#MeToo and the Atheist Community

#MeToo and the Atheist Community November 27, 2017


I’ve written about how Roy Moore showcases the moral bankruptcy of evangelical Christianity, and we’ve all had fun kicking him while he’s down. But let’s not get too comfortable. While Moore’s multiply alleged predation on barely-teenage girls is indeed an exceptionally ugly case, it’s not just Christians or Republicans who’ve been sheltering sexual predators in their ranks.

The spark that ignited the so-called #MeToo movement was, of course, Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood power broker who suddenly and spectacularly fell from grace after a New York Times expose spurred legions of women to come forward with stories about his predatory behavior. It reminds me of the way totalitarian regimes suddenly collapse when isolated anger coalesces into a mass popular movement.

In the weeks since, that wave has kept cresting. We’ve seen accusations against comedians, actors and directors; media personalities; famous chefs; journalists, editors and publishers; members of the UK Parliament, American statehouses, and Congress. It’s swept up liberal men like Al Franken and Louis CK as well as conservative politicians like Moore and George H.W. Bush, proving that there are creeps and predators across the political spectrum.

The sheer scope of this movement, touching so many corners of society at once, is astounding. Then again, we probably shouldn’t be surprised. As I’ve said before, the sad truth is that an allegation of sexual harassment or assault against a powerful man isn’t an extraordinary claim; it’s an ordinary one.

What seems different this time is that women who speak out are being believed and taken seriously, while men are actually admitting their misdeeds and suffering consequences. We’ve come a long way since the days when a cultural figure like Isaac Asimov could speak openly about his reputation for groping women and treat it as a hilarious punchline.

Charlie Rose was fired; Kevin Spacey and Louis CK have had TV shows and movies canceled; Leon Wieseltier lost the funding for a new magazine; Mark Halperin had an upcoming book pulled; Bill O’Reilly was dropped by his agent. Many more powerful men have resigned, been suspended or fired.

I wouldn’t have predicted that this would be the cultural moment for a tremendous resurgence of feminism. After all, the U.S. elected a president just last year who bragged about peeping, harassing and groping women. It may be that that was the watershed moment, that the anger among liberal and feminist women inspired a collective decision that they wouldn’t remain silent any more.

However, as I said, we in the secular community can’t afford to sit easy. We’re no exception to this trend. As much as we like to think of ourselves as rational and superior, our own gender politics are far from enlightened. We, too, have skeletons in our closets that need to be dragged out into the light of day.

As the #1 example, you probably remember the serious allegations of harassment and rape against Michael Shermer from a few years back, which major figures in the atheist community swept under the rug. It should be noted that Shermer threatened to sue PZ Myers for posting Alison Smith’s initial allegation, but failed to do so before the statute of limitations ran out. You can take from this what you will, although it seems obvious that Shermer wasn’t confident he could disprove the allegations in court. Yet he seems to have suffered few professional consequences, let alone any legal ones.

There was also Karen Stollznow’s allegations of repeated sexual harassment by CFI’s Benjamin Radford. He attempted to sue her into retracting them, with mixed results. Like Shermer, Radford appears to have come out of this unscathed.

More recently, there was the Mythicist Milwaukee debacle, in which an atheist conference gave a starring role to a YouTube lowlife who thinks rape threats are the height of wit.

And then there’s Richard Carrier.

I admit, I thought he was one of the good guys. I’ve seen him give talks about feminism and social justice where he said all the right things. But in 2016, Skepticon banned him from their conference, citing allegations of “repeated boundary-pushing behavior”. He quit Freethought Blogs when they started looking into his behavior. He was also removed from the Secular Student Alliance speakers’ bureau after a complaint that he made a pass at a student at an SSA event, in violation of an SSA policy against exactly this. Carrier himself admits hitting on another student at another SSA event.

When these allegations were made public, Carrier chose to respond by suing basically everyone who talked about them – Skepticon, Freethought Blogs, The Orbit, PZ Myers, Stephanie Zvan, and Amy Frank, the student who alleged misbehavior on his part – for a ludicrous multimillion-dollar sum. That lawsuit is still working its ponderous way through the courts.

In my non-lawyer’s opinion, this is a classic SLAPP suit. The only thing Carrier is likely to achieve is burning huge sums of money in the name of his injured pride. Winning a defamation case requires proving that the allegations against you are malicious falsehoods, not honest mistakes or mere differences of opinion. This is a high bar to clear, which is no doubt why Michael Shermer chose not to sue over far more serious accusations. And it can’t help Carrier’s case that he’s already admitted a major part of the case against him, namely his violating the SSA’s speaker-student fraternization policy.

I have no personal knowledge of whether the allegations against Carrier have merit. But as a general rule, we should believe women when they tell us about their experiences. This is all the more true when there are multiple accusations against a person by independent parties with no obvious reason to collude or fabricate.

Furthermore, according to evidence presented in this post, Carrier admits he divorced his wife after having multiple extramarital affairs, even though she had been financially supporting him. Strictly speaking, having a (consensual) affair says nothing about your willingness to commit sexual harassment. But it does show willingness to cast aside moral principles of truthfulness and trustworthiness in the name of your own sexual gratification. That behavior is inconsistent with someone who identifies as a feminist – to say nothing of the hypocrisy of filing a spite lawsuit against your former friends and allies because you’re now on the other end of a principle you once advocated.

It’s disappointing and enraging to see how many men, including many allegedly feminist men, now stand revealed as creeps and hypocrites. But as painful as it is, it’s a necessary reckoning. Men have been getting away with loathsome behavior for too long, and it’s unsurprising that some of the predators would try to camouflage themselves by mouthing the right words about gender equality. It hurts to find out that they were never the allies they said they were. But that knowledge is essential if we’re going to put a stop to their misbehavior and build a robust, consistent social-justice movement that lives up to its own principles.

We’re in the midst of a new cultural moment, and all of us – not just the secular community, but all of Western society – are going to be judged by how we respond. For many men, this feels disorienting and frightening: the old rules are gone and we don’t know the new ones yet. But this, too, is a necessary transition. We’ve held a power we didn’t deserve, and we have to give it back. Men who truly care about feminism should welcome this rather than fighting it. If this trend becomes a lasting moral shift, a better society will be born from it.

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