamed it on women who were speaking out about sexual harassment. Why was that not “divisive”?

Because it might well be true?

Creating the erroneous impression that conferences are a hotbed of rape and unwanted attention is, understandably, going to put people off. While it may be a cause that means a lot to you surely the amount of such abuse going on at atheist conferences – if there’s any at all – is nanopotatoes compared to the rape and harassment issues that others suffer. Say, sex workers?

This is not to say that something being worse excuses something less bad – but still bad – elsewhere, rather to say that resources could be better spent and more usefully than painting atheism conventions as Rape-A-Palooza when we’re also trying to popularise and increase the footprint of atheism.

If they are that bad then you’re part of a movement that is – if nothing else – generally speaking, amenable to logic reason and evidence. We can be convinced if such things are presented to us in support. You’re just going to have to do a lot better than Elevatorgate and not get bent out of shape when people don’t just take your word for it.

[List of outrages, small and big here]

Yes, some of those things are bad (I’ve never really understood American sensitivity over ‘cunt’ or any other bad language) but these are isolated incidents and not indicative of the whole.

Anecdotal data if you will.

You’re also assuming trolls to be representative of the whole – again. Which, again, is insulting and presumptive. J Random Arsehole with a broadband connection is not ‘all men in the atheist movement’. One would think people who hate stereotyping and bigotry would be watchful against that.

The suggestion was made that atheist and skeptical conferences, like virtually every other conference in the world, should have sexual harassment policies and codes of conduct, because some women had had bad experiences at cons of sexual harassment and other assaults and invasive behavior. And it sparked a firestorm of controversy, in which the very idea of harassment policies at conferences was derided as unnecessary and repressive, and in which women advocating these policies were targeted with hatred, abuse, vilification, slander, invasion of privacy, and graphic threats of violence, rape, and death. Why was that not “divisive”?

Yes, the idea of redundant harassment policies was divisive.

Is that not what you meant? Oh, well, let me explain.

The laws of the land already cover it. Atheist cons are not particularly renown for egregious sexual harassment and abuse and – again – it creates the impression that this virtual non-issue at these meetings is A BIG DEAL. It’s something we’re going through in geek/nerd circles as well at the moment and equally, it’s not a huge problem but is being treated as though it is.

It’s akin to putting a sign outside a restaurant proudly proclaiming: ‘We have a strict policy against poisoning our customers’. It makes you suspicious. It doesn’t make you feel safe. The law of the land already requires levels of hygiene and that poisonings not take place so why does this place have to specifically say it’s against it?

Let’s also not forget that criticism of the idea was met with gaping-mouthed disbelief, vilification,  slander  etc aimed the other way. At anyone who even dare to question the very idea of harassment policies in the first place. Thinking harassment policies are bunk does not mean you like or support harassing women.

You’re asking a sceptical community to swallow the insular concepts of the feminist (and other) echo chambers without examining them. That’s a fools errand. Then the reaction to those presumptions – questioning, examination and kicking the tyres to see if it will go – is treated as though it’s persecution or support for abuse/harassment/rape/whatever.

It isn’t.

We expect religious ideas and conceits to withstand examination and if they were real or true they would emerge unscathed and we would change our minds. Is that not correct? The same should be true of any proposition, religious or not.

People react to shit with shit. Start throwing about ‘misogynist’ and other ‘ism’ insults at people who are only guilty of not believing what you’re saying and asking for evidence is going to sound eerily familiar to people who spend a lot of time arguing with theists. It’s like pointing at someone and shouting ‘Witch!’

We can do better.

When atheist women speak out about online threats and harassment, we routinely get told that we should shut up about it because it’s “feeding the trolls.” Why is that not “divisive”?

It’s sound advice for one thing.

