“We only have one chance to get it right:” an interview with Fallon Fox

by Julia Burke


Secular Woman members include many, many women who can be said to truly kick ass, but that phrase has never been more appropriate than for MMA fighter Fallon Fox. The “Queen of Swords,” who specializes in Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and wrestling, has been competing in MMA since 2008 and has a current record of 3-1-0. And as a transgender athlete committed to speaking out for social justice, Fox is as courageous in the face of inequality as she is in the ring. She took the time to speak with SW about her passion for martial arts, her secular worldview, and her feminist values.

JB: I read that you got interested in martial arts as a means of self-defense. What brought you from a functional interest in becoming stronger to a desire to compete in MMA?

FF: I think that one thing that stands out to me often is that I saw other women competing in MMA who inspired me. They were not your "typical" women by our typical, rigid, gender-binary standards. They didn't run away from danger when they had the means to not do so out of pressure from others to conform, and sedate their natural inclinations of aggression. No. They were walking, talking weapons of hand-to-hand destruction in female form. They had what men were allowed to have––what I would have been socially allowed to pursue when I lived in male bodily form. They had techniques of combat, unabashed assertiveness, and unabashed aggression. And they wielded these in front of millions of people unashamed.

Most tuned-in humans on LGBT issues know the devastating statistics with transgender women in regards to violence aimed at them. And I felt less easy at night while walking alone or in certain public situations. I suppose I felt that by following where my new passion was leading me, if I could find the strength to do what those women did on that scale, I might be able to erase or soften the blow of very real potential threats and the fear that comes along with them that was plaguing me on a day-to-day basis. It worked.

JB: Can you talk about your experience as a transgender athlete? What have been the greatest challenges, and have there been any surprises?

FF: It seems that one of the biggest challenges is getting past people's biases and deeply held beliefs that have been handed down to them over years and years of gender oppression. Those beliefs and biases sometimes put impenetrable walls up in the minds of some who don't want to accepts the medical field’s decisions and expertise in the area of transgender people's bodies in relation to sport.

The International Olympic Committee, the LGPA, USA Boxing, US Soccer Federation, USA Track and Field, Women's Flat Track Derby Association, the World Anti Doping Agency, the Florida, and Illinois Boxing commissions, and many, many others have policies in place or have acknowledged transgender participation is fair, legal, and safe for all parties involved if requirements are met. And transgender people have been competing in sports since the ’70s. Therefore this is nothing new, really. It's just not something that is talked about often [due to] stigma on the subject.

Fallon FoxWhen it comes out that someone is a transgender athlete, of course some people flip because it goes against what most of them have been taught: that one’s gender comes from what is in one’s pants in that precise “magical” moment we leave our mother’s womb. To them, that “moment” affects your brain and your body forever. If gender reassignment surgery could be performed in utero by a priest who said, "I know what's going on," I theorize they wouldn't have much problem accepting our participation in sports. But, as it stands, after one leaves that birth canal it's all set in stone in the minds of some, both physically and, in many cases, mentally. [That’s] a thought process that does not give me warm and fuzzies about prospects for the future of humanity.

I found it somewhat surprising in the beginning when some people within the MMA industry opposed me because of who I am. After all, the sport of MMA has many people within it who tout freedom to do what you want to do, within reason. And I found it ironic that they lost that reason on this subject. But given the track record of humanity I should have seen that coming.

I also found it surprising that my teammates accepted me as much as they did. But, then again they have known me for years before they knew that I was trans. I'm quickly learning to not be surprised by the expression of thoughts and actions of others, and I suspect that they in turn are learning not to be surprised by the expressions of thoughts and actions of me.

JB: When and how did you become a feminist?

FF: The moment I realized the structure of what helps keeps us all––male, female, and anyone else––in chains. The moment that I understood how deeply misogyny hurts all of us. Knowing the more intricate details of all of this sent me digging to find out more, and flabbergasted at how outsiders to the understanding of all this are so ignorant of its significance, or that it exists at all. That rapid mental evolution was a few years ago. I think that fighting in MMA helped me see the world through a new perspective and fast-tracked me a bit on that.

JB: Transgender athletes seem to experience unique scrutiny because sports tend to be seen as so gendered; I'm thinking of trans women, in particular, who have been subjected to all kinds of harassment and privacy violation because of this idea that they have some unfair advantage. Can you talk about how gender and athletics intersect, and what you hope to change in people's perceptions by telling your story?

FF: Gender and athletics should not intersect at all. Meaning, gender––the state of one’s mind being inherently male or female––does not affect the gameplay. The physical, sexual differences of the body do though. We need to have a segregation in much of sports because the gulf of physicality between athletes is so huge after puberty. There are legitimate concerns of fairness and safety that absolutely need to be considered.

But, in the age of talking computers, space travel, and advanced medical research, we have come up with safe, innovative, and accurate methods of augmenting our bodies for people whose mind does not match their sexual characteristics. In this process a person can and will be brought to the competition level of the sex they feel they belong in. A non athletic transgender patient? Ah, upon transition you will become a non athletic version of your newfound physical self. An athletic transgender patient? Looks like you are bound to become an athletic version of your former sex. And that’s not metaphorically speaking; that’s the actual physical reality.

That's really cool, right? In my world that's pretty neat that we can do that. In my world, and the world of many others (including athletic commissions), there is no reason to insert any unnecessary harassment on the patient or athlete for this. Yet, here we are. And I am writing this because of some people are so irrationally minded that they attempt to tell those who are studying transgender people that they don't want to accept their rationally collected consensus.

Telling my story adds to the ever-growing voice that has exploded in the past year on the issue of transgender rights. Those who wanted to ignore the issue and have the trans community suffer in silence are forced to speak about the issue. That visibility forces conversations that need to be had and were previously kept far away from the table.

JB: Do you identify as secular humanist, agnostic, atheist? What brought you to this worldview?

FF: I am an out and proud atheist. I was heavily indoctrinated with evangelical Christianity as a youth. So, you can pretty much get the gist of how this affected my world view in relation to genocide, slavery, animal rights, sexuality, gender and many others. A lot of what I was taught was against the basic humanistic empathy that comes from being a sentient human being that actually cares about her fellow human’s lives and well being. It went against my basic human desire to politely negotiate with other individual humans and groups of people and nations without demands for their assimilation and destruction of their culture.

The idea of being tortured for an eternity for simply not believing in a concept was, and still is, more despicable, sadistic, cruel, and lopsided a punishment for––well, nothing at all. It's a punishment for simply coming to a different conclusion, for simply disagreeing in one’s mind on one particular subject. Understanding the totality of that in relation to being a transgender person sent me into a frenzy of delving into the subject to weigh the validity of the god claim. I soaked up everything I could by both sides to come to my conclusion years ago. In the end, I had to depart from the religious ideas I was taught. I had no other choice to be honest. I was forced by my reasoning to reject the unreasonable.

I suppose that affects my worldview in that I see humanity as being just another animal on a gigantic rock that is slowly, but ever so steadily, hurdling into the sun. That we are all in the same boat. And that the best way to work around the dilemma of withstanding the constant bombardment of threats and pain on this fleck of dust is to focus on the very real and measurable occurrences and individuals within it. We only have one chance, one time to get it right. One chance to make it through with this extraordinary ability of pattern recognition and dexterity to implement invention. We could leave the earth permanently one day and find a new home. We could potentially have most of what we desired in our fictional heaven if we actually try. But, that requires intellectual honesty. That requires courage. We may or may not have what it takes as a species to get that far. Who knows. But, personally I want to do my part to add to the collective of those who understand and embrace reality while focusing on humanities interest in the long term.

