Will Misogyny Bring Down The Atheist Movement?
The continuing debate over a murky sexual encounter at a 2008 convention for cheekily anti-establishment skeptics underscores a broader dilemma: How can a progressive, important intellectual community behave so poorly towards its female peers?
On June 19, 2008, Alison Smith, 26 and aflame with commitment to her cause, was at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, working for the James Randi Educational Foundation as part of the staff for The Amaz!ng Meeting. “TAM,” as everyone calls it, was started by the foundation in 2003 and is a four-day annual convention of what’s loosely called the freethought movement, comprising atheists, agnostics, debunkers of pseudoscience, and others promoting rationalism over superstition, and reason over religion. What Comic-Con is to X-Men fans, TAM has become to freethought: an intellectual mixer, a party zone, and the place where the average fan can meet his or her heroes.
The featured speaker in 2008 was astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, now the host of Cosmos, the update of Carl Sagan’s classic miniseries. Christopher Hitchens spoke that year, and the illusionists Penn and Teller, heroes to the freethought movement, performed. Yet one of the biggest draws was Michael Shermer, a swaggering historian of science who, after an earlier career as an ultra-long-distance bicyclist, founded Skeptic magazine. He now contributes columns to Scientific American, speaks all over the world, and writes popular books like Why People Believe Weird Things, which are just what you should give to a friend who needs to be deprogrammed from a belief in fundamentalist Christianity, alien abduction, or bogus homeopathic remedies. He is a freethought celebrity, an exciting person for a young activist like Alison Smith to bump up against — which she did, at an after-party on the first night.
“I ran into Shermer in the hallway," Smith said recently, speaking publicly for the first time about what happened that night. They began talking, and he invited her to a Scotch and cigar party at the Caesars Palace hotel. “He was talking about future articles we could write, and he mentioned this party and asked if I could come, and I said yes.” At the party, they began downing drinks. “At some point,” Smith said, “I realized he wasn’t drinking them; he was hiding them underneath the table and pretending to drink them. I was drunk. After that, it all gets kind of blurry. I started to walk back to my hotel room, and he followed me and caught up with me.”
On their way from Caesars to the Flamingo, where they were both staying, she chatted briefly with a friend on her mobile phone, she told me. They got to the Flamingo. “He offered to walk me back to my room, but walked me to his instead. I don’t have a clear memory of what happened after that. I know we had sex.” She remembers calling a friend from an elevator after leaving his room. “I was in the elevator, but didn’t know what hotel.”
Over the next couple days, word spread around the convention that they had hooked up — whether the rumors began with what she told people, what he told people, or what others oversaw, it isn’t clear. Shermer went into damage-control mode. He called the friend Smith had spoken with during their walk “and lied to him about everything,” Smith said. She heard later from “a couple other people” whom Shermer had called to intercept the rumors. Finally, Shermer sent an email, which I have obtained, to a fellow skeptic, who was one of the conference organizers, and, as it happens, the friend Smith called from her mobile phone the night before. The email is worth reading in its entirety, right down to its conclusion — a sly, Clintonian diminishment of Smith. “Thanks for a great TAM,” Shermer wrote to the organizer. “You did a super job organizing and running the show…” It continued:
I wanted to let you know that I tracked down the source of those vicious rumors about Alison Smith and I that I mentioned to you: at the scotch/cigar party that Thursday night there were a couple of young guys in their 20s […] Anyway, as you know at these parties everyone gets pretty smashed and has a good time and there’s a lot of flirting and such. I got there around 10:30 […] and was just going to hang around for about an hour, but everyone there was plying me with scotch and yaking it up, and there was a group in the bathroom with their feet in the tub, and people lying around on the bed, etc. So I was just joining in having a good time.
Alison showed up around 11:30, and of course she’s young and cute and these two guys were panting big time to be with her, but she obviously wasn’t interested in them that way, and was just moving around the room having fun, but when she was hanging on me now and then I could tell that these guys were really pissed off. Long story short, later the next day, after talking to you, I saw both of them standing together and confronted them about the gossip rumors, and [one of them] admitted he was mad at me because he said he felt like I was preventing him from, in his words, “getting into her pants,” and the dreadlocks guy said that he was really drunk and that “I admit that I was running my mouth off.” So, basically, they admitted that it was them spreading the nonsense that I was trying to get Alison drunk and take advantage of her. For the record, by the way, most of the people at that party, Alison especially, could drink me under the table no problem. People kept pouring me scotch, and after awhile I was pretending to drink it and then drinking water instead, and at one point Alison said something like, “hey, he’s not really drinking his scotch,” so I was busted and everyone gave me a hard time (in good fun of course).
