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Why the vitriol? September 10, 2012

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches, Rants.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I’ve been looking at quite a few posts and comments in the Atheosphere complaining about the whole idea of Atheism Plus.  A few of these are thoughtful, some are just whiny, but many are downright nasty.  Where is all of this spite coming from?  If it were a new website for atheist knitters or a club for atheist baseball fans, I don’t see that there would be this kind of outcry.  So why such outrage?  I’ve been thinking about this rather a lot, and I have some thoughts on the subject.

I’ve been reading a lot over the past years about cognitive biases, and I think I may have gotten some what is going on here.  First, I recommend a talk given at TAM9 by Carol Tavris:

Carol Tavris at TAM

The part I want to focus on is her discussion of the pyramid metaphor.  Two people who share very similar opinions are faced with an ethical decision to be made. (They are shown near each other at the top of the pyramid.)  Her example was cheating on a test, and in this example, one cheats and one does not.  After the fact they each begin to rationalize their decisions, to find reasons to reassure themselves why the decision they made was the correct one, and why the other decision was wrong.  In the case of the student who cheated, they are faced with a cognitive dissonance:  either they must admit to themselves that they took an action which was not consistent with their self image of an ethical person, or they must create reasons why their action actually was ethical.  Nobody wants to admit to themselves that they are less than a good person, or that they made a mistake.  Rationalizing is easier and less painful.  And so both of these students later wind up quite separate in their opinions, even though they did not start out that way. (Shown as each student now far apart at the bottom of the pyramid.)  And each may now harbor hostility towards the other, even though there was none there to start with.

Also involved here is the Backfire Effect.  Once someone stakes out their position, evidence to the contrary makes them dig into their chosen position all the more.  This even happens to those of us who try to be good skeptics, and always approach problems rationally.  We still get caught by this problem.

So now  I’m looking at the storm that erupted over elevatorgate, and that has only intensified since.  Before women started speaking up publicly about this issue, there were probably a lot of guys who casually made inappropriate comments, or advances, or any of the other things were are now saying are part of the atmosphere of harassment we are fighting.  Or maybe they didn’t do any of that, but just made comments in support someone else who did.  At the time, it might not have seemed wrong, because there was a general atmosphere that this sort of thing was OK, and there was a lot of it going on.

Now we are finally speaking up, saying that it wasn’t OK, it’s a big part of the reason that women have been avoiding events, and that it’s time for it to stop.  And so now any guy who has behaved in ways that we are now defining as unacceptable, even if he didn’t realize at the time that it was offensive, is faced with that cognitive dissonance.  Either he has to admit to himself that his actions might have been inappropriate and say “I didn’t realize, I’m sorry, I won’t do that anymore”, or he has to say “What I did was totally OK, and here’s all the reasons why it’s OK, and you are horrible whiny people for saying it wasn’t OK.”  It’s hard to for anybody admit that they were not the perfect paragon that is their mental image of themselves, but it’s easy to argue.  We’re all very good at arguing.   And the more we point out that this kind of justification is part of the behavior that has been the problem all along, the harder they dig into the position that they are in the right, always were in the right, and have nothing to be sorry about.  Which has now escalated into name calling, abuse and threats.

So what can be done about this?  I don’t have a solution, except to talk about cognitive dissonance in hopes that a few people may recognize it in themselves.  If there’s another answer to this problem, I’d love to hear about it.



1. myatheistlife - September 11, 2012

Why not start by stop talking like all guys are guilty. You make it sound like the great majority of men are doing this… and that simply is not true. Yes, you too have to deal with dissonance. This ‘problem’ is not the infestation that you and others make it out to be. You talk like this is a rampant problem that if left unchecked would cause the end of civilisation as we know it. You give no credit to any of the majority of men who do not behave badly. You ONLY speak about the minority who behave badly…. and you never acknowledge the women who behave badly or those that positively encourage the very environment that you wish to change.

This alienates all those that can help you and your cause, and in doing so you ensure the demise of some new effort to make the word better, even if it is only within a limited group. In short, what you advocate is bigotry. There is absolutely no reason that I should align myself with bigots.

