Secular Organizations Pledge Civility

I am extremely pleased to wholeheartedly endorse every word of the statement below from heads of seemingly all the major organizations [On Edit: but actually not all] in the freethought movement. My own civility pledge (formed with help from George Waye and Bridget Gaudette and others) and its statement of purpose encompasses almost everything here explicitly (though I neglected the vital advice of engaging people privately about things that really upset you before castigating them publicly and thereby escalating and of scrupulously double checking for multiple sources of evidence before believing incendiary charges). My civility pledge also asks for some things explicitly which are either left out or only implicit below. For comparison, here is my pledge. Below is the one signed by organization heads

It is an amazing time to be part of the secular movement. Look at what’s happened in 2012 alone. We held the Reason Rally, the largest event our community has ever had, which brought over 20,000 atheists, humanists, and other secular people together on the National Mall. We are growing, attracting new people, and drawing more attention than ever before. A big part of that growth is thanks to our large and dynamic online community. Online secular communities have helped people encounter new ideas, deepen and broaden their thinking, and even change their minds.

A Problem with Online Communication

At the same time, the fact that so much of our community is online brings with it certain challenges. Communicating primarily online can make it difficult to recognize each other’s humanity. Online we don’t have the same vocal and physical cues to tell us what another person means by his or her comments, so it’s easier for misunderstandings to develop. The instantaneous and impersonal nature of online communication also makes it much easier for these misunderstandings to escalate, or for civil arguments to turn into bitter fights. Like many online communities, our comment and forum threads all too often become places for name calling and even threats, rather than honest dialogue based on mutual respect. Between the small but vocal number of abusive participants (often called “trolls”) who hurl threats and insults, and the overheated rhetoric of some ordinarily friendly and reasonable people, our online environment is in danger of turning toxic. Fortunately, our secular values of reason and compassion give us tools to rise above the lowest common denominator of online communication.

Our Position and Our Pledge

We, the leaders of the undersigned national secular organizations, pledge to make our best efforts toward improving the tone and substance of online discussions. The secular movement as a whole is friendly, welcoming, and committed to the use of reason and evidence as a means of resolving disagreements. We refuse to allow the deplorable conduct of a few to debase the reasonable, appropriate, and respectful conduct of the overwhelming majority of our community.

We seek to promote productive debate and discussion. We firmly believe open and candid discussion is the most reliable means of resolving differences of opinion and bringing about needed change.

Insults, slurs, expressions of hatred, and threats undermine our shared values of open and candid discussion because they move us away from an exchange of views supported with reasons.

Of course we will disagree with each other on some issues, but we can do a better job of expressing our disagreements. We can resolve to avoid mischaracterizing the positions of others, relying on rumors as the basis for our opinions, and using inappropriate tactics such as guilt by association. Instead, we can give one another the benefit of the doubt, strive to understand the whole story, and de-escalate rhetoric to foster more productive discussions. We can become better at disagreeing by treating each other like reasonable human beings.

It takes patience to educate people, but we can change how people think by having a constructive dialogue. If that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t bother in the first place to communicate online about important issues.

The Debate over Sexism and Feminism

Before listing some specific recommendations regarding improvement of online communications, we have observations about one particular set of interrelated issues that has engaged much of the secular community in the past year, namely sexism within the secular movement, the appropriate way to interpret feminism, and the extent to which feminism, however interpreted, should influence the conduct, policies, and goals of movement organizations. This set of issues is worthy of careful consideration, but in a few areas our positions should be very clear.

The principle that women and men should have equal rights flows from our core values as a movement. Historically, there has been a close connection between traditional religion and suppression of women, with dogma and superstition providing the rationale for depriving women of fundamental rights. In promoting science and secularism, we are at the same time seeking to secure the dignity of all individuals. We seek not only civil equality for everyone, regardless of sex, but an end to discriminatory social structures and conventions – again often the legacy of our religious heritage—that limit opportunities for both women and men.

Unfortunately, the discussion of these issues has suffered from the same problems that plague online discussion in general—although arguably to a greater extent. Some blogs and comments actually exhibit hatred, including rape threats and insults denigrating women. Hatred has no place in our movement. We unequivocally and unreservedly condemn those who resort to communicating in such a vile and despicable manner.

