American Atheists is putting in place a Code of Conduct in response to reports of harassment and inappropriate behavior at its conferences.
"The Code of Conduct will allow all conference attendees to know that American Atheists' events are safe, fun and informative. We want people to enjoy themselves but know there will be consequences for harmful behaviors," David Silverman, president of American Atheists, said in a statement this week.
Those who attend the atheist group's events are being asked to comply with its rules, including "no touching other people without asking" and no "racism, sexism, homophobia, or other stereotyping."
The policy is being implemented amid a good number of reports among various atheist/skeptic groups of inappropriate and aggressive behavior, particularly against women.
Todd Stiefel, president and founder of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, described the situation in a post on the Friendly Atheist blog:
"There are stories of people being relentlessly propositioned, groped under tables, threatened with rape, stealthily photographed for voyeuristic pornography, and many other transgressions. Even if any of the specific cases were unintentional, misconstrued, or dubious, the fact that so many of them are coming to light should concern all of us," he wrote.
He noted that it is unclear if the harassment is coming from other skeptics or if it is being directed at them, but said nevertheless that he condemns such behavior.
"I doubt these activities are more common in our movement than elsewhere. I hypothesize that we are hearing so much about these issues in our movement because our victims, as skeptical people, are more skilled than the average person at directly challenging difficult problems," he added.
Many of the stories Stiefel has heard involved men harassing women. But as a victim of sexual harassment himself, he said men can also be on the receiving end.
Along with American Atheists, other humanist and freethinker groups have also implemented or are in the process of creating behavior policies.
The Center for Inquiry (CFI) and its affiliates have a policy prohibiting "any abusive conduct that has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with another person's ability to enjoy and participate in the conference. Critical examination of beliefs does not, by itself, constitute harassment."
While expressing caution on the wording of policies – such as banning touching (like handshakes) without permission – Stiefel said he is looking forward to the implementation of policies.
"As skeptics, we are relatively talented at asking tough questions and changing positions quickly based on new evidence. As freethinkers, we reject misogynistic dogma and patriarchal hierarchies. We will not remain quiet for the sake of conformity to tradition or authority. Fortunately, we have the opportunity to leverage these strengths to change more quickly than other communities have."