Psychologists use the term moral disengagement to describe a typical set of thought process that are exhibited by many people, when they know they are responsible for serious wrongdoing. While some within Atheist Alliance International (AAI) have sought to cover up such wrongdoing within their Board by simply refusing to do or say anything whatsoever on any topic at all, those who are speaking are offering a case study in moral disengagement.
The Undisputed Facts
The following facts with respect to the behaviour of the AAI Board, are accepted by all concerned, and are not in dispute:
- During 2017, AAI co-opted John Richards, Bill Flavell and Howard Burman onto the Board as Directors of the organisation.
- As they were not elected by the Members, Bylaw 63 required that by the end of that year, these three people were obliged to either resign or else submit themselves for election.
- None of the three men resigned, and none of the three men submitted themselves for election.
- Instead, of the 36 national atheist groups that comprised the Members of AAI in 2017, the then AAI Board improperly excluded the majority of those groups from the organisation.
- They subsequently proceeded to run the organisation for several years, without ever seeking or obtaining a single vote from any national atheist group.
All of the above is attested to by both the minutes of the relevant meetings, and video interviews given by John Richards, Bill Flavell and Howard Burman themselves. On his @FreeThoughtProductions channel, John Richards has recently been attempting to answer some questions about this appalling behaviour. For example, here is a pretty simple question that was directed to him:
Specifically, since Bylaw 63 required that John Richards must either resign from the AAI Board or else seek election, the question sought an explanation for the fact that he did neither. The attempts to answer this question about serious wrongdoing within AAI, include almost every aspect of moral disengagement. Another rich source of examples for such cognitive distortions are the various excuses offered by the Roman Catholic Church following the child abuse scandals, and their efforts to cover them up. Many of those excuses are documented in a paper titled, “Cognitive Distortions of Religious Professionals Who Sexually Abuse Children”, which is available in full at the bottom of this page. Of course, the nature of the wrongdoing at AAI and at the Roman Catholic Church has been very different, but there is an amazing parallel between the moral disengagements in each case.
Many wrongdoers begin rationalising their misbehaviour by comparing the harms they have caused to even worse potential outcomes. One example of that is the suggestion from those within the Roman Catholic Church that if a young boy had not encountered an abusive priest, “he would be in worse trouble and worse company”. The rationalisation of wrongdoing at AAI has also involved Advantageous Comparison.
It is true that the wrongdoing at AAI does not rise to the level of child trafficking in the basement of a pizza restaurant. However, there remains a wide range of very serious wrongdoing that exists on a spectrum between innocence and running a child sex ring.
A common response of wrongdoers when they consider their own misdeeds, is to minimise their culpability by engaging in the Dehumanisation of their victims. Most often, this involves portraying their victims as being deficient in some fundamental aspect of their humanity, such as their agency. For example, in response to child abuse scandals, one response from those within the Roman Catholic Church was to argue that “God called me to be a priest and He knew what my needs were and how I would have them met”. The suggestion that the victims of wrongdoing were always destined by providence to suffer their fate, is Dehumanising in that it removes their agency. Bill Flavell (who still claims to be a member of the ‘AAI Board’ today) has responded in a similar way when confronted with AAI wrongdoing.
Bill Flavell argues that it doesn’t matter that he never submitted himself for election by the Members of AAI, because he already knew the Members would have voted for him. This is an argument that removes agency from those dozens of national atheist groups that Bill Flavell unlawfully disenfranchised.
It is true that all previous Directors who had sought re-election had been successful. However before Bill Flavell, no previous Director had refused to arrange a general meeting according to the Bylaws despite being asked to by the Members; had refused to publish annual accounts to the Members according to the Bylaws; and had refused to resign when he was required to according to the Bylaws. In fact, Bill Flavell was among those who had caused an unprecedented crisis within AAI. Member groups who were improperly excluded from the vote, have since stated publicly that they would never have voted for Bill Flavell.
Many wrongdoers rationalise their immoral acts by presenting those actions as being well-motivated or justified by the good intentions of the perpetrator. Example responses from the Roman Catholic Church in relation to their child abuse have included asking, “how could a person who does such good possibly hurt anyone?”. The defenders of wrongdoing at AAI have also resorted to Moral Justification.
Of course, intentions do matter. There is a very real difference between accidentally starting a fire that inadvertently causes some damage, as compared to deliberately starting a fire for the explicit purpose of causing that damage. However, it is also very obvious when someone wants to tell a story about their inherent benevolence as a deflection, which is designed to avoid discussing the specifics of their wrongdoing.
