Article Lead Image

The online atheist community keeps pushing away its feminist supporters

When popular blogger and Skepchick founder Rebecca Watson was banned from selling merchandise at Dragon Con, emotions ran high.


Aja Romano


Posted on Sep 3, 2013   Updated on Jun 1, 2021, 7:35 am CDT

In the online skeptic and atheist communities, rational thought and critical thinking rank much higher than feelings and knee-jerk reactions. But when popular blogger and Skepchick founder Rebecca Watson was barred from selling merchandise at Dragon Con Sunday, emotions ran high everywhere. Now, bizarrely, an alleged rapist is benefitting from the backlash.

In a post titled “How Skepchick Got Booted From DragonCon Today,” Watson describes how she and fellow Skepchick Amy Davis Roth were asked to leave the concourse area where they’d set up a fan table at Dragon Con because of two complaints that they were breaking the rules by selling merchandise there.

The rules for anyone hosting a fan table are that while general merchandise is not permitted, “You can sell logo merchandise from your organization and other items made exclusively for and by your club, band or organization.” It’s difficult to understand the lines between general merchandise and exclusive products, but a T-shirt and other small items seem to have been off-limits. So does Roth’s primary line of merchandise, Surlyramics, which she had allegedly moved to a different fan table in order to more easily market it.

Watson also misidentified the staffer who asked her to leave as being David Cody, a Dragon Con founder and boardmember. But when we contacted Cody, he responded that Watson had made an error identifying the Dragon Con person involved. Cody is currently investigating the incident.

Finally, although Watson questioned whether this development meant she would have to skip Dragon Con next year, the claim that she was “booted” from the con is misleading. While Roth left a day early because of the incident, Watson continued to freely attend and speak on panels in her capacity as Skepchick representative. 

Skeptics seized upon the discrepancies in Watson’s post and launched a heated backlash. One of the most outspoken critics of the incident was the ironically named Uberfeminist, a skeptics/atheists blog heavily focused on critiquing “American atheist social justice bloggers.” Uberfeminist believed Watson and Roth were trying to game Dragon Con by getting free attendance and then using their own panels to plug their table and merchandise: 

Skepchick may say they’re not trying to make a profit, they’re trying to “break even” when accounting for the cost of making the trip happen. … Presumably the majority of attendees make this work by having a day job and saving money. Skepchick’s plan counted on avoiding merchant fees at the event. Not a good idea.

Although the skeptics community’s, well, skepticism over the incident seems well-founded, its vitriol is harder to understand. Skeptics created #Tablegate and filled it with mockery, made fun of Watson’s supporters, accused her of tantrum-throwing, alleged that her only real job is to create “manufactroversies,” and criticized her for “whining, entitlement, and vindictiveness.” 

Photo via Aneris23/Twitter

It all seems to be a heated and collective rejection of a serial troublemaker, until you recall that Watson’s original troublemaking moment was an attempt to talk about how uncomfortable she was after being propositioned in an elevator at a convention—hardly the sort of thing that seems to warrant this much outrage, especially not from a community that prides itself on being unemotional

Yet the skeptics/atheists movement is very male-dominated. It is plagued by misogyny and in some cases extreme hostility towards expression of feminist thought. There’s a significant overlap with the men’s rights movement, and similar tactics of ridicule, harassment, authoritarianism, and suppression have driven out multiple members of the community both temporarily and permanently within the last few years. Attempts by feminists and others to create safer spaces for themselves have resulted in an ongoing war within the community, with feminist-friendly and diversity-friendly spaces like Atheism+ and FreeThoughtBlogs becoming the constant focal points of hostility and mockery by other members of the community.

At the moment, tensions in the community are especially high because of a number of assault allegations made in August, when both prominent women and anonymous women came forward to identify respected male community leaders as men who had raped and assaulted them while attending skeptics communities.

One of these men is Michael Shermer, who is alleged to have a pattern of getting women drunk at conference parties, and who allegedly raped one woman by, in her words, “coerc[ing] me into a position where I could not consent.” The backlash against FreeThoughtBlogs’ creator, P.Z. Myers, for sharing these allegations has been severe, while community members have rallied around Shermer, who is preparing to sue Myers for defamation. One community member, Emery Emery, created a legal fund on IndieGogo to help Shermer “defend his name.” 

Until Watson riled up the community on Sunday, the IndieGogo campaign hadn’t gotten much traction. A week in, it had only raised $1500 of its $5,000 goal. But then a YouTube video by user thunderf00t called “Why Feminism Is Poisoning Atheism,” uploaded on Thursday, urged viewers to “contribute to seeing P.Z. Myers get sued.” It gained 40,000 views, and as #Tablegate rolled on, skeptics encouraged each other to donate to the fund for Shermer as a show of repudiation of Watson, the Skepchicks, and FreeThoughtBlogs. By Monday night, the fund had exceeded its goal by more than a thousand dollars.

UPDATE: Emery wrote to clarify that his fundraiser had nothing to do with “Rebecca Watson’s Dragon Con antics.” He told the Daily Dot in an email that he “had already raised over $4,200, and by midnight Sept. 1, it was pushed to $5,445 due to an anonymous donation of $1,000. I contacted that donor and asked if their donation had anything to do with Rebecca Watson’s DragonCon antics and that person reported that they were not even aware of the story.

“There were two more significant donations the morning of September 2 of $500 each,” he said, “and I also contacted both of those donors with the same question and both replied that their decision to donate was in no way connected to or informed by Rebecca Watson’s complaints about Dragon Con.”

Ultimately, the battle being fought around the Skepchicks’ Dragon Con presence seems to have little to do with air fresheners shaped like Bigfoot, and more to do with the community having identified the Skepchicks as outsiders. The overwhelmingly critical response seems to be part of a pattern of disproportionate, misogynist reactions to women participating in online communities—a pattern so firmly established that it’s essentially become the default state of gender politics on the Internet. 

It’s just unfortunate, but not surprising, that when it comes to the actual practice of skepticism, so many members of the skeptics community seem to reserve all of theirs for the women in their midst—and none for the men who may have raped them.

Photo via suburbanadventure/Flickr

This article originally ran with the headline “How a merch dispute at Dragon Con netted an alleged rapist $6,000.” 

Share this article
*First Published: Sep 3, 2013, 6:40 am CDT