To the atheist tone police: stop telling me how to discuss my abuse


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As an undergraduate I chaired a group for student atheists — at least, that’s what I assumed it was. The finalist who’d stopped being in charge officially a year before I got elected, but who most people still answered to in private, disagreed. When we ran a stall at freshers’ fair together, he insisted I not tell punters Oxford Atheist Society was for people who didn’t believe in God, in case this stopped religious people joining.

It turned out what the ex-president wanted was a humanist discussion group welcoming believers and working with them for church-state separation, so once he’d done a lot of talking, we became the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society. Supposedly this made us all-inclusive, but anything deemed antitheist was discouraged lest it put believers off — things I had to say, for instance, about being taught I was satanically possessed or trying to kill myself because of the things I believed.

* * *

I hear a lot about constructiveness, especially from fellow atheists convinced people like me should pipe down and behave. Calling religion harmful, they’ve told me, is immature and stops us ‘breaking down walls’. What, they’ve asked me, does it achieve?

Since I started talking publicly (mainly in print) about it, I’ve been informed I’m inflammatory; that I need to keep things civil; that I’m hateful, encourage stereotypes and impede mutual understanding; that atheists like me are a liability, holding the movement back; that I need to smile more.

I’ve noticed that often, atheists saying these things have no real religious past.

* * *

‘If you’re arguing that confrontationalism — arguing with believers about religion, or making fun of it, or insulting it — is hurting our cause,’ Greta Christina wrote in 2011, ‘which cause, exactly, are you talking about?’ In the same post she proposes two competing atheist agendas: working against sectarianism and for secularism with believers on the one hand, opposing religion qua religion on the other. How polite or fiery we should be, Greta suggests, depends which of the two our mission is.

Chris Stedman, constable of the atheist tone police, responded at the Huffington Post: ‘If your “top priority” is working to eliminate religion, you are not simply an atheist activist — you are an anti-religious activist. . . . I do not wish to be associated with narrow-minded, dehumanising generalisations about religious people’. Several combative bloggers, he pointed out, had said blinkered things about Muslims and Islam, therefore all attacks on religion were dehumanising.

* * *

American Atheists has launched a television channel. At Salon, Daniel D’addario calls the four hours he spent watching it horrific.

‘Despite my own lack of religious belief’, he writes, ‘I find it hard to imagine that even a casual nonbeliever would tune in . . . AtheistTV adheres to nasty stereotypes about atheism — smugness, gleeful disregard for others’ beliefs — to a degree that’s close to unwatchable.’

Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience is skewered in particular for ‘feed[ing] viewers a diet of scorn’. This translates to wearing a flame-patterned shirt, calling a Bible story ‘absolutely horrible’ and using the word ‘stupid’ about God. (No context is given.)

Fair enough if D’addario dislikes the channel, but by suggesting its tone does nonbelievers actual harm — that is, none will tune in because it hurts their movement’s image — he goes beyond writing a bad review.

AA has thousands of fee-paying members. The Atheist Experience has over twenty thousand fans and Dillahunty over thirty thousand Twitter followers. Whatever stereotypes their tone fits weren’t concocted by conservatives: obviously, it speaks for many real atheists. Smug or not, aren’t they allowed a voice?

* * *

Last month a column of mine went up at the new site of the Freethinker. I talk there about how as a queer teenager I tried to kill myself, and how I hold responsible the mainstream, nonfundamentalist Christianity I practised at the time: about letting go and letting God, convinced he never gave me more than I could handle while I was assaulted and harassed into self-harm; about declining to defend myself because the turning the other cheek was Christlike.

There’s a lot I don’t talk about there.

I don’t talk about how when I overdosed, I lost consciousness afraid suicide would land me in Hell, where aged six I’d been told relatives burned and where aged nine I’d been told I would go for lying.

I don’t talk about wondering what I’d done wrong to make that cycle of harassment and self-harm God’s plan for me and what I should learn from it.

I don’t talk about being pressured to pray in tongues once I was convinced aged eight the devil had possessed me, nor being aged seven to perform ‘faith healing’.

I don’t talk about the demons I believed entered our home, the one I believed was my father or the Hallowe’ens when year on year I hid from trick-or-treaters chanting prayers in abject terror.

I don’t talk about fasting till it hurt.

I don’t talk about the children who couldn’t visit on my birthday since they went to different churches, my childhood belief Hinduism was Satan’s work or result fear of anything Asian — yoga, Indian art, a woman in a sari.

I don’t talk about being told all Muslims practised FGM and ‘want[ed] to die for Allah’, or that Muslim men were instructed to rape Christian women.

I don’t talk about the schoolteachers I had who, sermonising, told me God ‘deplore[d] homosexuality’.

I don’t talk about the preacher in the streets of my hometown who called me an abomination, or how when I mentioned it online I was accused of ‘having a go at Christians’.

I don’t talk about my brother calling me an offence against nature and God.

I don’t talk about the magazine cutting my mother kept that said I was an atheist because I had a stubborn heart.

I don’t talk about being preached at by guests at my friends’ church wedding or glared at by the vicar when my friend’s body was buried because I hadn’t joined in with the hymns.

I don’t talk about being threatened with hell for being an atheist.

I don’t talk about being told I’d have my head cut off.

When I do talk about these things, people don’t usually suggest I smile more.

It’s other times I talk about religion I’m called bitter, hateful, counterproductive, told I need to quieten down. But when I talk about religion, I always have the above in mind.

