Monday, April 24, 2006

An Apology

After the publication of my take on secular extremism on Raw Story, I received quite a lot of vitriol from many atheists who felt I was condemning atheism and secularism as a whole. While I feel that I made clear that that was not the case, I must admit that if so many people came away with this conclusion, then obviously the article was not as well prepared or well written as it should have been. This is due, in part, to the fact that I have struggled for quite some time with whether I should write it at all. Also, my use of the word "whackjob" was an intentional although perhaps badly chosen play on the common pairing of that word with the word "religious." I apologize to any who felt that I was adding burdens to an already burdened minority in our country.
I'd also like to take a few moments to clarify some points here. The separation of church and state is and always has been vital to the functioning of liberal democracy. It contains both freedom of and freedom from religion and should continue to do so. I strongly support the right of all peoples to believe or disbelieve whatever they wish within the bounds of respect for human rights. In other words, if it's not hurting anyone, go for it. I would defend to my death (Yes, I'm aware it's a cliche.) your right to believe or disbelieve and am strongly opposed to prayer in schools, the use of the bible in a courtroom, laws based solely on religous precepts with no accompanying social necessity, the teaching of religious belief in public institutions, etc. Although I disagree with atheist precepts, I have respect for the logic and reasoning upon which they are based. This continues despite my acceptance of faith in my own life.
Finally, I do not believe that anyone should be silenced or purged, only that the progressive movement is not required to grant legitimacy to all leftist beliefs. I also believe that we should criticize ourselves with the same honesty with which we criticize others. I have regularly opposed religious extremism and have held it up to harsh criticism numerous times in my published work. I thought it only honest to take a look at the other side despite the fact that I consider religious extremism to be the greatest threat facing us today. If anyone came away with the impression that I consider secular extremism to be even an iota of the threat that religious extremism is, I apologize. I can only assure you that, I would hope, most of my work is better written and prepared and that I will take greater care in the future.

Shalom Aleichem,
Melinda Barton


Anonymous DonnaM said...

Dear Ms. Barton - I read your article on Raw Story, and as an atheist, was quite offended by its tone. Your premise that all people who are 100% convinced that no god exists are extremists - whackjobs, even - was at the heart of your insulting tone. If you put yourself in my shoes and try to imagine how you would feel if someone called you a whackjob extremist because of your resolute faith in the existence of your God, then I think that would help you to begin to understand why so many people were so offended by your column. The fact is, Ms. Barton, that there are far more atheists out there than you have any idea. We keep a low profile, most of the time. That's partly to avoid controversy, partly to avoid offending others (it's hard for us to discuss religion without offending people who believe in things we find irrational!), and partly to avoid being fingered (by religious bigots such as you appear to be) as some kind of value-less, extremist-whackjobs! We non-believers are everywhere, Ms. Barton. We are your pharmacist, your neighbor, the woman who does your hair, your child's teacher, even. Just because we aren't in your face about our beliefs does not mean that we do not feel strongly about them. To be a self-avowed atheist in today's society is to be someone who is willing to really question the status quo, and think for yourself, and come to your own conclusions, even if the consequences might be inconveniently unpleasant! We are probably the most underrepresented minority in this country, and we don't whine and moan about it most of the time. But we do take offense to religious bigots calling us whackjobs! I hope you understand a little better, now, why your article was so ill-received by the progressive internet commmunity. By its very definition, that community has alot in common with atheists (i.e. independent thinkers), so it makes sense that alot of them ARE atheists! I sure hope you've learned something from your faux-pas, Ms. Barton. I know I have - I've learned - from reading the comments to your ill-judged column - that there's alot more atheists out there in cyberspace than I had realized! In fact I almost feel as though I actually belong somewhere, for a change. Thank you for that, at least.

3:33 PM  
Blogger A Hermit said...

I'm still left wondering which atheists you were talking about in your article. Like I said in my comment at Raw Story, if I complain about someone's position on some issue I try to make clear exactly who I'm talking about, what exactly they said or did, and why I disagree with that specific statement or action. That was my problem with your article; it had the same feel as some of the racist screeds I've read, even if prefaced with a "not all blacks are lazy, but" kind of disclaimer.

I do appreciate the apology, however, and I hope you won't be discouraged from honest criticism of anyone; just please remember that generalizations too easily turn into stereoypes, and attacking a stereotype is never an honest approach to criticism.


