Quitting: a reason for optimism

Because I live in the same city as Natalie Reed, I occasionally have the opportunity to bump into her and talk about stuff outside the medium-constrained environs of the internet. Our most recent encounter happened the afternoon before she posted her hard-hitting piece about the casual ease with which cis-privileged assholes can dehumanize a trans person. I suspect it happened after our chat, because she didn’t say anything about it to me. Instead, the subject of our conversation that day was the thesis of the article that would appear the next day:

Let them have The Movement. Let it be a club for entitled little white cis straight dudes to get together and tell each other how fucking smart they all are to know that John Edwards is lying, and there’s no bearded sky daddy doling out favour on the basis of how rarely you eat shellfish or have hot queer sex. Let them go right on thinking of themselves as the few insightful rebels who could see through The Matrix and now fight against the evil machinations of Andrew Schlafy and Jennifer McCreight. Let them live in their mythologies. Let them sink, bit by bit, into self-congratulatory, insulated irrelevance, while the rest of us get on with actually trying to help make the world a bit less of a mess.

Natalie expressed, in her inimitable way, her exasperation over the seeming intractable assholery of the atheist movement and offered some potential explanations for why these problems not only keep resurfacing, but why they may be a feature (rather than a bug) of who the movement is and how we interact. The most compelling hypothesis she offers is that atheism may serve as a civil rights issue for those who otherwise have no fight with which they can identify – middle-class cis white men have finally found something they can get outraged about, and can do so without having to confront any of their own privilege or sloppy thinking when it comes to non-Bigfoot-related subject matter.

Natalie has been recently joined in this entirely understandable sentiment of “y’know what? Fuck y’all” by Jen McCreight and, more recently, blog friend WilloNyx who have said basically that atheism and the fight for same is an entirely opt-in issue for them, and if constant abuse is the reward for participating, they can find other ways to exist in the world. If forced to play a game of “chicken” for the soul of the atheist movement, it is only the most fanatically devoted participants who are actually willing to stay in the driver’s seat long enough to see their way through right up to the crash. The rest of us will bail long before that happens.

While I can certainly understand that sentiment, it is not one that I share. Most of this comes from a place of extreme privilege – I am financially comfortable with a stable foreseeable future, plenty of opportunities for creative personal fulfilment and abundant social interaction. I am additionally a cis man, and while being black means that I am not among the uber-majority group, I face almost zero of the day-to-day consequences of even subtle systemic racism, thanks to a country and a city that are remarkably progressive and cosmopolitan (and the fact that black men are not Public Enemy #1 here; that position is probably taken by people of First Nations, or maybe Philipinos). I face essentially none of the hateful backlash that people like Natalie, Jen, or WilloNyx experience as a regular consequence of merely existing and having an opinion. I have the luxury of viewing discrimination in almost entirely academic terms.

Beyond that, however, I think there is a side to the story that this position (“if it’s going to be this hard, there are other places I can put my energy”) neglects*: we’re winning. One of the things that Natalie found particularly galling, both in her post and when we spoke beforehand, was the backlash against the entirely non-controversial idea of sexual harassment policies at conferences. How is it possible that we had a Deep Rift™ open over something that has not only miles of precedent but would make a major positive difference in the lives of more than a few people? Of course, the problem is that while a handful of bloggers were engaged in a pitched battle, the major orgs simply went ahead and adopted the policies. It was a tidy victory representing a step forward that was almost entirely lost in the fight over whether or not it would ruin everything for everyone forever.

And that fight was emblematic of the direction I see the larger fight taking. Three years ago, when I first entered the atheist blogosphere, basic 101-level social justice was well outside the mainstream. There was a small number of voices articulating positions that did not fall into the bread-and-butter topics of evolution, cosmology, and theology. Now, mainstream atheist forums like Reddit’s r/atheism is often (half-jokingly) derided for being synonymous with r/LGBT insofar as the fight for recognition of gay rights dovetails the fight against religious domination of public life, and the popularly-shared links reflect that. The community at large is (always too slowly) realizing that atheism is a social justice issue, and that our struggle is a similar struggle to that of gay people, people of colour, women, trans persons, people with disabilities, people with mental health issues… the list goes on.

I am always amused by the enormous and paranoid pushback against the Freethought Blogs platform. To hear our “critics”** portray us, we’re smug sanctimonious bullies who are destroying the atheist community, and are the very antithesis of free thought***. We are alternatively the complete undoing of the atheist movement, or so far outside the mainstream that we are entirely unimportant. The former argument gives us way too much credit – we’re bloggers for fuck’s sake. The second argument is a deluded fantasy – whereas they do not, I actually have access to FTB’s traffic numbers; there is nothing in them to suggest that we are being ignored or losing any of our popularity (despite the number of soothsayers who have been predicting the death of FTB from its launch).

Here’s the reality: FTB is a symptom (rather than a cause) of a fight that’s currently being won in the atheist community. The fact that a platform like this can a) exist, and b) garner enough interest to not only sustain itself but to turn a modest profit, means that this is a conversation that people are interested in having, even within the confines of a community that did not form in order to specifically discuss it. Most of the blogs on FTB existed before there was a network, and we benefit synergistically as a consequence of our shared internet geography, but all of our efforts would be wasted if there wasn’t a huge bloc of people willing to log in every day to read and comment. The ‘knock-on’ effect of this interest is that there are now people people equipped to have this conversation, which pushes it inexorably into the mainstream (regardless of the consent of the would-be footsoldiers and guardians of what the ‘mainstream’ deserves to be).

Yeah, there are always conservative, retrograde elements in any civil rights fight. Any move to provide equal opportunity and access means that those who have had disproportionate benefits will see themselves as losing something, and nobody likes to lose. That pushback gets ugly and hurtful and occasionally outright dangerous, and each person fighting to be heard has a duty to their own safety and sanity first. However, in another three years, there will be another “generation” of newly-minted atheists who will see gender-skeptic feminism and anti-racism as equally non-controversial as gay rights. Freethought Blogs will be home to a bunch of now-largely-irrelevant and redundant old fogeys whose major contributions to the movement have already come and gone. And those fighting against this shift will have some serious questions to ask themselves about what it was they thought they were fighting for.

