Mark Oppenheimer on Misogyny in the Freethought Community

September 22, 2014

This week Point of Inquiry welcomes journalist Mark Oppenheimer. Mark writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times, and is the author of the e-book The Zen Predator of The Upper East Side. He is an expert on how religious and philosophical communities deal–or refuse to deal–with allegations of abuse in their ranks.

Mark joins host Lindsay Beyerstein to talk about a feature he wrote for BuzzFeed entitled “Will Misogyny Bring Down the Atheist Movement?“, a discussion (as he puts it, “from an outsiders’ perspective”) about sexism and sexual coercion in organized secularism and skepticism, a phenomenon that he concludes is a threat to the movement’s potential to grow and achieve mainstream acceptance. They explore this tumultuous topic both in terms of current debates, as well as in context of the freethought movement’s broader history.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, September 22nd, 2014. 

Hello and welcome to Point of Inquiry. A production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. And my guest today is journalist Mark Oppenheimer. Mark writes the belief column for The New York Times and is the author of a new Kindle e-book, The Zen Predator of the Upper East Side. How’s that for an evocative title? Mark’s here to talk to me today about another provocative thing that he’s written, a feature for BuzzFeed entitled Will Misogyny Bring Down the Atheist Movement? Mark, welcome to the program. Thanks for having me. How did you get interested in the subject of misogyny within the Freethought movement? 

I’ve been writing about the skeptical community or as a more broadly called the Freethought community to include scientific skeptics. The signal sticks that those humanists, everyone for at least over a decade now. I’ve always been interested in the community and I’ve interviewed a good number of its leading figures. So I always check in from time to time and see what’s up. Part of my job, I think as a as a religion writer, which is how I would loosely describe what I do is I think to be on top of the entire religion or your religion or non religion as well. 

So I check in time to time and just I guess about two years ago, I began to notice that there was a lot of talk about about sexism within the community. So I began digging and it turned out there was a lot there. 

So when you think about misogyny in this community, what kinds of phenomena are you looking at? What kinds of evidence are you encountering? 

Sure. Well, as I say in the piece, you know, there are a few different phenomena, right? There’s the phenomenon of sexual harassment and possibly sexual assault at Freethought events at conventions or meet ups. 

And then there is the phenomenon of indifference on the part of people who organize these events or leaders in the movement. So they hear reports or they hear stories about these things and they don’t take enough action, which is its own form of sexism. And then there is a separate but allied phenomenon of abuse, especially online, toward women and men who talk about this problem. 

I think you’re looking at at least three different related sex, sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual violence in when people are together in person. It’s difference or insufficient attention on the part of people who might do something about it and then hostility or abuse toward women and men who critique it or complain about it. 

And the in-person critiques are sometimes related to the online critiques. I mean, I thought it was really interesting that one of the most infamous examples in the history of our movement was Rebecca Watson’s elevator gate video, in which she very gently reminds people that it’s inappropriate to proposition a speaker who has just spent the day at a conference trying to explain how to make people make women feel safe and secure in secular contexts. And all of a sudden, it blew up into the most dramatic example of online abuse that I’ve seen in the skeptical community in years. 

Right. And I think that you put that exactly right, which is you began with her incident and her quite mild and I think very sane and proportional discussion of it, which is she didn’t say that she’d been horribly mistreated or abused or wrong. She just said that, look, this isn’t this isn’t what to do to a woman who is just given a speech saying that she’s concerned about inappropriate. 

Come on. 

Yes, that’s right. So that that’s number one. And you correctly positioned the bigger problem, I think, as being the horrific abuse that she and defenders of hers received online. Once this became an issue. So I think that, you know, look for for everyone in the movement is going to have their own sense of what the biggest problem is. If you’re going to these conventions, you’ll be concerned with sexual harassment, sexual violence or the sexism at the conventions. If you partake in the community mainly online, then it’s going to be the vicious online abuse of women and men who talk about this problem. And, you know, for some people, the problem is that if you want to be a serious intellectual movement, then your leadership has to take these things seriously. So for some people, the problem, the biggest problem is how can the movement move forward and really take on, you know, fundamentalist religion, your rationality, other problems in America when its leadership seems not to embrace all aspects of a progressive agenda. 