A female public figure in the atheist movement spoke about an incident where she was approached in an inappropriate time and place; said, “Guys, don’t do that”… and as a direct result, has been targeted with an unstoppable torrent of hatred, abuse, vilification, slander, and graphic threats of violence, rape, and death. A torrent that has lasted for over a year, and that continues to this day. And mentioning her name in any context starts the fight all over again. Why is that not “divisive”?

Because people don’t agree and, this being a sceptical community, it’s assumed we can have a discussion about it without being insulted.


This particular incident is a prime example of the problem. A mountain out of a molehill constructed by a particularly unambitious mole. This whole thing rumbles on and any criticism of this overreaction is treated with the same outrage and bluster as genital mutilation. No sense of proportion.

Many of us don’t see the problem and see the reaction as meeting the stereotype of the so-called ‘straw feminist’. Rather than explain (not that that means we’re ever going to agree) the ‘ism and ‘ist nonsense starts up and turns it into a battleground.

A significant stream in the atheist movement — a minority, but not a trivial minority, and a very visible one — is actively devoted to driving feminists out of atheism. A significant stream in the atheist movement is allied with the Men’s Rights Activist movement: a movement that is beingscrutinized by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the organization that exposes and fights hate groups. And these atheists consistently use hateful MRA language and ideas in their ongoing harassment of women. Why is that not “divisive”?

Would you think it fair to judge all feminists by their outlying extremists?

Are you denying that there are issues where men have particular problems because of their agenda?

Are you sure it’s not just scepticism of some feminist ideas that’s being treated as an effort to drive you out? Just because people don’t agree with you doesn’t mean they’re trying to drive you away. Remember, all atheists have in common is that we don’t believe in god/s.

That’s it.

The reality for prominent feminist women in the atheist movement is that harassment, hate, and threats have become routine. The reality is that, when an atheist targets me with a brutal, graphic threat of rape and sexualized death, directed personally at me by name — as happenedjust last week — my basic reaction is, “Oh, yeah. This again.” And this has an effect on women who aren’t public figures. I get emails and comments all the time from women who tell me, “I’m an atheist, I really want to be part of the atheist community and the atheist movement… but WTF? How can I possibly be part of this?” Every feminist atheist blogger I know gets these emails and comments. Why is that not “divisive”?

This is the reality for human beings on the internet. Especially if you’re out about your opinions and they aren’t agreeable to some people or they mark you out as someone who can easily be wound up.

You are not special.

Your treatment is not unique to you, nor unique to women.

I wrote an article on why rape is a valid tool in storytelling that shouldn’t be removed and you wouldn’t believe the threats and vitriol (including rape threats no less!) I got from that. A lot of it is just trolling. Some of it not, some of it from ‘progressive activists’. So I cannot understand why you are so surprised or so sensitive to it.

Your reaction of ‘Oh yeah, this again’ is probably the healthiest reaction, but again, you’re conflating the actions of trolls on the internet with the broader atheist movement. I’d bet you good money that the majority are ‘just’ trolls who have about as much to do with the atheist movement as the Pope does.

And the reality for me — a reality that makes me sick and sad, a reality that I can hardly bear to talk about — is that, as a public figure, the people I fear the most, the people I am most genuinely concerned about doing me physical harm, are not religious extremists. The people I fear most are other atheists. Why is that not “divisive”?

It is divisive but it’s divisive because you’re assuming your fellow travellers are the source. To belabour the point that’s very insulting and is bound to get a chaps back up. It’s also an irrational fear presented to a movement that tends not to give irrational things a pass.

An atheist movement cannot be inclusive of atheist women… and also be inclusive of people who publicly call women ugly, fat, sluts, whores, cunts, and worse; who persistently harass us; who deliberately invade our privacy and make our personal information public; and/or who routinely threaten us with grisly violence, rape, and death.

Yes it can. All that unites us is that we don’t believe in god. There are going to be arseholes – on all sides come to that. The abusive fucknuggets are likely not the people you regularly interact with though.