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*I am treading on all kinds of eggshells when I make statements like this. I want to make it as clear as possible that I don’t think Natalie and those who share her position are wrongTheir lives are theirs to live, and their choices equally theirs to make. This is an issue of differing values placed on various decision attributes – there is no “correct” way to feel about this.

**A far too generous term. Criticism is a noble practice, wherein the real shortcomings and sins of omission committed by an entity are detailed, with an alternative view put forth in opposition. FTB has a few critics, and has far more braying jackals who fling around lazy and low-rent insults instead.

***I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out that I am more or less completely ignored by the #FTBullies crowd, who seem to focus all of their vitriol on 5 or 6 blogs on a network of nearly 40. I don’t hold myself in high enough esteem to be offended by this omission; I simply find it funny to see how egregiously this latest meme misses the mark.


  1. mythbri says

    It seems like every time I personally feel that progress has been made, or that I’ve successfully articulated my point of view to someone in hope of helping them change their mind, there are ten others who say something like “What do you mean rape culture? Why do you think all men are rapists?” or “Free speech! Stop telling me to stop using misogynistic slurs or joking about rape!” or “But anti-harassment policies will keep everyone ever from having teh sex ever again ever!”

    It’s like repeatedly banging your head against a particularly stupid brick wall, and that I’m going to die of blood loss before I even make a dent.

  2. says

    However, in another three years, there will be another “generation” of newly-minted atheists who will see gender-skeptic feminism and anti-racism as equally non-controversial as gay rights.

    And you don’t have to look any further than FtB to see proof of it. It was JT, Jen, or both that posted pictures of SSA gatherings from a few years ago and more recently, and the difference in size is amazing. That’s the bunch who we need to watch, and have good reason to believe that they are more socially progressive than the sort of “Let’s go to TAM and watch Thunderf00t videos!” crowd. More progressive, and actually doing more than watching videos and seeing Penn & Teller for the tenth time.

  3. says

    As cynical as it sounds, your problem is expecting to change people’s minds over the course of a conversation. It is a rare trait indeed to be the kind of person who, when a position is logically refuted, immediately accepts the better position. Usually these things happen over the course of multiple conversations from a variety of voices. The fact that they’re arguing with you (rather than just saying ‘okay, whatever’) can be a sort of victory, or you can learn (as I have) to content yourself with the knowledge that you have articulated a position as best you can.

    I’ve been doing this for the better part of 3 years now, having aimed to change exactly zero minds. I occasionally receive e-mails that tell me that I have changed at least one. That’s a ‘win’ in my books. Expecting any more is, to me, setting yourself up for profound disappointment.

  4. mythbri says

    That helps, Crommunist, thanks. And it’s not so much that I expect one person to change their mind over the course of one conversation as it is that I feel a teeny tiny bit of progress, but am overwhelmed by all of the ignorance. It’s like a horde of orcs (not that I’m trying to “other”-ize anyone), endless and relentless.

    But it’s not impossible, and every mind opened and/or changed is a victory.

  5. says

    Nice piece.

    I think it is important to remember that the trends are all in our favor. The trend of atheism and the trend of inclusion. That is were society “always” moves toward.

    One of the most disturbing features right now is the group that thinks they are doing feminism “right.” Because of this view point it is tough to break through to them. They are not used to being challenged and having to see another’s point. They are used to debating theists; not working together toward solutions that require growing.

    We need more listening, more trying to understand, and less dismissal.

  6. says

    but am overwhelmed by all of the ignorance

    Oh absolutely. And there’s no shame in being dispirited by that. I am regularly frustrated by people’s refusal to accept arguments that seem, at least to me, abundantly clear and evident. Then I remember who I was not too long ago, and the process by which I arrived at where I am now, and how hard I had to be pushed (even when I insisted that I agreed with the basic premise), and I recognize myself in the sputtering protestations of every dudebro I come across. They’re (we’re) not necessarily bad people (though some of them/us are, undoubtedly), just people who have really bad ideas and don’t know how to get away from them yet.

    I’m not telling you to feel differently. Your reaction is sane and entirely understandable. I’m just saying what I do when I start to feel that way.

  7. 'Tis Himself says

    I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out that I am more or less completely ignored by the #FTBullies crowd

    That’s okay, Ian. We still love you.

  8. says

    I am not sure which group you are referring to, though I fear I may be included in it.

    Part of the issue (and I keep meaning to turn this into a full post) is an issue of safe spaces and fertile ground. For many feminists, this particular corner of the internet is the first and only place where they are listened to and understood. It is not surprising to me at all that they (we) are primed to fight over every piece of real estate they can get – the folks they’re fighting against already own all the other pieces!

  9. says

    I didn’t read it as if you were stating any wrongness in our position and I am not sure how clear I made things on my end. I am still talking about this stuff. I am still fighting. I haven’t been forced to chose yet but if and when it happens my choice was made.

    I want to be that change. I will fight along side others as long as I have this fight in me. Thank you for being one of the good ones keeping me motivated.

  10. says

    Now, mainstream atheist forums like Reddit’s r/atheism is often (half-jokingly) derided for being synonymous with r/LGBT insofar as the fight for recognition of gay rights dovetails the fight against religious domination of public life, and the popularly-shared links reflect that.

    Do you get the impression that there is anything more to this phenomenon than shared enemies in conservative religion (and moralizing laws)? While i agree with your optimism, this particular point strikes me as cause for reserved pessimism; as legal institutions shed codified discrimination and religious institutions become gradually more progressive, why should we not expect this alliance to fall apart — or at least to level off at about the then-state of the atheist–feminist alliance?

  11. says

    For sure, WilloNyx – it’s just that the first draft of that sentence read very much like “those silly kids and their feelings!” I wanted to remove all doubt that I was trying to be proscriptive or judging people for “quitting” or whatever.