Anyway, I wanted you to know that Alison is a good kid and this was just a typical gossip rumor thing that goes on all the time, but that I’m a bigger target than most in this small skeptical pond, so I have to be especially careful.
It’s unclear what the “vicious … gossip” was: that they’d had sex, or that Shermer had been conspicuously trying to get her drunk in order to have sex. Either way, the encounter became common knowledge in the upper echelons of freethought. Smith worked for a leading organization, and Shermer was widely thought of as not only a freethought capo, but an infamous womanizer. Yet for years, the incident stayed sealed off from the wider freethought community and the public.
Then, five years later, on Aug. 8, 2013, a popular freethought blogger named PZ Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris, wrote a post titled “What do you do when someone pulls the pin and hands you a grenade?” Myers had, he claimed, been “given this rather … explosive … information … And it’s bad. Really bad … I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do, I can do no other.” Then, without naming Smith, he quoted an email from her:
At a conference, Mr. Shermer coerced me into a position where I could not consent, and then had sex with me […] I wanted to share this story in case it helps anyone else ward off a similar situation from happening […] Ever since, I’ve heard stories about him doing things (5 different people have directly told me they did the same to them) and wanted to just say something and warn people, and I didn’t know how.
The story attracted wide attention, and many bloggers and commenters attacked Myers for posting, five years after the fact, an anonymously sourced attack on a man who says he has never been arrested for, let alone convicted of, anything. One atheist started an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for Shermer to sue Myers (which he never did). And Shermer, when I contacted him, denied Smith’s version of events.
In a long statement, which he has also posted on his website, Shermer wrote that at the party Smith propositioned him “in a very direct, assertive, and physical fashion,” and that he turned her down. Later, he said, after they had stopped drinking, they “ended up walking and talking for a couple hours out on the Las Vegas strip … She was sober. I was sober. I invited her back to my room and she willingly accepted my invitation.” There, they had sex. “As far as I knew then and for all these years after, we both had a good time.”
But among some women, since Myers' post, there has been a sense of relief that somebody had finally spoken out. Several women told me that women new to the movement were often warned about the intentions of certain older men, especially Shermer. Two more women agreed to go on the record, by name, with their Shermer stories. (Neither accused him of rape, and neither was in a position to corroborate Smith’s story.) These stories help flesh out a man who, whatever his progressive views on science and reason, is decidedly less evolved when it comes to women.
Yet Shermer remains a leader in freethought — arguably the leader. And in his attitudes, he is hardly an exception. Hitchens, the best-selling author of God Is Not Great, who died in 2011, wrote a notorious Vanity Fair article called “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” Richard Dawkins, another author whose books have brought atheism to the masses, has alienated many women — and men — by belittling accusations of sexism in the movement; he seems to go out of his way to antagonize feminists generally, and just this past July 29 he tweeted, “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that's an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.” And Penn Jillette, the talking half of the Penn and Teller duo, famously revels in using words like “cunt.”
The reality of sexism in freethought is not limited to a few famous leaders; it has implications throughout the small but quickly growing movement. Thanks to the internet, and to popular authors like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Sam Harris, atheism has greater visibility than at any time since the 18th-century Enlightenment. Yet it is now cannibalizing itself. For the past several years, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and online forums have become hostile places for women who identify as feminists or express concern about widely circulated tales of sexism in the movement. Some women say they are now harassed or mocked at conventions, and the online attacks — which include Jew-baiting, threats of anal rape, and other pleasantries — are so vicious that two activists I spoke with have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. One of these women has been bedridden for two years.
To those outside the community, freethought would seem an unlikely candidate for this sort of internal strife. Aren’t atheists and agnostics supposed to be liberal, forward-thinking types? But from the beginning, there has been a division in freethought between the humanists, who see atheism as one part of a larger progressive vision for society, and the libertarians, for whom the banishment of God sits comfortably with capitalism, gun rights, and free-speech absolutism. One group sees men like Michael Shermer as freethought’s big problem, while the other sees defending them as crucial to freethought’s mission.
The roots of today’s crisis can be found in the post-war history of the movement. The groups that make up the broader freethought community — atheists, who don’t believe in a god; agnostics, who are unsure; secular humanists, who seek to replace god-centered religion with a man-made ethical system; church-state separationists, who just want religion kept out of public life; and scientific skeptics, who work to overthrow superstition and pseudoscience — have two things in common. First, they oppose the hegemony of religious, including New Age, thinking in American culture. And second, they all have roots in very male subcultures.
After World War II, groups like American Atheists drew from university faculties, particularly philosophy and science departments, and from libertarian and objectivist political culture — all heavily male. Scientific skeptics found each other in universities and in amateur science clubs — for astronomers, coders, rock collectors — that were very male. Magicians — mostly men — became interested in scientific skepticism, which, like magic, deals with the question of how people are deceived. Freethought also drew from geek subcultures, like sci-fi, gaming, chess, and Dungeons & Dragons, that value rational thinking and computational skills — and which are all, of course, traditionally boys clubs. There were women involved, including the famous Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who in fact founded American Atheists, but they were exceptions.