When you tell me to speak more respectfully, this is what you’re telling me how to discuss.

Remembering it I return to Greta Christina and Chris Stedman, and want to say that after what it did to me, talking as rudely as I like about religion is my goal, not just a means to it. I return to every time I’ve heard atheists like me aren’t constructive, and want to say that after years holding my tongue, speaking freely is a huge achievement. If it hampers outreach by faitheists with no inkling of my experience*, I don’t give a fuck.

* * *

*A clarification: it’s in no way my intention to suggest no ‘faitheist’ has a history of this sort. Especially in Britain, where secular upbringings are much more common, I maintain they often accompany the silencing of confrontationalists – but I don’t mean to erase the trauma of people who challenge me. 

I will say this: if you’re telling me to shut up for no reason except finding my tone unpalatable – if it’s not (see below) about consequences or factual errors – it’s a charitable assumption that you’re doing it because you don’t know better. If you survived what I survived or worse, you have no more right than anyone to shush me, and (I’d have thought) more reason not to.

* * *

I return to Daniel D’addario at Salon. I want to ask: what’s it to him if other atheists are more barbed than he is? Isn’t switching off his TV enough?

I return to my atheist group’s ex-president. I wnt to ask: if a secularist mission means atheists can’t speak freely about religion, what is the point of it?

Others I know are called hateful.

Beth Presswood has family who refuse to acknowledge her long-term partner — Matt Dillahunty. Some have declared him, if memory serves, to be the devil. Except because ‘he thinks it’s nuts to rely on a book for wisdom and guidance’, D’addario can’t see why he’s ‘bothered’ by US Christianity. Could this not be at least a factor?

Jonny Scaramanga writes, occasionally snarkily, of the ultra-extreme Christian upbringing that left him alone, depressed, uneducated, socially unequipped and with wildly skewed attitudes to gender, race, sexuality and politics. Those he criticises label him bitter and his work a hate campaign.

Sue Cox has spoken publicly about the Catholic priest who raped her when she was a minor and her family’s decision to tell her this was part of God’s plan for her. When a television clip was posted on the Internet, some commenters called her an anti-Catholic bigot preaching hate.

Shaheen Hashmat lives with mental illness resulting from ‘honour’ abuse in her Scottish-Pakistani Muslim family. Because she sees Islam as central to her family’s actions, she is accused of ‘fuelling Islamophobia’ (demonisation of Muslims) and being a puppet of white racism.

These are extreme cases, but extreme manifestations of religion aren’t the only abusive ones. Many in religious communities…

…fall victim to genital mutilation. (About one human in seven or eight, specifically.)

…suffer violence, physical or sexual, in other contexts — by parents, clergy, organisations or states.

…are taught not to defend themselves from violence, as I was.

…are told traumatic experiences are punishments from a higher power.

…are terrorised with lurid images of damnation and hell.

…suffering ‘knowing’ those they care about are damned.

…have no chance to mourn loved ones properly due to religious differences.

…are seriously maleducated, including facing abusive learning environments, being fed fundamental scientific mistruths or being denied facts about sex and their bodies.

…are shunned or isolated for leaving religion or not following it as expected.

…are harassed in the workplace or at school for being skeptical.

…are denied child custody explicitly for being atheists.

…are rejected by family members or have to endure painful relationships with them.

…are forced into unwanted relationships or to end desired ones.

…are taught to submit to their male partners.

…are taught sex and sexuality are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies, when menstruating for example, are sinful and a source of shame.

…are taught their bodies are a cause of sexual violence — including violence toward them — and must be concealed to prevent it.

…are taught their minds, because they live with mental illness, are gripped by cosmic evil.

…are medically or socially mistreated in hands-on ways while mentally ill.

…are told they’re sinful, disordered or an abomination because they’re queer.

…are told skepticism makes them a traitor to their race or culture.

…are denied medical care they need urgently — birth control, condoms, HIV medication, hormone therapy, transitional surgery, abortion, blood transfusions.

…give up much-needed medicine voluntarily due to religious teachings and suffer severe ill health.

…perform rituals voluntarily — fasting for instance — that seriously endanger their health.

…are manipulated for financial gain by clergy, sometimes coerced out of what little they have.

…are manipulated for social gain, often too reliant on their congregation to leave when they have doubts.

If this is true in religious communities, it’s also a reality for those who’ve fled them. Atheists who were believers have frequently been profoundly harmed; I suspect movement atheists are especially likely to have been; confrontational atheists, even likelier.

When you tell us how to talk about religion, you are telling us how to discuss our abuse.

* * *

There are times when rhetoric should be policed or at least regulated through criticism. It’s true many attacks made on religion, especially by those still forming atheist identities, are ill-informed, sectarian or oversimplistic — and that such attacks often punch down, reaching for racism, classism or mental health stigma as antitheist ammunition. (There are many other examples.)

It needn’t be so. I’ve challenged this because I think we can and should go after God without harming the downtrodden through splash damage. Doing so on everyone’s behalf who’s been downtrodden by religion is itself, I adamantly believe, a mission of social justice. Failing at it by making substantive errors or throwing the marginalised under the bus invites and deserves criticism; a rhetoric powered by justified anger needs to be carefully controlled.

But that is not a question of tone.

And it does not discredit the mission.

