The secular community is having a #MeToo moment. Some say it’s about time. Others say not so fast.
In 1915 the American suffragist and writer Alice Duer Miller published a slim and delightful book of poetry titled Are Women People? In one poem, simply named “Feminism,” Duer Miller writes:
“Mother, what is a Feminist?”
“A Feminist, my daughter,
Is any woman now who cares
To think about her own affairs
As men don’t think she oughter.”
The book is over 100 years old, yet the poem still rings darkly true in the era of #MeToo, a movement against sexual harassment and abuse that exploded nationwide over the past year and which has, unsurprisingly, created a comparatively fierce backlash from people pushing a million half-baked reasons why it has gone too far.
It’s frequently said that the movement took off after news reports exposed the long list of allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, but really, the rage boiled up in women across the country after Donald Trump was elected president despite a widely publicized tape emerging during the campaign where he bragged about kissing and groping women against their will.
As a movement, #MeToo is still struggling with the basic questions that Duer Miller’s sarcastic book title and poetry was written to address: When will women finally be accepted as equals? Because, as the endless drumbeat of stories of sexual harassment has shown, women are all too often treated like shadow people who have to endure sexualized abuse at the hands of powerful men, and we’re all too often expected to be silent and grateful that men tolerate our presence at all.
The humanist/atheist/skeptic movement had its own #MeToo moment this past winter* when Buzzfeed published a lengthy and well-sourced piece about the repeated allegations against Lawrence Krauss, the popular physicist who’s made a name for himself in skeptic circles with his outspoken atheism. The article described his actions as “groping women, ogling and making sexist jokes to undergrads, and telling an employee at Arizona State University, where he is a tenured professor, that he was going to buy her birth control so she didn’t inconvenience him with maternity leave,” as well as an accusation of pushing a woman down on a bed and fondling her against her will.
(*Another #MeToo moment hit the movement April 13, after the May/June issue of the Humanist went to print, when news broke that American Atheist President David Silverman had been accused of sexual misconduct, assault, and financial misdeeds.)
The article also noted that Case Western Reserve University and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics “have quietly restricted him from their campuses.” These decisions were made, respectively, ten and six years prior to the Buzzfeed article, though Krauss challenged the Perimeter Institute’s claim that he’s been disinvited permanently.
Krauss dismissed the multiple allegations against him as either factually incorrect or as a series of coincidences stemming from his fame. The latter is the sort of argument that skeptics should see right through—and yet, for many people, that didn’t happen.
On March 9, 2018, the American Humanist Association (AHA) announced its decision to remove Krauss from its pool of speakers and presenters and to review an award that was given to him by the organization in 2015.
“When a prominent humanist’s commitment to reason, compassion, and egalitarianism appears to be fundamentally compromised by his or her behavior,” said AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt in the statement, “we must act on our disappointment to ensure that the world understands humanists at large don’t condone such misconduct.”
But what seemed a common sense response to most feminists drew a chorus of outrage from some corners of the skeptical community. The Facebook post announcing the decision was met with a series of angry replies from people who fixated primarily on the idea that the only legitimate venue to discuss accusations of sexual harassment is a court of law.
“While I applaud the movement to bring bad behavior to light, I firmly believe that people are innocent until proven guilty,” one man declared.
“Wouldn’t it be a good idea if we would wait with consequences until his crimes are proven or admitted?” another wrote.
“I believe everyone should wait for the court to do its job and decide if he is innocent or not,” another Facebook humanist affirmed, casually sliding over the fact that no one is actually bringing charges in court and many of the accusations were regarding sexual misconduct, which is not a criminal matter.
The phrase “due process” was repeated over and over, conflating Krauss’s “right” to have plum speaking gigs with the right of others to be free from imprisonment without trial.
Tellingly, this standard is not adhered to when skeptics evaluate other claims, such as the existence of God or the validity of climate change. Skeptics feel free to judge the behavior of scientific frauds like Andrew Wakefield or religious charlatans like Peter Popoff based on evidence presented by journalists or activists. It’s only when the claim is sexual misconduct or harassment—and the accused is beloved to skeptics—that suddenly the only appropriate way to make a determination is to impanel a jury to make a ruling.
To be clear, groups like the American Humanist Association don’t actually have the power to impanel a jury—meaning that the “due process” that harassment denialists will accept is forever and conveniently elusive. As for those who claim to mean something less formal than a court trial when calling for due process, well, that happened—the organization examined the evidence and took a vote.
“Due process and evidence are values that are important to humanists,” AHA President Rebecca Hale explained in an email. “It was/is a concern of mine as well.” Hale explained that the organization didn’t take the decision lightly and had engaged in its own research before suspending the relationship. She also emphasized that further review is intended.
If process is the concern, this should satisfy critics of the distancing, which leaves the very real worry that men might finally be held accountable for their sexist behavior.
The vexation over someone’s alleged right to not only be in the movement but to be a prominent and famous figure was particularly galling in light of the longstanding insouciance for the large numbers of women, LGBTQ people, and people of color who have been driven out of the secular movement in recent years by sexual harassment and institutional indifference to inequality—issues that should be at the center of any movement that lays claim to humanist values.
In early March, I wrote a piece for Salon addressing the fact that the discussion about sexism and sexual harassment in atheist circles long predated the #MeToo phenomenon. The people I interviewed had been outspoken for years about their concerns that the movement wasn’t welcoming to people who aren’t straight white men. The response they endured for this was ugly and, for many, defeating. Some people have left the movement altogether. Others have stayed, but have found themselves marginalized, watching their speaking invitations and organizing opportunities dry up. And not one of them have had folks arguing on their behalf that they deserve “due process.”
