Some Sadly Necessary Remarks on the #wiscfi Intro

Hey everyone – I’m checking in from the final day of the Women in Secularism 2 convention in Washington, D.C. I’m going to write a full wrap-up later (and I enjoyed it enormously, I want to be very clear about that), but there’s something that cast a cloud over this weekend, and I want to clear the air about it first.

Although every other speaker this weekend was a woman, as you’d expect at a conference about women in secularism, Ron Lindsay, the president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, gave the opening remarks on the first day. I was expecting something short and formal, but no. Incredibly, he used the opportunity to deliver a “both-sides-do-it” peroration, in which he expressed sympathy in principle for the aims of feminism while nevertheless scolding certain (unnamed) feminists for allegedly turning feminism in practice into a dogma that unfairly stifles men’s important and valuable opinions. He said, for example, that the idea of privilege is “often used to silence others” in a way that’s similar to “the approach taken by ideologies such as Marxism”. (See the transcript here.)

This is the same kind of condescending, above-it-all “well, atheists may be right about some things, but you shouldn’t be so militant” rhetoric that we’ve all heard and grown tired of. It would have been misguided at the best of times; when it was spoken by a male CEO, at the kickoff of a feminist conference, to a room full of feminist attendees, it was inappropriate to the point of farce. The overall air in the conference room, I think I can say, was incredulous.

When Rebecca Watson (among many others, including me) made our opinions known that this was inappropriate, Lindsay fired back almost immediately, in a blog post on CFI’s website, with the following jaw-dropping ad hominem attacks:

Rebecca Watson inhabits an alternate universe. At least that is the most charitable explanation I can provide for her recent smear. Watson has posted comments on my opening talk at Women in Secularism 2. It may be the most intellectually dishonest piece of writing since the last communique issued by North Korea.

…I’m just glad Watson didn’t notify security: “white man loose on stage, white man loose on stage!”

This is the Shermer affair all over again: an atheist leader – and it’s almost always an older white man – who supposedly esteems peer review and rational debate, yet when he receives arguably merited criticism, flies off the handle and fires off a barrage of bizarrely hostile and disproportionate personal attacks. This is the characteristic behavior of someone who expects to be listened to at all times and to always have his opinions welcomed in any forum, and feels irrationally angered and threatened when that privileged position is questioned.

So let’s be clear about this: the presidency of CFI, like the presidency of any other non-profit, is a political position. Lindsay’s job is to put a good public face on CFI, to be diplomatic to its critics, and to encourage and promote its outreach activities. I don’t object to him giving the introductory talk, even at a women’s conference, but it could and should have been brief and cordial – something along the lines of, “I’m Ron Lindsay, president of CFI, and I’d like to welcome you all to the second Women in Secularism conference. Thank you for coming and we hope you have a good time.”

His job was emphatically not to begin the conference by haranguing a feminist audience about what he sees as the deficiencies in modern feminism, and then, when he received a wave of fully justified and deserved criticism for this, to respond immediately with a barrage of personal attacks directed at one of his critics, who happens to be an invited speaker at the conference to boot!

As I said on Twitter, such loose-cannon conduct is undiplomatic, unprofessional and unbecoming the head of a major secular organization. It suggests a serious deficiency in judgment, which ought to be of concern to all of CFI’s supporters, directors and friends, insofar as it undermines our confidence in CFI’s leadership.

But all this, I want to emphasize, isn’t to cast aspersions on CFI’s other staff members or detract from the excellent work they did in organizing this conference. I’ve said many times that a greater concern for diversity and a stronger alliance with feminist and social-justice groups are the future of the secular movement. It’s smart tactics from a political standpoint, since we have a common enemy in the religious right, and given current demographic trends, it lays the foundation for strong and continued future growth. All the goals that this convention was created to support are good and worthy ones. That’s why it was and is a grave disappointment that the man currently in charge of CFI seems not to be on board with them.

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About Adam Lee

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

  • Martha

    Well said, Adam, thank you.

  • William Brinkman

    Thank you for writing this.

  • Janus

    Yet, once again the people complaining about Lindsay’s *intentionally* divisive opening remarks and ad hominem-laden rebuttal are the one’s touted as divisive, unseemly, argumentative, authoritative, and pig-headed. That they are the ones who need to shut up and leave the secular and skeptical movements. Oh, the irony.

  • smhll

    “Rebecca Watson inhabits an alternate universe. ”

    We live in similar, but parallel universes, because of the common, categorical differences in the way we are treated.

