I am skeptical of your philosophy

There’s been another “schism” in the skeptical/atheist… movement/community/thing.

None of these labels ever really seem appropriate, particularly for atheism when the only thing everyone actually has in common is a lack of belief in any sort of supernatural being, particularly the ones that are objects of worship in human religions.

Through the semi-regular squabbles, I’ve tried to stay out of it for the most part. I don’t have to talk to people I don’t get on with, and generally I don’t. It’s better for my blood pressure that way. Sure I love a good discussion, if people disagree that’s fine, we’ll probably all learn something. But I do not feel obliged to actively engage with stupid people and their idiotic opinions all of the time. It’s pointless and it makes me ragier (yes it’s a word) than necessary.

Anyway. I don’t really want to go into detail about the particulars of the new factions forming or the quibbles about them, but rather have a more general think about the kinds of people in atheist/skeptic/humanist circles and what kinds of ideals are common, as well as apparently too rare. Edit: some atheists/skeptics are being nicely vocal in their opposition to misogyny in our communities.

But I have the right to be a creep!

The main reason for the latest falling-out seems to be, in a nutshell, sexism. People who think it’s unacceptable in all its forms (forewarning: I’m one of those) and people who seem to prefer to protect their “right” to… well, be a total dick. People give snippets of well-meaning advice on how to treat people better, how not to come across in ways you may not intend. Apparently people would rather just carry on being creepy, rather than take said advice.

In an earlier post I talked about offending people and the sum-up of that is essentially: if you really care about tackling issues such as bigotry and prejudice – because they are, at their core, completely illogical and instead rooted in cultural power imbalances that are unjust – then you should tackle manifestations of these backwards attitudes where you find them. Or at the very least, not contribute to them yourself. Apologise for your mistakes (inevitably we all make them) and strive to be better, to make life more pleasant for everyone. It’s only sensible.

If you care.

I suppose the problem with things like atheism in particular is that there is no set of rules that go with it. Much as I have always maintained for myself that the fact this is our only life means we should probably be nice to people, not take lives away needlessly, and that sort of thing – doesn’t mean everyone else does.

However, the problem I have with people insisting that feminism is not a fundamental part of skeptical/atheist movements is largely one of hypocrisy. A lot of supposedly liberal rational-thinkers will rail against religiously motivated injustice – including those that affect women in particular. Yet, as Richard Dawkins showed us, a lot of people throw all of that out of the window when it comes to our own backyards.

The fact that there is a debate at all to me proves that there is a problem. If a bunch of supposed rational-thinkers can’t just say ‘yes, any discrimination against/harrassment of women should be addressed appropriately’ without bringing their petty personal dislikes into the equation – that is a problem.

A lot of people still don’t accept that there’s such a thing as a culturally pervasive patriarchy, that women face daily injustices that affect their everyday experiences, their work, their love lives and just about everything besides. People refuse to listen to women’s accounts, our perspective is so often dismissed, belittled, ignored.

Then people wonder why they get their heads bitten off sometimes when wading into discussions with really tired old comments about how the silly womens should do more to help themselves not get raped or why we should be caring more about men’s issues (no I’m not going to link to any MRA sites, they can fuck off).

Yesterday I had a bit of a twitter conversation with a few (male) friends on why – at least for me – equality (gender, orientation, race, whatever the current topic) should surely be an integral part of movements/communities/whatever that supposedly place a high importance on critical thinking and being rational and sensible.

My opening gambit was:

How is anti-bigotry/prejudice and harrassment NOT part of forward-thinking behaviour & ideas?!

Which some people liked, and some of course didn’t.

Now, one point raised was that there aren’t peer reviewed papers on every aspect of sexism. Well, sorry, but is social justice immune from criticial thinking just because of this? “If there are testable claims…” was also said. I guess there’s a problem there with people’s skeptical disdain for anecdotes and things that can’t really be represented on graphs. And there is actual social research on inequality, ethics etc., by the way. I’m sure you could go and chat with some historians for good sources and evidence, too.

