About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Excommunicated by the Atheists!

No, I’m not talking about the relatively recent events surrounding Ellen Johnson’s abrupt dismissal from the presidency of American Atheists. I don’t know much about what was going on there, despite being a lifetime member and having worked with Ellen, so I will not comment on it. I’m referring to my own sacking from the Board of New York City Atheists (henceforth NYCA), one of the most active organizations in the country. OK, technically I resigned, before president Ken Bronstein kicked me out, but it still was a rather unpleasant and shocking experience. I want to tell the tale because for me it raises broader questions about organized and confrontational atheism, questions that I have already broached on several occasions when commenting on the so-called “new atheism” a la Dawkins or Hitchens.

So, to recap the ugly details first. Needless to say, what follows is my view of the events, and people interested in the objective truth (ah!) better do some digging around (though you can easily find other critics of NYCA: the Skepchicks, readers on Dawkins.net, and even one of their young and enthusiastic members). I was asked by Bronstein to join the Board of NYCA a couple of years ago, which I did reluctantly because I had heard from some of my friends that the group was run with a bit of an authoritarian style, something that I find both personally distasteful and not in line with what I think atheism and secular humanism should be about. Nevertheless, I like to help any local or national group who asks, so I accepted and did my best. Other than giving several public lectures on their behalf, the most successful event was a well attended fund-raising cruise to Canada last year, featuring yours truly as the on board speaker/moderator, with the help of my friend Dennis Horvitz, the “the David Letterman of the hopelessly damned.”

Things started going down the drain when, within a period of a couple of months, a few more people complained to me of Bronstein’s management style, then one person I knew was not-so-kindly asked to never show up again at meetings because of her “disruptive behavior” (she had been asking questions about tolerance within atheists groups), and finally a prominent and active member of the group was summarily dismissed by Bronstein on the grounds that he was “undermining the organization” (he had the temerity to think that atheism is not just about activism, but also about relaxed, social gatherings).

I started asking questions of Bronstein and of the Board of NYCA about all of this, pointing out that even if all of the above was not true, these sorts of rumors would hurt the image of the organization. I thought I was doing exactly what a responsible Board member ought to do, and eventually I asked for a Board meeting to discuss the matter. Bronstein’s reaction (and that of one other Board member) was extremely negative to put it mildly, and in a series of emails and phone calls I was alternately accused of “not getting it” and of being part of a conspiracy to bring down NYCA (this blog entry is, obviously, proof of the conspiracy!). With the help of a couple of other Board members who were beginning to feel uncomfortable with the situation (eventually, one of them resigned in protest, and another told me that his/her name will not be on the ballot next year), I started looking into whether all of this was being done according to the rules.

What rules, you may ask? Well, NYCA, like many similar organizations, is registered as a non-profit educational group with the State of New York (they may be registered with the Federal Government as well; I asked, and did not get a response). As such, they are supposed to have bylaws on file, which have the value of legal documents. Well, then, I figured this disagreement could be easily settled by simply looking at what the bylaws said about the due process for expelling members and for calling Board meetings. Not so easy: the bylaws could not be found! They are not posted on NYCA’s web site (as they should be), and no member of the group or of the Board I asked seemed to have a copy of the bylaws. Strange, very strange. Bronstein called me up, and told me that, quite frankly, had we been in a corporate situation (he worked in such an environment most of his life) he would have fired me by now. I politely (well, not really so politely) reminded him that that was exactly the point: NYCA is not a for-profit corporation, and he is not its CEO.

Eventually, a fellow Board member found the bylaws, I looked through them, and easily spotted two pertinent articles:

“Section VII - Removal From Office Or Membership. ... B) Removal from office and/or membership requires 75% of the Board Members voting in favor of removal.”

“Section IV - Leadership. ... C, v: Any member of the Board may also call for a Board meeting in writing. If the president does not schedule one within 30 days, the Board, by a majority vote, can set the date, time, location and agenda for a Board meeting."

Clear enough! Ken Bronstein was in violation of both points, so the rational thing to do would have been to redress the problem by calling the Board meeting I was requesting, with a discussion of the recent dismissal as the main point on the agenda. That is what I proposed to do, though by now I was beginning to suspect that rationality and ethical behavior had nothing to do with what was unfolding.

Sure enough, it soon became painfully clear nothing is simple when egos and strong opinions get in the way (I do not plead to either having a small ego or lack of opinions, by the way). Bronstein immediately told me that those were the “old” bylaws, and that a new set had been passed, giving him total and complete control of the group, financially, in terms of activities and policies, and, of course, in matters of expelling members and calling for Board meetings.

I knew at this point that I would have to resign from the group eventually, but the whole thing really smelled of exactly the sort of behavior that a secular humanist group should not be condoning, so I pursued the matter a bit further, and asked Ken for a copy of the new bylaws and of the vote by which they had been passed. Nothing. Several days later, the new bylaws began to circulate among Board members. It turns out that they had been (allegedly) approved by a simple vote of the Board, though there are some discrepancies about when this actually happened (if it happened). This in turn raised a new problem, because the old bylaws clearly stated:

“XIV. Approval and changes to Bylaws: ... B) Approval for change to the Bylaws requires a seventy-five percent ‘vote in favor’ by members at the Annual Meeting or at two consecutive monthly membership meetings.”

