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In which I interview myself about American Atheists Con 2018

Who are you, and what’s your history re: religion and stuff?

  • Raised Lutheran (ELCA) in Wichita, Kansas.
  • Became an atheist in 1997/1998 (holy crap, 20+ years ago)
  • Got my BA in religious studies in 2000 (Texas Christian University). MA in religion and culture (University of Manchester, UK) in 2002, and PhD in cognitive science of religion (Aarhus University, Denmark) in 2009.
  • First skepticism/atheism conference: Skepticon 3, 2010 (I had mixed feelings, but as it turned out, I would go on to attend Skepticons 5, 9, and 10).  I’ve also attended Skeptics of Oz conferences in Wichita. I will be attending the Secular Women Work conference in Minneapolis this August.

Why did you go to American Atheists Con this year?

  • It was in Oklahoma City, which is only about two and a half hours’ drive away.
  • Curiosity. Never been.
  • Some interesting talks to listen to, new perspectives to hear, new ideas to ponder.
  • A chance to meet some people with whom I’ve only corresponded online thus far, see some old friends again, and make new friends.
  • The president of American Atheists, David Silverman, made a statement following the trainwreck of Mythcon last year that impressed me. He said, in part:

We can’t tolerate intolerance. We can’t abide elevating those who spend their time trolling, and harassing, and alienating the very people who we’re in this fight to help. We have serious work to do and we need serious conversations about how to do that. I don’t have time to waste on people whose only interest seems to be provocation for provocation’s sake and not on making the lives of our fellow atheists better.

Our convention next year is March 29 to April 1 in Oklahoma City. Like every year, we’re going to have new people you’ve never heard from. We’re going to talk about tough subjects. But we’re going to do it without making people feel unsafe at our event. We’re going to have a great time celebrating our community and the people in it. And we’re going to do it while working to help people.

Can you give me a quick overview of the issues with sexism and sexual harassment in atheism/secularism/skepticism (hereafter referred to simply as “atheism”)?

AA Con took place in the aftermath of multiple allegations of sexual harassment coming out against Lawrence Krauss, which you can read about here.  Krauss is a well-known and highly-sought-after speaker at atheist conferences and other speaking engagements, and has continued to be even though rumors of his behavior have been circling for years prior to the Buzzfeed article. The allegations against him are only the most recent in atheism’s long history of big name male figures being accused of sexual misconduct often at conferences, which includes one of them suing an entire blog network along with specific people for publishing allegations against him.

In the face of these revelations, individual atheists have had to divest themselves of hero worship and tribalism…or have not done so, and decided to instead just double-down on those things in defense of figure being accused. At the conference level, Mythcon basically picked up the pro-sexual-harasser/misogyny banner and ran with it, which is what prompted Silverman’s Facebook comment that I quoted above, and which brings us back full circle.

So atheism is a hotbed of sexual harassment, and you went to AA Con because you thought you’d get harassed at some other atheist con?

No. Atheism probably isn’t any more of a hotbed of sexual harassment than any other movement or group, actually.  If sexual harassment is a disease, then people speaking up about it and holding each other accountable is the treatment.  An organization or movement that is led largely by men (as atheism still is) that isn’t having a #metoo kind of reckoning probably isn’t that way because it has no disease, but because it hasn’t been diagnosed yet. 

Okay, then how about you get around to actually describing AA Con?

Righto. Well, the number I heard a few times was 850 attendees, which meant that they had to sell overflow tickets because that many people wouldn’t be able to fit into the Century Ballroom at the downtown Sheraton in Oklahoma City when it was time for the keynote conversation between David Silverman and Hugh Laurie.

Hugh Laurie? You mean House?

