Thin Skins And Male Tears: The Tragedy Of White Atheism


Richard Dawkins is in the news again. This times it’s the Muslims. In September, Texas teenager Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for making a clock that — mainly due to being next to him — looked too much like a bomb; when Barack Obama asked to meet him, Dawkins speculated Mohamed ‘wanted to be arrested’ for exposure and cash. In the US, where police shoot young black and brown men for breathing too loudly, you’d think posing as a bomber would be high-risk, but perhaps your experience of anti-terror laws isn’t confined to jars of honey on domestic flights.

The last Texan to con his way to the White House had ideas the New Atheists quite liked, and this week Dawkins compared Mohamed to a child filmed beheading a prisoner of ISIL. (That both were Muslims is apparently incidental.) What’s striking about Dawkins and his fans at times like this is their portrayal of critics as fragile, oversensitive flakes in whose world dogma is king and emotion queen, despite flinching at the slightest rebuke. ‘That actually hurts,’ Dawkins told a friend after I called his tweets racist. Some people’s emotions, it seems, just matter more.

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What Happened On The Back Channel When Ophelia Benson Left Freethought Blogs

Greta has a post from last week on social media and the risks of reading-in — how it’s possible to conclude too much from who someone else adds or blocks, or what they like or share; why guessing their motives is a bad idea.

I mostly agree with the thrust of it. On being unfriended, I’ve learnt not to assume the worst — I also have closeted friends whose parents monitor their feeds, and I’ve had my online presence dissected creepily. I doubt I’d go as far as Greta does — I check my mutual friends with strangers who add me, gauge who people on Twitter are by who else they follow, delete contacts who share posts from Breitbart uncritically. (There are things there’s no good reason to Like.) Reading the Facebook leaves is like reading body language — not bunk, but only reliable if you know someone, or when there isn’t room for doubt.

At Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson complains people made assumptions about her motives on Facebook before she left this site. (‘Greta herself blocked me’, she writes, followed by the words ‘presumably’ and ‘because’.) To quote one preoccupied-sounding commenter,

Alex Gabriel spent an entire blog post of several hundred words to say, basically, ‘I can’t point to anything wrong that Ophelia has said or done, but I really think she’s up to something . . . the entire thing was composed of exactly what [Greta] is now lamenting.

That post — the one post, hitherto, in which I ever criticised Ophelia — seems to provoke similar thoughts in her. It was, she wrote in late August, ‘not a matter of disagreeing with me, [but] of sniffing out my heresy and denouncing it.’

I pointed, it turns out, to a long list of things she did that readers were interpreting — not, I thought, irrationally — as trans-antagonistic. Namely:

  • Treating requests she acknowledge Julie Bindel’s public, well documented, continuing anti-trans history as demands for cultish, unquestioning belief.
  • Writing ‘I’m not all that interested in the exact quantity of transphobia contained in Julie Bindel’ when commenters brought it up.
  • Uncritically citing anti-trans activists ‘quite a lot’.
  • Uncritically sharing an anti-trans author’s attack on the word ‘TERF’.
  • Displaying more hostility to trans commenters than transphobic ones.
  • Displaying no regret on misgendering a trans commenter.
  • Responding to Vanity Fair’s ‘Call me Cait’ story solely by objecting to Caitlyn Jenner being told ‘You look great’ by staff at Jezebel.


Between the post and her comment section Ophelia says this (dashes added for readability):

Greta was vocally and explicitly happy to see the way our colleagues were trashing me on their blogs, partly on the basis of that creepy intrusive secret-police-like trawling through my Facebook. On the back channel — I think I blogged about it shortly before I left the network — Lilandra had the bright idea of starting a thread with my name in the subject line suggesting we all discuss me, so several people jumped at the opportunity to rip me to shreds. Ed said let’s not do this this is a really bad idea, but they ignored him. I said using our blogs to shred each other wasn’t a fabulous idea and I’d assumed we all knew not to do that. That’s when Greta made her brave stand for the importance of using our blogs to shred each other.