Bigotry and imprecision in antitheism have often been treated as intrinsic to it, conflated with the very notion of (counter)attacks on faith. Stedman, who states in his book Faitheist that he once ‘actually cried — hot, angry tears’ because of atheist vitriol, is especially guilty of this, treating racist comments on Islam like they invalidate all opposition to religion. D’addario’s attack on AtheistTV as smug and scornful has, similarly, covered my feed where secular ‘social justice warriors’ congregate.

If this is you — if you’re an atheist progressive who wants barbed, confrontational atheists to shut up — we’re likely on the same side most of the time… but there’s something I need to say.

People like us are infamous for words like ‘privilege’, ‘splaining’, ‘problematic’; part of the power of concepts like these is that when transferred between activist contexts they expose parallels. I’m deeply aware there can be only limited analogy between atheism and the concerns of more marginalised groups, and would hate to devalue their language. But I’m convinced of the following:

It is a form of privilege to be an atheist who’s never experienced religious abuse, as many of us have who are antagonistic.

It is privilege blindness to expect — without a clue what we’ve experienced or what it means to us — that we give up our self-expression so that you can form alliances with faith communities that deeply injured us.

It is tone-policing if when you’re not telling us to shut up about it, you’re telling us how to talk about it. How dare you tell us to be more respectful.

It is splaining if your answer when we detail histories of religious abuse is ‘Yes, but’ — or if you tell us we can’t blame religion for it since not all believers do the same. We know the details. You don’t.

It is gaslighting dismissing justified anger about widespread, structural religious abuse by telling us we’re bitter or hateful.

It’s civility politics implying our anger, bitterness or hatred is just as unacceptable, siding with the aggressor by prioritising believers’ feelings over ours on the false pretence of neutrality.

It’s respectability politics implying we need to earn an end to bigotry we face by getting on politely with believers, throwing those of us under the bus who can’t or won’t sing kumbaya.

It’s internalised bigotry shaming atheists for being stereotypical — smug, scornful and the rest — for letting the side down, instead of asserting our collective rights however we express ourselves.

It is victim-blaming to treat atheists who are stereotypical as a legitimate cause of anti-atheist bigotry or hatred.

It is tokenisation to impose on any individual the burden of representing atheists so our collective status can be judged by how they act.

And it is deeply, deeply problematic to cheer for snarky, confrontational firebrands of social justice who take on mass structures or beliefs that ruined their lives… then boo snarky, confrontational atheist firebrands off the stage who’ve survived religious abuse.

* * *

I must talk about religion and the things it did to me, and must do so however I like. This is my goal, not just a means to it — it’s my hill to die on and matters enough that nothing can compete. I don’t care if it sets back my career, hampers others’ work or hurts religious feelings.

Actually, hang on — yes I do.

If you feel your texts, traditions, doctrines, revelations, fantasies, imaginary friends or inaudible voices are licence to ride roughshod over other people’s lives, I want to hurt your feelings.

If your god, in whom billions believe, tells you to terrorise or mutilate children, deny them basic knowledge of their bodies or their world, jeopardise their health, inflict physical violence on them or assault them sexually;

If he tells you to inform them their trauma is deserved, that their own bodies were to blame or that their flesh and broken minds are sinful; if he tells you to instruct them against defending themselves or if their thoughts of him drive them to suicide;

If he tells you to preach racism, queerphobia or misogny; if he tells you what consensual sex you can and can’t have and with whom, or to destroy loving relationships and force nonconsensual ones on others;

If he tells you to threaten and harass others, subject them to violence or deny them medical aid;

If your god, in whom billions believe, inspires the fear, abuse and cruelty I and countless others lived through:

Fuck your god.

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Comments

  1. says

    I’ve noticed that often, atheists saying these things have no real religious past.

    True. I hadn’t really noticed, but thinking of the people that regularly tell me to drop the subject, that it’s all in the past, that no-one really believes that stuff, anyhow, that it’s boring, etc.; they all fit into that set. It helps to see that.

    Many in religious communities…
    …suffer violence, physical or sexual, in other contexts — by parents, clergy, organisations or states.
    …are taught not to defend themselves from violence, as I was.
    …are told traumatic experiences are punishments from a higher power.
    …are terrorised with lurid images of damnation and hell.

    …are seriously maleducated, including facing abusive learning environments, being fed fundamental scientific mistruths or being denied facts about sex and their bodies.
    …are shunned or isolated for leaving religion or not following it as expected.

    …are rejected by family members or have to endure painful relationships with them.
    …are taught to submit to their male partners.
    …are taught sex and sexuality are sinful and a source of shame.
    …are taught their bodies, when menstruating for example, are sinful and a source of shame.
    …are taught their bodies are a cause of sexual violence — including violence toward them — and must be concealed to prevent it.
    ….
    …give up much-needed medicine voluntarily due to religious teachings and suffer severe ill health.

    Yes, that was me. And now, I’m not supposed to talk about it? Because it’s “boring”?

  2. says

    VERY WELL SAID INDEED! (Sorry, felt the need to shout my praise for this one.

    I am one of those priviledged enough to be only marginally exposed to religion as a child, despite my parents considering themselve Christian. What I did know about it as a child and teen, made little sense as what was written in the bibles was clearly self-contradictory. It was evident to me even then, that all the Christian adults in my life very much cherry picked what was applicable in any given situation.

    As I’ve grown older I’ve met very few “Christians” who practice what they so smugly preach. There’s a branch of my family that is deeply relgious and while they are on the whole, decent, caring people, they always turn a blind eye to anything they themselves do or say that is not in keeping with their faith as they claim to live it and as they preach it…but like many hypocrites, they are quick to point out and look down on, others doing and saying the exact same things.

