Sam Harris, Meet the Secular Support Movement

Sam Harris, Meet the Secular Support Movement September 26, 2014

Guest post by Rebecca Hensler –

supportSo much has been said regarding Sam Harris’ recent statements that it is hard to imagine anyone having something new to contribute. What has been missing from these conversations is the same as what was missing from Harris’ original comments about gender imbalance among (as he put it) “active atheists”: any mention of the network of secular support that has grown within the atheist community, serving not only “the sort of people who go to atheist conferences, read atheist books, watch atheists debate pastors on YouTube, or otherwise rally around atheism as a political identity,” but also the thousands of nonbelievers who previously shared no connection with the atheist movement whatsoever.

When Harris claims, “The atheist variable…doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra-estrogen vibe,” he may be correct about the atheism of seven years ago, when he was dubbed one of the “Four Horsemen,” but he displays his ignorance of the atheism of today. Now when you attend an “atheist conference,” you are not only several times more likely to hear a female speaker than you were then, you are also more likely to hear a talk – by a man or woman — about the impact of skepticism and nonbelief on the emotional and personal lives of atheists.

We are no longer simply talking about what we think as skeptics and freethinkers — we are talking about how we feel, and creating structures in which to do so.

I don’t mind that Harris has apparently never heard of my particular project, Grief Beyond Belief, a secular support network for bereaved nonbelievers. But it disturbs me that he also remains seemingly unaware of the Secular Therapist Project and the Hotline Project, as well as their parent organization, Recovering From Religion. And where, in the world of Harris’ “active atheists,” are the Secular Safe Zone, Secular Student Alliance, Parents Beyond Belief and Camp Quest, all of which provide support and community for atheist youth and their caregivers? Or the two best known secular recovery networks, Lifering and Secular Organizations for Sobriety? Or the growing network of Sunday Assemblies and the many Humanist Chaplaincies? Or the hundreds of Humanist and Secular Celebrants trained by the Humanist Society and by Center for Inquiry?

By defining “active atheism” as engagement in debate and dissent, attendance at conferences (which working-class and poor atheists typically cannot afford), and acceptance of atheism as a political identity, Harris demonstrates that he either discounts the support of other atheists as an atheist activity or he hasn’t met the atheist community lately.

When Harris suggested that “a less “angry,” more “nurturing” style of discourse might attract more women to the cause of atheism,” he inadvertently exposed his own ignorance of the “nurturing” that has become available in the atheist community, and upon which thousands of atheists depend for support. But in implying that the nurturing tendencies supposedly missing from organized atheism are an innately female trait, he made a second mistake.

While women, such as 2013 Atheist of the Year Sarah Morehead, and CFI’s Reba Boyd Wooden, direct some of the secular community’s support projects, others are headed by men, including the Secular Therapy Project’s Dr. Darrel Ray, Andrew Cheadle, who coordinates the SSA’s Secular Safezone project, and Dale McGowan, who co-hosts the Parents Beyond Belief blog, which facilitates communication among secular families and secular parenting groups. To the credit of the movement, secular support does not appear to be considered women’s work.

It would be disingenuous of me if I neglected to acknowledge something Harris got right, however accidentally: At least in the case of Grief Beyond Belief, secular support has brought hundreds, if not thousands of women into contact with organized atheism, often for the first time. Online grief support in general trends heavily female, and Grief Beyond Belief is no exception.

Unlike Harris, I will not make foolish, unsubstantiated guesses about the cause of the gender imbalance of my own project’s audience. Sometimes it is okay to just stop and notice and think without jumping to conclusions or getting defensive. I am simply glad that GBB has helped bring atheist women from isolation to community; I’m not going to assume that other secular support projects will have the same effect.

I do know one thing: If we want a woman who is attracted to the atheist community by the availability of secular support to join the atheist movement as well, we will treat that woman with respect. Greeting her with weak estrogen jokes and pop psychology is not going to help.