Then came the internet. Women who may have shied away from being the only woman at a local skeptics meeting found the community on the web. Rebecca Watson, for example, grew up Christian in a small town in New Jersey, and declared herself an atheist when she got to Boston University. “I was working my way through college as a magician,” Watson told me, “and I was a big fan of James Randi and Penn and Teller.”
Randi became famous in the 1970s as the first great debunker of ESP, water divination, and other kinds of pseudoscience. In 1973, he helped Johnny Carson expose famed “mentalist” and spoon bender Uri Geller on The Tonight Show. Watson signed up for Randi’s web forum, and soon she discovered her calling as an atheist and skeptic. She realized that women were badly underrepresented at freethought conventions, so in 2005 she founded Skepchick, which grew into a web community with sites for teen skeptics, LGBTQ skeptics, Spanish-speaking skeptics, and skeptics with disabilities.
Skepchick’s first project was to produce a calendar featuring cheekily sexy photographs of female skeptics; the proceeds helped pay for women to attend The Amaz!ng Meeting. For years, the number of women on the program was stable at about 20%. But efforts by Skepchick and others, including the meeting’s organizers, paid off, and by 2011 about half the presenters and 40% of those attending were women.
“Back in the ’90s, up until our movement exploded online, this was an old boys' network,” said Steven Novella, a Yale neurologist and the principal host of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast. “The guys would look around and go, ‘Where the hell are all the women?’ We made a concerted effort to bring parity to the movement, to have 50-50 speakers at meetings, to open up online.”
Women were just one part of an extraordinary growth in the size of the movement. Beginning in the 1990s, the web helped atheists and skeptics find one another more effectively. And after 9/11, a string of best-selling books, like Harris’ The End of Faith (2004), Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006), and Hitchens’ God Is Not Great (2007), tapped into Americans’ discomfort with religious ideology and helped push atheists’ arguments onto morning TV and into airport bookstores. According to polls, their advocacy was working: A growing number of Americans were beginning to identify as nonbelievers.
This overall growth, and increased parity between the sexes, would seem like a good thing for the movement. But not everyone saw it that way. Older male activists in particular were like fans whose favorite obscure band hits it big; their small, intimate shows were becoming big arena concerts, leaving them a bit dislocated.
The nascent misogyny first burst into public view about three years ago. On June 20, 2011, Watson posted to her Skepchick site an eight-minute video titled “About Mythbusters, Robot Eyes, Feminism, and Jokes.” In the video, Watson wears red-framed glasses and a T-shirt that says something about “Di-Atomic Dogma Disruption.” Her hair is bleached blond and overlaid with pink streaks. Around the four-minute mark, she turns serious, discussing a talk she had recently given at an atheists’ conference in Dublin in which she decried “blatant misogyny” in freethought. The audience seemed supportive, she says, but that night, after leaving the hotel bar, something had happened. “A man got on the elevator with me and said, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting and would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?’” Watson felt deflated, as if her speech had meant nothing. “Just a word to the wise here, guys: Don’t do that … I was a single woman, in a foreign country, at 4 a.m., in a hotel elevator with you — just you — and don’t invite me back to your hotel room, right after I have finished talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner.”
PZ Myers reposted Watson’s video in early July, and soon thereafter, in Myers’ comments section, Richard Dawkins posted a satirical letter, addressed to a generic Muslim woman. “Dear Muslima,” Dawkins began, “Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and … yawn … don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you … But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.” Then Dawkins gets personal: “Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep’chick,’ and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee … And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about!”
At first, readers of Myers’ blog wondered whether this was really the famous English biologist. Had the man who coined the word “meme” really descended from Olympus to attack a young American writer? Once it was clear that this was indeed Dawkins, it was on: a fight between the world’s leading atheist and a female activist half his age. Bloggers and tweeters and redditors took up sides, and “Elevatorgate” was covered by The Wire, Gawker, and dozens of smaller sites. Dawkins got called a sexist, and worse. His defenders decried “feminists” as enemies of free speech, overly sensitive about harmless flirtation. Watson got death and rape threats. One man emailed her his artwork of her being anally raped. She still endures a daily dose of Twitter and email hate — messages like, “You should experience rape … I think plenty of guys want to teach your dirty ass a lesson” and “She looks more like a feminist Jew every day … she’s slowly morphing.” (Watson is often called some variety of “Jew whore,” although she is not Jewish.) Watson’s resilience in the face of abuse — in addition to her gifts as a writer, podcaster, public speaker, and organizer — has solidified her status as a leader in freethought, to women and to many men too. Having written no books, she is the first major atheist whose rise has occurred on the web.