Oops. It was time to get out of an organization run by an autocrat who responds to challenges with a rude “my way or the highway,” and whose bylaws are probably illegal in the State of New York. So that is when I resigned.

OK, Massimo, what is the point of all this, other than to stick it to Ken Bronstein and feeling better about your own bruised ego? There are actually several points. First of all, it is a shame that a group like NYCA has to get marred by this sort of situation. It is one of the largest, most active and most successful groups in the country (though, being based in New York, they could probably have ten times their current membership if they were a bit more welcoming). They, including Ken Bronstein, have been doing quite a bit of good work for the atheist movement, but they -- particularly Bronstein -- don’t seem to realize that much damage to the same movement can be caused by precisely the type of intolerant behavior that we all criticize in fundamentalist churches. Indeed, I found several rather (unintended) ironic statements by Bronstein in the NYCA Newsletter, in the column that he unfortunately calls “The President’s Sermon.” For instance, in the March 2007 issue: “Religion teaches obedience to authority,” but apparently it is Bronstein who wants absolute authority in “his” group. October 2006: “As an Atheist, I am proud that I belong to a community of individuals who are lifelong freethinkers and skeptics,” that is, unless one dares to freethink and be skeptical of what the NYCA one-man leadership does. September 2005: Bronstein’s proposed “code for atheism” includes “respect others even if their beliefs and traditions are different than yours. Pluralism is a must,” unless it is a type of pluralism that is not welcome by Bronstein. And so on and so forth, countless examples of this discrepancy between preaching and doing can be found on the NYCA web site. When I pointed this out to Ken, his response was that despite my complaints NYCA has a large membership. I retorted that by that standard we should all praise the megachurches in Colorado and California...

Second, and perhaps more importantly, this experience has reinforced in my mind one major difference between atheism and secular humanism. While there certainly are excellent atheist groups, and there are some secular humanist leaders that unfortunately come close to the Bronstein model of doing things, it is hard to avoid the feeling that there is an obvious difference between simply being against something (atheism) and in favor of something (a secular philosophy of life). Make no mistake about it: I am both an atheist and a secular humanist, and I consider the two positions as two sides of my (admittedly multi-dimensional) philosophical coin. But being an atheist to me is like being an a-unicornist: of course I don’t believe in unicorns, but I would hardly define myself that way! Secular humanism, on the other hand, is an attempt to articulate what kind of positive contributions a godless but human- and nature-full perspective can add to life.

Even at its best, organizations like NYCA (and some of their national counterparts) come across as strident, angry, and overall unpleasant. There certainly is a time and a place for anger and protest, but those components by themselves never go very far. That is why my model in these matters is Carl Sagan, not Richard Dawkins. I know that god is a delusion, and I know that s/he ain’t great either, Mr. Hitchens, but I also know that we need much more than angry denunciations to overcome the religious fundamentalist onslaught and change society for the better. This change comes to pass through real tolerance and pluralism, not the fake kind espoused in “sermons” preached by autocratic atheists. As I wrote in other contexts before, the problem isn’t religion, pace Dawkins and the New Atheists. The problem is uncritical adherence to any kind of ideology, and atheism can be as unpleasant an ideology as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. We can do better, and the cleaning has to start at home. That is why, with much regret, I left New York City Atheists.

[Note: Obviously, NYCA members, including Ken Bronstein, are more than welcome to post their supporting or dissenting comments, as long as this doesn't become a shouting match.]


  1. "Bronstein called me up, and told me that, quite frankly, had we been in a corporate situation (he worked in such an environment most of his life) he would have fired me by now."

    Ah ha! For most people, working for a corporation is not a completely voluntary association. You do it because you have bills, you gotta work somewhere to live.

    Certianly, when one decides to join an organization based on interests that are personally meaningful, they have no intention of submitting to the boss of corporate authority.

    Good job Massimo, I would have said "F%*&@ You!"

  2. Silly bureaucracies!

    As for Dawkins, he certainly has a chip on his shoulder with his new show "The Genius of Charles Darwin." He starts on the "your belief in God is silly and outdated" spiel within minutes of the first episode.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Massimo,

    I would write "I told you so" (and that would be intended to the single-dimensional new atheists) but you have already been telling them so yourself for a while. Your penultimate paragraph (differentiating between atheism and secular humanism) is the perfect summation of the issue and echoes my own position on the matter (I too consider myself a humanist + atheist).

  5. When I was a youth in the UK my partner and I had the same problem with an ancient organization that existed in order to change the laws for gay people.

    The board had creaked along for decades and, although they meant well, times had changed.

    It took a year of coaxing, asking for resignations and very gentle persuasion (together wth a request for the rules of the organization and many "points of order" at meetings) to move the board on.

    It was worth it. The group eventually spawned agencies like Stonewall and the old regime of law crumbled.

    Just keep ploughing on!

  6. The atheist purge continues. Your post here is being discussed at the Friendly Atheist blog too. I made the following comment there:

    Wow, this is really blowing up. I know most of the folks involved and this has been simmering for a few months. It’s interesting that Massimo’s blog post coincides with other drama in the fora like this stuff:

    There’s an NYCA meetup tonight. I might go to scope things out. I’m not sure I want to continue my contributions, although relatively minor, to the NYCA.

