In Defense of DJ Grothe

Greg Laden, a Freethought Blogger, is calling for the resignation of DJ Grothe who is the President of the James Randi Foundation (JREF) which hosts The Amazing Meeting (TAM) every year. A few other Freethought Bloggers have cooperatively written posts that criticize him. Do you ever wonder why several Freethought Bloggers write on the same topic from time to time? It's because they all share an email where they talk among themselves and ask other Bloggers to chime in. As far as I can tell, what provoked this debate was a post by Ashley Miller after the Women in Secularism Conference, where she wrote:
One of the things that I have trouble with in this movement is the lack of focus on issues that “matter”. I came to the secular movement from the LGBT movement, fresh off of the Prop 8 loss, I discovered that out-and-proud atheists also had a movement, and I was eager to join a fight that I thought impacted everything, including LGBT and women’s issues. So I went to the OCFA conference, to local skeptic and atheist meetups, I went to TAM, to Dragon*Con’s Skeptrack, to the SCA lobbying training, I wrote about it here, I wrote about it for, I gave speeches. In short, I got involved.

This month is my two year anniversary of being involved with this movement and, as someone who cares deeply about social justice, it has very often been a very difficult movement to be a part of. For me the great appeal of secularism, the great tragedy of religion, and my own personal passion for this cause is all centered around the fact that religion is the source of many evils or used to justify those evils perpetrated against humanity. As was said several times over the weekend, UFOs and Bigfoot aren’t that important to me, skepticism is much more interesting when applied to issues that impact people’s lives in serious ways. Children, minorities, people of color, women, poor people, the disabled, the elderly, LGBT, and other marginalized groups would benefit so much from having the tragic consequences of religious bigotry removed from their lives.

So when people in charge of important organizations speak on a panel at TAM to say that social justice isn’t and shouldn’t be within the purview of skepticism, or people in my local atheist group leave because they think it is inappropriate that someone posted a link to a story about the Rally Against the War on Women because who cares about that feminist bullshit, or important people in the movement tell me not to bother submitting something to TAM if it has anything to do, even tangentially, with women’s issues, I start to doubt why I am even involved.

This conference was the antidote to that. If you are someone in this movement who wants it to be about creating change in the world, this is the conference you should have been at. If you are someone who thinks all that atheists and skeptics should do is talk about is why the bible is stupid and why UFOs aren’t real, then it really wasn’t for you. I think that UFOs and critiquing the Bible and all of that are important discussions, but I think they are a reflection of an old, traditional, white male scientist way of thinking, and it’s not why I want to be involved.

I know why I am involved, and this conference was it. In reality, it wasn’t the “Women in Secularism” conference, it was the “Secularism for Social Justice” conference. I am proud to have been a part of it. Link.
Then DJ commented:
Leaving aside your conflation of atheism, skepticism and secularism, allow me to respond to a few of your remarks.

I appreciate that you reference the diversity panel I programmed into last year’s TAM schedule. JREF is happy to have taken the lead in such programming at conferences, having had both a panel and a workshop on women’s issue in 2010, and a panel on diversity in 2011. We plan some similar programming along these lines in 2012. And I am personally proud that half the speakers at TAM last year were women, and about 40% of the attendees were women (we programmed TAM this way not out of some commitment to quotas, but because we know that skepticism in general and the event in particular are better off if we include the talents of everyone, not just one half of the population). This is a marked improvement over where these allied movements were 15 years ago when I first got involved professionally.

As the only organization in the skeptic/atheist/humanist world run by a gay man, JREF takes issues of diversity seriously ( ), including political and religious diversity. (I might add that this one reason why we find it very important to avoid conflating skepticism with atheism; to repeat what I have said elsewhere: JREF is not an atheist organization ( ). Similarly, even though Randi and I are both gay men, JREF is not a gay rights organization..)

But to clarify, I never argued that skepticism should be completely removed from social issues. Indeed, I argued quite the opposite, both in that diversity panel and in a number of previous talks ( that I have given over the years. The skepticism JREF advances is motivated by our interest in the well being of others, and out of our commitment to make the world a better place, not just from a petty desire to prove others wrong. When skeptics rail against the use of the ADE 561 dowsing rod as a bomb detector at checkpoints in Afghanistan and Iraq, we do so because that unfounded belief kills people. When skeptics rage against psychics who prey on the grieving, we do so not only because belief in psychics in bunk, but because belief in psychics really hurts people.

I do believe it is important for nonprofits to remain focused on their unique missions, and to avoid “mission creep.” The JREF’s mission is to “promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today.” Obviously, there are many other important missions and causes for folks to commit themselves to, in addition to JREF’s cause. Indeed, for nearly 20 years I’ve been involved with LGBT activism, as well as with atheist activism, and with environmentalism. But I would never join, say, PETA and insist they focus on other causes I care about like global warming instead of their mission, nor would I join the NRA and demand they start advocating for gay rights instead of the right to bear arms.

That said, JREF’s work over many years has been precisely to address the harm that results from undue credulity, and often within marginalized communities. Consider that Peter Popoff preys mostly on socio-economically disadvantaged communities of color, or that there is a lot of harmful pseudoscience peddled about and within the gay community. Or look at the work of Leo Igwe, the Nigerian skeptic and activist who works with the JREF to combat persecution of “witches” in Africa.

