Overcoming the brainwashing, the propaganda, the lies

There’s that bit in Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God in which she tells her mother that she’s an atheist, and her mother replies, “not believing in God is one thing, but an ATHEIST?” — it just tells you how poisoned the word “atheist” had become. It’s gotten better; we’ve been coming out, showing the world we’re just like everyone else, making arguments for a rational, secular morality, and generally working to overcome the prejudice against the label. Imagine an alternative world in which many atheists had followed a different tactic: when ever someone said something disrespectful of atheism, there’d be a mad rush to get their home address and phone number. We’d flood them with threats: if you don’t shut up, we’ll rape your mother and set fire to your house. You’re a whore. I’m going to kill you.

The stigma of atheism would worsen. Now in addition to having a reputation for godlessness (true!), we’d acquire a reputation for truly villainous behavior. People would be even more reluctant to call themselves “atheist”, and only the most vile people would embrace it, worsening the reputation.

We’re seeing that happen to the MRAs and nerd-boys right now. Feminism has long been the target of propaganda to taint the label — I’ve been annoyed many times by people who insist they are true egalitarians, but would never, ever call themselves a feminist, because feminists are man-hating, dour, prissy, wretched authoritarians who want to crush all men. Just like atheists are god-hating, dour, prissy, wretched authoritarians who want to feed all Christians to the lions.

Both stereotypes are false, obviously. Atheists have been working out from under the stereotypes by setting a good example, while feminists have been doing likewise…but now they’re benefitting from the excesses of the deranged opposition. People are waking up. Anita Sarkeesian’s treatment is making some people think…who’s the baddie here? Those guys over there with skulls on their uniforms, screaming and ranting and threatening to rape people…I don’t think I want to be on their side. And those feminists seem to be making calm, sensible arguments, and not talking about killing people. Hmmm.

Here’s a good example. Skeptical Egg confesses to being mostly anti-feminist, still exposes a few annoying misconceptions, has even used the ugly “feminazi” term, but she has noticed something — Anita Sarkeesian has been raising her consciousness..

I thought something changed for me before I knew what was happening with this whole situation (I didn’t even know it was a situation until now). But now I know something is changing for me, because I have never been so enraged about a single feminist-related issue in my entire life, and trust me when I say I’ve been privy to many.

I don’t know where it goes from here. 

All I know is that something is wrong and for once it’s not just on the internet. While we all know the good old formula fairly well, there is more to this picture than what meets the eye:


But it’s more than that. It’s more complicated, it’s just not that simple. Not any more. There is something wrong beyond the anonymity.

And while I still don’t know if I can call myself a feminist, I can’t help but wonder…

Maybe I should be?

The answer is yes. Progress!


  1. says

    It’s not just that the term “atheist” is poisonous, the term “Christian” is still very much synonymous with “good person” in the US.

    That’s why so many American politicians still pretend to be religious. A single sentence talking about their faith, or a single image of them head bowed in church is all it takes. The fact that this is still too powerful a tool for them to give up speaks volumes about the American public.

    Reclaiming “atheist” from the haters is only half the battle.

  2. says

    There is something wrong beyond the anonymity.

    Well, I suppose it was good of her to notice. Yes, there’s a lot wrong beyond anonymity. What’s wrong is that being somewhat sheltered on the ‘net allows people to do things they have always really wanted to be able to do, and get away with it. While you can scream at your boss and call them a whore, you’d be likely to find yourself out of a job. While you can scream at your partner and call them a whore, you might find yourself without a partner anymore. Most people get that much, but they focus in on ‘anonymity on the ‘net! it must go!’ as if it would solve all the problems. It wouldn’t. The problem is the seething sexism and bigotry that resides in all too many people.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    It’s no accident that ‘atheist’, ‘feminist’, ‘socialist’ and ‘environmentalist’ have become dirty words in the US. We can add ‘community organizer’ now as well.

  4. billforsternz says

    But at least Julia Sweeney’s mother is not a believer in dictionary atheism right ? :-)

  5. F.O. says

    I opened without much hope the thread discussing Anita Sarkeesian on Slashdot, and was surprised that most of the comments were in her support. On *Slashdot*.
    Things are indeed changing, and the excesses of the crazies seem indeed to be fueling the change more than anything we could have done ourselves.

  6. says


    Things are indeed changing, and the excesses of the crazies seem indeed to be fueling the change more than anything we could have done ourselves.

    :Sigh: They aren’t crazies. Othering, as usual, does not help. The people doing terrible things are people. Regular people, like everyone’s colleagues, neighbours, acquaintances, friends, family members.

  7. some bastard on the internet says

    Wait! But I’m an atheist feminist socialist environmentalist!