  7. Although I love Dawkins and I believe Atheists need to stand up and be heard, I do not like NYCA or it's leadership. I feel that we do need outspoken, in-your-face activists but there is a difference between being an outspoken activists and being a pseudo-cult. We need our Atheists meetups to be inclusive of those who do not like the agressive approach. The groups should be more social than activist oriented and they should respect people's differences. If some of the members want to get together and protest something, more power to them , but they should pressure other members into doing so. I posted something about this on our local meetup board a while back and everyone in the group agrees that we want to keep the group a welcoming group and we will limit our official activism to Atheist causes only, and that no one will ever be pressured into becoming *politically involved*.


  8. oops, I meant to say they should NOT pressure other people into doing so. Jeez, leave out one word and it changes the whole meaning..LOL

  9. Perhaps because I share Dawkins' distaste for religious dogma, I'm not bothered by his aggressive approach. In fact, it's no more aggressive than what's commonly observed on the other side, and, unlike many secular humanists, Dawkins is getting attention, not all of which is negative (unless the majority of folks bolstering his book sales is turned off by his approach, which I doubt).

    But I also share the need to endorse something positive, particularly something with safisfying ethical content. Dawkins delivers some of that, but it's admittedly not his focus. He's after the Truth, and I have to agree with him that science is a better tool for approaching it than, say, prayer or meditation, let alone scripture. Explaining why is something that he's gotten pretty good at. It's basically his job at this point, so I think it's fair to say that he's an "evangelist" (a term which is also used in marketing).

    All that said, it sounds like NYCA is a big turnoff, indeed.

  10. Massimo,

    Your paragraph about the difference between an atheist and a secular humanist hits the nail right on the head and it's today Skepquote of the day. I couldn't have said it better myself.

    Second, I'm glad to hear that you put up a fight before you bowed out. This story just goes to show that dogma is dangerous, regardless if it is religious or atheist, or anything else, in nature.

    My last point has to do with your comments about Dawkins and Hitchens. Your point is valid, however, I think of their works more as a rallying cry for the atheist than an effort to "convert" the believers. So I think they have a role to play, and an important one in my mind.

  11. From what I have obvserved as a long-time NYCA member, Masssimo has gotten some things wrong. However, there seem also to be legitimate concerns.

    If there are those who have issues with how the NYCA is being run, why not bring these up directly to the leadership of the NYCA, by phone, letter or email, instead of stirring the pot in the blogosphere?

    That Atheist Guy points out that there is a meetup tonight. I'm going to check that out. I'm sure there are legitimate points on both sides.

  12. But I did bring these points up with the leadership of NYCA (meaning, Ken, there is no other leadership), and I was booted out as a result.

    As for there being legitimate points on both sides, I did warn readers that this was my version of the story. However, I am having a really hard time imagining what a good justification would be for not following the group's bylaws, not calling for a meeting when a board member requests it, and in general behaving as if one owns the group. Then again, my imagination is notoriously limited...

  13. fly(grrl), you could always post something on the message board but you might very well be called a Theist spy and the post might be deleted. You will most likely also be removed from the group. Please do raise the concerns you have at the meeting and let us know how it went though.

  14. I feel that many of the issues raised above do indeed need to be addressed directly by Ken and the members of NYCA. As the blogging "voice" of NYCA, I have essentially been given free reign to post about whatever I choose. I have much appreciated this latitude.

    I will make an attempt over the next day or so to address some of these things at the NYCA blog. I will also be hosting NYCA's monthly meetup tonight (Tues. the 19th) and could be swayed into using it as a public forum to discuss these matters.

    Unfortunately, Ken Bronstein has another commitment tonight and will likely not be in attendance for the meetup. That presents a big obstacle toward debate because I don't think it would be fair to tackle these matters in his absence. In any event, I will do my best to try to rectify these affairs because I do not want to see NYCA's public image tarnished any further, and I feel the organization could do a great deal more if just a few things were modified concerning its public stance and the overall tenor of the group.

    The last thing atheism needs-- considering all the odds stacked against it--is division within the ranks.

    --MDorian www.nyc-atheists.org/blog

  15. The New York City Atheists appear to be a perfect mirror image of an evangelical church.

    Last week they held a talk by Rook Hawkins. You had to pay $20 to attend. The advertisements for the talk contained several falsehoods: that Rook is a public historian, that he is a bible specialist, and that he translated the Bible. These are all false.

    When we notified Jane Everhart (NYCA communications director) of these errors, she accused us of being theists, Vatican operatives, and child molesters. She joined Rook in the standard RRS cult tactic of responding to any criticism with character attacks, accusing the critics of being theists, and going into off-topic fantasies of the RRS being subject to death threats for their bravery.

    Rook Hawkins never translated the bible and does not meet the formal definition of either of those titles. He is a self-taught enthusiast who offers "degree level courses" at the Rational Response Squad Academy. (The RRS is another evangelical atheist outfit.)

    Jane Everhart would rather defend the atheist equivalent of Dr. Dino than admit the NYCA made a mistake.
    Fake credentials, fake accomplishments, diploma mills, and lying for the cause. This is the public face of atheism?

    Jane Everhart refused to fact-check Rook's fake accomplishments and then censored everyone who posted the truth on their meetup page. She considers the truth to be "insults."