Yup. The keynote conversation turned out to be Hugh Laurie doing a bit of stand-up and then being basically interviewed by David Silverman about his atheism. It was enjoyable and actually reminded me of why it took me so long to get involved in movement atheism. Laurie’s British, as you know, and he described the culture shock in going from England to America in terms of rampant religiosity. He noted that Tony Blair is a Catholic, and described how that was actually a liability in getting elected in the UK as a “god botherer.” “God botherer” is a pretty common, benign term of ribbing in the UK for a devout Christian of any sort, perhaps a devout religious person of any sort.

It is not, I would note, Hugh Laurie’s personal insult of choice for Christians, something misunderstood by a preacher who apparently attended AA Con and wrote this charming review of the experience. Which you should read, because it’s kind of amazing. I’ll wait.

Okay, I’m back. Wow. So, how did Hugh Laurie remind you why you didn’t get involved in movement atheism forever?

He said that there’s not really anything like American Atheists in the UK– not just because it’s the UK, but because religion isn’t nearly as pervasive in politics and social life, meaning that it’s not such a big deal to not participate in it, meaning that movement atheism isn’t really a “thing.” If nobody’s trying to pass laws requiring you to follow their religious rules and generally applying social pressure to be religious, then getting all gung-ho about not being religious can seem kind of pointless.  When I was studying religion in grad school in the UK and then in Denmark, practically everyone around me was some form of non-religious, but the idea of joining an atheist movement seemed ridiculous and rather…petulant.

I absorbed this view so thoroughly that when I got back to the States, I brought it with me.  If you read the post I wrote after attending Skepticon for the first time in 2010, shortly after moving back to the US, you’ll see that my main objection was that it was just too…..atheisty.  I saw Skepticon as a big party for atheists, which it was in part, but I missed that if you live in the United States, particularly in a place like the South or the Midwest (like Missouri or Oklahoma), a big party for atheists that happens once a year might be the only time you actually feel comfortable being an atheist. That’s important.

And Skepticon isn’t, and AA Con isn’t, just a party for atheists. The focus on church and state issues, which now includes social justice issues, that comes with both conferences carries the premise that atheists should be engaged in areas where an injustice is being committed and in which religion plays a role. That encompasses myriad issues– LGBTQIA rights, Black Lives Matter and institutional racism generally, reproductive rights, sexual harassment and misogyny, immigration issues, sex workers’ rights, the drug war, and so on.

If people on the side of injustice, whatever it is, are claiming that God’s on their side, then there’s a natural place for atheists to fight for justice. In David Silverman’s talk entitled How the Mighty Get Back Up, he outlined how American Atheists would back initiatives in these areas, none of which are specifically about atheism, if the people involved in them self-identify as atheists. That’s a big deal. The community charity event that took place at the end of the conference on Sunday afternoon, packing up 30,000 meals for the hungry in Oklahoma City, is a big deal.

Says who?

Well, says Brian Fields of Pennsylvania Nonbelievers (American Atheists affiliate), with whom I spent quite a bit of time talking. Brian’s one of the people I’ve known on Facebook for quite a while, and seemed like an excellent person, and proved to be equally so in person. He was excited about the meal-packing event because it was a chance to do activism/charity work at the conference, instead of just talking about it.

Who else did you meet? 

Lots of people. Russell Glasser (The Atheist Experience), Thomas Smith (Opening Arguments, Serious Inquiries Only, Philosophers in Space….he has other podcasts, but those are the ones I listen to), Bridgett “Bria” Crutchfield, Victor Harris (emcee for the conference), Jamie (Talk Heathen, a new call-in TV show out of Austin), Aron Ra, Andrew Hall (Laughing in Disbelief blog on Patheos)…..

I got to see Mandisa Lateefah Thomas (founder/director of Black Nonbelievers) again, and she gave a killer talk on Saturday called Who Says Community is Dead? reminding everyone how incredibly important community is, and how standards for appropriate behavior within that community are not only permissible but critical to avoid pushing out good people by holding onto the trolls. I got to meet a bunch of people from Wichita Oasis for *cough* the first time, and promised to attend a meetup soon. Josiah Mannion was on duty taking photos for the conference most of the time, but it was nice to see him again. Other people too, whose names are not occurring to me right now– apologies.