I have a few things to say about this. [Read more…]

Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement

It’s Halloween, and I’ve come as myself. Fifteen, perhaps even ten years ago, this was the worst night of the year — the night I hid in the living room while Mum was at work, curled up out of sight below the window, praying on a loop. When I was younger, I believed Satan was everywhere — believed he whispered to me in the night, haunted our house and worked via my dad; believed he possessed me when I was eight; believed that on this night, his unknowing unservants came to our door. Today, as an atheist, Halloween is my Christmas, rite of all once-forbidden things.

We’ve got our monsters, atheists. In the media our public faces are racists, warmongsters and men to whom sexual harassment allegations cling like a stench. Online, our community is riddled with sexism, right wing politics and abuse. I’m sorry that’s the case, and as a result of saying so, I’ve been called any number of slurs and four letter words, been threatened and had my address published. (Female, trans and non-white friends’ harassment is much worse.) And yet I’d take this community over my former religious one in a heartbeat. I make that choice on a constant basis.

Every so often, some friend or other from the atheist SJ scene will post that they can no longer stand it round here — that movement atheism now is simply too toxic, that belief matters less than politics, and that they’d rather work with progressive believers than vile atheists. I can’t say I blame them — I’ve seen too many good people driven from this community — and yet I can’t help noticing: the trend, consistently, is that the friends who say this didn’t grow up religious. For them, inhabiting atheist space has always been a choice. For apostates like me, it’s frequently a need.

I need an atheist community — need space to speak frankly about my own abuse, find others who went through similar things and give voice to what I experienced. Like many apostates, I need a movement that affirms my anger as valid and doesn’t confuse it with the pubescent bile of the Dawkbros. I need a community that doesn’t respond to depression with prayer, to kink and queerness with polite non-acknowledgement at best, hostility at worst, to sex and poverty with vain moralism — and for me, that means a secular one. I can’t leave atheism: I have nowhere else to go.

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The Doubt: What I Learned From Rape Jokes, And When I Wonder If It’s Foolish To Assume The Best

I used to think I understood rape jokes—then I moved in with someone who laughed at his own. F was young, white and angry at the world, and I met him after he advertised a room. The two of us talked for an hour or two, during which time he spoke more than I did, with the eagerness of a child desperate to make friends but unsure how. Like me F was addicted to TV: the fourth season of Game of Thrones had been the best, I said, except one character being raped despite her pleas and attempts to break free. ‘Come on,’ he said, all jocular. ‘She deserves it.’

It didn’t take my flatmate’s views long to become clear. His favourite authors included Charles Bukowski, who he told me ‘treated women like shit’ (there was no ‘but’), and I once spied Russell Brand’s Booky Wook on his table. My last landlady, he declared, had been a ‘nasty fucking dry old cunt’, and our female flatmate (a ‘silly little girl’) was acting ‘like a total bitch’ when they fell out. He hadn’t had a problem coming onto her—‘I only let girls move in because I want to fuck them,’ F told me once. He was a misogynist, he agreed, but felt he treated his women well.

I took the room looking on the bright side. The flat was comfy, the location neat, the prospect of searching elsewhere uninviting, and F’s response hadn’t been bad when I mentioned I blogged on a feminist site. Living with him wouldn’t, I thought, be the end of the world, and for me it wasn’t. Still, there were doubts. F laughed about his excitement when women online had rape fantasies, not quite sounding as if he knew where fantasy ended. Was rape so bad, he asked another time, quickly assuring me he was kidding. I’m not certain he’d have said so had I shaken my head.

I don’t know if I lived with a rapist, or someone who’d have liked to be. None of these incidents proves anything, but what if that was the idea? Was F, I wonder now, scoping me out the way queer kids scope out their mum and dad, as I’d scoped him out with mention of feminists? Did he laugh about rape because it amused him, or because what might be a joke is always plausibly deniable, like a sexual advance veiled as an invitation for coffee? One’s instinct is to award the benefit of the doubt, but maybe that’s the point.

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Support the Burning Bridges Blog Network

If you’ve hung around on this network long enough, you’ve probably bumped into certain regulars.