Interview with Amy Davis Roth

SW:   How did you get started making ceramics?

ADR: I first began working in clay by helping my mother, Charlene. At the time, my mother had a small home business that made porcelain awards for horse shows. I was really, very influenced by her work even though I probably didn't know it early on. Her highly detailed work has without a doubt influenced my artwork today.

As a young woman I opened an art gallery in North Hollywood, California. During the time I had the gallery I began making and selling small ceramic necklaces. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to run an art gallery and after a short stint and an unfortunate series of events, I ended up literally bankrupt. I had no car and no place to live. I had failed.

I got very depressed and I stopped making art.

A year or so passed by.

Then, I got a job as a waitress to try to start saving money to start my life over. I remembered how much I enjoyed making the ceramic jewelry in my mother's studio so I started making necklaces and wearing them into work. I had moved into a tiny one-room apartment and I didn't have any space to create. The necklaces were small and I could make them in my mother's backyard ceramic studio. It was perfect. It was during the same time period that I started learning about science and a few months later I found out about the skeptical community. During this educational period in my life I was able to find something that my artwork had been lacking, a purpose and a message.

At work, people fell in love with the jewelry. I had people buy them right off my neck! I literally couldn’t make them fast enough. Surly-Ramics was born! Within a few months I had started a new business, one that championed secularism and critical thinking and I no longer needed to wait tables.

I got a second chance.

I now work as an artist full-time. I design jewelry that advocates education and science and that celebrates the brave, emerging society of freethinkers, feminists and humanists that I find myself a part of. It’s nice to be able to carry around a small piece of art that represents the rational ideals that are helping to make this world a better place. I try to give back as much as I can to the community that has given me wisdom and so much inspiration to work from and so I use my art to fund-raise for many secular organizations, charities and various grant programs. Every year I use my jewelry to somehow help people or animals in need.

SW:   How do your secular and feminist ideals impact how you work and your final products?
ADR: I try to look at the entirety of my jewelry project as activist art. The people that wear my jewelry become active participants in the project.

It's all about the spread of information, learning and the joy of being part of a community of freethinkers. For example, if a person wears a piece with a scientific symbol or a mathematical equation, and a stranger sees it and asks about it, that opens up the door for sharing information and educating the public in unlikely and casual situations. That can have a real impact.

The same goes for the pieces I design that represent feminist and specifically secular or atheist ideals. The realization that your friendly neighbor is an atheist or a feminist and that they cherish those ideals, and wear the symbols in the same way that the religious folks wear crosses or a Star of David, often can have a very real and positive impact. We aren't like what Fox News or Rush Limbaugh wants you to think we are. We are just like you, only we think about things a little bit differently and base our decisions on empirical evidence. And again, it simply opens the doorway to a conversation and allows us to share science-based information. I'm always happiest when someone asks. "What does that symbol mean? Your necklace is lovely, can you tell me about it?"
Amy Painting Heisenberg

SW:  What are some new designs that you particularly like?
ADR: I have to admit that this time of year I often get sucked into the glory of spring and find myself wanting to paint and draw a lot of flowers but at the same time the re-boot of Cosmos has really got me excited and inspired. I'm really happy with all of my astronomy themed pieces and I have quite a few new pieces in the works.

Ceramic pieces featuring multiple planets

Cermaic piece featuring the words "Made of Star Stuff"

SW:  Can you give Secular Woman a sneak peak of what you are bringing to Women in Secularism?
ADR: This year for WiS I created a series of "We Can Do It" necklaces to give as a thank you gift to all of the wonderful speakers and volunteers at this year's event. And I will have a table set up with all of my regular designs as well, so if you are at the event please stop by, take a look and say hello.

Rows of ceramic pieces featuring Rosie the Riveter and the words "We can do it"

SW:  What projects are you working now?  How can everyone support them?
ADR: I am happy to say that I am really, very busy these days. I am always working on my jewelry and you can support that project by going to my shop here: https://www.etsy.com/shop/surly

I am also in the process of designing a bunch of space themed paintings for the party room at SkepchickCon. SkepchickCon is what we call the science track at Convergence. Each year Skepchick organized an educational and fun filled science activity track and we have a four night party. This year rhe theme for the party room is 'Space lab" and I am helping with the decorating. More info on that event and info on how I am paying for a few passes for people to attend can be found here: http://skepchick.org/2014/02/i-love-science-at-skepchickcon/

And in very exciting news, I just formed the Los Angeles Women's Atheist and Agnostic Group that will be meeting monthly at CFI West. The group will plan and execute art and activist projects in Los Angeles and be a friendly and safe space for women who are leaving religion and want a support structure. The group is still in it's planning stages but will begin meeting at CFI West the first Tuesday of each month starting in June. And I'm very excited to say that Skepchick and Secular Woman are signed on as official sponsors of the group. We also have our first activist art exhibit planned, but I can't release any info on that just yet. It's still top secret. 😉

I'm also planning on launching a Patreon this summer in the hopes that I can paint some large format paintings that are based on various aspects of science. I have recruited quit a few actual scientists and science communicators to help me insure that I am getting the science "right" in the paintings and that I am sending sending accurate messages. So my art will actually be peer reviewed in a lovely merging of art and science. As soon as I find the time I will launch that.

Speaking of art and science, I am also the managing editor of Mad Art Lab. Mad Art Lab is a sister site on the Skepchick Network and focuses on the intersection of art, science and secularism and there are some brilliant contributors there. Check out http://madartlab.com/ to see for yourself!

A strand of DNA on a yellow background surrounded by roses

SW:  What is the biggest challenge you are facing in the atheist/secular/humanist community?
ADR: Without a doubt, the biggest challenge I have faced is the blatant harassment and bullying that was directed at me because I dared to speak up about sexism in the skeptic and atheist communities. I am obviously not alone in this experience, and have witnessed many other outspoken women with an online presence get attacked and targeted with multiple year campaigns of hate. While this primarily happens online, I have seen it seep into the conference spaces and it certainly affects the targets in their daily lives. It has been a challenge to get the community to take notice and actually do something about it and those who have stood up against online harassment, sexism and bigotry have sometimes experienced significant backlash. Something as simple as creating a code of conduct policy for events has caused an uproar in some cases. I have seen many wonderful women simply leave our communities, just walk away over the past few years, because of the negativity and harassment they have seen. Most leave silently but their absence is certainly noticed. My hope is that organizations like Secular Woman, Skepchick and my new meetup group will create safe and spaces that will empower women and encourage them to want to participate more fully in the secular communities moving forward.

SW:  What inspires you?
ADR: Everything inspires me. But my true love will always be the interaction of science and nature and the beauty it reveals.

Interview with Ania Bula

Ania Bula is an artist and member of Secular Woman. You can shop for her items at Ania Onion Creations. She will also have a table at Women in Secularism 3 where you will be able to view and purchase her work.