    Glad you’re still in this with me.

  12. says

    No, not you. People who listen are, generally, not in this group. If they were easily identified it would make life easier; for some (namely, me!). 😉

    They are the ones that say “I am a feminist, hear me roar” and yet they are not. They have gotten away with words being enough because they have been only talking with other men. As the voice of women rises; women, men, and the community will have to do some listening and growing.

  13. says

    A temporary alliance, to be sure. I see it as being much the same as mainstream political liberalism in the United States with respect to racial civil rights: it will remain an ‘article of faith’ until the big fights are handled, and then LGBT folks will go back to being ignored by atheism as non-vital. That being said, I’d much rather have to fight to be heard in today’s world than be listened to back in the 1950s – very different consequences.

  14. says

    We are alternatively the complete undoing of the atheist movement, or so far outside the mainstream that we are entirely unimportant.

    Also we’re these crazed-with-conceit maniacs who have declared ourselves Leaders and now we’re getting our richly deserved comeuppance. Say what? When tf did we ever declare ourselves leaders? Two of us set up a blog network and then invited the rest of us to join. We’re allowed to do that! And it’s not the same thing as declaring ourselves Leaders. I’d been doing Butterflies and Wheels for nine years before I joined here, and that had nothing to do with declaring myself any kind of leader. I like to write. If I wanted to be a leader I can think of much better ways to do that than writing.

  15. says

    Which is another thing I’ve been meaning to write out in greater detail. Anyone who is even slightly desirous of the title of “leader in the atheist movement” should be ridden out of town on a rail of ridicule. I think you know who I’m referencing when I say that anyone who feels slighted when told ze is not a “leader” needs to seriously get hir head screwed back on straight. If you agree with the stuff I say, then that’s awesome. If you don’t, well we can talk about that if you want. Either way, nobody should confuse me (or any atheist) as being a “leader” of anything, unless they’re literally a band major at the head of a parade.

    I swear I wonder open-mouthed at those who think that the politics of the “atheist movement” is meaningful except in a very insular way. Most of the world has no idea who any of us are, and wouldn’t much care if they did find out.

  16. invivoMark says

    For every blind idiot whom you can’t convince, there are ten silent lurkers reading his arguments, reading yours, and probably deciding that yours make more sense.

    Most people don’t think deeply about these issues. If you stick to your guns and keep up the fight, I guarantee you you’ll have convinced a few people who never spoke a word in the debate. You’ll probably never hear from them at all (but when you do, it’ll make it all worth it).

  17. kbonn says

    Just wanted to say hello, I am fairly new to FTB but I have enjoyed your posts a lot and they have also helped me to understand a bit more about other posters here.

    I am rather naive as to the greater “atheist movement” online, and wasn’t aware that there were any sort of issues between groups at all. It all seems rather silly to me. I completely agree that many of the goals of the LBGT movement are the same as the atheist community (and should be). I didn’t really know there was much of any push back on this. I am sure there are some white cis men who are part of the whole movement just for something to be angry about, but I think it is rather unwise to let a vocal minority of a group define it, especially when extremely vocal people on the internet often turn out to not be old enough to drive.

    I think the overwhelming majority of people interested in the atheist movement are passionate about it for genuine reasons. Perhaps I am not cynical enough about this yet.

    As to FTBullies and the notion of “groupthink” here, I don’t see it really at all from the bloggers I have visited so far, but I am not sure it cannot be applied to certain commenters. I commented on Natalie’s “Disgusting” post(my first visit to FTB), I simply read it, and thought “was this the most productive response to what happened” my answer was “No”. I tried to ask some questions and make some suggestions(the latter was admittedly unwise), and many people responded to me very angrily. Many posts seemed to have the same theme and/or key words used, and I’ve seen them used dismissively towards other on other posts. I explained myself further, and I think we came to an understanding(mainly revolving me not deliberately trying to troll Natalie) one even linked me to a post you made “so you think you might be a Troll” Which I found rather helpful.

    That said, It felt a lot more hostile than it probably was when people start throwing out accusations (or what felt like accusations) of “privilege” or “entitled”, without knowing what they really mean by them.

    I also wish there were a better way to get across what is meant by them. Do I consider it a “privilege” to be treated the way everyone should be treated(most of the time), no. Do I understand that many people are not treated this way, yes. I tend to think that most people involved in the atheist movement would like to see that changed, but maybe I am ignorant in that respect. I consider it far more privilege to have been born where I was instead of in Myanmar or the Congo. In any case it seems unhelpful to throw labels out at people in a hostile way (which commenters seem to do). Yeah, I am a CIS atheist white guy, privileged, entitled, and whatever else. I am also on your (not you specifically crommunist) side, I think most of us are.

    Anyhow, that rambled further than I meant it to, keep up the good work.

  18. says

    I think it’s also important to note that over at Thunderf00t’s site, he’s not really getting full-throated support from about the friendliest audience in existence. Some are condemning him and others are falling back on “PZ does it, too” arguments. Some are supporting him, but keep in mind that volume is not proportionate to representation.

  19. mynameischeese says

    Ok. Damn. I usually only read three blogs on FTB, so I was way behind on the soap opera. After reading this post, I headed over to Natalie’s blog and got caught up on the soap opera and then even went over to thunderf00t’s blog and read, with morbid fascination, the comments. And what I read there kind of scared the shit out of me.

    I agree with Natalie’s assesment of the atheist movement. Sometimes I want to join her in just letting the trolls have it. Other times, perked up by the optimism of this blog, I want to stick around and argue with people and fight for it.

    I feel like we’ve failed to create a safe space for Natalie here and I wish there was something I could do to help fix that.

  20. fastlane says

    I don’t have much more to add other than a ‘bravo’ at this point.

    Consider this my contribution to your yacht.

  21. mynameischeese says

    I spotted your comments on Natalie’s blog. I think you might be projecting onto commenters when you say they threw labels at you in a “hostile” way. To me, it read like they were simply stating the facts about why you don’t share Natalie’s personal experiences and therefore why you wouldn’t be an expert on her personal reactions.

