“I don’t know you”

I’m not sure if it’s just some eastern state thing I’m yet to familiarize myself with, or a genuinely hypocritical phenomena arising out of organized freethought; being dismissed on the basis of unfamiliarity with an interlocutor.

Basically, you’re in discussion with a self-identified free-thinker, rationalist, Humanist or whatever – often from New South Wales in my experience – and they try to shut you down with the likes of a cliquish “sorry, I don’t know you”. The thing is, the shut-down is neither pertinent to the content of what you’re saying, nor suited to the circumstance; it’s not like you’re actually in their personal space – as much as they may pretend to own the place, you haven’t crashed their tea party.

The setting will be a mutual friend’s Facebook timeline, or a freethought organisation’s page, or so on; an ostensibly neutral territory that may be purposed to someone’s whims, just not your interlocutor’s. The setting is somewhere where at base, the validity of what you argue isn’t contingent upon you having standing or being a stakeholder.

You’ll make your argument, you’ll make no effort to flatter or offend and you’ll make it critical, all of which is perfectly acceptable in any community aspiring to call itself a home to freethought. Then someone will snap at you – usually someone vain – sniffily asking “who are you?”, or otherwise proclaiming your status as alien as if it counters the content of your claims, or warrants that they not even be considered.

I mean, they can refuse to consider what you’re saying, and unless they have some degree of executive responsibility, you can’t expect to force them to tell you why. It’s just that they do tell you why, and the reason why is a bit shit. A bit shit, and a bit indicative of a deeper problem.

Not for the first time, I’ve just had a short discussion with someone online who imagines that they’re open-minded and critical, and that it’s the people who’ve blocked them that are failing to live up to the best rationalist ideals. And not for the first time, I’ve subsequently seen my argument dismissed on the basis of my lack of familiarity to an interlocutor.

The irony here, is the insistence on identifying as open and critical, while simultaneously enacting a motivated shut-down of an argument on the basis that it’s alien. In any given instance, this kind of contradiction is funny. The fact that it seems to get repeated so often is not. Certainly within communities aspiring to freethought it should be regarded as pathological.

Maybe I’ve just been incredibly unlucky in running into this kind of thing repeatedly, or maybe I just bring the worst out of “Freethinkers”, but the vain bunker mentality is not a good look for movements that advocate critical thinking and criticize cults.

~ Bruce

Contemplating Humanist affiliation

A number of years ago I left the Humanist Society of South Australia under somewhat of a cloud, ultimately opining in print at the end of an extended disclosure, that I didn’t have anything more I wanted to write about the organization specifically. Nothing much has changed in that latter respect; either in as far as I can tell, nothing’s happened that would make me want to comment further, or I’m left with smaller issues that I’ve been informed of that I’m not in a position to properly investigate before making a case. So don’t ask me to (thanks).

At any rate, after my departure, not wanting to sever with IHEU/CAHS affiliated bodies entirely, I did a brief mail-around of a couple of other CAHS affiliated bodies to see if they’d take a South Australian. Queensland didn’t reply, quite possibly relating to some pretty intense upheavals at an executive level at the time, while the Humanist Society of Victoria (HSV) did get back to me, and in the affirmative. So I joined the HSV.


It’s a fun fact that when you do anything remotely akin to whistleblowing in public, you’ll wind up being contacted by people who’ve either tried to blow the whistle themselves, or who have something they just need to get off their chest. I’ve had all sorts of feedback and information fired at me in the back channels, not all of it trustworthy, and even less usable.

But it’s the verifiably true stuff that you can’t or don’t know how to act on that’s the most vexing. The context of some of this stuff spans decades and countries, and it’s hard to tell if or how some of it can be meaningfully addressed; court cases from decades ago demonstrating malfeasance by a Humanist I’ve never heard of, who was then boosted by an overseas Humanist organization I’ve never had anything to do with are a little out of my scope.

People have told me things about individuals from the HSV, and they told me before I opted to join. I have no doubt that my joining pissed off at least one former HSV member who’d contacted me. The thing is, that while some of the info given to me was verifiable, it was hard-to-impossible to extrapolate from those facts, to the organization as a whole, or even the committee in particular. Stating that dickheads exist within an organization is a pretty insufficient critique. Functioning organizations have dickheads too.

