Atheism+: The Name for What's Happening to Richard Carrier
"Atheism+: The Name for What's Happening" –Richard Carrier, from a blog post written on 14 January 2013
The aggressive moralizing movement called Atheism+ has begun a feast upon one of its own while the world watches, hardly raising an eyebrow in surprise. What is astounding, however, is the way in which the then-accuser has so precisely become the now-accused that the case against him could be made, literally, in his own words.
Atheism+ has become what is happening to one of the most prominent voices at its vanguard, historian and FreethoughtBlogger Dr. Richard Carrier, who is also the author of several books (most notably On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt and Proving History: Bayes's Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus). Carrier himself named Atheism+ "what's happening" (in the broader atheism movement), as quoted just above, and now the leviathan has come for him.
Carrier has become enmeshed in a scandal - or series of scandals - of precisely the kind that he promoted Atheism+ in order to prevent: sexual malfeasance at atheism and skepticism conferences, especially by those with the power of some measure of notoriety. As will be detailed later, Carrier was deeply involved in (arguably, he led the charge) propagating similar accusations against Michael Shermer, president of the Skeptic Society, in which he argued at astonishing length and with considerable morally driven certainty that, for the purposes at hand (smearing him), better evidence wasn't needed than the voices of unnamed accusers to achieve a "50.1%" preponderance against Shermer's character.
This week, the conference Skepticon has banned Carrier over allegations of serial sexual harassment, to keep the conference "safe." [Here are two more posts detailing the allegations and attempting to establish a pattern, along with a reply to the controversy by Carrier: details, pattern, reply.] Lauren Lane, for Skepticon, specifically wrote,
In light of the recent revelations of sexual harassment, unwelcome attention, and/or unwanted behavior from more than one prominent atheist, Skepticon would like to renew our vow to keep our attendees, speakers, volunteers, vendors, organizers, and anyone else involved in Skepticon safe at our events.
The accusations specifically against Richard Carrier are, sadly, not so surprising to the Skepticon organizers. While he was a featured speaker for many years, we stopped inviting him to speak partly because of his repeated boundary-pushing behavior, including towards someone involved in Skepticon. What has been made clear by the recent discussions is that our attendees' well being and comfort is put at an unacceptable risk by Carrier's presence, and so we are officially prohibiting Richard Carrier from attending any future Skepticons.
We support the accusers.
It is unfortunate there are people in this world who believe they can violate others' boundaries without consequence. Skepticon does not want those people at our events.
For those who don't know, Atheism+ (read: 'atheism-plus') is a submovement within the broader atheism and skepticism movement that rapidly gained popularity within the 'New Atheism' movement that arose from the wreckage of the World Trade Center after 9/11. In Carrier's words, Atheism+ is "Atheism plus a core set of basic humanist values and goals and a skepticism applied to everyone, even ourselves" (emphasis original), but almost any casual observer of the phenomenon would say it means "Atheism plus angry social justice activism based largely on third-wave feminism and intersectionality." Given that, it is completely unsurprising that it would, without hesitation, feed upon one of its own and relish the chance at doing so. (One feels slightly amiss here not to add "...so long as that one is white, straight, and male.")
Atheism+ is a schism that split from the broader New Atheism movement in the ostensible attempt to address legitimate social justice issues, like lingering sexism and racism in the broader community in which Western atheism is embedded. It is both peculiar and toxic in its focus, however. The New Atheism movement sought to combat ideas like the tenets of religious belief, unreliability of faith-based thinking, and widespread superstition, and their gratuitous harms. Atheism+, on the other hand, didn't focus on the legitimate social justice-related issues at hand, especially not outside of its very localized sphere. It turned its self-serving guns on people, and particularly against de facto thought leaders in the New Atheism movement, like Dawkins, Harris, Boghossian, Shermer, Krauss (now redacted), and even Neil deGrasse Tyson. (As a movement, Atheism+ bears remarkable similarity to the Soviet Union, which represent the only military alliance in recent history to invade exclusively other member states.)