    Now in my mid-forties, I’ve come into contact with several religious people of various faiths over the years. And not a single actual believer, has been able or willing to debate the many abuses that are a direct result of institutionalized religion, such as the horrible abuse you and countless others have suffered. I’m always given bullshit responses about how any case I might bring up are exceptions to the rule and the offenders aren’t/weren’t true believers. These conversations usually end with my being told I am rude, inconsiderate, bitter and here’s my favourite….incapable of understanding because I am not a believer and haven’t been saved!

    And the more my MS progresses, the more I have medical professionals pushing me towards religion to help “deal” with the increasing disability and to “cope” with the physical pain that rules every faucet of my life! All day, every day – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

    No, I haven’t, thankfully, ever had to endure such horrors that you and billions of others have at the hands of religion. Nevertheless, I do despise it and hope people like you and Greta keep fighting to expose it’s many evils!

  3. says

    I often advocate for a panoply of approaches. Some people respond to antitheism, some people don’t. What really gets me is people advocating for less of one for the other. Stedman’s approach is fine and good if he leaves antitheists alone, rather than confronting them based only on their antitheist ideals. But he doesn’t, and that’s where he chafes against my sensibilities.

    But I also can’t stand antitheists who believe anyone who isn’t expressly proselytizing atheism and only atheism isn’t helping “the cause”. That way lies people like the slime pit, who preach antitheism at the expense of every other social justice cause, who actually expressly believes that the only cause worth fighting is atheism. It’s good and noble and right to fight against religious privilege, but not at the expense of fighting other causes too. In that respect, I’d break bread with “faitheists” sooner than libertarian atheist douchebros who think atheism is the only social justice cause.

    I’ve called people out for doing searches on certain keywords on Twitter, for instance, and approaching Christians the same way as the religious approach us — unbidden, with insults, ignorant of our actual philosophies. That’s bullshit, it wins no fights, it wins nothing but praise from other people acting likewise, and it only makes us look like the bigots we fight to outside observers.

    I get that you’re impacted by religion more directly, and that you want to attack religion more directly. I get that you’re trying to walk a tightrope between these two odious outlier groups. I further get that tone-policing is bullshit, generally. But how is what we’re doing when we tell antitheist assholes who deny feminism or classism or antiracism has a role in the modern atheist movement any less tone policing than what you’ve described here?

  4. smhll says

    It is a form of privilege to be an atheist who’s never experienced religious abuse, as many of us have who are antagonistic.

    It is privilege blindness to expect — without a clue what we’ve experienced or what it means to us — that we give up our self-expression so that you can form alliances with faith communities that deeply injured us.

    I agree very strongly. I’m truly fortunate that my parents barely even bothered to fake any religious faith (even decades ago; I’m oldish). My sibling and I got taken to a liberal church maybe twice a year. My parents were even fairly sex positive.

    There’s a parallel to be drawn between people who’ve only had mild, okay experiences with police and people who’ve only had mild, okay experiences with clergy and churchgoers. (But I don’t want to oversell the similarity since police brutality is extra painful this week.) Just because some people get acceptable treatment from police (when they rarely are confronted) doesn’t mean that that behavior is a constant.

    My negative evidence (hardly any experience with church) has less weight than your Evidence of the Negative. (My not particularly bad experience absolutely does not prove that bad stuff does not happen.)

  5. Brony says

    But how is what we’re doing when we tell antitheist assholes who deny feminism or classism or antiracism has a role in the modern atheist movement any less tone policing than what you’ve described here?

    Would you mind describing specifically what you are talking about with “…when we tell antitheist assholes…”? From the context of her piece tone trolling is trying to dictate how she talks about religion and you really are not providing anything
    The only means of arguing with respect to feminism that I have seen people want stopped is either harassment campaigns, deliberate deceptions and things on that level. Bloggers at FTB get to control their social spaces and determine whatever tone they wish.
    A society such as the one she seems to be describing is a communal social space and controlling the language like that would more problematic as the group would have to accept tone rules.

  6. says

    @Jason (#3)

    I’d point you to the difference I note between substantive disagreement and simply telling people to be more polite: the arguments we make about antifeminists and such folk having no place in the community we want to build aren’t, in my eyes, really to do with tone at all.

  7. A Hermit says

    My own religious upbringing was not traumatic, my parents are kind gentle generous open minded people and the faith they raised us in reflected that nature.

    There were negative aspects to that upbringing (self doubt, guilt, sexual negativity) but they were pretty minor compared to what others have experienced.

    So my own approach tends to be more conciliatory because the religion and the people I’m usually dealing with are themselves open to conciliation.

    But I’ve seen the damage done by less benign beliefs and I won’t let my own experience numb me to the justifiable anger of others who have had to be stronger than I have.

  8. Hj Hornbeck says

    Ooo, I so loved this piece. I’ve been finding myself gradually slipping towards the “faitheist” side. Liberal believers seem gloriously liberal, a refreshing break from the angry fights I’ve gotten into with semi-liberal or conservative atheists.

    But as Benson recently pointed out, what you see is not all there is. Just because I’ve had no experience with religion, let alone been effected by it, doesn’t mean others have experienced the same nor that they are unjustified in being angry about their experiences. To each their area of expertise, and thanks to your history yours is the subtle corrosion of liberal belief.

    I’d be wise to listen, rather than argue over tone or strategic alliances.