SW:  What is your creative background?
AB: I became interested in art in part due to my best friend when I was 5. She was five years older than me and I worshipped her. I wanted to be just like her, and so I started drawing and sketching. I got pretty good over time, and particularly got interested in sketching portraits. I also dabbled in painting to feel closer to my aunt Grazyna in Poland, who is a celebrated artist. This past Christmas, since we were desperate for money and really couldn't afford to get everyone great gifts, I decided to paint some simple wooden boxes with Fantasy themes and give those away. I had a great time and people seemed to love them, so I decided to try selling them. After that it was only a matter of time before I moved over to canvas and started painting more than just boxes.

In addition to my visual art, I have also always been a writer. I used to tell stories even as a child and always promised myself that I would write books. I am in the editing process of my non-fiction work "Young, Sick, and Invisible: a Skeptic's Journey with Chronic Illness" which is a book detailing my life with disability as well as essays on the intersections of feminism and atheism with disability justice. I am also working on a Fantasy themed novel which I hope to actually get done someday.

Although I did study English literature at university, I never officially studied art.

SW: What is the inspiration for your work in your Etsy store (Ania Bula Creations)?
AB: I get inspiration from a lot of different sources. A lot of ideas come from when friends post photos and my mind immediately creates some sort of fantasy portrait from it. I also get some of my ideas from fantasy novels I read, as well as just ideas that pop into my mind. I like making people think and also breaking some accepted ideas. For example, a lot of portraits, especially in fantasy, deal with white characters. While some of my portraits do have white female models, I am also working on finding a lot more women of colour and using them as models for my work. To wit, this portrait of Heina Dadabhoy

Colorful Portrait of a woman
and this one of a woman whose picture I found at a PoC slam poetry night.  
Colorful portrait of a WoC with Waves for hair

SW: How does your secular feminist perspective impact your creativity and final product?
AB: I like to subtly critique religion in a lot of my work. One painting is of an angel holding an apple with fire in his hand, on a sunrise background. To general appearance, the painting looks like just an angel, but knowledge of religion paired with the title light-bearer would let those familiar with abrahamic religions realize that the subject is actually Lucifer, God's Light Bringer and the Devil.

I have another painting with a woman wearing a blind-fold made entirely out of bible pages.

A lot of my models for my fantasy paintings are secular women who do a lot of great speaking and social justice work. I love creating something beautiful using these incredible women. I also want to create more artwork that celebrates the amazing women in our community. I also love having religious paintings and fantasy paintings in the same exhibition, to show how the two are ultimately from the same source: human inspiration.

SW:  What are you most looking forward to about Women in Secularism 3?  
AB: I am definitely looking forward to the amazing talks and also the atmosphere of people who understand the need for social justice. I learn something every time I am there and it often feels like a safe space.  What I am looking forward to the most however, is the chance to see some of the people I love and care about in person. I don't get a chance to see them in person very often and this conference is one of the few places where I can.

SW:  I understand you are tabling at Women in Secularism 3, can you give a sneak peak of what you are bringing?
AB: I will be bringing everything that you can see in my Etsy shop. I am also trying to get some money to be able to print some of the paintings onto t-shirts. I am also making some soaps, lotions, and fizzy bath bombs. I am also looking into getting some note cards and buttons printed up. If you are going to WiS and you want to make sure that a T-shirt is available, you can order on Etsy (https://www.etsy.com/ca/shop/AniaOnionCreations) and save on shipping by using code WISROCKS and pick up the order at the event. I would need the order ASAP. You can also donate to my fundraiser to help me earn money for T-shirts here: http://www.gofundme.com/8zanyc

SW:  What other projects are you working on?  [if nothing, let's not include this one]
AB: I would like to do more paintings of secular women in fantasy settings. I am prevented from doing as much as I want based on my money situation. Art supplies cost a lot of money, so until sales pick up I am limited in what I can do.  
Image of an Angelic Figure
I also want to finish a fantasy novel I am working on where the main character is a woman who has a mild disability and a bisexual man of colour.
Image of a blind folded woman

SW: What inspires you?
AB: Everything! A lot of my inspiration will come just as I am falling asleep, while I am reading a book, or even from other paintings I just finished. Sometimes when I am working on an idea, I come up with different versions of it, which I want to try. I choose my favourite as my first attempt and save the ideas for later when I have time and money to explore further. I get inspiration from my writing as well. Sometimes a story I am working on will have a really interesting visual that I want to paint.


Interview with Karen Stollznow

SW: How did you get involved in skepticism?

KS: I’ve had a deep fascination with the paranormal ever since I was a kid. From a young age I loved reading and writing stories about ghosts, aliens, and psychics. The only problem was, I didn’t believe in any of it! Years later I approached the Australian Skeptics and asked if I could do work experience with them. This led to a project in which I went undercover as a patient and had consultations with a number of alternative therapists, including a homoeopathist, an iridologist, a naturopath, and an aura reader. They all told me I was sick with a variety of illnesses, although no two diagnoses were the same. Then I went to a medical doctor and underwent a battery of tests, which disproved all of the diagnoses of the therapists. I’ve been hooked on doing investigations ever since!

SW:  What is the most interesting thing you have investigated? Why?

KS: Certainly one of the strangest things I’ve investigated are the claims of Braco the Gazer. I thought I’d heard of everything until I came across him! Braco is a sort of faith healer who is believed to cure disease, cause miracles, and bring good luck to people by merely gazing at them! I also investigated many weird religious beliefs and practices for God Bless America, including Voodoo rituals and demonic possession and exorcisms. Living in the States I’m never short of interesting things to investigate, and I urge other skeptics to get out there and become involved in investigations too! Why not go and see that psychic show and write a post about it? Or visit a local “haunted” location and vlog about it?

SW:  Do you feel you were treated differently in skepticism because you are a woman?  If so, how?  Any examples?

KS: As far as opportunities are concerned, my answer is no. However, I’ve had some unfortunate personal experiences as a woman in skepticism. Within the community I’ve encountered sexism, and have been the victim of sexual harassment and sexual assault. I think many men and women are aware of these problems within skepticism, if they haven’t been affected personally. Unfortunately, a minority of skeptics prefer to look the other way, reinterpret this behavior as flattery, or dismiss it with, “boys will be boys”. Some are even denialists, but these people are often the culprits. I’m hopeful these problems will disappear with a greater awareness of these issues, an inevitable changing of the guard, and as skepticism matures over time.

SW:  You talk about "supernatural language."  Can you explain what you mean and give some examples?

KS: Language is the main tool used in the paranormal and pseudoscience. Many topics within skepticism involve supernatural claims about language, whether it’s speaking in tongues, spells, graphology, or J.Z. Knight claiming to channel a 35,000-year-old spirit. My forthcoming book Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic explores a wide range of supernatural claims about language, including chain letters, prayer, monster and alien languages, hidden satanic messages in music, and voices of the dead.

SW:  What projects are you working on now?  How can the community support these?

KS: I’m working on a new book about alternative therapies called Not What the Doctor Ordered. I intersperse my research with investigations into “haunted” houses, psychics, religions and cults, and various pseudoscientific claims. If the community would like to help support my projects I’d be very grateful if people would check out my books and get in touch with me about topics they’d like me to investigate.  

SW:  What do you enjoy doing outside of skepticism?

