Women in Secularism Explained… by David Brooks?

There seems to be a certain amount of confusion and disagreement about the purpose of the Center for Inquiry’s Women in Secularism (WIS) conference, the third annual of which was held this past weekend in Alexandria, Virginia.

From left, Melody Hensley, Amy Davis Roth, Amanda Knief, and Debbie Goddard. Photo © Bruce F Press Photography.
Is it a secular conference for women? Is it a feminist conference for humanists and atheists? Is it a confederacy of black/white/Hispanic/Asian/gay/trans/cis/old/young/fat/skinny/pierced/inked/plain/ smart/caring/socially conscious human beings interested in gender equality? Bingo. But hey, that’s just my opinion. And no, I really have no idea how New York Times columnist David Brooks would describe it, but we’ll get to him later. WIS was born in 2012 out of an emerging recognition of and debate over sexism within the secular movement. Notable speakers explored the history of women in secularism, sexism in Islamic societies, and more, but the hot topic was an unwritten list of high-profile men in the atheist movement who had either sexually harassed women at conferences or were known to hold sexist views. The controversy at last year’s WIS II surrounded CFI President and CEO Ron Lindsay’s controversial remarks about how men were being silenced by secular women. With round three, I think it’s fair to say the conference organizers (with a shout-out to creator Melody Hensley and “Mission Commander” Lauren Becker) were looking for a strong, positive, women-centric experience, and that’s exactly what we got. Lindsay’s opening remarks stressed CFI’s commitment to equality and added that "stirring up trouble...is how we advance as a movement." A panel of writers and bloggers discussed online activism and the power and pitfalls of a viral hashtag like #bringbackourgirls. While some criticize the passing along of a Twitter hashtag as superficial activism, panelists saw it as using one’s privilege to elevate the voices of the less privileged (in that case raising awareness of the missing Nigerian school girls). Moderated by Lindsay Beyerstein, the panel included Soraya Chemaly, Amy Davis Roth, Zinnia Jones, and Miri Mogilevsky in one of the best discussions of the conference. A successful panel can happen as if by magic sometimes, but I think really relies on an integration of expertise, personal experience, and articulation. That chemistry was working here as the panelists discussed online campaigns they’d led or been part of and the backlash they endured as a result. I was unaware of the lengths to which opponents will go in harassing women online. Jones, for one, is a trans woman who was the victim of harassment by individuals who actually contacted her doctors, posted photos of her transition process, and made physical threats. I learned that online harassment isn’t just meted out by individuals sitting in dark rooms (aka “trolls”); organized groups of men’s rights activists are also targeting individual women. And I also learned there are women who identify as “TERFS”—trans-exclusive radical feminists—who reject trans women. Panelists urged an attentive audience not to lecture victims of online abuse by telling them they must go to the police. Consensus was this doesn’t accomplish much, and for trans women and women of color it often results in further harassment from the officers themselves. “Don’t let it get to you” is something else you shouldn’t tell victims, and they’re all tired of being told to grow a thicker skin or keep quiet. “How is speaking out being thin-skinned?” Jones asked incredulously. “We’re the strong ones for speaking out.” Chemaly, a media critic and activist, made sharp points, one being that websites should see the comments to articles as part of their content and moderate responsibly or consider abolishing the comments section altogether, as Popular Science has done. After presenting a talk on gender and free expression ("It's not that women talk too much. People expect us to talk less"), she led a panel on intersectionality and humanism with Jones, Mogilevsky, Heina Dadabhoy, and Debbie Goddard. Does intersectionality—examining intersections between forms of oppression—spell mission creep for humanist organizations? Certainly people who join groups seek unity. For atheist and humanist organizations, anti-religious topics achieve that, but does discussing things like immigration, racism, and—yes—sexism disrupt it? "Humanist groups may accurately perceive their current base," Mogilevsky commented, "but not their potential base." In a related aside Jones quipped, "It's like the Pantene bottle says, 'Know the hair you have to get the hair