I don’t know enough about ‘official definitions’ of these various philosophy-things, where they even exist, and many are indeed left out:

Scribbled by @endless_psych and redrawn by @gwendes

I just have to admit I don’t understand why, if people can agree that – for example – homophobia is illogical and wrong, religiously-motivated oppression of women is wrong, racism is wrong (without getting into protracted discussions of what is right or wrong for now)… why can you not agree that the instances of sexism that affect us in our lives still today are also important to fight? I’d rather not separate out all the things I think are important into such rigid definitions except for the purposes of focussed discussions, but I guess those definitions are more important to some people.


A lot of people hate that word. “I struggle in my life! How dare you use the convenient pigeonholes I was born into against me! You’re doing the same thing, you hypocrite!” – middle-class guilt, and similar. It’s pointless. Don’t succumb to it. There are a lot of things we can’t control in life, but we can moderate our behaviour. If you’re in a privileged group, just accept it and move on, don’t go around with a chip on your shoulder because that helps no one.

History influences our culture. Historically, men have had privilege over women. Religion has been a huge force in keeping that status quo all over the world. That history affects us today – around the world women are still second-class citizens, and while we enjoy relative equality in many ways here, it is far from fully equal, still. If you want to dispute that, please go away, read some stuff, talk to people, and come back later. So many people at the moment seem to be remaining wilfully ignorant of these facts, and it’s getting really boring.

When your privileges are challenged, it can be easy to take it personally. Many do. They take umbrage at the fact that they happen to be in a group afforded such privileges, which are being addressed where they are unfair. Toys fly out of prams readily. But talking about misogyny – isolated instances or pervasive attitudes – doesn’t mean that the anger and accusations are being directed at you personally. Unless you start deserving it. Then you shouldn’t be so surprised.

The best guys I know engage with feminist ideas, challenge sexism and misogyny when they see and hear it… they respect women. Because women are their family and friends and colleagues – their fellow humans. And our fellow humans are what make our lives interesting and worth living. For those who wish to identify as humanists, fighting for the rights of our fellow people is of utmost importance.

But as with any mishmash of individuals, there are a lot of people coming out of the woodwork who really do not share this drive to just not be dickish. It’s quite sad.


I’ve noticed a lot more of this lately. Now, as someone who was on the receiving end of rather a lot of it growing up, I would never knowingly participate in it, I would be disgusted with myself if I were to do so unknowingly. Whatever motivates people to be bullies, it’s unacceptable behaviour. It’s alienating, damaging and cowardly.

Why do people not wish to admit that descending into roles of online bullies is not okay!? For me, one of the most ridiculous aspects of this is that so many of these people would not dare to say such things to the women they target in person. They live in their heads, behind a computer screen, justifying their disgusting behaviour to themselves, spurred on by similarly bitter individuals. It’s a lot of talk, but when the talk includes threats it can have serious, negative effects on people’s lives.

What bullying is:

- repeatedly insulting and/or taunting people, including the use of offensive language in making negative personal comments

- making private information public for malicious reasons, including details of personal struggles with illness etc.

- harrassment and stalking; obsessively following people’s activity and documenting it, making derogatory comments about it

- putting someone down, diminishing their importance and character, belittling their achievements

What bullying is not:

- disagreeing with someone’s point of view/opinion

- holding people to account for unacceptable behaviour

There seems to be some confusion about this, with accusations of bully thrown around incorrectly and particularly ironically in many cases. It feels very much like a playground and I do wish people would step back and see that. Perhaps they’d be shocked, and I guess that’s why they don’t.


Unfortunately it seems in more than a few cases this is down to mental ill-health, and sadly people are still not getting the help they require. For some reason, in certain circumstances, they then lash out at others. Whether it’s a cry for the attention they need but do not get, a last resort when there seems to be nothing else to do, or some other reasons – I don’t know.

