Fastest growing atheist demographic: the Disillusioned | cc @pzmyers @richarddawkins

PZ Myers is disillusioned. Put away the “Surprised” Crayola; he’s not the first and he’s not the only one.

It’s interesting how (what I consider to be) the initial phase of New Atheism in the mid-noughts proudly considered itself somewhat radical, game-changey and fighting the establishment, only to turn around in recent years and itself become the establishment, as resistant to introspection and self-reflection and the admission of error or misjudgement as the hierarchy of any religious target they would’ve railed against, scarlet “A” banner flapping proudly in the breeze as they charged. Specific subject matter to one side, the behaviour of the self-described global thought leaders has, in the face of years of complaints of sexist behaviour and attitudes, rape threats and general misogyny, attempts at driving women bloggers into silence and many real allegations of assault and rape, been just the same as any Old Boys’ Club’s inner circle (and their concentric circles of wannabes) who are faced with inconvenient questions or impertinent highlighting of problematic behaviour or attitudes: deny, defend, deflect, denigrate, double down.

The old new atheists always revelled in their impropriety and impertinent interrogations of religion – they seem to very much resent receiving similarly irreverent treatment from the new new atheists. Their outrage, disdain and denial almost precisely mirrors the reactions they got from establishment religion in the middle years of last decade. Dawkins et al were accused of stridency and shrillness quite a lot back in the day and rightly scoffed, as the allegations were baseless hyperbole. Today? Not so much. If anyone ever wanted to see Dawkins finally earn that “strident” badge, just read his twitter feed when women are up for discussion. If invoking hallmarks of tyranny – e.g. when he employed “verbal jackboots” and the “FreeThought Police” – in response to being criticised on blogs isn’t strident and shrill, I’m waiting to see what is.

The fact is that the atheist movement – such as it is – that these (mostly) men founded (or at least accelerated) is changing. All movements do: feminism, LGBT rights, civil rights, indigenous rights and now non-religious rights have gone and all go through periods of intense forward motion followed by periods of reflection after their successes (even if they’re just in raising awareness) and discussions of “where should we go now?” Right now, atheism is expanding both its demographics and its agendas. Where once it was dominated by academic white guys who were all about church & state and proper science classes in schools, many of the atheists inspired by those people to examine their own beliefs are wanting to talk about – and apply their skepticism and secular reasoning to realising – other things like gender equality and ethnic inclusiveness. One byproduct of both this and the atheist habit for proud irreverence is that the words and attitudes of atheism’s purported leaders are now being questioned as deeply as they themselves would question those of the religious. Sadly, in many cases, those words have been found wanting, the attitudes they reveal as calcified as in any rank-closing bishop and the responses to criticism as reactionary as any wrathful believer – or insecure believer in belief.

In many of the cases of defensiveness on the part of visible atheists like Harris and Dawkins, the subject of the criticism isn’t responding to the content of the criticism, but to the mere fact of the criticism. The subject, incredulous, cannot possibly imagine why anyone would take issue with what they said, because (to their mind and to the bulk of their experience) they are right, what they are saying is common knowledge, utterly inoffensive, well-informed and could not possibly be disagreed with by any educated person of the right mindset. Accordingly, anyone who does disagree or criticise is obviously of the wrong mindset. Once categorised as Wrong, such people can then be summarily dismissed without the need to respond meaningfully to any specific criticism. If the Wrong reiterate or expand their criticism or issue followups, for example criticising the non-responses and summary dismissals, the subject can then invoke all sorts of tyrannical or oppressive or purely monetary motives (“doing it for the clicks!”), as if a single blogger or even a moderately popular blog network has any sort of censorial power over someone like the Richard Dawkins, a best-selling author and in-demand public speaker with (in the atheist world at least) unparallelled influence and access to resources, or any comparable ability to attract revenue just by publishing a post (if anyone’s wondering, this one’s on the house, just like every other one).

