Chris Stedman interviews Hemant Mehta for RNS.

CS: What do you love most about the nontheist community? Where do you think it can improve?

HM: I love how certain issues that are controversial everywhere else in the country, like marriage equality, comprehensive sex education, and science in schools, are almost non-issues within our community. Where can we improve? In many ways, we act like there’s an atheist orthodoxy everyone must follow. As the demographics shift and atheists increase in number, we have to realize we won’t always agree on every issue. 


Hemant must have forgotten what he had just said when he went on to say the exact opposite. He loves how certain issues that are controversial everywhere else in the country are almost non-issues within our community, and where we can improve is in the fact that we act like there’s an atheist orthodoxy everyone must follow.

So how will be treat other atheists who happen to hold other controversial positions? There are atheists who are pro-life, Republican, gun owners, or home-schoolers. When I talk to them, they often tell me they feel unwelcome in both worlds—“I’m too atheist for the pro-life group, and too pro-life for the atheist group.” We have to ask ourselves: Are we united by our atheism or is it really more than that? Is it possible to be a rational thinker who holds contrary views on controversial issues? Will we allow ourselves to even have those sorts of debates or are they off-limits? Right now, those conversations are off-limits with many atheists and that’s a problem.

It depends on what we’re talking about, in what situation, with what people, for what purposes.

Are we united by our atheism? It depends. Am I united with people who detest feminism and make a habit of saying stupid things about it?

Nope. Not at all. I don’t care how atheist they are, because I care about the equality of women more.

And another thing: why is Hemant using the tendentious label “pro-life”? You know, the one that not too subtly implies that the opposition is pro-death? Why doesn’t he call them what they are, anti-abortion or anti-abortion rights?

And then, “off limits” is tendentious too. It sounds like an absolute when often it just means “I’ve had that conversation seven billion times already, I don’t need to have it yet more times just because some atheists are opposed to abortion.” Often it just means I don’t want to hear it; it pretty much never means no one should ever discuss the subject.

I guess that’s some of what I don’t love about “the atheist community.”



  1. mcbender says

    Yes. Exactly.

    I’ve been trying to think of a convenient way to express the idea succinctly, and what I’ve come to is something like this: “It’s all very well to talk of ‘big tents’, but not at the expense of becoming a circus.”

    Sorry, Chris and Hemant, but I hold atheists to a higher standard on ethical issues than I do religious people. Unlike them, we don’t have the excuse of “our ancient book tells us to hate women”. Instead we have people inventing pseudoscientific rationalisations for the regressive beliefs they already hold (antifeminism, libertarianism, climate change denialism, etc) and then cloaking their support of those ideas in a veneer of rationality. I think that’s far more dangerous than the religious version. What is the purpose of an atheist/skeptical/rationalist/whatever movement if it’s going to include people using cargo cult skepticism to prop up harmful beliefs that we know are contradictory to reality?

    I don’t want misogynists in the movement pretending to be skeptics. I don’t want pro-forced-birthers in the movement pretending to be skeptics. I don’t want vaccine denialists and climate-change denialists in the movement. I don’t really want Bigfoot believers in the movement either, but I’d rather have them than misogynists, sexual harassers, and serial rapists…

    Skeptic, question thyself.

  2. says

    Hemant says:

    In many ways, we act like there’s an atheist orthodoxy everyone must follow. As the demographics shift and atheists increase in number, we have to realize we won’t always agree on every issue.

    I can’t claim to know what every atheist in the community thinks, but from my experience, there are very few people who believe in an “atheist orthodoxy”. What I find more commonly is people who say These values I hold are reasonable, here are the reasons why, people ought to hold them, and here are the reasons why. That’s not the same as saying people must hold them (maybe it’s in my head, but it feels like there’s an implied “or else” *).

    Yes, changing demographics means we won’t agree on every issue. But if the disagreement results in discriminating against oppressed people or supporting the structures in place that prop up oppression against individuals, that’s not something to compromise on. I’m not going to compromise on a woman’s right to choose because I see that as an extension of treating women like human beings. The end result of anti-abortion efforts is disempowering women. Doing that means that in effect-if not intent-an individual is not treating women as human beings equal to everyone else. Such a view denies a basic human right of women. Not gonna compromise on that. Likewise, I might agree with other atheists on certain issues, but I’m not going to let those issues overshadow any homophobia or transphobia that I become aware of. I’ll be less inclined to want to associate with people like that either.

