The Shermer Affair Erupts

VolcanicEruption

The allegations against one of our Big Names that have been simmering in the atheist community for more than a year have erupted into the public eye, with the publication of a long article by Mark Oppenheimer on Buzzfeed, “Will Misogyny Bring Down The Atheist Movement?

Oppenheimer’s article is largely about the serious accusations made against Michael Shermer, which I referenced last year in “Disillusionment“. For the first time, the woman who accused him of raping her after getting her too drunk to say no has agreed to speak on the record. She’s Alison Smith, a former employee of the James Randi Educational Foundation:

“I ran into Shermer in the hallway,” Smith said recently, speaking publicly for the first time about what happened that night. They began talking, and he invited her to a Scotch and cigar party at the Caesars Palace hotel. “He was talking about future articles we could write, and he mentioned this party and asked if I could come, and I said yes.” At the party, they began downing drinks. “At some point,” Smith said, “I realized he wasn’t drinking them; he was hiding them underneath the table and pretending to drink them. I was drunk. After that, it all gets kind of blurry. I started to walk back to my hotel room, and he followed me and caught up with me… He offered to walk me back to my room, but walked me to his instead. I don’t have a clear memory of what happened after that. I know we had sex.”

Two other women, Pamela Gay and Ashley Miller, have also agreed to go on the record with stories about how Shermer sexually harassed them at other events. (Full disclosure: I’ve met Ashley several times and consider her a friend.) I happen to know there are other people who weren’t named or quoted in the article, and who have stories of their own about Shermer that corroborate or supplement these ones.

One other revelation is that James Randi, at whose conference this took place, was aware that women had complained about Shermer behaving inappropriately. But he seemed to chalk it up to mere drunkenness, rather than deliberate predatory intent, and suggested that he might take some action if he gets “many more” (how many do you need?) complaints:

“Shermer has been a bad boy on occasion — I do know that,” Randi told me. “I have told him that if I get many more complaints from people I have reason to believe, that I am going to have to limit his attendance at the conference.

“His reply,” Randi continued, “is he had a bit too much to drink and he doesn’t remember. I don’t know — I’ve never been drunk in my life. It’s an unfortunate thing… I haven’t seen him doing that. But I get the word from people in the organization that he has to be under better control. If he had gotten violent, I’d have him out of there immediately. I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk.”

Over the last year, the most widely heard talking point from defenders of Shermer has been that the allegations against him couldn’t be critically evaluated because they were anonymous. Well, they’re no longer anonymous. Now the question is: what are you going to do in response?

If you don’t believe these women, why not? All three of them agreed to go on the record and relate stories of inappropriate behavior by Shermer, knowing that widespread disbelief, personal hostility and attacks on their character would surely follow. Their stories are corroborated by other witnesses and other evidence, not least the fact that Shermer’s own account of the events has changed over time. Are they all colluding against him? If so, for what motive? If you believe they’re lying, spell out your argument and your assumptions. This is why, as Anita Sarkeesian said in a similar context, one of the most radical things you can do is to believe women when they tell you about their experiences.

Oppenheimer’s article gives a well-researched account of our troubles with sexism over the last few years. It goes to show that this isn’t an isolated event, but the culmination of a pattern of mistreating women and then ignoring, dismissing or lashing out at them when they complain about it. I’m heartsick at the damage done to the atheist community, which I love and want to succeed; but the damage wasn’t done by this article. It was done, and is still being done, by people who knew about these accusations and ignored them, dismissed them, or bullied and ridiculed those who spoke out.

What I’m most incredulous about is how many prominent atheist figures are still clueless and oblivious when it comes to feminism, and who can’t open their mouths to talk about women and women’s issues without saying something painfully, embarrassingly ignorant. Just the other day, Sam Harris became the latest atheist personality to explain the gender imbalance in skepticism by suggesting that it’s “to some degree intrinsically male” (just like when, oh yeah, Michael Shermer said that skepticism was “a guy thing“).

Guys, the answer you’re looking for is right in front of your faces. If atheism has a gender imbalance, it’s not for mysterious reasons involving the effects of testosterone on the neocortex. It’s because the atheist community is treating women badly – because you are treating them badly – and they’re making the rational and understandable decision to walk away in response. When one of our Big Names is accused of sexual assault and conference organizers wink at it; or when women are flooded by online threats and abuse; or, for that matter, when Richard Dawkins, one of our most prominent figures, expounds his important Man Opinions strongly implying that rape is partially the victim’s fault if they’re drunk, and that you should never accuse anyone of rape if you can’t remember what happened (implicitly telling rapists that they can expect to get away with it as long as they can incapacitate their victims with drugs or alcohol*) – when all these things happen and keep happening, who could blame women for getting the message that they’re not welcome?

I think it’s true, as Oppenheimer suggests, that our movement is going through some growing pains as it becomes larger and more diverse, and the old guard of activists is meeting and mingling with some very different kinds of people: “like fans whose favorite obscure band hits it big; their small, intimate shows were becoming big arena concerts, leaving them a bit dislocated.” But that’s not an excuse. If we want to be a movement that can change society for the better, rather than an insular brandy-and-cigars clubhouse for old white men, we need to be as diverse and welcoming as possible. And the steps we need to take to make that happen really aren’t that complicated.** We need to be better, and we should be better. But so far, we aren’t.

* If you were wondering, yes, I retract my earlier optimism.

** And the first step to solving the problem is talking about it, which is why articles like Oppenheimer’s are so vital. We can’t solve a problem if we don’t know it exists; we can’t believe women if we’re not hearing their testimonies. Even if these allegations are false, we can’t disprove them without debating them publicly. I’ve quoted some prominent atheists who’ve reacted badly, but one other thing you may want to pay attention to is which atheists aren’t reacting at all. Who’s conspicuously ignoring this story and carrying on as if nothing had happened?

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About Adam Lee

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