An Open Letter to the Secular Community: My Thoughts

Earlier this year, the heads of major atheist and secular organizations met to discuss the future direction of the movement, including the role that feminism should play. Now those groups have published a joint open letter to the secular community from the proceeds of their meeting, calling for greater civility and more constructive dialog in our online interactions.

There are some parts of this that I take issue with, and I’ll get to those, but first let me say what I like about it, because I think there is a lot to like about it. Overall, this is a step in the right direction. As Stephanie Zvan says, it’s hard to imagine that anything like this could have been written even just a year ago. The emergence of Atheism Plus and other groups calling for more emphasis on social justice has played a major part in bringing these issues to the fore, and they deserve credit for that.

What I like about this open letter is that it outlines how feminist issues intersect with secular issues, that the idea of equal rights for women “flows from our core values” as ethical nonbelievers. I also like that it takes a strong stand against sexist hatred and harassment, which it rightfully condemns as “vile and despicable”, and encourages active moderation to shut down these unacceptable behaviors. These are clear signs of progress.

Now, there’s still room for improvement. Two groups, Secular Woman and the American Secular Census, refrained from signing the final version in part because they said it didn’t go far enough. Here’s one version of this critique:

What are the signatory organizations offering as their contribution — beyond the open-to-interpretation “best efforts” — to a more positive online presence for secularism? I felt the Open Letter should have been used as an opportunity for secular leadership to unambiguously commit to actions that would make them agents of concrete change in areas where they do have direct control and influence. (source)

This is a valid point, and I too would have liked to see a more concrete statement of what the signatories intend to do as institutions to combat sexism. But that progress could still happen: in the best-case scenario, I see this statement as a foundation for us to build on, akin to the Humanist Manifesto. The Humanist Manifesto was a statement of our values, our animating moral principles; it wasn’t a political action plan calling on its signatories to do X, Y and Z. But many secular groups can rightfully claim that the political activism they do engage in flows from the values laid out in that document.

If this open letter plays a similar role in inspiring secular organizations to do more – to take an institutional stand against sexism, to make public and unambiguous commitments to diversity, to pledge more attention to feminist issues where they intersect with our cares and concerns – then it will have served its purpose.

The other major criticism of the open letter, which I think is valid, is that its call for civility could be construed as overbroad. I agree that we should try to be patient and charitable with allies – I said so in my last post – but there are also people in the community who are acting in bad faith, whose aim is to harass and intimidate feminists into silence. It’s essential that we have the freedom to call them out as sharply as their behavior deserves, even if that criticism is seen as uncivil. Here’s another expression of that critique:

In offering a one-size-fits-all formula of listening more, being more compassionate, and so on, the Open Letter fails to distinguish between spirited debate where such strategies may be helpful and more serious situations where they won’t be — and might even be dangerous. (source)

Now, I don’t think the signatories intended to send this message. One of them, who prefers anonymity, said as much to me in a private e-mail:

It’s important to separate the small number of truly toxic and threatening misogynists out there from the larger group of people who are well-intentioned but aren’t expressing themselves well or need to be educated on an issue… the idea [of promoting civility] is to remove participants who are engaging in threatening or harassing behavior, while patiently trying to help along those who made an honest mistake and want to learn.

Still, this is a place where the wording of this statement could have been better, to make it clear that what they had in mind is a rule to shut out the bullies, not to silence justified anger. Just as the Humanist Manifesto has been revised and updated over time, I do hope that this is only the first stepping stone, and that there will be future revisions to make it even more unambiguous that the secular community is on the right side when it comes to feminism.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/crommunist Crommunist

    It’s important to separate the small number of truly toxic and threatening misogynists out there from the larger group of people who are well-intentioned but aren’t expressing themselves well or need to be educated on an issue…

    *Thunderfacepalm* No. This isn’t the problem of “a few bad apples”. Yes, there are some people whose behaviour is more extreme than others, but it’s not like there’s some separate group that is “the bad people” who can be hived off from the larger group. The problem is systemic, and an open letter that doesn’t address that truth is not a step in any direction I want to go. It’s “a step in the right direction” in the sense that it’s not a step in the wrong direction (although that’s debatable). Not writing a letter would have been equally useful.

  • Adam Lee

    The atheist community isn’t an undifferentiated mass of sexism. Some people are completely committed to being bigots and are beyond hope; some are persuadable and can be reached. Our job is to marginalize the ones who can’t be persuaded, and persuade the ones who can be. Is that really a difficult concept?

    Not writing a letter would have been equally useful.

    I reject the idea that positive change either comes all at once or not at all. You’re letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/crommunist Crommunist

    Our job is to marginalize the ones who can’t be persuaded, and persuade the ones who can be. Is that really a difficult concept?

