Too many of my heroes have feet of clay!
-- Joan Denoo
It was late February, 2018 when I first learned about issues regarding Lawrence Krauss and his inappropriate behavior toward women. Then in the first week of March, I got an email from American Atheists, indicating that David Silverman was being suspended from the presidency of that organization, pending an investigation. One week later, I learned that he has been removed from that position. In both cases, the only forthcoming source of details regarding both Krauss and Silverman is Buzzfeed, a website which while it lacks the serious mien of NPR or CBS News has apparently sufficient credibility to move multiple organizations to take punitive action against both individuals.
This is hardly the beginning of the problems associated with the atheist movement and untoward behavior. Rebecca Watson and the “ElevatorGate” incident dates back to 2011, with repercussions which continue to have impact to this day. Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine has similarly been skewered by Buzzfeed, along with other luminaries of atheism as a part of the rising #MeToo movement. Observations regarding the participation of women in atheism and questions regarding their treatment have been rife ever since Ms. Watson’s aforementioned complaint and possibly before then. Even as the fundamentalists have had their Jim & Tammy Fae Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, those of us who espouse no faith are now forced to acknowledge that our side of the ledger is not above problematic behavior. The superficially clean and shiny image of atheism has, perhaps predictably, run headlong into the reality of human frailty. It’s our turn for a wake-up call.
The most obvious question at this point is: What do we do about this? Do we throw Krauss and Silverman and the others like them under the bus and move on without them? Some atheists already have in Krauss’ case, and I personally think such action is both presumptuous and foolish. The truths which Krauss has elucidated, whether about cosmology or atheism, do not become invalidated simply because his behavior with women is reprehensible. The same may be said for Silverman’s unremitting assault on irrational belief. The fact is that our societal rules dictate that they are both, at least for the time being, personae non gratae, and as such will be rendered out of the public eye for some prescribed period of time as a part of any effort to rehabilitate them, if that can indeed be accomplished. It is worthy of note that both the Bakkers and Swaggart were ultimately accepted again by their followers at varying rates, though it may also be said that their subculture as a rule is far less critical of such faux pas as ours may be.
But to speak to Ms. Denoo’s quote above, ultimately moving forward from these incidents means at least in part that, while we may have people we admire, whose words we wish we had spoken ourselves, we have to acknowledge that we are all human and we all fuck up, including and especially our heroes. We need to recognize that to best represent atheism, we first need to be our authentic selves and not merely fans in a fan club. We need to keep our own houses in order and be examples of decent human beings who just happen not to believe in ghosts or fairies … or deities.
Rather than having a few public atheist standard bearers who carry the weight of the movement, perhaps each of us should be our own upright representative of godlessness and share that weight, remembering that we all have feet of clay, but can all aspire to grow and become better together.