KS: When I’m not cooped up in my office or writing in a coffee shop, I like to go walking, hiking, and to the gym or the beach (just not when living in Colorado, obviously). I enjoy traveling, art, music, cooking, and trying out exotic restaurants. I love reading about anything to do with language, history, and culture. Most of all, I adore spending every second I can with my husband, Matthew Baxter, who is also a skeptical paranormal investigator, which means there’s little I do outside of skepticism!

Interview with Soraya Chemaly

Soraya Chemaly is a feminist activist who writes about gender and culture. She appears all over the internet, in places like The Guardian, Ms. Magazine, CNN, Salon, and The Huffington Post, and sits on our Advisory Council. Soraya will be at Women in Secularism 3 where she will be talking about Gender and Free Expression, Intersectionality and Humanism, and Online Activism.

MO: Did you always want to do what you are doing? Did you fall into it? How'd you get here?

SC: I think the way my childhood experiences made being a girl cognitively disjunctive, particularly religion in my case, made it almost inevitable. I've studied theology, history, gender, feminism for as long as I can remember. At university, I founded a feminist magazine but then after school I started to work that had nothing to do with these subjects.  Then, about two years ago, when my children were on the verge of being teenagers, it struck me that we'd come to a standstill in terms of women's equality and parity, so I launched back in with a vengeance to make up for lost time!

MO: My family gets upset with me for deconstructing everything. Can you shut it off?

SC: Really can't! As I said to them long ago, this is not what I do, it's really is who I am. By asking me to stop (and they do!) they are falling into the classic trap that this perspective is tangential.

Mo: Harassment: We all get it. What do you get? How do you get through it?

SC: Street harassment has been a constant in my life since I was nine. I respond in different ways depending on the circumstances (because we all assess risk each and every time we feel the urge to respond), my mood, the place, etc. Now, a lot of the harassment I experience also happens online. There are people who really cannot imagine sharing public space – on line or off – civilly with women as equals.

Some, I ignore entirely. I figure, it's like bullying –  if you don't like my opinion,  it is not my problem, but your problem. Some of it I can't afford to ignore. One time in particular, I had to call the police. Another activist got death threats from the same person, we talked and it ended up with an FBI complaint.  We all have to assess risks. Some people have the wherewithal to ignore harassment and threats. What is sad and understandable, however, is when people stop talking or censor themselves as a result. This is problematic for so many reasons. As far as engagement goes, you only have so much time and energy in you every day. There are some who are never going to change their minds so why on earth would you engage with them?

MO: Over the last few years, we've heard "where are all the women in atheism?" How many atheist conferences have invited you to speak?  How do you think we should change the question to "why aren't you inviting women to speak?"

SC: I wrote this about that topic and recently, this, about the lack of women on tv, as experts, etc. Same holds true for conferences. I have never been asked to speak at another secular/atheist conference, but, in truth, I am not very immersed in the community. I think these issues are exactly the same in every industry and they have to do with deep structural issues related to whose time and work we value in society. 

MO: Getting more women to the top areas of the movement would be key to change. How would we do that?

SC: What is required to get women to the top is have specific plans to identify systemic inhibitions to parity and execute them with benchmarks. Getting women to the top might open a flood gate, but the gate has to be opened in order for them to get to the top in the first place. 

The immediate response, when someone says "where are the women," needs to stop being, "we are right here" which we've been saying for decades and change to, "if you are serious about diversity, where is your plan. If you are serious, you need to be able to say, these are the resources I am dedicating. These are the people, this is the time." 

MO: Every one of your articles seem to be link heavy from beginning to end. This has to take a stunning amount of research. 

SC: One of my defensive strategies for sure is to provide as much information as possible. If people want to argue with facts, then go for it. They can argue with the CDC, or the Department of Justice, or Cambridge, or whomever the source of information that I am citing might be. 

MO: How has Twitter changed activism? Especially corporate activism?  Twitter #FBRape campaign for instance.

SC: I think Twitter has been transformative for activists who, in the past, would have been unable to reach millions of people through media because they were marginalized.  The #FBRape campaign that we organized brought together more than 100 organizations and tens of thousands of people globally. That would never have been possible without the transformative power of the Internet and tools like Twitter. I don't really see Twitter as separate from the other social media that we rely on – each has quite a specific demographic reach that enables activists to reach the likeminded, catalyze conversation and debate.

MO: Twitter feminists are hilarious. Their hashtag appropriations are always amusing in a snarky way. Have you appropriated a hashtag? Have you had one overrun?

SC: That's true. It's hard for me to think now, there have been so many good ones! #Liberaltipstoavoidrape is a recent one that comest to mine. I haven't had one overrun. There was a lot of potential for that to happen with #FBRape, and we knew that, but it didn't happen, even with more than 50K tweets. I think it was because the graphic nature of what we were sharing and protesting spoke for itself.

MO: What are some of the other campaigns you've run?

SC: I try and focus activism time on two areas: media diversity and sexualized violence because our storytelling shapes imagination and ambition and violence is a tool used to regulate inequality.  To that end I try to support and participate in the activist efforts of organizations such as Stop Street Harassment, Take Back the Tech, Hollaback, FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, The Representation Project, the Women's Media Center and Everyday Sexism.

Interview with Jason Thibeault on DDOS

Jason Thibeault is a blogger at FreethoughtBlogs (FtB), one of three networks with strong pro-feminist voices which were targetted by a DDoS attack this past weekend. We were able to ask Jason some qustions about the effects of the attack and how FtB recovered from it. Jason has a bigger post about it on his blog Lousy Canuck.


MR: How many bloggers on FtB?

JT: Including all the group bloggers and co-bloggers, there are over fifty bloggers with posting rights spread across 35 live blogs — though a few of these blogs are now inactive and are up as archives at the request of the bloggers. We have a diverse talent pool here, tackling a very wide range of subjects.

MR: How long was your site down?

JT: We are basically dodging the attack now, so well that I can't even tell if the attack is still ongoing. We were down for a little less than two hours altogether, broken up into two chunks. Interestingly, the server itself weathered the attack fine — the problem was, our web host's countermeasures to the attack were what actually took us down.

MR: How many hits do you normally get in this period?

JT:I would estimate that the blog network as a whole gets on average 140,000 hits a day. Saturdays are actually normally our lowest traffic day, though, and we only got roughly 118,000 hits that day with the attack. Evidently the existence of the attack stirred interest, however, and once the site was back up, we got a lot of traffic in a spike immediately — lookie-loos, I suspect; rubberneckers. I don't know ultimately how the numbers panned out, but it seems like we only lost about 10,000 hits, not counting that post-attack spike. That's nothing to sneeze at in two hours, mind you. But we're not as prolific as, say, Slashdot, or CNN.com.

MR: How long did it take to get it back up once the attack started?

JT: After the initial attack, our web hosting provider locked us down for an hour — basically, they needed to protect their other clients. When the block was lifted, the attack was still ongoing, and so they blocked it again, this time for four. This might have gone on indefinitely, exponentially increasing the downtime, but we have a rather clever web guy and we had a bit of good luck in how our servers were configured such that we could effectively dodge the attack without our host's intervention. Between the web guy and myself, we probably put about four hours of work in mitigating the situation, analyzing logs and working with the web host.

MR: Is protecting the site in the future going to cost extra?

