Atheist sexual harassment: The god is in the details

CHRIS SEWARD [email protected] Atheist billboard on Capital Blvd. in Raleigh, N.C. on March 29, 2011. I’ve attended countless atheist and … Continued


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Atheist billboard on Capital Blvd. in Raleigh, N.C. on March 29, 2011.

I’ve attended countless atheist and humanist conferences and never heard anyone justify sexual harassment. But I’ve heard heated discussions about what sexual harassment is. Alas, the god is in the details.

In a previous century, when I first became active in the secular movement, participants were mostly old white men who sat around talking about the need for diversity. At an American Humanist Association board meeting in 1998, a fellow board member suggested that a “young” person of 53 would be a good candidate for the board. I said I hoped for the day when some current board members would be too young for AARP eligibility.

That day has arrived. Almost all AHA board members are younger than I, a nice change from when I was the youngest, and many are years away from AARP. Five of the 12 board members and two of the four officers are women. Similar demographic changes have taken place within other national nontheistic organizations, reflected in part by the appearance of relatively new organizations like the children’s Camp Quest, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, and the Secular Student Alliance. And with diversity in people comes diversity in attitudes and behavior.

I think most atheists view themselves as feminists. There was a mild controversy when the Secular Coalition for America recently hired Edwina Rogers as our new executive director. The controversy was not because she is a woman (we and other nontheistic organizations have had a number of women in leadership positions), but because she is a Republican, a rarity in our movement. But that’s a diversity story for another time. Suffice it to say that most atheists were willing to grant Rogers the time and opportunity to show that she is an effective advocate for our mission, because we believe in evidence.

Nontheistic organizations have long had sexual harassment policies that covered their employees and workplaces, but not conference attendees. This oversight is being corrected because of complaints from a number of attendees at such events, still often dominated by men. I don’t think women are saying that sexual harassment is more prevalent among atheists than in the general population, but our conventions need to be safe and welcoming places for women.

Here are a couple of reasons I think we might have had problems or misunderstandings. Many unattached men and women complain about how difficult it is to find non-religious partners in our religion-saturated culture. So an atheist gathering could be a wonderful meeting place. Sexual attention is not inherently inappropriate in such settings, but “no” still means “no.” Also, many open and active atheists have developed thick skins because of insults they have endured from theocrats. So they might falsely assume they are communicating with someone whose skin is equally thick. Inexcusable behavior is inexcusable, which is why some sensitivity information for meeting participants might be in order.


A billboard at 417 North James in Columbus, one of several put up by Freedom From Religion Foundation around Columbus, Ohio. The organization that placed the billboard supporting atheism says it has been taken down for the second time after eliciting a complaint, according to The Associated Press, Thursday, July 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Columbus Dispatch, Kyle Robertson, File)

Context is almost everything. It’s not unusual to hear a man say at an atheist conference something like, “A woman should not teach or usurp authority over the man, but be silent.” Both men and women laugh because they know it comes from 1 Timothy 2, and is actually believed by some Christians. Similarly, my wife laughs when I recite the only prayer she has ever heard from me: “Thank God I was not born a woman.” She knows it to be the daily morning prayer of Orthodox Jews, and she is thankful I’m not an Orthodox Jew like some of my relatives who recite this prayer in earnest.

Since sexual harassment is not always clear to both parties, what’s an atheist (or anyone else) to do? Here’s a general guideline to prevent escalation. If you are asked to stop, stop. Nontheistic groups are beginning to hand out anti-harassment policies at gatherings or, more affirmatively, a conference code of conduct. This is a new code of conduct for American Atheist conferences.

Interestingly, it mentions being dedicated to providing a harassment-free conference experience for everyone, regardless of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion (italics mine). Depending on attendees, some might view several talks as a form of religious harassment.

Both theists and nontheists know there are right ways and wrong ways to treat others. Some people just need reminders.

Herb Silverman is the founder and president of the Secular Coalition for America


Herb Silverman Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.
  • kuato

    Weird article. I missed the point entirely.

    I wonder why atheists want to gather? Not being part of a religious group is one of the best benefits of atheism.

  • lgilman1

    Although the author boasts of believing in evidence, it’s hard to extract any content from an editorial that describes no actual incidents, cites no statistics or other data, and makes no recommendations beyond the platitudinous “If asked to stop, stop,” which does not appear to have anything particularly to do with atheism or atheist conferences. Is this whole vague, rambling piece just a delivery system for the delivering the painfully non-sequitur paragraph jeering at 1 Timothy 2 and the Orthodox men’s morning prayer? I hope and believe that most atheists are not really so suffocatingly smug as described: it would be as if the attendees at the Episcopal General Convention went about quoting to each other Khrushchev’s silly line about Gagarin not spotting God in orbit, high-fiving each other, and guffawing — which, so far as I know, they don’t.

