I’ve been writing about sexism and feminism in the secular community for several years now, and if you’d asked me this question even a few days ago, I would’ve said that I thought things were getting better. There’s certainly evidence I could point to to support that: in just a short time, anti-harassment policies have become standard at our conferences and gatherings, we’ve had a parade of male leaders speaking out against sexism, we have whole conventions and organizations specifically addressing the concerns of secular women. But the events of the last week or so have given me reason to question how much progress we’ve really made, or whether we’ve made any at all.

One of the sparks that started this blaze was Ashley Paramore’s video discussing, in graphic detail, her experience of sexual assault at the TAM conference in Las Vegas (which, I emphasize, was handled well by the organizers). She didn’t name the person responsible, but it brought the simmering issue of sexual harassment in the secular community back to everyone’s attention.

The next development, shortly thereafter, was an article by skeptical activist Karen Stollznow on Scientific American’s Mind blog that recounted her experience of four years of sexual harassment by a colleague. When she reported it to her employer, in her words, here’s what happened:

They assured me they were disciplining the harasser but this turned out to be a mere slap on the wrist. He was suspended, while he was on vacation overseas. They offered no apology, that would be an admission of guilt, but they thanked me for bringing this serious matter to their attention. Then they asked me to not discuss this with anyone.

…I have since discovered that this company has a history of sexual harassment claims. They also have a track record of disciplining these harassers lightly, and then closing ranks like good ol’ boys. Another colleague assured me this was better than their previous custom of simply ignoring claims of sexual harassment.

But what turned this spark into a raging conflagration was that, soon after Stollznow’s story was published, the person she’d allegedly been discussing was named by several people on Twitter and elsewhere – although not by Stollznow herself – as Benjamin Radford. It was also reported that Radford and Stollznow’s employer at the time, the one whom she alleged stonewalled her and let him off with a slap on the wrist, was CFI. Take what lessons you will from that.

Once the first name was dropped and the taboo was broken, more personal testimonies started coming in rapid succession. Carrie Poppy, formerly of the JREF (James Randi’s organization, which runs TAM) spoke up, supporting Karen Stollznow’s account and discussing her experiences with sexism at the JREF, which drove her to quit in protest after just six months. Sasha Pixlee brought up his own experience with the JREF’s president D.J. Grothe. Last and worst, serious allegations have been reported about two big names: Michael Shermer and Lawrence Krauss (who seems to have threatened legal action to get one of the posts mentioning him taken down).

Let me make a few things clear, so that there’s no mistake. Sometimes, what’s morally right and what’s politically advantageous don’t align well. Sometimes, we have to make hard choices about how far we’re prepared to compromise our ideals in the service of achieving some tangible progress. Sometimes, we have to grit our teeth and work with people we find personally disagreeable, or even repugnant, in order to advance goals that we may have in common.

This isn’t one of those times.

I have no problem working with accommodationist nonbelievers, or even liberal theists, who share social-justice goals with me but abhor frontal attacks on religion. I have no problem cooperating with people whose moral views are deontological rather than consequentialist, or who reject my views about the proper use of the term “spirituality”, or who consider themselves politically libertarian or conservative rather than liberal.

But there’s one line in the sand I won’t suffer to be crossed: I require that anyone who I call my friend or ally must treat all people with equal respect and dignity. I won’t tolerate the company of people who make ugly racist comments, or who’d withhold equal legal protection for LGBTQ people – or who can’t seem to see women as human beings, friends and colleagues, rather than sex objects. For truth’s sake, that last one should be the easiest! Not everyone has friends who are gender or racial minorities – I can understand, if not necessarily condone, why there might be stereotypes and misunderstanding. But women are half the human race.