A Hermit

3:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It looks like someone at Raw Story didn't like my comments. "Banned by webmaster. Your comments will not be added." I understand that nobody likes to be reminded of their mistakes, moreso the proud ones. Here are the three deleted comments:


Their recognition of guilt is apparent to any thinking and feeling person, but unless the next moral step of making a public apology is taken that guilt will not be removed. It will become shame.

I speak solely for myself at this time, but I am grateful that Melinda Barton has begun the process of making a public apology for her share in this unseemly affair.

Her apology has been published here, in the comments above, and also at her private blog:

However, the guilt of Melinda Barton's editor at Raw Story, Avery Walker, for originally publishing this column, for later protecting it, and finally for disowning it as an "orphan" on Raw Story's web site remains.

If any official apology comes from Avery Walker it must be a public apology which is accessible from the main Raw Story web site. Real integrity requires this, otherwise any such apology, regardless of how soothing and pleasant it may read, will be nothing more than a pretty mask concealing the true message: "You've made enough noise here! Now you must sit down and shut up!"

If Raw Story plans to permanently disown one of it's own columns from public view it ought to delete the column outright. Otherwise it ought to re-associate the column with the main web site.

I eagerly await your public apology.


Oh wait...

Well, the above comment from Avery Walker settles it:

Avery Walker is now at least one moral step further away than Melinda Barton.

I sincerely appreciate Melinda Barton's decision to turn back.

I find the decision of Avery Walker to remain self-righteously confident and proudly stiff-necked in the belief that no need for any apology exists disappointing.

When you change your mind and turn back I will be glad for you. Good luck.



Why are the Raw Story editors deleting my comments? Beware everyone who thinks Raw Story has any shred of integrity: You don't matter.

3:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The sentiment expressed in the comment of donnam is the good thing that came out of all this. I second his gratitude for this outcome.

4:15 PM  
Anonymous Karen said...

I don't think your apology is sincere, thus I do not accept it. I do not think you understand what happened nor do I think you want to understand. I think that you just want it all to go away.

Where in this apology do you deal with your redefinition of "secular" in such a manner that it applies to all atheists? Nowhere.

Where in this apology do you deal with calling us "whackjobs" and "extremists"? Nowhere.

Where in this apology do you deal with the criticism aimed at the five 'beliefs' of atheism? Nowhere.

Where in this apology do you deal with any specific criticism? Nowhere.

Instead we get:

I apologize to any who felt that I was adding burdens to an already burdened minority in our country.

Adding burdens? You didn't add anything. You just recycled them.

Some of the criticism has been along the lines that you don't understand atheism. Your referral to "atheist precepts" further proves this. There are no precepts in atheism. Atheism is the lack of belief in the gods (yours ain't the only one so I'm not going to define atheism as though it was). That is it.

We also get:

Finally, I do not believe that anyone should be silenced or purged, only that the progressive movement is not required to grant legitimacy to all leftist beliefs.

So, are you retracting:

the greatest danger the secular extremist poses now is to the integrity and success of progressive movements. If we are to truly uphold the liberal ideals of freedom and liberty, we must stand against extremists of all stripes who would threaten those ideals. Secondly, in a nation comprised predominantly of those who believe in some sort of supreme being, our success as a movement depends on disavowing the secular extremist as a legitimate voice of the left.

Or not? As I see it, you were calling for a non-violent purge. We, the undersirable atheists, need to be disavowed by the 'real' progressives and all that BS. So what if you weren't thinking about burning us at the stake? You still want us to shut up and go the hell away. A purge by any other name is still a purge.

So, until you address the actual criticism leveled at your article, you will remain in the Bigot Box.


4:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sincere or not, it's a start. If Ms. Barton decides she's smarter than everyone she has offended in this episode, who have read her column along with her other nacent-bigot writings, and decides bigotry against atheists is okay (for whatever reason), she'll deserve and receive no support or cover from this person. At that point she will have determined her own sad, compromised and pathetic fate.

4:35 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

I don't apologize for the definitions b/c all definitions, including those for secular/secularism (including the fact that the terms have multiple meanings), agnostic, etc. were drawn from a variety of dictionaries and encyclopedias. Go to google, insert the word secularism, and click on web definitions. I didn't invent these definitions. Funny considering how many people accused me of not using a dictionary.
I did include my use of the word "whackjob" and it's motivation.
Again, although I was NOT referring to all atheists as extremists, I did apologize for the poor writing and preparation that led to that interpretation. I have spent considerable time racking my brain about how I could have better expressed the overarching idea without provoking this misunderstanding. As I found there were better ways to express myself and some arguments that should have been left out, I apologized... sincerely.
Stand against means speak out against. Take a verbal or written stance. As much as I would defend your right to believe, I defend no one's "right" to be free from criticism or to be automatically accepted as a legitimate voice of any movement. No where does that imply that you are to be silenced or expected to "shut up." You are free to speak your mind as you wish. There is no right to a platform for or official recognition of your views.
I believe we should provide a platform for atheists to air their grievances against the abuses they suffer and to require the continued separation of church and state so that their right to be free from religion is maintained. That doesn't mean we have to support EVERYTHING that springs from an atheist's pen anymore than I think everything that springs from my pen should automatically be accepted.
Finally, as many of my defenders have pointed out, (some of them atheists) one need only read some of the "less rational" responses to my column and the willful misrepresentation, misquoting and vitriol that filled the blogosphere in response to understand what I meant by extremists.
I think, in the end, far worse things were written about me than were included in my article.

4:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. You aren't that smart about how the world works yet, are you? My advice, which absolutely is meant to be patronizing, is simple: Don't respond to the comments posted here by anyone. Friend, foe or whatever. Rather, in a day or two, after you've had a chance to collect a handful of comments, had time to think about them as a whole, post a thoughtful response, if any, directly to your blog. You'll make a lot more friends and far fewer enemies.

5:09 PM  
Blogger A Hermit said...

"one need only read some of the "less rational" responses to my column and the willful misrepresentation, misquoting and vitriol that filled the blogosphere in response to understand what I meant by extremists."

If by "extremists" you were refering to the kind of people who leave nasty comments on blogs I'm still left wondering why you felt it was important to write this article. Are bad blog comments really a significant political problem? Or did you have some other atheists in mind? If so, who are they, and where can I contact them so I can argue with them, too?

I don't mean to sound pissy, but I really am curious to know why you felt this was an important enough problem to warrant writing an article about it. If you can't identify which atheists you are having a problem with it becomes very difficult for the rest of us to understand where the problem lies. The only other times I've seen the kinds of arguments you attribute to these extremists is when some religious extremist who doesn't understand atheism has accused me of believing such things. I gues that's why you got such a strong reaction; I must not be the only atheist who has been falsely accused of such extremism.

And I haven't been able to find a definition of secularism that matches the one you used, by the way. some people may use it that way, but selecting a narrow, uncommon, colloquial definition isn't much better than inventing one of your own...


A Hermit

5:22 PM  
Anonymous Tatarize said...

An Apology one cannot accept.

Atheism is flush with skeptics and materialists. And it is true that some atheists believe in ghosts and all manner of supernaturalist nonsense, it is not true that all atheists are extremist. Now, that's not what you said exactly, you said only materialist atheists were extremist, which is most atheists (I've met very few atheists to whom this does not apply). So most atheists are extremist by your definition. Unless I adopt some belief in Leprechauns, I'm a whackjob? Does my lack of supernatural beliefs make me inclined to bomb abortion clinics or fly planes into buildings. This is the reason for the harsh reaction you received. Your writing was poor because your understanding is extremely weak. Also, as a side note you stated that “all secular whackjobs are atheists” -- this is patently false. I know several strict materialist theists (Scipans for one, Thomas Jefferson for another) who would have more than a few things to say on the subject.

Your argument against materialism for example, to explain why disbelieving in everything we cannot see or detect is wrong, was to bring up parallel universes. This is critically flawed. We can't detect them at the present time. Certainly they might exist. But, this does not make them supernatural, it makes them potentially natural. They are not "beyond detection" they are simply not detected... yet. They could easily be fit into materialism and would be overwhelmingly accepted (many atheists do actually accept them conditionally) by atheists if they were shown to exist. It's simply the case that the list of things we've tried and failed to 'see' is filled with hoaxes, lies, and snake oil. Disbelieving until evidence is presented is quite acceptable.

As a second reason to reject materialism you argued that it's a argument from silence. Well, arguing that only things we can detect currently are the things which actually exist, would employ an argument from silence. Fallacies are applied to specific claims in arguments, not viewpoints. For example, it wouldn't be accurate to say that theism is a Divine fallacy or argument from ignorance (both actual fallacies which theism employs often). Theism is just the belief in the existence of God, whereas atheism is those without such a belief.

Your definitions of atheism, agnosticism, are extremely flawed. You adopt a colloquial and flawed, although common, definition of agnosticism as the the general middle ground of non-theism. However, this is what people consider weak atheism. The proper definition of agnosticism is one who doesn't think knowledge of theist claims can exist. Your statement about neither side being able to prove anything is a clearly agnostic viewpoint. Also, this tends to imply that atheism is itself a claim. This is decidedly not so.

In short, your misunderstandings and downright falsehoods and subtle unseen biases were embedded throughout your piece. Skepticism isn't about proselytizing for deconversion, it's about people understanding their mistakes and not making them again. Your apology seems to be a result of the overwhelming poor view of your work, and your extremely misguided belief that you just didn't write clearly enough. The truth is, we liberals cannot tolerate bigots in our mists and feel inclined to address and condemn those factions on the left which serve to promote hate and undermine the progressive movement.

6:07 PM  
Anonymous Austin Cline said...

"Again, although I was NOT referring to all atheists as extremists, I did apologize for the poor writing and preparation that led to that interpretation."

I don't know if anyone thought you were referring to "all" atheists. My criticisms of your essay are quite pointed, but I never took that interpretation away. So that part of your apology, to me, is irrelevant because you're apologize for something I don't think you ever did.

You were clear that you weren't talking about all atheists. You were also clear, however, that you were talking about *most* atheists. That's quite enough to justify the criticisms you have received and it's not something you have apologized for. So long as you think that most atheists in America are "whackjobs," extremists, and deserve to be marginalized among progressive political movements, I'm going to think that you are a religious bigot, not much different from someone who thinks that most gays are "extremists" who should be marginalized.

Oh, and just because others misuse the terms "secular" and "atheism" doesn't mean you have to as well.

6:17 PM  
Anonymous Temple Stark said...

As a reader of your column, I do accept your apology and thank you for it.

Of course there were some over-the-top comments in reaction to an overgeneralizing, imprecise, column.

But, the apology is sincere and if we put everyone in a "can't win, can't forgive" position then all we do is spread bitter feelings, and let them stew toward even greater bitterness.

The following particular section is what needs to be said by more people / writers when they explain themselves badly: While I feel that I made clear that that was not the case, I must admit that if so many people came away with this conclusion, then obviously the article was not as well prepared or well written as it should have been.

I, of course, believe that's the right thing to say because as a reporter and an editor myself, this is the stance I take at the times I am misunderstood by many. It does not matter quite what I meant - though intentions remain important - if that did not come across.

Your RS editor's comment, however: "I eagerly await your vitriol" is nothing more than someone urging a fight and not a resolution.

I would love for you to not make the Michelle Malkin mistake of assuming passionate people who comment in a reactionary way at blogs are representative of much more than people who comment in reactionary ways on blogs.

6:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People like you are the reason that many atheists do not feel comfortable discussing their ideas outside of certain safe circles of friends.

We must already deal with this kind of stereotyping and nonsense from the right, should we also have to face it from other progressive liberals?

We sometimes need to be militant in the defense of our beliefs because we are under attack all of the time. We are America's most distrusted minority (University of Minnesota study). We are institutionally discriminated against in child custody proceedings (Eugene Volokh). We are fair game for discrimination from many on the right and, it seems, some on the left as well.

You have a choice. You can either recant your misguided, sloppy, lazy, and misleading article entirely or you can stand by it. If you would like to clarify your argument so that it is no longer a bigoted rant against the vast majority of atheists, I know several hundred intelligent atheists who have already demonstrated a willingness to help you along. Think of this as an opportunity to learn all of the things you clearly do not understand about atheists.

1:42 AM  
Blogger A Hermit said...

Just had to re-read this. Here again is the crux of the matter for me. In your apology, Ms. Barton, you say "I thought it only honest to take a look at the other side despite the fact that I consider religious extremism to be the greatest threat facing us today. If anyone came away with the impression that I consider secular extremism to be even an iota of the threat that religious extremism is, I apologize."

Now, it seems to me the simple fact that you felt it necessary to attack a problem which, by your own admission is not even "an iota" of the threat that religious extremism poses is a reflection of much that's wrong with political discourse in America today. The right wing has everyone so afraid of being hit with a label of "unfairness" that we get this kind of false comparison all the time. People, especiall yin the corporate media, feel they have to provide "balance" and give equal time to the "other side" even when the situation is clearly unbalanced.

If religious extremism is a huge problem, and atheistic extremism is insignificant in comparison, why do you feel it is necessary at all to attack the atheists? Is that "balance" or is it just a distraction from the real problem?

