Why the American Secular Census didn't sign 'An Open Letter to the Secular Community'

A message from Mary Ellen Sikes, President

Dear readers,

Published below this blog is An Open Letter to the Secular Community, a statement released today by the leaders of a majority of national secular organizations. Although I had an opportunity to sign on for the American Secular Census, I declined, and here I'd like to explain my reasons for that decision.

The American Secular Census generally avoids taking positions on issues our registrants haven't had an opportunity to consider via Census forms or other means. Still, I would have signed on to the Open Letter if I had been comfortable with its content. I am firmly opposed to bullying in all venues including the Web, and I've become deeply concerned with the negativity of the secular community's online culture and, particularly, with its problems maintaining a safe, welcoming climate to underrepresented groups like women. We have powerful contributions to offer humanity -- politically, ethically, and otherwise -- and I envision the largest, most inclusive, most effective movement possible. Behavior that unnecessarily alienates entire cohorts of potential supporters is self-defeating, wasteful, and worthy of rejection, in my opinion.

I honestly believe the Open Letter's intent to be genuine. Secular groups do want to see online rifts healed (or at least patched over) and harassment halted. Understandably, they don't want their organizations to be cast as battlegrounds where seculars duke out their social, political and philosophical differences. They seek (and for the most part their missions oblige them) to provide venues for constructive discussion of ideas, and they're not really set up to referee more personal conflicts -- especially in places like the Web where conflict resolution has such an abysmal track record anyway.

That said:

For me the Open Letter's shortfall is primarily one of substance in both its focus areas: online behavior and the role of feminism in the secular movement.

The online behavior component

We, the leaders of the undersigned national secular organizations, pledge to make our best efforts toward improving the tone and substance of online discussions.

While the above statement has a laudable intent, I regret saying that it just didn't seem like much of a "pledge" to me. It appeared to be more of a statement of what groups want to see generally, with a lot of suggestions for how others should now make that happen ("pick up the phone," "listen more," "dial down the drama," etc). After all, it's primarily bloggers, commenters, and social networkers -- and only rarely the organizations themselves -- who are driving the tone of our online culture.

What are the signatory organizations offering as their contribution -- beyond the open-to-interpretation "best efforts" -- to a more positive online presence for secularism? I felt the Open Letter should have been used as an opportunity for secular leadership to unambiguously commit to actions that would make them agents of concrete change in areas where they do have direct control and influence. For example, groups could develop organizational consequences for online harassers.

What if organizations made bullying unprofitable by refusing to engage with harassers, trolls, etc. as volunteers, leaders, social networking partners, event attendees, and so on? Each organization's mileage would vary depending on its mission and operations, but in my view announcing and implementing clear and direct consequences for behavior that drives potential supporters away from the secular movement could be one strategy organizations themselves might have pledged to demonstrate their commitment to an improved online culture.

The role of feminism in the secular movement

The handling of this topic is actually my greater concern about the Open Letter. Despite good intentions, this area of the document in my opinion has the potential to broaden the rift between secular women and the formal secular movement.

There's nothing to disparage in the Open Letter's affirmation of equality of the sexes as fundamental to a secular worldview. Where the Open Letter falls short is in simply expressing these principles philosophically without any acknowledgment of intent to act on them organizationally. Stating support for an abstract idea is not the same as a pledge; groups that want women to feel welcome, safe and valued in the secular movement need to demonstrate that with their actions -- or women won't be convinced.

The War on Women

In 2011 and 2012, a record number of anti-abortion bills were passed in state legislatures. These measures and their connection to a broader theocratic agenda have been largely ignored by secular identity organizations. Meanwhile, secular women are asked to support Darwin Day resolutions, lawsuits against religious symbols, and other issues far removed from this most basic and simple right to bodily autonomy. Many women view the War on Women as the most significant and damaging church-state threat of their lifetime. Secular organizations' silence and inaction on the religious basis of declining abortion rights and access represent an enormous wasted opportunity for movement expansion and, to some women, a betrayal.

Women online

The fact is that some secular women and their allies have been victimized online. The abuse has ranged from insults and name-calling on one end of the spectrum to rape and mutilation threats on the other. What separates these incidents from the hate mail and threats typically experienced by atheists at the hands of religious fanatics is that these are atheists (mostly men) targeting other atheists (mostly women).

The Open Letter clearly condemns online threats and hatred, but I was troubled that the "Our Approach" section could be interpreted by some victims as trivializing their experiences, blaming them, or even exposing them to further risk. In offering a one-size-fits-all formula of listening more, being more compassionate, and so on, the Open Letter fails to distinguish between spirited debate where such strategies may be helpful and more serious situations where they won't be -- and might even be dangerous. This problem was paramount in my decision not to sign.