What I’m thinking hard about is how to judge the veracity of these claims. Although this isn’t a court of law, “innocent until proven guilty” is a good principle that we should strive to respect. The burden of proof should always lie with the person making the claim. On the other hand, we should avoid the kind of ideologically motivated hyperskepticism which claims that, unless there’s video evidence supported by multiple sworn testimonies, we should dismiss all claims of sexual harassment out of hand. The allegation of a powerful man exploiting his status to harass and assault women, I’m very sorry to say, is not an extraordinary claim; it’s an ordinary one. It happens all the time – in academia, in politics, in business, in religion. There’s no reason for skeptics to think it can’t happen to us too. And when the same man is named independently as a predator by multiple people who have nothing to gain by naming him and no obvious motivation to collude, at the very least we owe those allegations very serious consideration.

I’m not saying that every accusation should be believed without question. If for no other reason, I expect the usual trolls and haters to lodge malicious accusations in retaliation. Every claim should be evaluated on its own merits. I’m also not arguing that any kind of misdeed has to be punished with immediate and permanent blackballing (although I do advocate that for rape or other serious sexual assault). Personally, I think that most wrongdoing should be forgivable, if the person is willing to make amends and change their ways. But they have to prove that their contrition is sincere, and that would require a much more forthright acknowledgement of error than I’ve seen from any of the people or organizations who’ve been named so far.

Do I feel heartsick, disgusted, disillusioned by all these revelations about my community? You bet. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t wondered whether there’s any atheist or skeptical group left that’s worth supporting. But then again, if these allegations are true, these things were happening all along, and we just didn’t know about them until now. And however unpleasant the truth may be, I want to know what it is, always. Even if reality is depressing, reason forbids us from trying to pretend it’s other than it is. Our duty, instead, is to fix what’s wrong and make things better. Now we need to start thinking about how to do that.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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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.

  • B-Lar

    “Every claim should be evaluated on its own merits.”
    In principle, this is a good position to take, but if the same individual is accused multiple times, then the claim should be evaluated in that context too.
    The “merits” of an individual claim are quickly analysed and a trustworthiness score is assigned to them. An abuser knows this and will, in order to escape detection, choose a target who is in a position to be less likely believed.
    Its also worth considering that if someone does register a complaint and it is not taken seriously, then this is naturally going to reduce the number of complaints registered in future. The first claim is then treated as isolated by the organisation and they therefore rob themselves of the ability to identify their problem.
    A possible solution could be for the organisation to, upon hearing a complaint, to actively solicit other reports form its employees and affiliates. I suspect that suddenly they would be inundated with datapoints, and you can bet that even then there would be a significant number which would remain unreported.

  • http://dWhisper.net/ Nick Martin

    Disgust is a better word for me. Both at what’s being talked about and at the backlash at people for talking about it. You’re correct, in that these aren’t, in themselves, extraordinary claims, but sadly, our society makes any claim like this both extraordinary and given the same sort of “skepticism” that’s tossed around for things like Global Warming.

    It’s sad that the greater community of skeptics and atheists is no better than the rest of the world in this regard, even if it isn’t especially surprising. We are a reflection of our society, and this is how our society reacts to things like this in general.

    As a parent of a young girl, one I want to bring up as a little skeptic and who will be raised in a non-believer home, it frightens me that this is the world she’ll be exposed to. How can I bring a girl to an event knowing that she’s going to be treated, at best, as second-class, or at worst, as an object?

    I’d like to even say that people like that are in the minority, that they’re are disproportionately loud compared to the rest of the atheist community… but I’m not sure that’s true. For every site out there that posts something like this disgusted about the allegations, there are three more that are posting attacking the site that posted it, the people that posted it, or just the idea that allegations like this are always faked.

    And I’m just left, disgusted with it.

  • http://dWhisper.net/ Nick Martin

    There’s a couple of close analogs here, in both what’s happening the increase in reports) and the backlash against it, from recent history: the exposure of pedophilia throughout the Catholic Church and the more recent exposure of the same type of activity in college sports (such as the Sandusky case from Penn State).

    The Penn State example is probably closer, because, in a lot of ways, it was so unforeseen (as where there were grumblings and whispers from the church side for a long time). In it, two “pillars” were effectively brought low, one for the absolutely heinous crimes committed and the other for his role in covering it up, and worse, facilitating it.

    When that happened, there was a big rush of similar claims, as far as I know true, in other schools and situations. The floodgates were opened, as it was, but there was still a considerable amount of backlash. And for the most part, outside of one big example, the rest were quietly swept away.