  • ccnl1

    And all written so that one might donate to the pockets of the founders and/or CEOs of atheist, secular and religious non-profits i.e. a form of harrassment.

  • LizaBean

    Indeed. The only thing more baffling than the article is the headline.

  • FLTransplant

    Prehaps for the same reasons the bicycle and kayak clubs I belong to have monthly meetings?

  • janzvolens

    Good to get news about the Atheist movement! Bless you!

  • thebump

    There is no future in atheism.

  • bob52

    How come we don’t have Easter Bunny deniers gatherings?

  • WmarkW

    “There was a mild controversy when the Secular Coalition for America recently hired Edwina Rogers as our new executive director. The controversy was not because she is a woman (we and other nontheistic organizations have had a number of women in leadership positions), but because she is a Republican, a rarity in our movement.”

    I hadn’t been keeping up, and didn’t realize SCA had a Republican director. She was an economic advisor to GWB and worked for Trent Lott. Her bio reads more like someone you’d expect to see on the 700 Club.

  • BelmontBayNeighbor

    As a natural-born atheist myself, I looked forward to reading this article. It rambled, was garbled, and disappointed. It did the atheist cause a disservice, unfortunately.

  • corco02az


    If your attendees have time to sexually harass each other, maybe you need to beef up the agenda. The meetings I’ve been to are non-stop presentations from 8 AM to 6 PM, followed by business dinners lasting until 11 or even later. .You really don’t have time to hit on anybody, appropriately or inappropriately!


    “How come we don’t have Easter Bunny deniers gatherings?”

    Because you don’t face discrimination and ridicule for being an Easter bunny denier.

  • tombukowski

    What? Explain. No, really. With facts, not magical thinking.

  • tombukowski

    As an atheist who feels no need to make an issue of it, I don’t understand the need for atheist organizations. Just get on with life.

  • kuato

    Cyclists and kayakers have something in common, and they usually have meetings to plan events and support community development. There are not meetings, for example, for people who do NOT like bicycles or kayaks.

    A meeting of atheists is like an anti-book club getting together to discuss the book they didn’t read.

  • ccnl1

    And all written so that one might donate to the pockets of the founders and/or CEOs of atheist, secular and religious non-profits i.e. a form of harrassment and in this case harrassment from H. Silverman.

  • Carstonio

    I’ve observed that a vocal minority of male anti-theists engages in female-bashing. These guys insist that religious belief is an emotional weakness and use the old stereotype of women as more emotional to “explain” why more women than men report having a religious affiliation. While I’m not an atheist since I don’t hold any position on whether gods exist, I do agree with Silverman that sexism and sexual harrassment should not be tolerated in his community.

  • suitelady_508

    Atheists are less likely to destroy each other in religious based wars. I think our future is brighter.

  • spamsux1

    Herb Silverman says this:
    “Many unattached men and women complain about how difficult it is to find non-religious partners in our religion-saturated culture.”

    I think that statement is evidence of over-sensitivity.
    The vast majority of people I know aren’t at all overt about their religiosity or lack thereof. Most people just seem to have a live and let live attitude about it.

  • betsys2003

    I’ve never felt the need to attend an atheist meeting, but your example about the bicycle club works just as well if you say it’s a meeting of an “anti-car” club. People might still come, to meet each other, hear presentations about new technologies in bikes, scooters, or segues, and just meet people like them.

    Also, a lot of the reasons people go to church is to be social. Atheists still want to be social too. Maybe they want to discuss ways to teach their children morals without a Bible. Maybe they just want to meet friends who won’t try to convert them to Christianity.

  • tomsing

    If an atheist simply prefers to date another atheist, that can be tough to do in some parts of the country. That’s a perfectly valid preference, and it’s not evidence of over-sensitivity.

    Even if you claim that an atheist shouldn’t care about someone’s religion, and there are plenty of “live and let live” Christian fish in the sea, many of them expect to spend eternity in heaven and want a partner who will be there with them, or at least wants someone who won’t be tormented in hell. They’re less “live and let live” when considering long term romantic relationships, and that’s a big stumbling block.

  • LennyP

    With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
    – Steven Weinberg, US Physicist

  • Doctor4

    I don’t buy that. If a person is going to do something evil they would find any justification to do it. Without religion, it would be nationality etc. To blame religion for bad things is as bad as religious people blaming secularists for bad things and immoral life style. It’s naive and displays lazy rational thinking.