    It’s not a difficult concept, but it doesn’t reflect reality. This idea that there are “the good ones” and “the bad ones” is not borne out by anything like evidence. Everyone, including those who are the “beyond hope bigots”, thinks that they are in the right and everyone else is crazy. It has been ever thus with these kinds of issues. The solution to these problems has never been “marginalize the crazies and then everyone else can be persuaded”. There is no example anywhere of that working, particularly when the people on whose behalf you are claiming to act aren’t driving the process.

    You’re letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    No, I am denying that the letter does any good at all.

  • Figs

    Crommunist, I’m not really sure I understand what you’re getting at here. When you say everyone thinks they’re in the right and everyone else is crazy, are you implying that nothing can be done because minds can’t be changed? When you say that marginalizing the persistent problem set isn’t the solution, why are you so insistent that that wouldn’t work? What do you think would be the solution (and bear in mind, I say that not in the facile “anything is better than nothing, so if you don’t have anything to offer you can’t complain” way; I’m saying it seems like you have some ideas about what solutions would look like, though you don’t say anything about them above)?

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/crommunist Crommunist

    This isn’t my blog, so I am loath to use the comment threads to hijack with my own POV, but if Adam will forgive this slight derail, I will summarize as briefly as possible.

    The problem is not the extremists. To be sure, they are a problem, but marginalizing them by moderating them out of comment threads doesn’t rid you of them, it just pushes them into a different space. If orgs are serious about improving the situation, they have to address the root cause, which is misogyny – not “misogynists”, but the ideas and structures themselves. Orgs have to unequivocally say “we are pro-feminist, and when it comes to issues of sexism, we’re going to take our lead from women. We are not going to pretend that there can be honest disagreement about the existence of sexism; we recognize it, and we are committed to combatting it.”

    Basically, orgs have to be as firm about sexism as they are about religion. This letter isn’t that. It’s, at best, ecumenical.

  • XPK

    Yes, the problem is misogyny/sexism: systemic, cultural, and at times subconscious. The way that misogyny/sexism is institutionalized is the problem.
    “If this open letter plays a similar role in inspiring secular organizations to do more – to take an institutional stand against sexism, to make public and unambiguous commitments to diversity, to pledge more attention to feminist issues where they intersect with our cares and concerns – then it will have served its purpose.”
    Why didn’t the open letter, signed by the very secular organizations that could and should be taking an institutional stand against sexism, just take the stand right here in the open letter?
    Instead they took a stand on discourse, not sexism.

  • Azkyroth

    I think part of the problem here is that Adam is using misogyny in its common-English sense of “hatred of women” and thus focusing his attention on people whose behavior fits well with the understanding of the term “hatred” as applied to women (even though he’s repeatedly called attention to the effect of the larger community’s passive and sometimes subtly active collaborationism with this faction, which, whatever else one might say about it, really shouldn’t be constantly left out of descriptions of “the facts”). Whereas feminist theorists and related disciplines have, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, created a term-of-art definition which is far less restricted and basically encompasses attitudes which in common-English would be considered “sexist” or “kinda sexist” or “subtly sexist” (I think “sexism” has been term-of-arted too. I’m not sure if I follow the differences). Thus, what they’re hearing is Adam saying that what people not privy to the terms-of-art would call “sexism” is the province of a small minority…etc.

  • GCT

    Good points Crommunist, but isn’t part of combating sexism taking on the extremists?

  • Figs

    I think those points are good too, and after reading the letter in its entirety, it comes out feeling a bit mealy-mouthed to me. The sexism and misogyny problem is becoming big enough and well-known enough that they couldn’t fail to at least pay it lip service, but they seem to only do it as a means of sliding over to a much more general discourse on tone. The result winds up being something that isn’t disagreeable, per se, but feels weirdly perfunctory and toothless.

    I’d like to hope, as Adam said, that this is a jumping off point, and not a desired end point. Maybe subsets of the signatories can go on to decide on some concrete rules of conduct that flow from the principles described in the letter (and if other signatories think those rules are too strong, or not strong enough, they can form their own subsets with their own preferred rules). If the point of this letter was as a starting point, and to get as broad a group as possible to sign onto at least something, then I’m cautiously OK with it. But if some of the signatories are dusting off their hands and saying, “There, now we’ve dealt with that,” then that’s absolutely a problem.

  • Mike W. Laing

    I think this is an excellent starting point. There is an emphasis on overcoming the divisions that have emerged:
    • Listen more.
    • Dial down the drama.
    • Be more charitable.
    • Trust but verify.
    • Help others along.
    We saw this coming, and I’ve tried pointing that these defensive and closed minded attitudes will undermine the feminist movement within the community. I am so happy to see these issues addressed – yes, yes, YES!
    The first importance should be to work together. The SECOND is to be protective. The first focus, and amount of time and effort spent needs to be in constructive efforts and discussion.

