On Shunning Fellow Atheists and Skeptics

November 25, 2012

Shunning and boycotting may be gaining acceptance in the atheist and skeptic communities.   In particular, it appears they are being adopted as tactics against fellow atheists and skeptics.  This is regrettable.

By shunning I mean deliberately avoiding association with an individual, even when the association is as attenuated as attending an event or conference where the shunned individual is speaking.  By boycotting I mean deliberately avoiding association with anyone or any entity (such as an organization that sponsors an event) which does not support one’s shunning. 

I am motivated to write about this topic for a couple of reasons. First, Russell Blackford has recently announced via Twitter that he will not attend any conference at which Rebecca Watson or PZ Myers is speaking.  Second, in the last few months, a number of individuals have advised me that CFI and its affiliates should never invite certain persons as speakers.  This advice has often been accompanied with a statement such as “If X speaks, I will not attend the conference.”  There was a flurry of such advice around CSICon, the Nashville conference of our affiliate CSI, presumably because our speaker list reminded people of objections they had to this or that individual.  Some of the advice was prompted by an essay by Watson that appeared in Slate around the same time as the conference, which, among other things, contained a mischaracterization of one of my blog posts.  This was offered as convincing proof that Watson was beyond the pale and should be considered persona non grata by CFI. 

In any event, the list of individuals that CFI has been advised not to have any dealings with is long.  In no particular order it includes: Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Ophelia Benson, Harriet Hall, Russell Blackford, Edwina Rogers, Rebecca Watson, PZ Myers, and Sharon Hill.  I am sure I am forgetting several more. 

This is advice which I decline to follow.  Let me explain why. 

CFI is an organization that has as part of its core mission the promotion of free inquiry.  We try to fulfill that mission in several ways.  One way is to campaign against government restrictions on speech, in particular, speech deemed intolerable because it offends the sensibilities of the religious.  We also try to promote discussion of important issues, often by inviting speakers to events or conferences who have contrasting views.  For example, we will be holding a symposium in Washington, D. C., on April 27, 2013 which will focus on Brian Leiter’s new book, Why Tolerate Religion?  Leiter has a provocative thesis and CFI firmly believes that the best way to examine this thesis is to have other speakers who disagree with Leiter and will be able to point out what they perceive as flaws in his arguments.  (The speaker list for this event has not been finalized, but it will be announced shortly.)  Put simply, contrasting viewpoints are something we intentionally try to present at many of our events.  Our conferences are not designed to be the atheist/skeptic counterparts of Unification Church assemblies. 

Accordingly, it is inconsistent with CFI’s mission not to invite someone to speak at a conference merely because that person has expressed views with which other atheists/skeptics disagree.  Nor is it a sufficient basis for exclusion that the person has offended others while expressing his/her views.  We certainly hope atheist sensibilities are not more fragile than the feelings of the religious. 

Of course, there are persons who combine controversial opinions with outrageous, intolerable behavior or express their opinions in such a fashion that they do not allow for a meaningful exchange of views (e.g., their “views” consist largely of a string of racist epithets).  Similarly, there are persons who repeatedly make demonstrably false claims, whose every word out of their mouths, including “and” and “the” (to paraphrase Mary McCarthy), are lies.  Such persons would not be invited to speak at CFI events. 

Without scrutinizing every statement that has ever been made by the individuals listed above, I am confident that none of these individuals falls into the “unacceptable” category.  We will continue to invite them to CFI events when warranted. 

Naturally, if a significant percentage of the pool of potential speakers adopts a position similar to Russell Blackford’s, it will make assembling a roster of speakers for a conference more difficult.  (And Blackford is not the only one who has taken the position that he will not attend conferences where certain individuals are speaking; he just happens to have made his position public.)  If we want to comply with the various preferences of these speakers, we will have to keep in mind that speaker A does not want speaker B or C; speaker B does not want speaker A or D; speaker D does not want C or F; and so on.  We’d need a computer program to keep track of everyone’s objections.

We’re going to avoid that problem by not going down that road. As indicated, we’ll continue to invite individuals who we think can make a meaningful contribution to a particular event.