    We’re seeing similar things here, with organizations (especially the weak-willed CFI), that are more interested in sweeping away and shutting up than in trying to fix the problem. You’re right, in that the only outcome there is to discourage anyone else from reporting a problem.

  • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

    I’m also downhearted about the revelations of bad behavior, not that it’s being revealed, but that it was going on so long without being publicly exposed. And yet, at the same time I’m pleased and relieved to see that it’s being talked about openly at last.

    First and foremost, because we will have a hard time changing or preventing bad behavior if there are never any repercussions to violating behavior standards. No more allowing it to be hidden, ignored or minimized.

    But also, as I’ve become more active in the secular movement, every so often I would hear a mention that there were problem individuals. But those mentions never included names, or specifics of what they were known to do, or what tactics they would use. At WIS1 there was talk of backchannels and quiet discussions behind the scenes of who to avoid, but those discussions never reached me. Now as a 50-ish short dumpy mom, I’m not that concerned that I would be a target myself, but I have teenaged daughters that might be active in the movement soon, and they would be targets. Now that names are being named, and their tactics are being discussed, I can warn them: If “Professor K” starts getting too friendly, excuse yourself quickly, stay away from “Editor S” completely, big-name speaker “N” is known to grab butts so keep your distance if that bothers you, and always get your own drinks and never let any “friendly” guy refill them for you. That’s information I can use.

  • Pyrrhus

    I very much share your feelings of disillusion Adam. I also agree that whatever philosophical or political differences there might be, basic human decency is not negotiable.

    I’m really, really sorry to learn this about Shermer and Krauss. For some reason, though it’s bad enough, it seems more easy to accept that unknown individuals at conferences might be douchebags. They exist everywhere after all. But when big names seem to be guilty (and in a systematic way, as well), then it does hit closer to home.

    It seems that CFI has known about issues with Krauss for years (of people accused guilty of harassment or being mentioned as speakers to avoid, he is reportedly by far the most common individual mentioned), yet they keep inviting him. That, in addition to their (non-)handling of Karen Stollznow’s complaints, paint them as a unhinged organization. Not worthy of support. Not at all.

    In order to counter the hyperskeptics, it could be worth listing people (as in famous skeptics) not named in such contexts.

  • Pyrrhus

    Please tell me “big-name speaker N” is NOT the one who likes to guide us around the universe once every week.

  • Katatonic

    The one thing that keeps poking my brain is the idea that unless atheist/skeptical groups & organizations take serious, concrete action VERY SOON, this is going to be a flash-burn for those accused with no real change in the community’s mindset. Haters are gonna hate, yadda yadda yadda…and women will quietly move away from the community, loathe to start any more fires and equally loathe to subject themselves to possible harassment/assault knowing that they will be ignored if they speak against it. We’ve been conditioned to not make waves (unless it’s REALLY bad & that’s apparently in the eye of the beholder) and when some do, they’re being vilified for it (Twitter will no longer permit rape/death threats but comment threads are going to be appalling) and the rest of us take our lessons from that.

    Part of my astonishment around all this was with WHO was being targeted. These are not delicate, subservient, shrinking-flower females; they’re smart, educated, assertive, and STILL they had to endure this abuse. Continually.

    I don’t know how to fix this. I hope that in our non-believing/skeptical community as the Old Guard (and their sexist/racist/anything-ist ways) croaks, TNG will do better and make us proud.

  • EmpiricalPierce

    This is just speculation, but I’d like to think that this is progress, painful as it might be. We’ve gone from sexual abuse and harassment scenarios being kept quiet and unreported to being reported frequently not because it’s suddenly happening so much more often, but because women feel more willing to speak up about their problems.

    And awareness of the problem is the first step to fixing it.

  • delphi_ote

    Think more along the lines of a science guy.

  • YesDavisIsMyFirstName

    I’m just glad the internet exists for this kind of situation. It allows the truth to spread, and people to tell their stories anonymously and then publicly if there is enough community support. It gives me hope. Though not religious, I like the imagery of the light illuminating the darkness and the darkness fleeing. I think we finally have a tool which can illuminate the darkest parts of our cultures and power structures and which allows us to act to remove or combat those things.

