February 25, 2018

When Atheist Heroes Fail Us

Lawrence KraussWhenever we learn of accusations of impropriety made against a prominent atheist or skeptic (i.e., the author of books we've enjoyed, someone we might hear speak at conferences, etc.), many of us go through a familiar process. We ask whether the accusations are credible. If not, we may question the motives of those making them. Do they have something to gain by harming someone's reputation? If the accusations seem credible, we begin to focus on what (if anything) we can and should do. Are criminal penalties being pursued? Should we speak out against the accused in order to distance ourselves from him or her? Should we start a boycott?

This process is far from universal, of course. Some atheists insist that all accusations must be believed without question; however, I suspect that most skeptics and freethinkers reject this position. They realize the importance of due process, the presumption of innocence, and the many dangers associated with mob justice.

Although the central problem here is the alleged bad behavior itself, I think that our collective tendency toward hero worship often hinders us in these situations as we form judgments about the credibility of the accusations and decide how best to respond. By placing some influential atheists on pedestals, our appraisal of these situations may be impacted in ways we don't always realize.

Consider the scenario where the person against whom the accusations have been made is the author of many books I've enjoyed and an invited speaker at many conferences I've attended and many more I've watched on YouTube. Perhaps I even met the person while working at one of these conferences. I probably feel like I know him or her, but it should be obvious that I do not. I know his or her work and reputation, but that is about it. Even if I've met the person, it is unlikely that I've spent more than a few hours with him or her. Can I reasonably claim to know someone on that basis? No.

The issue here is that I feel like I know the person even though I do not, and this may lead me to accept or reject the accusations based on this presumed knowledge. "He seems like a decent guy to me, so he couldn't have done that." "Yes, I thought he was creepy so I'm sure he did everything of which he has been accused and more." It seems to me that I'm making informed judgments, but I really don't have enough information for that to be the case. I do not really know the person in question.

I don't think we do ourselves any favors by creating atheist pseudo-celebrities. We should be able to admire and appreciate someone's intellectual contributions without making assumptions about their moral character. Just because I've enjoyed someone's books does not mean that he or she cannot be a creep. Just because someone has been an effective advocate for science education, secularism, freethought, and whatever else I might value does not mean he or she cannot behave poorly at times. I think we might also do well to remember that we are more than our headliners.

We've seen allegations against Michael Shermer, Lawrence Krauss, and many others. We can evaluate these allegations and decide for ourselves whether they are credible and what, if anything, to do about them. But I can't help thinking that this might be easier if we stopped regarding them as heroes and recognized that the merits of their work are not necessarily tied to their behavior. It seems like having more realistic expectations of others might prevent us from feeling like our heroes have failed us as often as they do.

For some additional thoughts on the recent allegations against Krauss, check out the following: