On Lawrence Krauss and sexual misconduct in atheism

Having gone to university in physics and been active an atheist groups for the past decade, I’ve been to something like five separate conferences where Lawrence Krauss was a keynote speaker. He’s well known in physics circles for his important theoretical work on dark energy and more broadly for being able to popularize science and scientific skepticism. I’ve found his books (I own several, including a couple signed copies) and talks to be entertaining and accessible.

At each of those conferences I attended though, it was an open secret that there was a whisper campaign that followed him. So the multiple, independent and documented sexual misconduct allegations that came out against him recently were honestly not that surprising to me. I believe these women.

What I did find notable was that two major institutions, Case Western Reserve University and the Perimeter Institute, took complaints seriously enough to “have quietly restricted him from their campuses.” Further, several more institutions moved to distance themselves from Krauss following the story, including (just today) Center for Inquiry.

Michael De Dora, who worked with one of the women when she first filed a complaint about Krauss, further substantiated the claims, saying on Facebook:

This isn't the first time a prominent atheist or skeptic has been accused of sexual misconduct but it does seem to be the first time that American national organizations are taking a public stance.

Despite this shift, several women told Salon this week that they’ve disengaged from atheist, Humanist or skeptics groups due to the sexism they’ve experienced. Their stories aren’t unique. In my own experience I’ve heard from women who became less active in local communities because of their similar experiences here in Vancouver and across the province.

One BC resident wrote on our Facebook page:

As a lifelong atheist, I'm not much of a group-joiner, but I did finally connect to a local skeptics group on-line a few years ago. It didn't take very long to notice the level of sexism and outright hostility directed at female members, and it didn't take very long for me to quit in disgust.

While the allegations against Lawrence Krauss haven’t been tested in court (and Krauss denies them in his response), as Humanists I would hope our standards for how we behave to one another would be higher than criminal sexual assault. We value human dignity and autonomy and that must mean consent underlies all of our interactions. Many have rightly levied scorn upon the Catholic Church and other religious institutions for their unwillingness to act to end sexual misconduct in their organizations and we should be at least as diligent.

This is what the American Humanist Association is saying in its statement on the allegations. AHA President Rebecca Hale said:

As humanists, we positively affirm a woman’s bodily autonomy and support those women who speak up and hold men accountable for misogyny and bad behavior. We encourage women to be empowered. Sexual misconduct violates humanist concerns for equality and compassion.

Similarly, American Atheists tweeted:

As the BC Humanist Association, we have been working to try to make sure everyone feels safe and welcome at our events. To this end, our Board of Directors adopted a Code of Conduct last year that gives us a framework to take these types of allegations seriously.

Discussions at our Vancouver Sunday Meetings have at times gotten heated in the past, to the point where one attendee described feeling “uncomfortable.” I’ve heard from others (most often younger women) who don’t attend our events for that same reason. Our president Dan Hanna has spoken with a few members about this too and we’re working as an entire organization to ensure our events are fun, friendly and informative for everyone.

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