Our Approach

Here are some things that we plan to do to make our online secular community a place where we can exchange ideas and views instead of insults. We hope that others may also find this approach useful.

Moderate blogs and forums.
Any organization or individual engaged in blogging or administering a forum has an obligation to moderate comments. Slurs, threats, and so forth beget more of the same. Keeping our online spaces free of these elements creates a civil climate that makes it much easier for people to engage issues productively.

Go offline before going online: pick up the phone.
When you hear that an organization or member of our community is doing something that you think is wrong or bad for the community, call and talk with them, find out what they are actually doing and why they are doing it. If you don’t have a phone number, send a private email and arrange a time to talk. So much of the time there’s more to the story, and talking to another person on the other side of the issue can help us more fully understand the situation. Plus, a phone call makes it easier for people who are making mistakes to change course, because they aren’t on the defensive as they would be after being called out publicly.

Listen more.
We miss the nuances and differences within “the other side” once an issue becomes polarized, while continuing to see our side as filled with nuance and distinctions. There is a tendency to stop listening and treat everyone associated with an opposing position as a monolithic group. People can be painted with views that aren’t their own just because they may disagree with some aspects of your own position. We should listen more so we can see distinctions among those with opposing views and start to move toward a more accurate understanding of the issues rather than being deadlocked into two entrenched camps.

Dial down the drama.
It’s tempting to overuse inflammatory and derogatory rhetoric. It gets attention. We should be cautious about using this tactic within our community because of the long-term damage it does to relationships and morale. When critiquing people within our community, everyone should remember that our goal is to persuade our allies to see our perspective and modify their opinions. Insults don’t change opinions; they harden them.

Be more charitable.
We should remember that the purpose of argument within our community is to come to shared and correct conclusions that move us forward, not to score points against the opposing side. To that end, we should apply the principle of charity, which tells us to aim our argument against the best interpretation of the opposing arguments rather than picking off weaker versions. By applying the principle of charity we will elevate the discussion so we’re actually talking about our real differences, not just engaging in a pointless exchange.

Trust but verify.
Before we believe and repost something we see, we should ask ourselves about the evidence provided and the context. It’s easy for multiple people saying the same thing to look like a lot of evidence, but if their statements are all based on the same original source, they do not constitute independent verification. We should look for the original data and corroboration from independent sources before believing and spreading claims.

Help others along.
We should remember that we weren’t born knowing the things we know now. To get to the reasoned conclusions that we’ve reached, we learned by reading, thinking, and talking with others. When we encounter someone espousing a view we think is based on lack of knowledge or experience, we should remember that we have all held ill-informed views. We should cultivate patience and try to educate instead of condemn.

By improving our online culture, we can make this movement a place that engages, fulfills, and welcomes a growing number and increasing diversity of secular people.


David Silverman, President, American Atheists
Rebecca Hale, President, American Humanist Association
Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director, American Humanist Association
Chuck VonDerAhe, President, Atheist Alliance of America
Richard Haynes, President, Atheist Nexus
Ayanna Watson, CEO, Black Atheists of America, Inc.
Mandisa L. Thomas, President, Black Nonbelievers, Inc.
Mynga Futrell, for Brights Central, at The Brights’ Net
Amanda Metskas, Executive Director, Camp Quest
Ronald Lindsay, President and CEO, Center for Inquiry
Tom Flynn, Executive Director, The Council for Secular Humanism
Jan Meshon, President, FreeThoughtAction
Joseph McDaniel Stewart, Vice President, FreeThoughtAction
Margaret Downey, Founder and President, Freethought Society
D.J. Grothe, President, James Randi Educational Foundation
Stuart Jordan, President, Institute for Science and Human Values
Jason Torpy, President, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers
R. Elisabeth Cornwell, Executive Director, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science
Edwina Rogers, Executive Director, Secular Coalition for America
August E. Brunsman IV, Executive Director, Secular Student Alliance
Todd Stiefel, President, Stiefel Freethought Foundation
Fred Edwords, National Director, United Coalition of Reason

Your Thoughts, Signatures, Modifications, Dissents, and/or Alternate Personal Pledges?