In terms of cultural problems though, even at my distance from the organization – my membership is nominal and pretty much a mere formality – there are some pretty overt warning signs; the publication in the Australian Humanist (edited by a founding HSV member) a few years back of a poem that was zero percent critique of Islam, and 100% denigration of Muslims; a terrible defense of the choice to publish this poem and another work of garbage in the very same issue; a committee that wasn’t close to being properly visible, and so on.

Not a lot of evil, but a lot of things to make you consider how functional a group is.

In terms of my miniscule involvement – I’ve witnessed a couple of pathetic displays online by folks of influence within the organization myself, and have just recently witnessed one of the smarter ones – one with influence over a public organ no less – claiming that harassment, sexism and so-on within atheist circles is largely made up, essentially just because it’s obviously true. This kind of reasoning doesn’t bode well for an organization that’s supposed to pursue reason in service to compassion.

On the flip-side, at the very least the HSV’s organization and promotion of public events has seemed honest and professional. I can’t tell you how sick I’ve grown of seeing atheist promotional shenanigans, either from afar or up close; organizers publicly announcing speakers from serious projects prior to confirmation, only for those speakers to predictably fall through; promoting their own members as speakers with misleading titles, honorifics and superlatives, and peddling non-peer reviewed, untested and untestable crank hypotheses as central to public “seminars”. The HSV, however, possibly has the best average quality of speaker academically speaking, out of all of the Australian Humanist societies, and the speakers are promoted formally and accurately, without gimmickry. That ain’t nothing.

(No, I haven’t been to any of these meetings, being in South Australia during all the ones I’d liked to have attended, but I don’t need to to make the above judgements; a good number of the people speaking have published works they can be judged by.)

Of course, it’s not just the HSV that has merits and cultural problems. The NSW Humanists have quite an asset in Humanist House, and quite a liability in not having been forthright in discussion of how they fended off entryism from neo-Nazis, nor how it all got nearly as bad as it did in the first place. The Humanist Society of NSW has had changes to its leadership since then, and I’m not interested in castigating, or in investigating to see what miniscule portions of blame can be ascribed to specific members of the current executive, but still, it’s cause for pause. Things don’t ever go this badly without cultural problems being a factor, and a fresh new executive isn’t going to just make those problems up and disappear.

Then there are all of the asinine arguments and ideations that just grind away at you, turning your resolve to dust; “Public criticism of Humanist leaders betrays your oath!”; “Children are sexual beings!”; “I don’t care if they’re a demonstrably mendacious climate denialist, I’m interested in how they make me feel about myself!”; “Geert Wilders is just misunderstood!”; “I’m thinking of incorporating astrology into my counselling work!”; “The women who accused Assange of rape work for the CIA!”; “People should be able to fuck pigs!”; “If some of this finite publication space wasn’t allocated to voice sentiments at odds with the IHEU minimum statement, why, that would be censorship!”; “Michael Shermer is so cool *swoon*.” You’ll never be free of this kind of stuff, anywhere, but you’d think you’d encounter a little less of it from people in spaces purposed to rational, humane, critical discussion.

So basically, if I up and leave the HSV, it’ll be a choice between asking the ACT Humanists or the Western Australian lot if they’ll have me, or seeing if an overseas IHEU affiliated body will accept my membership (I’m thinking Humanists UK). I’d just like to be able to settle down, and ease my way into meaningful involvement, digitally, without having to worry about how a community’s accumulation of alfoil may influence my WiFi signal.


Increasingly I’m finding it difficult to credit Australian Humanist societies with the ability or even intent to pursue Humanist objectives. There have been a few recent positives – such as the turn away from awarding the AHoY Award to rather obvious celebrity choices, and the CAHS website has been improved dramatically.

But the speed with which time and energy can just be diverted away from intelligent, purposeful discussion, in order to service petty defensiveness and entitled bunyip-feudalism is just so damn discouraging. Too many Australian Humanists seem far too insular, and far too many are accustomed to being flattered as if flattery were the whole point of Humanism. The moment that Humanists of good will attain a little political momentum, that momentum risks being either co-opted for the purposes of virtue signaling, or shut down entirely.

I’ll continue to consider my options, and will ask around in due course.

~ Bruce

Disappearance of the “Scarlet A”, and musings on “Atheism Plus”…

AIn October of 2007, if you were a reader of my old blog, you may have noticed my signing up to The Out Campaign; a campaign where atheists donned the now near-ubiquitous (in one form of another) “Scarlet A” – outing or presenting themselves as godless in response to a world where godlessness isn’t always tolerated.