  8. Brian says

    I have instead termed myself a supporter of gender equality, but absolutely positively not a feminist

    Dammit, it’s 2014 and we’re still doing this dance. I’m going to be hearing young people say this when I’m in my 70s aren’t I?

    (How does that saying go? If you say you support gender equality but aren’t a feminist … then you’re not paying attention.)

  9. AtheistPilgrim says

    My father was born into Catholic family and had 10 siblings. One of my uncles became a priest (such a blessing from God!) and was responsible for my entering a seminary at the tender age of almost 12 years. I became self-enlightened a few years later and voluntarily left the seminary, with the support of my now-deprived of a “God’s blessing” parents, to pursue the life of a young teenager in the middle 1950’s.

    Another uncle was not so lucky – he chose to become a Communist and joined the Communist Party of Australia. In the 50’s Communism was considered so bad for the country that the Liberal Party (the Conservative party Down Under) Government passed legislation banning the CPA. While broadly supported, particularly by the Catholic Church, the legislation was fortunately overturned as unconstitutional by the High Court.

    My grandfather, a staunch Catholic, was enraged with my uncle and disowned him completely and forever, not because he became a Communist but because my uncle also became an atheist, an unforgivable, unpardonable act in my grandfather’s eyes and those of most of his family.

    Today I stand proudly in my Uncle Phillip’s shoes, not as a Communist, but as an ardent, adamant and outspoken atheist.

  10. AtheistPilgrim says

    Thank you!
    My father and his siblings have been dead for some years now but I am a reasonably healthy and happy old bloke who has been an avid reader of this blog since the early Sb days.

  11. says

    On the “Normal person + anonymity” part, it should be somewhat obvious that it is more complicated than that simply from the fact that some of the vile people aren’t *entirely* anonymous. (Noting that, even when one gives their real name, as I have, the consequences for bad behavior on the internet are still not the same as in meatspace, as pointed out @ 3.)

    @ 6 – Wait…I’m a bit rusty on the “dictionary atheist” thing, but taking it a bit literally, there are those dictionaries that make it seem like an atheist is one who believes that no gods exist, as opposed to not accepting (believing) the claims of the existence of gods. So, in that sense, maybe that’s the problem. In her mind, thanks in no part to bad dictionary definitions, not believing in god is different than being an atheist.

  12. Pteryxx says

    Some of the vile actors aren’t anonymous at all. They still rarely or never see consequences unless there’s a massive public backlash, and not always then.

    For instance: The Sexist Facebook Movement The Marine Corps Can’t Stop, describing pages that exist to bash women in the Marines. The page originators are anonymous, but the commenters often aren’t.

    (warning for rape meme in the quote)

    Anonymous vitriol on the internet certainly isn’t new. But what makes this sort of hatred noteworthy is how it’s specifically targeted toward women in the military and its ability to garner a passionate following of thousands of people who genuinely pretend that this is Marine Corps culture.

    Vitriol like “Roses are red, violets are blue, be my fucking Valentine, or I’ll rape you,” a meme response to a photo of a young female service member. The comment was made by a Facebook account belonging to Bradley Durant, a private first class, an infantry rifleman assigned to 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.

    Durant is one of seven Marines identified in this report by Task & Purpose for posting remarks that were derogatory or harassing in nature. All of the Marines identified either declined or did not respond to requests for comment.

    But they are seven of thousands of active-duty or reserve Marines who are passionate members of this digital community.

    The Marine Corps *could* hold servicemembers accountable for their behavior, or block them from these pages (as they block pornography) but they don’t.

    The Marine Corps doesn’t seem to want to hold the administrators of these pages accountable; preferring, at least insofar as appearances suggest, to continue the reactionary approach of the past three years. Marine officials seem to want to just shrug and say “law enforcement is unable to take action against derogatory comments.”

    By contrast, every Marine Corps base maintains a list of off-limits establishments that service members are barred from interacting with in any way. These could be convenience stores that sell synthetic marijuana or strip clubs with a history of overcharging Marines.


    Rather than bar Marines from interacting with the pages, rather than launching a serious investigation into who is running these pages, rather than taking seriously the safety and service of women in the Marine Corps, the Corps has said that, “Marines must use their best judgment at all times and avoid inappropriate behavior that could bring discredit upon themselves, their unit, and the Marine Corps.”

    As with any endeavor, the Marine Corps brass’ relationships with these pages is a matter of wills. And for now, at least, the desire of these pages to exist far outpaces any will on the Marine Corps’ end to stop them.

  13. relentlesspatience says

    Long time reader (years!), first time post. I’m not very good with forums. Hello!

