An Open Letter to CFI
Regarding Ron Lindsay and Women in Secularism
As a member of a number of secular organizations, including American Atheists, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, The Foundation Beyond Belief, and Secular Woman, as well as local humanist and atheist groups, I have been following Women in Secularism, and its aftermath, with considerable interest. Not only because my local groups, just as the national ones, have a problem with bigots and sexists, but because I am genuinely interested in the future of the secular movement, and how it can best do good in the world. The Women in Secularism conference, it seemed to me, was a tremendous opportunity to share ideas about how secularism, free thinking, and skepticism could help end sexism in the world, and strengthen other social justice movements. And indeed, on the whole it did so admirably. While I could not attend in person, I was able to read transcripts, summaries, and other accounts of talks and discussions, about which we are still talking.
But, unfortunately, and as you certainly are aware, Ron Lindsay, the CEO of the Center for Inquiry, cast a dark shadow over the conference. Having read the transcript of the talk on his website, it is clear that he was not enthusiastic about the conference- refusing to welcome the many guests who had paid hundreds of dollars for tickets and travels- and forcing most guests to listen to a rather banal criticism of the concept of privilege. Speaking as a straight white cis-gendered man, I found his criticisms rather tasteless and ill timed. I certainly don’t think there is never room for discussion about the concept of privilege, and what it feels like to be a person in the majority to hear such criticisms. But I do not think a welcome talk is the right place, especially considering the optics of having a white man lecturing at a crowd of mostly women about the harms of using the concept of “privilege,” and I must admit to being reminded of Rand Paul’s disastrous talk at the NAACP conference only a few short months ago.
But I would not be compelled to write to the board over such a minor transgression. As much as it reveals Lindsay’s ignorance about sociology, and his own uncharitable readings of others’ works, it hardly matters to me if one speaker- even the CEO of the hosting organization- says something a bit inane. However, Lindsay’s reactions to criticisms of his talk have crossed a line. In his follow up blog post, he compares a number of bloggers in the secular movement to totalitarian dictators, going so far as to suggest that Rebecca Watson is some sort of Kim Jung Un. It is worth noting that Rebecca Watson, like many women in the secular movement, has been targeted persistently by a number of serial harassers who have slandered, used humiliating photoshops, and otherwise worked to chase her out of the secular movement. In his hyperbolic comparisons, Lindsay riled up these same harassers, gave them an outlet at his blog where they remained unmoderated, and led to further harassment and support. Worse, at the same time as he was doing this, he personally welcomed Justin Vacula, a well known harasser and writer for the hate site “A Voice for Men” to the conference, a dignity he would not even perform for the rest of the attendees in his welcome speech. All this because, evidently, he disagrees over how privilege ought to be used with Rebecca Watson and PZ Myers(whom he odiously conflates into some hybrid person in the same offensive blog post.)
This is of course disgusting coming from a major leader in the secular movement, and the CEO of your organization. But what is worse, it comes from the same individual who just recently authored and signed an “open letter to the secular community,” claiming that we members of the secular community ought to discuss privately our concerns with those whom we disagree with in good faith. Not only was this letter published without more than cursory input from feminist secular organizations, and those writers who have so often been bullied and harassed- to the point of quitting the movement- for the reason of being a woman and outspoken, but it now appears that it is meant to apply only to we who speak out against sexism. Because it is clear that Ron Lindsay himself did not take the time to talk with PZ Myers and Rebecca Watson in person, as opposed to writing public posts inviting more harassment, and turning a welcome address into a personal argument with people whom he did not even need to phone, as they were in the very same room as himself. This behaviour is not only disgusting and hypocritical, but it has killed my faith in most of the organizations in the secular movement. Evidently as a movement we are happier keeping serial harassers in the movement than we are with making women feel even remotely valued, and Ron Lindsay and by extension the CFI are at the forefront of this decision. What is more, I am personally affronted by his behaviour here as a white male, for I have never felt silenced by even the most ardent feminists in our community, but I have avoided starting my own blog, publicizing my own name, or even attending many conferences because I am too afraid of the serial harassers attacking me for my pro-woman pro-minority positions. Encouraging those harassers has done nothing to encourage me to get more involved in this movement.
I want to again repeat that I have no problem with having discussions about sexism and racism, and listening to opinions that differ from my own. Nor do I think that having those different opinions makes one unfit for holding the leadership positions in a secular organization. But if one is unable to avoid expressing those opinions without demonizing people who have done no more than differ on the matter of sociology and the most effective methods of dealing with the problems of bigotry and prejudice, and can do so in spite of his own explicit command to the rest of the secular movement not to use such disgusting tactics, then that person is not fit to lead. It is thus that I urge you to remove Ron Lindsay from his position of CEO. I understand that he has given a half-hearted apology as it is, but having seen what Lindsay is like at his worst, I don’t think we ought to give him the benefit of the doubt, if we want to be serious about expanding our movement and making it important to everyone.
I am of course only a small donor, and a small voice, but I am nonetheless extremely disgusted with CFI’s leadership, its hypocrisy and its willingness to cozy up to bigotry. I hope that the organization will have the courage to face the darkest parts of this movement, and the willingness and strength to repair the damage that has been done. This would have to begin with the replacement of Ron Lindsay, but could not end there.