I make no reservations about declaring my “post-atheist” condition; I have never actually been religious; I don’t live in a culture where I am oppressed on account of my lack of religion; I live in a culture where in general, I am tolerated. Unlike some of my fellow Freethinkers from “post-atheist” cultures though, I have no intention of belittling the struggles of atheists in less tolerant climates, even in less-than-tolerant developed nations like the US.

(I.e. I’m not going to play that game).

Back in 2007, I had a Catholic friend who shunned me when I revealed that in fact, I was irreligious. Our friendship was originally fuelled in no small part by our mutual concerns about social justice. And then it was over…

Did I suddenly identify as oppressed? No. However, in a process resulting from this shunning, somewhat like being injected with the proteins of a virus, I was in a sense inoculated against the real thing. I found it easier to empathise with people who were oppressed, or at least marginalised on account of their atheism.

The “Scarlet A” then, was about solidarity.

It’s now 2014, and things have changed. The website for The Out Campaign is clearly no longer properly maintained, at the time of writing featuring broken image URLs. Iterations of the “Scarlet A” have mutated, speciated and in some cases metastasized.

While I don’t object to most instances of the use of the “Scarlet A” still in use, it’s just lost relevance to me. It’s not clear that it symbolizes what I wish to convey by displaying it, so I’ve recently dropped it from my sidebar. Indeed, I’ve been  meaning to do so for some time.


“Atheist plussers”…

I’ve nothing against the “Atheism Plus” crowd, and I utterly object to the abuse they’ve received – abuse both leading to the creation of “Atheism Plus” in the first place, and abuse directed at them afterward. I wish them all needed respite from this abuse as well. This alone, depending on your definitions, may or may not make me one of them, although I’m not giving you a stake in my identity either way.

My interest in social justice has me holding a number of values also shared by the “Atheism Plus” crowd (“Atheism Plus” essentially being atheism “plus” social justice). This may or may not, depending on your definitions, also mark me as objectively fitting in.

Only, I have next to no interest in identifying, nor being interpellated* as such.

I’ve said it before over the years and I’ll say it again; I’m a lefty before I’m an atheist. While I may have many of the same priorities on my list as “Atheist Plus” atheists, I’m likely to order my priorities differently. Also, given my experiences on the left seemingly being different to that of many of the “Atheist Plus” crowd, I suspect it is likely that there will be concerns I have that we don’t share.

There’s also differences between the American and Australian left to consider. In Australia, we haven’t slid as far down the path of neo-liberalism and anti-unionist culture, and hence aren’t likely to have all the same invisible assumptions about such things – the kinds of assumptions that can be unwittingly adopted even by their opponents.

(I see this to some extent in the small-business-owner-like culture surrounding a number of social-justice-oriented public speakers and writers from the US, not limited purely to those from an atheistic background).

Generally, what’s the “Atheist Plus” take on the Reaganite union bashing of the 1980s, and its spread via globalisation? I don’t know. This isn’t a criticism of “Atheism Plus”, but rather an observation of potential sources of difference of priority.

This may or may not signal a conflict between myself and any given “Atheist Plus” position in the future. And if it does, people involved may want to know where I’ll be coming from should this happen; all else being equal, if it’s a choice between acting on the material left-wing concerns of a unionist/worker who happens to be religious, and entertaining an abstract theological point raised by an atheist who happens to be leftish, I’m not going to be siding with the atheist. (Also, theology doesn’t interest me that much).

(I happen to suspect that there is too much of what could be considered tantamount to class blindness in “Atheism Plus”, albeit not wilfully so. Considerations of class aren’t as prevalent amongst “Atheism Plus” as I’d be happy to see in a left-wing movement/organisation. It all comes across as being a bit too exclusively white collar).

Such a conflict may never occur, however a fundamental difference in the sorting of our priorities remains, even if our values are largely compatible. This matters to me.


Nothing has fundamentally changed about me regarding these matters over the past ten years. The only thing that has changed is the broader context I find myself engulfed in. I doubt I’m alone in this.

At any rate, I’m not going to make declarations of loyalty to groups that I know in advance that I may not be able to honour. And the “Scarlet A”? Gone.

I will however say this much; I am still an atheist writer, only I’m not just an atheist who writes. Often I will focus on issues from an atheist perspective, however my perspective isn’t solely defined along such lines. This may be a source of future conflict.