But what is upsetting is that even when some are told in no uncertain terms they are being unhelpful, hurtful, rude, malicious, they don’t stop. Perhaps it’s too much to admit that what you have said and done is wrong, on top of everything else. Hopefully help will come, and raging at people who don’t deserve it from behind a computer screen will happen less.

Sometimes it’s said that one should expect such behaviour in hugely geeky circles, where people can be obsessive, reclusive and lack social skills generally – accusations of ‘autistic’ and ‘Aspergers’ get thrown around too often, and while I see where people are coming from, I don’t like it.

The people I do know and have met who do live with ASD are invariably lovely, friendly people who are more than willing to have a social faux pas explained to them. That is not what happens when this sexism argument occurs – people have their errors clearly explained, but all that comes back is torrents of abuse. I do not think this is due to a nerdy inability to relate to other individuals, I think it is simply a product of our culture; otherwise sensible people have succumbed to the oft-invisible undercurrent of misogyny and refuse to admit it.


Now, that’s not to say that no one ever changes their minds. One person I was chatting to yesterday, while we were all bemoaning this sad state of affairs, openly admitted to having been horribly misogynistic in the past, but over the years had realised this and corrected it. There was also a facebook-based chat where someone’s friends all started chiming in about girls wearing ‘inappropriate’ clothes.

I linked a couple of things, someone else came in to tell them they were wrong – one of the two people took back their comments.

I’ve changed my mind. women aren’t like bike locks and it’s fucked up to suggest they should change anything. Also, this is not a thing I have encountered before so I wasn’t to know I had fucked up views on it.

So that was nice. More of that please, folks.

Thankfully, there are lots of good guys out there, and I’m always glad to get to know them and have such lovely people in my life. As for the rest of you? Go to the corner and think about what you’ve done, please. Apologise to the class. Now get back to work.

16 Responses to “I am skeptical of your philosophy”

  1. widowspeaks Says:

    Most people I know who want nothing to do with Atheism+ do agree that sexism is wrong. They just don’t like the dogmatic and often quite abusive tone that some involved with A+ seem to be adopting. This gets them labelled as misogynists and “douchebags” and kind of proves their point. The main thing that turns me off is the way it seems to have been born out of etty bickering, with both sides misrepresenting and misunderstanding eachother. ther is too much back & white thinking around for my liking. Skeptics and atheists should get back to talking about issues and spend less time slagging eachother off.

    • Martin Robbins Says:

      Well, personally I’m not interested in Atheism Plus for reasons I’ll explain in another comment shortly, but I think the abusive tone comment is unfair, although I understand where it comes from. What I don’t think people following this from a distance realise is the sheer scale and viciousness of the abuse that’s been directed at these people – largely women – since long before Atheism Plus was a concept. When you have forum threads dedicated to discussing whether Skepchicks deserve to be raped (to pick one random example), there’s a problem that transcends any sort of argument about squabbling or slagging each other off. Yes, there’s an element of squabbling, but there’s also an element of vicious abuse, much of it by men directed at women. I think we need to separate the two, and say that whatever position you take on the squabbling, the abuse is just plain unacceptable.

      As for Atheism Plus, what gets me is that if – like me – people think it isn’t for them, nobody is asking them to join. It’s a club for a group of like-minded people, and fair enough. I don’t really understand why people who don’t want to join the club are so furiously bothered by it.

      • widowspeaks Says:

        Well that would be fine if they restricted their name calling etc to those who have actually engaged in such behaviour. But from what I can see they lump anyone who criticises them in with the morons who have actually engaged in such vile behaviour. And again, I’m not saying all members of A+ behave like this, but there are a vocal few who like to think of themselves as leaders that do seem to be doing so.
        For myself, I do regard myself as a feminist, but from the tone of the comments on some of the Freethought blogs that led up to the establishment, it seems I am the “wrong sort” of feminist because i don’t buy into all the dogma of gender feminism and instead agree more with equity feminists. From the tone of pre-A+ discussions, I expect I would not be welcome at A+ forums and be told to “go back to feminism 101″. I’ll keep watching to see if the forums are a broader church than I expect, but until then I’ll keep discussing things where its less of an echo chamber.