you want.’" I was a bit disappointed during this discussion when concerns were raised that humanist groups lack interest in working on issues like education or prison reform. Panelists had no knowledge of the extensive work of the American Humanist Association’s Kochhar Humanist Education Center and its Teacher Corps, nor of AHA’s renewed interest in forming humanist chapters within prisons. Certainly they shouldn’t have been expected to know all this, but I couldn’t help wishing my colleague Maggie Ardiente had been invited to sit on that panel. If day one was driven by younger secular women working largely in the digital trenches, day two was carried by the more academic and seasoned rabble-rousers. Barbara Ehrenreich, Rebecca Goldstein, Ophelia Benson, Taslima Nasrin, Susan Jacoby, and Katha Pollitt made an all-star cast of secular women writers in discussing their own exits from the religious traditions of their childhood, their thoughts on why women are so polite when it comes to religion, and even delving boldly into the conundrum of multiculturalism. Joining them were former charismatic minister Candace Gorman, Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s Sarah Jones, Huffington Post Associate Editor Mandy Velez, Jezebel columnist Lindy West, and American Atheists’ managing director and The Citizen Lobbyist author Amanda Knief. (Comedian Leighann Lord performed at the evening banquet, which, unfortunately, I had to miss). Ehrenreich spoke about her new book, Living with a Wild God, in which she explores a mystical experience she had as a teenager. While Ehrenreich is known as the myth-busting author of books like Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America and Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, as a lifelong naturalist with a Ph.D. in cellular immunology she stressed, “you can’t ignore observations that don’t fit into your theory.” Her goal in writing about her youthful experience (which she chronicled in a diary at the time) was to disassociate mysticism or other unexplained phenomenon from religion and from the “soft, clammy rip of spirituality.” (Incidentally, she never really went into detail about what happened to her all those years ago, which may just be a genius way to sell a book and who can blame her?) Referencing Virginia Wolf’s “moments of being” and Sam Harris’s meditation, Ehrenreich urged the audience, if any of us were to ever experience an out-of-body, mysterious event: “Don’t fall on your knees! Pay attention, take notes, and better yet—go get a blood sample.” After the conference wrapped up, one of the blogger panelists tweeted that some were grumbling that there weren’t enough Ph.D.s on the panels. I didn’t really care about that, but in some cases I did wish that either the panelists’ expertise were better called upon or that other voices had been included in the conversations. Such is the challenge of pleasing everyone. And the simple truth is that the Women in Secularism conference is a success. People of all ages and genders keep coming to it, so I really don’t get why some folks continue to ask why they keep putting it on. Moreover, gender equality is not a done deal. In his New York Times column last Friday (“Stairway to Wisdom”) David Brooks detailed the needed ingredients to gaining a deep understanding of a social problem, beginning with the data and moving on to first-hand accounts. The highest rung on his stairway, though, went beyond those: “Empathy opens you up to absorb the good and the bad. Love impels you not just to observe but to seek union—to think as another thinks and feel as another feels.”

Those of us who work with data and for newspapers probably should be continually reminding ourselves to bow down before knowledge of participation, to defer to the highest form of understanding, which is held by those who walk alongside others every day, who know the first names, who know the smells and fears.

Amen, brother Brooks. This is what WIS is all about. Other notable quotes from WIS III:

“[When considering Muslim feminists] I used to think, why are you trying to fix this mess? Just leave it! But now I realize their value in de-fanging religion. I view them with admiration as they try to fix the hot mess I left behind.” – Heina Dadabhoy

 “I have no respect for any religion.” –Taslima Nasrin

“There are bigger problems facing woman than Internet trolls, but who will continue to write about those women if female bloggers are driven off the Internet?” –Lindy West

“The degree to which [religions] aren’t dangerous to women is the degree to which they have been infiltrated by secularism.” –Susan Jacoby

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