    This whole line of thinking treats “one big tent” as if it’s more important than not shitting on oppressed people. Sorry, not gonna happen in my book. I find it relatively easy not to shit on women, other LGBTQI people, or PoC, and if I were to do so, I fully expect to get called out on it. Will I respond perfectly? Ideally I’d like to say I would, but realistically, I might fuck up. If such a thing happens, I *hope* I’d recognize that I was in the wrong, apologize, and not make the same mistake again.

    But that view isn’t one held by some folks. I get the impression for example, that Thunderf00t and his supporters expect us (by us, I mean those that disagree with his views on harassment policies or the sexism women deal with regularly) to continue working on some “bigger picture”, rather than calling them out for their sexism and misogyny. They’re placing an over-emphasis on the importance of working together. They don’t view our concerns as if they’re important enough, or at least not important enough to call out. They don’t think their opinions need to be changed. They don’t think they’re wrong. They expect women and their allies to work side by side with people who don’t even acknowledge that there’s a problem with harassment at conventions. FFS, how welcoming can a convention be if many of the people are experiencing sexual harassment and TPTB won’t acknowledge the problem, let alone do anything about it. That doesn’t sound terribly welcoming to me. That also doesn’t strike me as something to “sweep under the rug”. Women shouldn’t have to deal with that shit just to participate in society.

    As another example-gaming. I’m not a big gamer, but from what I’ve read around here (mostly stuff at Lousy Canuk), I see that there’s a problem with sexism, racism, and homophobia (probably other issues too, but those are the ones I’ve read about). My roommate is a big gamer, and he’s told me about plenty of examples of homophobia, sexism, and racism. He’s even tried calling people out about it, and they often give the expected response. It’s chilling. It’s not welcoming. They want him to not talk about these things bc the game is more important.

    NO. The game is not more important than treating others equally. My roommie is black, and he’s played with people that use the N* word. I know how it makes him feel. He doesn’t like it. He shouldn’t have to put up with that. But some people don’t think they’re wrong. They don’t think they should change. It’s so frustrating to hear these stories because it’s so trivially easy to make the changes necessary. If someone find your use of the N* word offensive, players, don’t do that. Find another non-offensive word. That’s something else that’s trivially easy (I’ve replaced all sexist slurs in my vocabulary with other non offensive words. Hell, I’ve created a few of my own, specifically to avoid splash damage).

    Is the big tent more important than not shitting on people? I say no.
    For some reason, many people say ‘yes’.

    *maybe there’s truth to that. If you hold a negative view of someone because they’re a trans*woman, I’m going to be less inclined to want to associate with you. But I have the right to decide who I interact with, and I don’t like bigots. That “or else” is my right.

  3. Ed says

    One thing that bothers me about Mehta’ s list is that the issues on it at very different; united mainly by some vague “liberals don’t like it” theme
    –“pro-life”/ anti-abortion
    I don’t see how there can be much room for this worldview in a group of people who reject the idea of a supernatural soul being the source of human identity(thus a complte “person” from the “moment” of conception, which is itself a process, not a momentary event). Even religious people don’t uniformly oppose abortion even if the leaders of some(not even all) of their groups tell them to.

    With atheists, I really can’t imagine an honest motive for supporting it. I’m not even aware of any important anti-abortion atheists except Nat Hentoff, regular writer for Free Inquiry magazine and otherwise strong activist for civil liberties. His reasoning on the issue is very strange and hard to understand even though he is a good, generally very clear writer.

    –Republican(or if not American, the mainstream conservative movement of one`s country).
    It depends on which subgroup of conservatism they support and why, but the present day Republican Party is so friendly to extremists that I would be critical of an atheist (or anyone)from a center right background supporting it unless they are actively involved in promoting reform and moderation from within. And the Democratic Party is scarcely exclusive to the far left, so why not find a party one doesn’t have to share with as many theocrats, racists, sexists and homophobes?

    –Home Schoolers
    It depends on what they’re teaching they’re children and if they make sure the kids have enough opportunity for social interaction with their peers.

    –Gun Owners
    Owning a gun and supporting fanatical NRA-sponsored policies (or worse) are not the same thing.

    And the complaint in this interview, while they might have a point in a few instances, is conceptually muddled.

    Can a person reject theism and supernaturalism but still have opinions which differ from the majority of unbelievers? Yes.

    Does atheism alone require any person or organization to find you acceptable to them?

    Is “atheist” a primary source of a sense of self and value for most people?
    I don’t think so. In my own case I had similar(liberal) values as a believer. Not every theist can work well with every other theist either. Thus all the religious conflict throughout history, though I’m not advocating that atheists go down this route either.

    It’s really up to people and groups whether they want to accept someone as an ally who’s values significantly differ from theirs. There are also different kinds and degrees of alliances and associations. I can admit that a particular author, speaker or advocacy group does an admirable job defending evolution, answering tricky religious apologetic arguments, exposing faith healing hoaxes, etc., while still recognizing that there is something objectionable about their politics or behavior.