The transition was relatively rapid, too: one minute everyone’s apparently (I’ll get to that) on the same page and looking in the same direction, the next – as soon as women identify problematic behaviour and request that we guys not do that then start talking about harassment policies – there’s an instant rift dug by people who for some reason viciously resent being told that some behaviour makes others uncomfortable. Then a few visible “leaders” say some thoughtless or petulant things, one blogger wonders if atheism can be about a little more than debunking myths and is vilified at length for the mere suggestion, a blogger or ‘tuber or two reveal themselves to be unapologetic misogynists, a parallel atheist community is born for the sole purpose of harassing and obsessively monitoring two blog networks and before you know it, women are being threatened with rape and death. With rape and death. And others are laughing at it. Including other women.

And now for the “apparently”: as various discussions progress it turns out that no, we weren’t all on the same page and sexist and creepy behaviour didn’t just spring into existence ex nihilo in a lift early one morning; it’s been a problem nobody (especially insulated white chaps like me) really had any idea about for years – except those directly involved and in some cases, disappointingly, at the executive level of some atheist/skeptic organisations, where active decisions were made to do nothing to support employees who’d been victimised or harassed. It also turned out that there had been for years (like there is in other conference circuits) a grapevine, a back-channel utilised by women attendees and speakers to stay informed about infamous creeps and sexual predators.

And with every revelation and accusation, the rift got wider and deeper, the apologetics got louder and more (dare I say) strident, the responses got more toxic and hateful and the leadership seemingly became focused on prioritising the preservation of their positions at the cost of making what movement there was more welcoming to people who didn’t resemble them physically. Not only that, but the misogynist ragers, the hateful stalkers, the doc-droppers and the entrenched old boys then had the unmitigated gall to accuse those advocating for a more welcoming and diverse community of being “divisive”. As if, somehow, women and feminists pointing out sexist attitudes and harassment so as to raise awareness and start a discussion about solutions was something unexpected, a gross heresy, an unforgiveable sin, all part of a plot to – well, God only knows what. It has never been adequately explained how atheism as a cause might be irreparably harmed by making better and more meaningful efforts to welcome the other half of the population to atheism.

And now that many women, feminists, non-male people and now many non-white people are throwing up their hands and saying “fuck it, you want your “movement” to be pure, to be free of questions that make you uncomfortable, fine – you can have it,” I fully expect the apologists and the old boys themselves to further blame us (feminists, women, non-males, non-whites, inclusivists in general, those social justice warriors everyone seems so concerned about) for being even more divisive.

Finally, I find it highly ironic that the leadership/s that brought us the scarlet letter “A” logo, a repurposing or “taking back” of the old tactic of publicly humiliating women who dared step out of the social boundaries prescribed by the men who essentially owned them, would be so solidly behind enabling and defending a sexist status quo, and in some cases being openly hostile to all women who challenge them, whether they’re accusing accuse “leaders” of assault or inappropriate sexual behaviour or of simply saying things that are mildly (but no less thoughtlessly) sexist. In light of the last three years of harassment, obsessive monitoring, threats, both mild casual sexism and unapologetic misogyny, all with nary a disapproving look from the leaders over the tops of their spectacles, followed by wagon-circling and dismissive responses to allegations of assault and rape (some going back years), that scarlet letter is more appropriate than ever.

Simply, the message in “movement” atheism at this moment appears to be: Speak, woman, and be vilified.

@SamHarrisOrg Unfortunately some things really do need to be said | cc @GretaChristina

Recently, bloggist Greta Christina received some threats and abuse – unfortunately this isn’t a rare occurrence for Greta (or any feminist atheist writer these days), but the abuse in question was in response to some criticism she posted of Sam Harris, atheist advocate and author, recently in the spotlight thanks to voicing some sexist attitudes. Greta tweeted some of the abuse and @’d Sam, saying it’d be nice if he spoke out against such abuse – she made it clear she wasn’t blaming him for it, just asking if he’d distance himself from people behaving like sugared-up pre-adolescent Xboxers in his name.

After some back-and-forth Sam did exactly that, asking anyone who’d abuse any of his critics to unfollow him on Twitter. One of his tweets during the exchange, however, jumped out at me:

Does *anything* go without saying?

