To the fan of The Atheist Experience who asked them to ‘take me on': 62 reasons you suck

I published a post yesterday called ‘I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse. Are you sorry your religion has?‘ In it, I accept ideas linked to my worldview have motivated people to act badly and ask believers – instead of being defensive and dismissive when shown harm caused by religion – to do the same.

I’d been wondering where the angry mob were till Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience forwarded me this email from a fan.

I’d love to see you guys take on this brand of college educated hipster atheist.  His particular bent is becoming quite loud amongst us and is doing the work of the religious while speaking in our voice.  He get’s a lot of things wrong but it seems he just lumps a whole bunch of human failings on to atheism.  He’s part of the “lets hate Dawkins/Harris at all costs” camp and at times I feel like he’s as dishonest as S.E. Cupp.

He starts this thing with 5 bullet points, all of which misrepresent the involvement of Atheism or the the responsibility of atheist ideas for the failings sited.
http://freethoughtblogs.com/godlessness/2014/11/17/im-sorry-todays-atheist-movement-has-inspired-abuse-are-you-sorry-your-religion-has/

Drew

‘Hipster atheist’. Was it the glasses? It was the glasses, wasn’t it?

They’re reading glasses.

What’s the ideal amount of education, one wonders? How much will make someone an atheist but not an atheist like me? How close to this golden mean is Richard Dawkins, who spent far longer at my university than I spent there?

Russell writes back:

Alex Gabriel is a good friend and a fine writer. I think his post makes some important points, and your characterization is not an accurate description of what he said.

Russell Glasser
The Atheist Experience

Drew doesn’t like that at all.

So you think his assertion that “atheists join the anti-immigrant far right because they think Muslims are wicked, animal or ‘barbaric’ by nature.” Is a fair representation of atheism or any ideas atheists embody in any significant numbers?  Do you think it’s responsible?  Quotes like that seem to be the very thing I’ve heard you guys take to task on the show as being fallacious and dishonest.  He generally “straw mans” pretty hard in most of his writings.  Especially in the area of Dawkins and Harris.  He completely misrepresents their views to an audience who quite often is not familiar enough with their work to know better.  He openly calls them racist.  I’m characterizing, you can read his quotes in his writings.

Openly. I openly call people racist. I think things people do are racist and I say soOpenly. I know no shame.

He’s taking things that individual humans struggle with because we’re linguistically and/or logically imperfect and leveling them at atheists as if we exclusively get these traits as a byproduct of our atheism.  He’s committing one of the central fallacies we struggle with all the time.  Unlike religious believers who are often led to beliefs directly related to passages in wholly books, we have no such unity.  Our beliefs on gender equality or race are social and cannot be attributed to atheism, yet he does this repeatedly thus fueling the fire of illogical arguments we’re forced to fend off.

Don’t I just, though? Actually I don’t. I say

Simply being atheists isn’t these people’s motivation – atheism by itself prompts no more action than theism by itself – but the particular atheist school of thought we share . . . Beyond the absence of a god, [.] has plenty of distinctive ideas . . . And the beliefs above that make some atheists abusive – about believers’ mental or moral status, the barbarity of the ‘Islamic world’, the invalidity of all religious claims to victimhood, the all-explaining role of evolution and biology as pure unconstructed truth? These are distinctly New Atheist ideas.

Drew’s undeterred. He isn’t stalled by distractions like reading.

I have a hard time believing he represents any sensibilities I’ve come to expect from watching the show over the last 4 or 5 years.  You may know him as a nice person but have you read much of what he writes?  He seriously doesn’t align with anyone I’ve seen speak on the show.  If anything the overwhelming sentiment of the show seems to be a rejection of his kind of silliness.

Russell Glasser, one of several AXP hosts I’m friends and colleagues with, discussing me as a prospective Freethought Blogs member in August 2013: ‘I’ve already spent some time reading his blog. Enough for me to give an unqualified yes.’ (We know each other a lot better now.)

I actually don’t mean to make the thrust of this as a direct attack on him individually.

Phew.

He simply seems to be an obvious example of this divide I’m noticing and I cited him and the link in order to “figurehead” the general nature of the division that I see growing.  I actually see him as part of a larger social development akin to the so called 3rd wave feminist movement that has people divided as well.  We all know how that seeped into the atheist discussion in recent years.

