***Update***: The largest atheist group in Australia, the Atheist Foundation of Australia, has pulled out of joining as an affiliate due to Sherlock’s statements.
Michael and I know each other but have not met in person. He has appeared (and been promoted) on my podcast on more than one occasion. We've always gotten along.@AtheistAus has been asked to join the @atheistalliance and at last night's meeting we decided against it.
— Questionable Adam (@AdamReakes) July 16, 2020
I posted yesterday about a troubling situation brewing at Atheist Alliance International, one of the larger atheist organizations in the world, with nearly 200,000 fans on Facebook and “Special Consultative status” with the United Nations.
You can read the details here, but the gist of it is that the group’s executive director Michael Sherlock had called one critic a “cunt” and used the slur “retarded” in multiple tweets. (His defenders insisted he was using the technical definition meaning “slowed” or “delayed,” but it’s clear in context that wasn’t the case.)
Three members of AAI’s not-yet-publicized advisory board told me they were resigning as a result of the comments. Sherlock himself spent part of yesterday lashing out at me personally.
Now we have an update.
Last night, AAI posted their own statement online. It says that the board has suspended Sherlock for a month, without pay. He has also been reminded that damaging the group’s reputation could lead to being fired without advanced notice.
The disciplinary committee of the Atheist Alliance International board met today with our Executive Director, Michael Sherlock. The meeting was to review a series of Tweets that took place on Monday this week involving Michael Sherlock, @ge_kaitlyn https://t.co/YU9sqsEIBR
— Atheist Alliance International (@atheistalliance) July 16, 2020
That’s a start. Interesting that (as of this writing) they posted it on Twitter, where they have significantly fewer followers, and not on Facebook, which is their primary way to communicate with supporters.
The statement itself doesn’t give me much comfort, either:
Whilst AAI expects to encounter controversy in the public sphere, it is our strict policy to treat everyone with respect. Our job is to attack bad ideas or behaviors but not to attack people and certainly never to resort to personal insults. The committee found that Michael fell short of these ideals in this exchange.
They’re referring to the exchange in which he called a critic a “cunt” twice. But what about all the other times he used that word or other similar slurs? Saying he “fell short” suggests his rhetoric was just fine with AAI until he used that particular word in that particular thread.
But it’s his overall behavior that’s a problem, not a singular incident. He’s just a bad representative for the organization.
What about the use of “retarded”? AAI doesn’t care about that one at all.
The committee found that Michael used the word without intending any disrespect or offense to anyone.
Oh. Well that settles it then. He meant “retarded” in a good way. Obviously.
Kaitlyn Gleason, the person Sherlock insulted, didn’t buy the statement either, saying it “missed the mark.” She told me this last night:
I don’t care if Michael thinks I’m a cunt. I care about using language that is hurtful to intellectually disabled people. We should all do our best to ensure we do no harm to vulnerable groups of people. There are plenty of other words he could have used and he should have. There is no excuse.
Today, he again defended using the word while calling those of us who were concerned “irrational,” a “militia of morality police,” and “self-righteous and self-appointed conformity crusaders… on a jihad.”
How can you stand by someone who does not understand how using a word like “retarded” is a problem? Clearly, members of your advisory board agree that this word has no place in a decent, humanist society since multiple members resigned.
As atheists, we have to do better and we have to demand better. We already struggle with a bad reputation simply because we don’t believe in gods. This kind of behavior does not help our cause.
Again, I appreciate the consideration that you gave this incident and I wish you continued success in the work you do.
I would just reiterate that I want groups like AAI to succeed. If their goal is to make atheism more acceptable and help people in other countries when their rejection of religion puts them in harm’s way, I’m right there with them. But when their leader is openly hostile to constructive critics and making statements that are impossible to defend, it’s creating more obstacles for our shared goals.
Why even have a group to solve big problems when all you’re doing is creating new ones? I don’t get it.
I guess we’ll find out in a month (or sooner) how seriously the board takes its own statement and how much of a leader Sherlock wants to be. In the meantime, there are other groups doing much of the same work in normalizing atheism. Consider becoming a member of any of them.