But not all women have Watson’s gift for shrugging off online abuse. One activist, Melody Hensley, began receiving online abuse in January 2012, after months of speaking out against the harassment of women in the movement online. Diagnosed that December with post-traumatic stress disorder, she has spent much of the time since bedridden. “I received death threats,” Hensley said. “I received rape threats. I received pictures of decapitated women and photos of women being raped.” For the first six months after her diagnosis, she lay in bed, at home in Washington, D.C., crying. “I had flashbacks of the horrible videos that were made about me over and over again,” she said. “I felt completely hopeless. The pain was unimaginable.” Hensley took six weeks away from the internet, which, for a young activist, felt like career death. She is back online now, with occasional breaks when she gets overwhelmed. She is also venturing out of the house, twice a week, for physical therapy to restore her muscles, which atrophied from all the time in bed.
Other female activists have taken time offline to preserve their mental health. Jen McCreight began blogging about atheism as an undergraduate at Purdue. In 2010, after she read about Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi attacking immodestly clad women, who “lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity, and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes,” she used her blog to declare April 26 “Boobquake” — a worldwide day to wear skimpy clothing, like pushup and sports bras. The story was picked up by the BBC, and the Toronto Star suggested (on thin evidence) that “as many as 200,000 women across the globe participated.” Immediately, the hate mail came. “I started getting lewd, sexual comments a lot,” McCreight said, “and those kind of prompted me to talk about feminism more, which just in turn got me more harassment.”
Undeterred, in 2012, McCreight wrote the “Atheism+” platform, which summarizes the case for a freethought movement that explicitly allies with liberal causes (“Atheists plus we care about social justice, Atheists plus we support women’s rights, Atheists plus we protest racism…”). After she published her manifesto, the mail got worse. She began to get “up in the morning and have 50 to a hundred emails or Twitter replies,” including from people who knew about her history with depression and told her to kill herself. “I had people sending me photos of bloody, mutilated penises,” McCreight said. She stopped blogging for two years.
I met Amy Davis Roth, a visual artist and Skepchick blogger, at her home in the San Fernando Valley, near Los Angeles. As we talked, and as I tried to decipher the tattoos on her arms, her two dogs ran around in her garage studio. (Full disclosure: Roth likes to take black-and-white photographs of all her visitors, and in exchange for the interview I had to sit for a portrait.) Roth, who said that Rebecca Watson’s podcast was her introduction to the movement, described for me online enemies who spread rumors that the jewelry she sells at freethought conventions was toxic — as she sees it, they tried to destroy her livelihood. She later sent me the tweet that read, “@surlyamy uses toxic paint on her…art? Health side effects appeared…” She sent along a tweet that seemed to ridicule her defense of Watson and other women: “@surlyamy HI. I’m a potential rapist, murderer, bad dance and joke teller. Please don’t call the police for typing hurtful words at you.” Another called her a “sweaty cunt,” while another photoshopped the words “Suck My Vagina” onto a photograph of one of her pieces of jewelry.
Unlike Hensley or McCreight, Roth has never left the web or stopped attending freethought events. But she will no longer attend The Amaz!ng Meeting, by far the movement’s largest gathering. The last time Roth attended, just a month after Elevatorgate, she was “treated like shit,” she said. “It was horrifying. Rebecca didn’t go, so I became the face of Skepchick at this event. And people were wearing T-shirts saying, ‘I Feel Safe and Welcome at TAM.’ Or, ‘I Am Not a Skepchick.’ People made jewelry imitating my jewelry that said, ‘You Should Be Embarrassed.’ It was just pure hate.”
I attended two freethought conventions, in Los Angeles and outside Washington, D.C., and, while I saw plenty of Dr. Who and XKCD shirts, I never saw an anti-woman one. (Of course, the Washington convention was titled “Women in Secularism,” and almost everyone there was a woman.) The two anti-Skepchick slogans that Roth described seem to have been the front and back of one T-shirt, worn to the 2012 Amaz!ng Meeting by a woman, Dr. Harriet Hall, an Air Force veteran and longtime skeptic who has been attending meetings since they were nearly all male. But one does not have to admit the presence of overpowering T-shirt harassment to understand why TAM, and other conventions, might feel hostile to women. One only has to look at the No. 1 entertainer in the freethought world, Penn Jillette.
The tall, ponytailed, talking half of the brilliant illusionist duo Penn and Teller, Penn Jillette is one very important skeptic. His television series Bullshit!, which was on Showtime from 2003 to 2010, was the best thing you can show people seduced by bogus claims for homeopathy, reflexology, crop circles, or ESP. On the flip side, Penn and Teller’s libertarian politics are evident when they deem climate-change science and animal-rights arguments to be species of “bullshit” too. Jillette embodies that side of the freethought movement that prizes absolute free speech above feelings.