We have the same issue in ‘Geek Culture’. People within the broad definition of ‘Geek’ or ‘Nerd’ regularly make the mistake of thinking that just because you like Star Trek and I like comics that we must somehow be soulmates who agree on everything and act with perfect love and respect for each other.

That’s obviously bollocks.

Within the atheist community all you need to agree about is that you don’t believe in god. We’re free to disagree, argue, fight and debate on anything and everything else. Don’t expect special dispensation or immunity just because you have boobs and why would you want special dispensation anyway? Wouldn’t that be sexist?

The people who are hand-wringing about how Atheism Plus is “divisive” are basically saying that they are entitled to me. They may not intend to say that — but that’s the upshot. They are saying that they are entitled to my work, my ideas, my fundraising efforts, my late nights, my grueling travel schedule, my passion, my exhaustion, my efforts to make atheism stronger and more visible.

Not at all. Bugger off if you want.

What I think those of us concerned about this worry about is that A+ appears to be putting ideology above reality. Which is dangerous whether you’re talking about religion, Marxism or laissez-faire freemarket capitalism.

There’s an unwillingness to acknowledge or understand criticism. Appeals for evidence and backing or attempts to understand are characterised as ‘derailing’ or even support for sexism, racism, homophobia or whatever else. This witch-hunting and overreaction is being passed off as some kind of heroic, progressive move.

It isn’t.

You’re taking your ball and going home. It’s childish quite frankly. It’s ‘You can’t fire me, I quit’.

I am sick to death of people calling Atheism Plus “divisive”… and yet somehow not applying that word to the hate, abuse, harassment, violation of privacy, threats, and more that women in this community are subjected to as a matter of course, or to the stubborn, hyper-skeptical, willfully ignorant defenses of those behaviors.

A+ is an organised and self-appointed group. These abuse-monkeys are individuals.

I agree with almost all of A+’s goals, but I do not see them as part of atheism. Furthermore as someone who has spent a considerable amount of time explaining that atheism =/= communism and that it is not a belief system, political ideology or a religion, someone coming along and creating something under the atheism name that has a dogma and very much does look like the ‘progressive liberal conspiracy’ that some of these people fear is really un-fucking-helpful.

A+, like the harassment policies, is unnecessary, divisive and insulting to others. If it hadn’t called itself ‘atheism’ it may not have attracted so much ire, but as things stand it is undoing a lot of good work and giving atheism’s critics a lot more ammo.

In summary, it pisses me off and makes me feel that it is divisive because it won’t brook criticism, it paints atheism as something its not (a horrible, nasty, misogynist-riddled hatefest) and because it’s completely and utterly unnecessary.



15 responses to “Don’t Shit Where You Eat

  1. I completely agree with you. I am of the mindset that atheism should not be a ‘movement’ to begin with. I liked that you said, “Atheism isn’t a community, it is a loosely corralled mass of cats who have only one thing definitely in common. That they don’t believe in god.” You couldn’t be more right. I add that it should never be a community or a movement. You might like my post on the dangers of organizing atheism (even though it does not mention atheism +)
    I am also a feminist, but for me, all that means is that I believe that women deserve equality in both rights and treatment… to that end, we should have been more careful in our original wording… I have seen the way men treat each other and I want no part of that. It is unfortunate that more women don’t understand that it is not necessarily based on gender that men hurl insults and epithets at women, they treat other men the same way (just using different words) but based on human nature. We all do it to some degree… not that I am condoning the behavior, but women do it too. It is dangerous to hold yourself up as better than, when you engage in similar behavior. So sorry for the long reply… Great post.

    • Thank you.
      I call myself egalitarian, rather than feminist. I feel that feminism – as a term – has taken on a bunch of misandrist baggage and when people start going on about patriarchy they sound like David Icke talking about invisible space lizards. I’ll take a look at your post.

      I think we need to oppose theism and to be muscular as atheists, but I don’t expect to take everyone with me on that. I’ll argue for it with other atheists but I’m not about to form a splinter group.