JT: There's obviously the human cost in hours to fix the issue; we're open to getting better security, but at the moment, we're not incurring any extra costs outside of what they're paying our web guy. I'm sure we're open to it though. I know he and I have already come up with a few things we'd like to implement to shore up security against attacks preemptively, so we're acting less reactively and more proactively.

MR: Any chance at all of finding who was behind it?

JT: There's always a chance. In this specific case, it's likely going to be difficult to track them down, as it appears to have been a distributed attack through some anonymizing services. Though we can easily surmise something about the attacker from the three targets — Skepchick, FtB and Feminist Frequency all went down to a DOS at very nearly exactly the same time, and that can't possibly be a coincidence. I expect someone will brag about it at some point. Maybe they'll even suggest that they're Anonymous, though frankly, any hacker cell can claim that name. I expect most of Anonymous is too busy going after human rights violators to attack people who stand up for those same human rights, no matter how the Venn diagrams between antifeminists and technologically-savvy individuals happen to overlap.

Interview with Dana Ellyn

Dana Ellyn is a visual artist based in Washington, DC, whose work frequently reflects atheist and vegetarian themes informed by her own values. Her art was featured at CFI’s Blasphemy Day event last year with a special exhibit that drew vitriolic controversy, including death threats, for provocative images such as “Jesus Does His Nails,” which depicts Jesus painting a nail driven through his hand. She describes her style as “on the fence between social realism and expressionism”; in this lightly edited interview, she shares her thoughts behind her work, her principles, and blasphemy. For more on Dana Ellyn, check out her website here.

JB: You’ve said your paintings are too gruesome for some. What is the goal of that type of work?

DE: I didn't go down the road of painting about religion as any sort of mission to upset people. Quite the opposite. It was truly a self exploration. As I learned about religion I also learned about me and my feelings on the subject.

It's something I really never discussed with anyone (or even myself to any deep level) until I was about 30 years old. I pondered, I painted, I posted [the paintings] to my website and put them in shows. It wasn't until I started to see and hear the reactions of others that I realized how strong some of my messages were and how they came across to others.

Nonbelievers applauded them. I assume many believers shrugged them off (these are the people I didn't hear from). others were deeply offended. Some threatened me. This wouldn't have taken me by surprise had I given it more thought––but like I said, I was creating these for my own self exploration. Kind of like a diary. But diaries are private, and I create paintings for a living so my paintings didn't stay private.

Once I reconciled all of this I decided I was completely comfortable putting my work out there and taking the criticism. Heck, these are my opinions and I'm free to express them. I paint about politics all the time and although plenty of people disagreed with one view or another, they never said I "shouldn't" paint something about politics. But, when it came to religion I was being held to a different standard, as if I don't have the right to express my opinion when it comes to religion because it upsets people. The whole idea of religion being sacred obviously doesn't hold any weight for me. So I continued painting work with religious content with confidence of my convictions. I stand behind my paintings by saying that I wouldn't paint anything that I'm not comfortable saying out loud in words to someone. In other words, I've had some very controversial ideas that I have never painted because they are just too over-the-top. Kind of like a comedian telling a joke that's so off color that even though it's their job to make jokes, their audience still turns on them because they've gone  too far.

I think it's extremely important for art to elicit a reaction. But I have a line I aim not to cross. I have never painted something with the sole intent of pissing someone off. I've known that I *will* piss people off with much of my work but that is not my motivation. The motivation has to be because I was inspired by an idea and I have an opinion to express––an opinion I'm comfortable discussing.

The same thing goes for my veg-themed art. Some people have accused me of going "too far" with these paintings too, although I never expected vegetarians/vegans to be able to be offended by paintings about vegetarianism. But I do understand that even though vegetarians agree that animal abuse is bad and the meat industry is gruesome, they don't necessarily feel comfortable seeing it on canvas. For example, my "Baby Back Ribs" painting continues to scare and horrify people at every turn.

JB: How do you differentiate between shocking to challenge preconceptions, which is what Blasphemy Day is supposed to be about, and the common theist accusation that atheists are just being “disrespectful” or that certain media is “unnecessary”?

DE: Before exhibiting as part of Blasphemy Day, I was unaware of all the internal strife, if you will, in the atheist community. I stepped on a proverbial land mine with this show. I was just painting what I paint and I was invited to hang them for Blasphemy Day. I had no idea it was associated with the anniversary of the Mohammed cartoons when I first agreed to do it. I'd read books by Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris and was aware of the different tactics they each employ when delivering their messages. But I wasn't expecting the blowback from within the atheist community to my work. Can of worms. My most difficult but most rewarding interview was with Fox News. Their religion correspondent came at me guns a-blazing with accusation after accusation. I took each of her accusations, calmly explained my position, and diffused her at every turn. It was brilliant. The end of that episode is that she ran the story about the infighting in the atheist community and left my name and my art completely out of it. It was a great reminder to me that I was in fact confident in my position and that, when given the chance, could sometimes make a religious person understand that I have a right to not believe as much as they have a right to believe.

JB: Have you ever regretted publishing or sharing a work of art?

DE: No regrets.


Interview with Monette Richards

Monette Richards stays plenty busy as a member of Secular Woman’s board of directors (and as our designated tech-savvy member), but last month she represented SW on the road––and pinch-hit as a speaker––at Skepticon 6. Her talk, “Moving Forward,” discussed the place of women in the secular movement, Secular Woman’s founding and goals, and how discussions of harassment and sexism are helping our community grow and learn. Richards took a few minutes to chat about her experience attending the conference and speaking out on behalf of SW’s mission.

JB: What was your impression of Skepticon?

MR: Skepticon was awesome! Lauren and crew did a pretty great job and getting all the details in place. I had no problems signing in, getting our table set up or running the workshop. I don't think the schedule was wavered from, once. They did an excellent job of sticking to the time table and getting all the details right.

But, most importantly, it was fun! The entire event is run with a positive, fun spirit of having a great time––and when the organizers are looking at it that way, the event goers naturally feel it, too.

JB: I loved your talk! (Watch it here.) What was that experience like for you?

MR: I was a last-minute ask to replace someone who couldn't make it. My experience in giving talks prior to this consisted of one workshop I did for a few local groups and during FTBConscience. I had done nothing like this before. And I was on stage at the same event as people whose talks had made me laugh, and cry, and be silent with awe!

I started working on it on the plane. But my weekend was soon filled with people and tabling and beer and more people, and when was I going to write this talk? So, it was short and a little fuzzy and I was more than a little nervous. I have some amazing friends who gave great ideas and pointers and support, though. So it'll be an even more Awesome Talk of Awesome next time!

JB: Was there an experience, conversation, or talk that particularly stuck with you?

MR: I didn't get to see a lot of the talks as I was tabling in the vendor room (selling the coolest shirts ever). However, I had two huge takeaways from the whole weekend. The first was the inner conversation sparked by Greta Christina's talk. The whole time she was emphasizing self-care being more important than some item, proposed bill, or wrongdoing, I kept nodding my head while saying, "Yes, but…" So, I know I have a lot of work to do there, a lot of work on myself. I have to convince myself to take some time to remember how to relax, again. And that way, I'll have even more fun making even more friends and having an even greater time at the next one!