(Oh, also I was giving out freeze peaches. Everybody listed above got one. If you don’t have one, you should totally buy one. No pressure or anything though.)

What was your favorite talk?

That’s difficult to answer as there were many very good ones, so I’ll name three that stood out:

  • Gavin Grimm gave an amazing talk on how his Christian upbringing impacted his process of coming out as a trans man called Losing Religion and Finding Myself.
  • Brooke Binkowski, managing editor at Snopes, talked about the need for skepticism in journalism and everyday life in a talk called, appropriately, Be Skeptical About Everything, Including Skepticism.
  • Andre Salais, a political analyst, described his work on campaigning for atheist candidates for office in Arizona in a talk called Atheist Candidates Project: Meeting America’s Demand for Non-Religious Representation.

Were there any talks that made you cringe?

Yes.

I looked ahead in the program on Friday, and saw that on Saturday morning there would be a talk called Islamophobe delivered by Mohammed Alkhadra. Note: The title was what caught my attention; I’d never heard of Alkhandra before. I enjoyed myself at the comedy show the night before (Leighann Lord, Andy Wood, and Victor Harris), but made sure not to have too much fun so that I’d be equipped to listen to Alkhadra the next morning.

Alkhadra was born in the US but lived in Jordan most of his life, and founded the Jordanian Atheist Community when he deconverted. According to his profile on the American Atheists web site, “after giving a speech in the United Kingdom about Islam, Mohammed faced arrest and even death at the hands of the government and Islamic extremists, prompting him to move to the United States.”  I am guessing this is that speech:


The talk he gave at AA Con was kind of an extended version of this speech, and the audience gave him a standing ovation at the end. I didn’t blame them. He described the horrors of criminalizing apostasy and blasphemy eloquently and passionately, and left no doubt concerning the value of free exchange of information (he credits learning about evolution from Richard Dawkins via Youtube for his deconversion).

So what made me cringe about his talk? Well, his conclusion was basically that if speaking out against the barbarism of an Islamic theocratic government is Islamophobia, then dammit he’s an Islamophobe and we all should be as well.

But he said this in Oklahoma, where voters approved a ballot measure to amend the state constitution to ban Sharia law from state courts in 2010.  He said this while three white men from a Kansas militia are on trial for plotting to bomb a building housing Somali Muslim refugees and a mosque. He said this in a country whose president campaigned on, and then tried to make good on, a promise to ban Muslims from entering the country altogether.

I don’t actually care if “Islamophobia” is the term of choice for hatred of and discrimination against Muslims. But we need to have some term for it, because it isn’t collapsible into racism, although bigotry is messy (hence intersectionality) and the two frequently bleed into each other.

To be as clear as possible, I feel like I need to return to bullet points:

  • Hatred of and discrimination against Muslims needs to be distinguished from criticism– however vehement– of Islam. The former is bigotry (whatever you call it); the latter is not.
  • Discrimination against Muslims is and should be illegal, but bigotry against Muslims, while reprehensible, should not. You don’t need to concede that hatred of Muslims for being Muslims should be illegal in order to call it bigotry.
  • The necessity of keeping even bigoted speech legal, even when it’s bigoted speech against a minority in one country, is underscored by the need to speak out against abuses committed by that minority when it is a majority elsewhere. Supporting Ahed Tamimi does not make one anti-Semitic. Supporting ex-Muslim organizations, especially in Muslim-dominated countries, does not make one an Islamophobe.
  • Real Islamophobia– real hatred of and a desire to discriminate against Muslims– belongs to the alt-right in America. American atheists should not flirt with the alt-right, much less shack up with it, by catering to its anti-Muslim sentiments.

I understand why the audience at AA Con gave Alkhandra a standing ovation. I hope that whoever reads this can understand why I was conflicted throughout his talk.

Well…..okay then. Any other thoughts?

