(RNS) — Two board members of American Atheists, one of the nation’s best-known atheist advocacy organizations, resigned in the past month after ethical concerns were raised about their actions at conferences for nonbelievers.
Mandisa Thomas, president of Black Nonbelievers Inc., gave up her seat on the board of American Atheists on on Jan. 11, weeks after she was accused of violating Black Nonbelievers’ code of conduct during the group’s annual SeaCon cruise and conference held Thanksgiving weekend.
After the allegations became public, Thomas told Religion News Service that she had mishandled a “personal situation” during the conference and had apologized.
The ethics committee of the American Atheists board said in December it was aware of the matter but the organization made no mention of an ethics inquiry when Thomas resigned from the board.
“After careful thought and consideration, I have informed my colleagues on the American Atheists Board of Directors that I would be taking time to focus on my work at Black Nonbelievers and resigning from my position on the board,” she said in her Jan. 11 statement announcing her resignation.
Days later, P. Andrew Torrez, an attorney and co-host of the popular Opening Arguments podcast, sent an email to his fellow American Atheists board members announcing that he too was stepping down from the board.
Torrez, who has referred to himself as a “lower-case atheist lawyer” who is clear about his identity as a nonbeliever but does not litigate atheist causes, said he would still be involved in the organization but did not have time to commit to the board.
“As you know, I have been unable to attend various calls, and I think the Board would be better served by someone with the availability to devote the time that this position requires,” he wrote in an email dated Jan. 17. His resignation was met with warm wishes from several other board members.
At the time he resigned, Torrez had not been made aware that an ethics complaint had been filed with the board by an activist working with several women who accused him of sexual harassment, he told RNS. The women say Torrez sent them text messages, which they have shared with RNS, that they say made them uncomfortable.
The messages, which date from 2017 to 2022, appear to show Torrez, who is married, commenting on the appearance of several fans of the show, then apologizing when the fans push back against him, saying they are not interested.
When contacted by RNS, Torrez said that he was not aware of any concerns related to his time on the board of American Atheists.
One of the women, Felicia Entwistle, told RNS that she met Torrez in 2017 when he made a remote appearance on an atheist podcast she hosts. The two struck up a friendship and began messaging. Entwistle said she hoped to learn from Torrez how to grow the audience for her podcast. She said she was used to men being flirtatious and tried to laugh Torrez’s comments off. “He would make a big show of apologizing to me,” she said, but continued to make similar comments.
She eventually met Torrez in person at an event in Utah, where she lives. Entwistle said that she, Torrez and other fans went out to a bar for drinks. After she left the bar, Torrez messaged her, asking her to come back to the hotel, saying he was leaving town the next day.
“He kept pushing after I got home,” she said.
Entwistle eventually ended up blocking Torrez and cut off ties. She eventually posted on social media about Torrez being “creepy,” which she felt led her to be seen as problematic.
“I have felt ostracized from the atheist podcast community about it,” she told RNS.
Charone Frankel, an attorney and actress, was a fan of Torrez’s podcast, and the two eventually had a consensual sexual relationship, according to text messages reviewed by RNS. Frankel said she cut off the romantic relationship when the two began collaborating on legal work — at which point she met his wife and family. Torrez wanted to pursue their sexual relationship even after Frankel told him it was over, according to Frankel. In their text messages, Torrez appears to apologize for misleading her and for his part in their relationship.
Frankel said she cut off ties with Torrez when their work together ended. But after meeting other women who had had what they called problematic interactions with him in 2019, she contacted him again.
Rumors about Torrez’s interactions had been circulating since 2017, said podcaster Aaron Rabinowitz, who has been active in atheist circles. In October 2022, Rabinowitz was at the QED conference—which stands for Question, Explore, Discover—in Manchester, England, when he met with several women with concerns about Torrez.
They had been talking at the conference, he said, about feeling relieved Torrez was not there. They also were concerned about a broader pattern of harassment in atheist circles.
During the conversation, Rabinowitz offered to reach out to Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. The organization had fired its previous president in 2018 over allegations of harassment and its conferences operate under a strict no-harassment policy. Rabinowitz said he reached out to Fish and followed up with a formal complaint, which he said the organization took seriously. The group had begun to investigate when Torrez resigned, according to Rabinowitz.
When asked if he had had relationships with fans of his podcast, Torrezed declined to comment. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about purely personal matters,” he said. He reiterated that he had resigned because he did not have enough time to devote to the board. He also said he was not aware of any complaints being raised about his conduct at conventions or other atheist meetings.
Fish said that as a matter of policy, American Atheists does not publicly comment on any complaints it receives. Fish said that Torrez’s resignation came as a surprise and that the organization had not spoken with him about any ethical concerns.
Fish said American Atheists expects staff and board members to conduct themselves in an ethical manner and in a way that reflects positively on the organization.
“Our expectation and what we try to create is an environment where people feel supported and they don’t have to worry about being harassed.”
American Atheists’ code of conduct says the organization strikes to create an atmosphere at its events that is “fun, friendly, and informative for all participants” and is free from harassment.
The code specifically prohibits “inappropriate physical contact and unwelcome sexual attention.”
He said the organization takes any complaints about ethical issues or misconduct seriously and will take action to address any concerns about misconduct. Fish said that atheist conventions and communities have struggled for years to deal with issues of harassment. Many people in the community have come out of religious communities that wanted to control their behavior, he said, so atheist leaders do not want to police their relationships.
But no one wants members of the community to be harassed.
“We want people to know that they will be listened to,” he said. “We want people to feel safe and comfortable being part of this community.”