    See Jane's behavior here:

  16. Sounds like this guy is echoing Madelyn Murray O'Hare's management style. She was known for this sort of thing too. That's why I stay away from American Atheists. I'm thinking of joining the Ethical Culture Society though; people seem much nicer.

  17. It was time to get out of an organization run by an autocrat who responds to challenges with a rude “my way or the highway,” and whose bylaws are probably illegal in the State of New York. So that is when I resigned.

    As a New York attorney I would say that was wise. If the Board of Directors is not properly exercising its duties of oversight over the organization and officers, there can be civil or even criminal penalties. New York's Attorney General's office is fairly aggressive in its oversight of not-for-profits and it wouldn't be the first time that such one-man-rule wound up in financial irregularities, even if (at first) unintentional. A healthy non-profit has an active and no-nonsense board that is involved in all decisions.

  18. Firstly I'm pleased to be referred to as a critic. It's about the most neutral thing anyone as said about me, and fair comment. I must admit the comic value of Vatican Commandos.

    The thing I find most troubling is the relationship between the Rational Response Squad and NYC Atheists. Ignoring any philosophical differences, there is the issue of "the Squad's" blatant flaunting of their desire to funnel money though 501(c)(3) organizations. I have PDFs of them doing this on their site, and there is still one reference not deleted.
    The deleted message read
    "If you would like to make a donation of over $1,000 we can arrange for you to pay directly to a non-profit organization (tax deductible) who will use the money to pay their portion of the server fees. Contact Sapient to make such an arrangement."

    I naturally presumed FSGP.org, since that was the only site that spoke of any attempt have "the Squad" host their site, but since they also offer to do something similar for advertising, well, it makes any 501(3)(c) organization suspect doesn't it. I don't know if they are actually doing anything wrong, but it looks VERY suspicious.

    Kelly was asked about it, and had pretty much no comment save "What do you want to do, look at our 1040s?".

    Ignoring the possibility of money laundering, there are issues with 501(3)(c) organizations funding activism. The reverse isn't an issue, a political party can for example donate to a church.

  19. The human animal is sadly prone to autocratic behavior. I once encountered a junior, movie theater usher, who, with crossed arms, decided to take control of a line of patrons. He turned into a Hitler Youth before everyone's eyes, prodding people into forming a perfect line. He yelled and cursed and became apoplectic.

    A little power goes a long way.

  20. "If there are those who have issues with how the NYCA is being run, why not bring these up directly to the leadership of the NYCA, by phone, letter or email, instead of stirring the pot in the blogosphere?"

    I can tell you first hand what it's like bringing something up with at least Jane Everhart. But don't take my word for it, since I was accused of harassment and being a Vatican Commando, I posted all the e-mails and faxes.


    They don't seem to be interested in criticism of any sort, and rather than answer legit concerns, they act like true demagogues.

    Unfortunately, one should bring up these concerns to the NY Att. General, the FTC and BBB.

    If someone brings up the concept of "we should be fighting the true enemy, theism", god(s) are not the issue. It's people who speak on their behalf is. So long as you base your organization on the no-god philosophy, it is ecclesiastical.

  21. A rather bizarre turn of events. One would assume people who uphold the principles of rational thought would obviously promote the idea of democracy rather than this. But I suppose certain people simply can't handle power.

    On Hitchens and Dawkins. I don't think they are really trying to reach other atheists as so much as "on the fence" people and people who haven't given religion too much thought. So, you might know that god is a delusion and that he isn't very great. But, many who have never questioned god before it don't, and so I think both approaches (aggressive anti-theism and positive secular humanism) are needed.

  22. Before I continue, submit that mainstream churches are to be fair better organized. They have their politics and the same sort of crap, but they are usually more professional about it. I also consider these organizations atheist churches, not secular since the core dogma is belief in no-god.

    Someone proposed the idea of a oversight committee for these organizations. I lean more toward a voting membership to maintain the status quo where, for example, the membership could depose a leader's decision or the leader it self. This would help discourage abuses of power. No matter the intent, often it becomes less about the cause or the congregation but about the leader. Even an approval rating would serve to give some sense of sanity.

    My only stake in this matter is minimal contact with NYCA though Jane Everhart, and the fact that I am an apatheist, soft atheist to some. While I arrive at atheism though a lack of caring and absence of burning bushes in my life, these people presume to speak on my behalf, and are representatives of my philosophical position. When these organizations start to become nothing more than personality cults, it's time to either address the issue or disband.

    I have no objection to secular or atheist churches. Church membership has it's value, esp in the area of social networking. But keep in mind people like my self are less critical of god(s) and more critical of organized religion. There is plenty of room for a many philosophical views, but there is no room for narcissism.

  23. MDorian,

    thanks for your thoughtful comment. I am personally no longer interested in any contact with NYCA until the leadership (and, more important, the modus operandi of the group) changes. But I do think members should be aware of what is going on and make a decision about how they want the organization's affairs to be conducted. Keep us posted, if you don't mind.

  24. "However, I am having a really hard time imagining what a good justification would be for not following the group's bylaws, not calling for a meeting when a board member requests it,"

    The leader of this org is what one of our friends would call an "unyielding legalist". And yes, they can be found in all walks of life and organizations.