    What you’re reading as “hostile” is actually just standard language among people who discuss social justice issues. It’s jargon.

    Since you’re struggling to understand the term “privilege,” you should probably try to read up a bit on things like critical race theory, feminism, queer theory, etc. That will help you to understand the context of the discussion.

  22. says

    I am sure that a lot of theists find atheists very “hostile” when they (the theists) ask questions about radiocarbon dating and explain the finer points of flood geology. That ‘hostility’ is often exasperation at having to go back and refute the same cliched arguments – the problem is that the interlocutor is entering the conversation and offering an opinion without doing a bare minimum level of preparatory reading beforehand.

    If I had to guess, I’d imagine that your “was this the most productive way to address this” response read something like this:

    “Given that I clearly don’t know anything meaningful about the subject at hand, but having lived my life as though my opinions are relevant by virtue of my gender, please allow me to tell you why you are wrong.”

    This is a phenomenon that usually carries the suffix ‘-splaining’; in this case, cis-splaining. When you are told time and again that your opinion is worth less than another’s simply by the simple fact of your birth, it is particularly galling to have someone with no relevant experience come in and dictate how you ought to feel about, and react to, the treatment you experience at the hands of those who dismiss your worth as a human being.

    There are undoubtedly hurdles to overcome as a majority-member looking to participate in minority discussions. Those hurdles are usually ones of understanding and education. Gaining these will give you the language and insight that you need if you want to contribute to the conversation, and will help you avoid the (decidedly unpleasant) experience of having your privilege and status thrown in your face. I still tread lightly when entering feminist and gender identity discussions – I know how easy it is for me to be blinded to some relevant information that I’d miss as a consequence of my birth and experience.

    Try not to get discouraged. It’s not easy, but it is vitally important. My suggestion is that you do what I do – listen waaaay more than you speak.

  23. kbonn says

    I stated in my post that it felt more hostile than it likely was as I hadn’t encountered it before. The words of often used to describe spoiled children and are of a negative association. Not being used to the way it used in this regard it felt very dismissive and insulting. I am only bring it up because I am likely not the only person to feel this way when first exposed to it. Having the first time be over the internet where tone is much harder to distinguish I think makes it even more difficult.

    I very much understand exactly what is meant, I was explaining the way I have seen it.

  24. mythbri says


    I notice that other commenters have responded to you, so I urge you not to view this as a pile-on.

    You have to understand that there are people here and elsewhere who have been having the same conversation over and over again. It’s important that people understand the challenges that other groups face, especially when they are a member of a privileged group trying to understand a member of a less-privileged group. But it is hard to keep having the same conversation, hear people ask the same questions, and have the same “suggestions” or objections. It gets tiring.

    The reason this is tiring is not just because it seems so repetitive, but because there are people out there who are malicious, but pose as ignorant. They like to derail discussions by “just asking questions” about pretty standard concepts and jargon, all the while refusing to accept the basic premise behind them. It’s very difficult to tell the malicious posters apart from the ignorant until they’ve already attempted some damage, so I hope you can see how people would respond defensively to more questions. They can’t know your intent.

    My advice, if you’d like to follow it, would be to lurk and listen, think and then ask. Remember that because you belong to several privileged groups (white, cis-male), this means that your life experience does necessarily blind you to very real challenges that less privileged groups face. It doesn’t make you a bad person and it’s not an attack – it is a reality, a sociological term for the societal structure in which we live. We’re all affected by it in different ways, so keep that in mind, and do some research. It will be easier for you.

  25. kbonn says

    I’ve taken to reading a lot more posts than commenting. I only shared this one, as I thought it could be relevant insight as how it looks to a relative newcomer.

    In regards to my other posts on Natalie’s page, I never meant to come across as “I know better than you” or “You are wrong”, Initially I mainly tried to ask questions about the point/productiveness of certain parts of her post. Not in a “You are wrong/inferior”, but in a “Is this really the most productive thing to do/could be done?” I am totally willing to accept that it did not come across that way at all. To this point all of my experiences/conversations with gay/lesbian individuals are with friends and family, people I know personally. I don’t know any Trans individuals at all(at least that I am aware of), so Natalie’s situation is very new to me. I would say I regret posting, but the fallout/results of it have lead to a lot of thinking on my part, which is never something I regret.

    I also happen to live in a part of the US where Gay Marriage is legal and generally very supported by the younger generations. Not to say we don’t have our share of assholes, but most of the people I know are very supportive of LBGT rights. That may skew my experiences a bit more as well.

  26. kbonn says

    Don’t worry about piling on, I enjoy a back and forth as long as it is respectful. I do think what soured me initially was that some people presumed that I was attempting to troll. Not being aware of the issues with this, I was sort of like “What the fuck?”. It felt like I was being told I couldn’t disagree or ask questions because of my status.

    But I can certainly see how it is “annoying” at best in that situation.

  27. says

    Yeah it’s shitty as hell when you walk in with a world of good intentions and end up getting piled on for some turn of phrase or another that is totally not what you were trying to say, and then you end up spending all your time defending yourself from accusations that bear zero resemblance to the way you see yourself. It fucking sucks. I’ve been there a bunch of times.

    You seem like you have a pretty strong self-aware streak though, which is definitely a good thing. It will serve you well. That, and a willingness to admit when you’re wrong, will make your time on the internet a smooth and relatively-happy one. It has for me, at least.

  28. says

    If atheists in North America are “winning”, as you say, this is yet another indicator in a long list that I’ve compiled in the post below, as to why atheists in North America aren’t “oppressed”:


    It’s called victim envy, when a group of people make it out like their marginalization from the mainstream is totally exactly the same as the systemic institutionalized oppressions faced by some other group with which they may actually overlap. That’s what Natalie Reed is talking about. It’s PATHETIC. And it does NOTHING to engage with the social privileges otherwise enjoyed by the cisgendered, white, heterosexual male majority in The Movement.

