Atheists Should Have No Idols

Atheists Should Have No Idols February 26, 2018

The #MeToo movement is still boiling, both inside the secular movement and out. The latest public figure to stand in the hot glare of scrutiny is Lawrence Krauss, the famous skeptic and physicist.

A long story published in BuzzFeed begins with a harrowing story from Melody Hensley, formerly of CFI, who says Krauss tried to sexually assault her in his hotel room at a CFI event in 2006. And she’s not the only one who’s come forward:

BuzzFeed News has learned that the incident with Hensley is one of many wide-ranging allegations of Krauss’s inappropriate behavior over the last decade — including groping women, ogling and making sexist jokes to undergrads, and telling an employee at Arizona State University, where he is a tenured professor, that he was going to buy her birth control so she didn’t inconvenience him with maternity leave.

As the article notes, for a long time, Krauss’ name has percolated through the whisper networks of women who warn each other about which speakers to avoid at scientific and skeptical conferences. But until now, he’s kept these accusations from becoming public by threatening to sue people who spoke about them openly. In BuzzFeed, he appears to have met an adversary he couldn’t intimidate.

The story, by the reporters Peter Aldhous and Azeen Ghoraysh, has a damning list of incidents and accusations stretching back at least twelve years. According to the article, at an Australian skeptics’ convention, three different witnesses say they saw Krauss grope a woman who asked to take a selfie with him. At least two universities confirmed that they barred him from campus as the result of sexual-harassment complaints. And then there’s that time Krauss hit on the worst possible way to defend a wealthy friend who was convicted of soliciting underage prostitutes:

“As a scientist I always judge things on empirical evidence and he always has women ages 19 to 23 around him, but I’ve never seen anything else, so as a scientist, my presumption is that whatever the problems were I would believe him over other people.”

I’m totally unsurprised, in light of past events, to hear that CFI’s Ron Lindsay was told about Krauss’ behavior and still made him a featured guest at one of their events, a cruise to the Galápagos Islands (which would be an especially ugly place to be trapped with a sexual predator):

“I really don’t want Krauss on this trip,” Patricia Beauchamp, CFI’s business and finance manager, emailed CFI’s then-president, Ronald Lindsay, on March 11, 2013. “His behavior on past trips has been offensive to many and this is a very expensive and small vessel.”

…Lindsay’s response to Beauchamp’s email focused on the bottom line: “Is it your position that Krauss will keep us from selling cabins?”

…Lindsay told BuzzFeed News that, after Beauchamp’s email, he discussed the incident with the passenger in question. “I did call the guest and she substantially confirmed what Ms. Beauchamp had said. I apologized on behalf of the organization,” Lindsay said by email. He also said he discussed the incident with Krauss, who denied it. Krauss was invited on the cruise.

Krauss has responded to these allegations. If you think he did better in his own defense than he did on behalf of his convicted child-molester friend, well:

When asked why multiple women, over more than a decade, have separately accused him of misconduct, he said the answer was “obvious”: It’s because his provocative ideas have made him famous.

“It is common knowledge that celebrity attracts all forms of negative attention from many different angles,” Krauss said in a December email. “There is no pattern of discontent revealed here that suggests any other explanation.”

If you believe that defense, but you’ve ever condemned the Catholic church for letting pedophile priests run wild, you owe some bishops an apology. “Women make up wild accusations against me because I’m famous” is no different in substance than “Children make up wild accusations against priests because they hate God”.

Continuing the trend of male anti-feminists who need better defenders, Krauss’ wife Nancy Dahl also went on Twitter to insult and attack the women quoted in the article, conspicuously failing to disclose her connection to Krauss (she was tweeting under her maiden name). She ominously proclaimed that “Slander is a crime” (it’s not, it’s a civil tort).

However, Krauss’ self-justifications aren’t enjoying much success. Since the news broke, he’s been disinvited from several skeptical or scientific conferences:

Yesterday afternoon, Pangborn Philosophy announced that Krauss would not be attending “The Celebration of Science & Reason” event it had scheduled for Friday night in Phoenix, Arizona, offering a refund to anyone disappointed by his absence.

…Gizmodo also reached out to MIT, where Krauss was scheduled to speak at an alumni event in March. Yesterday afternoon, a link to the event was taken down from MIT’s website, and a representative told Gizmodo that the event has been canceled.

Similarly, the American Physical Society announced yesterday afternoon that it has disinvited Krauss from speaking at its 2018 meeting held in April.

Reading this story, it occurred to me that in some ways, the atheist community was ahead of the curve. We were talking about feminism and debating harassment and consent years before the #MeToo movement erupted into public.

Sadly, that early start has proven to be a negative and not a positive. The atheist women who spoke up early were not only disbelieved, they were viciously attacked. Many of them chose to leave the secular movement altogether. That legacy of denial lingers, years later, and has kept our community more white, more male and more stubbornly unenlightened than it otherwise would have been.

Some of the people who were accused of misbehavior early on have skated free of consequences to this day. Others who poured hate and scorn on those who spoke up now claim they enthusiastically support #MeToo. The only thing that’s different in Krauss’ case is that he was exposed at a time when victims have started to be believed.

The lesson we in the secular community still haven’t learned is that atheists should have no idols. We’ve rejected the unfounded claims of religion, but all too often, we’ve kept the form of its governance. We pick out mediocre men, elevate them as heroes and thought leaders, and insist they can do no wrong. Then, when one of them is accused of some serious misbehavior, too many atheists instinctively rally to their defense and attack the accusers.

If we mean it when we say that we stand for reason and evidence, this is unacceptable. We need to treat every claim as serious and deserving of scrutiny, and we need to apply the same standard when it comes to allegations against people we like as we do with people we dislike. Otherwise, we’re acting no different from any religious sect or cult whose guru uses the cloak of faith to cover up evil deeds. I want to see the secular community advocate for true objectivity and skepticism, and not just our own brand of tribalism to compete with religious tribalism – but we have yet to prove that we’re capable of living up to the ideals we profess.

Image credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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