Scepticism? Really? A Case in Point.

I’ve been hemming and hawing over whether to post this in here or not for some time. Firstly because I’ve pretty much said my piece – and apparently pretty well – about Atheism+. I was going to let it go at that but then I had an ‘altercation’ on Twitter with an A+ supporter neck deep in feminist theory and saw an article in the New Statesman on A+ that said the following:

Less than a week old in its current form, Atheism+ is the brainchild of Jen McCreight, a Seattle-based biology postgrad and blogger at the secularist Freethought network. She has called for a “new wave” of atheism on that “cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime.” 

And well, reading that following the altercation stuck in my craw because from what I’ve seen thus far, it’s simply not true. Scepticism is not being applied to sacred cows or presumptions arrived at within the echo chamber of their existing movements.

Put on the spot to come up with an example I went to the 1/4 rape stat that gets bandied about. Rather than try and convince me – as one would hope a rational sceptic who has arrived at a decision would do – I was instead subjected to a barrage of insults, accusations of being delusional and of warping the stats.

My reasons for being sceptical of the 1/4 ‘statistic’ are expanded on below for sake of completeness, but aren’t really relevant. The point was that they were being completely non-sceptical of their own claims and abusive rather than trying to back it up or explain how those stats were arrived at.

Scepticism towards everything?

My arse.


Data Used
Female population of England and Wales: 27,503,500 – 2001 census data. [1]
Reported cases of Rape (British legal definition) British Crime Survey: Worst recorded year 2010/11 – 14,624 recorded incidents.[2]
UK female life expectancy (CIA World factbook): 82.25. [3]

Rounding down population to: 27,500,000 [4]
Rounding up rape incidents: to 15,000
Rounding up life expectancy: to 83

As a percentage of female population 15k rapes is a yearly incidence rate of 0.05454545454%. [5]

Rounding up yearly incidence rate to 0.06%
Multiply percentage by life expectancy: 4.98%. [6]
Round up to 5%.

To get to 1/6 two out of every three would need to be unreported.
To get to 1/5 three out of every four would need to be unreported.
To get to 1/4 four out of every five would need to be unreported.

This does not seem likely as efforts to destigmatise and otherwise make it safe to make a rape report have had no particular discernible effect on reports.

RAINN suggests that around 50% of rapes go unreported. That would take us to 10%, which is ghastly enough, but far from the 1/4 that is often bandie about. Despite giving the claim every extra opportunity it doesn’t seem to measure up.

The BCS self-reported section, which has the advantage of not having anything to hold people back from reporting, but the disadvantage of no hard data, reports an incidence of 0.4 for the year 2010/2011 between ages of 16 and 59 (43 year span). Even if you presume that and multiply it up (as above) that’s still ‘only’ 17.2%. That’s enough to meet the 1/6 but not the larger extents and is a probably a gross overestimate.

Rape is clearly a terrible crime and far too prevalent. 1% would be far too prelevent.
It is simply not necessary to mangle the stats to make it seem worse than it is and this may, in fact, be deleterious to the cause through the effect of making people suspicious.

Now, it’s possible that the US (origin of these claims) is much more rapey than the UK or has lower reporting rates, but it seems unlikely the difference would be that marked.

It’s not like I’m the only person to be sceptical.

[1] – UK population has been overestimated for some time but this appears to be about right for 2011/12
[2] – These are reported/recorded incidents. Female only. It does not take into account false accusations.
[3] – This is still going up. IIRC a recent BBC story said it was now 83.
[4] – This is the only case in which I have rounded down, rather than up. Everything else has been rounded to favour the high-incidence rate hypothesis.
[5] – Yearly incidence, not lifetime chance/number.
[6] – This isn’t realistic. Odds of being raped are not evenly spread throughout age. Again, it’s done to favour the high incidence hypothesis.

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.


So, Atheism+ eh?

I somehow missed all this getting started but I’ve spent today trying to catch up between bouts of work, driving lessons and other interruptions. I think I’m up to speed but there was a lot to catch up on and if I have the wrong end of the stick do be sure and correct me.

What it seems to be is people doubling down on what I already made a post about a little while back. (Short version is that I asserted that it was bloody stupid to assume that just because we’re both atheist that we agree on everything else). This A+ idea seems to be an actual bold and ‘out’ attempt to conflate a whole bunch of stuff with atheism.

On the face of it, there’s nothing you could or should object to. This is how it’s put in one place:

We are…
Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.

Great! I care about social justice. I support women’s rights (and mens). I protest racism. I fight homophobia and don’t have anything against trans people. I use critical thinking and scepticism! I should fit right in then eh?

Well maybe, but I’m a bit suspicious. For one thing I don’t want atheism getting tangled up in a bunch of other political and ideological strings because I’ve spent a great deal of time getting it through people’s skulls that all it means is ‘I don’t believe in god/s’ and that’s it. After all, they already conflate atheism with Communism and think one’s t’other and vice versa and that’s a whole lot of stupid one has to correct. Now I’m going to be confronted by people, fearful of some ‘liberal conspiracy’ pointing at A+ and gibbering in abject terror and that’s going to be much harder to refute.

If you’re putting ideology over truth, ideals over scepticism, ought over is, then you’re heading for trouble and the evidence I’ve seen up to this point rather suggests that’s what’s going to happen here.

You’ve got the rootless accusations of misogyny, the poor treatment of thunderf00t at the hands of the ideologues, the stupidity surrounding Elevatorgate, the scaremongeringly unhelpful harassment policy push, the number of times we see The Claim and Cause Entwined going on. There’s a near total lack of willingness to apply the supposedly lauded trait of scepticism to claims around these progressive elements and if you do dare to question it’s presumed that you’re against whatever it is that’s being promoted.

“You know… I’m not sure these rape statistics are entirely kosher.”


“I think you’ll find it is true that there are racial differences in rates of criminality but I suspect the cause to be economic…”


“Chromosomaly you’re still male of course.”


Question the data, even if you don’t question the cause, and well… people might as well just point at you and shriek ‘WITCH!’ Once the accusation is made, you’re fucked, no matter what the truth is.

This seems like a supremely bad, elitist (oh the irony) dick move but is probably doomed to be another failure.

Remember ‘Brights’?