Ahhhhhhhh.

The inclinations seem to be similar.  Anyway, I point all this out as an interesting subject to discuss and possibly work out on the show as it clearly pertains to atheist identity and perception in the world.

Best regards,
Drew

Russell again:

Drew,

‘So you think his assertion that “atheists join the anti-immigrant far right because they think Muslims are wicked, animal or ‘barbaric’ by nature” Is a fair representation of atheism or any ideas atheists embody in any significant numbers?  Do you think it’s responsible?’

Yeah, as a matter of fact I do. If you’d actually bothered to click on the links,  you’d see that the one for “wicked, animal or barbaric” is a link to an infuriated rant by Pat Condell, a guy I have also frequently criticized for charging right over the line between legitimate criticisms of Islam and blind, borderline racist hatred. I don’t have the stomach to watch the linked video right now, but I would not be at all surprised to hear Condell use those terms. And while I don’t know how significant the numbers are, I note that Pat Condell’s YouTube channel currently sports over 200,000 followers, which represents a non-trivial chunk of the atheist activist community.

Martin and I recently did a show on Islamophobia, so if you had any question about where we stand on this issue, you could have asked. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_pMcYmE5rs

‘He’s taking things that individual humans struggle with because we’re linguistically and/or logically imperfect and leveling them at atheists as if we exclusively get these traits as a byproduct of our atheism.’

No, he’s not doing that. Alex is a proud atheist, and he doesn’t think atheism inevitably results in those things. What he is doing is drawing attention to the fact that neither atheists nor the atheist movement are perfect; that people who are claiming to represent the rest of us sometimes say and do some pretty dumb shit.

It is because atheists don’t require heroes, idols, or infallible representatives that we should feel free to criticize that dumb shit when we hear it. Just because Dawkins or Harris says a thing doesn’t mean we’re required to follow along as if it were atheist gospel. It also doesn’t mean that when we criticize those guys — as we have, out loud, on the show — that we are saying they are evil people who must be shunned and denounced for every single thing they do from now on. It just means they said some dumb shit, and we acknowledged it. That’s it.

And Alex is pointing out that atheists are capable of doing that, by way of contrasting Christians do the opposite. When a Christian is caught saying dumb shit, what we’d prefer is that they identify the wrong statement or action and state that they do not stand with that thing. Instead, we get wagon circling and coverups. We don’t want to follow that example.

Russell Glasser
The Atheist Experience

I decided I’d get in touch at this point.

Dear Drew,

I was interested to read your email asking my friend Russell to ‘take me on’.

If you’d like to talk to me directly instead, I’d be happy to hear how I’m doing religion’s work and why you feel I’m dishonest (in particular, why you compare me to Ms Cupp).

What do you think my agenda is, exactly?

Alex Gabriel

Wall of text number one:

Well first of all, as I plainly stated.  I’m not specifically calling for an attack on you personally.  More that you are a clear depiction of a certain set of ideas that can be fairly well compartmentalized.  People usually ask for examples or figureheads when framing an argument and you seem to fit the bill in this regard having written enough on these subjects to reference.  There is obviously a fracture occurring in the community of aware atheists and I feel you are representative of one of those sides.

In regard to the dishonesty I can start with one big obvious issue.  Islamophobia.  I’ve read a lot of what you think in this area and I just can’t get on board with the logic.  What you’ve written is ignorant to the facts and just purely dishonest.   At no point do you actually make any damning observations about Dawkins or Harris but yet you condemn them as islamophobic.  You seem to just keep re asserting the cry of racism but yet it isn’t there.  You go on a tirade of fallacious claims and emotional straw man arguments, all of which fall far short of any evidence of racism.  You seem to operate in a vacuum where you have never read or heard ether man speak directly to the claims you make and dismantle all concerns.

There is surely some irrational fear and racism that may warrant the term “islamophobia” certainly when it comes to protest over the Ground Zero Mosque or Qur’an burnings by religious leaders or fear mongering by conservative talk show hosts who are by the way, religious.  Maybe even people who’s sociopolitical leanings (libertarianism) take the lead in front of their atheism.  But you’re linking all that stuff to a rational run of the mill atheist critique of religion.  That is a blatantly dishonest argumentative technique. Sure Pat Condell can say some cooky things but he’s very clearly wearing his Libertarian hat when he says that stuff.  Particularly when it addresses government.