“Institutionalized sexual harassment and erasure of the voices and the lived experiences of people of color and women of all ethnicities is something that is absolutely endemic,” author, educator, and atheist activist Sikivu Hutchinson told me.
Heina Dadabhoy, who is one of the rare ex-Muslims to become a speaker and writer in the movement, told me she has “publicly and privately disassociated” from many organizations and events, even though, she says, “I had something to say. I still do.”
While there was an array of social justice issues raised in the atheist movement for years, in the end, it was sexual harassment and abuse that became the linchpin of what Monette Richards of Secular Woman called the “Great Rift” that led to the exodus and marginalization of so many people—and prevented many others who don’t identify as straight white men to stay away.
The sexual harassment problems really can be sorted into two buckets. First, there’s the kind that was exposed by the Krauss and Silverman stories and the larger #MeToo movement. It’s the kind most people think of when they think of sexual harassment—men sexually intimidating and coercing women who are less powerful than they are. Unfortunately, a number of women have been stepping forward for years making these complaints, and very rarely getting much but a gentle nudge towards the exit door for their trouble.
But then there was the larger, more widespread issue of harassment in response to any sort of speaking out about sexism. It’s been recounted a number of times, but this really stems back to the day that skeptical vlogger Rebecca Watson gently suggested in a video that men avoid hitting on women in enclosed spaces at 4 a.m. (in her case, a woman who hours before had shared with conference goers the details of graphic rape threats she regularly received from men). Watson’s suggestion that caused so much anger and hurt among many men in the community—including Richard Dawkins—that the resulting firestorm of abuse leveled at Watson got its own nickname (“Elevatorgate”) and raged for years. Indeed, it metastasized, consuming anyone who defended Watson.
In fact, there was a time when a number of outspokenly progressive atheists were unable to venture online without seeing a torrent of abuse aimed at them for their feminist views. The harassment spilled into offline spaces as well. I joined Watson for a panel at CONvergence in Minneapolis one year and an embittered man tried and frankly failed to “confront” us about our supposed sins. Watson told me that this sort of thing happens even now—and that she’s had genuinely scary problems with men threatening violence against her if she dared go out in public.
Much of what people reported to me then and since isn’t sexual harassment in the most stereotypical sense—insistent or repeated come-ons, catcalls, and groping. That happens, of course, but there’s also a larger, sprawling problem of women being treated as if their value is as a sex object and nothing more. Some women said they were mocked for their looks and told they were fat or ugly. Others said they felt ignored by prominent male atheists they were interested in talking to who seemed to have plenty of time to interact with college-aged women.
But what really hurt the people I spoke with most often was the lack of support from the broader community. All too many atheists were made to feel that speaking out, not harassment, was the greater transgression, and that they had somehow brought this on themselves. For them, there was no “due process.” There were no demands that some kind of formal process be put in place so those who had complaints about sexual harassment, online mobs, or even abuse could find justice. All they got was the cold shoulder.
So this brings us to today, at a time when the entire country is reckoning with the horrors wrought by this indifference to sexual harassment. Seemingly overnight, huge swaths of people are starting to realize that victims of harassment are people, not just annoyances that must be made to go away before they damage the reputations of powerful men. Americans are really asking themselves why it is that someone like Harvey Weinstein could corner a woman in a hotel room, and it was her career and not his that was ruined. We want to know why Matt Lauer rose high in the ranks at NBC, while the women who say he abused them saw their aspirations go up in smoke.
The answer, we are finding, is that we failed, as a society. We failed because, on some level, we still don’t see women as people. We believe men’s careers are critical and women’s are irrelevant. We see men’s comfort as paramount and that women’s duty is to accommodate them. We still think the role of doers and thinkers and leaders belong to men, while women are the support staff. We thought we didn’t think these things because we occasionally allowed a token woman some power (though typically only if she played along with the unspoken rules of male power). But we clearly did, which is why women were so easily disposed of and men were shielded from consequences.
Will things get better? In the microcosm of the humanist world, it’s a mixed bag, at least from my perspective as someone whose involvement has been more dabbling than in-depth. There have been some positive developments, including the fact that the AHA, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and the Center for Inquiry publicly distanced themselves from Krauss, despite pressure from some quarters to stand by him, and American Atheists fired Silverman after reviewing a number of allegations.
But let’s not forget some of the frustrating or outright disturbing responses, and not just from Facebook commentators. Most notably, famous atheist Sam Harris, while admitting he had heard some stories about Krauss, tried to discredit Buzzfeed by saying they lean “toward the unscrupulous side” and suggested that there was a “none-too-hidden agenda to deliver a more global attack on the atheist community.”
Harris’s reaction is a reminder of how casually women are discounted as people. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that the people speaking out, being women, could be part of the atheist community. If he had considered women to be part of the community, then it might be more obvious to him that the reason people are speaking out is in part because they want to save the community from men who are hurting it.
Unlike many in the secular sphere who had to leave religion, I’ve never really been a believer. It takes very little, if you’re not browbeaten into faith, to not believe in a god. The concept of humanism—the idea of an empathy-driven, person-centered moral system—came only in adulthood for me, but it’s an idea I loved. It seemed so simple, so straightforward to simply build a moral system around people, and to use ethical philosophy to replace the rigid rules of religion that have often caused more terror than solace.
Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to approach a humanist ideal, in part because, as Alice Duer Miller grasped a century ago, many people still struggle to see women in the category of humans that humanism should be interested in. For people who lay claim to evidence-based thinking, the fact that the movement is mostly male while the human race is a little over half female, and that it’s mostly white when most people are not, should be considered more than a barely interesting factoid. It should be cause for alarm, a total rethinking of how things are going that humanism is so bad at representing humans. Something really needs to change, or humanism will ultimately be remembered as a delusional belief system, just like the religious systems it criticizes.