  29. Leni says

    @ Kbonn-

    Some of those words bothered me a bit at first too. I got over it, and I find them useful now, but I understand the reaction that they often elicit from people hearing it for the first time.

    It helped me to think about it like it this- many of us are used to calling people, or hearing people called, “underprivileged”. It could be hostile, but it isn’t necessarily. Well, privileged is pretty much just the opposite of that. Not necessarily the thing you want to hear about yourself, but not necessarily hostile either.


    @ Crommunist- I liked your post, especially the part about bloggers making their own calls. But I wouldn’t downplay your role as a blogger overmuch. I read other people’s blogs, including yours, because they are generally better informed and more articulate than I am. I know they’re human, but I still read them for a reason. So be warned- with great power comes great responsibility!

    Also, I recently met a Phillipa from Toronto and told her, mostly on your good authority (!), that I’d heard Toronto was a nice place to live.

    She was silent for about 3 awkward as hell seconds before abruptly changing the subject and two weeks later I still feel like a complete jackass. I blame you.

    I don’t. I blame myself for being presumptuous. And I’ll google it myself because I know you aren’t a spokesperson for the Toronto immigrant community, but if you ever consider blogging about it, it would be interesting to read.

  30. Stevarious says

    I was gonna set myself up as the Atheist Pope when PZ stepped down, but he wouldn’t share the silly hates. 🙁

  31. says

    This sounds like “don’t feed the trolls”, which is an idea that is quickly falling out of vogue (because it doesn’t work, not just because it’s not in fashion anymore)

  32. says

    The most compelling hypothesis she offers is that atheism may serve as a civil rights issue for those who otherwise have no fight with which they can identify – middle-class cis white men have finally found something they can get outraged about, and can do so without having to confront any of their own privilege or sloppy thinking when it comes to non-Bigfoot-related subject matter.

    And these idiots need to learn that there is a massive difference between an oppressed ideology and an oppressed group.

    An oppressed ideology is one that is not taken seriously regardless of its merits. This only applies in debates. Atheism is an oppressed ideology, because saying “I’m an atheist” in debate is often treated as a licence for one’s opponent to start making assumptions left, right and centre about one’s positions, even though atheism only means “I don’t believe in gods”.

    And even in those terms, atheism has a level of acceptance that is higher than that of social justice (at least in ‘liberal’ areas, which really should be our benchmark) — likely because atheism is heavily associated with all those white straight cisgendered men.

    On the other hand, the effects of ideological oppression on progressive social justice views outside of secularism can be readily observed at atheist conventions or even on the atheist blogosphere. Trying to apply skepticism to “political” matters, and suggest that in these matters there is objective right and wrong, gets met with a shitton of backlash. We’ve seen it mostly with feminism, but given a bit of time I can go back and find some examples from other “political” issues where I saw people bloviating about stuff like “diversity of ideas”.

    For that matter, atheism is slowly not becoming a dirty word, as we’ve seen from the Gallup polling that has shown atheist acceptance (measured by “would you vote for an atheist for President”) on the rise. This is opposed to the trends we’ve been seeing elsewhere, namely with feminism, where “feminist” and now even “pro-choice” are becoming dirty words (that was another Gallup poll, if I remember correctly).

    As far as movements go, it may be in No True Scotsman territory but I certainly consider “skeptics” who balk at social justice to be Doing Skepticism Wrong in the same way that PZ Myers has argued that theist scientists are Doing Science Wrong: they’re compartmentalizing their thinking, which runs contrary to the ideology of skepticism: applying science and logic to everything. Indeed, social justice is so pervasive — and skeptics seem to balk so hard at it — that I actually consider the demonstrators at Commercial and Broadway to be better skeptics than most of the skeptical community, because they apply their skepticism to the systems that drive society rather than psychics and urban legends.

    I say that the “skeptics” who balk at social justice have usurped the term “skeptic”. We need to reclaim it.

  33. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    Yeah it’s shitty as hell when you walk in with a world of good intentions and end up getting piled on for some turn of phrase or another that is totally not what you were trying to say, and then you end up spending all your time defending yourself from accusations that bear zero resemblance to the way you see yourself. It fucking sucks. I’ve been there a bunch of times.

    I feel a little foolish for how much better I felt after reading that. x.x

  34. says

    UGH that was so incoherent, at least from my perspective. That last is a point I’ve been trying to get at for a week or so now, and I -hope- I was able to sort out my jumbled-up thoughts enough to make it.

    But at the same time, I think I started off also trying to point out that one can observe oppression of ideology in public debates. It’s not just atheism; most progressive social justice views are oppressed, and atheism is the only one that’s really ‘winning’; the others (including one that no one ever mentions: anti-neoliberalism) are getting more and more pushback.

  35. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    First, I don’t think anyone has asserted that the discrimination faced by atheists is comparable to that faced by racial minorities, women, or GLBT individuals, but it clearly does exist.

    Second, I don’t see how gerrymandering the concept of “oppression” helps.

  36. John Horstman says

    Oh nonexistent gods do I hate neoliberalism. It advocates the very definition of privilege – “private law”. The socialist segment of the Left is definitely pushing back, though ironically a lot of the organizing happens through neoliberal NGOs/non-profits (and, of course, “socialist” is still seen as a horrible pejorative by a majority of USA, most of which has no clue what the word actually means). Privatization schemes go hand-in-hand with the increasing institutionalization of corporate sovereignty, the very existence of which undermines democratic governance by, again, establishing zones of private law (which they then use to amass vast cash reserves and influence the few remaining democratic institutions). KILL IT WITH FIRE. (I’d like to thank my Global Studies professor, Ghada Masri, for leading me to my Wow Moment on that count.)

  37. Sam N says

    Has anyone written a post directly addressing the sort of experience Kbonn had when first interacting with conversation on social justice issues (with empathy)? Seems like Kbonn was self aware enough to take the criticism in stride. But, it might be nice to have a go to post, where if engaging a presumed trolls you can link to it and say, if you really are not trying to damage or derail the conversation: read this, behave in the proscribed way, and you will no longer be treated as a troll.