In the piece you write about how the current Freethought movement is in very sways is an amalgam of certain male dominated subcultures. And that legacy still persists today in some of the conflicts that that we’re having. Can you expand on that thought? 

Sure. So, you know, Freethought is. Look, I’ll just speak very crudely here as an outsider observing it. I think a lot of people, if they’re fair, will recognize what I’m saying. It looks a lot like. There’s a lot of overlap with the science fiction fandom community, the gaming community, the chess community and all sorts of other hobbyist communities and subcultures that historically were very, very male. And, you know, a lot of people, certainly within the community, look until a few years ago. You go to these conventions and there’d be 99 percent guys. And the women were, you know, the wives of some of the guys. Maybe that’s a slight etcs me with 85, 90 percent. But overwhelmingly male, which, by the way, is exactly what I remember from chess tournament, that I stick to it as a eyes ICU. So these are communities that were there were strongholds for men that were safe, spaces for some men who held quirky or irreverent ideas in society. And they functioned pretty well as male communities at a time when he was more OK in society for men to have these all male spaces, political movements like political parties and political clubs and activist organizations everywhere have brought in a lot, especially since the 1970s, but even more so since the Internet made their views accessible to everyone, everywhere, the computer hookup. So really, since the 90s, there’s been an infusion of interest from women, which has been a good thing. But what it’s meant is that a community that used to run back in the 80s and 90s, as you know, an occasional gathering in person of of older white men, is now mixed gender and to a slightly greater degree mixed race. And it’s that is threatening to some of the people who have nostalgia for the boys club that it used to be. 

There’s also a cultural split that you talk about between the sort of left wing freethinkers and their libertarian counterparts. How does that affect the dynamic? 

So if you look at all of those communities that came together that had a confluence to produce current Freethought, you know, somewhat unexpectedly, the secular humanist or the the people who were really, really concerned with church state separation are people who are likely to be politically to the left. You know, these are these are political liberals and one. 

Liberalism is keeping religion out of the public square or feeding creationism in schools. You know, fighting against some of the more nefarious encroachments of fundamentalist Christianity and other fundamentalism. But in America, the predominately fundamentals, Christianity. So those are not to be liberal, free thought activists, but they’re also in Athie isms, especially in the part of the movie that’s concerned with the sort of haziest purity with a purist atheist. There are people who are followers of Ayn Rand. There are libertarians. There are people who have a kind of anti-government, anarchic right wing agenda as well. You know, gun lovers, people who say, look, I want to have my guns. I want to have my money. And I want my freedom. And therefore, I’m against the church because the churches, you know, wants to take all of those away from me. So you have people who identify with this kind of libertarian or libertine subculture, which also, by the way, is a very male subculture. Who. Who are atheists for their own more identifiably Right-Wing reasons. And then you have these historical kind of liberal and leftist atheists. So there’s there’s a real culture clash there. 

And obviously, those come out of more liberal political perspective, have tended to be more sympathetic to feminist claims and women’s participation. 

And those coming out of the more right wing tradition where it is Michael Shermer fit in this whole Mufti’s vs. libertarian dichotomy. 

You know, I read a good bit of Michael Shermer, and I don’t have a sense of him, of a strongly political figure. I know that some people have said that he is politically on the more conservative side. But honestly, I think I’ve read so much by the man. And if he’s expressed those views, those haven’t risen to the top of my consciousness. He may well be a Republican. He may well be a conservative. I’m not entirely prepared to say I’ve seen that claim made about him. You may know better than I do. In fact, he did recently write this bizarre letter, this gift. 

The copy I saw on Twitter is to be believed asking for leniency in the sentencing of Dinesh D’Souza. 

Yes, that was it was really remarkable. 

