Strategies for Dealing with Slander in the Secular Community



In 2013, the Secular Coalition for America published an Open Letter signed by a host of major leaders of national secular leaders about “improving the tone and substance of online discussions.” The letter read, in part:

  • We refuse to allow the deplorable conduct of a few to debase the reasonable, appropriate, and respectful conduct of the overwhelming majority of our community… Of course we will disagree with each other on some issues, but we can do a better job of expressing our disagreements. We can resolve to avoid mischaracterizing the positions of others, relying on rumors as the basis for our opinions, and using inappropriate tactics such as guilt by association.


A worthy goal, indeed. However, the need for such a letter points to a systematic problem. The letter noted “the fact that so much of our community is online brings with it certain challenges. Communicating primarily online can make it difficult to recognize each other’s humanity.”


Despite the letter, there is still a great deal of slander going on – whether guilt by association, negative rumors, mischaracterization, lying by omission, and so on. Such bad-mouthing is hard to address effectively, because it doesn’t go on in open spaces. Usually, it happens in private interactions, for example on someone’s Facebook wall, or in comments on a blog post, or private emails; it also happens on anonymous social media forums such as Reddit and elsewhere. It also happens in-person of course, but behind people’s backs, such as late evenings in bars at secular conference hotels or during chit-chat at local secular get-togethers.


A particularly insidious aspect of rumors comes from their decentralized, anonymous nature. It’s usually hard to say who specifically started a rumor, or why they did so. Sometimes, people start rumors out of simple maliciousness; other times, they have legitimate concerns but are reluctant to state their concerns to someone’s face and so talk behind their backs. In some cases, such rumors have led to positive outcomes, but in the large majority of cases, they have not. Besides, even in cases where rumors do lead to positive consequences, these results could have been achieved by other means, as opposed to rumors. Because whatever happens, rumors as a phenomenon increasing resentment and infighting, contributing to the harmful schisms and feuds within the secular movement.





So how does one deal with such slander? Let me share what strategies I deploy when it happens to me.


For example, a new volunteer for the Pro-Truth Pledge, a project devoted to fighting lies and promoting truth and rational thinking in politics and other life areas, came to me recently to share that he heard concerning rumors about me. He spoke to a number of acquaintances in the secular movement who accused me of creating fake “sock puppet” accounts on Facebook to argue for my points and otherwise promote my work. He wanted to know if I created such accounts, as he would not want to be associated with a person who used such tactics. By coincidence, someone who has been involved in the secular movement for a while also recently brought me information about such rumors the day beforehand.


My first feelings? Confusion and anger. My reputation – perhaps my most valuable commodity – was being maligned. This slander was especially ironic in that I have spent a great deal of personal, unpaid volunteer time creating content advancing truth and rational thinking. To address my emotions, I took time to calm down and composed myself.


Then, I asked both the people who brought me this information to join me in thinking reasonably. I am a public figure who publishes regularly in mainstream venues such as Scientific American, Time, as well as secular venues such as The Humanist, Free Inquiry, Skeptical Inquirer, and American Atheist Magazine. I appear on numerous mainstream radio programs and on TV, as well as prominent secular podcast such as Ra-Men, Scathing Atheist, and Serious Inquiries Only. My service as volunteer President of Intentional Insights, the nonprofit running the Pro-Truth Pledge and other projects devoted to spreading rational thinking, involves coordinating hundreds of volunteers to promote its mission – in addition to fundraising to support its work. I also work a full-time job as a professor.


Where would I find the time to create sock puppets, and why would I need to? My time is much more effectively spent scheduling and doing podcasts and writing articles, which I do – extensively. Besides, when I publish an article, I take the time to share it to some groups myself from my Facebook page, to get things going, without using any sock puppets.


As someone who is an activist for truth, it is repugnant to me to even imagine creating such sock puppets. Closing my eyes and trying to visualize the process of logging out of my actual account, and setting up a fake account to promote my work, causes me to breathe quickly, my hands to shake, my nose to scrunch up in a visceral disgust response. Yuck!




I do have a number of supporters who like my writings and believe it is valuable for the world to promote them. Indeed, when I share my posts on Facebook, I often have a call to action asking people to share them. Naturally, my posts then tend to be shared, and these supporters tend to do most of this sharing. Some of them even created social media accounts explicitly for this purpose.