Drunken Mall Santa
ISIS’s Iconoclasm, The Bible, and The Problem With Taking Literalism Literally
The Collar That Choked Open Hearts
ISIS’s Iconoclasm, The Bible, and The Problem With Taking Literalism Literally
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Qu Quine

    Thanks, Dan, for your work on this over the last year.

  • http://Disqus Obliged_Cornball

    I would like to cosign this post, especially the claim that “we should remember that we have all held ill-informed views.” This is why I strive to resist the temptation of condescension in online discussions – to reject the idea that a rational person can be wildly wrong would be to reject my own rationality.

  • Laurent Weppe

    Cue the accusations of being a squichy accommodationist and would be kapo in the camps in 3… 2…. 1…

  • Bugmaster

    These pledges are doomed to failure, because different organizations are committed to radically different goals. While the pledge-signers aim to “come to shared and correct conclusions that move us forward”, those opposing the pledge are striving to “amplify the voice, presence and influence of non-religious women”. You can’t amplify anyone’s voice by being nice and considerate; and you can’t engender informed debate by shouting at people. Both goals have merit, but they are incompatible. Thus, IMO all these pledges (from both sides) amount to little more than preaching to the choir.

    • Daniel Fincke

      You can’t amplify anyone’s voice by being nice and considerate;

      Sure you can.

    • Bugmaster

      Can you show an example ?

      As far as I understand (and, admittedly, I could be wrong), your detractors are saying that their voices are being marginalized in the society at large. This means that the very act of speaking is considered to be impolite, as long as the speaker belongs to a minority group. Therefore, amplifying their voices involves a measure of rudeness by necessity; and therefore, any calls for politeness amount to nothing more than a thinly-veiled attempt to silence them.

      In addition (again, according to my understanding of their position), your detractors are explicitly opposed to any kind of debate as long as the topic includes the rights of marginalized groups. Their rights are not up for debate; they are human beings like everyone else, and deserve the same level of respect as everyone else. Engaging in debate on the topic such as “do members of the minority subgroup X deserve to be treated as well as us straight white men” is not merely deeply insulting, but also stupid and harmful, because doing so involves entertaining the possibility that the answer might be “no” — thus opening the door wide for further repression.

      Thus (according to those who oppose your pledge), instead of engaging in demure conversations with their oppressors, marginalized groups should stand up boldly, speak up for themselves, and leverage their existing tools (such as public shaming, insults, etc.) to make oppression a socially disadvantageous behavioral choice.

      Let me stress again that the above is my understanding of your detractors’ position. While I neither fully support nor fully endorse it, I believe that it does have at least some merit — as does your own stance.

    • Daniel Fincke

      You don’t have to be “demure” to be civil. I have passionately and extensively argued on behalf of gays, minorities, women, atheists, and transgendered people numerous times while staying within the bounds of civility and being hardly “demure”. (If you want examples, it’s riddled with them. If you want examples from marginalized people themselves, read terrific people like Libby Anne, Ozy Frantz, Miri Mogilevsky, Zinnia Jones, Bridgette Gaudette, Chana Messinger, James Croft, Chris Stedman, or countless others I’ll come up with if I take more than the ten seconds I just did to think of people.

      Just because actual instances of civility are erroneously called incivil by oppressors is neither cause to adopt that bogus standard of civility nor to adopt no standards of civility oneself. Neither this pledge above nor my own pledge call for silencing or endorse silencing forms of civility. What they call for are genuine, rational standards of civility. Those who want no standards of civility or standards of civility that are rigged to make themselves immune to all moral restraint in arguments are not just attacking a bad interpretation of civility but attacking civility itself. And that’s just wrong if you ask me.

  • Bugmaster

    I have passionately and extensively argued on behalf of gays, minorities, women, atheists, and transgendered people numerous times while staying within the bounds of civility and being hardly “demure”.

    I believe your opponents would classify this as a typical example of straight white male privilege, since you are appropriating the voices of minority groups as your own, by speaking “on their behalf”. Your next sentence clarifies the matter, but the wording here is really poorly chosen, IMO. I do get your meaning though, which I’ll address below.

    Just because actual instances of civility are erroneously called incivil by oppressors…

    I am not entirely sure that I agree — and this my personal opinion now, not to be confused with my understanding of the position of your opponents.