I’m really glad I went. So much to chew on, so much to be inspired by, such friendly and excellent people. Thanks, AA Con.

Skeptics of Oz

Skeptics of Oz is a free skeptical conference held in Wichita, Kansas, this year on March 16-17 at Wichita State University’s CAC Theater. Here’s the Facebook page. Here’s the line-up of speakers:

Looking forward to it.

Victims, skeptics, and politics, oh my

Jason Thibeault at Lousy Canuck has an interesting post up today on what he calls “hyper-skepticism” with regard to sexual harassment. What he’s referring to is the practice, when such harassment is described, of demanding unusual and unreasonable amounts of evidence for it or else denying that it happened. I say “unusual and unreasonable” because, as Thibeault points out, extraordinary claims may require extraordinary evidence but sexual harassment is not extraordinary. It is, actually and unfortunately, quite ordinary indeed. Not normal or acceptable, but common. It is also something rather hard to prove unless it happens in front of witnesses. I excoriated vagueness in accusations in my last post, but being vague when alleging harassment can be a good idea for the safety of both accuser and accused. For the accuser, because as we’ve seen all too clearly the backlash from people who sympathize with the accused can be immediate and severe. For the accused, because when someone is making a hard-to-prove statement of wrongdoing on your part it’s better if they’re not naming you directly!

Rebecca Watson has been raked over the coals again and again for not naming the person who propositioned her in an elevator at 4am, but I’m glad that she didn’t– for his sake. What he did was creepy but not a crime, and I’m sure that he would have received an inordinate amount of grief, if his identity had been revealed, by well-meaning vigilantes who would consider it their business to shame him on Watson’s behalf. Yes, being non-specific about the person she was accusing made it easier for Watson to have lied, if she so desired. She could have, conceivably, made the whole thing up. But let’s remember that this was originally an anecdote tacked on the end of a video about various topics, accompanied by a simple request: “Guys, don’t do that.” It was not part of some manifesto declaring that freethought conferences are places women should avoid, nor was it a police report. Generally speaking, the more serious an allegation is, the more specific it should be. Right? Watson’s description of the behavior she found objectionable was quite specific because her goal was to identify creepy behavior and encourage other people not to engage in it. It didn’t need to be more specific than that, however, because the behavior she was describing stopped at “creepy.” Creepy is bad, but it’s not the end of the world, either for the creeper or for the person who has to endure him/her. But let there be no mistake, every time someone mentions what she (almost always “she”) believes to be creepy behavior at a conference, a number of someones can be counted upon to rise up in defense of the creeper. I’m pretty sure at this point that someone could describe a stranger walking up and grabbing both of her breasts and squeezing, and somebody would reply “I can’t believe you were bothered by that! You should be flattered! Feminist cunt.”

Let’s go back to that word, actually– not “cunt” (I don’t have the patience to discuss that right now) but “feminist.” One of the things I didn’t particularly like about Thibault’s post, and that I am seeing all over the place, is that DJ Grothe has a problem with feminists. Thibault’s post reads

When the conversation was not going his way, DJ made some very pointed remarks about specific women who’ve worked on the problem of harassment before; including some women who had taken him personally to task for attacking feminists as contra the skeptical movement, and defending some rather indefensible folks (including the Epstein/Krauss flap) in the past.

Did he, in fact, “attack feminists as contra the skeptical movement”? That link goes to an entry on Stephanie Zvan’s blog Almost Diamonds, which quotes Grothe saying

This will be my last post on this topic. I’ll go back to believing what I have believed for a while now about some of these atheist blogs, now yours included: that fomenting movement controversy often seems to be prized over honest and sincere argument, that some folks are too quick to vilify and engage in destructive in-group/out-group thinking, that these online communities are exclusive rather than inclusive, and that unfortunately as a whole, the feminist and atheist blogospheres often operate quite separately from and counter the growing skeptical movement working to combat unreason and harmful pseudoscience in society.  

