In (reluctant) defense of the atheist movement

Something I hear people say, is that self-identified atheists, and “new atheists”, are terrible. They’re racist and sexist, and their main mission is to bring about the death of religion through a series of trite “gotcha” arguments. Now, as someone who was involved in “new atheism” from 2007 to 2017, and then quit for some of those very same reasons, I always want to say, “Yes, but also no.”

Yes, the atheist movement is terrible, but no it has not always been so, and is not wholly so. In particular, you should not assume that every self-identified atheist is just a Dawkins fanboy armed with a series of atheist proverbs. I mean, I participated in the atheist movement for a decade and I was in fact never a Dawkins fan, and I spent many years complaining about atheist proverbs myself. Yes, be critical of the atheist movement, but be careful that it doesn’t veer into stereotyping and sweeping generalizations.

First, a note on terminology. The atheist movement has never been good at distinguishing “atheism” (the social movement) and “atheism” (the bare definition, and all people who fit it). I always observe the distinction. “New atheism” is a journalistic term referring to the movement, which has never been widely accepted within the movement. But personally I don’t care, so I just use “new atheism” interchangeably with “the atheist movement”.

1. New atheism, in context

Atheism used to be a lot less socially acceptable a decade ago. As in, I was closeted as an atheist for a year before coming out. As in, we were constantly responding to myths and stereotypes. As in, there was a large collection of euphemistic terms that people would use to avoid acknowledging that they were atheists.

So, one of the major early goals of the atheist movement, was to get people to “come out” as atheist. A very neutral definition of “atheism” was adopted, in order persuade people that atheists is what they were. And they made a big point about how important it was to say you were an atheist, and to grapple with the consequences of living in a culture where supernatural beliefs are highly valued.

What distinguished new atheism from atheism more broadly, was that new atheists felt it was important to speak up, and make noise. And one reason that they might believe it was important to make noise, is if they felt it was important to destroy religion. So, unsurprisingly, new atheists became associated with this particular goal, this goal of destroying religion. Of course, not all people would have agreed with that goal, and some people might have agreed with it but not felt it was a priority.

I feel that many people unfairly dismiss the idea that we should destroy religion. Do you want to destroy the patriarchy? Do you want to destroy capitalism? Racism? Homophobia? Wanting to destroy religion is not obviously any different. Some people argue that it’s different because religion is harmless, and then they give an example of a harmless religious expression. The narrative of the granny praying on her deathbed is a classic. Well no, the religious beliefs of a dying granny don’t matter, but neither do her racist beliefs, and yet I wouldn’t use this narrative to dismiss the importance of racism.

One thing I would say is that the atheist movement was never good at defining what “religion” actually was. In practice, what’s really meant is “supernatural beliefs”. So wanting to destroy “religion” is mostly a consequence of thinking that false beliefs are harmful–and also having a long list of specific harms caused by religion.

2. Atheism and social progressivism

When I started out, the atheist movement was extremely queer-friendly. The student groups were unanimous and vocal in their support for LGB people, and were sometimes majority LGB themselves. Not that I didn’t have complaints about the way that atheist groups addressed LGB issues, but their progressivism on this matter was second only to dedicated queer student groups.

This is not too surprising, considering polling data. Religiously unaffiliated people (from whom the atheist movement draws its membership) have been outliers in supporting same-sex marriage for decades. But from experience I’d say that atheist groups were ahead of the polls; the people who chose to participate were disproportionately the more progressive ones.

These days (in the US), the rest of society has caught up, and the public conversation has moved on to trans issues. I observe that in the polls, atheists are still ahead on trans issues. But somehow, this doesn’t manifest in a very trans-friendly environment. I believe the atheist movement suffered from evaporative cooling, as the more socially progressive folks left for greener pastures. (There’s a pretty good example of this happening right now in the Atheist Community of Austin.)

Note, I’m talking about queer issues since that’s what I know best, but you could also look at it from the perspective of other social issues, and draw different conclusions. I’d say the atheist movement had a worse track record on women’s issues, for instance.

