Growing up

In 2004 I was an atheist, but I was the live-and-let-live type.  Religion didn’t bug me, it just wasn’t my cup of tea.  Then, for Christmas that year, my mother got me both of Sam Harris’ books.  In The End of Faith there was a single sentence that changed my life forever.

We live in an age when a person could have the intellect and the resources to construct a nuclear bomb, and still believe they’ll receive paradise for detonating it.

He was right.  My work as an activist began the following semester.  I read every piece Harris put out, memorizing some of the passages for use in my own debates.

I acquired many more heroes over the years (including PZ Myers and Greta Christina), but Harris was always the one for which I had the most respect.  He was so calm, so in control.  He spoke and wrote in ways that made me feel like I was borrowing the English language.  Most importantly, to my young eye, his reasoning was fearless and always sound.

In developing my debate style, I also gained an appreciation for the work of Thunderf00t.  From his videos on why creationists suck I extracted several facts and phrasings I would use when talking to believers, and they worked.

They say the irony of growing up is going from thinking your parents know everything to thinking your parents know nothing.  Me though, I still love my parents, and I think they are two most ethical and wonderful people alive.  I still call them for advice, and they always give good tips for navigating life.  However, on the precipice of eight years after reading that line in The End of Faith, I’ve come to the realization that two of my heroes were not who I thought they were.

We can all imagine why my opinion of Sam Harris has waned, but the one I want to talk about right now is Thunderf00t.  I don’t believe I said a negative thing about him upon his arrival to Freethoughtblogs.  Hell, I had nothing negative to say.  On occasion I expressed confusion at some of the things he said afterward, but I felt he was a good person and a great mind attempting to navigate the issues.  His noble nature was never in question to me.

Now, it is.  Last month Thunderf00t was removed from this network for, frankly, behavior (not ideas) that was grating on most of the other writers here.  I was sad when it happened.  I was reveling in the opportunity to write alongside someone who had, in part, informed and helped forge my own debate style.  I was sure that the situation with Thunderf00t brought out the worst in everyone, including him.

I was wrong, at least about the worst in him.

FtB has a back channel where all the FtB authors hang out and discuss issues amongst ourselves.  Each email on that channel contains the following footer:

All emails sent to this list are confidential and private. Revealing information contained in any email sent to the list to anyone not on the list without permission of the author is strictly prohibited.

This is for several very good reasons.

  1. Some of our bloggers write under pseudonyms to protect their identity.  Having that information go public could be damaging and/or dangerous to them.  Thunderf00t established that he realizes the gravity of this when he rightly went apeshit over people releasing his true name.  He was aware of the damage that could be done by such unethical behavior.
  2. Speaking personally, I don’t agree with everybody in this movement.  But due to my job and due to trying to create a cohesive movement, I do need to try and get along with a lot of my fellow activists, even if we don’t see eye to eye.  Having a safe and confidential place to talk about those things and to either have my opinions vindicated or corrected is important.  However, released quotes could be damaging to those relationships.  I suspect others are in the same shoes.

There are more, but those are the two that really concern me.  The authors of FtB are my friends, and I don’t want to have to be guarded and write in the same voice with which I blog when talking with my friends.  I shouldn’t have to.  That’s why the list is confidential.

Upon being removed from the network (literally, about ten minutes after being removed), Thunderf00t found a flaw in our security that allowed him to get back onto our back channel.  He was receiving all our confidential emails but not sending any of his own, as that would alert us to his presence.  Recently, we were informed by two different parties that the FtB back channel was not secure.  Thunderf00t’s email address was then discovered back on the list.

Ed Brayton dug up the confirmation email he had received when he removed Thunderf00t from the list, so we know he had been removed.  We discovered the weak point in our security, plugged it, and again removed Thunderf00t from the list.  Minutes later, Thunderf00t tried several times to exploit the same hole that had been plugged, this time to no avail.  I’m sure other more tech savvy writers will provide those details (Jason Thibeault has now obliged), but the point is that it was all-but-certainly a conscious act by Thunderf00t, not a mistake on our part.  Either he believes the private contents of our network are his possession or he doesn’t.  If he believes they are his property, he should get better reading glasses (and a new moral compass).  If he doesn’t, he was knowingly taking things to which he knew he had no right.  Either way, this is a very black mark on Thunderf00t.

This sucks for a lot of reasons.  For me, it sucks to see one of my young atheist activist heroes purposefully do such flagrantly immoral things.  It sucks to feel both angry and betrayed at someone to whom I feel I owe gratitude for shaping me.  It sucks to now be at odds with someone I was so excited to work alongside.  It sucks to see someone I once thought would do the right thing no matter what show that he’s willing to be this dishonest and this petty if it suits him.  I don’t expect perfection of my heroes, but I expect more than this.

But it also sucks that someone so jaded has possession of this type of information.  It sucks that sensitive information is in the hands of someone who, to my eye, has confirmed he’s untrustworthy (to say the least).

Case in point, Thunderf00t now has a post out trying to build himself up as a hero for what he’s done.  In it, he pulls quotes from FtB authors who are talking about criticizing Michael Payton on their blogs and accuses us of going after the guy’s job.  We often criticize people in this movement.  That’s a good thing about this movement.  PZ has criticized David Silverman before, but they’re still very good friends (and Dave is still employed).  Criticism does not entail ill will, it simply means we see something that we think should fixed or to which, we believe, needs attention drawn.

I imagine Thunderf00t did this to paint his deceit as noble, like he is Julian Assange or some such.  But he’s not.  In the very same post he swears up and down that he would never “doc drop” he does just that.  The conclusion is obvious: Thunderf00t either has no issue with being dishonest, as confirmed by his behavior with regards to the FtB back channel and the contents of his post, or he has become so possessed by his hatred of FtB that he feels his dishonesty justified.  Either way, I must agree with the part of Ed’s email that Thunderf00t (who claims he would never doc drop) leaked:

“I want to do whatever it takes to make sure that he (thunderf00t) is essentially drummed out of this movement, never invited to speak anywhere again and is forever a pariah.”

After taking in the breadth of Thunderf00t’s behavior in this case, could you trust him enough to work with him?  After spying on a private listserv and after being so transparently dishonest in a blog post (so badly one could only assume it to be intentional, especially knowing that Thunderf00t is not a dumb person), what other conclusion could one reach?  If you were an organizer at a conference, would you want to operate with the constant worry that you might upset someone whose vindictiveness is simultaneously so encompassing and so unrestrained?  I wouldn’t.  And I won’t.  To take Thunderf00t’s wording: not now, not EVER.  And for the sake of others in this movement I hope you feel the same.

Thunderf00t has done a lot of good things.  Like I said, I grew as an atheist on account of his work.  But intelligence does not make one well-adjusted or moral, sadly.  I hate admitting it, but Thunderf00t just…isn’t a good person.  I take absolutely no joy in saying that, but my allegiance is to the truth as I see it more than to those who have helped me grow as an atheist.  If there’s any lesson I learned in my youth that made me into the activist I am, that’s it.  And the truth is that Thunderf00t is not the man I once believed him to be.  I’m sure he’s a brilliant scientist, but I’m reminded of what I wrote yesterday.  There is no amount of brilliance that isn’t worrisome if unchecked by empathy and honor.  I cannot bring myself to even admire such a man, let alone feel like we can work side by side.  When my devotion is to honesty (amongst other things), I simply cannot see myself working with Thunderf00t.

I guess this is what growing up feels like.  In my youth and naïveté I idolized some of the wrong people.  There is no Santa, and the people you looked up to can fall.


Ed Brayton has posted about the ordeal and said it much better than I ever could.

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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