    My husband ran into a situation very similar to yours this summer in one of the boards that he is on. When he began to note some behavior by the pres that seemed rather strange and presumptuous, he looked into regulating issues himself. Bylaws, what bylaws? Who are the officers, um..what officers?... and when were they voted on? And on and on.

    "The pres. now wants to "buy him out" but he is trying not to leave till things are done properly for other people (and board members) sakes.

    Hang in there. Never easy to do the right thing, but it is always worth it.


  25. The comments here on Dawkins and Hitchens are sort of telling. I think that they are the catalysts for a lot of behavior that in the long run has to be tempered by the light of reason and not just passion. Not that I am really saying that Dawkins isn't reasonable - the guy will retract when wrong and admit ignorance where he is ignorant. I, for one, am very glad for them.
    But I think Massimo has a good point here and elsewhere that we need to show ourselves to be more than the curmudgeonly God is just a delusion people!" people. For that, I think that Phillip Kitcher has done very well. I highly recommend his writings, especially his last book, Living With Darwin.

  26. Massimo, thanks for your reply to my comments.

    I am trying to discuss these aforementioned matters with Ken Bronstein, and will report back here if and when I have some news to tell.

    In the meantime, it is my wish that people not brand all of NYCA's members as reactionary "cultists," or with some of the other pejorative attacks being made.

    I ask that this be kept in mind: painting all of us (NYCA members) with one broad brush is akin to non-Americans thinking that all Americans are morons because we have a president who is one. (Not that Ken Bronstein is a moron--he's not. I'm just trying to point out the fallacies and injustices of this type of "guilt-by-association" thinking.)

  27. Intergalactic Expanding Panda fails to mention a key issue regarding the context of her remark about him being from the Vatican. He was keeping her up all night with repeated phone calls. He admits to calling her at 10:54pm, she says someone was faxing her at home (she doesn't have a fax) until 3:30am.

    I am very concerned about Massimo leaving the Atheists. I'll talk with Ken about it when I get a chance.

  28. "Intergalactic Expanding Panda fails to mention a key issue regarding the context of her remark about him being from the Vatican. He was keeping her up all night with repeated phone calls. He admits to calling her at 10:54pm, she says someone was faxing her at home (she doesn't have a fax) until 3:30am."

    No sir, or ma'am. Jane's comment was 2008 Aug 9 10:54 pm. I faxed the restaurant after being accused of being a child molester and Vatican commando, and have the fax logs to prove it. Jane was up at 10:54 pm commenting on their meetup page, accusing me of being a child molester and doing the work for the Vatican.

    I have no clue regarding phone calls to Jane, only I sent two faxes after 10:54pm, both sent to the restaurant, both were successful. Given Jane is using this as an excuse why she snapped, I would have to see some proof that she was phoned. Regardless I was accused of being a child molester BEFORE 10 Aug 2008 3:30am.

    At this point, I don't buy Jane's story she was phoned at home, but I will accept answering machine tapes or phone records as evidence.

    I don't applicate being accused of things that DIDN'T HAPPEN. Please employ the basic reasoning skills before jumping to conclusions.

    -times listed EDT-
    9 Aug 10:54pm child molesting Vatican commando on meetup site
    10 Aug 1:46am Fax #1 "sent successfully" 1 page
    10 Aug 4:07am Fax #1 "sent successfully" 4 pages (including complaint about being called a child molester).

  29. http://www.rantsnraves.org/showthread.php?p=415271#post415271

    lalawawa, I redirect you to the preceding link. You can easily see Jane's comment with a time & date stamp 9 Aug 2008 10:54 PM

    For what ever reason, Jane was up blogging until 10:54 PM. What happened after that I have no clue. Not that it would be okay to accuse someone of being a child molester if they phoned someone too late, but as you clearly see, the comment came before the so called late night calls.

    This is why I archived the entire event, in the unlikely event of revisionist history.

  30. Panda, lalawawa,

    ok, I think you both said your piece on that particular issue. I'd like this post to be a reason to reflect about the goals of the atheist movement in general, not a detailed exchange about Jane's name calling or nocturnal habits...

  31. Michael is right, of course, that branding a whole group of people one way or the other is not rational.

    On the other hand, Michael, I think some people may be trying to express frustration at a group of atheists who willingly accepts an autocracy without questioning it. In that limited sense, I suppose, being a member of NYCA does carry some responsibility toward the entire movement (which is why I quit to begin with).

  32. Fair enough. Massimo, I appreciate your acknowledging the fact that not all NYCA members are guilty here.

    And yes, perhaps some atheists are rightfully frustrated.

    In any case, I can't devote the hours it would take to determining who made what phone calls or sent which faxes at what hours. As a result, I'm no longer going to address that aspect of this whole affair.

    I blog for NYCA; I don't have their logo tatttooed on my forehead as a symbol of who I am as an individual.

    If I can at some point shed any further light on Ken's position in all of this, I will.

  33. "I suppose, being a member of NYCA does carry some responsibility toward the entire movement (which is why I quit to begin with)."

    At present, there are no oversight for atheist, freethinker, or progressive secularization organizations. Our philosophical standpoint, if we even have one, is going to differ. But there is one thing in common, enhancing the image of the domestic atheist as being a person who is both moral and ethical.