  9. smhll says

    From Chris Clarke’s counter pledge that addresses the limits of civility:

    I pledge to remember that a fetishized civility is a field mark of insulation from suffering.”

  10. chriscampbell says

    As another who was brought up in a very marginally religious household/community, you have my 100% support for what you are doing. Keep it up!

  11. mistertwo says

    “The Atheist Experience” bothers me because I don’t like confrontation. But being extremely uncomfortable around confrontation is MY problem! I also rarely argue with my wife because of this aversion, even though I know that sometimes people really ought to have it out. I just can’t do it.

    I do not know if this is because of my religious upbringing, or if it’s simply genetic. My mother says I was always good, always ready to please, so I suspect I was born with this trait, but it doesn’t always work to my advantage.

    But having lived my first 52 years believing that Yahweh was real and Jesus was somehow God, and realizing now how much damage all religions do, the truth is that if we don’t have people who are willing to yell and scream and be really, really unpleasant about the whole thing, it’s never go away.

    So since I’m not using my share of frank speaking, please go ahead and add my share to your share. I gladly relinquish it to you, so that your voice may be even more productive.

  12. says

    @mistertwo (#13)

    Gratefully accepted! And as someone who was at one point a regular AXP viewer, I think it’s worth pointing out that almost all the hosts are very good at adjusting their tone depending on the caller: at least a plurality of the caller-exchanges are extremely cordial.

  13. says

    Let me try again, since evidently I’m not being clear.

    To me, The Atheist Experience is perfectly defensible. People are volunteering to challenge atheists’ worldview, and AE tries to separate the person’s beliefs from the person themselves and only attack those beliefs. What gets my goat is people on Twitter searching for “God” and assuming the person they’re talking to is a fundamentalist Christian without knowing anything about them, going in guns blazing like a Warrior for Atheism, and they’re using first-order levels of argumentation. These people are actively harming movement atheism by presenting invalid arguments, attacking strawmen, and actively insulting the religious. These are the “antitheist assholes” I’m talking about. And they do exist, and faitheists have a point when saying these people are doing more harm than good.

    It’s not a coincidence, to my mind, that there’s a huge overlap between these shallow thinkers who attack people by default, and the slimepitters who think atheism is the only social justice issue worth fighting (and in fact that any other social justice cause would magically disappear if only we could eliminate religion). These are the people I’m primarily annoyed with.

    Likewise though, I recognize you need all units on the field to win a war. I want people like Stedman to continue fighting religious privilege using his soft-sell approach even while Alex Gabriel never stops attacking religion. I want nobody to shut up, and I want nobody telling one another to shut up.

    Except for the people who aren’t making valid arguments against valid targets — those folks can bloody well sit down and learn a bit more before they take to the field and do splash damage to the movement, thank you very much.

  14. says

    @Jason

    I sympathise with your frustration – but the reason I share it is that I want a confrontational approach (or at least room for one) and a community with behavioural standards. Ambushing strangers on Twitter with arguments they haven’t entered isn’t a question of tone, it’s a question of boundaries and harassment. (Though admittedly, the pugilistic approach often makes the boundary-crossing even more abrasive.)

  15. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    Jason, you wrote:

    But how is what we’re doing when we tell antitheist assholes who deny feminism or classism or antiracism has a role in the modern atheist movement any less tone policing than what you’ve described here?

    I feel like there must be a miscommunication because I don’t think you believe what it is I think I gleaned from that. Are you actually asking what the difference is between:

    1. Tone-policing that denies and tries to silence the experiences of atheists (this is illegitimate, we all agree)

    2. Objecting to classism, racism, and misogyny (we all agree those things are awful and anti-humanist)

    Do you really, honestly, see those as on a par? I can’t really believe that you do. I’m not even sure how to ask the question because it seems so bizarre I think I *must* be misunderstanding you.

  16. says

    Thanks for this open and compelling post. I hope you go on talking / writing about religion “wie dir der Schnabel gewachsen ist”!
    .
    Personally, I find the real harm done by religion a much better argument against it, than that it’s wrong/ ridiculous/ not evidence-based. And talking about the harm is important as many people don’t “believe” very much anyway, but see no particular reason to oppose religion. Hearing about the harm from someone who has suffered it, gives anyone (with a shred of empathy) a pretty good reason to oppose it.
    .
    I want a society free of religion because it is, at bottom, a tool to control people and stop them from thinking for themselves. When the religious climate is liberal and religion is fenced in by a secular state this *might* just be bearable, but there are no guarantees against a fundamentalist backlash. We have seen just that in the last half-century in the Muslim world where previously more-or-less secular “westernised” countries (like Pakistan) have become religious states.
    .
    Finally, I think we need to distinguish politeness as in “trying to treat others with a reasonable degree of respect” and being conciliatory vs. confrontational, e.g. putting certain subjects out of bounds (“don’t mention the war”). Personally I’m all for being confrontational and polite.
    I understand that when someone is discussing abuse or similarly emotional subjects, politeness isn’t a priority, nor should it be. At the same time I do find the level of name-calling and immediately-imputing-bad-faith (no pun intended) in some atheist online discussions excessive, to the point where constructive discussion becomes difficult or well-nigh impossible. Not making a culture of rudeness*, and not conflating politeness with conciliation might help.
    __
    *I’m not suggesting you do that. In fact I can’t recall ever finding you impolite.

