When you lose your support network as completely as I did when I left my faith, you learn to develop an internal compass less subject to the whims of other people. Of course, you will always have to seek advice from others, because everyone needs mentors from time to time. But like I vaguetweeted the other day, being a “freethinker” means that, in a way, you have to become your own mentor.
That’s especially true for those of us who used to have more people to look up to but who later found ourselves outside of the tribe from which we originated. Ultimately we learn to feel our way through complicated situations ourselves because we know far too well the proclivity of human beings to follow a crowd. Sometimes a thing seems right because a whole lot of people are jumping on the same bandwagon. And yes, even “freethinkers” do that, too.
But this past weekend I had a phone conversation with someone who presented me with a choice, and I want to tell you about that decision, because I think it will illustrate a crisis of conscience which people like me who are active within the “atheist movement” must face. In order to understand the context of this conversation, I will have to go back nearly seven months and tell you a story about my relationship with Recovering from Religion (RFR) as their group development director. It’s a bit of a long story, so pour yourself a cup of coffee and kick off your shoes. This is gonna take a while.
It Started Out Great, But Then…
About a year ago, two of the board members of RFR reached out to me and persuaded me that the mission and goals of their organization aligned with my own work so perfectly that it just made sense for me to come on board as a director of their support groups, which are located all over the U.S. and overseas. In many ways I am a poster child for the kind of person they intend to help, and indeed I myself have been immensely helped by their work in the secular community over the last few years.
In particular, I was always impressed by the way in which previous religious experience conditioned their leadership to be sensitive to the nuanced issues faced by people coming out of a highly religious context. Much of the secular movement has a harsher edge toward religion, blaming a disproportionate amount of the ills of humanity on supernatural belief, as if there aren’t plenty of other sources for bad behavior within the history of the human race. They were among the first to reach out to me after the video of my Interview an Atheist at Church Day was shared on The Friendly Atheist just a few short days after I launched this blog. Recovering from Religion just felt right for me, and it was. It was a match made in, well, on earth I suppose.
In late August of last year, they promoted a crowdfunder designed to raise enough money to enable me to devote more than just nights and weekends to developing their small groups (I had previously been teaching high school full-time). It was an immediate success, surpassing the expectations of perhaps everyone who put it together. It was publicly launched on the last Wednesday of that month, and by the end of that very first weekend, not only had people given enough to cover my work for three months, but an additional donor stepped forward before the weekend was done to give enough for me to continue working on those same tasks for an additional three months.
The crowdfunder had another month or so to go, and from that point on anything brought in from the fundraiser for me could then be “gifted” back to the organization for either of their other programs (Hotline Project, Secular Therapist Project). At this point everything seemed to be going swimmingly. I was touched by the community support and the implied vote of confidence, and the board members of RFR reposted my own report on the fundraiser’s success into their own social media spaces.
But then something went wrong soon after. In mid-September, about the same time that the bulk of the fundraiser payout was mailed to the chairman of the board, Darrel Ray, Apostacon happened in Dallas, TX. Most of us couldn’t have known the sheer number of problems that were going on behind the scenes of that event, and to be honest after reading JT Eberhard’s post last week, I still have more questions than I have answers (e.g. Was anything actually taken for personal benefit? How many of these expenditures were done with permission from the others in charge? and Why are these things being dealt with on a blog instead of somewhere official?). Those of us who didn’t have leadership responsibilities in that conference couldn’t possibly see how much was wrong because the event itself was a blast, as it always is.
By the way, Apostacon remains my favorite conference of all the ones I’ve attended. But then I may be biased since it’s specifically targeted for apostates like me (thus the portmanteau of “apostate” and “conference”). But I digress…
Who Is This Person and Why Is He Here?
A few weeks after the bulk of the fundraiser was sent to RFR, I was asked to join in on a call with a close friend of Darrel’s, a man named Eliott Canter. I had met him and his partner/spouse, Gayle Jordan at a previous conference, and I soon learned that together he and Gayle helped to negotiate the terms of Sarah Morehead’s resignation from her position as Executive Director of RFR. Since I am not privy to the details of that arrangement, I have as many questions as answers about that as well. But in the end that is not my fight, so it’s not entirely germane to this narrative today.