Which was very odd and saying extremely bad about Dinesh D’Souza, who is, you know, which is fine. We all have friends who have different. I hope we all have two different political beliefs than ours. But I don’t see Dinesh D’Souza as an honorable figure. And I also see him as someone whose desire to bring a Christian influence to bear on society is just not you know, it puts him so beyond the pale for a free thinker or atheist that I found that to be a very, very odd letter. 

And it certainly surprised me. The fact that he was holding up Dinesh D’Souza, who blames the cultural left for 9/11 and believes that Obama is trying to destroy America to have Bill, his Kenyan father is anticolonial. This patrimony is to be referring to him as a great thinker and an important voice in our national conversation. I mean, you like the guy, but come on. 

It was very it was very strange. You know, now, Michael Shermer, as I point out in my article in BuzzFeed, for our purposes, for the purposes of the story I was telling is significant because he is widely believed among activists on the circuit. 

And we do want to distinguish between the casual atheist or the person who claims atheist beliefs, of which there are millions in America and the maybe several thousands who are kind of professional or even amateur atheist activists. 

Right. But among that latter group, Sharmarke has been well-known for a while. As someone who’s actually very perhaps promiscuous, perhaps aggressive, and I quoted several people with their own stories of the counter came in unpleasant ways at conventions, one of whom said that he that he had sex with her while she was too drunk to give consent. 

And so she initially had called him a rapist for them. 

How did you go about this is a really interesting story, because anyone who’s been active online has heard these stories over the years, but they’ve almost always been without names attached. As a journalist, how did you go about tracking down the women with stories to Tallin, getting them to go on the record for the first time? 

I asked a lot of people who the who whom I should talk to, and eventually certain names became clear to me. I don’t want to say more than that because I don’t want to fuel any speculation about people who may have revealed their identities. What I will say is that I did not get names from anyone who is an enemy of these women. 

That it was not the case. It was emphatically not the case that any of the so-called misogynists or sexist or people, they feminists or the people who participated. The slime pit online for Albertsen and they semillas forum. None of them outed any of these women or gave me their names. Everything that I learned came from people who were sympathetic to them, who were friends of theirs. People within their camp who gave gave me enough for me to figure out who they were. And what’s more, all of these women consented when I talked to them to let me use their names. And I don’t know why they consented. I think maybe they read autoworker fine and felt that I was trustworthy. Maybe they decided that if I was doing a big story on this, that they that they felt duty bound to be part of it. But, you know, journalism is really about hard work. And if you ask enough people over enough months. 

So what was it like to interview Penn Jillette? That’s the question I’ve been dying to ask you. 

Tan was the last interview I did for the story, I asked for the interview back in June and he didn’t get actually or I should say his representative for my ad dealt with, did not get back, actually. And they may just have dropped the ball. I’m sure they get lots and lots of interview requests. But I tried again, as I swear it was best for the press. And they did set up the interview and I did it. I think the day of or the day before the story was posted at both and he was he was very charming and gregarious and forthcoming. I think that he is a and he’s honest. I don’t agree with his perspective. But I do think one of the things that was criticized for by some people online efforts we ran was putting him in the same place as someone like Michael Farmer. Now, Pan, as far as I know, has never been accused of any sort of sexual aggression, rape, harassment, lewdness, promiscuity, anything is the charge against him is that he uses language that’s demeaning to women. 

And it’s not just that he uses language that’s demeaning to women. Bad words the way Lenny Bruce did, but that he will direct sex slurs to individual women in our own movement, that he will direct sexual slurs, individual women, of which there are two specific cases I was able to find. 

There may be more, but a lot, but there are a lot of rumors that that were unsubstantiated. So I was able to pin down a couple specific cases, and I think he was wrong in those cases. I think that was horrible. I think it’s a sense of them, of those cases is is not convincing. That said, I, of course, do draw a distinction between someone who uses very, very demeaning language and someone who is physically aggressive in person, giving people unwanted sexual attention and possibly worse. You know, as someone who who is who has four young daughters, you know, there is an entirely different level of concern that they have. If they’re spending time around someone whom I know to be verbally offensive and someone who I suspect to be physically aggressive or capable of physical assault. So there is certainly a critique to be made that that they are different cases who belong to different articles. I think they belong to the same article because they go to a larger question of how women are viewed in the movie. 