    Though it saddens me that such behavior exists in the skeptical movement, It makes me excited that our message includes the caveat that all should be held accountable for their beliefs or behaviors and must defend them against criticism, unlike the “everything can be forgiven” crowd.

  • Azkyroth

    That’s one big fucking boil that just got lanced…

  • J-D

    If you report to the police that you’ve been robbed, the first response isn’t ‘How do we know that’s true?’ or ‘We’ll need to see some evidence of that?’ or ‘Are you sure you didn’t just mislay your property?’ or ‘We have to consider the possibility that you’re trying to defraud your insurance’. At least, I should say, that’s not how it should be, and it’s not how it was in my experience of reporting thefts to the police. The proper and, I hope, normal initial response is for the police to ask you to tell your story. If you report loss or damage to your insurance company, the people at the insurance company don’t begin by responding as if they doubt your word, even though it’s part of their job to detect false claims. Nevertheless, they begin by proceeding as if they don’t doubt you and asking you for your story. If people I know tell me about being the victim of theft, or vandalism, or assault, I respond by taking them at their word, even though I am aware as background knowledge that such things as false reports, even to friends, do exist.

    The proper initial response to a story like Karen Stollznow’s, therefore, should also be based on taking her at her word. If somebody I know, or even somebody I didn’t, came to me saying ‘I have been sexually harassed’, then my initial response would be along these general lines:
    1. ‘That’s terrible! I’m so sorry.’
    2. ‘Is there anything I can do?’
    3. ‘Do you want to talk about it?’
    Broadly speaking, allowing for the different character of the relationship, I think those are the sort of lines along which Karen Stollznow’s employer should have responded. If she had responded that she wanted her harasser fired, or disciplined in some other way, then other considerations would obviously be relevant, but those other considerations aren’t relevant to that initial response of getting the story (if she wants to tell it) and not challenging it.

    The rest of the world, to which Karen Stollznow has now told her story, has not been asked by her to discipline her harasser in any way, and for us too the proper initial response to her story should not be based on disputing its veracity.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    If you report to the police that you’ve been robbed, the first response isn’t ‘How do we know that’s true?’ or ‘We’ll need to see some evidence of that?’ or ‘Are you sure you didn’t just mislay your property?’ or ‘We have to consider the possibility that you’re trying to defraud your insurance’.

    Or, “Are you sure you didn’t just give your property away and now you regret it?”

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/ Ani J. Sharmin

    I wouldn’t say I’m disillusioned, but definitely disappointed. Disappointed that people who apparently have the time and inclination to look up information about certain subjects (e.g., explanations of evolution, arguments against religion) either don’t know about or don’t care about looking up information concerning equality, representation, harassment, etc. Disappointed that people who show sympathy when hearing personal stories about people’s bad experiences in religion are dismissive when hearing personal stories about bad experiences in other areas.

  • Chica

    Thank you for writing this. I have been sexually harassed at every job I’ve ever held. Male privilege rules the day in the workplace. You’re right. SH is entirely ordinary. How much in health care costs could be saved if women did not have to face the stress of SH on the job? How much more energy would we have to put toward the work? As a teacher, I see the amount of energy that students must spend on dealing with SH. How are their educations and futures affected by SH? It is a huge problem; many more men like Adam Lee will have to raise their voices in order for this to change. Unfortunately, I am old enough to know that I will end my working days under the same, ordinary, everyday SH that I’ve known my entire life.

  • Pamela W.

    This is horrifying. I don’t know why I should be surprised, and I guess I’m not completely, but I wanted to think better of these men, I really did. I have been an admirer of both M. Shermer and L. Krauss. I feel like I’ve been slapped in the face. Or punched in the gut.
    How strange that Lawrence Krauss walked out of a talk because the women were segregated due to Muslim custom, making him seem egalitarian, and yet he seems to have no compunction about bullying women into sexual compliance. I am amazed that the same man can be so forward-thinking and yet be such a caveman. I’ve got this fun photo as my desktop background, of him in what appears to be a library, sitting on a giant teddy bear. I don’t even remember where I got it. Now that’s got to be replaced.