Answer: Nope. Just like he didn’t say that feminists, or women skeptics, are the reason that fewer women are planning to attend TAM this year. These distinctions are important. If it’s wrong to blame “feminists” for such things, it is also wrong to take umbrage on behalf of feminists in general when feminists in general have not been blamed. It assumes that everyone who is a feminist agrees with your particular brand, which is never a good thing to assume. Now, Grothe might have a problem with feminists in general, or more accurately what he perceives feminists to be. But that quote doesn’t justify saying so. I certainly don’t think that Grothe has a problem with atheists in general, considering that he is one. I’m a feminist– a feminist blogger, even– and could be the author of the above quote without accusing myself of countering the skeptical movement. I might be, if I were as exasperated at Grothe clearly was. He was certainly correct that atheism is not skepticism is not feminism, and it’s easily possible for a blogger writing in service of one to  counter the interests of another. Whether this happens “often” is difficult to evaluate.

Another worrisome message that I have seen repeated, over and over, is that any judgment of how a victim of sexual harassment reacts to such harassment is wrong and constitutes victim-blaming. This is generally made in response to “hyper-skeptics” (still not sure I’m a fan of that word– it implies that the problem is an over-abundance of skepticism, when really it’s highly selective skepticism) who declare that women who don’t report sexual harassment must not have actually felt harassed. This is a silly thing to say on the face of it, but even moreso given that most skepticism conferences haven’t had policies on sexual harassment until this whole dust-up happened, and TAM’s was established last year because of Watson’s experience. So reporting these incidents hasn’t really been an option, and Jen McCreight has an extensive post about risks to the victim that encourage her to be silent, vague, or anonymous. However, that does not mean that any reaction by the victim should be considered beyond reproach, and it doesn’t mean that Grothe should have known about harassment cases weren’t reported and weren’t mentioned in the survey conducted to find out how welcome people felt at TAM last year. After the topic of sexual harassment at skeptic conferences was tossed around post-Women in Secularism conference and some very stupid people decided that Zvan, McCreight, and Greta Christina are the new feminist Taliban determined to erase the very mention of sexuality from any freethought conference henceforth (no, I’m not kidding), Zvan told conference organizers that those who don’t have one should make a sexual harassment policy already, which seems eminently sensible and not at all Taliban-ish to me. However, as noted TAM did have such a policy already, unlike the apparently half dozen conferences who have created their own in response to this discussion.

If sexual harassment occurs at atheist and skeptic events– and clearly it does– it’s a problem that deserves attention. But it’s not an enormous problem, and it sure isn’t somehow a particular concern for such events as opposed to any other gathering of men and women. The problem is not that sexual harassment is rampant at skeptical conferences and DJ Grothe doesn’t care and refuses to do anything about it. The problem is that some people for whom feminism and skepticism are both big concerns (which should describe all skeptics, but sadly it doesn’t), have probably unintentionally made it sound as if it’s an enormous problem and also characteristic of skeptic conferences, which provoked the organizer of one such event to, without real evidence, accused these people of contributing to the very problem they fight on a daily basis– under/misrepresentation of women in skepticism.

So you can see why everybody’s pissed off.

I’ll just end by linking back to this very important reminder about causes and egos.

Oh, and to this comment, just posted, from Grothe to Watson. I am not quite sure why Grothe so often posts extensive and important messages to people in comment sections on blogs and Facebook, where you’d think they stand a much higher chance of vanishing into the ether, but he clearly put a lot of thought into this one.

Sexual harassment and TAM

No weekend web readin’ post this weekend, I think, because the majority of my web reading lately has been all about sexual harassment at skeptical/atheist conferences. I’ve been to a total of one such conference, but would be up for attending more, especially The Amazing Meeting (TAM), which is produced by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) and takes place in Las Vegas every July. That remains the case in light of the current shit storm going on. What shit storm, you ask? Well, I’ll do my best to provide an executive summary.