Those familiar with my work will know that I have been sufficiently critical of identity-atheism (I once publicly called it "the Iraq War of identities"), the atheism community, and especially movement-driven atheism. Those unfamiliar with it can rest assured that I have said enough there not to need to rehash more here, other than to say I think making an activism movement out of atheism was a horrible mistake (on which I agree with Sam Harris) that, among other things, sets the stage for forming near-religious moral tribes nominally based upon atheism (as though that makes any sense). Atheism+ is a staggeringly good example of this problem that has not gone unnoticed by the wider world, to the detriment of the atheism movement and its ambitions.
Before I get sidetracked onto any number of fascinating tangents about Atheism+, let me return to Carrier to illustrate how the scandals currently destroying his reputation, however legitimate, are a symptom of the Atheism+ disease he, himself, helped to incubate. What he has written, given the accusations made against him now, is absolutely astounding.
Carrier begins the titular 2013 blog post with,
Adam Lee has launched a petition I hope all my godless readers will sign. In fact I hope you will encourage as many godless friends and colleagues as you can to sign, to show how many of us support women in our movement and oppose the abuse and harassment of them that is going on from a very vocal minority of appalling atheists.
Of course, one immediately notices that the abuse and harassment of women by "appalling atheists" at atheism-themed events is the center of his scandal.
As of this posting, his petition is approaching 1700 signatories, and I want to see it go as high as possible, so we know how many atheists in our movement have our back, and how many of us these horrible bad apples of atheism are offending. I want to know how alone I am in this, or how supported I am. I want to see where our movement is going: their way, or ours.
Adding my own comment to that isn't necessary.
He goes on,
I've written about this issue before, of course. I brought up the rising sexism and abuse women are facing within the atheism movement in "The New Atheism+" and why that behavior is in conflict with what should be our core values of reasonableness, integrity, and compassion. … In short, you don't have to call yourself a "member" of the A+ movement to be welcome by it, or to support it. We only hope you will occasionally speak out in defense of its values and goals and against those who slander it and lie about it and attack and abuse anyone who actively promotes it. Because if you don't speak out, they treat that as endorsement and an encouragement to continue. (Bold added)
Because I don't know the full extent of the truth of the accusations made against Carrier, and because they are emphatically not my point, I will not accuse Carrier of hypocrisy. I also don't care about his sexual preferences so long as they are undertaken consensually and are, indeed, not abusive. Lacking proof for my own part that he has engaged in sexual malfeasance, I also have no intention of accusing him of being an "appalling atheist."
My point, in fact, isn't that we should or shouldn't do so; it's that his moral tribe is. As "what's happening," Atheism+ has been a singularly effective cause of rot that led to the internal decay and collapse of the movement with which it was ostensibly allied - the broader atheism movement.
Allyship doesn't matter, nor do shared goals or devotion - nor does owning up or making apologies. Atheism+ is what's happening to Richard Carrier despite the fact that he is literally an architect of the movement that is now destroying him. Of course, should Carrier be demonstrably guilty, responses such as excluding and denouncing him are appropriate, but the crucial point is the quickness and severity with which the bite of the leviathan turns on its master under any provocation. In Tolkien's words, "Let us remember that a traitor may betray himself and do good that he does not intend."
Apparently, there are a lot of closet sexists (and a few closet racists), and generally all around mean people, who of course swear up and down they are no such thing. But their actions expose them. That their beliefs, even about themselves, are not in alignment with reality is pretty much the same kind of delusionality we see from Christians, who purport to believe in loving their neighbor, then go balls out trying to hurt their neighbors (with covertly sexist and racist political policies, and overtly homophobic ones, for example). We now have enough atheists in our movement behaving in exactly the same way to become a visible problem.
Apparently lacking some measure of self-awareness, he then goes on to attack "antifeminists" (in scare quotes because this term almost always needs more unpacking than it gets) in the atheist movement, remarking that,
That's the kind of people they are. Are these the kind of people you want populating and leading the atheism movement? Are these the kind of people you want to hang out with?
Greta Christina already exposed the joke of them calling us divisive last year. No, they are the divisive ones, making women and minorities feel unwelcome, and attacking anyone who makes an effort to welcome them.
