Women & feminism in atheism, humanism & skepticism: a critique of the upcoming CFI "Women In Secularism" conference - blog by Gurdur


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Women & feminism in atheism, humanism & skepticism: a critique of the upcoming CFI "Women In Secularism" conference
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Posted 13-Aug-2011 at 01:00 AM (01:00) by Gurdur
Updated 15-Aug-2011 at 07:57 AM (07:57) by Gurdur

The Center For Inquiry (CFI) has organized a conference, "Women In Secularism", to be held on 18-20 May, next year in 2012, in Washington, DC, USA. It was initially organized by Melody Hensley, CFI-DC Executive Director, and taken up by Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of the CFI. You can find out all the details here. The speakers for that convention have already been announced, and they are Ophelia Benson, Jamila Bey, Greta Christina, Elisabeth Cornwell, Margaret Downey, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Sikivu Hutchinson, Susan Jacoby, Jennifer McCreight, Wafa Sultan, and Rebecca Watson.

Now there's a fair bit to critique in all this. Let's start with the speaker list, which includes some very good choices and some odd ones. Greta Christina is often a good idea; she can give an inspiring talk when she wants to. Jamila Bey is definitely a great choice, and much needed. R. Elisabeth Cornwell is the Executive Director of the U.S. branch of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS). Margaret Downey is a former President of Atheist Alliance International. Annie Laurie Gaylor is a co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Jennifer Michael Hecht is one of the more surprising and good choices; she's unpredictable, and probably will give a good speech that will have actual new stuff in it, unlike some. Sikivu Hutchinson is another good choice. Susan Jacoby is the program director of the New York CFI branch. Wafa Sultan is guaranteed to make a controversial speech, I guess, a fair bit of celebrity status there; sometimes though one wonders where Pamela Geller is, when Wafa Sultan takes an originally good point and goes right overboard with it. Jennifer McCreight and Rebecca Watson are rather overly predictable, even more so after ElevatorMadness. You may or may not find them inspiring. That leaves Ophelia Benson, who is far too predictable, and already shows certain problems with her own mooted choice of topic -- more on that later.

So what do we get out of looking at the speaker roster? It's heavily skewed in two different ways; on the one hand, towards the older ones who have been working in the atheist movement for ages. That's fair enough to some degree; them that does the work get to speak. But it does carry potential problems in its wake, including the risk of ossification and removal from ordinary concerns. On the other hand, on the younger side, it's skewed towards the Radical (gender) Feminism side of things, rather than being people who represent the majority of atheist women ,and their own schools of feminism. It's also mostly people who are invited to speak at convention after convention after convention; I forget who it was who said on Twitter that all atheist conferences seem the same with the same folks talking, but it's too often true.

This CFI convention on women in secularism was planned out before ElevatorMania hit the ground running; according to Benson, she was asked back in mid-April this year to talk at it. So the line-up does not reflect any effects of Liftsilliness, but cannot help but be shadowed by it. It's all to the good that the CFI are doing this conference, but it could be greatly improved upon, or it could much use complementary efforts. A couple of the announced speakers at this are only famous for being famous; more to the point, who and what is missing?

Back to the thrust of the convention as possibly hinted at by the title and line-up. It's somewhat separatist in some ways. Whether it's gender feminism instead of equity or other schools of feminism, whether it's secularism but no genuine humanism, whether it's an implicit promise of advocation of a view that reminds you all too vividly of Vietnam War flashbacks of someone one saying "We had to destroy the village to save it" to the soundtrack of Randy Newman singing "Political Science (Let's Drop The Big One)", you know, there's a certain hint in the air of separatist points of view.

So who is missing? Young atheist women who more accurately reflect young atheist womens' concerns and points of view, for one. Abbie Smith (ERV), Jennifer Keane, Scented Nectar, Rose St. Clair, Rosy Schwartz (@RosyEyes), Alison Smith (@RemieV), Stef McGraw. Or other atheist women with a very different point of view, for example Paula Kirby or Mary Posey (@mary_posey). These on the whole tend to reflect the majority of women much more. They also give atheism a much better profile than some.