See, sexism in the skepticism/atheism movement (I’m going to just pretend they’re the same for now, even though I know all of the problems with that) has been a hot topic for quite a while now, especially since elevatorgate. Then in mid-May of this year there was the Women in Secularism conference, which sparked a discussion on women being under-represented, harassed, and generally treated poorly at other conferences devoted to secularism, and that has been an ongoing topic in a lot of places, including the blogs of several people at Freethought Blogs (FtB). I’ve been reading these posts and the conversations in the comments that result from them, which is how I learned that Rebecca Watson (of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, and founder of Skepchick) will not be going to TAM this year. Why is that? After all, Skepchick has established a fund to provide grants for women to attend TAM, officiated currently by Amy “Surly Amy” Davis Roth.

Well, Watson explains, it’s because she thinks JREF’s president, DJ Grothe, has said that she is the reason why women are being dissuaded from attending TAM. Or at least, a reason. Here’s what Grothe said:

Last year we had 40% women attendees, something I’m really happy about. But this year only about 18% of TAM registrants so far are women, a significant and alarming decrease, and judging from dozens of emails we have received from women on our lists, this may be due to the messaging that some women receive from various quarters that going to TAM or other similar conferences means they will be accosted or harassed. (This is misinformation. Again, there’ve been on [sic] reports of such harassment the last two TAMs while I’ve been at the JREF, nor any reports filed with authorities at any other TAMs of which I’m aware.) We have gotten emails over the last few months from women vowing never to attend TAM because they heard that JREF is purported to condone child-sex-trafficking, and emails in response to various blog posts about JREF or me that seem to suggest I or others at the JREF promote the objectification of women, or that we condone violence or threats of violence against women, or that they believe that women would be unsafe because we feature this or that man on the program. I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate.

Here’s some relevant context:

1. Watson has endured a hard-to-imagine-if-you-haven’t-watched-it deluge of attacks since she described an unwelcome and slightly frightening come-on she received during a conference in a video she posted in June of last year. This stream of attacks was, I’m sure, aided by a sneering dismissal from Richard Dawkins that I thought was fake at first, and felt like a bizarre betrayal of the humanistic stance that people who decry religion in the name of morality should be obliged to take.

2. Grothe has been active in discussions on FtB regarding this whole matter. When asked to be more specific about examples of “prominent and well-meaning skeptics” contributing to an unsafe climate by using misinformation, Grothe threw out several examples. He began with a comment Watson made to USA Today last year:

Off the top of my head, your quote in USA Today might suggest that the freethought or skeptics movements are unsafe for women. This is from the article:
“I thought it was a safe space,” Watson said of the freethought community. “The biggest lesson I have learned over the years is that it is not a safe space. . . ”
(http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2011-09-15/atheist-sexism-women/50416454/1)
If we tell people that our events or our movements are not safe for women, some women are bound to believe that. If I as a gay man had never attended a freethought or skeptic event and read in a national newspaper that that community wasn’t a safe space for gay people, I would certainly be reluctant to get involved.

3. Grothe is apparently mistaken about there having been no reports of harassment at TAM while he was president of JREF. Some say lying; I’m going to go with mistaken until it’s demonstrated otherwise. He says that JREF conducted a survey of TAM attendees last year to see how welcome they felt at the conference:

Of 800+ responses to this comprehensive survey, only two people reported feeling “unwelcome” at the event. Both of these respondents were men. One was a conservative who felt several speakers insulted his political beliefs. The other was a retiree who “hates” magic. 11 respondents to the survey did report a problem with an interaction with someone else that made them feel uncomfortable or unsafe (this was a difference [sic] question on the survey). 3 of them were men who did not elaborate on the interaction and 3 were from women who did not elaborate on the interaction. Another was a woman who reported a speaker was rude to her when she asked for a photo. Another was a woman who was made fun of for not being an atheist. Another was a woman was ridiculed for being a vegetarian. Another was a woman who reported no specific incident but claimed her enjoyment of the event was negatively affected by the “drama surrounding elevator gate” and “having to hear everyone talk about it.” Finally, one person did report feeling uncomfortable around an attendee, fearing future possible sexual harassment, and while we are concerned about such concerns, there was no complaint of any actual activity that had happened that the hotel or security or law enforcement or others could take action on. Importantly, every one of these 11 respondents nonetheless reported feeling welcome at TAM. It is inaccurate to say that “women do not feel welcome” at these sorts of events, judging by the 40% women attendance last year at TAM and these survey results. Similarly, I think it is an irresponsible message to tell people that women are “unsafe” at these events.