    This is a letter. Let it be a first, or rough, draft towards a manifesto.

  • Azkyroth

    I think this is an excellent starting point. There is an emphasis on overcoming the divisions that have emerged:
    • Listen more.
    • Dial down the drama.
    • Be more charitable.
    • Trust but verify.
    • Help others along.
    We saw this coming, and I’ve tried pointing that these defensive and closed minded attitudes will undermine the feminist movement within the community. I am so happy to see these issues addressed – yes, yes, YES!
    The first importance should be to work together. The SECOND is to be protective. The first focus, and amount of time and effort spent needs to be in constructive efforts and discussion.

    This is a letter. Let it be a first, or rough, draft towards a manifesto.

    ….

    *cries*

  • Alejandro

    @Crommunist: I can’t really understand how come you don’t consider the letter to take an unequivocally feminist stand:

    “The principle that women and men should have equal rights flows from our core values as a movement. We seek not only civil equality for everyone, regardless of sex, but an end to discriminatory social structures and conventions – “…”—that limit opportunities for both women and men.”

    Isn’t that what feminism is about? Equality of opportunities and rights for men and women??

  • http://www.liberateddissonance.blogspot.com Joe

    Am I missing something? Are we discussing atheism or feminism? Just who are these rude misogynists? Are they atheists or religious people? And if they are atheists, why to they need to be “marginalized” in the name of atheism? And how is the problem, whatever it is, “systemic”? This discussion is rather confusing, and it seems to be beside the point. My other problem, I guess, is with the concept of an atheistic “movement.” I left the Catholic Church, in part, from a sense of individualism. The last thing I need is to be co-opted by yet another hierarchy that presumes to speak for me, to tell me how to think and behave, or to subsume me under some sort of “manifesto.”

  • GCT

    Just who are these rude misogynists? Are they atheists or religious people? And if they are atheists, why to they need to be “marginalized” in the name of atheism?

    There is a subset of atheists that are misogynists and very vocal about it (there’s also another subset that is silent about it and helps to keep the status quo, which is not friendly to women). These people are creating a hostile environment where women are harassed, threatened, and made to feel unwelcome in the atheist movement (more on the movement part later). This is a problem, as I’m sure you’ll agree. In order to set up safe spaces for all atheists (be they female, non-white, gay, trans, etc) these people need to be marginalized. This doesn’t mean they aren’t atheists, but it does mean that they are not and should not be welcomed and allowed to drive others away and to poison the atmosphere.

    My other problem, I guess, is with the concept of an atheistic “movement.” I left the Catholic Church, in part, from a sense of individualism. The last thing I need is to be co-opted by yet another hierarchy that presumes to speak for me, to tell me how to think and behave, or to subsume me under some sort of “manifesto.”

    No one is co-opting you. But, whether you like it or not, there is a movement based around atheism. It exists on blogs, in conferences, in organizations set up to advance atheist goals, etc. And, there’s a reason for all of this: atheists are a despised minority and atheophobic bigotry is rather prevalent. If theists minded their own business, then none of this would be necessary. But, the reality is that we live with discrimination on a daily basis, whether it’s a restaurant owner cancelling a fundraiser part-way through because he just learned that some of the participants are atheists, “In god we trust” on our money, 10 Commandments plaques in public spaces, threats sent to a high school girl who stands up for the Constitution, or any number of other things. This is a civil rights issue, and like it or not, there’s a movement to correct these injustices.

  • http://www.liberateddissonance.blogspot.com Joe

    “This is a problem, as I’m sure you’ll agree.”- I w0uld agree, if I had ever witnessed it, but I have not. I have no atheist friends who are misogynists. All the atheists I know are sweeties who plan wonderful picnics. And the only bloggers I bother with are the thoughtful ones like Adam. Maybe I’m just hanging around with the wrong people. As for no one co-opting me, I’m not sure I agree. If there is a “movement,” as you say, then it does presume to speak for me, at least to the extent that it claims to be protecting my civil rights, some of which, such as printing “in God we trust” on money, I might not care about. To some degree, the movement might be violating my rights, even more than believers do, by tarring me with the brush of whatever its spokesmen have to say on line or in the media. It’s happened to me in the past, when believers have asked me questions that usually begin with, “Why are atheists so –?” or “Why should atheists get upset about -?” as though they expect me to know what every atheist in the world is thinking. Now I have you “movement” atheists to account for. The movement also, apparently, has some things to say about feminism and social justice – all of them wonderful, I’m sure, but irrelevant to the topic of belief in the supernatural. Tell me, will I be excommunicated — or marginalized — if I fail to conform to the doctines?