For example, Jennifer McCreight previously at the beginning of the year helped a totally skewed and factually false report of an atheist convention be given and promoted, and it took Mary Posey, Yvonne Ann Muniz Scott, Christie Swords, Amanda Gulledge and other women to show that that report was simply false. The report had alleged a bad case of sexism at the atheist convention (just so reminiscent) of American Atheists’ Southeast Regional Atheist Meet (SERAM), and especially accused Sean Faircloth of sexism. The alleged sexism simply did not happen, and many things reported in it were simply factually not true. The original authors of that false report, Sharon Moss and Lyz Liddell, were forced eventually to make a half-assed apology, but the convention and Sean Faircloth had already been painted as sexists — and thereby the atheist movement in the public eye. The damage was done, magnified by Jennifer McCreight.

If that case reminds you of a dry run before the whole of the #ElevatorGate campaign, maybe it should.

What is missing from the planned CFI "Women In Secularism" conference? Quite possibly, anything meaningful, positive and actually concretely relevant to the lives of the majority of young American atheist women, or relevant to genuine outreach to other nations. Take Wafa Sultan, for example; resisting Islamism is necessary, yes. Yet expressing it in terms of complete fantasy is not going to accomplish anything beyond serving as excuses for neocons next time they want to invade somewhere. The neocon adventures as they have been conducted so far have not secured much at all; examine the growth of Islamism in Iraq after the invasion and toppling of the dictator Saddam Hussein. Simplistic answers have not served the USA well, nor do they serve atheism well.

Given that some American atheists seem to want to think that what's good for them must be good for everyone else, then it would have been wise to have had more non-American input into the planned conference, especially when a few Americans get very upset at extraordinary length when they feel defensive about Americans being criticized for going overboard.

All in all, the planned CFI conference is a good thing that should have happened much earlier. Yet given its planned line-up of speakers, it looks as though far too much will become yet another forcing of "correct" views upon women atheists. Given the number who have committed or supported the abuse of other atheist women as "gender traitors", or who employ abuse repetitively while making a hollow sham of vociferously objecting to gendered slurs, there's more than room for criticism here. Given the line-up, this all looks like it simply won't address the real-life concerns of the majority of women atheists, young or old, in the USA or elsewhere.

It's all very ironic that a conference aimed at introducing more diversity should quite possibly end up projecting and/or enforcing a straitjacket of uniformity of thought which is quite divorced from real-life facts and action. Were Mary Posey, Yvonne Ann Muniz Scott, Christie Swords, or Amanda Gulledge consulted at all in the planning of the speaker line-up and topics? They might well have something to say.

She who pays the piper calls the tune; so what's to be done? Until mainstream atheist women in the USA start organizing for themselves, then the market and the image will be cornered by the better-organized. If the price is painting the atheist movement as plagued by intentional sexism that simply doesn't exist to the huge amount alleged, then some of those better-organized seem willing to pay the price. Two women who run one of the largest atheist boards out there FRDB aren't mentioned of course; Sabine Vero, an admin, and Jo, the owner. Jo is in New Zealand, but given the fact the board she runs has a hell of a lot of atheist women on it, you might well think giving a thought to such people would be a good idea. So much diversity it isn't yet at this planned conference.

A good idea would be for a complementary conference, one organized by atheist women who don't want to wake up one day finding out that the public image of an American atheist woman is fully separate from reality, and that the womens' side of atheism is run by those not in sympathy with the majority of atheist women. Rather than having CFI dictate the speakers, women should be choosing for themselves, and what topics they want, and what speakers they want, and whether they want any males to speak as well at their conference. Instead of having celebrity atheists speak, it may be a very good idea to have ordinary people speak, expressing their own concerns and solutions, and giving a needed grounding for the atheist movement. Such a complementary conference need not be cast as in opposition to the CFI's one, but instead a much-needed complement, a necessary broadening. It may well become very necessary, and better early than late in such things. More on that in a new blog post very soon.



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Comments are welcome! Please keep in mind if you are not registered that comments posted here to this blog post may take a while to appear - up to 16 hours after you post them, since they go onto a moderation queue and have to be individually approved, in order to stop spammers. The answer to the so-called "Random Question" is always "human".