Very soon into that phone call the tone of the conversation turned coercive and I began to feel that I was being interrogated for some reason. I was being asked for details about private conversations without any explanation for the intensity of the conversation. Eventually I interrupted the line of questioning to ask why I felt like I was being cornered about the details of a public fundraiser which their own board members had promoted beforehand and celebrated afterwards.
Most of Eliott’s questions seemed to circle around why a donor had designated three additional months for my contract, and whether or not that money was in fact designated for that purpose or if it could be considered available for other uses within the organization (questions for which I was certain they already knew the answers, which disconcerted me). I assured them that to my knowledge it was entirely the donor’s idea to designate it for group development, and under such circumstances, you can either receive the money for that purpose or else you can just refuse the gift. This line of questioning went on for some time, and it left me wondering why it seemed the board of RFR was suddenly unhappy with the outcome of the fundraiser. And also, who was this Eliott person, and why was he calling all of the shots?
Incidentally this would not be the last conversation we had about this topic, as just a couple of days later we had a second conversation in which we rehashed the same subject, once again led entirely by Eliott, this time with him wondering aloud what it would entail to redistribute the money for the second half of the contract for other purposes. This line of questioning concerned me, not so much because it would shorten the time in which I would be working with RFR, but because it struck me as bad practice to even consider taking money given for one thing and then not using it for the purpose for which it was given. I assured them at that time that any such redistribution or repurposing would have to be cleared with the original donors, and that it would strike me as an impolitic course of action on the part of the organization to do so.
Delinquent Payments and Changing Job Descriptions
In the end, the board decided that the donations needed to remain designated for the purposes for which they were given, and they agreed that they would in fact honor the contract that had already taken effect nearly a month before. Now all that was left was for them to actually send me the money which was given for me to do this work.
Only it didn’t come. The date for delivery stipulated in the contract came and went, but no check arrived from the board of RFR. Two weeks went by, in fact, beyond the due date for the balance of the first half of my compensation before I received a check from the chairman of the board, a full month and a half after he had first received it. This was very upsetting to me because after 15 years of teaching I had turned down a teaching contract in order to devote time to working with this organization, and I needed to know that they were not going to withhold compensation from me. I have five children to provide for and a number of financial obligations which leave me very little wiggle room to sit around and wait for the mail to come. I warned them at that time that if they couldn’t be counted on to compensate me on time, I would have to find other work.
Over the next few weeks, another disturbing development arose when it became clear to me that the board of Recovering, with Darrel acting as the interim executive director, couldn’t seem to make up their minds about what they wanted me to be doing for them. Over the months leading up to my contract, RFR had been referring to me as their director of group development (see card below) and the contract they had approved specified that this was in fact what I was brought on to do for them. But Darrel informed me that he didn’t want me doing that job. He told me “We could get a volunteer to do that job. Anybody could do that. What we need you to do is help us raise money.”
I told him again and again that while I have plenty of past experience working with small groups, even helping to plant home groups for churches over the better part of the previous decade, I had zero experience as a fundraiser and I didn’t feel qualified for that job. It took at least a few more emails, conversations, and ultimately being asked to phone into a board meeting for them to finally concede that group development was what I was being brought on board to accomplish. As late as mid-November, nearly halfway through the term of my contract, the board was finally agreeing to allow me to focus entirely on doing the thing for which I was brought on to do.
A Lot of Work, and a New Executive Director
Over the course of the following weeks, a great deal of work had to be done to make up for time lost deliberating with the board about what I was supposed to be doing for them, and soon after I was finally given administrative access to the 60+ Facebook pages associated with as many support groups around the world. Recovering’s list of groups required a great deal of updating as roughly two-thirds of those groups had become inactive, and I had to devote a large chunk of time to tracking down where all of their group facilitators went. I whittled down their list of active groups to about twenty and made contact with their leaders in order to find out how RFR could best support them and help them grow.