  17. Brony says

    @ Jason Thibeault

    To me, The Atheist Experience is perfectly defensible. People are volunteering to challenge atheists’ worldview, and AE tries to separate the person’s beliefs from the person themselves and only attack those beliefs. What gets my goat is people on Twitter searching for “God” and assuming the person they’re talking to is a fundamentalist Christian without knowing anything about them, going in guns blazing like a Warrior for Atheism, and they’re using first-order levels of argumentation.

    I think I see what you are getting at. You have a sense of lack of proportionality in how people are responding to what they are standing against. I can empathize with that and I try to limit how I argue online to deal with my own excesses that I am trying to become better at managing.

    For example I place a distinction between defensive and offensive efforts (a lot of political activity is functionally similar to conflict) and I tend to play defense against hostile incoming people that display the sorts of “destroy, hide the thing I don’t like” behavior that you seem to be pointing at because I think my skills are better in that realm. I don’t tend to be the one to go to the other person’s arena and try to persuade on a point because frankly life is stressful and I can be a bit over aggressive when dealing with the “attacker type” and the “persuader type” at the same time. Otherwise on a neutral area elsewhere on the internet I normally try to persuade first or have fun with the “attacker types” (or both depending on the individual I am addressing and how intense the place is).

    But regardless of best responses and context, and how to choose when escalation is appropriate (I really don’t see a moral problem with letting loose against explicit overt racism for example), there is a sense in which something like “religion” can be objectified and disliked or even hated independent of religious persons. You can hate the Republican and Democratic parties and not hate individual Rs and Ds. You can hate mindware and not the brain running it as long as the part being discussed is mindware and actively creates problems that hurt the person complaining about it (though a victim-blaming mentality is a characteristic of religious groups that is more universal and worth hating).

    How would you suggest we functionally deal with the inability of people to separate criticism of a thing they are connected to and parts of their behavior, from criticism of their entire selves? Especially when the thing being hated is causing others to suffer? The outrage balance seems very unfairly skewed here and I dislike the idea of allowing people in privileged positions to dictate how outrage at things that cause suffering can be expressed.

  18. John Horstman says

    If you feel your texts, traditions, doctrines, revelations, fantasies, imaginary friends or inaudible voices are licence to ride roughshod over other people’s lives, I want to hurt your feelings.

    QFT. Justice (and even kindness) != niceness.

    Re: Brony #19:

    How would you suggest we functionally deal with the inability of people to separate criticism of a thing they are connected to and parts of their behavior, from criticism of their entire selves?

    And also especially when people tend to internalize communities or hobbies or behaviors etc. as parts of “identity”? In those cases, criticism of the community or behavior or what-have-you really is criticism of the person as a person, because the person’s self-concept is built on a problematic foundation.

    I had a number of discussions/debates with Ian over at Crommunist when it was still active over language use like “a racist” or “a sexist”, and this issues came up frequently. We never arrived at agreement about any sort of universal guideline(s) on what is more-right/less-wrong in these sorts of situations. (I did and continue to think, for example, that calling someone “a sexist” makes as much sense as calling someone “a capitalist” – the first advocates or practices sexism, the second advocates or practices capitalism, and both are probably internalized as part of that person’s identity, unless that person is also the sort of postmodernist who has been actively deconstructing zir sense of identity for a while. He dislikes those constructions for reasons similar to those Jason lays out here. I don’t think either possibility is perfect, mostly because people’s ideas about how identity and social systems function independently and interact and mutually construct each other are largely pretty bad. The context problematizes ANY approach, becasue it’s ultimately the context that is the problem.)

  19. Al Dente says

    One thing I’ve noticed about Stedman and other faitheists is how they insist that their way is the only viable, productive way to interact with theists. The faitheists want us noisy, disrespectful, strident atheists should just shut up while our betters reach out to the theists. However the faitheists never offer any evidence to show their accommodationism is any more effective than being impertinent. Apparently it’s dogma that polite respectfulness towards religion is much better than brashly asking impolite questions like “got any evidence for your god’s existence?” or saying “your religion is misogynist, homophobic and generally inhumane and here’s examples.”

    I have no trouble with the faitheists kissing theist ass. If that’s what makes them feel good then I couldn’t care less. I do object to faitheists telling me to shut up because it would make them feel much better. I particularly object to faitheists telling me to shut up about the prejudice, abuse and cruelty I’ve received from theists, given in “God’s name”.

  20. Brony says

    @ John Horstman

    And also especially when people tend to internalize communities or hobbies or behaviors etc. as parts of “identity”? In those cases, criticism of the community or behavior or what-have-you really is criticism of the person as a person, because the person’s self-concept is built on a problematic foundation.

    Yes. It’s a universal issue with components particular to our community. People are variable in how they take not just criticism, but contrast with other people. Sometime a person just being different on an issue is enough. For some attempts at persuasion and the gentlest criticism are always a negative and they immediately go down a negative, defensive, and/or aggressive motivated reasoning path in a sociopolitical challenge or contrast with others. Of course this is an end of a collection of spectrums of behavior.

    I had a number of discussions/debates with Ian over at Crommunist when it was still active over language use like “a racist” or “a sexist”, and this issues came up frequently. We never arrived at agreement about any sort of universal guideline(s) on what is more-right/less-wrong in these sorts of situations. (I did and continue to think, for example, that calling someone “a sexist” makes as much sense as calling someone “a capitalist” – the first advocates or practices sexism, the second advocates or practices capitalism, and both are probably internalized as part of that person’s identity, unless that person is also the sort of postmodernist who has been actively deconstructing zir sense of identity for a while. He dislikes those constructions for reasons similar to those Jason lays out here. I don’t think either possibility is perfect, mostly because people’s ideas about how identity and social systems function independently and interact and mutually construct each other are largely pretty bad. The context problematizes ANY approach, becasue it’s ultimately the context that is the problem.)