When you claim that Atheism inspires the abuses outlined in the piece I linked to Russel you do a great disservice to identifying the real causes.  When it comes to the gender issues you raise I get extremely angry.  As someone who has fought and advocated, even bled for gay rights and gender equality both in small communities at a personal level and through large national organizations, I take incredible offense to not just an insinuation that atheism fuels these conflicts but that it “inspires abuse.” Again you take amazing liberties with how you support these claims all of which continue to fall short.  Who are these national atheist leaders who condemn gays citing atheism as an underpinning?  Where are these highly visible atheists in media calling for the abuse of individuals with non traditional gender identities?  That’s something like what you would need to make your case and that is exactly what you have on the side of religion.  From where I sit all I can find are examples of prominent atheists calling for the highest form of gender identity equality and respect.  They’re all very clear about this.  In fact, far more clear than any other organized body of thought other than maybe Humanists which most prominent atheists in the media advocate for as well.  In the 20+ years I’ve spent living in the trenches with this issue, guess what I’ve seen as the major contributing factors.  All of which are supported by actual data.  Religion, lack of education, and poverty.  Not atheism.

Of your 5 bullet points in the article the first two boil down to – Stop reading the comments on Youtube, people are idiots over there.  You won’t find intellectual discussion on any topic.

The other 3 you give no supporting evidence.

You also perpetuate dumb religiously based tropes like “science-worshipping” as if that whole idea hasn’t been thoroughly debunked many times over. This one is even to the point where audiences groan when a debater launches into the assertion before they can finish their sentence.

All of this is very S.E.Cupp faux atheist,  Hey look at me, I’m an atheist who only talks about how shitty atheists are!

Drew

I bit.

‘I just can’t get on board with the logic’ – okay, but that’s not evidence of dishonesty, is it? I’d be interested to know what you think evidence of racism looks like, if not racialising language and double standards. Do you think the only form of racism is saying ‘Black people are inferior – quote me on that’?

‘You’re linking all that stuff to a rational run of the mill atheist critique of religion’ – I’m not. I criticise religion frequently and enthusiastically. I argue consistently for others to. I don’t think doing that has to entail punching down.

‘You claim that Atheism inspires the abuses outlined in the piece’ – I don’t. I claim today’s atheist movement (and ideas distinctive to its rhetoric and values) inspire them. I explicitly say atheism itself doesn’t. Today’s atheist movement (I say this too) has plenty of ideas other than ‘There’s no god’.

‘Who are these national atheist leaders who condemn gays citing atheism as an underpinning?’ – I don’t claim national atheist leaders ‘condemn gays’. I don’t [claim] any atheists do in that post.

‘Where are these highly visible atheists in media calling for the abuse of individuals with non traditional gender identities?’ – I didn’t say ‘highly visible atheists in [the] media’. I didn’t even say ‘most atheists’. I said ‘atheists’, linking to examples.

‘Stop reading the comments on Youtube, people are idiots over there’ – are you suggesting harassment and abuse don’t count when atheists carry them out on YouTube?

‘The other 3 [points] you give no supporting evidence’ – I gave plenty. Follow the links.

‘You also perpetuate dumb religiously based tropes like “science-worshipping”‘ – there’s nothing exclusively religious about opposing scientism and an uncritical ‘Because science said so’ mentality. I can think of plenty of (movement) atheists who’ve argued against that – Steven Law, Zinnia Jones, Sikivu Hutchinson, Ophelia Benson, Dan Fincke.

‘Look at me, I’m an atheist who only talks about how shitty atheists are!’ – I don’t. I talk at length about how bad religion is, and about lots of other things.

AG

Wall of text number two:

The things you claim are racism are actually highly debatable and you sum them up as racist with little explanation as to why.  I would contend that you are just plain wrong and could easily back that up if we were to spend a few thousand words going deep in specific areas.  You repeatedly abuse meaning and stretch interpretation when attacking Dawkins for instance.