Yes. I mean, I thought Penn was a perfect person to include in there, not because he deserves to be in a rogues gallery of the worst harassers in skepticism, because clearly, as far as you know and I know he does not, but because he made such an impassioned and articulate defense for the boys club of skepticism where he’s saying, you know, we started this movement, we were he the entertainers and magicians that helped fund the movement, carny trash. And we’ve been talking dirty and being lewd, doing whatever we wanted for this whole time. And in his view, there’s absolutely no reason for anyone to change. 

Right. So, you know, and I think there is a kind of coherence and sincerity to what he’s saying. I think, as I said, I think he’s wrong. But I feel that, you know, I like I’m not comfortable saying that he is personally. He may be personally incredibly respectful of women in his in his presence. I mean, the one person who said to me that he had, you know, demeaned her in person also said, look, I think he I wasn’t personally offended by it. You know, she said, I know that’s his shtick. He’s he’s into boundary crossing and boundary pushing. And that’s a shtick again. I don’t defend that. But I do think that it’s you know, there is a role for the provocateur in society and he believes he’s playing that role. So there’s a kind of there’s a very different ambition there when compared to the person whose investment it is to sleep with young, starstruck, inebriated women. So, yeah, there are degrees that are worth talking about here. But I did include him in part because I think that, you know, he is part of the problem. 

I mean, it’s nice to have someone who’s willing to spell out the intellectual foundations of that worldview. I know we’re not doing it for ulterior motives. He just really thinks that skepticism should go on being the way it was when he was a kid. 

And, you know, first of all, I would encourage people to read Amanda Marcotte critique of that position, which she published today. The feminist writer, Amanda Marcotte. I thought it was very thoughtful and well thought out. I think that she she laid out the case against that as well as can be, actually. 

You will link to that. Yeah. Yeah. 

When they came up the show and you know, I also think one of things they point out in the piece is we do have to remember that this boy’s club was made up of people. If you go back to the 70s and 80s, you know, especially if you look at, say, the period from nineteen seventy six to 1990, which was really the heyday of the rise and peak of the Christian right. And people saying, you have to say the Pledge of Allegiance in schools and, you know, attacking people as anti-American or pro Sophia, they weren’t sufficiently religious. You have to remember that this group of people in Freethought and atheist who gathered around people like Times, Randy or Paul Kurtz, were very, very brave and were taking positions that at the time in American culture may have seemed very, very dangerous to take. And we’ve you know, it was it was far worse in the eyes of most Americans in 1984. Let’s say the if you know, right after 9/11, probably to say the things that some skeptics are saying about God or Christianity or America, that that was, to use the C word, toward women. And so it’s not surprising that it was a group of oddballs who just didn’t give a flying fuck what other people thought, who were willing to take this position. 

And I’ve been in the group. I grew up in the movement. And I just can’t imagine people like Paul Kurtz, even if he had learned to use Twitter back in the day, if he’d had been a fool. I cannot imagine him getting into the kinds of petty fights that, you know, a certain atheist leaders are getting into against, you know, feminists in the movement these days on Twitter and then talking about Richard Dawkins at his due mostly. Mostly my kind of stuff. I mean, it’s. 

Well, sure. I mean, I agree with you. I mean, social media makes everything worse, except that makes it better. But it often makes it worse. But of course, at the end of Paul Light, Paul Kurtz’s life, he was, you know, pushed out of the Center for inquiry in, you know, a series of other petty spats that had to do with me. So, you know, all subcultures all move. That’s had infighting. I don’t think atheists or secular humanist are any better or any worse than other movements that way. 