It's darkly humorous that Carrier mentions Greta Christina here in this context, but we'll return to that point shortly. First we must turn to another significant mark of Carrier's fame (or infamy) related to his copious efforts in Atheism+, one consistent with the notion that it is a schism that builds itself by attacking people, not ideas or even issues.
Turning the present scandal into something of a fruit that positively drips with the kind of delight that oozes from the likes of Jimmy Swaggart's "I Have Sinned" sermon, Carrier effectively spearheaded a very well-publicized witch trial of Michael Shermer. With a headline we'd easily call Trumpian now, he wrote an inflammatory long-form essay in August of 2013 entitled, "Michael Shermer: Rapist or Sleaze (Unless Box Checked for Other)." (Why is that headline Trumpian? "A lot of people are saying...".)
There, Carrier engages in using a lot of circumstantial evidence and many more words to rationalize promulgating a highly defamatory accusation against Shermer that happens to be similar to the one that Carrier is now having leveled against him. Carrier's very point is that the circumstantial and unnamed testimonial evidence at hand was sufficient to condemn Shermer's character.
What troubles me (and ought to trouble you) are the elements of victimization, exploitation, and insensitivity that are bubbling to the surface in some of the accounts of Shermer's behavior.
Because I also believe the preponderance of evidence is sufficient to conclude Shermer probably has crossed moral lines. I have seen enough evidence to establish, in my own mind, at least a 50.1% chance that Shermer has not just cheated or fooled around, but has left a wake of victimized women in his path, that he has not conducted himself morally, and that he is probably not good or safe company (especially for women). Again, I am not witness to this. I am only inferring it from what has been said online by those who do claim to have witnessed evidence of it.
Whether you or anyone would agree depends on what you think the evidence establishes as actually having happened. But it also depends on what we think would even be right or wrong in the first place, even if we agreed on every fact in the matter. The two must not be confused. Nor should an emotional reaction to the one lead you to promote wrong notions regarding the other.
So set aside for a moment whether the accounts of his behavior are true. As a general rule, these things are true:
(1) Propositioning women you've barely even met, and have built no rapport with and have no idea what they think or feel about such things, is wrong. [Carrier lists two more points that, however germane to the broader story are not relevant to my point here, so they are omitted.]
Carrier repeatedly mentions (both in the long post itself and copious commentary that follows) that the unnamed accuser's purpose in making these allegations was nothing more than to warn other women about potential dangers in conferences attended by the accused. The astounding 7,437-word character indictment hammers the single point that in his estimation such a warning is warranted amid heavy implications made against the quality of Shermer's character. The body of the essay uses cautionary phrasing twice, in fact.
She might not want to expose herself to that outcome, preferring he be allowed to get away with whatever he did, in the interests of her own wellbeing, while still being able to warn other women. Which, incidentally, was her actual stated purpose, as quoted. (emphasis original)
Thus it's crucial to note that all she has said she wants to do is warn women. And that's what she has done. It is not incumbent on her to do more. Particularly as it would not accomplish all that much. Proving what happened to her in court is exceedingly difficult and wouldn't make much difference even if she could manage it - problems countless survivors of rape, abuse, and assault have dealt with. Moreover, what happened might just have risen to the level of inappropriate conduct, and not a crime (not only for reasons I've already stated, but also for reasons I'm about to go into - hence reporting it to the conference venue, as she said she did, was possibly all should could do [sic], and is in line with her stated goal of making it possible for future women to be cautioned about his behavior). (emphasis original)
Which brings us back to Greta Christina, who might have outranked Carrier in the Atheism+ hierarchy before these accusations and certainly does now. Christina recently wrote a sniping piece about the Carrier scandal under the amazingly self-satisfied title of "Why We Publicize Accusations of Sexual Misconduct." She wastes no time in summoning the Atheism+ leviathan against Carrier in perfect reflection of the treatment he gave Shermer at tenfold length.
The dam is bursting.
In the last few days, several accusations of sexual misconduct on the part of Richard Carrier have been made public. Stephanie Zvan has collected and summarized the current ones to date; Skepticon has banned Carrier from their conference, "partly because of his repeated boundary-pushing behavior, including towards someone involved in Skepticon."