  • MV

    Yep, looks like that Open Letter to the Secular Community is really paying off. In response to critics complaining that they didn’t listen to the community and propose concrete actions, Lindsay, as head of the CFI and one of the signatories, really showed them. /sarcasm

  • ool0n

    I’m amazed he didn’t get booed off the stage… So much for Justin Vacula’s friends fantasies about him being in personal danger being in a room full of feminists. If you can make a speech like that and survive unscathed then he had nowt to worry about.

    Although there are plenty on Twitter and elsewhere bemoaning poor Ron being “silenced” by the evil feminist ideologues.

  • asonge

    What I can’t understand is why he didn’t run this by any feminist women first. If I were asked to speak in front of a group of feminists, I’d be checking the *shit* out of my privilege by having a woman criticize my remarks in private to make sure I didn’t do something this stupid.

    I think you’re right in criticizing him in his failure of playing his role, Adam. I wouldn’t be as offended as I am now if these were some private reflections and not the opening speech to a conference about welcoming women. I’ve got my own views about what may or may not be effective in this conversation, but I’m not the head of a large organization who is lecturing women about making sure that they’re nice to the men. I have to question his competence as, you said, a “political” leader.

  • Steven Carr

    I think we should call Lindsay lots of names.

  • Crimson

    I sincerely (but perhaps mistakenly) believe that no one would be complaining about that speech if it had been produced by a disembodied, robotic voice.

  • Jerrad Wohlleber

    Another thing that really astonished me about Lindsay’s opening speech was that he not only refused to welcome the attendees, but made an explicit point about not welcoming them.

    In other words, “Thanks for your money, but I really wish you weren’t here. Now shut up and listen as I lecture you about being mean to the poor poor men.”

  • Azkyroth


  • Jerrad Wohlleber

    And I sincerely believe that if Lindsay had done his five-ball juggling act instead of speaking, nobody would be mad at him!

    Making up stories is fun, isn’t it?

  • Azkyroth

    “Rebecca Watson inhabits an alternate universe. “

    As opposed to Lindsay, who inhabits an “I”niverse.

  • ahermit

    Stephanie Zvan has a response to the “alternate universe” crack.

    “I agree with Ron Lindsay about this statement. Rebecca does live in an alternate universe. So do I.”

    Read the whole thing, it’s brilliant…

  • Jim Wile

    These guys are making all old white men look bad. As a member of that group, I can only hope they pull their heads out at some time in the future. I am not expecting it, but hope springs eternal.

  • Christopher Bullivant

    You’d be wrong then. Even if it had been delivered by a women, the substance of the speech would have been just as awful.

  • William Tarbush

    I’ve actually had people try to silence me (though not women) through citing privilege. It happens.

  • Leslie Anderson

    If you are the leader of an organization it always looks unprofessional to attempt to tear down an individual blogger, no matter how popular or outspoken they are. If you represent an organization you don’t get to do personal attacks! That’s the sacrifice you make for good PR. Cripes.

  • rumblestiltsken


    A robot that made a speech that offended 99.7% of the crowd (there-to-troll Vacula clapped) at a conference the robot’s owners sponsored would be decommissioned.

    Ron being a powerful white man just ground salt into the wound.

  • Azkyroth

    What’s not to understand? He’s a Man, so he knows better than all them uppity girls. Girls are so emotional, you know.

  • Azkyroth

    Can you give an example? Because while it does happen, 95% of the time, the “silencing” boils down to “thank you so much for giving us your snap judgment about something you learned about two minutes ago while being surrounded by people who have been dealing with it for their entire lives, but assumed you had a relevant opinion on because you’re used to being treated as more interesting and important because of the groups you belong to.” Or, rather, to the way that winds up being rephrased after having to have the same conversation a few hundred times and being completely fucking sick of it…and the remaining 5% are usually responding to a mistakenly recognized pattern out of force of habit precisely because of having the same conversation a few hundred times.

  • VorJack

    Are we sure that this isn’t some kind of bizarre performance art?

    Oy. Regardless of which faction you favor, this was a politically inept move on the part of Lindsay. The CFI could have stayed outside of the fray, but he’s brought in directly into the argument.

  • B-Lar

    There is a significant difference between being told to examine your position for inherent cognitive bias, and being trolled into silence.

    “check your privilege” is a catchphrase which is used a great deal, and it may be that those who use it have understood its meaning but are incapable of expressing its subtleties in conversation. Its meaning is clear though: YOU HAVE A TINY FRACTION OF THE UNDERSTANDING REQUIRED TO FULLY COMPREHEND THIS PROBLEM. CHECK YOUR BIAS BEFORE PROCEEDING.

    Finally, dont try and conflate these two things:

    - Someone rebuking you because you dont know what you are commenting about.

    - A harrasment campaign designed to shut your voice out of a conversation.