When you connect bad behavior from one guilty party to another innocent one, you’re entering a fallacious argument. It’s dishonest

Much of what you talk about inspires a “what the fuck is he talking about” responce from those of us who would like you to just say what you’ve got to say.  The entire above sentence is gobledygook.  I know it looks like a well reasoned thoughtful statement but it ends up making no point.   “ideas distinctive to its rhetoric and values” Yeah I get what you’re asserting but maybe I’m just to smart to fall for it.

Maybe. Maybe.

You’re smuggling in a lot of stuff in there and expecting it all to just pass.  All of it needs unpacking and I’m sure there’s points to disagree on but you present it as if it’s been decided.

“I don’t claim national atheist leaders ‘condemn gays’. I don’t any atheists do in that post.” I stated that you’d need to cite some in order for your claims to hold weight.   We’d need such people to form or reflect the “values” and “rhetoric” of our “movement”  If we’re as ugly and organized as you claim we’d have some obvious names to name.  We don’t.

“Are you suggesting harassment and abuse don’t count when atheists carry them out on YouTube?”  No I’m acknowledging that Youtube is a cesspool of lowest common denominator thinking and just poorly framed to abusive discourse.   This also goes back to my original outreach to Russel observing that people like you exploit generally bad human behavior or inability to speak clearly or frame an argument properly.  Some people just don’t express complex thought well on the internet and others aren’t savy enough to spot linguistic shortcomings and traps.

Your conclusions are the troubling part.  Again smuggling in summations where a lot of discussion is needed.  “Pat Condell is a racist” doesn’t cut it

“There’s nothing exclusively religious about opposing scientism and an uncritical ‘Because science said so’ mentality. I can think of plenty of (movement) atheists who’ve argued against that – Steven Law, Zinnia Jones, Sikivu Hutchinson, Ophelia Benson, Dan Fincke.” Well there you said it “scientism” like it’s a real thing, you are a bit of a nutter now.   There is hardly a rational or kind way of refuting such an irrational claim so I’ll stop here.

In general your reactions to my statements are telling.  From beginning to end you’re falling into the trap of “if you’re against me on this idea you must conform with the opposing argument I know about” Like when Republicans attack critique as if it would only come from a liberal Democrat not realizing that many other views live on the political spectrum.

Drew

Drew. Drew? You’re reading, right? You are? Okay.

Listen – I have this embarrassing problem you need to know about. (Relax, this won’t end like that phone call from your ex.)

I’m an atheist… sort of professionally. I’m the kind of pro atheist, specifically, who talks a lot about religion being bad. Annoyingly, no matter how much I do that, I’m thrown in all the time with acceptability atheists like Andrew Brown, Chris Stedman and SE Cupp, who are paid to badmouth the rest of us and stick up for religion. When you recognise the atheist movement has faults or say stuff people find too progressive, they assume this is you.

I can’t stand acceptability atheists. Their cuddly, nonthreatening blandness feels like being waterboarded with mild yoghurt. In particular, I hate when people think I’m one. I want to bash religion: I want an atheist movement up to the task. When people think I’m too nice for that, it grates, so every now and then I have to demonstrate I’m not.

Here’s what we’re going to do.

Random.org is a website that generates a random number, by default between 1 and 100. I’m going to visit that site; I’m going to generate a number; and I’m going to tell you that many reasons you suck.

000

Let’s go.