Allies who fail to understand this may wind up feeling betrayed. Enemies who fail to understand this risk making themselves look foolish.

~ Bruce

* Also, I don’t think my status as a subject is secondary in the generation of my identity, thank you very much anti-humanists.

Plucked From The Nether: ‘”A” is for “Apathy”?’

In November of 2010, on my previous blog, I wrote a post with the title ‘”A” is for “Apathy”?’, ostensibly spurred on by a comment  by Sean of Bookonaut (née Blogonaut) fame. However, I didn’t disclose at the time that I’d already been mulling over commentary on much the same topic, made on Facebook, by a much-loved atheist who went by the name of Candy Hogan. This is what she posted, earlier in November 2010;

“when i go to read my newsfeed often want to scream. I understand the proud atheist thing, but WHY does EVERYTHING have to be about RELIGION? dammit, its boring! u might as well be practicing these religions u claim u hate cuz theyre ALL U TALK ABOUT!! in depth studies of inconsistancies… why isnt it enough to just not believe? new subject PLEASE???”

(Candy Hogan, November 18th, 2010)

I originally considered dedicating my post to her, however, given that I opened by quoting Sean (and that a dedication seemed potentially too familiar), I opted not to. A few weeks later, in early January 2011, after a bout of viral pneumonia, Candy Hogan’s life came to an end.

I’m periodically reminded of Candy every now and then (as I have been again, now) – she was witty, occasionally a little caustic (while still being witty), and thoroughly irreverent. Nobody, including atheists, could be guaranteed immunity from her sense of humour. Discussion, with Candy as a participant, was never allowed to stagnate for long, if at all, and even while for the most part I sat on the sidelines, I considered Candy’s thoughts worthy of attention.

So with the exception of a little spit-and-polish here and there, the following is ‘”A” is for “Apathy”?’ as it appeared in November of 2010, now re-dedicated to Candy. Vale Candy Hogan.


Continue reading “Plucked From The Nether: ‘”A” is for “Apathy”?’”

A decade and more of people coming and going in orbit…

StartrailsI first felt the tidal forces wrought by being flung out of social orbit two or three years ago, when silently, both other persons and myself, went our own ways. Their trajectory sent them in professional directions I can’t say I’d endorse 100%, while I may or may not have been relegated to the status of ‘crazy guy they knew on the Internet’.

For my own part in this, I was getting tired. Tired of passive-aggression, of in-jokes (some poorly veiled), and tired of a few people being too egocentric to realise that no, they weren’t dealing with someone who was gullible, they were dealing with someone who was being charitable; someone who was humouring them, not the other way around.

If I regret anything from this particular period, it’s my lame participation in what passed for some of the humour – which often involved my riffing off of someone else’s bad joke.

All the same, while we were friends, I did get something out of some of them, during what was a difficult time for me, mentally. I don’t know if this admission would injure their egos, or comfort them, and I can’t say I’m particularly worried either way.

If there’s anything I’d be concerned about with them, if I hadn’t put them behind me, it’d be the prejudicial assumptions and leading questions; annoying for me, worse for them if it insinuates its way into their journalism.

The greatest imposture in all of this though, comes from my own faculties – particularly my relative inability to forget things, even small things I don’t much care about. Inevitably something comes along to remind me… like goings on over the past few weeks.

At the very least I wouldn’t be recalling all of these details if I hadn’t been reminded.


Continue reading “A decade and more of people coming and going in orbit…”

Guest Post over at B&W: The Good Juror Pose

It’s been almost two weeks since I mailed this essay off to Ophelia Benson, but I’ve been on holiday in Melbourne sans notebook and passwords for most of the time. You’ll have to forgive me for my tardiness.

There seems to be a trend of late, of people lecturing jurisprudence at people who it is reasonable to assume, have been victims of rape or sexual assault. Notably, it’s often not just “Skeptics”, but “Skeptics” with friends accused of acting up and pestering people sexually (or worse), who engage in this practice.

It’s not that the presumption of innocence is to be suspended, it’s just that the presumption of innocence is often irrelevant to the context these discussions are taking place in, with potentially harmful consequences. I spend 2600 words (including quotes) on the matter over here

~ Bruce

This is what PR dissembling looks like…

For those of you who don’t know, Karen Stollznow, sceptic, public speaker and author, revealed her account of how sexual harassment was dealt with in a recent Scientific American blog post. You can read that here.