Sure. I mean, I’m just trying to push back against the narrative that, you know, there was this raucous, sexist, good old days or bad old days, depending on how you want to look at it. And somehow we’ve come to a difference in sensibilities. I think that the open sexism is came in from my perspective, with the really outspoken new Athie ism, that there’s a certain group of people that came into the movement who weren’t there before, who were really interested in being in your face in offensive across multiple levels, including overt sexist. 

You might be right about that. And it sounds as if you know the history of the movement better than I do. So I would defer to that. I would only say, though, that first thought about a few different things here. Right. I mean, Patton was specifically talking about Randy’s community of the scientific skeptics. And I’ve done some research and actually have another article in the works that involves the scientific skeptic, you know, debunking, debunking claims, the paranormal community in Los Angeles, where a lot of it was based in the 70s and 80s and it was a bunch of real crazies. Now, again, that’s not to say that they all were necessarily sexist were that it would be okay if they were. But that was a bit more of a Wild West community than the philosophical secular humanist. Paul Kurtz gathered around him. So that’s just to try out. One important distinction, I think. Again, none of this is excuse or defend anything. But the other thing I would say is both of these wings were, you know, 95 percent male. So it’s almost hard to say, well, how much latent sexism was there because they very rarely had to deal with women. 

That’s a very good point. And who is to say how sexist, appalled hurts not to speak ill of the dead, right. 

But to say how sexist she would have been if all of a sudden 40 percent of the people showing up at a particular convention were female, he might have been very amenable as a man of a certain generation to demeaning. I mean, he might have ended up saying the kinds of things Richard Dawkins is saying now. I don’t know that. I don’t know that for a fact. And it’s it’s horrible to speculate. Right. 

But he was certainly on the record in this humanist writings as being told for total gender equality and that sort of thing. Different point. 

I mean, that’s a good point. But then again, you know, I’m sure someone like Dawkins is as well. If you look at his writings closely enough, let’s talk a bit about this. 

This entity called Slime Pit. Did you did you need any slime piter ideas that are zero time on slime pit? 

You know, you you as you know, there is a community of people who have become self-identified as anti feminists or they would say, I think extreme, you know, free speech. I guess they would say they don’t want their speech curtailed by the delicate sensibilities of women’s rights activists or feminists or to call. 

They would say humanist Islam pet. Exactly. Is it entirely geared towards critiquing free thought or is it a community that has other purposes? I like to tell you. But what about an upside with it? 

I mean, with the kind of stuff you read and slime head with a Y in case anyone’s interested in checking it out. We certainly want to send people to do their own research and see for themselves. It’s certainly when I looked at it, there was you only get to scroll down a couple inches on the screen before you would encounter something so offensive to women, so misogynist, so demeaning, so crude that that you just wanted to to click off it. I didn’t. 

In my forays, I would look I would try to poke around it and see. Was there an interesting philosophical point of view here? And let’s just say that nothing I read rose to the level of articulate as the Panhead when he was defending his coarse language, that it was really just him to place for people to just just spew crude invective towards mostly women. So I didn’t spend a lot of time on it. There’s also a whole wing of of the skeptics and free thought movement now. And it might be a tiny wing, but it could be five people with a lot of Twitter accounts between them. 

But that identifies as men’s rights advocates. And these are some of the worst people in the world. And if they they just live to abuse women. So I didn’t really want to dignify that particular piece of. Feminist free fight world with a lot of time. In my article. 

Fair enough. I was really interested in your discussion with with with the amazing Randi who is talking about Shermer. And he said Shermer has been a bad boy on occasion. I do know that I haven’t told I have told him that if I get many more complaints from people, I have reason to believe that I’m going to have to limit his attendance at the conference. What did you make of that? 

He seemed to me not to get it entirely. You kept reading where he said, you know, the farmer said he was always drunk when these things happened. 

And I guess that’s what boys do when they go out, get drunk or something like that, which seemed to me really telling that mind because it’s like, well, that’s what men do as opposed to that’s what men have been allowed to do. 