4. There is a greater context of accusations against Grothe, including demands that he resign as president of JREF.

5. Amy of Skepchick continues to promote grants for women who couldn’t otherwise afford it to attend TAM this year. She’s raising money by selling some of her ceramic jewelry, specially designed pendants for the cause.

6. There has been a lot of misinformation spread in the comments surrounding this issue. I have seen people claim that TAM never had a sexual harassment policy, when in fact it has had one for more than a year. I’ve seen people claiming that there is an organized effort by bloggers at FtB to remove women from skepticism conferences entirely. I’ve seen claims that they are forming a covert blacklist of speakers to pressure conference organizers into never inviting again, based on vague accusations of being “skeevy.” I’ve seen claim after claim after claim saying that Grothe was blaming people talking about harassment at conferences in general for the significant drop in women who have registered to attend TAM this year. That he’s blaming victims and trying to get them to shut up rather than authentically addressing a real problem.

Considering the fallout Rebecca Watson experienced from a really very benign and casual comment regarding a situation at a conference that made her uncomfortable, as well as several other unpleasant experiences she claims to have had at conferences, it’s entirely understandable why she would not choose to attend future such gatherings in the future. It is also understandable that other women who have experienced harassment at conferences would feel reluctant to report such, after witnessing the backlash against Watson that extended even to such a respected figurehead as Dawkins.

You know what’s also understandable? The fact that someone in DJ Grothe’s position would look at this outcry, and the fact that the female registration for TAM has dropped so significantly in the past year in spite of no official record that sexual harassment has occurred at the conference, let alone at a staggering rate, and conclude that a campaign of misinformation is responsible for at least some of that. In alleging such, he clarifies that he is talking about a “small number” of female skeptics who are “trying to correct real problems of sexism.”

Yes, declaring that the freethought movement in general is “not a safe space” for women is irresponsible. Vagueness might as well be misinformation, because a true statement that can just as easily be misinterpreted as a false one is of no help. This statement also suggests that the freethought movement is somehow less of a safe space, on the whole, than other movements or organizations, which is not true and definitely not a message anyone involved in it should want to send. I can entirely understand Watson concluding that the freethought movement is not a safe space for her, and it goes without saying that her grievance, and the attacks she has endured for her grievance, would not have happened were she not female. But that does not mean that any particular freethought conference isn’t a safe space for women.

I often disagree with PZ Myers, but in this case I found what he has to say very level-headed. From DJ, please fix this genuine problem:

It’s all well and good to have a piece of paper that you can wave around, saying that harassment will not be tolerated…but the next step is effective implementation, and that hasn’t occurred. Document everything: there should be a formal procedure for submitting a report in writing that gets filed away. There should also be an action taken — dismissing the offender from the conference, escorting someone out of the hall, giving a verbal warning, whatever — and that should be written down, too. Without all that, we get into these ugly situations where the victims experience these events, and then watch them get flushed down the memory hole — their concerns are simply dismissed. DJ needs to own up to the existence of a real problem, rather than closing his eyes to it and pretending it’s only a PR issue. He’s got to take TAM’s anti-harassment policy seriously, and give it some teeth and engage in some record-keeping. I do think he means well, but good intentions are not enough. There has to be some solid effort beyond drafting a list of dos and don’ts.