  1. You watched The Atheist Experience four or five years and missed that the hosts are my colleagues on this site.
  2. You watched it four or five years and missed everyone on it being a feminist.
  3. You watched it four or five years and missed all the ‘Islamophobia’ moments.
  4. You wanted the hosts to discuss why I suck. More people will read this post about why you suck than would have tuned in.
  5. Based on the ways people share things online… most of them are going to agree you suck.
  6. My guess is, hosts of The Atheist Experience will read this and agree you suck.
  7. Some of them, who knows, may even share how much you suck with folk who follow them.
  8. Craving their respect’s so precious. I did too once. I got it.
  9. ‘My original outreach to Russel’ – YOU CAN’T EVEN SPELL HIS NAME.
  10. You’ve ostensibly read ‘much of [my writing]’… but not the parts that bash religion.
  11. Or those about atheists needing to bash religion.
  12. Or about atheists like Cupp being awful.
  13. Or everything other than ‘how shitty atheists are’.
  14. Hundreds of thousands of people have read me bashing religion. I make a living from it. I’m better at it than you.
  15. My current most-viewed post, whose hits are in five-figure territory, talks about atheists like Cupp being awful. I’m better at it than you.
  16. Hundreds of people are reading this and thinking how completely, absurdly wrong you are to think I’m one of them.
  17. Thanks for providing that opportunity.
  18. At the same time: people are going to share your messages to illustrate how shitty atheists can be.
  19. Slymepitters are going to talk about this post and illustrate how shitty atheists can be,
  20. but even lots of them will think you’re a shit atheist.
  21. (You haven’t heard of Slymepitters, have you?)
  22. And whenever anyone now looks for a post of mine about shit atheists, they’re going to find you.
  23. Your surname’s not Peacock.
  24. Everyone reading just imagined your surname being Peacock.
  25. Everyone who remembers reading this will now remember you as Drew Peacock.
  26. You only just got it, didn’t you?
  27. I sent you a three-sentence email. You replied with a wall of text.
  28. At no point did it answer my question(s).
  29. It was a badly written wall of text.
  30. ‘Maybe I’m just to smart’.
  31. ‘Who’s’.
  32. ‘Responce’.
  33. You DOUBLE SPACE AFTER FULL STOPS. This isn’t the eighties. STEVE JOBS DIED.
  34. You put random ‘words’ in scare quotes thinking it’s ‘clever’. It’s like you just ‘discovered’ punctuation.
  35. You haven’t discovered the bits you need.
  36. You’ve consistently put words in my mouth and argued against them, not my actual ones.
  37. You’re doing exactly what you say I do.
  38. You think having gone to university makes me overeducated and devoid of common sense.
  39. You think having gone to university makes Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris wise and learned.
  40. You likely think having gone to university makes me spoilt and overprivileged. That’s cute.
  41. While I was at university I worked with the atheists you idolise, including Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. I can tell you they’re overrated IRL.
  42. You think my ideas have ‘been thoroughly debunked many times over’, then show how little secular thought you’ve really read…
  43. …and that you haven’t read (perhaps even heard of) the atheists who’ve debunked your ideas.
  44. I promise you they groaned at you as well.
  45. You’re so unread you’ve no clue how unread you are,
  46. but don’t worry, you’re rapidly getting read.
  47. WE’RE ALREADY AT FORTY-SEVEN.
  48. You think you can’t follow my logic because I’m dishonest.
  49. It’s actually because YOU’RE BASIC.
  50. You think racism’s awful… but not as bad as calling things racist openly.
  51. You’ve fought for gender equality. Not feminism, though. You know what women need.
  52. You’ve ‘even bled’ for gay rights. Not other queer folk’s, mind you. You don’t know about us.
  53. Definitely not folk ‘with nontraditional gender identities’. You’re not even sure how to refer to them.
  54. You’ve bled for us… so you think you can tell us to shut up when atheists are awful about us.
  55. You’ve bled for us… and lots of us really, really wish you hadn’t.
  56. At the same time, not all of us would have been too upset if you’d bled a bit more.
  57. You thought it wasn’t personal. It felt personal.
  58. Though probably not as personal as this.
  59. You’re probably going to write another angry wall of text when you’ve read this.
  60. It’s going to suck just as much as the others,
  61. but no one’s going to care.
  62. Any one of these sentences is a better ‘reason you suck’ than all your commentary on me.

Turn off your computer, Drew. Get into bed. Curl into a ball, pull the bedcovers up over your head and go to sleep. And if you wake up still thinking you won here, drift off again.

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In defence of the War on Christmas

As 2011’s royal wedding happened, the Guardian hit on a stroke of genius. Perched in easily missed white type atop its sprawling coverage, a tiny button read “Republicans click here”, which when activated hid all related stories. The button, which proved popular enough to reappear this year when the couple’s child was born, made the paper’s site a refuge for the unenthused, the only place online or otherwise where bunting and bootlicking could be escaped. As Advent commences, I often wish such a filter hid reminders of Christmastime from view.

As Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience notes on the programme’s blog, arguments for the validity of godless Christmas celebrations have done well in recent years. These are the “Axial tilt is the reason for the season” shirts, the “Keep the merry, dump the myth!” placards of American Atheists, the selection of cards sold by the British Humanist Association, the Digital Cuttlefish’s books of festive (and fun) poems; they’re various chapters in Ariane Sherine’s Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, and by implication part of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, the Rationalist Association’s annual benefit; they fill countless column inches by Robin Ince (its host), Richard Dawkins, Elisabeth Cornwell, Myra Zepf, Alain de Botton, Alom Shaha and Jim Al-Khalili among others.

The case, summed up in AA’s slogan, is no doubt as familiar to atheists today as are the faults of Pascal’s Wager, both being discussions with believers one comes across too frequently for comfort. Many of our Christmas customs if not most – gift-giving, good will, feasts, festooned fir trees and Father Christmas – aren’t of a necessarily religious character, the argument goes. If superstitions bequeath us an excuse to have at them, why look a gift horse in the mouth?

The logic’s sound, but commonplace enough that it risks seeming both reflexive and received. I decided to give up Christmas last year, for no more grand a reason than that personally, I don’t enjoy it. With such passionately vocal thirst to reclaim it in the secular community, it’s hard not to feel at least mildly rebuked, as if my absence from the bandwagon endangers a key atheist PR objective, stopping images of secularist grinches waging war on Christmas being properly cast off.

The trouble, and I’ve only realised it in recent years, is that I’m not gladdened by the merry or the myth – the non-religious elements, plenty as they are, grate as much as does the sermonising.

Yes, I’m turned off by the BBC broadcasting Bible readings, church services and carols about blood and gall – but I’m just as turned off by their annoying, repetitive melodies. I’m angered by Operation Christmas Child, and by millions of children being made to sing said carols in their schools or act out narratives from religions whose ideas they may not share and aren’t yet well placed to assess – but I’m just as angry parents lie to their children about who provides their presents, often objecting to them being told the truth, for no clear reason except finding the deception somehow sweet. I don’t enjoy the smell of tangerines, the putting up of decorations, the taste of mince pies or the expectation I gorge myself on food I’d never otherwise eat, enduring sit-down meals and light dinner conversation (no swear words allowed) with relatives I’d rather not encounter. In the end, I struggle mostly to be cheerier than usual for contrived and arbitrary reasons.

If you are a Christmas person, and clearly many of us are, I’m all for your enjoying the rituals of your choice – we’d do well to be cautious, though, of insisting “Of course atheists love Christmas”, implying as a chorus of this insistence does that we not only can but should. One perk of non-religious life, it’s been argued in New Humanist before, is the right to pick and choose our festivals. A status quo where atheists feel bad for not being Christmassy enough has something very wrong with it.

Atheism’s collective urgency to show festive credentials is understandable. As Glasser writes, “[p]opular culture is full of rotten characters who hate Christmas. Ebenezer Scrooge. The Grinch. Narnia’s White Witch.” Alone among calendar dates, failing to love it ostentatiously provokes a barrage of reproach: I’ve been called a killjoy, a spoilsport and an Eeyore for disliking it, but never for finding Valentine’s Day crass or New Year underwhelming.

One wonders if the keenness to affirm secular love for Christmas stems in part from a desire to placate religious critics, assuring them our boat-rocking plans are limited. Certainly, Eric Pickles’ call three years ago for councils “not [to] allow politically correct Grinches to marginalise Christianity” drew valid fire for recycling myths about “the likes of Winterval, Winter Lights and Luminous” as evidence for a so-called war on Christmas, but Pickles also demanded councils fund “carol services and nativity scenes” – a valid target, surely, for secularist pressure?

Baulk as we might at the “war on Christmas” narrative, parts of how Britain marks it belong in godless people’s crosshairs, from government-backed proselytising of this kind to evangelism in state schools, religious programming at licence payers’ expense and the pollution at large of the public sphere’s secularity. However excised of religion Christmas exhibits might be in marketplaces and the media, they’ve undoubtedly opened the door to public religious displays more widely in the name of inclusivity – Oxford’s giant street-mounted menorah, say, lit each Hanukkah by the town mayor and a local Rabbi, or Channel 4’s broadcasting the adhān for Ramadan this year.

