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.