I thought this was a good question – I asked it myself not so long ago (2011 to be exact – “Elevatorgate” was only the beginning).

Prior to 2011 I saw that not only were atheist and secularist concerns priorities when it came to atheist activism, but LGBT people and non-white people as well – I’d always thought opposition to LGBT & racial discrimination went without saying and I was happy to see that it did among atheist leaders as well.

At the same time I thought the atheist movement getting behind gender equality (regardless of whether you use the “F” word to describe it) went without saying – not just because of authoritarian patriarchies like Saudi Arabia (and the Bible Belt, and Queensland) but because women are human beings deserving full equality with their fellows. I thought, given everyone’s insistence on skepticism and rationality, that a quick look at the state of play even in advanced societies with legal equality would reveal that women, just for starters, earned less for identical work, were disproportionately overlooked for promotions and executive & political positions and were disenfranchised across the board in myriad ways; that is, social and professional equality were still unrealised goals (again, just for starters – problematic, repressive and sometimes damaging expectations of what a “real” man or “real” woman should be and shouldn’t do are another essay entirely).

But, imagine my surprise when I learned that no, the atheist movement didn’t appear to care about that undeniable hard data because, well, who knows? I saw a lot of chest-beating and foot-stomping and violent assaults on straw-feminists and paranoid fever-dreams of misandrist femtopias and invocations of Christina Hoff-Sommers (the last person anyone should ever depend on for reliable information about the attitudes and goals of mainstream feminism) and general tantrum-throwing – not to mention low-level, casually clueless sexism – but very little in the way of reasonable arguments defending the male-heavy status quo. This wasn’t restricted to a few bloggers or vloggers either; sexism was alive and well and entrenched up to the executive level in the very organisations that held national and international skeptic and atheist conferences – the very organisations that made up the public face of the movement and presumably wanted said public to see their intelligent, rational and enlightened approach not only to science but to society.

I also thought the atheist movement opposing and decrying, as a group, harrassment, online bullying, threats of violence, rape and murder, abuse and cyber-stalking of anyone, not just women, went without saying. How disappointed I was to learn that it didn’t oppose outright such behaviour, and even went as far as to dismiss allegations of rape, dismiss threats as “it’s just online, get over it”, ignore patterns of problematic behaviour, blame victims at every turn and generally behave like any woman who complained of being targeted was getting all in a tizzy about nothing. Again, this was happening at an institutional and executive level and not just on the blogs and Youtube accounts of a few misogynist miscreants.

In short, Mr Harris, yes: in this movement at least, there a great many things that not only need to be said but need to be said repeatedly and loudly, right now, by people in positions of influence. Richard Dawkins did exactly that when he signed a joint statement with Ophelia Benson decrying abusive behaviour in the atheist community – the fact that within 72 hours he’d undone that good work by revealing gaping holes in his appreciation of sexism and rape culture notwithstanding (not to mention his earlier foot-in-mouth about rape rankings) . Clearly your fellow Horseman, for all his own missteps, appreciates that some things really don’t go at all and really do need to be said.

I made the mistake of thinking that opposition not only to casual sexism but also harassment and abuse did indeed go without saying in this community; you appear to have done exactly the same thing. My mistake was a result of simple naivete, but after several years of sustained and publicly-reported abuse and death threats of your fellow atheists and skeptics (leading to more than one restricting their involvement or quitting it entirely due to obsessive and unrelenting hate campaigns), all based on little more than their gender and alignment with certain ideals, I’m wondering what possible excuse you could have.

Margaret and David: A Review of 28 Years of Reviews #atthemovies @abcatthemovies

With the announcement of the impending end of the partnership of Australia’s best-known and most enduring movie critics, I felt it was time to give them their due: a review.