    Its embarrassing to watch.

  • B-Lar

    Like “BraveHero”?

  • Ubi Dubium

    My reaction to the speech was pretty much jaw-dropping amazement at why he thought that was a good idea. This was a major mistake on Ron’s part, and I wish he’d just say so, so we can get on with the important work that needs doing. Especially listening to the later panel on leaving religion (Jamila Bey, Vickie Garrison, Teresa McBain, and Maryam Namazie), given what these women have endured in their lives, and the amazing strength they have shown against enormous challenges, how can Ron get up there and lecture human beings of this caliber about “tone”?
    Could we have a real discussion at WIS about the idea of privilege and the best ways to effectively use that idea? Sure. But it should be a panel discussion among people of many backgrounds, not a sermon from a powerful well-educated middle-aged white male. And as the welcome address? The welcome address, if it discussed anything substantive at all, should have been about things like the reasons the particular speakers and discussion topics were selected for this conference. Or perhaps a quick summary of the previous conference, and what discussions or new developments have come out of it over the past year. Or as Adam suggested just “Hi, welcome to the conference.”

  • AshleyWB

    Many prominent secular individuals such as Lindsay and Shermer seem to inhabit a universe where secularist and skeptical organizations can do it all on their own, just as they are now. They seem to be unaware at how badly our community has gotten its ass kicked politically and culturally over the last thirty years, and how desperately we need allies and growth.

    I don’t see how any long time big-S Skeptic can think we’ve been effective. Creationism is as strong as ever, the anti-vaxxers have made huge inroads, drug stores stock homeopathic remedies, “science channels” mostly air documentaries about ghost invasions and alien pyramid builders, and Bigfoot will never die.

    On the secularist front, the decline of religiosity in America is going to increase, not decrease, attempts by fearful, paranoid theists to impose their beliefs onto society at large. Theistic incursions into the law are damaging women’s health and freedom, so atheists and secularists have powerful natural allies in feminism. But every time I turn around some “leader” in our community is working his ass of to guarantee such alliances never happen.

  • Virginia Brown

    It is not irrelevant that it was a white man making the remarks, not a disembodied robotic voice… but the remarks themselves (in context) were a problem.

    Also a problem: he went ten minutes over his time, right after the woman managing the panels had said she was going to keep a very tight ship as far as timeliness. She lampshaded it right afterward, pointing out that he’s her boss and so she couldn’t very well have cut him off (she said it more diplomatically).

  • Azkyroth

    …would it excuse it somehow if it was?

    I don’t understand the point of comments like this. People who have to deal with this kind of shit on a regular basis already KNOW people who don’t would mostly prefer to pretend it just doesn’t happen.

  • VorJack

    “…would it excuse it somehow if it was?”

    That was sarcasm. The heads of prestigious non-profits do not engage in performance art. They’re too busy balancing the competing interests on the board, among the donors and in the audience. Which Lindsay has just failed to do. Spectacularly.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    CFI denies that Lindsay’s next appearance will be at a meeting of the NAACP, where he will caution attendees not to silence white people, because that is in so much danger of happening.
    (Satire – not intended to be a factual statement)

  • 8DX

    He didn’t specifically complain about Ophelia, but his remarks Re: Rebecca I think grant him an BraveHero.

  • William Tarbush

    Telling people that their opinion is wrong with no reasoning for it is wrong. Doesn’t matter if they’re using privilege or snap judgements.

  • William Tarbush

    As I’ve said, they should tell you why you don’t know what you’re talking about. Saying simply “check privilege” is dodging logic and reasoning.

  • GCT

    Assuming there’s no reason for it, especially in regards to privilege is where you are going wrong.

  • GCT

    No, it’s not. It’s called pointing out the reality of the situation.

  • TychaBrahe

    Whatever is being discussed, most likely you’re not it.

    When women’s issues are being discussed, you’re a man. When issues of people of color are being discussed, you’re White. When issues of the illiterate are being discussed, you can read.

    Unless you’ve actually tried to cope in the modern world as a person who cannot read, you can’t really know what it’s like. You can read the writings of people who learned to read late in life, you can become an expert on the statistics, but if it hasn’t been your personal experience, you’re at a disadvantage in a conversation regarding it.

  • Deen

    No, it’s a refusal to do your homework for you. Nobody owes you their time to teach you the basics you should have known before you joined the conversation..

  • Azkyroth

    Yes, we understand you’re a very special snowflake who feels entitled to have people calmly and patiently explain 101-level stuff to him without reacting in any way to his Neither Cute Nor Clever attempts at picking it apart, second-guessing every piece of it, and aggressively twisting words. We’re not impressed.