    I may read a couple more Dawkins books in my lifetime and still think that The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion should be read by seekers wanting to understand evolution or drawn to atheism but uncertain. However, I am unlikely to make another contribution to the Richard Dawkins Foundation, or many other prominent organizations because of the serious problems with them many people are bringing to the public’s attention.

  4. says

    Well, if all atheism means, has ever meant, will ever mean, indeed can ever mean is “Doesn’t believe in God”, then why wouldn’t there be a diversity of views on all sorts of other subjects? But if all I have in common with a bunch of people is “not believing in God”, then what motivation do I have for hanging around with them?

    BTW: The secular anti-choice (I gag when I hear the term “pro-life”, if I’m thinking about it at all) arguments generally seem to start with genetic essentialism: that the genome makes the person.

  5. Donnie says

    I, personally, do not relate to people because they are merely atheist. I relate to people based upon their personal, moral ethics. As long as Hemant believes controversial issues like a women’s right to bodily autonomy is up for debate then I am not united with Hemant. Controversial issues that involve the.rights of others is not debatable. The minimium wage, the benefits of vegetarianism, the U.S. tax structure are certainly up for debate. Abortion? Nope. Hemant is more United with a religious person than he is with me.

  6. says

    I hear a lot of talk about staying united against the common enemy. What these people fail to realize is that I am far happier united with progressive religious folks, with conservatives as the common enemy.

  7. says

    Like, I don’t make common cause with White Supremacists just because we both like heavy metal, you know? Some things are more important than shared interests.

  8. Ed says

    I agree with the general idea, as you can see in my previous post. But what about situations where atheists are persecuted or discriminated against simply because of their unbelief. In this case, we have objective interests in common with all the others whether they are good people or not.

    Also, what about cases where a atheist`s morals or social views are offensive, but they have on the other hand done something admirable in the promotion of science or critical thinking? The book Atheism: the Case Against God (I forget the author`s name right off) is written by a libertarian, but is an excellent introduction to the topic and rarely gets into the author`s politics.

    Antony Flew`s How to Think Straight (I know he became a deist later in life, but still rejected revealed religion) is a great book on critical thinking except for the obnoxious insertion of Thatcherite propaganda. Dawkins has done much to spread scientific literacy throughout his long career despite recent examples of bigotry. Harris generally promotes a very reasonable and civilized worldview with a few disturbing flirtations with the right (as was the case with Hitchens).

    Is there room for accepting someone as an imperfect contributor to the cause of reason while still criticizing their failings and where applicable rejecting the personality cults that have developed around them?

  9. says

    But what about situations where atheists are persecuted or discriminated against simply because of their unbelief. In this case, we have objective interests in common with all the others whether they are good people or not.

    But I consider that human rights issue, not an “atheist issue” per se. Yes, it’s easier to identify with someone who’s getting screwed over for beliefs and behaviour that you yourself share — it hits home a bit more. But in good conscience, I don’t want freedom for atheists in a way that is separate or superior to wanting freedom for Jews, Christians, Shia, Sunni, Hindus, etc, ie. whatever locally minority group is being shat on by the dominant sect. I want *secularism*, and we can argue about God and Jesus and Mohammed et al afterwards in a peaceable way.

  10. Ed says

    Oh yes, I absolutely agree that freedom for atheists is just part of a larger project of not penalizing anyone for their convictions about religion or philosophy. The only problem I’ve noticed is that some people think there is a difference; that there should be a tolerant interfaith community, but that atheism is at least suspicious. The disgusting slogan “freedom of religion, not freedom from religion” comes to mind.

    This is found in surprising places. Years ago I remember reading an unfriendly editorial about the “new atheism” in a major, generally liberal publication. I’ve forgotten the details unfortunately, but the otherwise educated, progressive writer was clearly disturbed by unbelief–grudgingly accepting atheists` rights to express their opinion, but instinctively wanting a liberalization of Locke` s model of tolerance with all religions having the legitimacy he gave the various Protestant sects of his day, but with atheists still seen as untrustworthy outsiders.

    There was a recent stir when Oprah, a major example of a liberal religious person, was very uncomfortable with a guest`s atheism and eventually decided that she was actually not an atheist at all because she was such a good person and had a sense of awe for nature. Imagine if a talk show host decided that someone wasn’t really a Hindu or Muslim because obviously someone as nice as them couldn’t be! Obviously these examples didn’t violate anyone’s rights, but show an ugly undercurrent even in otherwise open-minded people and subcultures.

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