Now, the two people who brought me this information understood where I am coming from, and recognized that yes, thinking reasonably, it would be silly for me to waste my time on creating sock puppets to share or debate on behalf of my article points. Indeed, as my Patheos readers know, I’m quite fine engaging in debates in comments on my articles when I perceive those debates as productive.


Still, I was pretty shocked that people who would call themselves reason-oriented indulge in these types of conspiracy theories. We have enough in-fighting in the secular movement that we don’t need more folks to spread these rumors, which they could easily address by taking a couple of minutes to think about whether I would want to take my time to do this sort of manipulation.


Well, knowing the behavioral science, I know why. Juicy rumors are often more appealing than rational thinking even for some reason-oriented people. Passing them on makes one feel powerful and “in-the-know.” Often, they do not like the target and are ready to believe and pass on whatever negative things they hear, a phenomenon known as the “horns effect” in psychology.


Fortunately, research shows that negative consequences of deceptive behavior, combined with transparency, help decrease such behavior. So I decided to confront the rumor-mongers. My friends shared their names, and I was surprised to learn they had some prominence in the secular movement. I sent them a message, telling them I was highly concerned with claims they made, and asked them to provide evidence.


Two of them quickly backed away from their claims. I let it go and accepted their retraction of the claims, along with a commitment on their part to avoid spreading negative rumors about me or others.


Another one refused to back away, despite my explanation about my busyness and how I can use my time much more effectively to promote my ideas in other ways than sock puppets. In any group, even among folks who pride themselves on reason, we will find unreasonable people. Still, two out of three isn’t a bad outcome.


Some secular activists to whom I showed a draft copy of this blog post pointed out that sometimes, rumors are not dealt with so easily, because they are not obviously ludicrous once someone takes a couple of minutes to think about them. Indeed, there have been plenty of scandals in the secular movement – around sexual improprieties and outright harassment, embezzlement, and other problems – that are not as easy to address. In those cases, we have to appeal to probabilistic thinking, meaning evaluating the probabilities involved, but also given the call by secular leaders, orient toward avoiding forming opinions based on rumors and instead get the actual information by doing some research. Doing research is not possible in all cases, of course, but in all cases we can have a baseline skepticism of rumors that do not point to solid evidence to support their claims.


So let’s go back to what I did. I did not react emotionally, despite feeling confusion and anger. Neither did I make a public stink about these rumors. Instead, I calmed myself down and reacted intentionally, by pointing out the ludicrous nature of these claims.


Rather than letting it go at that stage, after convincing my friends, I also decided to impose penalties on and bring transparency to the rumor-mongers by confronting them. I communicated my concerns clearly to them, and got a quite positive outcome by getting two out of three to commit to avoiding spreading such rumors.


Many people may find difficulty with communicating concerns to rumor-mongers, as doing so is socially awkward. We don’t want to make enemies or trigger conflicts by confronting people. Yet let’s face it – by spreading rumors, these people already are your enemies. They are damaging your reputation, which is an incredibly valuable commodity. They are hardly likely to do something worse if you confront them. Many of these rumor-mongers are verbal bullies, and back away when confronted. Others are deliberately spreading rumors as a fun, enjoyable activity, and you need to make it less fun for them. Still others are misguided folks who think they are doing something good for the world: help teach them that they are not.


By confronting these slanderers, you make a better world not only for yourself, but for the secular movement as a whole. Your actions will both protect you and also serve to, as the secular leadership put it, “refuse to allow the deplorable conduct of a few to debase the reasonable, appropriate, and respectful conduct of the overwhelming majority of our community.”


What other strategies do you think might be useful to deal with slander in our community?


P.S. Want to fight rumors and lies? Take the Pro-Truth Pledge, encourage your friends to do so, and call on your elected representatives to take it!


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About Gleb Tsipursky

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Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, besides being an activist for reason and science popularizer, is an author, speaker, consultant, coach, scholar, and social entrepreneur specializing in science-based strategies for effective decision-making, goal achievement, emotional and social intelligence, meaning and purpose, and altruism – for more information or to hire him, see his website,

He runs a nonprofit that helps people use science-based strategies to make effective decisions and reach their goals, so as to build an altruistic and flourishing world, Intentional Insights. He also serves as a tenure-track professor at Ohio State in the History of Behavioral Science and the Decision Sciences Collaborative. A best-selling author, he wrote Find Your Purpose Using Science among other books, and regular contributes to prominent venues, such as Time, The Conversation, Salon, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. He appears regularly on network TV, such as affiliates of ABC and Fox, radio stations such as NPR and Sunny 95, and elsewhere.

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