The veteran facilitators consistently told me that what was needed most was a highly visible way to publicize the presence of their groups, particularly on social media. The overwhelming majority of their growth had come through visitors to RFR’s website and Facebook page, so what was needed most was an easy way for people to find them there. Taking my cue from them, I began compiling an updated list of all the groups with inactive groups and pages removed from the organizational databases. Over the next few weeks I culled through all the old group information, reaching out to over a hundred people in their databases, updating their contact information and touching base with the prospective leaders of new groups yet to be formed in order to build an up-to-date list of where everyone is, and how to get in touch with them.
Once I had updated the list of existing groups, their leaders, and their contact information, as well as adding in the prospective groups, their leaders, and their locations, I began organizing an interactive map to be prominently displayed on the main RFR website so that people could easily identify where their groups are located. I worked together with the website manager to embed this map onto the support group page:
Throughout the duration of my interaction with the acting executive director (Darrel) and support staff, I found myself still uneasy about the circumstances under which I was brought on board. There was so much secrecy surrounding the turnover of leadership, and so much ambivalence about what exactly they wanted me to do, that I found myself eager to see whom the board would choose to fill the vacant executive director position. The longer I’ve spent interacting with people active among the many orgs and non-profits within the secular community, the more I noticed that everything seemed to be shrouded in secrecy.
Every organization seemed to blanket their dealings with nondisclosure agreements (NDAs), which would make sense for large media-related organizations which require embargos on important press releases and other creative projects. But why would so many smaller nonprofits include NDA clauses covering financial dealings, donation records, receipts, and other such matters of public interest? Why the distinctive lack of transparency, and I mean across the entire secular movement?
I began to hold out hope that RFR would select a new ED who would come in and dig into the details behind Sarah’s sudden resignation and the subsequent confrontational interactions between the board, their proxy Eliott Canter, and me. It made me tentatively hopeful when I heard from Darrel that they were conducting “a nationwide search” for a new head to the organization, and I was greatly disturbed to discover that after this exhaustive national search, the board settled at last on Eliott’s partner, Gayle, as the new face of RFR.
Don’t get me wrong, I had no reason personally to dislike Gayle, and she strikes me as an intelligent, winsome personality. Both she and her partner Eliott are widely adored within the movement, and are deeply connected to most of the biggest fish inside this admittedly small pond that has become my own world of late. But in the matter of transparency and accountability I found this to be a major failure on the part of the board, which had already lost two of its board members over the previous couple of months and would lose yet another one in the coming months.
Things Fall Apart
At first, I found myself hopeful that despite the obvious conflict of interest in the selection of RFR’s new executive director, we could still make this relationship work. The mission and programs of the organization were and still are just too perfectly fitted to my own interests, and the people who follow the work that I do are virtually identical to RFR’s base of support. After her first month in charge, Gayle asked me to summarize the work that I had done thus far for the benefit of their donors, projecting what I believed could be done in the future, should these programs continue on the trajectory in which they were already headed (read my contribution to that newsletter here). You can’t tell by looking now, but at that time the support groups page on their website prominently featured the completed map that represented so many hours of my work for the organization.
But when the time came for the chairman of the board to meet the second prescribed deadline for compensation, the deadline came and went without the balance being paid for a second time. This introduced even more tension between myself and the board, especially since I knew all too well how ambivalent they were about releasing the balance of my compensation to me in the first place. I was beginning to wonder if it was going to happen at all. It had been two and a half months since the last check came, and I was becoming increasingly unable to meet my own financial obligations.
After several days passed without seeing anything in the mail, I had to contact Gayle to inform her that due to the board’s delinquency, I was forced to seek additional income through side projects, setting aside my work on RFR’s goals for a time in order to get my own bills paid. It was a nonexclusive contract, so Gayle responded saying, “Of course. No worries.” By my calculations, the board had been delinquent in paying me for a total of 23 days, and it turned out that three weeks was just about the right amount of time needed to get caught up on meeting my own financial obligations. It seemed to me like maybe this would work out after all.