  2. Riddle Like (@endless_psych) Says:

    I think I made the “testable claims” point but it is worth point out that was in response to the initial statement and was not, as perhaps some could take it from how it is written above, about not acting on such things. I drew a distinction between what skepticism is (I didn’t include freethought on the Venn diagram because in reality it’s theological skepticism and there wasn’t room for such a tiny wee circle to fit in with all the crossovers needed) and the Skeptical movement.

    Skepticism (as scientific skepticism) can only explore testable claims. Mitigated skepticism can explore claims using means other than the scientific method (critical marxist or feminist approaches perhaps?) but scientific skepticism is about testable claims. That does not however infer or mean that the skeptical community shouldn’t address internal issues concerning gender/race/sex/sexuality etc. It should in an aim to be as inclusive as possible.

    Skepticism and critical thinking being far too, far too important to be held in the hands of the privileged few when it could do so much more good spread wide.

    I would question what those who don’t want Skepticism to be inclusive, who don’t want to address issues within the community internally want by identifying as part of a wider Skeptical movement? As it strikes me as nothing more than a desire to be part of a small cadre of people who are right. A privileged few who know the truth. A dynamic that isn’t a million miles away from the way in which conspiracy theorist groups tend to operate.

    The most disappointing thing, for me personally, in all of this is that the bullying has not been uni-directional. Whilst it is easy to understand the responses that have been provoked from some it is not always so easy to distinguish where speaking out, and rightly naming and shaming those who would invoke misogyny and sexism within (largely the American Atheist community) Skepticism crosses the line into fighting fire with fire.

    I also take issue with priviledge as a concept. Yes it’s probably true, in a reductionist at population level, but it’s also a pretty fundamentally flawed, development of Rawls moral philosophy that sounds good on paper but seems to adds very little to improving anything.

    Why do I think this? Well in part because I think Foucault was right on issues of power – they do not operate as part of a chain with the oppressor at the top and the oppressor at bottom but rather as an interlocking web of relative privileges which is dependent on situation and context as well as individual and that individuals group memberships.

    It is only truly useful as a shorthand way of saying “this group is generally more powerful than this one”. It also tends only to be properly acknowledged by those who wish to suggest that someone elses POV is produced by the advantages of said privilege. I have also encountered blogs and articles extoling people to “check their priviledge” and be aware that certain people in marginalised groups will have had to work harder then they have to get to the same place. Something that I know is well meaning but doesn’t, in my view, escape making the inference that one group is lesser than the other simply by flipping the bias on it’s head. It’s still fundamentally about acknowledging one group as relatively disadvantaged in terms of another group. (I could go on about this but I’m losing the thread slightly and it’s a whole post in of itself rather than simply a reply!)

    I also take issue with a lot of people, who appear to hold that people should be aware of privilege and act accordingly on it, seem to reject the notion of privilege in certain interactions. In essence playing “privilege trumps”.

    Within the skeptical community. There are influential bloggers and tweeters within the community who recognise privilege in society as a whole: that in general men are more privileged than women; That caucasians more privileged than blacks. Some might even acknowledge that “normal” mental functioning confers a degree of privilege over the mentally ill (and they bloody well should given rights for those with mental health issues are legally far behind those for women). However, by and large, the influential bloggers and tweeters fail to apply the principles of privilege to the internal power dynamic of the skeptical community. Asides from Thunderfoot, DJ Grothe and Richard Dawkins (maybe there are other notable examples) few of the people being singled out for criticism in the naming and shaming have a platform or reach anywhere near as big as those criticising them. There is an obvious power dynamic at work here, a privilege, that is not acknowledged.

    Possibly because it is the internet and people don’t take it seriously.