  • Carstonio

    Doctor has a point – the real problems involve not religion but authoritarianism and tribalism. I do find it disturbing when religious extremists commit acts of cruelty that they insist were ordered by their gods yet still define those gods as good or just. But if religion didn’t exist, they would be treating human authority figures the same way. While Maoism strongly resembles religious extremism, it’s more accurate to say that both are authoritarian.

  • jade_alpha

    A bigger concern for me and many other atheists is that a religious partner would want to raise any children in that religion. I personally don’t intend to let my children be brainwashed into believing things without evidence for them so that makes dating theists a nonstarter for me.

  • theFSM

    Don’t you mean “non-prophets”… get it??

  • theFSM

    I smell a poe!

  • lmmbham

    Yes, in principle, but when this is presented as “inexcusable behavior is inexcusable,” that seems rather dogmatic for people whose inclination is to decry other people’s dogma. Is not “inexcusable behavior” contextual and situation specific? And when one says that “some sensitivity information for meeting participants might be in order,” well Sweet Mother of Pearl, can re-education camps be far far behind? Do nontheists not see themselves falling into a stereotype that might be played out on an SNL skit?

  • theFSM

    You should instead, donate to a church, right?

  • Carstonio

    There’s nothing dogmatic about saying that it’s inexcusable to hurt other people. And there’s nothing Orwelling about sensitivity training, which is very common in the corporate world. The reason for the latter is that tolerance for individual and group differences is necessary for any meaningful interaction between different groups of people. The idea is to overcome the understandable assumption one’s own social and cultural experiences are normative. No reasonable person wants to return to the Mad Men era when status in the workplace depended in large part on gender and skin color, with women limited to secretarial roles and blacks limited to custodial ones.

  • neilist

    This article further eroded what little faith I had in the intelligence and heart of the new atheist movement. Silverman can say he’s against sexual harassment, but his piece is full of subtle and all-too-common assumptions that blame the victim. It’s pretty disgusting to insinuate that people who experience sexual harassment might be lacking “thick skin,” misunderstand the context, not get the joke, etc. Even if there is a logical or empirical basis for such misunderstandings happening from time to time, it’s so beside the main point, which is clearly run-of-the-mill misogyny, that you have to wonder how serious Silverman is about the problem. If only the problem of sexual entitlement were so easily resolved – by “reminders” to people who should know better.

  • Shay Porter

    Suitelady_508… so they destroy each other in non-religious based wars? There’s a difference? Most of recent history’s wars have been politically motivated… One may assert that they were fighting in the name of God, but people say a lot of things they don’t mean… It’s called lying and it’s pretty prevalent on both sides of the religious issue.

  • tompaine

    If you’re offended by this milquetoast, sycophantic article then you are way off the deep end. How far must we bow or genuflect when a female walks in the room? How quickly should we avert our eyes? How much should we rinse and censor our language just to assure we don’t offend this vocal minority of the easily offended? I no longer feel welcome at my atheist group where’s my vindication? Of course my brain is “damaged” by testosterone.

  • ThomasBaum

    Might just be something to that “fallen nature of man” thing, man, as in human.

  • larryclyons

    btw that incident did not happen at an atheist convention btw. If you follow the discussion on the FreeThought blogs, the atheist movement is more offended by the actions of that jerk than those outside the movement.

  • edbyronadams

    Hitting on as many potential baby makers as possible is a Darwinian selected trait, maximizing the man’s reproductive potential. What do atheists provide as a philosophy, devoid of faith, that should make a man not act naturally?

  • HappyAtheist2

    So a man is a man, but women are “baby makers”. Feminists 1, Misogynists 0 on an own-goal.

  • edbyronadams

    Speaking from a purely Darwinian perspective. Atheists should love that.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    “Here are a couple of reasons I think we might have had problems or MISUNDERSTANDINGS…. many open and active atheists have developed thick skins because of insults they have endured from theocrats.” (Silverman)

    So it’s the theist’s fault?


    And I love his use of the word “misunderstanding” (emphasis mine above). I’m sure that is the excuse most often cited at those conferences just after, “The theists made me do it.”

  • DanaB1

    Is-ought problem much? Yes, technically hitting on, and having sex with, as many “baby-makers” as possible would maximize an individual male’s chance to procreate, making his genes more likely to live on than someone else who doesn’t procreate as much under Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, doesn’t make hitting on those women in an obnoxious, threatening or harassing way appropriate or acceptable behavior. What atheists “provide as a philosophy” that should “make a man not act naturally” is that women are human beings too, who don’t exist for the sole purpose of having sex with you, or even for the sole purpose of having babies with anyone, and as such deserve to treated with consideration and respect. That doesn’t necessarily mean not expressing sexual interest if it exists, it means doing it in a considerate, respectful way, and TAKING NO FOR AN ANSWER with good grace. Why is this such a mysterious concept?

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