About Rebecca Henslerhensler

Following the death of her infant son, Rebecca Hensler discovered that most online grief support groups are dominated by religion and spiritualism. Alienated by talk of angels, heaven and signs, she founded Grief Beyond Belief, a faith-free grief support network. Rebecca is a school counselor with a BA in political activism and a MS in counseling. She currently lives in the Bay Area.


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  • Neil Carter

    Great post. Some of my favorite people in the world are listed here, and the work they do brings healing and comfort to many.

    As a male with a nurturing bent, I’m ready to see us move past the gender stereotypes, and it seems to me the freethought/secularist movement is qualified beyond most at providing that balancing perspective which other ideologies won’t bring because of their commitment to maintaining their own orthodoxies.

  • Robert Parham

    Don’t forget The Clergy Project, which was started by Daniel Dennett, Linda LaScola, Dan Barker, and Richard Dawkins. http://www.clergyproject.org

  • Eolande Eliva

    I wish the clergy project was open to the spouses/partners of ex clergy.

  • Marlys Doerflinger

    Also the Oasis Network was not mentioned. Helen Stringer and others from the KCAC worked together to start this Sunday morning community which opened six months (April 2014) ago in Kansas City. About two months ago there was an article about the community in the Times magazine and the founder of the original Oasis which is located in the Houston Area was started by Mike Aus. In December a third Oasis group is scheduled to start up. Both of the existing groups make videos of the talks at their meetings that are available on Youtube. Communities like this are providing support for those who do not believe in the supernatural things which many churches teach but who like the support of having a community of like minded people.

  • Paulie

    I’m grateful for your contribution, Rebecca. It’s definitely new. This is the first (and only) response to Harris’ remarks that actually displayed the thoughtfulness and respectful criticism that, to me, embodies the ideal of skepticism and the atheist community.

    The skeptoblogosphere is so busy sniping at one another over such remarks that they risk isolating those who normally take inspiration from, and enjoy talking to, them. It’s not reasonable or supportive at all. I am very glad to see someone shine a light on the many ways in which our community is, indeed, more than just a couple of polemic echo chambers – and moreover, to do so as succinctly, factually, and kindly as you have.

    I also think that, in taking account of atheism’s supportive network of organizations, whose roots and leadership defy any simplistic or ignorant gender essentialism, you’ve made the best empirical case for Harris to wrap his mind around.

    Truly, a desperately needed and impeccably well done post.

  • Sjors

    My “god” you guys truly do look through what the man says and actively TRY to make it reprehensible don’t you? I happen to have read the article by Sam that you are so sadly misrepresenting the main idea of, and it, as well as the man behind it, are wonderful and thoughtful examples of what the atheist community can be like. Or you can just look for anything that can be wrestled into a negative meaning, don’t enter into discussion with the author but publicly announce his stupidity and blindness, and fight “the good fight”. What’s the matter? Not enough real problems for you in the world?

  • Msironen

    “Unlike Harris, I will not make foolish, unsubstantiated guesses about the cause of the gender imbalance of my own project’s audience.”

    But I thought it was already settled that it’s sexism and misogyny that’s responsible for Harris’ skewed audience? But indeed, what then of audiences skewed towards women? Minitrue must sort this out ASAP! I fear I’m becoming a thought criminal! Help!

  • ahermit

    Thanks for this. The kinds of organizations you list here will, in my opinion, do far more for the advancement of atheism and secularism than any of the skeptic conferences or angry denunciations of religion. We can and should do better.

  • Søren Kongstad

    You should read greta Christinas well reasoned post on why what he said was Sexist, or ineed browser love joy feminism on this network for always well thought out and sensible commentary from Libby Anne.

    If people are calling Harris misogynists they are wrong. No one can no his mind or intent. That he has said sexists things is clear, but as people keep saying, everyone says sexist things or hold to sexist ideas and norms.

    As Harris admits he tends to put women on a pedestal, “he tends to respect women more than men”, a sexist notion. Pointing this out should not be dismissed.