The second was my reconfirming that we have a lot of amazing people involved in this movement. I have known this. But, it is re-enforced every time I go to a conference. While speakers are wonderful and their talks are important, it's what happens in between that make the most difference. Networking, making new friends and reconnecting with online friends are the real reasons I go.



“We’re not better than everybody else just because we identify as skeptics”: A Conversation with Rebecca Watson

As the founder of Skepchick.org, a regular on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and a frequent speaker at conferences around the world, Rebecca Watson needs no introduction within the skeptic community. A powerful writer with razor-sharp wit, Watson speaks out for science, skepticism, and social justice with equal force; her new Patreon campaign will fund high-quality videos in which Watson will address such topics. Secular Woman, a donor to Watson’s project, tremendously values Watson’s contributions to the secular movement. Watson took time from her busy schedule to sit down with Julia Burke––twice (long story)––to chat about her background and share her wisdom over a few beers. A video of the conversation will soon be available to Watson's subscribers; a lightly edited transcript follows.


JB: So how did you actually become a skeptic?


RW: I was actually just trying to think of a funny joke response, considering that we’ve done all this already once.


JB: Yeah, I got nothing.


RW: Yeah, no. I should have prepared for that. And for the people watching the video, I want to explain that we did all this last night but I screwed up the recording so we’re going to take another shot at it. But luckily, we were drinking heavily and so I don’t remember my answers.


JB: Yeah, it’s going to be a whole new adventure.


RW: So. How I became a skeptic was through magic, which is a path that a surprisingly large number of skeptics take. By the time I reached college I had pretty much lost interest in science and I was focused on my writing, but also I was working my way through college as a magician. I had been a juggler and a magician since I was about 14 or 15 and I had started working at magic shop, and I just started reading every book I could get my hands on; I was already a big fan of Penn and Teller, but through them I learned about James Randi and I read everything Randi does, and found out that he has a Million Dollar Challenge, where he offers to give a million dollars to anybody who can prove they have paranormal abilities. I also learned that Randi had an online forum, and I had never been on a forum before but I went and checked it out, and that’s kind of how I got sucked in to the skeptical community and started actually calling myself a skeptic.


JB: And you identified as an atheist before that, and pretty early on, correct?


RW: Yeah, the atheism came first, because I didn’t really know what a skeptic was until I found Randi’s forum. I grew up Baptist (not the horrible kind––like, we could dance and drink) but, there’s always this idea that you weren’t supposed to think about big questions like “What if God doesn’t exist”; that’s just not something that should even enter your mind. But I had a lot of questions. I had a big interest in mythology, Greek and Roman mythology, and it always bugged me––as a kid, I kept asking my parents, “Is Zeus real?” And they’d be like, “No, dummy.” <laughs> And I’d be like, “But, did people back then believe Zeus was real? Like, did people a long time ago think he was real?” And they’d be like, “Well… heretics…”


And so I remember pushing these thoughts to the back of my head about all these other gods that have existed or do exist supposedly in the world. But the second I left home, when I was 17, I went to college and my very first class was an introduction to philosophy class, and it’s not like I read anything particular in class that opened my eyes; it was merely the realization that these questions are okay to think about. And so almost immediately upon leaving home I was like “Oh, yeah, there’s no such thing as a god.” And yeah, then later on I found out about skepticism as a philosophy and skeptics as a community.


JB: Was there anything sort of near and dear that you had to get rid of when you started becoming a skeptic and thinking skeptically? I know skeptics who used to be really into martial arts, for example, and with that came a lot of woo or alt med; was there anything like that for you?


RW: Somebody was just asking me about this the other day in another interview, about remembering to use your skepticism even when it’s something you personally want to believe in. I pointed out that from the beginning that’s all I’ve been interested in, is questioning things I want to believe in––religion being one. I desperately wanted to believe that my dear grandmother was waiting for me to heaven. What more could I possibly want than a loving god? But it was also kind of exciting to realize that that was all BS.


JB: You mentioned yesterday that the grieving process, when you believe that there’s this afterlife, can never really be completed. I thought that was a really interesting point.


RW: And that came up in another context of something I wanted to be true; when I was in college I was working as a magician, and––this is a very sad story, so I apologize––a boy I knew, who I used to babysit, died, tragically, too young (I think he was in high school), hit by a drunk driver. I remember around that time I stumbled upon a TV show with a psychic who could talk to the dead, John Edward. I had never heard of him before and I watched it and found it really compelling.


I remember that I went to my boyfriend at the time, who was also a magician, and I said to him, “You know, I don’t think I’m an atheist anymore. I saw this guy and he was talking to people’s dead loved ones, and it was really compelling and I think that maybe there’s something out there.” And my boyfriend was just like “What is wrong with you? He’s doing the same tricks you do on a day-to-day basis. You use cold reading tricks in your act.” It was just because I had really just wanted it to be true that it seemed so possible, even though I knew in my heart that it was BS. So, yeah, I think it’s important as skeptics to remember that we’re all human, we’re not better than everybody else just because we identify as skeptics. We can still be fooled. And I think it’s important to remember that when you’re talking to other people about some stupid belief that you want to disabuse them of <laughs> and still remember that you probably still have a lot of stupid beliefs that you just haven’t taken the time to examine yet.


JB: You don’t know what you don’t know, sometimes.


RW: Exactly.


JB: How do you talk to people, whether it’s a group or on an individual basis, to find common ground, or at least let them know that you’re not trying to be condescending; are there different topics that make you react different ways? I know, for me, if I talk to someone about vaccines and their kids it’s a lot more emotional than, say, homeopathy.


RW: That’s one of the reasons why when I was expanding Skepchick years ago I brought on new writers and I specifically got a couple of mothers on board, because mothers were much more likely to be able to speak to other parents when it come to things like vaccines. Let’s face it: I can have all the science I want on my side, but as of right now I never knew what it was like to have a child who was perfectly healthy one day and they get a shot and the next day something’s gone terribly wrong and you don’t know why, and you don’t know what to do, and you’re getting all of this different information that you can’t understand. But these parents could. Sometimes it is matter of stepping back and just realizing that you’re not the person to deliver this message, and finding other people to deliver that message for you.


Other times, for me, it really is just about acknowledging why the other person is feeling the way they’re feeling. For instance, with me, when it comes to any Big Pharma argument, one of my favorite things to do is tell people flat-out, “I hate Big Pharma. I do. I spent a year of my life canvassing for a progressive organization to stop Big Pharma.


JB: Really?


RW: Yeah. Actually it wasn’t a year. It was a couple of months. It felt like a year. <laughs>


JB: Canvassing tends to do that.


RW: Yeah, it was awful. I quit because I burst into tears outside of someone’s house and I just couldn’t do it.


JB: I’ve heard like four canvassing stories that ended like that.


RW: Yeah. It was terrible. But what we were doing at the time was trying to improve Medicare to include prescription medication to help all the elderly people who at the time were crossing the border into Canada to buy cheap prescription drugs. We were lobbying against Big Pharma. I think the pharmaceutical industry is horrible and out of control. For me, that makes often an easier inroad to somebody to tell someone about alternative medicine; for instance, how it’s actually often Big Pharma selling most of the “alternative medicine” and the purveyors of alt med have no better intentions than the people selling them aspirine––and, by the way, just as natural aspirin––and whatever else. So I think finding common ground is really important.