Let me state very clearly what I wish the Open Letter had said: Women who are harassed or cyberstalked are not being harassed or stalked over some failure of theirs to practice appropriate online discussion techniques. They aren't being targeted because they notice grouping patterns among their harassers (what the Open letter appears to condemn as "guilt by association.") They aren't singled out because they lack the patience to educate others. They are being victimized because their harassers have a pathological need for attention, a feeling of entitlement, or some other deficiency that leads them to attack other human beings. Harassment is the fault of harassers, and harassers bear the responsibility for stopping it.

The unfortunate truth ignored by the Open Letter is that there are good guys and bad guys in many of these situations, each group needs to be dealt with differently, and in the case of stalking and threats, only trained experts should be offering advice.

Will the "Our Approach" section be helpful to those already committed to productive conversation? Maybe so; it contains some insightful observations. My sense, though, is that the people who might be receptive to "Our Approach" are not the ones causing most of the secular community's online problems.

In closing

I do feel the Open Letter signifies a desire among secular identity organizations for more unity and less conflict, and I share those goals. Although I was not able to sign the Open Letter, I hope the conversation it generates will add value to the secular community's self-reflection and lead to creative and positive outcomes.

Mary Ellen Sikes, President e-mail
American Secular Census

P.S. If you are logged into Facebook, you can leave (and see) comments below.

An Open Letter to the Secular Community

It is an amazing time to be part of the secular movement. Look at what’s happened in 2012 alone. We held the Reason Rally, the largest event our community has ever had, which brought over 20,000 atheists, humanists, and other secular people together on the National Mall. We are growing, attracting new people, and drawing more attention than ever before. A big part of that growth is thanks to our large and dynamic online community. Online secular communities have helped people encounter new ideas, deepen and broaden their thinking, and even change their minds.

A Problem with Online Communication

At the same time, the fact that so much of our community is online brings with it certain challenges. Communicating primarily online can make it difficult to recognize each other’s humanity. Online we don’t have the same vocal and physical cues to tell us what another person means by his or her comments, so it’s easier for misunderstandings to develop. The instantaneous and impersonal nature of online communication also makes it much easier for these misunderstandings to escalate, or for civil arguments to turn into bitter fights. Like many online communities, our comment and forum threads all too often become places for name calling and even threats, rather than honest dialogue based on mutual respect. Between the small but vocal number of abusive participants (often called “trolls”) who hurl threats and insults, and the overheated rhetoric of some ordinarily friendly and reasonable people, our online environment is in danger of turning toxic. Fortunately, our secular values of reason and compassion give us tools to rise above the lowest common denominator of online communication.

Our Position and Our Pledge

We, the leaders of the undersigned national secular organizations, pledge to make our best efforts toward improving the tone and substance of online discussions. The secular movement as a whole is friendly, welcoming, and committed to the use of reason and evidence as a means of resolving disagreements. We refuse to allow the deplorable conduct of a few to debase the reasonable, appropriate, and respectful conduct of the overwhelming majority of our community.

We seek to promote productive debate and discussion. We firmly believe open and candid discussion is the most reliable means of resolving differences of opinion and bringing about needed change.

Insults, slurs, expressions of hatred, and threats undermine our shared values of open and candid discussion because they move us away from an exchange of views supported with reasons.

Of course we will disagree with each other on some issues, but we can do a better job of expressing our disagreements. We can resolve to avoid mischaracterizing the positions of others, relying on rumors as the basis for our opinions, and using inappropriate tactics such as guilt by association. Instead, we can give one another the benefit of the doubt, strive to understand the whole story, and de-escalate rhetoric to foster more productive discussions. We can become better at disagreeing by treating each other like reasonable human beings.

It takes patience to educate people, but we can change how people think by having a constructive dialogue. If that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t bother in the first place to communicate online about important issues.

The Debate over Sexism and Feminism

Before listing some specific recommendations regarding improvement of online communications, we have observations about one particular set of interrelated issues that has engaged much of the secular community in the past year, namely sexism within the secular movement, the appropriate way to interpret feminism, and the extent to which feminism, however interpreted, should influence the conduct, policies, and goals of movement organizations. This set of issues is worthy of careful consideration, but in a few areas our positions should be very clear.