In a Facebook post in 2012, he called feminist Jezebel writer Lindy West a “remarkably stupid cunt," using a term he'd previously lavished on Mother Teresa's nuns in a Bullshit! episode. (“He did it to me when I said something bad about Bruce Springsteen,” Alison Smith told me.) When I interviewed Jillette by telephone, he offered an impassioned defense of his language. “I have never used the word ‘cunt’ or ‘bitch’ in anger in my life,” Jillette said. “Every time I have used it, it has been an artistic decision.” He conceded that his attempts at humor have at times fallen flat, or even offended. “Now, have I misread a room? Yeah. Have I used a word for comedic intent and it hasn’t worked? Yes.” And as for Alison Smith? "First of all, I don’t like Springsteen, so we already know I was kidding,” Jillette said.
Jillette argued that the occasional misstep was a small price to honor the principle of artistic freedom and access, for women as well as men. “I have a 9-year-old daughter, and it’s really important to me that she read Ulysses. I don’t want there to be a rule that there is a certain kind of language used for women, and a certain kind used for men. That’s appalling. That patronizing of women is despicable. I don’t want women to be robbed of literature.”
The overarching problem, Jillette insisted, was culture clash. When James Randi began bonding with Nobel laureates over their shared interest in skepticism, “he brought with him a bunch of carney trash into this academic world,” Jillette said, referring to himself. “So here I am a schmuck, a piece of carney shit, hanging out with Richard Feynman. That should never happen!” And when he would hang out with skeptics, he assumed he could still talk the way magicians talked. “So I go down to visit my buddy Randi, and there are people around, and I assume we are surrounded by — I don’t know — friendlies. I assume you’re part of a culture I’m part of.”
Jillette, who would not comment on Shermer, thinks the magicians, debunkers, cardsharps, and carneys cannot be the role models in the community. “When Randi was starting JREF, I was his friend who advised the most against it,” Jillette said. “I said, ‘Don’t do this. You are more beautiful as a loose cannon.’ If Bob Dylan had started the Bob Dylan Foundation, it would have been terrible. I said, ‘It will take away the beauty. You’re not a clerical worker.’ And when asked to be on the board of directors, I turned them down. I said, ‘You must not be responsible for what I say.’ I have never said I am a hero for the skeptical movement.”
Of course, as the recent history of Michael Shermer and Richard Dawkins has demonstrated, the worst offenders are not necessarily the unlettered magicians. Nor is there such a clear distinction between the two groups. The Amaz!ng Meeting works precisely because it commingles the lowbrow and the highbrow. Jillette can try to separate the two, but his annual Rock & Roll, Doughnut and Bacon Party, which features exotic dancers (“male, female, and transsexual,” he was quick to point out), is still listed on the TAM website as “one of the highlights during TAM each year,” even though Jillette pays for the party and insists that it is unrelated to the convention. Right now, in freethought, the jesters fancy themselves intellectuals, and the intellectuals cavort like jesters, and the women among them wake up with the hangover.
Nearly all freethought meetings and conventions are majority male, and women I spoke with said that they are regularly the objects of sexual attention. Sometimes the attention is genial, flirtatious, and welcome. (As one female academic said to me about conferences of literary scholars, “Why does anybody go if not to get fucked?”) Other times it is aggressive and unwelcome. For a movement that is both political and social, it is a difficult balance. And there is some evidence that the movement has begun to curb the worst excesses.
Online, the growing community of writers attacking the harassment of women seems larger than the group who practices or condones such attacks. And most conferences now have explicit sexual harassment policies, which the organizers take seriously. “There's a lot of people in this movement who are like, ‘OK, this is something we need to take action on,’” said Greta Christina, a longtime feminist blogger and the author of the book Coming Out Atheist. “And I'm seeing progress. I'm seeing a lot. As shitty as it is, it's so much better now than it was five years ago.”
Nevertheless, the liberties that Michael Shermer took at conferences — despite complaints reaching organizers and movement leaders — suggest that the freethought world still has a problem. It can be simultaneously true that Rebecca Watson’s following is growing at the same time that Richard Dawkins continues to derail himself publicly, and that powerful men’s behavior is still winked at.
“The first atheist event I ever went to, I was by myself, I didn’t know anyone,” said Ashley Miller, a South Carolinian who serves on the board of the Secular Student Alliance. “It was the Orange County Freethought Alliance, in May 2010.” She was 25 years old, and she wanted to meet PZ Myers, whose blog she admired. During a break, she approached a table where Shermer was selling his books.