Right. I’m Randy is is quite aged at this point. And as someone once reminded me when I wrote something very fast about an old person, we all will get there someday if we’re lucky. Yeah, it’s in areas. We, too, will get old and indiscreet and. Maybe say things that we shouldn’t or that our judgment will go. And he’s not, as far as I could tell, involved the day to day operations of the James Randi Educational Foundation, which puts on this very large meeting in Las Vegas every year. The amazing meeting anymore. He seemed, you know, he sounded a lot like certain very elderly relatives. I have had who have meant very, very well and a big heart, but whose politics didn’t keep up with the times and who just sounded like sexists from the 50s or 60s. So I don’t know what to say. He’s obviously cute. 

Here’s what else. Here’s the significance of this, right? Is that he likes pendulous. Is still exalted as a leader of the movement. And so he’s not someone who has shuffled off quietly to the sidelines. He’s someone who still can turn out big audiences, who is still revered and who is still listened to. And so the movement can’t have it both way. You know, if someone is past his prime and therefore, you know, isn’t the person to listen to publicly anymore, fine. But then don’t listen to him publicly anymore. But he’s still very, very much beloved and still very attended to. And yet he is quite wrong on one of the major issues confronting the community, which is how to deal with complaints of sexual violence and sexism. 

You wrote a book called The Zen Predator of the Upper East Side about sexual abuse and harassment within American Zen Buddhism. Do you see parallels between the way the Zen community has dealt with abuse in its own ranks and the way the skeptical community has? 

I do see parallels. I see two parallel that I could think of right now. One is that both communities have leaders whom they revere. I think that’s typical of all communities. But both of these are fairly young communities in America in their current forms. You know, that doesn’t really began to flourish in the 60s when a certain group of teachers came over from Japan and began to plant these Zen centers. And they they very much had a good role model where, you know, they taught other people and those people taught other people. And it was all about whether or not your teacher had a lineage from this, you know, one of these really four or five great teachers who came over from Japan in the 60s. So there’s a kind of reverence for people that that makes it very hard to criticize them or to see their flaws. Similarly, the skeptical movement and the Freethought movement since the 60s has been built around the celebrities of a few people in secular humanism, someone like Paul Kurts in scientific skepticism. Somebody like Randy. And now in what you might call the new atheists, you know, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris. People like that. And so these leaders become very, very important because the books that they sell and the seminars that they lead are really the vehicles. The speeches they give are really the vehicles for the growth of a young movement that badly needs to grow. So nobody wants to knock them off their souls. And people don’t want to hear about their flaws. So that’s number one is the reverence for leaders, which, again, I don’t think you have, say, in the Democratic Party or the Republican Party in these old, old old institutions, you know, someone’s bad enough. They begin to cost you elections. And you hopefully you push them aside. You don’t there’s no sense that anyone is completely indispensible. Right. And then I think the second thing is that they are both communities of people and there’s major tribal communities. I don’t know. But these particularly about to me as community of people who believe that they have a certain claim on the truth and they believe that they have a rigger and a and a. A kind of stringent way of looking at the world that makes it sound less susceptible to error than other people. So within Zen Buddhism, you have people, first of all. Actually, in many cases believe they’ve had moments of enlightenment. Right. 

And they believe that their practices make them see truths that other people can’t see. Do you then say, well, okay. But the guy who says he sees all these truths also is groping women and then lying about it. There are a lot of people who say, I don’t believe that. How is that possible? He’s the one who taught me, who took me far down the path to enlightenment or to who taught me to see the impermanence of worldly possessions. How could you tell me that he would reach under a woman’s robe and feel her up like some time inside? Just doesn’t seem believable. And similarly, in skepticism, we are people who believe. Well, I don’t know. The whole point of my belief system and I’m joining this community is that I don’t fall for ridiculous beliefs. I have a kind of rigor about my thinking. I, I pass evidence well and I arrive at correct conclusions. So therefore, you can’t possibly tell me that I misjudged this person. And let me have one more thing, if I may. 