I’m still waiting for any reasonable or even defensible explanation of why the world needs atheism plus.


ubi dubium - September 11, 2012

This post isn’t about why the movement is needed. It’s about the way people take positions and dig themselves into them. Did you have any comment about the topic of the post?


2. hausdorff - September 11, 2012

This is an interesting post and I think you really are on to something here. When I first read about atheism+ I thought it was a great idea. I’m an atheist and I care about these social issues, although I’m a white guy so I rarely have a ton to say on the topics. I figure I have a new badge to put on the side of my blog and that will be pretty much it, no big deal.

Then I start reading all of these posts talking about how A+ is divisive. So I go back and read Jen and Greta’s posts on it, and I just don’t see it. It seems to me that the whole point is they care a lot about feminism and LGBT stuff and they want to talk about that a lot, but they want their atheism to be at the forefront of what they talk about. It just doesn’t strike me as divisive. Perhaps there is just a bunch of stuff going on in the background that I don’t see?

In response to myatheistlife, you said that this post makes it sound like the majority of men are doing these bad things. I just don’t read it that way. She was talking about the storm that erupted and said that ‘a lot of guys…’ She was talking about something that a bunch of guys did and had a guess at to what a lot of them were thinking. This seems to me to be a long way away from “all guys are guilty”


ubi dubium - September 11, 2012

Yes, I don’t think anyone has accused all men of behaving this way, or even most of them. Overall, I think that of the men who attend gatherings, the percentage of them who have treated women inappropriately is probably pretty low. I went to TAM9 and had a great time; I was not harassed, nor did I witness any specific bad behvior. (That does not mean it didn’t happen, however. I’m middle aged, heavyset, married, not famous, and I don’t drink, so the odds of it happening to me are just lower.) However, (supposing it were possible to actually check these kinds of numbers) if we were able to evaluate the group who are complaining so vociferously about A+, I would not be at all surprised to find a much higher percentage of them have been among the worst behaved of the convention attendees. Just my hypothesis.


3. Adam Lee - September 12, 2012

Excellent post!

The past year or so has given us all too clear a demonstration that these kinds of cognitive biases and regressive attitudes aren’t always eliminated entirely when you give up religion. There are too many men in this movement who may be good when it comes to skepticism or secularism, but the idea that women can or should set limits on men’s behavior immediately sends them into a frenzy of rage, coupled with the conviction that they’re being personally blamed for no good reason. (See also the first comment in this thread.)

I don’t think there’s anything much to be done about the people who’ve dug themselves in. But with some luck and some work on our part, their over-the-top defensiveness and hostility, coupled with the simple reasonableness of the things we’re asking for, will help to alienate them and bring the larger community (most of which does, indeed, consist of decent people) around to our side.


4. cag - September 13, 2012

Growing up in a family with a misogynist father and submissive mother, it would have been easy to continue the cycle. In my younger days there remained some traces of my father’s influence. Fortunately I recognized that some of his other actions did not comport with my ideas of right and wrong, so questioning his values was important to establishing my own values. It has taken a long time to shed the last of the influence, which has been enhanced by the internet. I would now plead that ignorance rather than malice formed my approach to relationships. Had I not questioned and grown, the vitriol could have come from me. No wonder that the church does not want their sheep to think.

As we get to second and third generation atheists I would expect that the guiding values will evolve to be human centric rather than based on fantasy. Once the influence of the bible becomes homeopathic (diluted to nothing) humanity has a chance to bloom.


hausdorff - September 13, 2012

“Once the influence of the bible becomes homeopathic”

I’m totally going to steal this phrase


cag - September 13, 2012

I’m cag and I approve this message.


5. Atheism, plus some other stuff | No Forbidden Questions - September 14, 2012

[…] within society do not exist, or that discrimination is a-okay, we have a serious problem. I find it almost unimaginably bizarre that there are people out there who are angry at us for trying to combat racism, sexism, and other […]



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