The object of a so-called war on Christmas (and on all these articles of faith as establishments of public life) is really a profoundly diplomatic settlement, an understanding of the public sphere as neutral, unclaimed territory rather than land divided among orthodox religious groups. This is why I can’t support the ‘multifaith’ approach above, espoused on Bill O’Reilly’s programme by Chris Stedman recently: a multifaith public square is as bad as a single faith one, in some ways worse, because it still gives public authority to clergy; still makes people outsiders who won’t participate; still pollutes the peaceful neutrality of a marketplace which asks no one to demonstrate their piety.

However secular or holy we think the festive season is, that détente matters. Those in atheism who sit happily with unwrapped gifts and hangovers on Boxing Day should think twice before they lapse into unravelling it themselves, keen to ‘destigmatise’ secularists by showing us as Christmas-lovers. A culture of pressure to participate fostered by atheists is as bad as one produced by theocrats like Pickles – neither tolerates dissent, and both perpetuate the notion those who don’t join in are spite-filled Scrooges.

If we care for people’s conscientious freedom or right to live by the calendar they choose, we shouldn’t let fears of seeming grinchish silence us when religion encroaches on public life at Christmastime; equally, we should support those in our ranks who don’t do Christmas, and oppose the spectre of the Grinch being used to guilt or smear them. Call this scaling back of peer pressure a war on Christmas if you must, and Bill O’Reilly is correct that it exists; to me, it seems like giving peace on Earth a chance.

The Pat Condell problem

I just watched a great Atheist Experience with Russell Glasser and Jeff Dee. At the beginning, a caller raised the issue of ‘Islamophobia’ among atheists, and specifically Pat Condell. His 2010 ‘No mosque at Ground Zero’ video came up, in which someone suggested he was blaming all Muslims for 9/11, as did the idea he’s too hostile in general.

I’ve said before that I have issues with ‘Islamophobia’ as a term. It’s a slippery, simplified glossing of sometimes complex issues, and I worry it lends credence to groups like the English Defence League who use discourse about ‘religion’ to mask racism. (Their leader, Stephen Lennon, makes comments in interviews which could be taken almost word for word from Maryam Namazie. It’s not inconceivable they actually are.) I have considerably more issues, however, with Pat Condell.

I’ve nothing against a combative, confrontational approach to religion – including Islam. Maryam, God only knows, can get pretty angry. So can Matt and Jeff. So, in case anyone still doesn’t know, can Greta Christina. Atheist anger is justified, useful and often persuasive. However: when I watch Condell’s videos, it feels like watching non-stop bile. There’s a whole lot of confrontation in Greta’s famed Skepticon talk, but there’s also a large amount of humour. There’s celebration, and optimism, and measured composure. With AXP, Maryam and in fact most atheist speakers, the composure is there too, and the outbursts, valid and – let’s face it – fun as they are, form the exception and not the rule.

To watch Condell’s vlogs is to feel constant, unadulterated rage. I can’t remember seeing him smile, laugh or empathise. I can’t remember him pausing for thought. It’s as if an endless barrage of concentrated venom is being spat at me; the same impression, incidentally, that TJ Kincaid/TheAmazingAtheist always made. That’s hard for me to watch.

Now of course, I’m only speaking for myself. If this isn’t how you feel about his tone, that’s up to you, and I’m not judging anyone else for enjoying it. It’s just not for me.

But TJ was objectionable more than just aesthetically. He was an MRA who spent his time harrassing rape victims and threatening violence. The main issue was his content, not just his style. (I use the past tense here because, as PZ points out, he’s now PR-bombed himself out of mainstream circles.)

The same is true, I think, of Pat Condell. So I’m now going to talk not just about why I don’t personally enjoy his work, but why I don’t think atheists, skeptics and secularists – or pretty much anyone else sensible – should admire him.