    I lurk so much, I don’t think I’ve ever had a troll accusation thrown my way, but reading Kbonn’s description, I could understand the frustration that could be felt in that type of situation.

  38. F says

    Ophelia and Ian:

    1×10^24 applause. (er, !!!111one1!!)
    That’s in addition to the love for the rest of the article.

  39. Scott L. says

    Now seems like a good time to delurk and say this. I am a regular reader of FtB but hardly ever comment. I just wanted to say that these posts on sexism and misogyny have had a very profound affect on me. I was never an MRA or a PUA but I have found little bits of sexist behavior in my interactions with women. Thanks to the FtB community and posters such as yourself, I have come to identify and correct these little things. I am without a doubt a better person for it. More importantly, I am a father so I will do my best to pass these values on to my son. And he will pass them on to his son and so on and so on. I guess the point is, progress IS being made. It just may not always be big and so obvious.

  40. Michael says

    Shit sucks but fuck em, I find the best policy is to only engage in a positive manner and if you feel you cant then jst dont reply – Although I dont always follow that policy.

    I jst spent a good couple of hours chatting with a lot of people on zomgitscriss youtube video about gender and trolls.

    From what I can gather, they agree sexism exists, and agree we as atheists should fight against it – so, fkn sweet! the issue seems to be either

    -they think feminism must be destroyed because it is inherently damaging to society…..which is ironic because they sound like the radical feminists that they are supposed to be fighting against


    -they think atheism should only be about god…..which gets pretty boring after a while.

    If they really wanted atheism to continue they would realise what a great bone sexism is to chew on, especially as it relates to religion. It seems most atheists have destroyed the god debate into the realm of utter boredom, thats why our conferences have physicists, pyscologists, human rights lawyers, biologists, comedians, etc because atheism is suppose to be part of the free thought movement.

    If a small number want to part ways and call themselves Radical Atheists and only talk about god, not sexism, not human rights, not biology, no only GOD – let em go, they dont own atheism, not sure why they are trying to claim it all for themselves but best of luck to them.

    We can still be atheists, we can even work together if they want – although they seem to think that we cant for some reason??

  41. Michael says

    I think Atheists should be skeptics and humanists and naturalists and femenists and fight for gay rights and women rights and black rights and do whatever we can to punch religion in the godamn face

  42. kbonn says

    Someone in Natalie’s thread did point me to these, I found them helpful. The only trick was that I didn’t find them until basically asking what was going on, someone recognized that I wasn’t trying to troll and decided to link me to them.

    I don’t think that would have happened if I just kept arguing and eventually gave up though. As FTB gets more popular and/or as a lot of these messages about LBGT issues spreads, it is going to encounter a lot more people who are not exposed to these issues and might respond with the first instinct I had.

    It might just be the way I have used the words privilege and entitled in the past. Typically I’ve always used/heard them used to describe a spoiled brat(child or adult) or to describe things in regards to economic and financial status. When you are trying to educate people and they object to your use of certain terms, you can’t/shouldn’t tell them to go do research on the subject. I guess that was my point in the first place. I completely understand at this point what is meant by the terms privilege and entitled in regards to gender, race, sexual orientation and gender identity, but with the way the terms are commonly used, can we expect a newcomer to the discussion or someone whose mind we want to change accepting the terms in that manner?

    If observing the political happenings in the USA over the last 12 years has taught me anything, it is that “what is sounds like” is more important than “what it means”. I mean how would those terms play with a national audience? A large portion of the country would just tune you out immediately. Shit, many people on the “other” side within this atheist movement probably do that right now. They feel attacked or blamed. They hear “You wouldn’t understand, you are one of them.” How exactly they take “them” could cause a lot of problems. They might feel they are being told they have more in common with the Asshole Natalie ran into. Some of them might legitimately be that, most probably(hopefully) aren’t. But the point is, it becomes a fight, a battle, it becomes more about ‘winning’. The whole super mature idea of “Fine, if you see me as your enemy, I will be your enemy”.

    Thunderf00t is a great example of this. I truly think he meant no harm with his first post, He simply wanted to ask “are we over-reacting here” and “Should we really do this”. Fair questions at any time,(sometimes the answer is obvious, but that doesn’t mean the question is unfair). Also, he seemed to take issue with one specific idea of the sexual harrasment policy (trying to extend it to bars outside of the convention). But in all the shit that followed he got so much more focused on ‘winning’ that he lost sight of anything else.

  43. says

    When you are trying to educate people and they object to your use of certain terms, you can’t/shouldn’t tell them to go do research on the subject

    Um… you’ve lost me. Your position is that we should stop calling it the Theory of Evolution because some people misunderstand the word “theory”? Or even “evolution”? And that if they come in thinking that evolution means seeing a rock give birth to a kangaroo, that it is our bad for telling people to wait until they have a basic understanding of the thing they’re criticizing before speaking up in opposition?

    I hardly think you’d agree to that, and yet this is precisely what you’re suggesting when it comes to social justice. The ‘two’ definitions of privilege are not really so different as you make them out to be. That “spoiled brat” image is precisely the experience that minority members observe in majority members when they (majority) don’t get their way: a lot of whining and tantrums and ad hoc justifications for things that they don’t feel responsible for, because the circumstances of their birth has spoiled them.

    I mean how would those terms play with a national audience? A large portion of the country would just tune you out immediately.

    Of course, this presupposes that my goal (or Natalie’s goal, or anyone else’s goal) is to “reach out” to privileged groups and gently inform them of the error of their ways. Some social justice blogs are like that. On occasion, I’ll write a post specifically targeted at a majority group to help them bridge the gap. Most of the time though, it’s not about them. Just as not every post that PZ writes about creationism or Ed Brayton writes about Republicans (or Physioproffe writes about the Red Sox) is pitched at trying to help the ignorant majority get over their ignorance, the same holds for this blog, and I would imagine Natalie’s as well. The majority has been the focus of all the attention forever already – sometimes they’re going to feel attacked and put out because their behaviour is legitimately damaging and hurtful, and I have a finite amount of patience for patting them on the head and telling them that they’re not really the problem.