Lastly, I might correct the misinformation or misunderstanding that there are people who go around insisting that skeptics only focus on UFOs or Bigfoot; a quick review of the program over the last few TAMs should disabuse you of the misunderstanding, or combat the misinformation. And I’d also enthusiastically take issue with your claim that Biblical (or Koranic) criticism is a reflection of a “white male scientist” way of thinking: I know of many important women Biblical critics and exegetes, and I wouldn’t dismiss the worthwhile project — one that has so many implications for social justice — so easily as you may be doing.

Thanks again for the review of the Women in Secularism conference. I think dialogue about and between diverse communities broadly supportive of the skeptic, humanist and atheist agendas only serves to strengthen our movement(s), especially to the extent that such dialogue is conducted in the forward-looking and constructive manner that some of it is done in these days. And FYI, we will be posting the diversity panel from last year’s TAM in it entirety in the weeks ahead, in an effort to curtail further possible misunderstanding or misinformation about what was said and what wasn’t said. Link.
Later on Facebook DJ added: a gay man I feel I'm sensitive to issues of sexism and homosexism.

It is true that harassment issues are much discussed in some quarters of the skeptics and atheist and other allied movements (all generally for the better, to the extent the emotionally charged issues are tempered with evidence) but to my knowledge there has never been a report filed of sexual harassment at TAM and there have been zero reports of harassment at the TAMs we've put on while I've been at JREF.

Of course that doesn't mean such didn't happen, but of 800+ responses to our attendee survey last year, only three people said they were made to feel unwelcome by someone at the event: one, a man who didn't like all the magic; two, a woman who was ridiculed for her veganism; and three, a conservative who didn't feel welcome because of what he saw as an undue emphasis by speakers and attendees on progressive and leftist ideals. (One woman at the event did, however, complain to staff that she felt she may be harassed by someone in the future, and felt uncomfortable about the man, and while we are concerned about such concerns, she didn't complain of any actual activity that had happened that the hotel or security or law enforcement or others could take action on.)

I believe I understand the impulse to protect people from harm (this is a strong motivation for skeptics, after all) but telling newbies that they need to be on guard against so-called sexual predators at our events, or that the movement or movements are "unsafe for women," may be a sure-fire way of making some women feel unwelcome who otherwise would feel and be safe and welcomed. As for policies, I think Ben is on the right track. We are all against harassment or bullying of any kind, sexual or otherwise. Any incident of harassment or assault should immediately be reported to security and law enforcement, and JREF staff and the hotel staff stand ready to assist should any regrettable incident ever occur, God forbid. But again, no such incident has ever occurred at TAM to my knowledge, and I believe that bears mentioning in current discussions about how prevalent are the unnamed "sexual predators" at various atheist and skeptical events.

Last year we had 40% women attendees, something I'm really happy about. But this year only about 18% of TAM registrants so far are women, a significant and alarming decrease, and judging from dozens of emails we have received from women on our lists, this may be due to the messaging that some women receive from various quarters that going to TAM or other similar conferences means they will be accosted or harassed. (This is misinformation. Again, there've been no reports of such harassment the last two TAMs while I've been at the JREF, nor any reports filed with authorities at any other TAMs of which I'm aware.) We have gotten emails over the last few months from women vowing never to attend TAM because they heard that JREF is purported to condone child-sex-trafficking, and emails in response to various blog posts about JREF or me that seem to suggest I or others at the JREF promote the objectification of women, or that we condone violence or threats of violence against women, or that they believe that women would be unsafe because we feature this or that man on the program. I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn't — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate. Link.
Barbara Drescher, not herself a Freethought Blogger, has written a couple of very insightful posts about the problem: 1) What Matters, and 2) Mission Drift, Conflation, and Food For Thought.

My readers can judge for themselves. I don't have the answers. But just as I defended Rebecca Watson I must also defend DJ as a person I consider a friend. It must be tough to avoid mission creep in the midst of these criticisms. He's for social justice and trying to do the best he can, so no one can fault him for that.

All I want to say is that the primary focus of a skeptical community should not be on social justice within the ranks of that particular community. That minorities justifiably feel excluded should be addressed, certainly, but the primary objectives of a skeptical community should be: 1) Against religion and it's abuses; 2) Against the paranormal and its claims; 3) Against the erosion of the wall of separation between church and state; and/or 4) Against politicians, pundits and writers who try to infuse religion into the public square. There might be other objectives but social justice within skeptical communities should not be the primary focus. I'm not sure where it should rank but it clearly should not be the primary emphasis.

That some atheists do place an emphasis on social justice is certainly welcome, but they should not expect skeptical communities to share that same emphasis for at least two reasons. The first is that there are other organizations in our society that share the same goals and who speak out against the same kinds of injustices. Liberals and atheists can agree together on these issues because the problem is a societal one, not merely an atheist one. The second is that the best way to do social justice is to debunk religion. Debunk the religion and we debunk what that religion considers to be a good society.

One alternative is for like-minded atheists to start their own community where they can point out any and all social inequalities they see within other skeptical communities. But then there's already a venue for that. It's called Freethought Blogs.