“I went to his table, and he started hitting on me,” said Miller, who had never heard of Shermer before that day. “It was mildly creepy, but it happens. But then he started playing with his crotch while he was talking with me. Basically trying to get my eye to look at his penis through his jeans, just rubbing himself for three or four minutes until I finally extricated myself.”
Pamela Gay, 40, an astronomer at Southern Illinois University, told me about a time in 2008, at Dragon Con, a major sci-fi/fantasy/comics/geek/nerd/skeptic conference in Atlanta, when she was walking along with several prominent skeptics. “One of them spotted Michael Shermer, who I didn’t know, and wanted to introduce me,” Gay said. “When the introduction was made, he turned around, and instead of trying to shake my hand, he tried to shake parts of me I was less interested in him shaking” — she was sure that he was going for her breasts, although he never touched her.
The exact nature of Shermer’s encounter with Gay has been dissected by skeptics who know of this incident, right down to the epistemology of what it would be mean for Gay to “know” that Shermer was reaching for her breasts. In his statement to me, Shermer wrote:
What can that possibly mean? She reached out to shake my hand and I did what? Reached out to shake her breast (but missed)? In front of a bunch of people—including friends and colleagues—in the middle of the day in a hotel lobby? Again, who behaves in such a gross way? Not me. In any case, if I did do something so revolting as this, then why was Pamela so friendly with me the rest of the weekend at that conference?
And as for the crotch-touching story, Shermer said that this, too, was a misunderstanding.
Whatever I might have been doing (adjusting my belt?, reaching for a pen in my pocket?)—if I was doing anything at all—rest assured that I think anyone who would behave this way is repulsive, and I am truly sorry if that is what she thinks I was doing. I can give her the benefit of the doubt that she is not just making this up, but in return she has to give me the benefit of the doubt that I would never do such a thing.
In his statement, Shermer argued that he is a victim of the “growing movement — at conferences, college campuses, and businesses — to clarify or even to redefine the rules of sexual encounters.” And it’s true that in reporting this piece, I heard some rumors about Shermer that were wildly implausible, offered by women who seemed to be eager to jump aboard the anti-Shermer bandwagon. (One said that in a crowded auditorium Shermer harassed her with his eyes, by singling her out to look at in the audience.) Nevertheless, Shermer concluded on a note of contrition: “I will freely respond to Alison or any other woman who communicates with me directly and privately who believes I have insulted or mistreated her. Let’s try honest person to person—and most of all timely—communication as a way of dealing with such issues."
But Shermer’s reputation really does precede him, and it predates the recent wave of attention given to sex crimes and sexual harassment. I reached the movement’s grand old man, 86-year-old James Randi, by telephone, at his house in Florida. Randi is no longer involved in his foundation’s daily operations, but he remains its chair, and he is a legend of the movement, famously not fooled by anybody. He seems not to be naïve about Shermer — although he’s not so troubled by him, either.
“Shermer has been a bad boy on occasion — I do know that,” Randi told me. “I have told him that if I get many more complaints from people I have reason to believe, that I am going to have to limit his attendance at the conference.
“His reply,” Randi continued, “is he had a bit too much to drink and he doesn’t remember. I don’t know — I’ve never been drunk in my life. It’s an unfortunate thing … I haven’t seen him doing that. But I get the word from people in the organization that he has to be under better control. If he had gotten violent, I’d have him out of there immediately. I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk.”
Besides, the famous guys, like Jillette and Shermer, put bodies in the seats. D.J. Grothe, who until this month was head of Randi’s foundation, told me in an email that Shermer “is consistently among the most popular and highly rated speakers on the [TAM] program.” What’s more, he said that he had never once received a complaint about Jillette’s or Shermer’s behavior at The Amaz!ng Meeting.
After we spoke, Alison Smith told me in an email that she had discussed Shermer’s behavior with leaders of Randi’s foundation, and Shermer kept getting invited to TAM anyway. That’s why she decided that she had to be more public about Shermer.
If she had to do it over again, Smith said, she would not use the word “rape” because “that seems to get people's backs up immediately. If people prefer to use the term 'creep,' that's fine. I'm telling my story, not giving testimony in court.” But she doesn’t regret speaking out. “It was intensely frustrating,” Smith said, to “watch other women walk straight into the same situation. I have no idea if anyone else was deceived in this way, and actually had a, for lack of a better term, I'm going to call it a ‘sexual incident,’ with him after that, but I do know that attendees were blissfully ignorant.”
“I kept hoping,” Smith said, “that someone would just be open and honest and say, ‘You know what? I don’t care if he was on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. [He was actually on The Colbert Report.] I don’t care that he pulls in such and such amount of money, and results in this increase in attendees. It is not worth it.’ Or even if they could just pull Shermer aside and say, ‘This behavior is unacceptable … Michael Shermer, it is not OK to have sex with someone you know for an absolute fact is plastered (particularly if you’re deceiving them by pretending to drink too!). It is wrong … Having sex with someone you know is plastered is wrong.’