    I agree and disagree. It does make sense to be able to describe behaviors as sexist or capitalist. If a behavior and its effects are consistent with a description regardless of intent, it’s the difference between someone being insulted and finding a statement insulting. I often see plenty of people acting in a racist manner (including my own family!) who shut down when you try to show them the effects of decisions and behavior with a useful definition. They seize on the word and that social implications instead of actually participating in what you are trying to talk about even while you participate in their end of the discussion as a fair trade. We have to be able to deal with people like this who only manipulate the world through social connections and tend to shut down because they literally don’t have the tools to do sociopolitical disagreement outside of it. When I have the emotional room I try as much as I can but sometimes and with some posters I just need to swing a club around and turn up the distain, bafflement, sarcasm or anything else that might be effective in a short term sense for that battle in that comment section. I try not to do any of it unthinkingly though.

    Where I agree is with the fact that the individual context or arena of conflict matters. We don’t have a good idea about the sorts of ways that people sort into personality types that display defined ways of “best methods” when it comes to persuasion and exchanging ideas or criticism well. I can have a vicious fight with words with someone and later be friendly with them but many will also take that experience and become triggered with respect to past trauma, or treat them as a permanent enemy and anyone they associate with. I have had the opportunity to literally dissect myself psychologically as my type of human has many thousands of papers with loads of attached information but that is a thing few get to do.

  21. mithrandir says

    I’m one of those comparatively privileged atheists – I did suffer somewhat from an irrational fear of hell that took a while to get over, but that really was the worst of it, and my parents, while being religious themselves, taught and supported me in freedom of thought.

    So in light of that, I think you hit on the thing that has tempted me the most toward faitheism, and has been the most off-putting about antitheism: punching down. It’s specifically those attacks on the religious that demean them for just being religious that have bothered me the most, and the concept of “punching down” crystallized just what it was that bothered me.

    And on the other hand, this post gave me a clearer understanding of the role antitheism must play in the larger atheist narrative: the religious must be expected to confront the uglier things done in the name of their God. And while they may protest Not All Christians or Not All Muslims, they still must take responsibility for building a society that condemns those abuses, even if they themselves are not ready to abandon their faith.

  22. P Bamma says

    Interesting and intense voice. I’m all about different voice expressions. I wonder how to apply this line of thought to children I encounter. I’m sure that some may experience what you have, but tempering it in a group of children may be challenging. Inclusive vs. exclusive seems to be an acceptable position. Opposing discrimination is the obvious line. (i.e. tolerance of intolerance is unacceptable.)

    Thank you for the article and insight.

  23. Thomas Hobbes says

    Excellent article with an excellent finish! I’ve often wondered why people worship a god that tells them to abuse their children and discriminate others. I asked a few believers. They didn’t even try to answer.

  24. Thomas Hobbes says

    @mithrandir #23 – As Greta Christina says: The point is not that liberal and moderate religion justifies religious extremism. The point is that liberal and moderate religion justifies religion.

  25. dadge says

    This is a great post, and both “sides” need to be sympathetic to the other. This means that interfaithers shouldn’t hush the antitheists and the antitheists shouldn’t scupper the interfaithers. I think the British Humanist Association has a good record in this regard: there’s plenty of interfaith dialogue, but at the same time they’re forthright in their secular campaigning. And it works: the organisation is widely respected.

    Personally, I’m on the wet wing of the movement: I believe consensus politics is the most effective driver of positive change. Britain hasn’t become a rather non-religious country because atheists have gone around converting the religious – we hardly talk about religion at all – but because society has been allowed to modernise, and as it has done so, people have understood that religion is less possible and/or relevant.

    Having said that, I acknowledge the harm that religion does, and people should be able to bear witness without criticism from fellow atheists. Sometimes I too just want to shout out “F*ck religion! F*ck Christianity! F*ck Islam!” etc. and it’d be nice to have one day a year we could all meet up in our city squares and chant for an hour. I notice that someone decided 29th September is Anti-theism Day – https://www.facebook.com/events/121135487981621/?fref=nf – maybe we could institute this as an annual event??!

  26. says

    @dadge (27)

    The university finalist I mention at the beginning of this post went on to work for the BHA. Their chief executive also laughed when I said I’d been told the devil had possessed me.

  27. says

    Very well said. This kind of piece can’t be written enough.

    Also, forgive my crudeness, but Vichy atheists like dear little Chris Stedman can go chew on a bag of boiled arseholes. Fuck your interfaith marshmallow-roasting, Stedman, if it blinds you to the harsh realities experienced by people you should know better than to belittle. And fuck you if your insulation, lack of empathy and need to straddle the fence results in you acting exactly like a religious bigot.

  28. carlie says

    I cried reading this.

    I became an atheist less than ten years ago. Even after that, my interpretation of my life was that I grew up in what I thought was a mainstream, fairly common religious environment. It’s been a long time coming, in small increments, that I’ve realized how uncommon it is to go to church three times a week, for almost all of my extracurricular activities to be centered on the church, to view everything through the lens of what God wanted me to do, to be wracked with guilt over every little thing I did “wrong” in thought or deed, to center my whole life around it. And here’s the thing: for my environment, we were the moderates. There were people in my influence circle who were much, much more fundamentalist than my family was, and I guess I have to thank my parents for being somewhat reasonable and holding us back from the worst of it (I was more zealous as a child and teen than my parents were, even).