    I'm critical of organized religion. Among those criticisms are the moderate theists who stand by and remain silent while extremists take the spotlight and do the things extremists do. This is why I left the Catholic church, only by being ecclesiastically neutral could I be objective, and frankly I never got this whole god concept anyway.

    But these standards I apply to others are meaningless unless I apply them to my self, and others. As such I will be as critical of organized atheism as I am of organized religion. This includes the criticism I have of the Discovery Institute.

    "...ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation." -Thomas Jefferson 1813

    The year is 2008, and this is the dawn of a global civilization. Secularization has its benefits so long as we reject the simplicity of bigotry and wrap our selves in new dogma. To paraphrase Burke, "All that is needed for the forces of evil to succeed is for enough good men to remain silent."

  34. Noticeably there is an incredible amount of fear in the NYCA.

    The notion which sec. humanism upholds that human kind is basically good and wants to do good, is totally turned on its head in this instance. And especially by people who are said to understand humanistic principles best.

    A good friend of my husband and I taught at our church last week. He was recalling a time before he would have anything whatsoever to do with God. He was a successful Nissan dealership owner in Ca. after all. Who needs God when you have everything? His wife had eventually became a believer and was presenting the possibility to him of considering a relationship with God.
    He said that he looked at her, in his words, "like an ignorant little girl" and said to her "EVERYONE KNOWS that evolution is true."

    Raises the question,
    How does one thing (evolution) somehow replace the need for the other (relationship with God)in the first place?

    Only mention this story because our friend's attitude here demonstrates the common fear of not being thought of as knowing the things that matter SO MUCH in this life. And that it is so damming in particular secular circles if you don't. And that is the fear that I think dominants the NYCA.

    It is then not true that only religious beliefs generate fear because I certainly see otherwise.

    To be rational, religion and non-religion not withstanding, one only has to have feet firmly planted in reality.


  35. http://nattyadams.blogspot.com/2008/08/atheist-torn.html

  36. Natty,

    thanks for the well reasoned post on your blog. If you want details on the various versions of NYCA bylaws and how the organization is autocratically structured, please email me.

  37. I must concur, it's reasoned and neutral. I wouldn't call my self a chief, and I went out of my way to document my every action so someone could look objectively to see if I truly was off base.

    The matter now has full censorship, even their own threads are deleted, but I have everything PDFed.

  38. Hi Massimo,
    I went to a few of the meetings and experienced very similar feelings to what you describe, about the executive machinery at NYCA. I will refrain from ad hominem attacks and focus on one particular incident. I was at an event with a group of NYCA members when I got to talking about naturalism as a positive philosophy to replace supernatural religion. This is a subject I'm very fond of and I write about this and related ideas. One certain authority figure in the group got very annoyed with me and dismissed me off saying "oh, some atheists will say naturalism is a religion, so there" or something to that effect. When I asked him what he meant he was evasive and kept dismissing what I had said.

    Later that same day, I was in conversation with another group of people where I was talking to them about quite the same ideas you write about here- that atheism is a non-belief and we need a positive philosophy to replace the role that religion plays in our society and in individuals. The same authority figure rudely broke in. He said something like "atheism is not a belief". I replied that I had not said that it was, but that it was a non-belief. At that point he went off on a tirade about selling atheism as a conclusion and how the marketing of it is important- not that I disagree, but it was completely irrelevant! He seemed to not care about my opinion or the point I was making but just about getting me to agree to his way of selling atheism.

    Still later that evening, after it was time to wrap up, a number of people came up to me and said they were interested in what I had been saying. I guess I won't be going to any more of the NYCA meetings. However, it's unfortunate for all those good people there who will stay and maybe not know that there are alternative approaches to atheism.

  39. I'm taking a break from my battle until I determine the next phase of appropriate action. I do have nothing against NYCA but the level of superstition I've encountered trying to address a meager issue of false representation is overwhelming. I was asked to give the benefit of the doubt, and am entertaining "cultural differences", and a lack of comprehension that I was giving the org a chance to propose their own solution to a minor issue of misrepresenting someone.

    What I still don't grasp is how can someone ask to not question the leadership among a community predisposed to question authority?

  40. I use to attend some of the sec/hum atheist meetings if the topic interested me. I could tell that some people had serious walls up towards other people, even others who shared their own world view. So if they were not like lovey dovey, huggy kissy with me, I could have cared less. I could see that was just how they were on the inside.. had virtually nothing to do with accepting ME.

    People simply act that way because they are crushed, hurt and disappointed on the inside. In my mind, they seem like really bright street people...More or less bankrupt on the inside with real tough exteriors. The fact of the matter is, we all just need to know sometimes that someone loves us no matter how we behave. If you really want to LITERALLY change the world, that's what it's going to take.

    I'm lucky that way. I have older brothers and sisters who treat me like a little queen. And believe me, sometimes I know good and well that I don't deserve all that.