But when I returned to my work on the contract three weeks later, I received a sternly worded email from Gayle disclosing that the board of RFR intended to pursue arbitration against me per the clause in my contract stipulating the terms under which that should happen. She demanded a final report a full week ahead of schedule detailing the work I had completed up until that point, and assured me that they would be pursuing legal action against me regardless of what happened next.
Not understanding what was going on, and not knowing how to respond to a belligerent board threatening legal action before the contract term had even completed, I sought legal counsel and completed the remaining tasks as much as could be accomplished within the remaining time limit.
By this time, I had accumulated a great deal of feedback from volunteers via phone calls, emails, video conferences, and face-to-face meetings at conferences. But the successful transfer of what I had learned depended on good communication between me and the leadership of the organization, and I soon found that they had removed my access to all 60+ support group pages. I tried adding dozens of volunteers into a Facebook discussion group in order to make sure they could communicate with each other, to make sure that they all knew how to access the new group facilitator manual I had developed for them, and perhaps most importantly, in order to encourage them to promote the new interactive map for publicity purposes. But I was told by their database administrator that I must stop doing that at once. I also discovered at that time that they had taken down the map entirely from the RFR website.
Why would they do that? Why on earth would they disable one of the most important pieces of work I had done for them, representing the culmination of so many hours of communication with volunteers, in direct response to one of their most commonly recurring requests?
Taking the Conflict Public
Per my contract, on the date prescribed I submitted a final report to the board of RFR listing the accomplishments I had completed according to the language of the contract, broken down by tasks exactly as they were described in the original document (link to that report here). I also reminded them that the final portion of the fundraiser money (to the tune of $4,200) was to have at least passed through my hands so that I could properly gift it to the organization per the terms of the contract. To date, that has not been done, leaving a financially significant portion of their side of the contract unfulfilled. It’s a technicality, but an important one for the purposes of financial records and taxation.
But why am I telling you this? This is a contractual dispute, a matter meant to be resolved through the arbitration process spelled out in the contract itself. What would motivate me to disclose all of this in a public way?
The first part of the answer is that the board of Recovering from Religion has chosen to make this dispute public through a continued pattern of direct and indirect sharing of their grievances, not through the prescribed legal channels, but through the unaccountable (and much more public) avenues of social media.It started two weeks ago when a friend of a board member posted on his own Facebook wall on April 20th that I had scammed the supporters of Recovering from Religion out of [incorrect amount of money] through a fundraiser on [incorrect crowdfunding name]. He then asked all of his followers to demand that the money be given back to the donors in full. I might have responded to his post except that he blocked me just before he began posting about the matter.
At first I decided not to respond at all. I had a number of friends sending me screencaps of his statuses because they contained damning and accusatory language. Two other friends of board members soon joined in and began accusing me of somehow being involved in financial decisions related to Apostacon (I did mention that I had zero responsibilities for the conference, right?). At this point I ignored their efforts to bait me into a response. But soon people with larger platforms began reposting these claims, and I began receiving demands for information from unfamiliar people claiming to be donors (I checked, and they weren’t).
One of them wrote RFR to find out what they would say and Gayle responded via email that the board of Recovering was not satisfied with the work that I had done and would be pursuing legal action against me. My original accuser posted a screenshot of that email and accused me of “victimizing” the organization, a claim which was soon after reposted by a board member of Recovering from Religion on his own personal wall on Sunday, April 24th, set to “public” (screencap here). By reposting the accusations of the original poster, a well-known board member of RFR was implicitly condoning and confirming his opinions in the public eye, prompting a flurry of concerned private messages addressed to me, at which point I finally decided that a response from me was warranted.
I responded by posting a statement on my public Facebook page the next day, on Monday, April 25th, to the effect that any remaining dispute over the terms of my contract should be resolved through the channels prescribed within the contract itself, and I also posted a link to my final report for those who wanted to see the evidence that I had submitted my own record of my work for them.
Note that this timeline contradicts a statement put out this afternoon by the “Board of Directors and Staff of Recovering from Religion”:
Please note: Recovering from Religion did not post this information on social media, we only responded privately to the inquiry.
