Atheism, Skepticism, Feminism, and Failures

June 17, 2013

Last month I was lucky enough to go to Women in Secularism 2. I met quite a few people who I have read, idolized, and agreed with. I rubbed elbows with people I now consider close friends and participated in conversations I could have never had without this opportunity. For all of that, I have to offer my sincerest gratitude and thanks to Melody Hensley and the rest of the CFI team in Washington DC.

However, the whole event was kicked off by actions I can only describe as asinine. Ron Lindsay, in his infinite wisdom as an aged man of some success, thought it was a good idea to approach a room that was at least half full of women, at a conference explicitly framed around the lack of inclusion and equality between the genders in the Atheist/Skeptical movement, to chide feminists on whether they might have gone too far.

His opening remarks were not only asinine, as I said, they were also childish and irrational. The cause of equality between the genders is feminism. Part of understanding the inequality between genders is Privilege, the dirty word he railed against. To any informed individual that is not prejudiced by irrational positions, his opening remarks were both wrong and churlish. He insisted that his feelings be protected while happenstance puts him on the wrong side of the equality equation.

In response to this, there was several reasoned criticisms of CFI. There were letters sent asking the board to take a stance on this, and in fact it could be said that people asked them to take any stance. To declare, one way or another, whether the cause of women’s equality is actually of importance or interest to CFI as an organization. Or, perhaps it could be said, to the leadership of the organization – we already know that several important parts of CFI do believe equality is important since it is evidenced in the very fact that Women in Secularism exists.

So, after the letters were sent and the board met, this was their response.

The mission of the Center for Inquiry is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.

The Center for Inquiry, including its CEO, is dedicated to advancing the status of women and promoting women’s issues, and this was the motivation for its sponsorship of the two Women in Secularism conferences. The CFI Board wishes to express its unhappiness with the controversy surrounding the recent Women in Secularism Conference 2.

CFI believes in respectful debate and dialogue. We appreciate the many insights and varied opinions communicated to us. Going forward, we will endeavor to work with all elements of the secular movement to enhance our common values and strengthen our solidarity as we struggle together for full equality and respect for women around the world.

This isn’t a statement. It is, essentially, meaningless and it is self-contradictory.

The first statement, that CFI being an organization devoted to reason, freedom of inquiry, science, and humanist values, might have been true at one time. So long as Ron Lindsay can ignore the science of Sociology, however, this is a falsehood. It is also contradicted later on this scant hundred and some odd word response.

When the second paragraph begins with dedicated to advancing the status of women and women’s issues, I was hoping for an injunction against Ron’s words and his actions as CEO pending investigation into the organization’s purposes and goals in regards to his leadership. Instead, however, we got a statement about how the CFI board is disappointed with the fact that people were upset with Ron. This not only violates the very idea of the board being interested in reason and science (since it endorses what Ron said in regards to privilege being used as an invective and not a descriptive form of jargon), it countermands the very statement made before that sentence about women’s issues and position in the movement. This not-pology sets women back by saying that their experiences, their value as human beings, and the sciences that examine the structural social elements that continue to disadvantage them all over the world (including in developed countries), are less important than one mans’ feelings.

The last statement is a throwaway remark that they’re endorsing well meaning debate and discussion. While that’s a good thing, it only matters if they’re listening. Which we now know the board is not.

However, in response to this, Rebecca Watson has called for a ban on CFI. This, I think, is the wrong move.

At least among my friends I have a long standing agreement with Rebecca on a lot of things and I’m generally a supporter of everyone on the Skepchick network. This, however, I feel is an irrational response to another irrational response, and the reason why I think so is rooted in CFI’s decentralized nature.

I do think we should take CFI to task over this. I do think that we should be asking local organizers, like Melody Hensley, to make statements denouncing the actions of their own board and calling for Ron to actually apologize, but we shouldn’t be cutting off their funding. One reason why is that CFI hosted Women in Secularism. Twice. None of the other major organizations (I’m looking at you Freedom From Religion Foundation and American Atheists) have included feminism or gender equality as an explicit conference with a focused speaker lineup in any other capacity. The Center for Inquiry stepped up and hosted Women in Secularism.


This is because CFI is not a top-down organization in the same way that the RDF and the JREF are. Both of those organizations have structural problems because of their leadership. Their actions and focuses are determined by their leadership. On the other hand, CFI’s local affiliates and chapters have much more autonomy. You can tell because CFI hosted Women in Secularism. Twice. These individuals, the local organizations, deserve our support. Melody Hensley, especially, deserves our support. This support should come with a caveat that we’re supporting the work of the rational, the scientific, and the inclusive feminist parts of the organization instead of the irrational, fear-based, and anti-feminist leadership but the support should continue.

The support should continue so that, if for no other reason, Melody Hensley can put on Women in Secularism 3.

One thing I think we can agree on, however, is boycotting CFI’s leadership. Consider this my principled stand against Ron Linsday and the CFI board. Consider this my vote of no confidence, as an attendee and a voice in the movement, in the leadership capabilities and qualities of CFI. When an organization called Center for Inquiry believes it is in their best interests to ignore scientific fact and reasonable critique, it is time for a change in the board of directors.

In the coming days, weeks, and months I hope many of you can join me in a more nuanced position while helping repair the damage that CFI has already, and will continue, to cause to the goals of the atheist, skeptical, and humanist movements.


2 Responses to “Atheism, Skepticism, Feminism, and Failures”

  1. Chris Ho-Stuart Says:

    I’m still considering the whole issue; this blog post was a useful input to that. At this point, I’m liking the approach. Thanks for the input to my thinking!

    I’ve tweeted it; so my eight followers will see the link also. 🙂

    • Luarien Says:

      No problem, this is a sticky issue and everyone should think about it thoroughly.

      At least after recognizing that CFI needs to be taken to task everywhere for the sheer unprofessionalism and disrespect shown in their response.

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