    • I agree with Grimachu in that I think that egalitarian is a better label for myself in a society where both genders face disadvantages and discrimination.
      In my opinion, feminism has focused on only one gender, and most feminists have refused to fight for or even recognize the issues and problems men face. Also, many of them refuse to recognize the responsibilities and duties that come with the rights they fought for.

      Regarding atheism, I think it was never a movement, but more of a community, a group of like-minded people who got together to talk, similar to a book club or a hobby-related club. Atheism+ tried to turn into a movement by injecting things into it that went beyond what initially brought people together, and that’s when it started facing opposition.

      And about your last comment, you seem to be saying that all men treat men adn women in an insulting, offensive way? that seems like a hasty generalization, one that’s offensive to the men who don’t engage people like that.

      • I wasn’t saying that all men treat women in an insulting or offensive way, my point was that all people do it to each other. It’s a human nature thing to openly judge others. You must have missed the part where I said that women do it too.

  2. This is one of the best responses I have read on A+

    There are a couple of thoughts I’d like to add to it. The first is that here are arsehats on both sides… I have been arguing on twitter about this alongside some very vocal people. But the moment I dare to suggest that they have gone too far or are being hypocritical, I get called a ‘cunt’ and accused of being a feminist. Is this misogyny? I prefer to think it is a basement dwelling, socially inept juvenile lashing out after having their delicate ego bruised. Certainly there is some hatred here, no doubt some people into the ‘Atheist Movement’ in order to vent their spleens. Ragging on Christians/Muslims/etc makes them feel superior and empowered. In the absence of a theist, they will vent against anybody who disagrees with them. And you know… after standing up for women, how dare I be so ungrateful?

    I have argued politics on the internet for almost 20 years now. I have never made any bones about the fact that in most cases, I just like to have a good argument and test my wit. I’m pretty sure there are a large number of people who care more about being seen as right than being an activist/advocate, or of learning anything.

    And guess what, those within A+ are no different. On the advice of a popular vBlogger I decided to talk to some A+rs and engage them in some rational conversation. In order to show them that just because we are atheists, it didn’t mean we agree. I brought up some controversial subjects. None of those I spoke to seemed to get my point that these issues weren’t black and white and that we would argue about them. They couldn’t hear me because they were too busy trying to win the argument over the subjects I brought up. When I would finally point out that by arguing with me, they were proving my point… they would go quite or block me. No chance of conceding then?

    FYI, although I tried discussing vivisection, male circumcision, Zionism, they only seemed to want to talk about gender feminism. It always comes back to that strangely.

    On the matter of trolls. (And I suddenly have an image of Mr Burns saying “Release the Trolls!”), The more abusive the trolling, the less likely I am to see hatred. They say the most abusive thing they can think of that will press the buttons of their target… and they will be wetting themselves laughing.

    I learned a long time ago that there are three things that attract trolls. Being pompous and pretentious while spouting horse shit, reacting with extreme drama to criticism, and censorship. In my opinion, the people at FTB have been guilty of all three. They really have set themselves up as a target as you rightly say.

    How can they not know to not to feed the trolls? I remember hearing a Becca Watson saying in an interview that she has been on the internet since the beginning, has she learned nothing? This is where I am cynical. I think they know full well and are using it to further their agenda. Unlike dear Greta, I don’t like to assign motives to other people’s actions because I’m not a mind reader. But they have had this pointed out to them so many times, yet they persist. It reminds me of the professional apologists who keep spouting the same crap year after year (Evolution is just a theory) despite being corrected on it. It is just dishonest.

    Of course… these aren’t my only objections. But then, Gender Feminism is an ideology I enthusiastically reject. I refuse to see myself as a victim in a hostile world. And this is the bait and switch they are trying to pull. Even before AtheismPlus, they were asking Atheist celebrities to pledge of the basis of equality, women’s rights and anti-bigotry. Then presenting this as endorsement of the feminist dogma which is hidden in the small print.

