Why do we need a certification like A+ to proclaim to the world “I am an atheist and I am a supporter of social justice” in the first place? This is a serious problem if as a movement we can’t even agree that women and minorities are marginalized within the community and this is a problem that needs to be addressed.
This isn’t a minute detail. This is a major problem within the atheist community. The fact is that sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, or any other kind of bigotry needs to be recognized and criticized. As atheists, we often seem so eager to bash religions for their racism or sexism, but the racism or sexism within the atheist movement isn’t being addressed. That’s the problem; I don’t think we can call ourselves freethinkers or skeptics if we espouse irrational hatred against the marginalized people within our own group. Where is the reason or logic in being openly hostile towards other people based on their place of birth, their class, their skin color, their gender, or their sex?
The fact of the matter is, if women and other minorities aren’t welcome at atheist conferences, we all suffer for it. We lose so many valuable viewpoints and allies (women make up roughly half of the population, yet they seem to be missing in atheist circles!) As far as I have seen there are few people really having a discussion about we fix this problem. (And fewer people seem to recognize this is a problem at all!) And this isn’t a trivial issue; this is a serious issue about the personal safety of the women who are now and have been reluctant to join our unbelief for fear of being sexually assaulted by the men they encounter on blogs or at conferences. And often times when they come out and say that based on their experience these atheist venues are hostile places for women, they are often dismissed out of hand, ignored or ridiculed.
To say that these women have no reason to feel threatened, from my point of view, is to dismiss their argument out of hand. To be blunt, I don’t think that most people know what it’s like to be a woman at an atheist conference. I don’t. But when someone brings up that they feel threatened, skeptical scrutiny ought to mean that we hear them out and give them the methodological principle of charity, not call their ideas weird or kooky. “You’re a cunt.” is not a very constructive criticism.
Maybe you’re like me and you feel safe in public. But that doesn’t mean that everyone is as privileged as you or me. It means that you are in a privileged position to be able to help other women. It means that you have the power to prevent sexual assault against women in the future if you take a stand and make it clear to the men around you that offensive behavior towards women will not be tolerated. It’s not kooky to think that women should be able to feel safe like everyone else at an atheist conference. And if this A+ thing doesn’t appeal to you, then at least people should be seriously talking about the issue of personal safety. At the very least we all need to recognize that women aren’t welcome in the atheist community and that this needs to change.
I don’t consider feeling safe in public to be a special privilege. That ought to be a pretty fundamental to everyone. Now, I’m a middle-class white guy. I can walk down any street in my town at any hour in the night and I can feel perfectly safe. There are a lot of women who don’t feel safe around men in broad daylight, especially at atheist conferences where there are no expectations to behave with a certain conduct. These aren’t phobic women who want to impose a political agenda for their own selfish gain; these are women who get sexually harassed in public and they don’t like it. Nobody likes talking about sexual harassment; women especially don’t want to have to explain to men over and over again why this is a problem because this should be a no-brainer. But the problem of sexual harassment is not being addressed and it’s not going away.
I wouldn’t want to be sexually harassed, either, and I think it’s generally agreed upon that feeling threatened is bad. Fortunately, I am seldom put into that line of fire because nobody gropes me inappropriately when I go to an atheist conference. But there are a lot of women who aren’t that lucky. They tell a man to stop touching them or to leave them alone, and that man doesn’t stop. When that happens there should be rules that address that kind of behavior, and frankly I don’t see them enforced at atheist conferences.
Privilege is invisible to those who have it. You or I might not experience harassment, but prejudice goes on whether or not we see it. I would bet there are quite a few people who read this and have both benefited from certain privileges. I don’t know what it is about atheist conventions that make them different from other social situations, but people do behave differently. And in atheist blogs. Maybe people feel more comfortable expressing themselves here and they do it in ways that are not as appropriate. In any case, the ‘why’ doesn’t really matter.
Whether you recognize that multiple forms of bigotry are a problem in this movement or not, there are a lot of people who see it as a problem and they will continue to discuss it. You don’t have to participate, but I happen to believe it’s in the best interest of everyone that we support diversity of opinion, and that can only happen in an environment where we acknowledge not everyone feels safe and we need to work towards an environment where people with many different viewpoints can feel safe to express themselves.
We need to call out the bigoted atheists and keep them distanced from the rest of us. For the good of the entire atheist and skeptic movements, we cannot allow that kind of opinion to have clout within the organization. That viewpoint is toxic to the well-being of us all and it must be challenged and ultimately de-legitimized. This is about treating others with respect. No atheist should have to tolerate harassment from another atheist. That behavior needs to be called out for what it is; it’s hateful and inappropriate.