Subsequent to this publication, multiple outlets are now naming the alleged sexual harasser/stalker, as the relatively high profile sceptic, Ben Radford. As I’m not privy to the details or evidence, I’ll not speculate on his guilt, but I suspect more details are going to come out in the wash at some point.

The employer, also not named in Karen Stollznow’s post, has since been named as the Center for Inquiry (CFI). CFI has now responded to all of this in typically boilerplate language. You can read their response in full, here.

For a moment ignoring the names, that have been named thus far, the personal politics, and the potential culpability of individuals in this matter, this is a strange document that borders on the meaningless. It’s almost a deepity in PR long-form.

“As a general rule, CFI does not discuss personnel matters in public. We refrain from discussing these matters in public not only out of consideration for our staff, but also because experience has shown that this is the best way to encourage people to come forward with complaints.”

In general yes, this is a good strategy. Especially before due process has worked its way through (something Karen Stollznow complied with).

But CFI is responding to a specific case here, and in this case Karen Stollznow has opted to go public owing to the alleged inadequacy of CFI’s process, and after the process has completed at that. Keeping things private in this context, is meaningless; CFI can’t keep it private because it’s already public, and it’s what CFI does under the veil of privacy that is in question.

People with potential complains seeing this case unfold, aren’t going to be worried about CFI’s ability to keep things in-house. Indeed, Stollznow, and about every other critic of CFI’s management, positively speak to CFI’s ability to maintain the hush.

Further, who’s decision is it, ultimately, to keep things quiet, or go public, if something has gone wrong? That’s not the organisation’s call, and unless we see court action deciding to the contrary, it was Karen Stollznow’s right to bring this to light.

What does CFI think people with complaints about harassment are more likely to be worried about – that CFI will go public with their information, if the issue is already public, or that CFI will decide of its own accord, without regard to the wishes of the person making the complaint, what level of openness is appropriate?

Yes, there are legal concerns about going public, for all parties, but in it’s release, CFI doesn’t cite this as a justification. CFI claims it doesn’t want to deter future complaints.

CFI’s response reduces the serious matter of privacy, from a human relations concern, to the level of marketing pablum.

And then things proceed to where the wheels really begin to fall off…

“However, we would like to make it clear that any suggestion that CFI has been less than diligent in addressing harassment complaints is mistaken. During the administration of current president and CEO, Ronald A. Lindsay, that is since July 2008, CFI has investigated all complaints that have been made to management, and, where necessary, has taken appropriate corrective action. “

On the face of it, this looks like a good thing, right? Investigating every case? Good-o.

“Neither allegations nor denials determine the actions CFI takes. The results of the investigation determine the actions taken by CFI. If CFI has employed an outside investigator, we go with the investigator’s findings; we do not substitute our suspicions. If the investigator found, for example, that a sexual assault occurred, we would accept that finding; likewise, if the investigator found that no sexual assault occurred, we would accept that finding.”

If you’ve read the whole release, you’ll notice that the remainder is mostly rhetoric in this vein, talking about rumor and gossip, while ironically not even vaguely citing any examples of rumor and gossip – CFI is gossiping about alleged gossip. While I’m not commenting on Ben Radford’s guilt, I wouldn’t dismiss Karen Stollznow’s concerns as “gossip”.

That aside, and to the point I want to make – CFI defers to investigators, in deciding the facts. It’s fair to say, that seeing as CFI acknowledged that sexual harassment did indeed occur, there are at least some facts between CFI and Karen Stollznow that are uncontested.

Furthermore, it’s the allegedly lax penalties for sexual harassment that were met out by CFI that Karen Stollznow disputes in her article. Are we to believe that CFI outsources it’s values as well, such that independent investigators also decide upon penalties, in addition to the facts of the case?

No. This is Ron Lindsay’s job, and the accusation is that he failed to appreciate the implications of the facts, such that remedial action was inadequate.

Raising the matter of independent investigators is an irrelevant act of self-promotion that (by design?) distracts people from the substance of Karen Stollznow’s concerns.

I’m not entirely sure that distracting attention from the substance of complaints, and dismissing them as gossip, is going to make people more comfortable with the prospect of making complaints to CFI. But if you’re not actually facing this prospect, and you can’t tease the implications out of the boilerplate language, then I guess CFI’s release would look nice and fuzzy.

I’m wondering how long they can manage to keep treating this matter like a PR issue, and making fatuous statements about privacy, instead of realizing that transparency about the process is the solution.

~ Bruce