    I truly think he meant no harm with his first post, He simply wanted to ask “are we over-reacting here” and “Should we really do this”

    Absolutely not. I can understand how you’d see it that way, but a) what he “meant” is immaterial, and b) he was not “just asking questions” – it was a thinly-veiled attack barely disguised by a veneer of “hey, aren’t you overreacting?” This is a pathetically common derailing tactic known as “gaslighting”, whereby you justify a horrible behaviour or attitude by saying that people who are justifiably upset by it are just “overreacting” because you personally don’t find it problematic.

  44. kbonn says

    Fair enough, I seem to have lost my own point in there. I was more referring to “when reaching out” which of course presumes that it a/the goal. Sorry about that.

    Maybe I too naive about all of this, in that I tend to think most people want equality(including most of the majority), I could be way off base here.

    I don’t know, maybe I focus more on the majority, because I am in the majority and relatively new to this conversation. Perhaps that is a mistake.

    In regards to Tfoot, I wasn’t trying to defend what he did. I’ll certainly defer to people who have more experience dealing with it. To me, it seemed reasonable to question a convention having a policy that would extend to what a person does when they leave the convention for the night. It is entirely possible that his intent was to use a question that is more legitimate to make other questions (Should we have a harrassment policy at all) seem more legitimate as well. I personally think the answers are obvious. Yes, there should be a harrassment policy for any/all convention.

    In any case, I really appreciate the discussion man.

  45. PatrickG says


    Most of the people here will readily accept an apology/exculpatory explanation if it’s done in the right way.

    My personal mantra has become “It looks like I implied something I didn’t mean to, but I’m going to read your comments and really think about the issues you raised.” People usually respond well to that, I find.

  46. Bryan says

    I was incredibly saddened when I read Natalie’s post; she’s such a good writer, and an excellent voice on all sorts of topics (I had never even heard the term “cis” before until I started reading her blog), that it was disheartening to see her leaving the “movement”.

    Especially because I (from my super-privileged, white, penis-having, cis-gendered, straight, lower-middle-class vantage point) agree with Crommunist: the fight against willfully-blind douchelords (and doucheladies) is being won. Slowly. But being won. I think for every Trolly McTrollerson out there, there are a dozen atheists/skeptics who will correct his/her (zir?) behavior. While the troll may never give up through sheer pigheadedness, I think the tide is turning for the vast majority of people who pay attention to these things.

    But again, this is from my enormously privileged perspective, where I am not the writer of a fairly popular blog who receives mountains of hate mail, hate speech, and vitriol from almost every corner. Like Crommunist, I’m not saying Natalie is doing the wrong thing by hanging up her keyboard. If she feels like it’s too much (and who could blame her, especially given the recent breach of privacy by Tfoot?), then it’s too much. It just saddens me since I’ve seen so much progress in the time since Elevatorgate; it encourages me that we’re having these social justice discussions AT ALL, and that more people seem to be on the side of reason than on the side of hate.

  47. says

    I see no evidence in this post of Crommunist or anyone else claiming that the atheists are winning in North America. He was saying the Social Justice crowd within atheism is winning against the entitled asshole crowd.

    also, if even texts on oppression and marginality manage to get atheism and agnosticism wrong, I think it makes no sense to say that there’s no oppression against non-believers in the US. It is however an oppression that works vastly differently from that of people with visible and inherent minority-statuses.

  48. kbonn says

    Dah, I was rereading my post and I didn’t mean to say you shouldn’t tell them to research the subject. I meant to say, you shouldn’t use terms that you suspect the person you are talking/posting to/with won’t know, and then tell them to go look it up. You haven’t done that, (for example gaslighting and your explanation of what it is), where as others have. I had that come up with the exact same term, and the other individual told me that I had done it to Natalie and then to “google it”. It is very unfriendly in general in that sense.

    The bigger point, I suppose is if you know how folks unfamiliar with the subjects are going to take the words, perhaps it isn’t best to use them in initial discussions with a person. Let me be clear, I am not telling anyone what to do here. Rather, suggesting that some people might very well get turned off from the discussion by making the mistake I made and not sticking around long enough to understand what was meant by it.

    For example, if people were to blunder in the way I did, and responses basically are trying to say, “You can’t understand what this is like coming from a white, cis, male background”. Why not say exactly that? Ideally people know more than I do when they enter the conversation, but even so, observing it being used towards people like yourself(the observer) can often have the same reaction. I think most rationally minded people would accept the above statement without much need for convincing. Then it is a lot easier to move forward from there, such as explaining, what it is exactly about being a white male etc… that makes it hard for you to understand.

    I understand that people don’t always have time for the complete explanation. I have other thoughts on the matter, but I’d like to think on them further before adding them to the discussion.

  49. male voice says

    I think there is simpler explanation. The comment section of pharyngula for example has been a biotope for truly obnoxious people for years now. That after you have cultivated an attitude that dehumanizing, harassing and bullying theists is acceptable some of these people turn against other people they disagree with acting in the same manner is not surprising.

    Anyway this quitting is kinda cute. People were already told that atheist and skeptic activism isn’t important anymore and that people will now concentrate on feminism, GLBT and other social justice issues. So the announcement that you will now cease doing atheist activism isn’t really shocking. And what atheist “activism” has Natalie Reed done anyway apart from bitching about a female, bisexual, atheist blogger converting to Catholicism?

  50. says

    I don’t know what kind of infantile asshole you have to be to make the leap “things that aren’t important to me” = “things that aren’t important”, but you manage to do it every time. So hey, congratulations. You’re a shithead. In a time of constant change, where the world seems to be in flux and very little can be relied upon (let’s face it, especially people), I can sleep at night, securely wrapped in the iron-clad certainty that you are an absolute nothing of a human being whose head is rammed so far up his own ass that sunlight is just another myth, like Noah’s Ark, or the clitoris.