AAR 2010

Thousands of smiling, mild-mannered people with blue tote bags have descended on the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta.  This is the 2010 American Academy of Religion conference.  I’m posting from my room in that hotel, using the wireless internet that they made me pay for on top of the room rate.  Why do expensive hotels do that? Oh right, because they can.

My spiffy bag

Anyway– I’m here because I’m on the steering committee for the cognitive science of religion consultation this year, and hopefully will be next year and as long as they’ll have me after that.  Even though the vast majority of panels at AAR aren’t for me, I just love academic conferences and the enthusiasm from all of these people– some wearing suits, some that look like hippies, some wearing Buddhist saffron, some in leather– is palpable.  And though the cognitive science section is just getting off the ground, it’s doing so fast.  Attendance has been really good in the past two years, which was a hard thing for me to imagine when searching almost in vain for science-related sessions prior to that.  In 2007 I was excited to attend a special session in an enormous ballroom dedicated to discussion of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, only to find when I arrived in the heavily populated room that the talks would primarily be about the FSM’s status as a “new religious movement” and virtually nothing about evolution, intelligent design, or church and state issues.   Sigh.

This year, on the other hand, is a different ballgame.  A few hundred people attended a plenary talk by Frans de Waal, a noted primatologist based at the Yerkes Primate Center here in Atlanta.  He has been researching the capacity of chimpanzees and bonobos (and sometimes other animals) to practice empathy for decades, and based his most recent book, The Age of Empathy, specifically on that subject.  I haven’t gotten through the whole thing at this point so won’t review it yet, but I can say that it should be an easy and engaging read for a non-specialist.  If you’re interesting in hearing about the impressions of ape capacity for reciprocal exchange, altruism, and love from a person who spends virtually every waking hour around them, this book would probably be a good choice for you.  Be aware, however, that this is a contentious subject and de Waal definitely has his detractors.  For more on who they are and why, you might want to pick up Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved.

Oooh….TV.  Georgia TV

This morning’s session was on scientific approaches to religion and reductionism, which is going to be a topic that keeps coming up so long as there are people who don’t understand that reductionism is what science does, and that it’s necessary.  The third speaker gave what I considered the most interesting talk, making a case for something similar to what psychologist Bruce Hood calls “supersense”– the religious sensibility being something that views ordinary objects and behaviors as special for unseen reasons.  A believer who nonetheless devours scientific explanations for religion, he referred to the different kinds of knowing about religion: a) knowledge of the facts about religious beliefs and behaviors, b) introspective knowledge of what it feels like to believe, and c) a scientific understanding of the “how” of religious and behaviors.  The “insider/outsider problem” is a well-known one in religious studies, and people will always be asking whether a believer or a disbeliever is in a better position to give an authoritative description of a religion.  The answer, of course, is that it’s similar to asking whether something is nature or nurture: it’s both, depending on what you want to know.  However empathetic a person you are, empathy relies to an incredible degree on having experienced something like that which your subject is experiencing, or as close to it as you can get.  A person who has never believed in God is just not going to understand what it feels like as well as someone who believes or someone who used to believe and has the memories of that to draw on.  Our memories aren’t anywhere near infallible– it’s not like we have VCRs in our heads, let alone Tivo— but an edited and interpreted memory still beats no memory at all.     

20th floor balcony.  Taking this gave me vertigo.

(I’m working on very little sleep right now…probably should’ve mentioned it earlier, but didn’t because lack of sleep made me forget to do so.  Apologies if I’m not making much sense.)

So that’s the first day, and it has been all about empathy for me.  The bits of political commentary that have eked their way into the Q&A sessions on some of the talks irritate me, but I suppose it’s to be expected at this point– a conference full of herpetologists would probably find a way to work in some snark at some party/candidate or another at this point.  Our section still has some sessions to go, but luckily I have a bit more discretion over what to do tomorrow. I think the aquarium might be calling my name, and I can never pass up an aquarium that can speak.

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