I want to take a moment to talk about why we publicize these accusations. Tl;dr: We do it because we're trying to make the community safer. (Bold and italics added)
Well, at least they are consistent, and at least Carrier wasn't wrong back in 2013 when he wrote ominously that "[the machinations of] Atheism+ [are to be] applied to everyone, even ourselves" (emphasis added). After assuring us twice and in gigantic bold letters that the activists in Atheism+ most definitely do not level these kinds of tawdry under-evidenced accusations against outsiders, and newly minted outsiders, for their own personal gain, Christina reiterates her justification.
We boost the signal on these accusations to make our community safer. When victims speak up and name their harassers and assailants, other people know who to stay away from. And when we create a culture where victims' voices are heard, amplified, and believed, perpetrators feel less safe perpetrating.
She follows this immediately by engaging in more of the same kinds of insinuations Carrier made three years ago. These insinuations are, in fact, so important to her piece that it serves as its pull quote.
It's distressing just how many of these stories I know about; just how many leaders in the secular movement I've heard these stories about.
Back to 2013, and back to Richard Carrier,
Nevertheless, note that what you are advising is exactly what the woman accusing Shermer is doing: telling women about a safety precaution they may need to engage in to protect themselves. We would rather the world were such that they didn't have to engage such a precaution. But we don't live in the world we'd rather be in. We can only work to take this world closer to it.
Like Carrier before her, Christina has no intention of abandoning the Atheism+ modus operandi. She closes her piece with a justification of Carrier's tarring and feathering from within the inner circle and a threat of more of the same to come to yet others.
So yes, I will continue to boost these signals, even when they're about my friends and colleagues, people I admire and like. When victims of harassment and assault come forward, and when their voices are heard, amplified, and believed, it makes it easier for others to come forward. It makes it harder to assault and harass. It chips away at the dam of silence.
The dam is bursting. Perpetrators - we are coming for you.
Nothing more needs to be said to make the point. Whether or not Carrier is guilty is worth finding out and acting upon accordingly, but it's beside the point. For Atheism+, circumstances are sufficient to condemn him by the 50.1% preponderance of accusation he "intellectually and morally" defended, and the sentence amounts to the usual in an Inquisitorial affair: character execution by drawing and quartering after flaying him (it's nearly always him) alive. He is a perpetrator. They are coming for him.
Pondering the whole thing from a distance brings two dicta to mind. The first is from the inimitably eloquent and astute Christopher Hitchens, and the point stands especially in light of the descriptions of Atheism+ having some connections to back-room swingers parties at atheism conventions. "Nothing optional - from homosexuality to adultery - is ever made punishable unless those who do the prohibiting (and exact the fierce punishment) have a repressed desire to participate." Atheism+ brands itself as sex-positive but is sex-obsessed, and atheism-themed conferences were their hookup arenas.
The second is fittingly from Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, in the infamous section in which he describes tribal life (quite inaccurately to real tribes, it should be noted). His point was that because he erroneously believed that such tribes lack political structure, they exist in an anarchic condition, a war of all against all. Of such societies, and applicable to activist movements that have become moral tribes, Hobbes concluded they possessed "no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." So ends Carrier's short life in Atheism+. He is a perpetrator now.
So yes, Richard, Atheism+ is, indeed, still the name for what's happening, even as it happens to you.
 I have linked to one example for each of these individuals, but with only a little time spent Googling "FreethoughtBlogs [Name]," one can readily see that a small library of very personal, defamatory, and speculative attacks constitute the bread-and-butter of the Atheism+ enterprise.
 While Atheism+ was already of too little importance to make more than a footnote in my book when I wrote it, some of the main body of the text was written in concern about the phenomenon as well as its ultimate motivations - as anyone who has studied the psychology of religion (or read Freud's Future of an Illusion) should be. Atheism+ is to every appearance a moral tribe of people who have, among many other dubious things, taken 'atheism' as a part of their personal identities.
James A. Lindsay, Ph.D., is the author of three books, including Everybody Is Wrong About God. His essays have appeared in periodicals including Scientific American and Skeptic Magazine. You can connect with James on Twitter at @GodDoesnt.