Atheist movement postmortems

PZ Myers recently linked to a postmortem of New Atheism written by a Jacob Hamburger, and offered his own postmortem. I looked around and it seems this is a bit of a genre, with articles appearing in The Stream, Slate Star Codex, and The New Republic.

I also wrote my own postmortem, when I finally quit atheist student groups in 2017. I would identify the problem as a lack of organization, and lack of ambition to do better. But perhaps that’s symptomatic of a movement that was simply failing to engage people, which could itself be symptomatic of even deeper problems.

I don’t think anyone really knows what caused the death of New Atheism, but it gives everybody an opportunity to raise their favorite grievances about the atheist movement, and pretend that’s why it really died. It’s fuuuuuun. Let’s look at what people are saying.

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A tumblr ban hot take

Anyone remember that time that Google tried to ban adult content on Blogger, and then took it back three days later?  No?

Tumblr announced that they are banning adult content, starting on December 17.  According to their policy,

Adult content primarily includes photos, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples, and any content—including photos, videos, GIFs and illustrations—that depicts sex acts.

The policy includes additional exceptions for breastfeeding, health-related situations, political speech, and nudity in art.

This morning I saw a lot of doom and gloom about the ban, which I would deem justified.  Most obviously, this hurts sex workers and erotic illustrators, who may be using tumblr as a source of advertising or income, and are now being evicted.  But more broadly, it’s a big concern for fandoms.  Although not all fans are interested in erotic art, fandoms are interconnected communities, and you can’t just excise the adult content without affecting everyone.  It is likely that entire fan communities will just get up and leave.  There is precedent for this in and LiveJournal.

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Reason is a powerful aesthetic

I feel like we’re living in a golden age of YouTube vlogging. Every month my link roundup seems to include Lindsay Ellis, Contrapoints, or the like, because they make powerful arguments, and they’re very entertaining. This past month, ContraPoints posted a video called “The Aesthetic”, which I felt was worthy of a longer comment.

The video asks, “What matters more—the way things are or the way things look?”

Justine: I’m not against reason. Reason is a very powerful aesthetic. If you’re a man.
Tabby: What if you’re a woman?
Justine: Oh, don’t be a woman. That’s not a good idea.

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On Asian student groups

Back in my college days, I participated in queer Asian student groups. When I’ve told people about this, many of them have had a kind of negative or suspicious reaction. Why is there a need for students to subdivide themselves out by race like that? One or two people have also compared it to the idea of having a student group for White people, which sounds problematic.

This is similar to reactions that people have to Pride parades, or Black history month. Where’s the straight pride parade, they ask? Where’s White history month? I’m assuming readers already understand why there isn’t a White history month, and I’m just listing out standard arguments as a reminder: Because Black people are an oppressed group, and White people are not. Because White people come from an incoherent collection of distinct backgrounds such as German, Italian, Polish, etc. Because every other month is already effectively White history month.

The funny thing is, the same arguments don’t quite work for these Asian student groups. My university had more Asian students than White students. While you could say that Asian Americans face some degree of marginalization and stereotyping, the fact of the matter is, that’s not the primary reason students came together, and not the primary thing students would talk about. And if you thought “White” was an incoherent collection of distinct backgrounds, I invite you to consider how much larger Asia is than Europe.

So why was it okay to have queer Asian student groups?

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Atheist celebrity culture: you’re swimming in it

There have always been several gaps between new atheists’ self-image and reality. One gap that I have often expressed frustration with, is atheists denying that any atheist movement exists. You could argue the details about what it means to have a “movement”, but I heard such comments coming from people participating in atheist student groups in the heyday of new atheism.  It’s a stubborn refusal to engage in self-understanding, a denial that there is any self to understand.

But today I want to talk about another gap. Atheists see themselves as having no heroes or leaders, and yet atheist celebrities are everywhere you look. This is a point that often comes up whenever an atheist celebrity falls from grace:

“Skeptics and atheists like to think they are above human foibles like celebrity worship,” Rebecca Watson, a prominent feminist skeptic, told BuzzFeed News. “In a way, that makes them particularly susceptible to being abused by their heroes. I think we see that over and over again.”

This is a problem composed of two opposites: (a) atheists see celebrity worship as a human foible that they have escaped, and (b) atheists are more susceptible to celebrity worship. And there are two opposite responses to the problem: (a) the tendency towards celebrities should be acknowledged, or (b) we must strengthen our resistance to celebrities.

The danger is that in focusing on just one response, we leave ourselves vulnerable to the other half of the problem. For FTB in particular, the danger is that we look at the downfall of our heroes and say to ourselves, “we’re moving beyond heroes”–without actually moving beyond heroes. By placing ourselves above celebrity worship, we may be replicating the original problem.

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On work hours in academia

Since I’m looking for jobs, I need a little elevator speech for why I chose to leave academia. “The attitude in academia, is that you’re doing extremely important work, and it’s the passion of your life, and therefore you should be willing to accept terrible work conditions. I would rather have a less glamorous job about actually helping people in my immediate surroundings, instead of slaving towards a distant ideal.” How’s that sound? Eh, maybe.

Poor working conditions are hard to quantify, but one thing we can quantify are the work hours. How many hours do academics work? If the titles of news articles are to be believed, you do not need to work 80 hours a week. The title is hilarious because it suggests some people really do work 80 hours, but it’s just unnecessary. But yes, people tend to overestimate their work hours, and studies suggest that it’s really 50-60 hours a week on average for faculty. But how’s that for an absurd standard? Instead of arguing that we should be working only 40 hours like a normal job, people instead have to argue that the 80-hour week is a myth–or at the very least, unnecessary. This also tells me that even when people work 50-60 hours, they feel like they’re working 80, that everyone around them is working 80, and/or that their colleagues and students should be working 80.

Even when academics argue for a 40 hour work week, the main argument is that you can be just as productive in shorter hours. I appreciate that this is the argument people need to make. But now that I’m on the outside, I can finally say, fuck y’all. Forget productivity. How about being humane to your workers? I don’t know that much about the history of labor rights, but my understanding is that the 40-hour work week was a greater step forward for humanity than any of that stuff I did with superconductors.

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On blogging networks

As many readers know, I run a group blog, The Asexual Agenda (TAA). Other readers might be aware that I’m on this blogging network called Freethought Blogs (FTB). Still other readers may be aware of other blogging networks like The Orbit, or Skepchick. Have you ever wondered how these blog networks are organized?

This is something that interests me, as a group blog admin. But perhaps nobody else is interested, because I hardly ever see anyone else talk about it. Or perhaps people don’t talk about it because the information is too sensitive. You don’t want to give away information that is potentially embarrassing to other people on the network. Many blogging networks may even have formal rules against disclosing certain information. I myself am limited in what I can say. But there’s some stuff that is public knowledge, at least in principle, so I’ll talk about that.

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