    Today, lets consider giving someone something nice that they don't deserve. :)

    Seriously. That's true Positivism. (and faith)


  41. I've been trying to post comments to Natty Adam's blog (http://nattyadams.blogspot.com/), but have not been able to for some reason - so I'll post my comment here, since a lot of the same people have been following this issue on both blogs. As a long time member of the NYCA, I can confirm that our PR person (Jane) does indeed react irrationally to anyone who disagrees with her, or merely questions her actions (or those of the NYCA). If she would only conduct herself in a more diplomatic fashion, issues such as this one (Rook) would never have exploded to the extent that it did. As for Massimo, the way he was treated by the leadership (i.e., Ken & Jane) was a complete disgrace. And these are just two of the most recent examples of extremely poor judgment exercised by the NYCA leadership. It is also true that the organization is now being run like a dictatorship / theocracy. I seriously hope that things will turn around for the NYCA soon, but when the people at the top cannot accept constructive criticism, much less admit fault, then there's very little hope that anything will change.

  42. Firstly, I have no idea how Massimo Pigliucci feels about his blog being used this way. So I'm proposing we move over here

    Currently working on wording to bring up this issue on dawkins

    But to be frank
    as of 5pm Saturday 23 Augest 2008
    we are at war

  43. Harris, thanks for your support, it is much appreciated.

    Panda, yes, I think it is time to move that particular trend to a more appropriate site. Thanks for your contributions.

  44. This has become an item on our blog now as well. NYCA really have stirred it up. Hope it works out for you, Massimo.

    For the curious:

  45. doh...laggy connection. replace "blog" with "forum" :-)

  46. We are Anonymous

    This our take on the situation

    Encyclopedia Dramatica

    We will be watching.

    Have a nice day,


    PS Keep up the good work!

  47. I know I'm a bit late here and I have not read any of the comments left on this post. However, I would like to comment solely on the issue comparing the NYCA and Dawkins/Hitchens. Although I agree with Massimo, that an autocratic system is wrong (hence why the AAI is a better representation of a democratic organization) it is wrong to compare them to Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. Whether you like or dislike the and "in your face" tactics it is not necessarily fair to compare them to this presumed autocratic organization like NYCA.

    I think it is important to realize that to change society to adopt secularist values, we need to adopt a multi-faceted approach. We need Dawkins and Hitchens as we need people like Massimo Pigliucci and Michael Shermer and David Comings. But I don't think it is fair to say that autocracy is equivalent to Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. The beauty of being a free thinker is that you can resign from a group.

    The AAI, in my opinion is a better representation of the atheist movement because it not only demands democracy and follows strict bylaws, it also has been successful (under Margaret Downey) to unite the various factions of the atheist movement. Collaboration is the key. The NYCA board can easily overthrow the presidency if it sees fit. If the board refused to do so, then the board is complicit and if they are happy with the presidency, then one has a choice to either stay or leave.

  48. leftoflarry,

    thanks for your comments. Well, it turns out that NYCA membership cannot actually overthrow the President, because there are no elections, as far as I can tell. And the Board clearly has no power, as was evident from the fact that even though a majority of us asked for a Board meeting, the President simply ignored our request, period.

    As for AAI, yes, it is a worthy organization, and it is set up with democratic governance being a requirement for all its member groups. So exactly why is NYCA still a member of AAI, despite the fact that I notified the Board of AAI of the peculiar situation at NYCA?

  49. The NYCA situation spilled over into my local meetup group. I got into an argument with our organizer, Kenny, shortly after my online arguments with the NYCA a month or so ago. Our organizer is not only a member of the NYCA, he is a butt-kisser of Bronstein's. He and I argued about the way Massimo was treated.

    I think Bronstein is a creep, Kenny thinks Bronstein "owns" the NYCA and can do whatver he wants. I thought the situation had blown over and was willing to let bygones be bygones, but two weeks ago, Kenny ripped off a guest speaker, who happens to be a friend of mine. It is a long story, but basically, he took
    up a collection for her after she asked him not to, and then he kept all the money. He misled the members and manipulated them into giving money that they thought was going to Abbie (she goes by the name ERV online). I sent a public email to the meetup group asking why Kenny did not pay Abbie and he banned me. It's obvious that he has been looking for an excuse to ban me since the day we argued about the NYCA cult.

    Here is a link to a thread I created, or rather the second one. The original was lost when GoDaddy
    *accidentally* deleted our entire site. It seems that we lost many of the replies, but the original post and some of the replies remain. It is a complicated situation which is being discussed at more than one site. The Tulsa meetup group is in chaos at the moment. I suspect they will not force Kenny to leave the group, just as the NYCA did not force out Bronstein or Jane. It is my opinion that both groups have become cults. Those members who are not inclined to be in a cult have left or are leaving.


  50. It's really comical to me that people are so eager to throw the word "cult" around in reference to the New York City Atheists.

    I'm in NYCA and I blog for them. There's nothing "cultish" about the group. We're not restricted from dealing with our families, friends, or other groups. There is no figurehead who requires idolatry or subservience. There are no bizarre rituals or ceremonies followed (unless you consider regular monthly meetings as bizarre ceremonies).

    So, I would appreciate it if people who haven't even ever attended a single NYCA meeting would refrain from referring to us as a cult. Ken Bronstein is certainly no Jim Jones, nor is he Sun Young Moon [sic]. And the members of NYCA are definitely not slavishly devoted to him or the group itself.

  51. I don't think you define the word cult the way many of us do. You don't have to have rituals to be cult-like, although the NYCA debaptism ceremonies might fit that bill.