    My atheism was gradual, and logical, and I felt so free and light when I realized there was nothing of belief left, when it hit me that I didn’t have to worry about God any more. But I’m still dealing with all of it, bit by bit, as things kind of bubble up and smack me in the face, when I hear little vignettes of how other people grew up and realize things that were so different.

    And seriously, fuck anyone who says that it was all harmless, that it was all just a “different lifestyle”, who says that it’s all ok if we can learn to work together. They do not know what it does to a person to grow up like that. They don’t know what it was like to make all of my major life decisions based on what I thought God wants. They don’t know what it feels like to stay up most of the night in a panic over some perceived sin, or worse, the offense of simply not believing and caring and obeying enough, of feverishly praying for hours trying to “get right with God”. They do not know the feeling of sitting in a therapist’s office, saying that I’m afraid of quitting church even though I don’t believe any more because I can’t handle being harassed by them right now, listening to the psychologist being incredulous at the idea that they’d come over to my house to ask why I wasn’t there last week. They do not know what it’s like to weigh “complete truthfulness” about my atheist status against not just the reaction I’d get from my 90 year old grandmother, but with how I completely, deeply understand just how much that would hurt her, in a way that someone without that background simply can’t understand.

    I didn’t undergo anything as traumatic as you did, Alex. But I stand right with you, because people who didn’t grow up that way don’t know what it’s like, and they have zero business telling us how we should feel about it, or how important we think it is, or dismissing as a side note how much it matters for young people to see that there’s another reality that is not the one they were taught to believe in. Fuck them if they think we have some obligation to the “movement” to act nice about what religion did to us.

  29. carlie says

    Jason –

    I want people like Stedman to continue fighting religious privilege using his soft-sell approach even while Alex Gabriel never stops attacking religion. I want nobody to shut up, and I want nobody telling one another to shut up.

    That’s just it – Alex and others are being told to shut up, that they’re hurting “the movement”. I think that’s exactly what this post was about.

  30. says

    Carlie, #30

    They don’t know what it was like to make all of my major life decisions based on what I thought God wants.

    I think that even most ex-Christians don’t know what that’s like. Or the constant monitoring of even stray thoughts, the daily repentance for feeling angry yet again, the daily “death to self”, as if it were wrong to be an individual or to want to make your own decisions.

    If others were fortunate enough to be Christians who were able to choose their own career, their own friends, their own lifestyle, well, more power to them. But I wish they would realize that for some of us, that wasn’t the case. And that they would stop telling us to “just shut up, already!”.

  31. auntcary says

    This is an excellent article! Thanks for articulating just what it is that makes atheists furious about being told to be nice. Feminists have long faced this dismissive tactic when we are called ” man-haters” and told that we need to be feminine and nonconfrontational. In truth, there are damn good reasons to be angry.

  32. brucemartin says

    Hi Gabriel,
    To me, one way to evaluate fairness etc is to consider a flipped script. For example, we might ask what theists say to themselves, and to others. Obviously, when Christians, Muslims, or whomever meet together, they say that they have the correct way to think about theology. Very clearly, that implies that they see everyone else as being wrong. One can’t issue the Islamic call to prayer without saying that Christianity is incomplete to the point of being wrong. And one can’t accept a divinity for Jesus without inherently criticizing all non-Christians.
    So when anyone publicly asserts a religious belief, they are inherently criticizing everyone else. So how can it be unfair or unreasonable for us to do the same?
    Maybe we should be quieter, as soon as all public prayer is ended, all religious TV goes away, all tax support for schools with any implied religious element ends, all political appeal to religion is disavowed and dropped?
    In other words, once I can live the rest of my life without any evidence that anyone else is promoting a religious view, THEN I should stop being assertive about my own views on the topic.
    No interfaith participating minister goes back to his church the next Sunday to tell his flock that his new interfaith association means that he will no longer preach anything that implies that his religious views are any better than the atheists. It is absurd for interfatheists to suggest that their religious pals show them any respect on the next Sunday. They can be praised as good interfaithers and still swear on their articles of faith that they know in their hearts that everyone else deserves to die horribly for ever and ever amen.
    So that is the Hell-ish context that Stedman’s friends really live in. And that is the context all should recall when deciding who gets what tone.
    I’ll be considerate, as soon as they all stop publicly revealing they believe in religion, I.e., that they believe I should be tortured forever.
    In most societies, people wouldn’t take an open-minded, tolerant approach to some old man who wanted to walk around town totally naked, even though in some sense he’s not harming anyone. Why doesn’t the same apply to anyone who goes around with a cross around their neck? When EVERYONE with a cross is only wearing it beneath clothes, not letting it all hang out, only then is it possibly time to start being more accommodating.
    Thanks again for speaking out on behalf of those of us who want no more religious nightmares in our sleep. How else can I object to the ‘tone’ of those childhood panics that society gave me?

Trackbacks

  1. […] We’ve been battling the stupid philistines within our own communities so long that it’s easy to forget the atheist tone police — those people who like to chide atheists for being too harsh on religion, who make excuses for faith, and who recoil from confrontation with nonsense. Alex Gabriel will have none of that. […]

  2. […] availability heuristic, comes up again, this time at Alex’s, in a post about the fact that some people have every reason to be passionately angry at and about religion, and the related fact that others shouldn’t be telling such people to tone down their […]

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