We assume Neil saw this post that had been made public via Facebook and made a choice to respond on his own Facebook page with his rebuttal to our email…Because Neil has decided to take steps and escalate this issue into the public space, RfR finds it necessary to respond to Neil and correct the record.
[At the end of their statement it says that this is a statement from the board and staff. That will become important in just a minute.]
If RFR believes that they have grounds for some kind of legal action, why are they talking to people who are neither board members nor arbitrators about these things? And how is it professional for a nonprofit organization to publicly condone a smear campaign against one of its own former representatives? Furthermore, why are these ubiquitous nondisclosure agreements so conveniently ignored whenever it is the organization that wants to make a case against one of its former representatives, but expected to be adhered to by the person who leaves?
[By the way, if you believe that organizations write NDAs to protect the people who leave them rather than the orgs themselves, I’ve got a fantastic line of weight loss supplements I’d like to sell you which will melt away pounds overnight!]
I never signed an NDA for my work with Recovering from Religion.* Which means that up until a few days ago, I had kept any disagreements with the board of RFR to myself strictly of my own volition. And why would I do that? Because in spite of all that has transpired thus far, I believe in the mission of Recovering from Religion. Their goals are my goals. Their aims are virtually identical to my own. I cannot tell you how much I resent being pitted against an organization which has meant so much to me for the last several years, and whose base of support is the same as my own.
I would have been happy for us to simply go our separate ways, never giving me any reason to publicly defend myself against them. In fact, when asked in public what I think of the organization, I have given positive reports at every speaking engagement I’ve had since this entire saga began. If they still contest the work that I did for them, the proper channels for pursuing that end are right in front of them—and they are not on Facebook, in case you thought that was a professional way to conduct these matters.
The second reason to why I decided to write this post occurred this past weekend, during a phone call on the night of Thursday, April 28th. In the wake of last week’s allegations of mismanagement of Apostacon’s accounts, a common friend of mine and RFR’s informed me that the board of Recovering wanted me to contact Eliott Canter (there’s that name again…what is his official title, exactly?) to revisit the status of my relationship with the organization.
I was willing to concede that perhaps some of the mutual distrust which characterized both the beginning and end of our working relationship could have originally stemmed from the sudden and unceremonious dismissal of my original executive director, Sarah. Perhaps the allegations of mismanagement with the other organization could explain why their confrontational tone carried over from the person who brought me on to affect their perception of me as well. I was willing to consider that possibility. I am an incredibly patient person (probably too patient), and I am always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, multiple times in fact.
So I agreed to communicate with them. But this is where everything came into clear view for me.
A Disturbing Request
The first problem I noticed was that our common friend said that I should make a call to Eliott (not to the board of RFR), that it needed to happen within the next eleven hours, and he also stated explicitly that I should not record the conversation.
Stop right there. I am not a young man anymore, and I have been through enough hard life experience to know that when someone tells you something like that, someone is up to no good. Maybe not the messenger himself, granted, but I was beginning to wonder if Eliott is allergic to written communication. Searching back through dozens of emails with the organization in which they kept deferring to his judgment, I noticed that while he is copied in a number of interchanges I’ve had with the board, I don’t have a single written word from him in any of those interchanges. It’s almost as if he insists on doing everything behind closed doors, and in private conversations, putting almost nothing he says into print.
I wrote the board and told them I was interested in reopening discussion with them, but that we needed to restrict our communications to print so that there wouldn’t be any miscommunications. Gayle wrote back and insisted that this be handled by Eliott and Eliott alone, and that it had to be over the phone. She informed me that the board was deferring their judgment completely to him, and that he had “the board’s confidence and approval to discuss and negotiate on our behalf.”
This is where I stop again and ask, who is this person and why is he calling all of the shots? He is not a board member. I am not aware of any official title with Recovering from Religion. He calls himself a consultant, and yet he is unilaterally making decisions on behalf of the board. Is he under any accountability whatsoever according to the by-laws of the organization? Does being the spouse/partner of the executive director automatically imbue a person with the right to negotiate contractual disputes on their behalf? Is he then answerable to the same rules as the executive director? I have so many questions.
