The Downfall of Werleman, And Why It’s Not Good for the Atheism Movement

There has a bit of an uproar in a section of the Atheist community over the plagiarism imbroglio involving CJ Werleman. Mr. Werleman is a writer whose pieces have shown up on AlterNet and Raw Story, among other outlets (though AlterNet has taken down his articles and issued an apology for publishing his work). His style can be best described a polemical and combative, and thus has made his share of enemies. When he started making accusations about Sam Harris and the “New Atheists”, though, he really stirred up a hornet’s nest. The point of contention seems to be Werleman’s contention that Harris and his ilk are guilty of bigotry and Islamophobia (a term which I detest) because they cite the real harm done in the name of the religion of Islam. In turn Harris and Company have accused Werleman and his backers of being politically correct and unwilling to look beyond their liberal righteous anger to see the true harm that people do in the name of Islam. Incidentally, Islam is not a race, it’s a religion, a fact that Werleman can’t seem to wrap his head around when accusing others of being racist when it comes to Islam.

In the midst of all this hullabaloo came Godless Spellchecker’s blog post accusing Werleman of being a plagiarist, and citing many examples to support his contention. This post was done in consultation with Peter Boghossian, a prominent and respected name in Atheist circles, so this was not some hack job. The evidence was there, and Werleman was for all intents and purposes busted. He later issued a sorry-not sorry type of apology (which has disappeared but is summarized on Godless Spellchecker’s blog post), and then later another apology which while more extensive still reeked of insincerity. Then came news that he was possibly using another Twitter account another a different guise to promote his “official” Twitter account, and to basically represent a fawning supporter of his position. Curioser and curiouser.

Needless to say, Werleman’s reputation is now in tatters. Plagiarism is a serious offense in the journalism world, and whether it was intentional or no, it displays laziness and sloppy writing by forgetting to cite your sources. Of course, his snarky apology didn’t help, and his feeble attempt at a tu quoque defense by accusing Sam Harris of plagiarism as well made it even worse. Of course, he has his defenders, and undoubtedly he will still publish writings that some people will read, but he will probably never reach the same level of credibility as he has previously enjoyed.

This is truly a shame, because whatever you may think of Mr. Werleman and his views, he did offer up some good points in refutation of arguments put forth by Harris and others, and, as JT Eberhard points out in his blog:

I think the atheist movement is better for having a multitude of positions, so long as those positions are fairly debated with the intent of figuring out what is true, not with just trashing people who hold different opinions.  Over the past few years we have gotten less adept at this, but holding to that principle is why I’m so sad to see CJ doing this to himself.  I know a lot of Harris supporters are happy about this, but even though I mostly agree with Sam I’m not happy. I want my opponents to be people of integrity. Even if we disagree on some points, we’re still ultimately allies on atheism. That’s enough for me to want them to be good people.

Mr. Q on his Quaranify Me vlog says something similar (Shameless plug: I just became a patron of the Quranify Me podcast. If you want to as well go to his Patreon page. It’s a great show!)

If there is not open and honest debate on issues surrounding Atheism, even if we may disagree on these ideas, then our ability to defend ourselves from other positions will atrophy, and this will benefit no one, and will certainly open us to attack from real adversaries, such as right-wing religious nutjobs. And I, for one, do not want to see that happen.