All my blog posts on this subject:

08-Aug-2011 More diversity contacts and blogs relevant to atheism, religion & feminism
13-Aug-2011 Women & feminism in atheism, humanism & skepticism: a critique of the upcoming CFI "Women In Secularism" conference
14-Aug-2011 Ideas for an atheist conference and/or blogfest focusing on women
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  1. Old Comment
    iamwombat's Avatar
    I don't know much more about any of these speakers than what I've read here, and in some cases from articles and blogs indicated as a good read here on the Hub. I have attended conferences on many subjects and a recurring theme was that all or most of the speakers are from a select geographic area and/or socioeconomic class, and seldom represent the majority of persons that comprise the audience. If, as one would hope, the attendees are from a broad and varied geographic origin within the United States as well as from abroad, then a more varied representative group that reflects that should participate in the speaking roles. In any gathering of minority group orientation, it serves the cause well too include a broad sample of said minorities involved in what-ever struggle is pertinent to the gathering. If for instance the talks are on the plight facing Native Americans and only North Eastern tribes are represented among the speakers, how will Southwestern Natives be interested and made to benefit, much less represented? If the subject were women in the workforce, how could the needs of west coast pink collar job holding women be represented by only blue collar women from the east coast. Americans do, by and large, tend to believe that what is good for them must surely be good for everyone else. This mistaken attitude is grossly prevalent in our efforts at international influence, and even in our often myopic efforts at reducing issues of inequality among less developed nations poor and oppressed. That said, I imagine the real point of a all female key note speaker conference is to equalize the previously all male ones on this topic. Equalist comes to my mind, if ever it to be a movement for all then I would think including both genders in all conferences would be a good idea. One day, those interested could look back and remark "remember when we had a boys club and a girls club in this field?" If I'm way off base, well, opiates and Valium have made me miss two meals today and a goodly portion of what I read yesterday is a blank now. So pardon me, but excluding men from creating intelligent awareness of feminism is a little like what we have when women are excluded from participating equally in matters related to reducing and removing male dominance.
    Posted 13-Aug-2011 at 04:19 AM (04:19) by iamwombat iamwombat is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Gurdur's Avatar
    Originally Posted by iamwombat View Comment
    I don't know much more about any of these speakers than what I've read here, ...
    But the ideas and points you raise, IAmWombat, are really damn good; I'll work in some of them (i.e. I will steal your points) in my next blog post.
    Posted 13-Aug-2011 at 04:26 AM (04:26) by Gurdur Gurdur is offline
  3. Old Comment
    I agree with Iamwombat. This especially rings true when you combine two groups of people: women and atheists. The only thing that threads ALL women in common is a vagina and the only thing that threads ALL atheists in common, much to PZ's dismay, is the lack of belief in a god. That leaves a yawning gap of different perspectives to encourage a "see things, accordingly, as I do" motive. The few that are mentioned as speakers hardly represent any vast majority of the female/atheist combination. I'm not certain that ANY small group of speakers would.
    Posted 13-Aug-2011 at 05:39 PM (17:39) by Mechelle
  4. Old Comment

    Mostly great...

    I agree with very nearly 100% of your clear and measured statements on this subject.
    But:- one phrase "jumped out at me", as it were:
    <blockquote>…women should be choosing for themselves…</blockquote>
    Then I took a gander at the title "Women & Skepticism…"
    Why implicitly exclude the large number of male feminists from participation, unless "allowed" by an artificially restricted panel? Artificially restricted by virtue of not being in possession of a Y chromosome?
    It gets even more complex than that. Are transgender folk initially allowed? Are sex-chimerics initially allowed (with some Y chromosomes in some cells but not all)? Are a-sexual folk allowed?

    As soon as one arbitrarily defines a cut-off point as to what one has no choice over, (from an accident of conception), you are wading into the same deep, turgid and dangerous waters as do pure gender feminists, as well as do some racists.

    I'm confident that one of your prudent learning will "get" what I am driving at here.
    Posted 14-Aug-2011 at 10:34 AM (10:34) by Michael Kingsford Gray
  5. Old Comment
    Gurdur's Avatar
    The below in a quote box was actually posted by ERV under a different blog post of mine, but it's a response to this blog post above, not to the one under which it was posted.

    So I am posting this as a quote here, from ERV:

    New Comment

    There are so many problems with this conference (and skeptic conferences as a whole).

