The Non-Existent Freethought Blogs Mission Statement

The Non-Existent Freethought Blogs Mission Statement June 7, 2012

John Loftus, who briefly had a blog here at FTB before leaving and then commencing a series of whiny and passive aggressive attacks on those of us who blog here, has gone from complaining about the mythical hive mind among the bloggers here to complaining that we disagree too much. Yes, I’m serious.

I’m not picking a fight with the FtB but I would really like to know what the mission statement of the mammoth skeptical Freethought Blog is. What unites them? What is it? Most organizations have a mission statement. I think the FtB’s should come together to produce one. I would really be interested beyond the fact that they are non-believers. I’m not talking about what they agree about, since they are united about non-belief and the need for diversity, but rather what their agendas are, their goals for being there. However, my guess is that if they produced one it would be so broad of a statement that it would end up being equivalent to something like this:

We at FtB have come together as a diverse group of atheists who have a diverse set of atheist agendas in order to have a bigger voice than we would normally have if we were not here.

As the founder and owner of this network, I suppose I’m the right person to answer his question. And the answer is simple: Freethought Blogs does not have a mission statement. It will never have a mission statement. We simply aren’t that kind of “organization” (and please note the use of this incredibly vague word, as though all “organizations” were of the same type and should all have mission statements). And we do not have a collective goal or agenda in writing our own blogs or in joining this particular group of bloggers. Each of us has our own motivations, goals and reasons for both of those things. In fact, John seems to understand that:

Now that’s okay if so, and if the people there are happy with having a bigger voice. But if this is what it amounts to then even though they have a bigger voice for being at FtB they are drowning out each other’s voice when they disagree. Some say they are against prostitution and pornography while others are for them both. Some call for the resignation of DJ Grothe while others support him. Some are against the hiring of an ex-Bush White House adviser as an Executive Director for the Secular Coalition of America while others disagree. Some want more activists invited to the FtB while others like Richard Carrier want credentialed women philosophers (and he’s proven that they exist). So individual FtB’s should consider how their goals are being achieved by being there, when their voices are being drowned out by other FtB’s. Why are they there? It’s a simple question, a respectful one. Some of the bloggers don’t even blog much at all in their area of expertise, like my good friend Mano Singham who is a theoretical physicist (sorry Mano). One of them characterized a different blogger by saying: “We even have a drunken chef.” Why is he there at all then? If so, that’s wasted space.

So what is the mission statement of the Freethought Blog? For all many of us can tell, it looks like it only highlights that atheists cannot agree on much more than non-belief, and that seems counter-productive to atheist causes. My opinion is that because the FtB does not have a mission statement it’s becoming more and more like a loose cannon on deck, at least on some issues. Because they lack one they invite diverse voices who drown each other out. All other people have to do is sit back and let them self-destruct. And it also gives some FtB’s a bigger voice among atheist circles than they would otherwise have had, who in turn use that bigger voice to blast other atheists who don’t have such a big voice.

First of all, let me note that it isn’t even a requirement that one be an atheist to blog here. If the late Martin Gardner, who was a deist, were still alive and interested in blogging here, do you think we would turn him down? Not a chance. Few people have contributed as much to the cause of skepticism as Gardner did for decades and we would be foolish to not welcome him to the fold. There are others that I imagine would be welcomed here as well who are believers, like Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State or Ken Miller.

What binds us together, it seems to me, is that we are all proponents of reason and science and we all want a more rational and just world to live in. Each individual person has their own priorities, where they choose to focus their attention. And yes, we have disagreements on many subjects, though I have a difficult time imagining why anyone would think this is a problem. Smart, rational people of good will can and do disagree on many things. It’s a bit odd that someone would find that the least bit unusual.

And I’m a bit baffled by this idea that those disagreements result in us “drown(ing) each other out.” Hell, I don’t even know what that phrase means. When Taslima Nasrin wrote that pornography and prostitution were inherently anti-feminist and Greta Christina, Jen McCreight and Richard Carrier disagreed with her, which of them was “drowned out”? And since Loftus is suggesting that we only have people at FTB who agree with one another, it seems to me that having a set of positions that one must agree with and removing anyone who doesn’t agree with them from the network is the very definition of drowning out their voices.