  • Sally Strange is a feminist, environmentalist and journalist in the original sense.
  • Alex and Ania write about (among other things) skepticism, ethnicity and disability.
  • Dori Mooneyham’s blog is about gender, pop culture and being a trans lesbian.
  • Dirty Nerdy has depression and writes about it, as well as being queer.
  • Angie Jackson is an antitheist raised in a cult who live-tweeted her abortion in 2010.

You may also know Sunflower Punk, who’s a homeless single parent ‘from NYC by way of Puerto Rico’, and Kassiane, who tackles ableism and neurodivergence.

These are seven formidable members of our community, who – by and large, like this community – combine a take-no-prisoners atheism with fierce, compassionate social advocacy, an approach we don’t see enough. Now they’re doing something exciting, and setting up their own site. Writes Sally:

This past winter was rough for me and many of my friends. I was fired from my last job essentially in retaliation for whistleblowing, though I was not in fact the whistleblower. I was commiserating with my friends, many of whom also experience poverty on a regular basis, thanks to being laid off, single parenthood, escaping abusive relationships, disabilities and chronic illness, mental health issues, and societal bigotries such as racism, trans-antagonism, and misogyny. We all write regularly and have many other talents and skills, and we were wishing that we could translate our regular output on social media and our private blogs into regular revenue which, if not sufficient to pay the rent, would at least help tide us over during the rough times. And so the idea of Burning Bridges was formed.

The name comes from the idea of lighting your way with the bridges you burn, rather than fearing the flames. And maybe next time using a better, less flammable design, if a bridge is really what [you] want. We want Burning Bridges, the blog and the publishing company, to further the trend of marginalized people gaining a voice through the horizontal structure of the Internet.

I want to see this project succeed. The Indiegogo campaign is at just under $500 (15 percent of the way to its goal) with three more days to go: while they’ve already raised the minimum needed to launch the site, there’s still a way to go. Thankfully, crowdfunders like this often get a late surge just before the deadline – so if you can, chip in or spread the word.

We need more secular writing with a social context. Let’s help make it happen.




Smoke, fire and recognising transphobia

It’s not the case that where there’s smoke there’s fire – nonetheless, the two correlate strongly. The more people smell smoke, the wiser it is to investigate; the more you spot, the likelier you are to find something alight, and anyone so fire-agnostic they refuse to make enquiries till presented with a room in flames can reasonably be suspected of anything from ambivalence on fire safety to being a furtive arsonist.

Misogyny has been the great fire of atheism. 2012 saw a pitched fight for smoke detectors to be used at cons, in which, as thick plumes billowed from every window, DJ Grothe said TAM was totally fire-free, no one having caught so much as a whiff of smoke, and women shouldn’t assume too much from the sky high column of it over the building. Later, Reinhardt et al decided piles of soot and ash wherever some male skeptics went didn’t conclusively prove fire damage, and so there was no reason at all to check for any.

People who defend sexism tend to think there are only two ways to handle complaints: either with absolute credulity, treating women’s claims as infallible, or with absolute agnosticism, throwing out anything short of airtight legal proof. Women who file reports are said to want their word taken as law, but complaints are supposed to prompt investigations, not foreclose them. In the first instance, all most plaintiffs want is for their claims to be looked into – something an all-or-nothing epistemology prevents.

The agnostic response to bigotry says we can never know enough to act. If we don’t have all the facts, we have none; if not everything has been proved, nothing can be, and if the curtains haven’t yet caught fire, no amount of smoke is cause for action. Claims with mountains of evidence are dismissed before any can be sought, responsible parties painting requests for them to find things out as demands for unquestioning belief.

I bring this up because of late, I’ve seen Ophelia say similar things. [Read more…]

Caitlyn Jenner is a mathlete at prom

When Lindsay Lohan is declared homecoming queen in Tina Fey’s Mean Girls – a film about how beauty standards, inter alia, tear women down – she uses her speech to tell all her classmates they look nice. Jessica Lopez, who uses a wheelchair, has an amazing dress; plus-size Emma Gerber must have spent hours on her hair; Regina George, queen bee before a bus hit her, is wearing her neck brace like a rock star.