    Half (more?) of these speakers have spoken before at major 'skeptic' meetings (eg TAM), while the others regularly speak at the smaller regional conferences. This is one of my Problems: Skeptic Speaker lists are incestuous. Its always the same names. It makes sense when youre talking about Dawkins or Downy or other prominent names. It does not make sense with say, McCreight. If you want McCreight to talk about Boobquake, great! But she doesnt want to talk about Boobquake. Shes not interested enough in her studies to want to talk about evolution. She wants to talk about feminism, but has no academic or real-world/work experience. Shes just a chick giving her opinions/views and research from GoogleU, which is fine, until you realize that groups are paying her to fly across the country WHEN YOU HAVE A WHOLE BUNCH OF REGULAR CHICKS IN YOUR OWN GROUP YOU COULD BE TALKING TO. YOU HAVE A WHOLE BUNCH OF EDUCATED/WORKING WOMEN IN YOUR OWN CITY TO ASK TO SPEAK.

    WHYYYYYY is McCreight talking about 'religion and women' instead of a debate between a former nun and a current nun? A local religion or theology professor (male or female)? A female member who escaped a hard-core Evangelical household?

    In a million years I wouldnt go to a conference like this. Im just some chick who is an atheist. What the hell am I supposed to talk about that the females in a local group couldnt address *BETTER*?

    I mean, its like asking my dad to speak at this years TAM because he LOVES SciFi.

    Or asking my mom to speak about genetically modified organisms because she planted some tulips in the backyard.

    Or asking my two-year-old nieces to speak about women in art history because they friggen LOVE to color.

    Their approach is not only anti-intellectual/anti-community leader, its like theyre telling local females 'your views arent good enough. we have to bring females in to speak for you.'


    [/end rant]
    Posted 15-Aug-2011 at 03:59 AM (03:59) by Gurdur Gurdur is offline
  6. Old Comment
    It's more than a potential skewing of perspectives, too; it's an outright contradiction.

    What could gender-feminists have to offer a meeting devoted to critical thinking and skepticism? a bad example, nothing more. Radical feminism is the OPPOSITE of skepticism; it's a blind, unthinking orthodoxy as toxic to reason and free expression as any religion could be.

    Perhaps the speakers can compartmentalize their irrational views and speak coherently on skepticism; but given the stated focus of the conference, this seems unlikely in the extreme. I'd choose which sessions to attend with extreme caution at such a meeting.
    Posted 15-Aug-2011 at 06:39 PM (18:39) by Copyleft
  7. Old Comment
    Without naming names (because I'm afraid to name names), I've noticed that several of these speakers' have a strange approach to "dialog." For them, it seems that a dialog is when they tell people the way things are, and then harass, belittle, and bully anyone who dissents into quiet submission.

    To me, it seems the first sign that a movement is NOT centered on free inquiry is when a large population is afraid to speak for fear of being labeled as "the enemy." So how do we begin to assess how many people disagree with these women's radical feminist ideologies because they are afraid of being marked as "sexist?"

    I don't claim to have all the answers, but I do think it's an inauspicious sign that this conference is over-represented by women whose agenda seems more focused on feminism than atheism.
    Posted 16-Aug-2011 at 12:45 AM (00:45) by William Hamby
  8. Old Comment
    I agree; it seems that the skeptic community is suddenly filled with a lot of high-profile "sketpical feminists" who put feminism first, and skepticism a distant second (if at all). This is not good for skepticism; it amounts to a hijacking of rationalism to serve a political agenda.
    Posted 16-Aug-2011 at 02:39 PM (14:39) by Copyleft
  9. Old Comment
    A couple of quick notes relevant to this post specifically. Comments on Gurdur's follow up post here :

    1) Re:international input, as mentioned elsewhere, the focus is on the US for this conference. This means the target audience is also US. A separate international conference outside the US would make total sense indeed.

    2) Local women are the ones planning this conference day to day. Our local organizing committee has long time CFI volunteers from DC as well as myself and Melody Hensley the Executive Director of the DC Branch (also the originator of the idea). It is however a national CFI Conference so advertising and logistical support is given from the head office.

    -Simon Davis
    CFI DC Event Coordinator
    Posted 16-Aug-2011 at 05:02 PM (17:02) by SimonSays SimonSays is offline
  10. Old Comment

    Organizing Women in Secularism conference

    I am indeed organizing the Women in Secularism conference. It was not "take up" by Ronald Lindsay, although he did give me the go ahead to carry out my idea.
    Posted 30-Sep-2011 at 09:52 PM (21:52) by Melody Hensley
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