While the cinematography, lighting, sets and even the direction always seemed to be on some kind of static autopilot for The Margaret & David Show, it was purposefully and cleverly designed that way to allow the principals’ performances to be the focal point. Their characterisations were entirely plausible, multi-layered and even at times inescapably loveable. They weren’t the archetypical film snobs, however, waxing endlessly lyrical about cinéma vérité and Ingmar and obscure Eastern Bloc auteurs: Stratton’s paternal prickliness regarding the overuse of CGI and handheld-style footage was balanced by his genuine and surprising affection for the occasional gun-toting cinematic rampage, while Pomeranz’s unashamed love for romance and farce was moderated by her once-in-a-while approval of slow-paced European existentialism. Their interactions were careful yet brilliant studies in plausible dialogue and masterclasses in improvisation; at one turn bickering like an old married couple over who finished the milk, at another gushing like honeymooners upon wandering down an alley and discovering a charming new restaurant, at yet another finding small, precious patches of common ground in what appeared to be irresolvable conflict. In doing so they didn’t just leave us well-informed, they inspired us all to examine ourselves and our own relationships as carefully and as deeply as they examined every film they discussed.

In the end, Margaret and David covered a great deal of ground, developed their characters more deeply and honestly than any director ever could have desired and left us all better acquainted with them, the films they loved and with ourselves. What some might call an overlong exploration of the opinions of two ordinary people, others might well describe as an extraordinary exploration of the human condition which was scarcely long enough.

I’m giving them four stars.

@richarddawkins – What if you’re wrong about feminism? CC: @rebeccawatson @pzmyers @opheliabenson

Shortly before I read The God Delusion in 2006 I watched a (now very famous) video of a then little-known (outside of evo-bio circles) author Richard Dawkins giving a speech at Randolph Macon Womens College. It was this appearance that piqued my interest and resulted in me reading the book & realising I’d been atheist for years and not known it; it also led me to the (at the time) wonderful, positive and refreshing world of online godlessness.

After the speech and some TGD excerpts, Dawkins took questions from the students. One of my favourite exchanges was his curt reply to (or regarding) a Liberty University student who was being taught that the university’s dinosaur fossils were only 3000 years old. Dawkins replied (I paraphrase), “Leave right away and go to a <i>real</i> university.”

Another exchange, possibly the most famous, was his reply to the audience question “What if you’re wrong [about God?]”:

“”What if I’m wrong?” What if you’re wrong about the great Juju at the bottom of the sea?”

Of course we 2014 atheists, post-Elevatorgate and the torrent of misogyny that’s driven more than one outspoken female blogger offline, might look back on both of these moments and see them as quaint from our current perspective; our reactions as hopelessly naive in the hopefulness, but in late 2006 I’m positive they stirred many conversations that mightn’t have otherwise happened (they certainly did for me; I was a decade past any form of religion at that point but still had some pseudospiritual vestiges wastefully lurking about in my head). That speech was a critical point for a great many people, spurring them to read TGD and other atheist books, to reevaluate their beliefs and to ask questions they’d not asked before – to seek answers they mightn’t have even known were possible to find. Perspectives were changed, as was the social landscape of the internet, not to mention many “real” communities: homes, towns, perhaps countries.

Dawkins appears to require his own RMWC moments regarding feminism and the problems the movement he helped create has with how it treats women.

First, he needs to talk to educated people about what comprises “real” feminism and stop assaulting this invented (or at least overblown) “radical” kind other people (chiefly anti-feminists, oddly enough – hardly unbiased sources) appear to be telling him is dominated by shrieking anti-sex harpies (I say “other people are telling him” because he certainly doesn’t seem to be applying his own intellect or investigative skills to the issue). Dawkins is well-acquainted with hysterical accusations of militancy and stridency just for having the audacity to be publicly critical of religion and its effects; he should try to empathise with feminists who receive precisely the same type of mistreatment from his ostensible brothers and sisters in atheist advocacy.

Second, Dawkins needs to ask himself “What if I’m wrong?”. What if he’s wrong about feminism, about rape culture, about the at-least very creepy behaviour of skeptic luminary Michael Shermer, about poster-child for misogynist fear and loathing, Rebecca Watson (her “page-o-hate” hasn’t been updated since May ’13 but rest assured the loathing hasn’t stopped; just check her twitter mentions) and about pretty much everything he’s tweeted about regarding feminism since “Dear Muslima” (which he did apologise for)? And he needs to ask properly, the same way he would if he was investigating some scientific phenomenon he didn’t understand – because it’s very likely he does not understand either feminism or the nature of the complaints against atheist/skeptic culture’s obvious woman problem right now.