If complimenting women’s looks on dressed-up occasions is sexism, a patronising well done for being acceptable, Fey suggests it can also be a gesture of solidarity, acknowledging the girls’ efforts to navigate beauty-policing’s impossible demands. (The ‘plastics’, it turns out, are more afraid than anyone.) When Lohan tells her peers they all look like royalty, breaking her tiara and dividing the pieces equally, it’s a statement of affirmation and sorority. I see you, big girls, butch girls, girls on meds. I see the best-and-worst-dressed culture and the pressure and the fear and how you’ve handled them. Here’s to us all for surviving.

000Not unlike Lohan’s character, Caitlyn Jenner is a mathlete at prom, negotiating for the first time the fraught terrain of acceptable public femaleness. Prior to her profile in Vanity Fair, featuring Annie Leibovitz’s photographs, Jenner was called an unconvincing imitation of womanhood. Post-bustier, having presumably sped through the goldilocks region of femininity sometime during hair and makeup, she will almost certainly be called an offensive parody of it. And so my guess would be that when someone at Jezebel wrote ‘You look great, Caitlyn! Can’t wait to see more,’ this – not the adequacy of her attractiveness – was the context.

With all the surgery, beauty treatments and airbrushing her millions can buy, Jenner certainly meets standards of gendered beauty few trans women can; it’s also true that lauding her for being pretty rather than brave displays a wide array of bigotries, and that trans activists may just have better goals than inroads with the GOP. Meeting an expectation, though, doesn’t make it less smothering. If feminist media is complimenting Jenner, my guess is that the aim might be to put someone agonisingly self-aware at ease, letting the anxious nerd at the spring fling know she looks nice when she arrives: not ‘You look great’ as in ‘Well done’, but as in ‘Don’t let them say otherwise.’ [Read more…]

“I feel obliged to never talk about my atheism”: Natalie Reed on science, postmodernism and the left

Someone on Twitter accused me a couple of months back of ‘ridiculous pomo ramblings’. (Given there are days when I’m not ridiculous, this felt unfair.) Because they’re part of the don’t-call-us-TERFs brigade and I’m a troll, a bit of shade proved irresistible.

Natalie Reed, formerly of this blog network, tweeted me back, and we got to talking – on science, philosophy, atheists and the left. In light of recent arguments, our conversation’s been back on my mind, so I’ve transcribed it, lightly edited, below. I’m reminded why Natalie, having been driven out, is such a loss to the secular scene.

* * *

NR: People certainly use it as one. Mostly people who have absolutely no idea what postmodernism actually is or means. I think they think of it as just, like, hyperrelativism and Damien Hirst aesthetics.

AG: It strikes me as a tad ironic how the most radical quotes from people like Irigaray and Harding, totally decontextualised, are used by dudebros to go ‘Stupid mad women! Science! Yurrrr!’

That’s another really odd thing – how ‘postmodern’ has gradually come to be a sort of dog whistle for ‘feminine’ or female intellectual achievement, or the invalidation or belittling thereof – ‘women’s thought’ being dismissed as ‘just pomo’ and so on. And then that gets into how femininity and women and postmodern thought alike are both contextualised as weak, artificial, overly fussy, impractical, unrealistic – in contrast to the ‘natural’ and ‘pragmatic’ and ‘realist’ and ‘scientific’ hard-choices-that-have-to-be-made [image] of men, masculinity and not-pomo.

PZ Myers was booked to speak somewhere and there were comments saying ‘He believes in postmodernist concepts like patriarchy!’

Hahaha – that is epic. Also also: the idea the entirety of the humanities and social sciences are ‘postmodern’. The humanities and social sciences are contextualised as ‘women’s fields’ or feminine courses of study, not as ‘robust’ and ‘strong’ and ‘hard’ and ‘rigorous’ and – well, you see my point – as the hard sciences: the rock hard, thrusting, throbbing sciences, penetrating the dark, moist recesses of empirical truth. And of course the fact that the demographics in the humanities really do have stronger representation of women.