And why would anyone agree to settle contested negotiations with hostile boards over an unrecorded phone call?
Now for the contents of the phone call itself.
An Offer I Couldn’t Refuse
Eliott spent the first several minutes of the conversation monologuing about his own importance within the atheist movement. He told me how closely he works with virtually all of the most influential organizations within the subculture to which I belong, eventually dropping the names of a number of leaders of those organizations and other notable spokespeople for the cause of secularism. He made sure that I knew that he was also at the annual meeting of the “heads” of all of the secular organizations held every January. The point came through loud and clear: He wanted me to understand that he is a deeply connected man with the ear of all the important people within the movement. He is good friends with virtually all of them, it would seem.
He then went on to tell me how much he and the board of RFR valued what I bring to the movement as a person who knows as much as anybody what it’s like to leave your religion and start over again, rebuilding your life around more secular, “freethought” values and interests. In fact, he kind of laid it all on really thick, telling me that I’m “a tremendous blogger” and that I “give outstanding presentations.” He went on to say I’m good at relating to people and that I’m “an important cog in the machinery of the atheist movement.”
Well, now this is a little confusing. I seem to be getting mixed messages, here. So far this doesn’t sound like an org that wants to distance itself from me because of a poor performance on the tasks for which they brought me on in the first place. Quite the contrary, in Eliott’s own words, evidently this is the board’s view of me at present:
“But we want a partnership with you, Neil. I can’t put it any more bluntly than that. We want you back. I want you back. I think you are important. It would be stupid of me to think otherwise. You are an extremely talented guy. I want to exploit you. And I think that we have a pretty big org that’s gonna wind up bigger, and you should exploit us. I think we’d mutually satisfy… (and exploit’s probably the wrong word… maybe “take advantage.”) I wanna take advantage of the fact of how good you are! You are! You’re terrific! Okay?”
He told me that he wanted to repair the relationship between RFR and me by partnering back up with me, bringing me back on to be a representative of their organization again. I would commit to writing a certain number of blog posts each month, not for my own blog but for theirs, and I would make sure to plug their organization any time I speak to groups or conferences to which I’m invited. I would resume working with support groups, demonstrating that the board and I have resolved our differences and that we are all on the same page, happy together again.
I asked him why it felt as if this conversation, and this offer, seemed to have an expiration date on it. Why did I have to call by 9pm tonight, and what would happen if I turned down this offer?
“Well… we’re gonna respond to your document. And it’s not gonna wind up being gentle. I’m being candid with you, I wrote it. And it’s not gonna wind up helping you and it’s not gonna wind up helping anybody…This is not a path that I want to go down with you. I’m telling you I don’t want to do it with you. It’s not fun. And there never is a winner, nobody ever wins, everybody gets damaged. You don’t need that, we don’t need that, and the community doesn’t need it.”
I see. So let me get this straight. The board of Recovering from Religion loves me, and values what I have to bring to their organization. They feel I’m a rock star with their base and they want us to partner up together for the foreseeable future. If I reject their offer, however, they are going to come after me and it’s going to get ugly. They aren’t going to be gentle, whatever that means. But let’s not talk about that right now. If I will simply agree to join back up with them, all of these disputes will simply go away and we can all be friends again. Everybody wins.
Now I suddenly had a whole lot more questions. What exactly would be the nature of this relationship? Would it be guided by a contract, or any written agreement whatsoever? No, he said. Well, I make at least a portion of my livelihood from writing and speaking to groups, so if I were to agree to consign some of my work to them on a monthly basis, would there be any compensation for this work? No, he said. Well then, would this new relationship somehow be an extension of our previous relationship, following any of the limitations of the contract which has already run its term? Again he said no. Well, what would the terms of this new arrangement be? His reply:
“…it’s going to be on my terms, and in that I’m fairly inflexible…and again I have my own sense of what’s right and wrong…”
So in other words, I would be completely at his mercy, without a written agreement of any kind, pursuing a new relationship performing functions previously not included in the already completed contract, but for no compensation, and with no discernible expiration date whatsoever. And if at any point he personally (rather than any legal officer of the organization) felt I wasn’t performing to his own satisfaction, they would take their grievances against me onto their social media spaces, written entirely by him (not the board and staff of RFR), in order to discredit me among our mutual supporters via email and Facebook rather than through the legally prescribed avenues of arbitration spelled out in my previous contract.