    You're free to take offense at my calling the NYCA a cult Dorian, and I'm free to keep calling them one. It is my opinion. You're free to hold your own but you have no right to try to stifle free speech, at least not on someone else's blog. You deleted and refused to approve posts on your blog, but you don't have that power here.

  52. Let me make a preemptive strike here before MDorian responds.

    MDorian, it might be polite if you chose to drop it and not continue arguing about the way many people are calling NYCA a cult. We have the right to our opinions. Let it go.

    You chose to remain a member of the NYCA after Bronstein forced Massimo to leave. By staying, you condoned that act. It's more than a little tacky for you to come to Massimo's blog and complain about people calling the NYCA names. Have some respect.

    I wanted Massimo to know that there are people who thought he was treated badly, people who cared enough to stand up, and even to get into arguments about it. It was very rude for you to pop in here and get all bent outa shape because your little cult was called a cult. Your group all ready violated the man, so perhaps you should go away and leave him alone now.

  53. Oh, please. Just because I disagree with you, Rayven, I've never said you don't have the right to your opinion.

    As for my being "disrespectful," what makes you the arbiter of such things?

    I've met Massimo, attended a lecture of his and very much enjoyed it, and was sorry myself to see him leave NYCA. If you think I don't have the right to express my opinion here, I think you're being a bit presumptuous.

    Massimo may not any more think highly of NYCA, but I don't believe he considers NYCA a "cult." That's just silly name-calling on your part. But go ahead and think whatever you want--of course you're entitled to your (uninformed) opinion.

  54. Let me point out something quite illogical in your comment MDorian.

    Dorian stated: "So, I would appreciate it if people who haven't even ever attended a single NYCA meeting would refrain from referring to us as a cult. Ken Bronstein is certainly no Jim Jones, nor is he Sun Young Moon [sic]. And the members of NYCA are definitely not slavishly devoted to him or the group itself."

    You assert that I should refrain from calling the NYCA a cult because I have not attended any meetings. You then use two names to assert that your leader is not a cult leader, implying that Jim Jones and Moon were/are. You fail to see that calling them cult leaders EVEN THOUGH YOU HAVE NEVER ATTENDED THEIR MEETINGS invalidates your first assertion.

    You fail at logic.

    As I said before, by staying in the NYCA you condone and accept what happened to Massimo. Then you have the gall to come post in his personal blog because you are offended that someone called your little group a cult.

    ...and you don't think that indicates cultish behavior.


  55. Rayven Rayven Rayven, Dorian is correct, the NYCA is not a "cult". They are only a pseudo-cult that happen to employ this us vs them mentality in order to assert authority and use ceremony, as well as liberal uses of censorship when the real facts affect their image.

    For example, MDorian acts like a cult member. When his beliefs in his group are challenged, they shows what I can only describe as cognitive dissidence. He's among the first to assert I was harassing Jane Everhart by faxing her home late at night, but fails to acknowledge. He's pleased to publish a childish rant by Jane Everhart asserting I should be in jail, but when I bring evidence showing that Jane's information was incorrect from the get go, he censors it. He claims my dispute isn't with the organization yet he fails to understand that I tried to address concerns about information published by the organization, on the web site, on the meetup-site, and in their news letter, and the information came from their first contact person, their communications director, their press agent.

    So Rayven, you do owe Dorian an apology. The NYCA isn't a cult, it's only a pseudo-cult. Cults are better at manipulating people. Respectfully, I find your assertion insulting to real cults who have enough in the way of charisma to get people to give up their lives for the cult.

    M. Dorian, you fail to grasp one major issue. The NYCA is ultimately responsible for any bad press they received. If you find any then we present as inaccurate, and unfair, we would be placed to retract it and issue an apology. However, if accurate it's up to YOU to use this criticism to improve your organization, or vote with your feet.

  56. I'm truly sorry I bothered responding to the whole name-calling episode. It is obviously a mistake to engage certain people.

    I have neither the energy for nor the interest in being enmeshed in this kind of debate.

    Massimo, I'm sorry to have allowed this ridiculous can of worms to be re-opened at your blog.

  57. p.s.
    I'm sure a torrent of indignant and accusatory replies from Rayven and IGEPanda will now rain down here. So be it. I'm out.

  58. "It is obviously a mistake to engage certain people.
    I'm sure a torrent of indignant and accusatory replies from Rayven and IGEPanda will now rain down here. So be it. I'm out."

    Michael Dorian, your reply may have been passive aggressive, but it certainly was indignant in it's own way, and quite accusatory.

    You see, this is what happens when we are childish and rather than backup assertions with facts just run away, people do get annoyed, which is at the heart of my dispute with your organization. I had a complaint about erroneous information being published. Rather than address it, a conspiracy theory was invented. I was correct and rather than post a retraction, well come to think about it you censored the information.

    It's all well and good to point fingers and claim everyone else as indignant and accusatory, and you could be correct, but it's silly think you're somehow above it all when your also pointing fingers. It sounds good to apologize for bring it up on his blog, but would this happen if you didn't censor this issue on your own blog?

    Respectfully you're annoyed with bad press the NYCA got recently. Why not actually embrace criticism and use it to improve the organization rather than play the damage control?

  59. Ok, boys, you've your say. As far as I'm concerned this matter is closed. Shall we move on?