Briefly––and I should have mentioned this when talking about vaccines and parents––but, I am very excited, and I will give you this breaking news story <laughs>: just today, I have set up our newest Skepchick sister site, which is called Grounded Parents, at groundedparents.com, and it’s going to be like a Mommy blog but all skeptics.


JB: That’s fantastic.


RW: I’m really excited because we have so many mothers in the network now that all of them got together and pounded on my metaphorical front door and demanded that they get their own parenting blog, so we’re really excited about it.


JB: That is amazing. I know you’ve spoken to groups of kids in the past and it’s obvious to me that you like kids, from the way you talk on the Skeptics’ Guide sometimes about animals you loved as a kid or memories from childhood. How do you adapt your message for kids?


RW: I love kids––which might surprise some people, because I have in the past made jokes on the Skeptics’ Guide about fetuses being parasites and things. <laughs> But at the end of the day I think kids are amazing. I am the world’s greatest babysitter. I had to stop babysitting only because it took too much energy out of me, but parents would come home and me and their kids would be putting on puppet theatre plays using hand-sewn puppets; they’d be juggling.


I was invited a year or two ago to give a talk at Camp Inquiry, CFI’s kids camp, and no matter how much I may disagree with the management of CFI about certain things, Camp Inquiry is an amazing thing that is run by some really passionate, wonderful people, so I highly recommend it to anybody who has kids. So I went and gave a talk there and I loved it. I gave a talk on “Things Your Parents Are Wrong About.”


What I try to keep in mind when I’m talking to kids is I don’t dumb it down. I speak to them pretty much the same way I’d speak to an adult but with maybe less profanity. And more time spent explaining concepts. If I use a word that I think is probably a little above them I just say it, stop, define it, and move on, and then they get it––that’s how they learn. I think kids are naturally really awesome skeptics. They’re interested in being skeptical, they’re developing those tools, and they find it really fun.


One talk I give, which is my favorite talk, is about Santa Claus and why you should lie to your children. A lot of skeptics worry about, you know, “I don’t want to lie to my kids; I want them to be really knowledgeable and trust me,” and my feeling is if I ever have kids I’m going to lie to them nonstop because they should know that adults aren’t always right. And they have to figure out what’s wrong from what’s right. With Santa, for instance, what you see happening when kids figure out there’s no Santa, that’s kids honing their skeptical tools. When you imagine all of the input they get, being able to figure it out is actually really impressive, because we’re talking about a vast, worldwide conspiracy.


JB: That’s how I felt it was! Everybody’s in on it, the mall’s in on it, the tv shows are in on it, the Disney channel’s in on it…


RW: Yeah! <laughs> I mean, you don’t want this feeling to carry too far or you get a tiny 9/11 truther.


JB: With a little tinfoil hat.


RW: Right. But in general though, I think its a really good message for kids to learn. Adults will mess with you. Just because they’re adults, it doesn’t make them right. So what kids do is get all this input. They get presents with the name “Santa” on them, the gingerbread cookies are gone in the morning, [they see] Santa at the mall, all of these things, and they compare that with, “Well, can someone really fly around the world in one night? What about my Jewish friends? Why doesn’t he visit them? What about my poor friends? Why doesn’t he visit them?” And they put all this stuff together, and also they check in with their peers and look for some more anecdotal evidence, and eventually, hopefully, they figure it out.


JB: One of my favorite movies as a kid was The Santa Clause. And a heavy theme in that movie is that the adults are skeptical and the kid impresses upon them that it’s important to “just believe.” I wish now as an adult that they could replace that message with, okay, there are things to wonder about and get excited about in the world––many things––just not these things. Do you feel like there’s a balance between fostering kids’ imaginations and, like, crushing their dreams?


RW: <laughs> Well I think there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it. On that note, I don’t think you should lie to kids about, like, the Holocaust or something. Keep the lies lighthearted.


JB: And don’t tell kids, like my reborn Christian uncle did, that you should train kids to be right-handed because that was correct, and if they were left-handed they would have developmental disabilities.


RW: Yeah, don’t teach your kids that. Nothing that compromises their morals or psychological health. But yeah, for instance, with the Santa Claus thing, it was related to me, because my brothers are older than me, that when my oldest brother went to my dad and said, “Daddy, I don’t think Santa Claus really exists,” and he was really upset about it at the time, my dad sat him down and gave him a little talk. He said, no, there’s no fat man in a red suit––sorry about that <laughs>––but the spirit of Santa Claus, the idea of Santa Claus, lives within each of us, and now that you know, you can go make your little brother and sisters’ Christmases special, and you can, for instance, donate your toys to poor kids who aren’t getting visited by Santa, and that’s what Santa Claus is.


JB: That’s really well handled.


RW: Right? So, you know, not everybody is going to be as amazing as my dad is. <laughs> That said, there are definitely ways to encourage skepticism of adults while still being responsible and instilling good messages in your children.


JB: When you experience some of the horribleness in the skeptic community sometimes––and I talk with my friends about this all the time, how sometimes it seems like every other day something happens that makes you want to give up or and leave the movement––what gets you through? Because you’re one of those people that reminds me that this is a good thing and what we do matters, and you’re very inspiring to me and a lot of people. So, I guess, what inspires you?


RW: Alcohol, mostly. <laughs> no, I would be a horrible alcoholic, if that’s all I had to fall back on. The number one thing that keeps me going is both my close friends as well as the Skepchick contributors; my friends pretty much serve the same purpose. All of them are just so inspiring and so motivated to make the world a better place that I can’t help but keep going, because I know that if I ever gave up all these people that are in a way relying on me just to keep things running would be so disappointed. And I couldn’t dare disappoint such wonderful people.


So now it’s been a couple years since our first major disappointment in some member or organization in the skeptical community, and I remember the Skepchick back channel where we all chat was becoming really negative and individually some of the contributors were saying to me, “I don’t know if I can deal with this anymore.” So, as a group, we decided, look, we need to stop the negativity, we need to stop focusing in on this, and we need to figure out how we can make the world a better place. What steps can we take do something awesome? And that’s how we started doing vaccine clinics. Vaccines are a big thing we like, there was a pertussis outbreak happening, and we could work with the CDC and get some vaccines, and we did it, thanks in large part to people like Maria Walters and Elyse Anders. So ever since then, every time this happens where something goes wrong in skepticism and we start to get caught up in it, one of us will step in and just blow the whistle, refocus everybody: “Here’s a bunch of sloth pictures, cleanse the system, let’s move forward.” They help keep me and each other on track, and it’s such an amazing group of people.


JB: It’s an amazing community that you’ve built.


RW: Yeah, and I wish I could take credit for it. So much is due to them, especially with the sister sites. What happens with the sister sites is that I or someone else gets an idea, like “We should have a teen version,” and I set it all up, do the back end stuff, and then I just hand it to someone and I’m like, “Go! Call me if you have any problems.” And they just run  with it.


The admins of the sister sites are really to be commended because they are doing a wonderful job of building up their own great mini-community as part of this larger community. Mad Art Lab is a good example. Amy has been admining that for a couple years now, and they’re starting to outnumber us at conferences. They show up at SkepchickCon and there’s like 50 of them there; they run up to the Skepchick table and I’m like, “Who are you?” and they’re like, “I just joined and then I flew across the country to be here!” They’re really motivated and they’re awesome.


So I see that happening with each of the sites. They’re building a really awesome community, and I think that’s how we grow––getting more people involved and giving people platform to sort of  jump off and from there they can go anywhere they want. They can start speaking at conferences––people like Heina have started doing that––they’ve gone off and started their own nonprofits, like Elyse has done with Women Thinking, or people like Jen, who used to do the Skepchick Quickies and now is speaking on stage and running events designed to help women become programmers. She’s incredible. So, it’s an awesome group of people. I can’t boast about them enough.


JB: So what can we expect from your videos? Are there certain topics that you’re really interested in covering lately?


RW: Well, I’ve been covering a wide variety. I have numerous interests, and what happens is I’ll upload a video about science and I’ll get a comment that says, “Now this is what I subscribed for,” and I’ll get another comment saying, “Where’s the feminism?” And then I”ll upload a feminist video and it’s like “Where’s the science?” Or “This is why I subscribed!” I’m trying to cover the whole swath of science skepticism, feminism, and then occasionally just goofing off. I did a whole video about my favorite video game of the moment, Civilization V.


JB: <high fives for Civilization>


RW: That was like a palate cleanser, because I had just done a video about rape.

It really gets rid of a lot of anger. So that’s what I’m going to continue doing; every time I do a video that gets a little too serious I’ll come back around and do something absurdist. But I’m trying to get back into it; I feel like I’m starting over, in a way. It’s been so long since I did regular videos, and also it’s very different now––instead of just me and a webcam, now there’s a real camera and a person behind it and lights and all kinds of stuff, which makes me feel more pressure. <laughs> So I’m hoping that I loosen up as the videos go. I think I will.


JB: I’m sure of it. Well, thank you––I really appreciate you getting together with me.


RW: Thank you! Twice! If this one doesn’t come out I’m really going to feel so bad.


JB: We’re just going to have to keep switching put the beer until we get it right.

RW: Well, so far so good. Thank you, Julia.

“I refuse to grow older and become boring”: an Interview with Explorer Barbara Hillary

Explorer Barbara Hillary became the first African American woman to reach the North Pole––at the age of 75. At 79 she reached the South Pole. Now 82, Hillary will speak at the American Atheists’ 2014 convention; she took the time to speak to SW about religion in the black community, adventure, and how she has remained young at heart.


SW: How did you became an atheist?


BH: It was a progression. Most blacks are programmed in the womb <laughs> with the black mother taking nutrients for the baby in the form of the Bible. My parents came from the South––my father died when I was 2––and I was forced to go to Sunday school at our African Methodist Episcopalian church. I was a good young black kid, put on my patent leather shoes on Sunday and went to Sunday School. I once asked my mother, “Why are there no black angels?” She just shook her head.


I joined the Episcopal Church and as I grew older I started thinking more and questioning more. I had to give myself a series of mental enemas. Mental conditioning is one of the most powerful tools that exists in the world. Conditioning of children, especially. By the time they reach a certain point in life their minds are like granite on certain issues.  


I guess you’d call me an atheist. I’ve reached a very satisfying point in my mental development. I’ve reached a point of tremendous and refreshing personal freedom. I’m not concerned about labels for myself right now. I’m concerned about being able to continue to question and within that framework, continue to grow, because I consider growth and reaching for maturity a never-ending process.


The black experience has made Christianity a greater shackle than the slaves knew in the slaveship. Christianity is the perpetual shackle that rapes the black mind. But from slavery forward the systematic, psychological programming of the black mind was very clever, very smart, and it has been very destructive––and destructive is an understatement. Numerically there were more blacks in most southern states than whites, so one of the first things that had to be done was to capture and control the mind. To my knowledge not one black person came here a Christian. They had to, now, give blacks a new concept: that your God is white, your master’s white, and you really don’t count, and if you don’t like it here, just wait for heaven. It was forced Christianity, which meant they beat the shit out of you until you went to church. The Christian church was the first segregated institution in America. The white slave owner sat upstairs in the church and the slaves sat downstairs.


The first authority figure in a child’s life is the mother. She reinforces the submission, drags the child to the Christian slave church, and from that point on it is firmly entrenched.


I ask my friends why they believe in God, and they say, “I believe because I believe.” I ask,  “Who taught you?” They say, “My mother.” I ask, “Well who taught her?” They cannot accept that originally it was the slavemaster. They just wipe that part out. So now you have a whole race of people bogged down in religion. Now, you have to have a lieutenant. The white slavemaster couldn't control all those slaves effectively, so we got the black clergyman–the lieutenant of racism.


Generation after generation it continued, and by now, for women in my age bracket it is inconceivable that there’s no white Jesus Christ. On Sunday mornings you have millions of dollars going into the pockets of this exclusive group of black clergy who live like kings. And you are so programmed that you cannot think beyond, “Massa is gonna provide.” Everything must come from this white benevolent person–even Santa Claus!


SW: What made you want to take on this expedition to the North Pole? Why now?


BH: When I retired I was looking around for something different to do, something unusual. Usually what comes up is a cruise. I couldn’t deal with that. There’s nothing more boring than the average married people. The only thing worse than that is grandparents. The thought of being stuck on a ship with these people–and I couldn’t swim–wasn’t bearable. Instead, I thought of photographing polar bears and I went up to Manitoba and I met a different type of freethinking person––people who have interests in life besides the last bad relationship. I just fell in love with it, the adventure, the touch of danger; I liked seeing an animal that could break through a 3-foot solid block of ice with one swipe. I learned dog mushing and snowmobiling and as a natural progression I learned there was no black woman who had reached the North Pole and I decided to do it. It wasn’t that easy. The hell begins when you first make up your mind you’re really going to do it. It hits you, a thousand things come out of the woodwork, and you say to yourself, do I really want to do this?


SW: What advice would you give to senior citizens who want to get the most out of their lives?


BH: I refuse to grow older and become boring to myself and others. Preparation for healthy aging starts when you’re young: if you squander your life with poor choices, living for other people; if you do not realize the most important word in the human vocabulary, No… learn to say no. I don’t care if it’s to a relative, a loved one, a child, if you can’t say it and feel comfortable you’re going to take problems into your older years and suffer from bad-ass choices.


When I do public speaking I tell my audiences, and I’ve spoken to 2500 people at one time, this is what I do. Perhaps you’d like to try it. I don’t tell anyone what I do. This is what worked for me. Because one of the main reasons marriages don’t work is that people go into marriages thinking they’re going to change somebody. There’s not a mother fucker in this world you can change unless they want to change.


SW: Where would you like to see the secular movement focus, in terms of outreach and activism?


BH: If you start at schools, universities, those girls and boys who become parents are now freethinking, humanists, atheists, questioning, encouraging to children to start turning their mental wheels, that may crush the cycle of granite-like thought process. I readily seek a university where leaders and real thinkers come together. Not the professors who go from meeting to meeting and are so insulated. We need schools and secondary schools and colleges where we have our own thinkers. I’ve seen people traumatized by Christianity. Not everyone has the strength to say “This is stupid and not logical,” because they’re comfortable with acceptance. To most black women my age I’m a demon, or crazy. We have to get people involved at a younger age, and they can help and remove the barriers toward becoming better world.