    Possibly because people don’t feel that the power dynamic within the skeptical and atheist communities overrides the overall societal dynamics of privilege.

    But it is one that I worry has the vague whiff of hypocrisy about it.

    • Martin Robbins Says:

      Okay, first part I agree with. A lot of people identifying with the ‘skeptic’ label really just want to attack people who are wrong and prove their own ‘rightness’. What’s interesting about people like Richard Dawkins and Thunderfoot is that people are criticizing them now for behaviour they’ve shown for years, it’s just that when they were directing it at the opposition, nobody minded so much.

      Taking issue with privilege as a concept… this part I’m less clear on what you mean. The interview Laurie Penny and I did in the Independent gave me a chance to put my view on patriarchy, which that ultimately most people suffer, but some groups suffer more than others. However, privilege is a very real thing (as I think you’re ultimately saying) and it really is general. As a man, you have privilege. There are certain things that simply won’t happen in your life, or will happen incredibly rarely, that happen regularly to basically all women. There are things that you simply won’t ever really have to think about or deal with, just because you’re a man. Of course, in society there’s a complex network of all different types of privilege, so it doesn’t necessarily hold that the sum of your different privileges is greater than, say, a rich and influential globe-trotting feminist like Naomi Wolf; but nonetheless you have certain privileges in certain areas because you’re a man. People absolutely should think about what privileges they hold, and I think you sort of agree with that in the final part of your comment.

      Which is about influence in the community. For some time now, I’ve lost interest in covering the small fry quacks that other skeptic bloggers are dealing with. I tend to go after mainstream journalists or writers, high profile figures like Greenfield or Wolf, companies or organizations. The reason for that is partly because documenting every individual case of quackery just gets boring after a while, and doesn’t really achieve much in journalistic terms; but it’s also because now that I have two fairly prominent platforms, I feel genuinely a bit queasy about attacking people that have just written some random blog on the internet. I’ve developed the same attitude to this that I have with comedy – comedians and journalists should be punching up, not down. That’s why I find the likes of Frankie Boyle and Ricky Gervais so repulsive when they bully their way into sensitive topics.

      But, on Twitter it’s much less clear-cut. I have 12,000 followers, which seems like a lot but it’s half as many as, say, Ed Yong, and nothing compared to Ben Goldacre (200,000+) or a proper celebrity with millions. Noodlemaz has a thousand or so, Keir I think you’re at 2,000, some of the lesser-known bullies targetting people have several hundred. My point is, where’s the cut-off? Can Ed Yong tackle me? Can Ben Goldacre tackle James Delingpole (11,400)? It’s a really tough one to work with. I didn’t really buy Ben Goldacre’s protests that Twitter was a casual medium, because at some point you have to take responsibility for the impact you have on people; but at the same time on the internet almost any tweet or blog post or comment can potentially go viral, and it’s really not always clear-cut where the power lies.

      The last point you make is that “few of the people being singled out for criticism in the naming and shaming have a platform or reach anywhere near as big as those criticising them.” The thing here is that it’s not about criticism at all. I think it’s about bullying, intimidation and abuse, and in those situations damned right I’m willing to punch down. If some random person with 200 followers writes a really illiterate blog post, then there’s a good argument that it’s unfair to single it out and mock it for shits and giggles, that that’s an abuse of privilege; but if the same person is hurling rape threats at women he hates, then the gloves are off. Whether that’s actually an effective way of dealing with these cases is a seperate debate, but assuming it’s a clear-cut case, and purely on the ethical question of whether it’s appropriate for someone with 10,000 followers to smack down a bully with 100, my answer would be – damned right it is.

      • Sid Rodrigues (@SidRodrigues) Says:

        Martin — I agree with most of your points, but I disagree on both yours and the Honourable Dr Noodz definition of bullying.
        Power (implicitly or assumed) is the most important part of bullying. So, in the Twitter example of x000 followers vs x0 followers is a prime example of bullying behaviour, be it from a second-rate comedian or first rate journo.
        I find these squabbles a massive distraction too and always like to think of a ‘third way’ out of these situations. One that doesn’t involve conflict (or very little) and is self regulating.