    Also, you get bonus troll points for failing to notice that I AM NOT QUITTING ANYTHING. Fucker.

  51. says

    I hope others will appreciate the irony of “male voice” accusing everyone ELSE of being obnoxious and dehumanizing, before he IMMEDIATELY pivots to obliquely insult Natalie (and I suppose anyone else who’s expressed this sentiment) by saying that her contribution has been meaningless (because she’s not talking about things that are directly relevant to him and him alone, I guess).

    Asshole though I may be, at least I have the decency to respond with direct insult rather than weaselly bullshit.

  52. Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle says

    Bigotry is cowardice, so this troll’s cowardice isn’t at all surprising.

    Though it’s deeply amusing to see a bigot wondering ‘what has Ms. X ever done”, because you know it’s projection. “male voice” does nothing but puke inane bigotry on blogs, therefore that’s what everyone who comments does too, right? Surely no one goes outside their homes and actually does stuff, right?

  53. patterson says

    Also, if you’re in the mood for it, a round of Whack-A-Troll can be hugely entertaining.

  54. patterson says

    I live pharyngula comments, especially when some sad old fuckwit of a troll posts whiney crap like this.

  55. says

    I must be ahead of the curve, I was like “fuck y’all” before FtB even existed.

    I do have to say that I never expected that there would ever be any room for me in an atheist movement. I do have to thank you for the work you (and everyone else) do here. I have to have the conversation where I need to justify my right to exist a little more than I’d like in real life, but I’m glad someone is fighting this fight in atheist spaces because I certainly don’t have the energy for it.

    So yeah. Keep up the good work I guess.

  56. ckitching says

    *A far too generous term. Criticism is a noble practice…

    I think the word you may have been looking for is detractors. Critics would imply they’re providing criticism, but that seemed rare. Most just seemed annoyed people had the gall to freely speak their minds without first seeking permission and grovelling to the established order.

  57. rrede says

    @kbonn: I cannot figure out how to reply to your post in the threaded discussion above, so I’ll just note quickly what I’m responding to: you said, I tend to think most people want equality(including most of the majority), I could be way off base here.

    Really? Could you tell me what leads you to think that, given the histories of slavery and other forms of economic exploitation by elites? Given the extent to which the concept of freedom in the United States (technically, in the “New World” which was new only to Europeans) was early on legally defined by the existence of an enslaved population (“we the people” and all those lovely rights did not apply to a large percentage of the people living in this country in the 18th century–certainly not to the Black men and women who were enslaved, and not to white women, and not to poor white men, and a lot of immigrants, not to mention the indigenous populations) (I can supply some sources for that claim if you wish–it’s a major part of cultural and critical race theories and scholarship in my subfield of the humanities).

    Several centuries of imperial/colonial exploitation of resources (human, material, and cultural) that fueled the growth of (parts of) Europe and the U.S. don’t show much evidence that people in the dominant groups (who are not in fact a numerical majority in the world and are not, always, a numerical majority in their country) wanted equality for all.

    Look at the violence enacted against the groups who tried to claim equal rights, equal access to education and work, equal standing under the law–look at the greater part of a century that it took even to get some basic civil rights legislation passed, and how much of that legislation is under attack right now. (I’m only talking about the U.S. because that’s what I know.) And we’re still not anywhere near achieving equality for all–and though much has changed since I was a kid (I’m in my late 50s), it feels like the backlash against the Civil Rights movements has been growing the past decade or so.

  58. kbonn says

    Firstly, I didn’t say most of all people who ever existed in the history of people want equality. I am very aware of the inequality in history.

    Secondly the elites are now, and have always been, a very small minority of the people. Their actions/motivations are hardly representative of the majority as a whole. They are also very often responsible for pitting groups against each other, so long as it keeps people from being actively against them.

    So, where do my opinions come from? Well, from observing people I interact with, especially the younger generations(30 and under). Most of these people are not yet in a position to affect much other than their own circle of friends/family/co-workers. As they move into higher levels at their jobs and/or enter into politics there will be a lot more change.

    That said, I think you are definitely correct about pushback. Problem is, things haven’t been great for the majority of Americans over the last 8 years or so, and they want someone to blame, people always tend to blame others who are not “like” them. The elites do tend to make sure that the target is always something like race or culture, rather than runaway economic/finacial tycoons, you know, the people who made it legal to rob us, and then robbed us.

    That said, I might be basing this far too much on “overt racism” and bigotry, which do seem to be in decline and are certainly ridiculed a lot more than they used to be.

  59. Jesse Parrish says

    Lurker here. I have greatly benefited from these posts. Hell, I didn’t know I was `cis’ and did not think of myself as such until Natalie Reed.

    It makes a difference.

  60. rrede says

    @kbonn: My point in bringing up the history is that our present day world and society is shaped by that history–and while the US loves our myth of progress, that’s not always borne out by an historical analysis. If there are centuries of inequalities, then why suppose that suddenly things/people are different: I live in rural Texas. I live with a woman (I am a queer woman). I see many wonderful things in my students (who range from 18 to their fifties and sixties), but it’s not always true that the “younger generation” is more liberal and progressive — any more than the “older generation” is more conservative.

    Are most of the people you observe white (I assume that’s what you mean by majority–even though, again, whites are not the majority in the world, nor are they going to be the numerical majority, as opposed to dominant group, in all parts of the US fairly soon, historically speaking)? They may not be spouting Jim Crow racism, but there’s good evidence to support the ongoing persistence of aversive/unconscious racism today (and since too many people assume “racism=Jim Crow/KKK/cross-burning,” any attempt to discuss it can elicit anger and denial and attacks).

    I hope there will be more change — but I am not at all convinced of the liklihood given, as you note yourself, the economy.

  61. rrede says

    I realized I just started posting without saying hey! I’m a recent reader over at FTB, drawn in from Manboobz (where I post as Ithiliana), interested in the social justice work being done in atheist spaces!


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