“Now, why could no one else on the entire planet have said that before? I don't know.”
I met Emery Emery at a coffee shop in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles. He came with Heather Henderson, with whom he co-hosts the podcast Ardent Atheist. Emery — who wouldn’t tell me his real name — is a comedian and film editor whose most famous editing project was The Aristocrats, a documentary, co-produced by Penn Jillette, about a famously dirty joke. In various web biographies, Emery describes himself as influenced by Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, and Lenny Bruce. And he clearly prides himself on a kind of macho anti-posturing. Emery said that he doesn’t really know Michael Shermer, but when he saw what PZ Myers had posted about Shermer, he felt called to action. So on Aug. 20, 2013, he used the website Indiegogo to set up the “Michael Shermer Legal Fund,” to aid Shermer if he chose to sue for libel. By Sept. 19, the fund had exceeded its goal of $5,000 — its total was $8,289 — and was closed to new donations.
Before opening his online fund, Emery conducted his own investigation. “I do know who made that claim against Shermer,” Emery said. “I don’t know her personally. But I immediately started calling people who do know her personally and asking people their knowledge of the specific claim. And I discovered there was not even remotely enough veracity in their claim to consider it valid.” It is not clear how Emery could be so certain, and he was cagey about his investigative strategy. He never spoke to Shermer or Smith, and he told me that asking the parties involved “is the most likely way to not get the truth.”
After closing the fundraising appeal, Emery gave the money that he raised to Shermer’s lawyers. But he remains exercised about the topic of gender relations in freethought. “There’s a lot of dishonesty going on in the ‘radical-feminist community,’” Emery said. “That’s what they call themselves, I think. There’s a lot of confirmation bias there … They conflate sexual harassment and flirtation … They consistently hyperbolize in order to confirm their narrative so much that anything they say, I can’t take at face value.”
In our conversation, Emery espoused two arguments one hears from the libertarian, anti-feminist wing of the freethought movement. The first is that women are being hysterical and uptight about sexuality. If only they weren’t so riled up by feminism, they could handle harmless flirtation, in an elevator or at a conference after-party. The second is that these women are being sissies about verbal and written abuse. “I think they definitely do get hate mail,” Emery said. “So do we” — he and his colleague, Henderson. “We’re atheists and skeptics. We’re in the public eye. We get fucking hate mail … Do they get death threats? I think they do. I do too.” Emery said that after he got one death threat, his response was to taunt whoever threatened him by announcing his home address on his podcast.
It is true, of course, that some people handle online abuse with more serenity than others. Rebecca Watson has figured out how to ignore it; Melody Hensley, bedridden in Washington, has not. But it doesn’t follow that women and men should accept abuse as the cost of intellectual community.
Emery’s other point, about the conflation of flirtation and harassment, does suggest, however infelicitously, a broader truth. The gender dynamic has changed very quickly in freethought, and men are not the only ones confused about the new rules. Before Rebecca Watson, many prominent female atheists were scientists or doctors, like Harriet Hall, the former Air Force surgeon long active in the movement. Others, like Ophelia Benson and Greta Christina, were political types, with roots in lefty and feminist politics. But although Watson is now attacked as some sort of humorless feminist, she got famous by seeming so post-political, so very now.
She was, after all, a Skepchick. The calendar that she started contained provocatively posed photographs of women. In the earliest years of The Amaz!ng Meeting, she helped host a “pajama party” for the outnumbered women in attendance. “It was women only, usually no more than a dozen people,” Watson told me. This was before Skepchick.org, but the party “was referred to as the Skepchick Pajama Party because ‘Skepchick’ was a term of endearment for women” on the Randi web forum at the time. Meanwhile, Jen McCreight called her movement “Boobquake” and urged skimpy clothing.
“It wasn’t until I started getting hugely sexually objectified by skeptics and atheists, and would say mildly, ‘Please don’t do that,’ and get shit in return — that’s when I realized feminism is highly relevant to me and to skeptics,” Watson said.
Amy Davis Roth had a similar evolution. “I became a feminist because people kept calling me one,” Roth said. “I hadn’t known what it was.” In fact, many female skeptics wanted it made clear that they value the sexualized culture of the freethought world. “We’re not against flirting and fucking,” Roth told me. “We just want real policies and guidelines at conferences.”