3. The need for atheist advocacy persists

Because atheism became more socially acceptable, there’s a lot less need for an atheist movement. And because atheism lost its socially progressive edge, I feel like I have a much greater need for the atheist movement to go away. But I think that even a critic needs to acknowledge that the world still needs some sort of atheist advocacy.

First of all, the US, UK, and Canada are not the only countries. In some other countries, you might expect the atheist movement to be a decade behind or more. If you accept that the atheist movement was necessary a decade ago in the US, then you should also accept that it is currently necessary in other cultures.

Second of all, some atheist issues are evergreen. Regardless of the declining progressivism of the atheist movement, regardless of anything else that happens, leaving religion is still a big deal to many people, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Sometimes people have to deal with a family that isn’t very accepting. Sometimes people are dealing with a loss of their religious community. Some people’s experience with religion amounts to outright abuse. And sometimes the loss of belief is just a difficult experience in itself. There need to be support groups for these experiences, even if it doesn’t end up under the umbrella of an atheist movement.

Finally, I want to point out that socially progressive branches of the atheist movement still exist. Skepticon in particular is well-known as a progressive skeptical/atheist event. And in the blogging world, we have Skepchick, Freethoughtblogs, and The Orbit. Although, your mileage may vary on whether these all count as part of the atheist movement; personally, I’m invested in the view that FTB is more of an atheist-adjacent community.

I’m of the view that the atheist movement should be burnt down rather than reformed. At the same time, I associate myself with a lot of people who are interested in building a more progressive atheist movement. So even while I don’t support their project I feel a bit defensive of it. Yes, the atheist movement is terrible, but no, not all the people in it are terrible.


  1. Bruce says

    Everyone understands it would be false to speak with a broad brush and say that ALL Christians abuse kids. Similarly, it is false for anyone to suggest that all atheists {anything}.
    In fact, it is hard to speak of the Christian “community” or the atheist “movement” as if either were one unified monolith always acting in concert.
    Our biggest enemy may be people acting unkindly, but we are also at risk from excess reification.

  2. Bruce says

    In case anyone is unclear, my comment above (@1) is intended in support of the blog post here.

  3. says

    I don’t like framing this as “all generalizations are wrong”. After all, “the atheist movement is sexist” is a generalization that I agree with, and which I think is necessary for effective social critique. As I said in another essay:

    It seems that when someone else makes assumptions or generalizations, we hate it. But when we ourselves have the opportunity, we suddenly remember that assumptions and generalizations have some redeeming value after all. And when we next hear someone else make a generalization, we again forget what that value was.

    My issue is not with generalizations, it’s with these particular generalizations about the atheist movement. People are extrapolating from currently visible atheists to the entire new atheist movement throughout its history. (And I feel like people are missing out on some lesson about how the foibles of a decent social movement can swallow it whole.)

  4. says

    I feel that many people unfairly dismiss the idea that we should destroy religion.

    “Destroy the religion” is one of those vague phrases that can mean various things to different people. How exactly do you want to “destroy the religion”? Which religions are you talking about? Depending on the exact definition, I could either support or oppose it. There is no uniform entity called “the one and only religion.” On one end of the spectrum I could pick some organized religion that teaches believers to practice homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, racial segregation, child abuse, and misogyny; one that promotes anti-science attitudes, alternative medicine, creationism, and denies the reality of the climate change. The humanity would benefit from destroying this kind of religious belief. On the other end of the spectrum, I could pick believers who support equality and social justice while having some vague beliefs that “there’s something out there.” The latter example isn’t particularly harmful, thus there’s no reason for me to want to destroy such a religion. The obvious followup question would be how exactly are people proposing to destroy the religion. I can imagine at least some less than ethical methods that I couldn’t support.

  5. says

    @Andreas Avester #4,
    By analogy to racism, the destruction of religion presumably looks like persuading people to be less religious, to dismantle religious institutions, and raise a generation less religious than itself.

    I’ve always said that I’m not actually in favor of the destruction of religion, because religion is too broad a category. I have little against the UU Church. In my experience new atheists tend to gerrymander the definition of religion in order to preserve the principle that it should be destroyed (e.g. “UU doesn’t count”), and that seems like bad practice to me. On the other hand, I’m happy to support the destruction of Christianity.

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