If in his ‘Ground zero mosque’ video, he was assigning collective blame to every Muslim for 9/11, he was clearly being stupid – but that’s not the question I want to address. (For the record, I think there’s a good case for that accusation, but it was covered on AXP around the time and is beside my main point here.) Supposing for the sake of argument that it was okay to blame Muslims in general for Al Qaeda’s actions – so what? Would he try to stop churches being built where witches had been burnt? Stop synagogues being built where the Old Testament’s genocides were carried out? Places untarred by religious violence are few and far between. Why only the furore when it’s a mosque?

Let’s be clear. I’ve no problem fighting ‘Islamisation’ if it means ending Sharia courts in the UK, animal cruelty in halal slaughter, mutilation of children’s bodies and state-funded Islamic schools. I’m a secularist. I’d fight all those things if other religions were doing them – they are, and I do.

I’ve no problem, either, saying that Islam is socially divisive, individually degrading and most importantly untrue. Most religions (perhaps all of them) are, most of the time.

And I’ve no problem suggesting to individual Muslims that they leave their religion, or making a case for that. Specifically, I’ve no problem attacking its empirical claims and its ethical standards. I’m happy to do so with every religion – and with every other belief system, too, if I think it’s flawed.

I’m clearly not soft on religion, and Islam is no exception. Yet for Pat Condell, it is.

For Condell, who enthuses at every chance about the freedoms of the West, Islam and its Muslim adherents deserve special restriction by the state. Ironically, he’d curtail their religious freedom just as theocrats have curtailed heretics’ throughout world history. In this case, that meant banning a mosque’s construction where the secularist U.S. constitution permitted it, but from the people he supports it’s clear Condell doesn’t stop at that.

A couple of years back, he praised the Dutch politician Geert Wilders as a hero. This is a man, in case you didn’t know, who campaigns to have the Qur’an banned from the Netherlands; who according to The Guardian wants ‘all immigration from Muslim countries halted, Muslim immigrants paid to leave and all Muslim “criminals” stripped of Dutch citizenship and deported “back where they came from”; who lobbied in parliament for Muslim women to be taxed who wear headscarves – not burqas or even niqabs, but ordinary headscarves – or else made to pay €1,000 a year for a license to wear one. He later stated of course that Christian headscarves wouldn’t be taxed, and also that he’d ban the hijab form altogether if he could.

Pat Condell, last year, was nominated for the NSS Secularist of the Year award. What kind of secularist, exactly, calls this man a hero? What kind of idiot sees Geert Wilders as a freedom-defender?

It doesn’t get better. In 2010, in the run-up to the UK’s most recent general election, he announced he’d be voting for the United Kingdom Independence Party, a right-wing group intent on withdrawal from the EU, specifically damning anyone who voted Labour. Unsurprisingly enough, his party also wants to freeze immigration. Now, I’m not necessarily saying everyone who supports that idea hates foreigners or Muslims – but given his track record, does it seem an unlikely motive?

With his traction among some parts of the atheist movement, one might think Condell would be all about skepticism, reason and critical thinking. But UKIP, whom he publicly endorses, have other policies which are batshit absurd, and which stand at direct odds with secular and freethinking goals. Some examples:

  • They support withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, and the scrapping of the Human Rights Act – the major legislative shield against Sharia courts and a large part of the National Secular Society’s successful court case against council prayers.
  • They support the scrapping of Ofsted, the government body responsible for teaching standards in our tax-funded school system. It currently monitors, among other things, sex education and science lessons and is one of few safeguards against dogma and distortion of facts in our classrooms.
  • They support home schooling as an alternative to school attendance with other children, frequently chosen by religious fundamentalists to avoid the exposure of their children to Darwin and diaphragms.
  • They oppose the legalisation of same sex marriage on the grounds that they deem it ‘an aggressive attack on people of faith, and an act of intolerance in itself’.
  • They oppose the idea of anthropogenic climate change, describing themselves as ‘the first party to take a sceptical stance on man-made global warming claims’.

I know that atheists are united, strictly speaking, only by a common lack of belief in gods, and I know that we vary greatly throughout the world. But I also know the contemporary atheist community values skepticism, critical thinking and secularism on grounds of freedom of belief. And when I look at Pat Condell, I don’t see a good atheist, skeptic or secularist. I frankly think he’s everything we shouldn’t be about, and I’m disappointed by the kind of platform he’s found.

Then again, I voted Labour once.