Alison Smith, Shermer’s accuser, who told me she was a “terrible poster child for feminism,” expressed a kind of wistful affection for the matter-of-fact attitudes she found in freethought. “Because we are an offbeat community and we apply critical thinking to all aspects of our lives, we are more likely to participate in activities the general public would see as negative — for example, being open-minded about sex, or having sex with a lot of people. The general public would view it as a negative, but critical-thinking-wise, it’s par for our course.”
Early on, Smith considered that mind-set. “For a while,” she said, “I tried that critical-thinking mind-set toward sex, that it’s devoid of love, devoid of meaning, that it's something for entertainment, like, say, tennis. It can lead you to some interesting situations. But it ignores evolutionary biology. We did not evolve to be sociopaths.” In the end, callousness did not suit her. At one skeptics convention, she handed her résumé to a famous author, and he told her that she should just be a prostitute. “He said, ‘I know people who do that, and it’s not a big thing — you’d be good at it, it’s a compliment.’ For a while, you do think, ‘I shouldn’t be upset, he was offering me the best advice he thinks he has to offer.’”
If all one did was read the blogs, this would seem to be a very political fight, about feminism, libertarianism, and other isms. But many grassroots activists, mainly men, simply regret the loss of a tiny, bygone community of eccentrics. This disappearing world was heavily male, and perhaps quite sexist, but it was also a safe space for science geeks, political dissidents, and other kinds of misfits. It’s understandable that some would feel nostalgia for that romanticized world; for 50 years, freethought was where one could say things forbidden elsewhere. These are the people, after all, who stand up and tell evangelical Christians that there is no god. Many of their fellow Americans would say that’s far worse than saying “cunt.” So for open atheists, free speech is not trivial. And because they are usually on the receiving end of witch hunts and oppression, they are understandably wary of purging their own members.
But according to PZ Myers, atheists and skeptics may be uniquely unable to recognize their own flaws. “You’ll find the atheists who say, ‘I’m rational, therefore I’m better than everybody else,’” Myers said. “They take it for granted that all of their beliefs and positions are founded on rational thinking.”
In May, I traveled to a Caribou Coffee in St. Cloud, Minnesota, to meet Myers, who, despite his swashbuckling online persona, comes across as the very definition of “Minnesota nice.” He is so quiet that his words barely make it past his mustache. We began by talking about his decision, a year ago, to publish Alison Smith’s anonymous allegations, five years after the alleged rape took place. As a well-known feminist ally, he told me, he had often heard from women with stories of misogyny at freethought conventions. “And I usually say, ‘That’s terrible; what can I do about it?’” he said. “And they say, they often say, ‘Nothing, I just need a shoulder to cry on.’” But Alison Smith wanted him to publicize her allegation. “And I felt this sinking sense of horror: ‘Yes, I’m going to publish something accusing somebody of rape. All right.’”
The first thing that happened, he said, was a “shitstorm” of people shocked that he had posted such an allegation. But “the second thing that happened was this flood of email coming to me, saying, ‘Oh yeah, about time somebody called this guy out,’ and telling me their stories. Usually it’s something much less than getting raped at a meeting. That he’s, for years, had this reputation among — this was another shock — among the women in the atheist/skeptic community for being a world-class jerk to women. And treating meetings as meat markets — that I had never heard of before.”
So Myers felt vindicated in his decision. But more important than calling out Shermer, he feels, is cleansing the movement. Since Elevatorgate, Myers had been increasingly worried about what misogyny meant for the movement that he helps lead. It’s not a tiny subculture anymore. In one recent month, Skepchick.org got 438,029 page views, and Myers said that his blog, Pharyngula, gets about 3 million visits a month. There are open atheists and agnostics in Congress. There is a summer camp for children from atheist families. Campus freethought groups are multiplying. But movements cannot, if they are to continue growing, be led by men who talk like Penn Jillette or act like Michael Shermer. Their language and behavior would be a huge problem if they sought a political career, a Supreme Court nomination, or a college presidency, yet they are exalted as leaders of an ethical and philosophical movement.
Penn Jillette says that he has distanced himself from the skeptic movement entirely; his quasi-affiliated party aside, he claims that he hasn't had anything to do with TAM in four or five years — not because of pervasive sexism, but because of the increased sensitivity. "There started to be a sense in TAM that not all subjects can be discussed, and I just pulled myself out of it," he said. The final straw came when his attempt to bring South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone into the fold was met with resistance. "Some people were like, 'Ooh, they use obscenity.' If they don’t want Matt and Trey, I am out."
For Myers, then, the first step is to take on sexism and abuse, to call it out, to name it (and to name names). But for the movement to grow, the overarching need is for freethought to choose humanist values, including peace, women’s rights, and regard for the environment, even if that means marginalizing libertarians and conservatives. Atheism is the beginning, not the end.
“We can’t say there’s one way to be an atheist,” Myers said. “But the atheist movement needs to have greater goals than just eradicating religion.”