That’s worse. Which someone pointed out to me, which is, you know, this is just conjecture, but an interesting one, which is that because people in Freethought. Are so interested in standards of evidence. They sometimes are exceptionally difficult to convince of anything that they haven’t seen, right. So, look, they don’t believe in the resurrection because nobody saw nobody. There’s no evidence anyone saw the resurrection. Right. They don’t believe in God. We can’t see or verify God. So then a woman says, well, I was sexually assaulted when I couldn’t give consent. And they say, well, where’s where’s the proof? And their level of proof is offered. Where’s the videotape or where’s the confession? And of course, that’s not the kind of proof we have much of the time for sexual. 

And I feel it is also a very rigorous, in many ways praiseworthy code of ethics within skepticism and free thought, which is that, you know, you should not say bad things about people unless you have that kind of ironclad proof. And in one sense, that’s that’s really admirable. And it’s something that I think we all like about the movement should be proud of. 

But on the other hand, in the real world, the way that people get reputations, the way that you learn who’s dangerous, who’s safe, who you should trust, who you shouldn’t trust is buzz about what they’ve done in the past. And it’s all social. It’s it’s all anecdotal. But you build up a corpus of data that allows you to operate in the world empirically. 

Absolutely right. And that’s the we couldn’t function otherwise. I don’t want to say, though, that this is a piece, this article, you know, still, you know, I I mostly saw that I got things mostly right. But. There are people who have jumped on the anti Michael Shermer bandwagon who are crazy. Unquestionably. You know, I mean, Michael Shermer believes, I think that he is a victim of a kind of weird type of hysterical panic. And there are hysterical panics of the world. Right. And sometimes they have to do with, you know, satanic so-called satanic ritual abuse. Sometime they have to have to do with episodes of so-called chronic fatigue syndrome. You know, they sometimes they have to do with Gulf War Syndrome. I mean, you know, we only have to read a show, Walter’s book histories to know about this. Right. 

Or Debbie Nathan or Lawrence. Right. Yeah. 

I mean, well, those are people who hear a rumor and say, oh, yeah, me too. I think that happened to me, too. And all of a sudden, everyone thinks it happened to them. And in fact, it may have happened to one or two people, but not the next hundred. And there are people who have told Michael Shermer stories that are completely implausible, you know, and some of those are in the realm of rumor to the person who says that he impregnated that they were pregnant about Fermor and forced to get an abortion. But it’s that Schirmer recording says she’s had a vasectomy before he ever met the person. The person who said I had a gay affair with Sherman, I guess was possible, but I don’t think plausible. The one that I point to is the person who was telling people that Schirmer had harassed her. By the way, he looked at her in the audience and she was in an audience of hundreds of people. And I think seated many rows back, but she felt harassed by a particular lawyer that he gave her, you know. And wherever there are people whom it becomes safe to criticize. There will be people who will then want to join the crowd of critics. Right. Let let’s put it this way. Whenever there’s a class action lawsuit, some members of the class will not be authentic members of the class, but are just hitching a ride and hoping to get something out of it. Do I think that such people exist in the world of Michael Shermer critics? I know. I know that at least one does because of a story that was just too wildly implausible to be true. Now, again, I don’t want to speak for Michael Ferber, but I think some defenders of his would say that all of the stories are like that. They’re all part of a hysterical panic where everyone is just it’s become safe to accuse him of something the way that in junior high it can become safe for everyone to say, I slept with that slutty girl even if nobody did. And that’s a real phenomenon. Right. And it can it can it can hit men or women. However, I went to a lot of reporting and I reported some stories from people who I thought were, you know, creditable and speaking plausibly true stories. So that’s the best a journalist can do, I think. 

Yes. Well, Mark Oppenheimer, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s an excellent article. Everyone should read it. It’s called, Well, Misogyny Bring Down the Atheist Movement, and it’s published in BuzzFeed. 

Thank you for having me. This has been a point of inquiry. You can follow us on Twitter at point of inquiry. Tune in next week. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.