A look back at the Brights

The Brights was a movement in the 00s to rebrand atheists as “brights”. It immediately fizzled, as everyone laughed it out of the room. Can you imagine calling yourself a bright?

I first heard about brights in 2007, but apparently it was coined some years earlier, by Paul Geisert in 2003. He and his wife Mynga Futrell founded The Brights organization, whose website still stands today. The word was initially supported by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, but was immediately mocked by both conservative columnists and skeptical authors (not all articles are publicly available). Nowadays, nobody ever bothers to remember it except as a hilarious object lesson in how constructed labels can go wrong.

“Bright” is a funny word, but I will discuss it earnestly. I will deconstruct its motivations, analyze the arguments for and against it, and investigate where it ended up.

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Poe’s Law is and always was bad

It’s time for another trip to the ruins of New Atheism, to scavenge for clues about its downfall. Today we examine Poe’s Law, an adage that states that there is no parody of religious fundamentalism so extreme that it won’t be mistaken for the real thing.

This episode was inspired by a video by Sarah Z (1 hr), about a seemingly unrelated topic: made up stories on Tumblr. The central thread in her video is an obviously fictional story on Tumblr about a woman giving money to a homeless man, and being interrupted by a fedora’d dipshit. And with one thing and another it ends with a Gangnam Style dance number.

This tumblr story was posted to Reddit, where it was a joke about tumblr SJWs make shit up to reinforce their own persecution complex, and have so little attachment to reality that they believe their own nonsense.

The story isn’t just fake though. It’s a fake fake story. The story was not created by a tumblr SJW, and was in fact never posted on Tumblr in the first place. The screenshot was engineered by an apparently anti-SJW redditor who habitually created fake screenshots along similar lines. So in truth, it’s a story about how anti-SJWs make up shit to reinforce their own worldview, and have so little attachment to reality that they believe their own nonsense.

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Legalistic fixation in atheism

Something I’ve observed among atheists, is a narrow legalistic stance informed by separation of church and state. For example, saying religion is 100% fine until you bring it into government policy. Or, religion is completely acceptable unless you’re forcing it upon other people. This stance does not seem at all consistent to me, and it was a perpetual annoyance back when I participated in the atheist movement.

And you know, who cares anymore, the atheist movement is dead.

Nonetheless, it’s a pet peeve of mine, especially when I see the same reasoning applied other realms. Say, statues memorializing racists. Can you imagine believing that racist statues are 100% fine unless they’re on public property?

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One-sided dichotomies

“One-sided dichotomy” is a term I would like to coin to describe a common situation in public discourse.

My first example is the distinction between second-wave feminism and third-wave feminism. Ostensibly, second-wave feminism describes a movement circa the 1970s, and third-wave feminism describes a movement circa the 2010s. But it should be obvious that feminists in the 1970s did not at the time make any such distinction. This is a dichotomy between two groups, but the dichotomy is only made by one of the two groups. Thus, a one-sided dichotomy.

One-sided dichotomies have a tendency to be unfair, because it is only one side controlling the narrative. The narrative goes that second-wave feminists were primarily focused on equality for wealthy white women, while third-wave feminism is intersectional. But closer examination should show that at least some feminisms of the 70s were intersectional, and some feminisms of the present day fail to be so. Does that mean the dichotomy is unfair, or am I nitpicking?  You decide.

I must emphasize that one-sided dichotomies are not necessarily unfair. A model example is the gay/straight dichotomy, which certainly started out one-sided. Straight people would have rejected the label (“I’m not straight, I’m just normal”) or simply wouldn’t have given it any thought. Now the dichotomy is broadly accepted. Another dichotomy currently following the same trajectory, is the cis/trans dichotomy.

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After atheism, I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop

In New Atheism: The Godlessness that Failed, Scott Alexander explains how New Atheism was a much bigger phenomenon than younger people realize, and theorizes about its demise.  Scott’s hypothesis is that New Atheism seamlessly transitioned into the social justice movement (while leaving the remaining atheist movement behind with all the anti-social-justice folks).  I don’t entirely agree, but I’ve advocated similar theories myself.

But as much as I enjoy theorizing about the demise of New Atheism, I’d like to highlight a point Scott makes in his conclusion:

I’ve lost the exact quote, but a famous historian once said that we learn history to keep us from taking the present too seriously. This isn’t to say the problems of the present aren’t serious. Just that history helps us avoid getting too dazzled by current trends, or too swept away by any particular narrative.

The “current trend”, the current paradigm of the culture wars, is social justice.  As a former atheist activist, and current social justice activist, I am perpetually concerned that social justice will crash and burn the same way atheism did.  I mean, isn’t it practically guaranteed?  Do you really think that 10-20 years down the road, people will be concerned about the same things?

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Grumpy takes on atheist sayings

Inspired by a comment I made in my last article, I’m making a listicle of common atheist sayings, many of which I had objections to even when I was involved in the atheist movement.

I want to stick to quotes that I’ve actually heard atheists repeating and paraphrasing multiple times.  And, it’s pretty hard to come up with a list like that, because any search for atheist sayings just turns up much more obscure quotes, voted up by… whoever hangs around websites that collect quotes.  So, I’m sure I missed a few, and if commenters identify a bunch then I might make another listicle.

Before I get to the list proper, let’s start with a grumpy take on atheist quotememes.  This is an image search for “atheist sayings”:

Results of an image search for atheist sayings. Mostly images of black and white faces next to quotes.

Atheists sure like quotes in overwrought fonts next to shadowed grayscale faces of celebrities.  This felt worthy of parody, so I amused myself by making a Pikachu meme.

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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.

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