    With regards to responses to atheism, the thing is that atheism can be a terrifying thought. The absence of a higher power means that there is nothing between us and the harsh reality of existence. We are entirely on our own. Nothing is going to step up to defend us against the universe’s million-and-one ways of extinguishing life. There are no celestial checks and balances, nothing is going to bale us out or deliver on the promise of an afterlife for us in which things hurt less and everyone is happy. On the other hand, atheism is also empowering and inspiring. Because no one but us is going to maintain and improve the quality of our lives, which is what I think we all ultimately want, then we have to do it ourselves. Whether it is maintaining our planet’s environment, improving technology and healthcare, exploring space, designing a better (faster, more twisty and steeper) roller coaster or creating a fair and just society, we all have a role to play. For some reason, it appears that many people think atheism necessarily leads to chaos and amorality rather than potentially being of benefit, and believe that religion necessarily is of benefit, rather than potentially leading to some, as illustrated by current and historic world events, terrible incidents. I don’t follow that logic. I really struggle with it. But it’s there. That is one battle.

    With regards to feminism amongst atheists, atheists who have accepted that only people are going to create a fair society but do not see feminism as part of that is something I find confusing. Unlike, say, the presence or absence of a college degree or demonstrable technical skill, how is gender (or insert a different parameter here) a valid discriminator in decisions regarding, say, whether or not you get the job? Or the pay rise? Or the same role and responsibility as your colleague? Furthermore, why should gender determine your standing in society? Or whether you are free to exercise basic human rights? The more you think about it, the more you realise that certain parameters, gender amongst them, just shouldn’t factor into most of life’s decisions, simply because there is no logical validity to it and it creates hardship and inequality for others. Fortunately, most people I speak to along these lines gradually start to understand this. Slowly, they begin to see the problem and start broadening their view of the world and begin to consider and question their beliefs and their behaviour towards others.

    The events reported on this blog and elsewhere more than suggest that the journey towards equality is going to be quite challenging; I am glad to read about progress.

  14. Enkidum says

    @marcmagus #10

    PZ had originally referred to her a couple of times as a man. Looks like he’s corrected it.

  15. marcmagus says

    @Enkidum #19

    Oh! I’m really glad I asked…without that context I’m sure you can imagine it was quite difficult to come up with any good reason for you to have pointed that out.

  16. knowknot says

    @18 restlesspatience
    – I know that struggle. The first time I hit that struggle, I honestly thought I was going to die. I mean, I probably knew I wasn’t, but it felt like dying. I had read a history of Christian theology that blew the doors off everything, and made it very clear how contrived and contentious everything that has seemed obvious really was. This was a very long time ago, but I remember crying, literally rocking on the floor, banging my head. Just plain weird stuff.
    – Years later, I stumbled back in. The final process of exit was more direct, seeing, starkly, how the behaviors and and effects contrasted with the admonitions and promises.
    – But there is still wonder, and what Carl Sagan referred to as the experience of the numinous (aka, the spiritual) is as at least as strong as ever.
    – So there’s that, sibling. For what it’s worth. You’re not alone. Be true.

  17. says

    Welcome. Glad you delurked to express your thoughts.

    The events reported on this blog and elsewhere more than suggest that the journey towards equality is going to be quite challenging; I am glad to read about progress.

    From your comments, you’re not just reading about the progress, you’re helping make it a reality. Great work.

    BTW, if you’re of a mind to socialize, please feel free to drop into the Lounge, the off topic social area here at Pharyngula, where you can talk about whatever, whenever. We’d love to have you.

  18. says

    PZ @5:

    Wait! But I’m an atheist feminist socialist environmentalist!

    And a supporter of social justice warriors, I’ll bet.

    That must be the reason why Richard Dawkins mock so many of your posts in his Twitter account!

    (I grow more and more disgusted of RD with each day.)

  19. relentlesspatience says

    @21 knowknot – Dying? Not dissimilar to how I felt. I was pretty comfortable in my faith until I got old enough to start asking questions. When the answer was that I “didn’t need to know that”, or “shouldn’t be asking questions like that” I responded by digging a little deeper. When I met people from other denominations who were as convinced that their particular interpretation of things was the one to go with as much as I was about mine, things started to crumble as we couldn’t all be right. When I did my reading, both faith and non-faith texts, visited a few museums and properly had a think about things, I found out how manufactured a lot of faith was, and how some more extremist individuals used it as a tool to control others less fortunate than themselves, I actually felt quite horrified and, once that had passed, fairly alone and miserable, frankly. It took a good few months to get back to my old self and turn that feeling into a more positive force. Haven’t looked back since. Take care out there.

    @22 Tony! The Queer Shoop – Thank you for the warm welcome. I will try to delurk more often; there have been a few threads where discussion has tempted me to wade in, the threshold has been lowered.