I see it as a distraction; it only serves the interests of the right wing religious extremists who can point to it and say "see? those atheists are the real extremists".

Please don't help them anymore Ms. Barton.


A Hermit

10:39 AM  
Anonymous Christopher said...

Well, if it makes you feel any better, I don't mind if you call people whackjobs; Calls 'em like you sees 'em, I say.

I also was fully aware that you weren't intending to talk about all atheists.

Here's the thing, though; The first three things you said were believable only by "whackjobs" aren't fringe beliefs; they're actually rather widely held among atheists.

Even worse, you did a very poor job of rebutting them (Especially No. 3, in which you didn't even really seem to understand what the person you quoted was saying).

As for the last two claims, they were very poorly sourced; there was no evidence given that these beliefs were at all prevelant in left-wing circles.

Saying we need to root them out in the left is thus like saying we need to root out pedophilia in the left; it implies that they have an undue influence, which in turn provides an avenue of attack for angry right-wingers.

It just feeds into the idea that the left is full of secular bible-haters.

And honestly, it hurts that even left-wingers think that we atheists have too much power. One or two annoying atheists that you've met personally are enough to send you into a tizzy, wheras there are probably ten times as many religious whackjobs even in far left circles.

It's contributes to a sense of alientation, especially since, as I argued earlier, many "whackjob" beliefs are quite sensible and widely held.

9:34 AM  
Blogger A Hermit said...

I realized there's another gaping hole in Ms Barton's argument; the idea that atheist "whackjobbery" is a phenomenon of the "extreme left."

I have to say, the most militant, obnoxious atheists I''ve ever met have been libertarian Ayn Rand worshippers, who would really object to being labeled "leftist."

11:41 AM  
Blogger Brou HahHah said...

I don't even understand why you apologized for the article. Maybe for some words you used, or how your thoughts were organized. You definitely hit some raw nerves with a few people, but the writing was yours, and genuine. Don't apologize for being genuine.

For those of you who find offense, good. It's good to read about writers who can captivate an audience, and maybe even stir them to action. However, there are two things to remember-

1. It's one person's perception. Deal with it.

2. Freedom of speech is alive and well on the Internet. It takes gutsy writers to keep that spirit alive. Don't squash it out of hand. Present an organized, logical argument to the contrary. It's called rational discussion.

11:43 AM  
Blogger A Hermit said...

Well, Brou Hahhah, I think there have been a lot of intelligent, thoughtful and well reasoned respones to Ms. Barton's article; the fact that a lot of them were also angry doesn't in any way invalidate the arguments presented. Free speech works in both directions, here.

This wasn't a case of just poor organization or a badly chosen word or two. In the same way that racists and anti-semites like to preface their screeds with disclaimers about how they're not talking about "all Jews" or tell us that some of their "best friends are black" Ms Barton offered a weak line or two about not all atheists being "whackjobs" and then proceeded to offer poorly informed objections to a cariciture of atheism.

What I'm waiting for is an explanation of why she felt ut was even necessary to go after atheist "extremists" if they are, as she herself now admits, an insignificant group at best, whose influence is, in her words, not "iota of the threat that religious extremism is". Why kick the cat when the dog is teh one wrecking the house?

I'm also waiting to find out who these mythical "whackjobs" are, exactly. I don't think its particularly "gutsy" to write such a vicious denunciation of people without identifying who it is you're attcking and addressing what they have actually said and done. Anyone can attack a cariciture; I see nothing gutsy about that.

I'm glad that Ms. Barton has apologized for her bad writing, but it seems to me she still needs to explain her reasons for writing about htis at all, and who exactly she was writing about.

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Giggles said...

I second Christopher and Brou Hahhah. These people have proven your point time and again. Stand proud.

12:01 AM  
Anonymous CrazyA said...

Well, whether you agree with Melinda or not at least she knows how to get people talking!! She has given a lot of people an opportunity to put forward really good points and rebuttals that I may never have been able to read otherwise.

So thanks Melinda, and keep writing.

2:32 AM  
Blogger A Hermit said...

I don't mean to "uppity" or anything here, but who are "these people", giggles, and how are they proving Melinda's point (whatever it was)?

12:24 PM  
Anonymous dreamwalker said...

Ok, I'm 'crazya' Mr Hermit, and an agnostic...and the reason for that anonymous post is my cowardly way of keeping potential attackers and/or spammers from my blog.

Perhaps those others feel the same way?

8:24 PM  

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