The principle that women and men should have equal rights flows from our core values as a movement. Historically, there has been a close connection between traditional religion and suppression of women, with dogma and superstition providing the rationale for depriving women of fundamental rights. In promoting science and secularism, we are at the same time seeking to secure the dignity of all individuals. We seek not only civil equality for everyone, regardless of sex, but an end to discriminatory social structures and conventions – again often the legacy of our religious heritage—that limit opportunities for both women and men.

Unfortunately, the discussion of these issues has suffered from the same problems that plague online discussion in general—although arguably to a greater extent. Some blogs and comments actually exhibit hatred, including rape threats and insults denigrating women. Hatred has no place in our movement. We unequivocally and unreservedly condemn those who resort to communicating in such a vile and despicable manner.

Our Approach

Here are some things that we plan to do to make our online secular community a place where we can exchange ideas and views instead of insults. We hope that others may also find this approach useful.

• Moderate blogs and forums.
Any organization or individual engaged in blogging or administering a forum has an obligation to moderate comments. Slurs, threats, and so forth beget more of the same. Keeping our online spaces free of these elements creates a civil climate that makes it much easier for people to engage issues productively.

• Go offline before going online: pick up the phone.
When you hear that an organization or member of our community is doing something that you think is wrong or bad for the community, call and talk with them, find out what they are actually doing and why they are doing it. If you don’t have a phone number, send a private email and arrange a time to talk. So much of the time there’s more to the story, and talking to another person on the other side of the issue can help us more fully understand the situation. Plus, a phone call makes it easier for people who are making mistakes to change course, because they aren’t on the defensive as they would be after being called out publicly.

• Listen more.
We miss the nuances and differences within “the other side” once an issue becomes polarized, while continuing to see our side as filled with nuance and distinctions. There is a tendency to stop listening and treat everyone associated with an opposing position as a monolithic group. People can be painted with views that aren’t their own just because they may disagree with some aspects of your own position. We should listen more so we can see distinctions among those with opposing views and start to move toward a more accurate understanding of the issues rather than being deadlocked into two entrenched camps.

• Dial down the drama.
It’s tempting to overuse inflammatory and derogatory rhetoric. It gets attention. We should be cautious about using this tactic within our community because of the long-term damage it does to relationships and morale. When critiquing people within our community, everyone should remember that our goal is to persuade our allies to see our perspective and modify their opinions. Insults don’t change opinions; they harden them.

• Be more charitable.
We should remember that the purpose of argument within our community is to come to shared and correct conclusions that move us forward, not to score points against the opposing side. To that end, we should apply the principle of charity, which tells us to aim our argument against the best interpretation of the opposing arguments rather than picking off weaker versions. By applying the principle of charity we will elevate the discussion so we’re actually talking about our real differences, not just engaging in a pointless exchange.

• Trust but verify.
Before we believe and repost something we see, we should ask ourselves about the evidence provided and the context. It’s easy for multiple people saying the same thing to look like a lot of evidence, but if their statements are all based on the same original source, they do not constitute independent verification. We should look for the original data and corroboration from independent sources before believing and spreading claims.

• Help others along.
We should remember that we weren’t born knowing the things we know now. To get to the reasoned conclusions that we’ve reached, we learned by reading, thinking, and talking with others. When we encounter someone espousing a view we think is based on lack of knowledge or experience, we should remember that we have all held ill-informed views. We should cultivate patience and try to educate instead of condemn.

By improving our online culture, we can make this movement a place that engages, fulfills, and welcomes a growing number and increasing diversity of secular people.


David Silverman, President, American Atheists
Rebecca Hale, President, American Humanist Association
Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director, American Humanist Association
Chuck VonDerAhe, President, Atheist Alliance of America
Richard Haynes, President, Atheist Nexus
Ayanna Watson, CEO, Black Atheists of America, Inc.
Mandisa L. Thomas, President, Black Nonbelievers, Inc.
Mynga Futrell, for Brights Central, at The Brights' Net
Amanda Metskas, Executive Director, Camp Quest
Ronald Lindsay, President and CEO, Center for Inquiry
Tom Flynn, Executive Director, The Council for Secular Humanism
Jan Meshon, President, FreeThoughtAction
Joseph McDaniel Stewart, Vice President, FreeThoughtAction
Margaret Downey, Founder and President, Freethought Society
D.J. Grothe, President, James Randi Educational Foundation
Stuart Jordan, President, Institute for Science and Human Values
Jason Torpy, President, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers
R. Elisabeth Cornwell, Executive Director, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science
Edwina Rogers, Executive Director, Secular Coalition for America
August E. Brunsman IV, Executive Director, Secular Student Alliance
Todd Stiefel, President, Stiefel Freethought Foundation
Fred Edwords, National Director, United Coalition of Reason

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