000You’re sailing perilously close to CALLING NEWTON’S PRINCIPIA A RAPE MANUAL!



The thing that really bothers me is how many people think the proper response to the chauvinistic invalidation of that which isn’t ‘hard science’ is to do the whole western-thought-versus-other-ways-of-knowing [shtick], which is just further playing on the same intellectual field – further contextualising women, people of colour, queers and so on as apart from reason and science – and continues contextualising science and reason and thought and truth as the domain of white cishet men. And I’m like, no – fuck that. Human brains are human brains, we all have those same potentials for reason, intuition etc. [Read more…]

Mad Max: Fury Road – a masterpiece of male feminism?

Prompted by male tears, I saw Mad Max like any dutiful gender traitor. Overall it’s a blast, and George Miller remains one of the best action directors in the game. (The chase scenes in Mad Max 2, from 1981, feel like Christopher Nolan before his time.) I didn’t love it quite as much as I expected to – the sets, setpieces and effects are more spectacular than previous films’, but correspondingly less effortless. That said, there’s a lot to admire, from Tom Holkenborg’s score to Miller’s frame rate manipulation. It’s when it came to the feminist angle I wasn’t sure what to think.

Because full-time misogynists demanded a boycott, Fury Road prompted unexpected discussions about women in film. It’s since won praise for all kinds of reasons, many of which seem compelling. As Donna Dickens notes, this is a Bechdel-acing film with a focus on female characters – some of whom, like one-armed Imperator Furiosa and the grey-haired, gun-toting Vulvalini, are excellent – which deconstructs the lone male hero of action cinema. (In Max’s case, writes Dickens, ‘[this] status just about gets him killed’.) Unlike The Hunger Games or Divergent, Sasha James argues, it does this as ‘an action film that is not targeted specifically toward women – if anything, it’s marketed to men’ – and shows female characters, including rape and abuse victims, using the fact of their gender with agency. Writes James:

Untrained in the art of war, the Wives use their womanhood as tools [sic] for their own survival, weaponizing the stereotypes that would be conventionally used against them in a standard action film. For example, in [a] moment of bravery, Splendid transforms her body – the physical vessel for Immortan Joe’s son – into a shield for Max, Furiosa, and the Wives, recognizing her traditional role as a mother and actively using this to her benefit. . . . As an audience well versed in the often-misogynistic tropes inherent in action films, we expect Splendid to be a ‘damsel in distress’. Miller, however, inverses our expectation, transforming her into an empowered survivor.

The moment succeeds because it taps into something real, capturing the complexity of how people at the bottom of power structures negotiate them – something Hollywood’s tryhard attempts at feminism often miss.

And yet – and yet. [Read more…]

Thoughts on a movemnent: a “shock jock” blogger responds to the Secular Policy Institute

The Global Secular Policy Institute Council declares on its website:

The secular movement has a problem, in that some of our foremost leaders get media attention by causing controversy. While this helps them draw in followers, it causes an atmosphere of infighting in the secular community that hinders us from partnering, takes our eye off the ball of important issues, and makes us look crankypants to outsiders. No wonder the stereotype of a secular person is condescending and angry. . . .

We want to positively partner with anyone who will work with us, including religious organizations. We don’t bash religion and we seek to partner with everyone. . . . we also avoid partnering in some situations. We believe the secular movement should stop rewarding those who cause discord. Why are ‘shock jock’ bloggers invited to lecture at major secular conferences? Freedom of speech is a confusing issue, but it means that each person can speak freely through his or her own channel. It does not mean that angry voices have a right to dominate unmoderated discussions on our own Facebook pages and forums. . . .

Apparently we are not alone in wanting to look more professional as a movemnent to the outside world. This week, SPI coalition member Atheist Ireland publicly dissociated itself from blogger PZ Myers in an open letter. What are your thoughts? Do you feel that strident internal criticism makes us stronger, or that our generosity to be inclusive to all voices is being taken advantage of? Let us know on our Facebook page and on Twitter.

What are my thoughts? Numerous would be a start. [Read more…]