    I am willing to grant that his intentions might be good, but intent is not magic, and as a public face of atheism he should be more open to have his actions and words challenged.

  • dem_bones

    Ah yes, the obligatory ‘real problems’ comment. AND suggesting that there is something wrong with a writer actively trying to engage in a critical dialogue- a twofer! I just can’t get enough of online commenters who spend their time voicing the opinion that others have opinions too trifling to be voiced. Whatever you do, don’t actually engage with the content of her piece.

  • Eric Scoles

    From where I’m sitting, it looks like you’re working pretty hard to miss the point of this article, which is simply that harris is out of touch with the rest of us in two really significant ways: He doesn’t really know anything about what it’s like for most people (who aren’t well-to-do and radicalized) who are atheists in america today; and he’s still stuck in a gender-mindset wherein “women are nurturing, men are analytical.”

  • Eric Scoles

    ah, yes, “thoughtcrime.” Such a helpful concept in debate.

  • josh

    It was Harris’s interviewer, a woman, who said there were more men than women in atheism. Harris says this is true in his experience with respect to the people who attend his book signings or show up at conferences. I have no idea how you extrapolate what organizations he does or doesn’t know about from that. Nor, since it is clear who he is talking about, do I see how you interpret his discussion of those atheist activists as an attack on online grief support.

    Nor can I see how Harris ‘jumped to conclusions’ or got defensive by offering a speculative but plausible explanation for the observation. And then you support his point by noting that certain other forms of atheist organizing do seem to draw more women. That doesn’t make him “accidentally” right, that suggests he was right all along. And of course nothing in his comments says that no men could be ‘nurturing’, or that no women are outspoken conference attendees.

    Why is it so hard to say “There’s nothing wrong with what Harris said, however, I would like to emphasize some other points he didn’t mention.” ?

  • Jimmy Martello

    Pope Benedict XVI was right about radical secular humanists. This article is proof of how correct he was.

  • photojack53

    Me too. I wish the Clergy Project was open to ALL who are interested in and can contribute ideas and thoughts to their well-intended project. I do mention the Clergy Project in many of my posts to articles on skepticism and atheism and now, thanks to this article, I’ll peruse, learn about and add mention of several of the organizations listed here..

  • photojack53

    Bravo! Your sensitive and thoughtful post garnered nearly three times the “likes” of the next closest comment. Let’s hope these limiting orthodoxies fall by the wayside as more people become enlightened by and turn to atheism and secular humanism as the center of their belief systems. Religions are losing membership, especially among the young, as they only breed turmoil, conflict and strife.
    When I comment on general news websites about religion, I always include mention of Dr. Carl Sagan’s great book, “Pale Blue Dot” as a perfect introduction to mankind’s true place in nature, of a poetical and reverential introduction to science and rationality and its perfect introduction to atheism.
    I recommend it highly!

  • Shawn Beckner

    Although I agree with you on several points, I think you are asking quite a bit from Mr. Harris. It must be hard to be Sam Harris, a nerdy scientist forced to be one of the few spotlighted atheist figureheads…which, by its very nature, is a very diverse group and not easily represented. He is not an elegant statesman, nor is he “infallible,” and I think that the New, New Atheists need to give him a bit of a break.

    I’m not saying that we owe him our allegiance, but he is hardly “foolish” and he doesn’t really owe us anything other than his opinions, either. In your response to his off-the-cuff and live remarks you have stopped just short of calling the man a sexist, which is obviously untrue (if you’ve read his books you should know this), and even if it were true I think it’s salient to mention that Harris is a SCIENTIST and not a political figure…although our position as atheists is inherently political within the framework of our religious society. There is a gender imbalance among atheists…why do you think that is?

  • Lisa Smith

    Harris’s biggest mistake was trying to answer a loaded question. When asked why there are less female atheists, I think the best response would have been: I don’t know if that’s true; and if it’s true, I don’t know why. Instead he felt the need to speculate and got himself into trouble.