Is this any way for a non-profit to conduct their affairs? Especially an organization designed to help people recover from emotionally manipulative and coercive religious backgrounds? Publicly sharing trash talk against a former representative on social media, then giving them “an offer that they can’t refuse,” if you know what I mean?
In fact, I’m almost certain there is a word for this. What do you call it when you threaten someone, using language clearly meant to intimidate them, but then offer to forgo the retribution as long as the other party surrenders a portion of some good or service from which they ordinarily derive their livelihood? The term has slipped my mind, but maybe it’ll come to me.
A Movement Lacking in Accountability
Over the past few months of working within the atheist movement I have begun to detect a pattern. The revelations of the last couple of weeks have made it clear to all of us that a whole lot of organizational work within the secular movement happens without a lot of standard safeguards to ensure that people don’t misbehave, or take advantage of other people. This creates a breeding ground for unethical behavior, not only on the part of individuals who would take advantage of the situation, but also on the part of organizations who find ways around their own rules (rules which they probably wrote themselves anyway) in order to do whatever they want to do.
What can be done about this? Surely we cannot simply let bygones be bygones and keep sweeping these kinds of things under the rug, right? It seems to me that creates an environment ripe for miscommunication, misrepresentation, mistreatment, and distrust in multiple directions. Sadly, I’ve seen too many people responding to the revelations of the last couple of weeks by concluding that singular individuals must be solely responsible for exploiting vulnerabilities within the arrangements in which they find themselves rather than asking harder questions about the responsibilities of the organizations in charge.
But are we really that naïve? Wouldn’t a systemic lack of accountability be a problem that is shared by the people who run these organizations as well? Shouldn’t donors and supporters be demanding more transparency from the organizations they support?
And what is with all these NDAs everyone keeps throwing around? If you are preparing for an event in which you need to keep headliners a secret for the purposes of timing press releases, that makes perfect sense. But asking even volunteers to sign nondisclosure agreements relating to every aspect of an organization’s work, including financial details such as the use of donations received? No. That doesn’t cut it at all, and I am suggesting that more people within the movement demand more transparency from the organizations they support.
If an organization asks you to sign an NDA covering every imaginable facet of your involvement in their work, just say “No thank you” and walk away. Nothing will ever change within this movement if, well, nobody does anything different.
One Final Word
I may never know to what extent people who began impugning my character on social media two weeks ago were being influenced by people who know better but were letting things get out of hand on purpose. Three non-RFR individuals in particular offered a number of accusations which they didn’t even take the time to make sure checked out (e.g. that I was even involved in any financial matters with Apostacon, or that I believed I was under any NDA’s in my relationship with RFR). I am far less interested in their own motivations than I am in what you will do next.
Yes, you. See, I am not the only one whose character, judgment, and critical thinking skills are being evaluated during this storm-in-a-teacup (in case you weren’t aware, the atheist movement is a tiny bubble within a mostly English speaking world, and most people out there couldn’t care less what our bloggers and conference speakers are up to). I know that many of you are trying to decide what you think of me, but I am also trying to decide what I think of you.
Over the last three years or so, as I’ve moved around within this relatively insular subculture, I have spoken with a number of movement contributors about the things that we’ve witnessed first hand, and many of us have noted how messed up humans can be. Clearly there isn’t anything about being an atheist that makes a person or a community immune to the flaws and weaknesses that we see plaguing other subcultures and movements the world over.