Displacement Of Responsibility
Victim-blaming is a common rationalisation employed by those responsible for serious wrongdoing. For example, some responses of the Roman Catholic Church to the abuse scandals have been to state that, “… teenage boys are full of sex and the boy liked me”. Those responsible for serious wrongdoing at AAI have also engaged in victim-blaming.
John Richards knows that the documentary record demonstrates there were 36 national atheist groups comprising the Membership of AAI when he was co-opted onto the Board. Most of those Affiliate Member groups were then improperly excluded from the organisation by John Richards and his colleagues. Howard Burman and Bill Flavell have also accepted this already. Whereas this group of people on the AAI Board deliberately kept their general meeting secret from most Affiliate Members, the unelected John Richards nevertheless blames the previous Membership and their elected representatives for not attending that secret meeting. Somehow, John Richards is blaming those he unethically disenfranchised for expelling themselves.
Another common rationalisation employed by those responsible for serious wrongdoing, is to invent language that falsely portrays their misdeeds as being benign. Examples of this from research into the Roman Catholic Church response to the child abuse scandals, include language like “… it was love and physical expression of affection and not really abuse … so they are not harmed or affected”. Those responsible for serious wrongdoing at AAI have also engaged in Euphemistic Labelling.
The unlawful expulsion of the majority of Members is described as the “rescue” of the organisation. John Richards had to destroy the village in order to save it. The invalid addition of bogus Members (which unelected people like John Richards, Howard Burman and Bill Flavell had no authority to add) is described as a “rebuild”. Of course, giving your friends so-called ‘membership’ of an international organisation for a cost of $1 just one week before an election (then awarding them three votes) is not really rebuilding. Similarly, they can’t really refer to themselves as a “Board of Rescuers” after they lost the nonprofit charity status of AAI, and also lost the Participatory Status of AAI at the Council of Europe.
Diffusion Of Responsibility
At some point, almost every child who has been found to have done something wrong, will point out that lots of others were doing the same thing. The Roman Catholic Church has also responded to the abuse scandals by engaging in Diffusion Of Responsibility. Individual priests have sought to justify their own abusive behaviour by referring to other abusive priests and arguing that, “no harm can come from such sexual activity because it has happened so many times previously”. If so many other priests had been doing this for so long, could it really be so bad for one more less acquainted priest to start following in their footsteps? Some of those responsible for AAI wrongdoing have also engaged in Diffusion Of Responsibility, by arguing that there were other more experienced Directors on the AAI Board who did not explain the Bylaws to them.
Even just on its own terms, this comment is absolutely astounding. A Director sitting on the Board of an international organisation with Special Consultative Status at the United Nations and Participatory Status at the Council of Europe, did not know that the Bylaws required him to be elected. If true, that is entirely outrageous and immediately disqualifying. Of course though, that there were others on the Board of AAI at the time does not absolve any individual Director from their own responsibility to read and follow the Bylaws.
Disregarding Injurious Consequences
Another way that those responsible for serious wrongdoing rationalise their behaviour, is to change the subject from the harm they have caused to focus on something else entirely. For example, the Roman Catholic Church has responded to the abuse scandals by asking, “how could it be that bad if God allowed it?”. Changing the subject to think about an imaginary deity, is often just a mechanism to avoid thinking about the very real victims. Those who defend AAI are also keen on Disregarding Injurious Consequences.
The person that John Richards happened to be directing the above comment to, had in fact already made efforts to help the atheist activist Mubarak Bala. However, changing the subject to discuss Mubarak Bala, is just a mechanism to avoid talking about the hundreds of other atheist activists that AAI had already betrayed utterly, and treated in an absolutely appalling manner.
No part of this discussion is intended to suggest that the wrongdoing within AAI is equivalent or comparable to that within the Roman Catholic Church. However, the well-documented thought processes associated with moral disengagement apply equally to those who have been responsible for serious misbehaviour of every kind. Moreover, it is noticeable that both the apologetics and the cover ups coming from AAI, are closely analogous to those offered by the Roman Catholic Church.
The efforts of John Richards and others in this regard have been far from impressive, but at least they have been efforts of a sort. In contrast, the current self-styled ‘President’ of AAI has made no effort whatsoever to deal with these issues. Since being portrayed on the AAI web site as the ‘President’ of the organisation, Brian Kernick hasn’t manage to utter a single word on any subject whatsoever.
If the Pope continually refused to say anything whatsoever about the child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, we can well imagine the scorn that AAI would rightly pour upon him. In fact, if the Pope continually refused to say anything at all on any topic whatsoever, we can well imagine the scorn that most Roman Catholics would pour upon him.