    I am not terribly sympathetic (for various philosophical reasons) to the notion that there’s some Platonic standard of “civility” that is floating around out there on the Astral Plane or wherever. A conversation is civil if an average member of the audience would consider it civil. Thus, the notion of what is civil and what isn’t changes from venue to venue, and from historical period to historical period. For example, at one point it was considered to be extremely uncivil for a woman to speak while the men were talking; this is not the case anymore (at least, not in most venues). One of the explicit goals of feminists and other civil rights fighters is to expand the commonly accepted notion of civility to include their voices, and they cannot logically do so by remaining civil.

    Anyway, back to your main point. As far as I can tell, your detractors would say that people like yourself and Libby Anne (whose blog is great, in my personal opinion) are unwittingly undermining their cause, as I mentioned in my previous comment. By engaging in polite debate with people who claim (explicitly or, more commonly, implicitly) that minority groups aren’t full-fledged people, you are legitimizing their views. It’s sort of like engaging in a moderated formal debate with a raving Creationist: by doing so, you’re creating the perception that his views are just as valid as yours — but in our current case, it’s not just abstract epistemology, but real people’s lives that are at stake.

    Furthermore, I believe that your opponents would say that your own perception of what is “civil” is hopelessly skewed by your privilege. It’s not your fault, obviously, but as a straight white man you are simply unable to put yourself in a marginalized person’s shoes. Your yardstick for what is considered civil is thus hopelessly warped by your exposure to a lifetime of cultural oppression (of which you were the unwitting beneficiary). Thus, when you moderate your blog comments for civility, you are virtually guaranteed to silence some perfectly valid minority voices, even though this is the opposite of what you intended.

    I must admit that the position I outlined above does sound at least somewhat persuasive (once more, I am switching to my personal opinion mode). If you look at the history of civil rights, few if any victories on that front were achieved by academics politely discussing matters with each other. Instead, these victories were achieved via protests, marches, a riot or two, and in at least one case a full-fledged civil war — which, despite the name, was quite uncivil.

    (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun)

    • Bugmaster

      Oops, this was meant to be a reply to Daniel, above. Sorry about that.

  • Brian Lynchehaun

    Hi there.

    Stephanie’s post here seems like substantive and legitimate criticism. I would like to see your response, as I find her criticism compelling.

  • A Hermit

    I think this is all well -intentioned, but the fact that some of the people being subjected to the worst of the abuse have reservations about it concerns me. Those who have signed need to take those reservations seriously.

    Stephanie Zvan raises an excellent point here:

    “The thing secular leaders next need to internalize is that none of what has happened in the last three years started on the internet. It didn’t. Women have been harassed, objectified, and excluded much longer than there has been a thriving atheist blogosphere.”

    The problem is a lot deeper than “incivility.”

    • Bugmaster

      I think the problem with the current state of online (and offline) discourse is similar to our current problem of energy use. Signing the civility pledge is similar to signing a pledge to cease using any and all fossil fuels.

      If everyone signed such a pledge, the long-term consequences for our planet, and everyone living on it, would be immensely beneficial: less air pollution, slower (or possibly even reversed !) global warming, safer groundwater, etc. Unfortunately, in exchange we’d have to give up some very powerful tools: fast and long-ranged transportation, cheap energy, abundant plastics, etc.; and thus the short-term consequences would be highly detrimental.

      Similarly, if everyone signed the civility pledge, the long-term consequences would be very beneficial, as reasoned discourse and mutual respect would become the norm, and insults and drama would become the rare exception. In such an environment, many (or possibly all) of the goals of social justice would be achieved. Unfortunately, in order to get there, the social justice fighters would have to give up some of the most powerful weapons in their arsenal, thus risking the plunge into a long dark age of oppression.

      As far as I can tell, this entire debate is all about the tradeoffs. Dan believes that the short-term gains are not substantial enough to justify the long-term damage. Stephanie believes that the current situation women find themselves in is so dire that any long-term effects are irrelevant. Since this appears to be a matter of opinion (depending primarily on a person’s deeply held convictions and convictions), I don’t expect to see a resolution any time soon.