Dawkins is already on public record with Ophelia Benson decrying threatening and abusive language and behaviour between atheists and secularists. This is of course a good (and long overdue) thing, but it’s not only a no-brainer to oppose that kind of incandescent hatred, it’s addressing the very pointiest and most extreme example of the sexist and misogynist treatment that feminist atheists and skeptics experience every day, online and in person, in many forms and at varying intensities. Dawkins should converse further with Ophelia and other atheist feminists about the real nature of the sexism problem within organised skepticism (not to mention the further problem of delayed, insufficient, flippant, insulting, rank-closing organisational and leadership responses to it). He knows that the problems caused by religion aren’t limited to the damage done by suicide bombers and murderers of abortion doctors; he should thus be able to realise that the problems of sexism and misogyny in atheism aren’t limited to those who issue graphic threats of rape and violence online.

TL;DR: I implore Richard Dawkins to employ his famously sharp intellect to interrogate his own understanding of feminism. Atheism globally has embraced the LGBT community and has in many places found with it common cause and common experience regarding stigma, religious opposition, marginalisation and ostracism by family and community follwing a “coming out”; it’s frankly baffling that it appears to be refusing to do so with women. As one who helped to create and inspire the global atheist community, Dawkins owes it to that community and to himself to honestly examine his prejudices and misunderstandings regarding what appears to be one of global atheism’s last and biggest hurdles.

#AUSPOL save the dole!

Don’t think getting kicked off the dole for six months at a time is just some character-building kick in the arse for lazy stoner punks – it will apply to all adult jobseekers under 30 who receive Newstart, the vast majority of whom want to work. Some of those people will have children to feed, clothe and educate while they themselves seek employment, but even those that only have themselves to look after will essentially be consigned to half-lives of desperation and poverty if the Newstart demolition is passed.

Removing the base of the social safety net might save some dollars, but the pressure on society and the state of a new underclass of disenfranchised, impoverished and increasingly desperate people will outweigh it significantly. Most unemployed are that way not through choice but through a combination of factors including economic climate, location, legislation, market forces and plain bad luck. Take away the one thing they can count on to fill their fridges, their prescriptions and their petrol tanks (yes, Joe, in their cars) while they look for work and you run the very real risk of turning good people who need a break out onto the street, placing pressure on already overworked public hospitals, welfare agencies and NGOs and perhaps turning them into desperate criminals, placing undue pressure on their victims, their families, the police and legal system and everyone else who has to deal with them.

People without work should be afforded a basic allowance to enable them to live while they look for work, not punished as part of some unjustified austerity drive. If paying unemployed people a basic wage is too expensive or frivolous for this government, perhaps they’d like to reconsider their baffling, dogmatic contempt for the rapidly-growing renewable energy market as embodied by their fear and loathing of the RET and the carbon tax, their propping up of the dinosaur that is coal as exemplified by their teaming up with a nakedly self-serving coal-miner to scrap the mining tax, or their general coddling of billionaires.

Whether we like it or not, welfare for the unemployed needs to be a non-negotiable fact of life in a wealthy nation, for the simple reason that there are never enough jobs available for all eligible workers to have one at the same time. It needs to be that way too: if capitalism is to function at all and as growth is a desired facet of capitalism, there must always be a pool of available labour to enable that growth. That means that there must always be a small percentage of the population unemployed, ready to pick up the jobs that arise in a growing economy. It is the duty of a capitalist state to ensure its labour pool can sustain themselves while they’re between jobs (of course a minority will just toke up and slack off, but I’d like to see how their malfeasance stacks up next to the rorts of our esteemed elect), not use them as pawns at the behest of a small and unduly noisome cabal of self-interested arch-consevatives.

So sign the petition, go and march, hassle your MP, get loud.

Welfare isn’t a handout, it’s just a hand. And taking it away is pretty much a fisting.