    And Michael Shermer. What can I say about him? That he seems so congenial? That he has a face that makes him look like he would never hurt anyone or anything that didn’t have it coming? I’ve never met him personally, thank goodness, but watching his lectures has given me those impressions. That shows how wrong impressions can be, doesn’t it? I recently bought his book, Why Darwin Matters. Now I am torn between going ahead and reading it and going ahead and burning it. I’m leading toward burning, but shredding might be better for the environment.

    I’ve heard MS talk about his daughter. She must be about sixteen or seventeen now, maybe a little older. Chances are very, very good that she will be sexually harassed at some point. There is a good chance she already has been. How will he feel if someone gets her drunk and sc**ws her without her consent? If she comes to him for support and for help, maybe distraught and crying, what will he say to her? What CAN he say?
    What colossal jerks both of these men are. This behavior from them is not only heinous, but is stupid and unnecessary. Are they unaware that they need not get a woman drunk or bully her into sexual compliance? Is it just too much work to win someone over properly? Or maybe it’s just more fun for them to be sneaky and horrible, to target those women who are NOT likely to be won over and figuratively (or maybe literally) drag them off by the hair into the bushes.
    ALL men who behave this way are thugs and there is no excuse. If I found that my son behaved this way, I would be so ashamed that it would make me physically ill.
    This comment was meant to be a short one. Should have known better than that. At least I feel coherent now. Last night I was so furious that I could barely think in complete sentences. If LK or MS were in front of me right now, I’d tell them both exactly what I think of them. Instead I’m ranting about it here. Perhaps strongly-worded un-fan letters are in order. Wonder if I’d be sued?
    Thank you, Adam Lee, for helping bring this to light, for talking about it and for letting me talk about it. All men who value women as friends, as colleagues, and as human beings, should speak out against sexual bullying. This sort of behavior must be loudly repudiated at every opportunity for as long as it takes to change it.

  • Pamela W.

    I just deleted the photo of Lawrence Krauss which I had as my desktop background. I replaced it with a lovely photo of Karen Stollznow. Take that, you jerk.

  • Pyrrhus

    I share those feelings. I had particularly grown to like Krauss, who appeared to be a sympathetic, very likeable person very much interested in educating the public more than anything else. Turns out (probably) not. At the debate in which he walked out, he was clearly still angry about the gender segregation. Which makes him hard to decode.

    It will be interesting to see how this unfolds. Perhaps one or two blogs can be made to shut up, but the cat is out of the bag.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    The Penn State example is probably closer, because, in a lot of ways, it was so unforeseen (as where there were grumblings and whispers from the church side for a long time).

    Just by way of offering a minor correction, this wasn’t entirely unforeseen. From what I’m told, there’s long been an informal network of atheist women who warn each other about which speakers to avoid (not that I’ve ever been personally privy to it). I’ve seen several people who were privy to this information come forward to say that most of the names now appearing publicly are no surprise.

  • John-Henry Eric Beck

    Just thought I’d briefly mention, I think it’s pretty easy to imagine someone like Krauss standing up for egalitarian and feminist stuff and also still make crass propositions and the like. I’ve seen much wider bridges of cognitive dissonance as far as believing one loves and respects women, and doing something many find offensive.

  • http://dWhisper.net/ Nick Martin

    True, I suppose I should be a bit clearer in saying “unforseen by the greater community.” With the Penn State allegations, there certainly were whispers, given that it had been reported and covered up before blowing up.

    It’s a shame that there had to be back-channel whispers and that our society stigmatizes people that try to bring it out of the back-channel

  • Fallulah

    This really hit home for me. I find a huge comfort in certain online Atheist forums and yet as a female atheist sometimes it feels like one step forward, three steps back. Any posts that touch upon a “feminist” issue is immediately bombarded with tons of sexist rhetoric and asked to be taken down. Why is “feminism” so distasteful to atheists??