Perhaps I should explain something very important about the network. I decided to leave Science Blogs and launch this site after National Geographic took it over because they said they were going to impose “standards and practices” restrictions on us. They were very concerned about their public image, which is understandable for a very old and venerable (and non-profit) institution, and they were promising to enforce some rules on what we could say and how we could say it. But under Seed for more than 5 years, we had been left almost entirely alone. Indeed, when I was first asked to join Science Blogs, I was promised complete autonomy and that is exactly what they gave me. Not once was I told I couldn’t write something or that I had to delete something I’d written. I liked it that way and I decided that I wasn’t going to accept it any other way.

At that point, I approached PZ and asked him if he would like to join me, since I figured he wasn’t too keen on such restrictions either (let’s face it, he’s even more “in your face” than I am). We got on the phone and talked about it and we immediately agreed on a couple of important things. First, that there would be no restrictions on content (after all, that was the whole purpose of the idea). Second, that we should try to find diverse voices, not just a bunch of middle-aged white guys like us.

Loftus seems particularly focused on the idea of a “bigger voice,” whatever that means.

So Greg (and JT since you liked what Greg wrote), you want a bigger voice than you would otherwise have had even though when it comes to your own specific agendas as atheists (or unique views) they usually get drowned out by others there?

And there again is this idea that our own views get “drowned out” at FTB. What on earth could that even mean? Does someone else disagreeing with us and saying so “drown out” our “voice”? I don’t see how or why it would. We disagree, we talk about it, we write in public about it and it offers a chance to air our positions and have a dialogue about it. What exactly is being “drowned out”?

As for the fixation on a “bigger voice,” I’m sure some people jumped at the chance to join FTB at least in part because, by joining a larger group that included many prominent and well-established bloggers, they would get more attention and boost their blog views. Indeed, that is one of the advantages that I have often pitched to prospective bloggers and it works quite well. Over time, everyone has seen their hits and pageviews go up. And this is a good thing.

But there are lots of possible motivations besides that one. The reaction I have gotten most often when I’ve invited new people to join the network is one of excitement to be invited to join a group with so many people they already read and admire. Many have been shocked and thrilled that we wanted them, reacting with some variation of “You like me, you really like me! Squee!” But we invited them, invariably, because we think they are smart and interesting and have something to add to the conversation (that goes for Loftus when we invited him too). He doesn’t seem to get that:

You are excluding some atheist voices and you know it. What are the criteria for atheists to be included at FtB? That could be a place to start.

Well of course we’re excluding some atheist voices; how could we not, short of having every atheist who wants to blog in the entire world join the network? And the answer is that there are no criteria. We decide as a group which bloggers to add to the network. We have a whole long list of potential invitees and even an official subcommittee to sort through them and make suggestions. But we makes those decisions based on consensus. Sometimes there is disagreement about a particular blogger — it would be an enormous shock if there wasn’t — but in every case when someone votes no but the group agrees to add them, the person who disagrees has welcomed them with open arms, as they should.

Yes, it can be a bit like herding really opinionated cats; I’m okay with that. In fact, I like it that way. As the owner of the network, I could just decide to add anyone I like and ignore the rest, but in the very first conversation with PZ about joining FTB, I told him that I wanted to make decisions by consensus whenever possible. I wanted it to be a community, with all that entails — including inevitable disagreements. And I very much like the community that we’ve formed, even when I disagree with what someone else has written.

There is a good deal else that Loftus seems confused about in his post and his comments. For instance:

I’m still trying to get a handle on it, and I suspect my prompting could help you get a handle on it as well.

I don’t see what there is to get a handle on. We have a lot of different people with different opinions. What is so hard to understand about that? He also says that FTB “puts people into leadership positions who don’t think very critically.” We do not have leadership positions here. We’re not a military unit with ranks. I’m sure John disagrees with many things said by people here. So do I. But so what? When you disagree, say so. No one has a problem with that.