  • http://www.liberateddissonance.blogspot.com Joe

    And what in heaven’s name are atheistic “goals”?

  • Azkyroth

    What.

  • Adam Lee

    I have no atheist friends who are misogynists.

    That’s certainly good to hear. How many women did you check with in order to come to this conclusion?

    If there is a “movement,” as you say, then it does presume to speak for me, at least to the extent that it claims to be protecting my civil rights, some of which, such as printing “in God we trust” on money, I might not care about. To some degree, the movement might be violating my rights, even more than believers do, by tarring me with the brush of whatever its spokesmen have to say on line or in the media.

    Don’t be obtuse. The atheist movement isn’t trampling on your rights by existing, much less for speaking out on behalf of its members. The problem, if there is one, is the societal assumption/prejudice that any member of a minority group can speak for all members of a minority group. That’s one of those harmful generalizations that social-justice folks generally care about debunking.

    The movement also, apparently, has some things to say about feminism and social justice – all of them wonderful, I’m sure, but irrelevant to the topic of belief in the supernatural.

    Those topics are only “irrelevant” if you think the goal of atheism is to argue against belief in God, but to draw absolutely no further conclusions or implications about how society should be run based on that fact. If, on the other hand, you think that atheism as a conclusion could possibly have real-world implications, then you might observe that religious beliefs have very often been used to excuse sexism and other kinds of institutionalized inequality and oppression, and that in the absence of religion, that discrimination can’t be justified.

    Tell me, will I be excommunicated — or marginalized — if I fail to conform to the doctines?

    If you deny the “doctrine” that women should have the same rights as men, or if you fail to treat women with a basic level of respect and decency, then yes, you can expect to be marginalized and unwelcome in the atheist movement, which is as it should be.

  • http://www.liberateddissonance.blogspot.com Joe

    Obtuse? Moi? What was that about being nice online, Adam? “How many women did you check with in order to come to this conclusion?” – My women friends would not bother with anyone they regard as a misogynist. One of them is more afraid of what “coming out” would do to her tenure prospects (see teaches at a religious college) than she is about sex discrimination.

    I don’t support sexual discrimination any mroe than you do, but also don’t think my disbeleif in a deity implies much of anything about how society should be “run.” How does it relate to the tax code? The American Empire? Medicare funding? Atheists may differ on many political matters (see Marx v. Rand), and they may agree more with some religious people than with each other. Untruth did not begin with us. Nor will it end with us.

  • http://www.liberateddissonance.blogspot.com Joe

    “If you fail to treat women with a basic level of respect and decency, then yes, you can expect to be marginalized and unwelcome in the atheist movement, which is as it should be.” – You need’t bother. As I’ve tried to make clear, I do not regard myself as part of a “movement.”

  • GCT

    I w0uld agree, if I had ever witnessed it, but I have not. I have no atheist friends who are misogynists.

    Have you ever personally witnessed someone being tortured? If not, then I suppose that torture is not something you’d agree is bad. How about slavery, ever witnessed that? I could go on and on, but hopefully you get the point.

    The fact of the matter is that misogyny does exist and atheist women are being harassed/threatened/etc. It’s nice that you can simply hand-wave it away…actually, no it’s not nice at all. It makes you out to be a callous and unthinking individual.

    To some degree, the movement might be violating my rights, even more than believers do, by tarring me with the brush of whatever its spokesmen have to say on line or in the media. It’s happened to me in the past, when believers have asked me questions that usually begin with, “Why are atheists so –?” or “Why should atheists get upset about -?” as though they expect me to know what every atheist in the world is thinking.

    IOW, it’s our fault that believers have religiously privileged atheophobic notions. That’s commonly called victim blaming.

    Tell me, will I be excommunicated — or marginalized — if I fail to conform to the doctines?

    If you can’t treat women as people, then don’t let the door hit you on the way out…or do, I don’t care, just get out.

    And what in heaven’s name are atheistic “goals”?

    How about a society where atheists aren’t treated as second class citizens?

    My women friends would not bother with anyone they regard as a misogynist.

    And, if they met a lot of misogynistic atheists, what would they do then? Think.

    One of them is more afraid of what “coming out” would do to her tenure prospects (see teaches at a religious college) than she is about sex discrimination.

    Well, I’m sure she appreciates you telling us all what she is and is not concerned about.

    I don’t support sexual discrimination any mroe than you do, but also don’t think my disbeleif in a deity implies much of anything about how society should be “run.”

    I disagree. How you can say that with a straight face after getting done telling us that you’re unconcerned with how women are treated is mind boggling.


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