Atheists and humanists love to blame religion for the evils of the world, but the truth is that we have our own versions of virtually every single problem you will encounter in church. As I said in my last post (which I promise was not over 7,000 words long), it is true that we can be “good without God.” But it is equally true that we can also be very “bad without God.” It takes a great deal of work to ensure that humans don’t revert back to our more brutish, amoral ancestral ways. That’s why we write rules in the first place: to keep us moving forward, reaching ahead toward the kind of people we want to be.
But it often comes down to moments like this. I have just relayed for you a pattern of relating to people that is coercive and quite frankly bullying, a strong-armed negotiation maneuver which strikes me as highly suspicious and unethical, and I want to know: How you are going to respond to this? Will you be unable to see through the manipulative tactics that I have recounted above? That would represent a failure to engage your skepticism, in my view. If you can’t tell what’s going on here, seeing through the smokescreens and character assassinations being issued in unregulated digital spaces rather than through the appropriate legal channels, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to respect your opinion enough to worry what you think about me.
Or worse, some of you within the movement know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve witnessed things like what I’ve described above, yet you are still going to side with the people holding the most power and influence in these circumstances. Very much unlike me, some of you are driven by ambitions—you want to “be somebody” in this movement—and you know good and well which side your bread is buttered on, so to speak. You will stay silent, you will avoid getting involved or looking any further into any of the questions I’ve asked in this post because you very much need the approval of people who hold most of the power in this movement. That’s your call, I cannot make it for you. But I also cannot promise to continue respecting your opinion of me.
Remember what I said at the beginning about learning to feel your own way through complicated situations, that sometimes you have to become your own mentor? I cannot tell you what to do but I can determine my own course of action, and I am telling you that I will not support a movement that isn’t willing to deal with its own problems—not at merely the individual level where scapegoats can take the fall for the rest of us, but at the systemic level where things like cronyism, insularity, and a lack of transparency create an environment in which people far too easily get hurt.
If this movement does not value honesty and integrity, if it condones and protects abusers of power or of wealth, then you can have it. I don’t want any part in it.
Recovering from Atheism
I have a life outside of this subculture, and I have children who love me (despite my atheism) and who know how much authenticity and personal integrity mean to me. Just after dinner on Friday night, I finally told my daughters a little bit about the drama that I’ve been enduring over the last two or three weeks. They listened empathetically, nodding silently from time to time, expressing sympathy for the stress that all of this has been putting on me, not just within the last month but really for at least six or seven months. I don’t think I realized until last week how heavily all of this had been weighing on me, even to the point of affecting my health.
After hearing me out, my 16-year-old finally announced, “Let’s make brownies and watch a terrible movie!” So we did. We baked a batch of Triple Chocolate Chunk brownies and watched The Last Airbender, poking fun at the wooden dialogue and emotionless acting they’ve come to so despise from M. Night Shyamalan. We had a lot of good laughs, and the world and all of this mess just melted away.
I’m telling you this so that you’ll understand: I don’t need to be somebody important in this movement. I am not particularly inclined to aspire to celebrity treatment or organizational importance. If revealing these things about an adored couple within the movement excludes me from secular organizational work for the rest of my life, I’m not sure I’m going to be missing out on anything essential to my happiness. I have already walked away from a body of work before—when I left my church years ago. It was difficult, but life went on. I can do it again with the atheist movement and never really miss it.
I will keep writing for whoever wants to read what I have to say, but I will not be promising to support a movement which avoids accountability and fosters abuses of power within its ranks. At the end of the day, the one person I will always have to live with is myself. At the end of this particular day, in fact, I expect to have the best night of sleep I have had in nearly six months.
[Image Source: Flickr user Hartwig HKD]
* Update: I’ve just been informed that while neither I nor RFR could previously find a record of me agreeing to an NDA when I was still a volunteer for them (my contract did not include one), after posting a follow-up post to this one, they discovered that I did in fact agree to the terms of their volunteer manual back in 2014, which included the relevant nondisclosure paragraph. Not sure where that leaves any of this, given the questionable legality of restrictions as comprehensive as the ones found therein, but I guess we’ll find out. From the wording of the NDA, it appears that essentially means that now they can officially terminate me as a volunteer. Heh.