In the end, Loftus really does seem to think that we should be imposing a single viewpoint on every issue on our bloggers, or that any blogger who gets disagreed with by another on the network should follow his lead and take their ball and go home:

GregFromCos, let’s say they all shared an agenda. Then they would have a much greater impact, agreed? But when one says one thing and another disputes it and the same readers are there, then the impact of their voices gets muffled or muted. I don’t see why the person who vehemently argued against prostitution and pornography stays there. What holds her there? That’s my question. Her distinct voice was drowned out. It’s up to her to decide for herself, but it was an important issue to her and she was shouted down.

No, she was disagreed with. It’s not the same thing. Why is Loftus so averse to disagreement? It baffles me. Her “distinct voice” wasn’t “drowned out,” it was given a platform on which to assert itself even in the face of disagreement. How is that a bad thing for anyone involved?

What really makes this all the more amusing is how utterly contradictory it is. Indeed, in the very post that prompted the one linked to above, he criticizes FTB bloggers for thinking too much alike:

Greg Laden, a Freethought Blogger, is calling for the resignation of DJ Grothe who is the President of the James Randi Foundation (JREF) which hosts The Amazing Meeting (TAM) every year. A few other Freethought Bloggers have cooperatively written posts that criticize him. Do you ever wonder why several Freethought Bloggers write on the same topic from time to time? It’s because they all share an email where they talk among themselves and ask other Bloggers to chime in.

Why would anyone wonder why our bloggers write on the same topics from time to time? There just seems to be a major disconnect from reality here and Loftus seems terribly confused. On the one hand, if several FTBers agree on a subject and each write about it expressing a similar perspective, that’s bad and it’s obviously all orchestrated behind the scenes; on the other hand, when we disagree we’re drowning each other out and undermining atheism in the process.

And many of his commenters have joined in to declare the exact opposite of John’s argument, as he has clearly implied before as well. This was addressed by Mikhail to Justin Griffith:

Justin, you’re too good a guy for free thought blogs. I’m serious about this, and this is obviously a compliment. It’s too bad a decent guy like you has to be associated with the cultists at free thought blogs who demand absolute conformity and insult those who think outside of the box.

Yes, sometimes many of our bloggers agree. When a controversy comes up, like the current arguments over sexism in the atheist community and DJ Grothe’s response to it, it should hardly be a surprise, or be viewed as a negative, that several people with similar interests and ideas on how to deal with it all write about it around the same time. It also shouldn’t be a surprise, or viewed as a negative, that others on the network may well disagree and say so as well. Which is it, are we a hive mind that is undermining the cause by gang-style attacks on other atheists? Or are we a highly fractured bunch who is undermining the cause by disagreeing with one another? Jesus, folks, pick a horse and ride it. We’re either a bunch of people who disagree with one another too often and therefore undermine atheism and “drown out” one another, or we’re a cult that destroys anyone who disagrees with us; we can’t be both, for crying out loud.

We invited John Loftus to join FTB last year because, as a group, we have genuine respect for his work debunking Christianity. And we still do. But let me just say this: I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone with as fragile an ego or as strong a persecution complex as John. He is forever demanding “respect,” by which he seems to mean that everyone must bow to his greatness. I think the reason why he seems so baffled by the idea that a group of 40 people would disagree on some things (not to mention the hypocrisy of his criticism of the exact opposite when it suits him) is because he simply cannot fathom the idea that anyone would disagree with him.

From the moment he joined FTB to the moment he left to his most recent postings, he has displayed consistently diva-like behavior. And frankly, I am relieved that he decided to leave the network. I don’t mind herding opinionated cats at all, but I have little patience for those who have displayed a level of pettiness and narcissism that would make Bill O’Reilly envious. When he says things like this:

They need me and don’t realize it. Someday they will.

You get a mere glimpse of it. Yes, John, we’ll rue the day you left (/sarcasm)

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