        The solution is already being used by other websites to prevent cyber-bullying. The ‘thumbs up, thumbs down’ on YouTube is one example. It just takes a little pressure on the hosts of the said fora, etc., to do something about it.

        What do you say we put something into place?

        Just a thought.

  3. Mal Says:

    What a beautifully clear exposition of your thoughts. I agree with you 100%.

    With regard to the comment above, if you don’t like atheism plus, or any other group, then dont mix with them. They are exercising their right of freedom of association, you can exercise yours too!

  4. Riddle Like (@endless_psych) Says:

    I didn’t mention A+ thus I am slightly confused. I don’t dislike A+ I think they are misguided in basing their desire to achieve social justice by grouping themselves under the flag of disbelief and the manner in which the movement is very publicly forming is a little cringe worthy but live and let live.

    • widowspeaks Says:

      The comment was more likely directed at me. I don’t believe cutting ourselves off from those whom we disagree with (and its the behaviour from some that I disagree with rather than disagreeing with social justice) is particularly helpful. And staying silent on some issues is just not an option. If enough people say that those who don’t join them are all misogynists, it becomes accepted as true by others who don’t know all the details of what has gone on. I’m not going to be labelled a misogynist (or self hating woman if you prefer) just because I happen to disagree with the way things have gone on, or because I have a different viewpoint on minor incidents that sparked all this off. Its the “with us or against us” rhetotic that really annoys me and if “they” would just dial that back as well as the name calling, I’d happily live and let live.

      • Martin Robbins Says:

        With respect, and sorry to come back to this again, I don’t think this represents any position I’ve heard. I’ve said I’m not interested in joining Atheism Plus, and nobody has called me or anyone else I know with similar views a misogynist. Nor have I experienced any sort of ‘with us or against us’ rhetoric, but perhaps I’m looking in the wrong places and you can post some examples. What I have seen are people expressing either misogynistic or at least fairly disturbing sentiments at people, and then being called out on it.

    • Martin Robbins Says:

      Argh, must go to bed, but wanted to say I agree with this. I think it’s partly a US vs UK cultural difference, but I just don’t really see atheism as presenting a positive framework on which to build a progressive movement – for me atheism is just a box I tick on forms because I’m not religious. In many ways it annoys me as a word because it forces me to define myself in terms of religion. Humanism is much more appealing to me because it starts from a solid, pro-human premise, it leads naturally to the adoption of progressive/feminist values, it doesn’t exclude religious allies and it aligns far more comfortably with the principle of secularism.

      • Robert Pearsall Says:

        Ah, you made an interesting distinction between atheism and humanism, and a useful notion for contemplation.

        Another topic for future discussion might be “US vs UK cultural difference(s)”. Here in the States, religionism is given lip-service in almost all contexts. Every politician ends speeches with the obligatory “… and gawd bless the american people and gawd bless america.” It gets tedious.

  5. #Gotyourback « Michael W Story Says:

    [...] the hardcore members do. So maybe it’s not my place to join in with the current schism, and plenty of very knowledgeable people have already written on this topic, but it seems like recently everyone has been having their say over the latest atheists/skeptics [...]

  6. Getting disturbingly touchy-feely with women | Butterflies and Wheels Says:

    [...] of the hardcore members do. So maybe it’s not my place to join in with the current schism, and plenty of very knowledgeable people have already written on this topic, but it seems like recently everyone has been having their say over the latest atheists/skeptics [...]

  7. Confessions Of A Former Misogynist « Purely a figment of your imagination Says:

    [...] So what changed? I was in my 20s, and I’d had unprotected sex with a girl – this is another issue, actually – my need to have sex, and thus prove myself as a man, was always greater than the potential consequences – I had a complete inability to view sex and relationships from a rational and sensible perspective. [...]

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