Let me also respectfully suggest to my long-distance friend Russell that his position that he will not attend conferences where Watson or Myers is speaking does not rest on a sound argument. One has to be very charitable when trying to interpret a tweet, but Russell appears to believe his position is justified, in part, because an organization “supports” an individual by having them speak at a conference.  Not so.

Clearly, “support” cannot mean endorsement because CFI does not endorse the views of every speaker it invites to a conference. Indeed, CFI probably doesn’t endorse all the views of any speaker it invites to a conference, including me and other staff. Inviting a speaker to a conference means, as indicated, we believe this person will contribute in some fashion to the conference. It doesn’t mean we agree with this person about the dangers from moderate religion, the wisdom of libertarianism, the poverty of philosophy, or the implications of feminism. It also doesn’t mean we vouch for the person as even-tempered, pleasant, and agreeable.

And as Russell knows from his own experience of speaking for us, “support” cannot mean financial support because typically we do no more than cover expenses. Occasionally we offer honoraria, but the amounts involved are so small as to constitute mere tokens of appreciation.  Certainly, they cannot supply a meaningful source of income.

If Russell believes that Myers and Watson trade in bad arguments, or perhaps no arguments at all, but just unsupported assertions and accusations, then the best remedy for that is the time-honored one of pointing out the flaws in their claims. Or, if one thinks enough effort has been spent on rebuttal, simply ignoring them. Shunning and boycotting are extreme responses best reserved for truly exceptional cases.  I would hate to see the atheist and skeptic communities dissolve into a snarl of dueling fatwas.

Which brings me to the above-referenced observations by Watson about me.  In her October Slate article, Watson suggested that I was a person who, with respect to the controversy over feminism and ha
rassment within the atheist/skeptic communities, “play[ed] the ‘both sides are wrong’ game, insinuating that ‘misogynist’ is just as bad an insult as ‘cunt.’” Her characterization of my position in the blog post to which she linked is incorrect and should have been known to be incorrect to anyone who read that post carefully. First, my pointing out that various people with contrasting positions have arguably made unsupported accusations, such as “misogynist” or “feminazi,” does not imply both sides (if, indeed, there are just two sides) are substantively wrong or mistaken to the same extent.  Second, I make no attempt, explicitly or implicitly, to equate the accusation “misogynist” with the insult “cunt.” I don’t even use the word “cunt” in my essay. Moreover, it should be obvious to anyone that these terms don’t admit of an easy comparison because, in their most typical use, they fall into two different categories. One is an accusation of bias which can seriously damage one’s reputation. The other is a term of contempt, a hateful dismissal of another’s humanity.  Trying to compare “cunt” and “misogynist” is like comparing “spic” and “anti-Semite” or “kike” and “racist.” These terms are harmful but in different ways.

In short, Watson mischaracterized my views and her observations manifest either poor reasoning or a lack of reasoning.

However, if CFI were to disassociate itself from everyone who ever mischaracterized my views or the views of others at CFI or displayed flawed reasoning we’d have a very thin roster of potential speakers.

A couple of years ago Jerry Coyne claimed that CFI had declared war on atheists. No, really. Moreover, he specifically mentioned me as someone who had gone out of his way to criticize CFI’s atheist supporters. No statement by me was provided as evidence. And I assure you this this declaration of war on atheists was news both to me and Tom Flynn, who never suspected we might declare war on ourselves. Presumably, it was also news to Richard Dawkins, who at roughly the same time, received an award from us for being the person who had most contributed to the advance of freethought in 2009. But despite Coyne’s unsupported claim, he’d be welcome to speak at CFI events. 

And don’t get me started on PZ Myers, who has raged against those alleged accommodationist “wankers” at CFI, stating that CFI stood for the “Church of Fatuous Incompetence.”

(Remember when accommodationism and not sexism was the big issue in the atheist community? Ah, the good old days.)

My point is that occasional sloppy research or poor reasoning resulting in unsupported claims should not necessarily result in someone becoming a pariah. We need to cut each other some slack. Nor should criticism of one or the institution with which one is associated necessarily result in placement of the offender on the “To Be Shunned” list. We need to develop thicker skins. Critical thinking and a commitment to free inquiry do not mix well with hypersensitivity.

As I have said before, we should not cut ourselves off from fellow atheists and skeptics who agree with us on core principles. Disagreements should be resolved through dialogue, not denunciation.