  3. Don’t be torn. Tell those *3* privileged women exactly what is what. Life (outside of the Internet and beyond begged conference speeches) is hard. Period. You will have people who aren’t nice and that is just a part of life. You can wish all you want for everyone to get along and play nice but IRL it doesn’t work that way. It’s just ludicrous that these three women (Jen McCreight, Ophelia Benson, and Rebecca Watson) think that things are so *awful* for them that they need to create a “special snowflake w/sycophantic males in tail* group to feel “safe”. Try a trip on the real side, ladies. I have had it up to here with this crap. I’m a feminist but having these women on the same side makes me want to devoid myself of any womanhood. They have no clue what it’s like to really suffer and yet happily get paid to travel around at their leisure to bitch about how “hard it is” to be a woman. Cry me a river. That’s all AtheismPlus is about. It’s a few (only 3) women who just don’t feel like their being treated like feminists. I call extreme bullshit!

    • “It’s a few (only 3) women who just don’t feel like their being treated like feminists”

      That’s an aspect of this that bothers me. If you want to be known as a successful feminist, then put work into being a successful feminist. You don’t get known as a successful feminist by setting up a group that labels you as such. Respect is earned, it can’t be got by what you call yourself.

  4. Best post I’ve seen, since you address the real reasons the group was formed. Last I checked, which was over a week ago, 15 prominent atheist men weighed in against harassment of women and all of them are featured on the skepchick blog. Even after all that, it wasn’t enough. Greta still made this post you addressed. Thanks.

  5. Pingback: Don’t Shit Where You Eat | The AtheFist « Kentekens's Blog

  6. I would be interested to see how those in the A+ crowd view this excellent post. Especially Greta, she of the #mencallmethings hashtag. (Which, by the way, she silently suggests atheist men)

  7. Indeed the very idea of A+ can be seen as one of the greatest trolling successes of all time.

    Sadly, this suggestion seems to have quite a lot going for it. Even shortly after the ElevatorGate story, there was pretty much the same thing going on on B&W, and Ophelia (the owner) even acknowledged that this might be a legitimate concern (reacting to essentially random commenters on the Internet)—only to turn around and continue doing that same thing as if her acknowledgement had never happened. And I am not saying this because I think Ophelia is a particularly bad person or even particularly susceptible to this kind of phenomenon, but because it seems to be evidence that this kind of pernicious thinking can easily go undetected if you do not actively rely on other people to point it out to you if and when it happens. And that is the crux, I think: many of those crying “misogyny” at the drop of a hat (which Rebecca Watson started, by the way, and of course not by saying “Guys, don’t do that”) do not want to consider alternative explanations. Which is even worse than not openly inviting criticism.

  8. I agree wholeheartedly. I am an atheist, on occasion quite vocal about it. I enjoy a good argument and discussion, but I do not stoop to name-calling or abuse (maybe the occasional ‘Oh do fuck off, you’re going round in circles’). I’m also ‘egalitarian’ and deplore violence against women far more than violence against men (I blame my ’80s action hero upbringing!). I detest the ‘troll’ culture on insults and threats – it’s pointless and inelegant.

    These are all separate things! I don’t hate trolls because I’m an atheist; I hate trolls because they are dicks! I don’t hate violence against women because I’m an atheist; I hate violence against women because it is abhorrent.

    Being an atheist doesn’t have any impact on any other part of my personality, outlook or life, and setting up a splinter group that assumes any atheist must also hold these opinions is ludicrous and, yes, divisive! As you say, If you disagree with anything that they have decided, or if you simply disagree with the idea of a splinter group, you become part of the problem – another troll/potential rapist/misogynist. That is insulting.

    Great post. Well said.

  9. Pingback: Don’t Shit Where You Eat | The AtheFist « Kentekens's Blog

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