I’ve been writing about atheism for about 10 years now. What has driven me is a combination of awe at the amazing insights produced by science, so much deeper and more substantial than any collection of myths, and a furious rage at the lies and injustice and corruption of humanity by religion. For a while there, in the middle, there was also an ebullience at the growing success of atheism, and hope that someday we would be able to cast aside the follies of faith. The awe is still here, the rage is still burning, but the optimism is fading and is being consumed by a new anger at the incompetence and betrayal of the self-appointed atheist leadership.
Too many atheists turn out to be just as shallow as the fervent faithful I rail against. Too many see atheism as another useless difference they can use to excuse discrimination against others they are already prejudiced against. I used to have this illusion that an atheist society would be more tolerant, that under it government and education would be secular, but the churches would still exist, if people wanted to attend them — a sort of Scandinavian ideal. But no, what I’m fast learning is that tolerance isn’t automatically a property of abandoning the false tribe of religion, but is more a reflection of the greater culture it is embedded in. Atheists can still hold a “kill the wogs” mentality while babbling about the wonders of science; people who regard women as servile appliances for their gratification don’t seem to become suddenly enlightened once the scales of faith fall from their eyes.
That was a surprise to my naive self. But I could still see value in discarding religion — it is one factor that contributes heavily to world-wide ignorance — and simply saw that the struggle was going to be harder than I had hoped. We’re not only going to have to inspire and inform everyone about the beauty of the natural mechanisms that drive our world, and the error of seeking shortcuts in the falsehoods of antique traditions, but we’re also going to have to educate everyone about the Darwinian concepts of unity and diversity, that there is no higher or lower, that cooperation is as important (I’d say more important) component of our evolution as competition. The absence of a god has profound implications that seem not to be immediately obvious to everyone, so it’s going to take some serious effort to help everyone think through that meaning…and that the most important implication of it all, that we’re all alone with each other and need to develop values base on human meaning, rather than divine revelation, says we need to broaden our reach and open the doors wider. It’s not about wealthy white man meaning, after all, but something more universal.
And that’s OK! Being an American atheist means I’ve been an isolated, tiny, disparaged minority my whole life, living in a sea of people who fundamentally disagree with me, and I have not been discouraged. That just means this goal is going to take a lot of effort to achieve, and I’m not afraid of that. Roll up your sleeves, gang, we’ve got a lot of work to do!
Gang? Where’d you go, gang?
There is the great disappointment. The movement, whose whole premise demands a sweeping change of the culture, has discovered that it is far easier to defend the status quo than to change it. We’re willing to ask other people to think long and hard about their beliefs, to question and change, but all that other stuff that our culture planted in our heads, like beliefs about the sexes and races, like the rigid gender binary, like the suitability of women to thinking critically, like the automatic conferral of status by wealth, like the dehumanization of people who look like they might have had different great-grandparents than us, like the utility of simply killing people who disagree with us…oh, no, don’t ask us to change. We’re just here to promote atheism! One thing at a time! Once we’ve cleared away the deadwood of religion, then maybe we can think about encouraging a rational world that will have those nice things you’re talking about. Atheism is only about separation of church and state issues, or only about science and naturalism, or only about scholarly discussion of the accuracy of ancient texts, or only about fighting the barbarous customs of non-Western peoples…it’s only about the non-existence of gods, we can’t possibly consider side issues, like the harassment of women or the oppression of black communities or the diminishing educational opportunities of the poor, to be part of our brief!
Well, I’ve got news for the atheist movement: it all matters. Just as I’ve been saying for years that you won’t defeat creationism by enforcing laws that restrict the teaching of creationism (laws that too many teachers simply ignore), you won’t make headway until you get deeper into the culture and address the root causes, so too you won’t get people to change by just telling them over and over that god doesn’t exist. We must address the problems that matter, and they’re deep and they’re difficult and some atheists contribute to them.
You won’t get your philosophical atheist utopia at all if that utopia considers the dignity of all human beings to be a secondary matter. You will effectively kneecap the whole movement if you don’t care about social justice, and worse, are more afraid of driving out the hateful and intolerant who are already inside our ranks than of embracing the needs of the many millions outside of them.
It’s already happening, though. The disenchantment with the movement is growing.
Libby Anne wonders, Do They Care about Women, or Simply Bashing Religion?.
Frankly, I feel used. These atheist activists are the sort of people who want to use my story as proof that religion is horrible to women but aren’t willing to listen to what I have to say about sexism in our culture at large. They are the sort of people who are eager to use the shooting of young education activist Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban to prove how horrible religion is for women but somehow fail to mention that Malala is a Muslim who speaks of drawing her inspiration to fight for gender equality from the Koran. This is not standing up for women. This is exploiting women as merely a tool in a fight against religion.
I’m done. I’m so, so done.
Katha Pollitt thinks that Atheists Show Their Sexist Side, and are currently having a “sexist tantrum”.
Alas, the ability to take such instruction is in good part something Sam Harris thinks women sadly lack. “There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women,” said the bestselling author of The End of Faith. “The atheist variable just has this—it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.” It seems to me, judging from recent events, that atheist men are the fragile flowers here—they, not women, are the ones wilting under criticism. Perhaps they can’t stand it that women are withholding that “extra estrogen vibe” that used to make conferences so much fun. (Amanda Marcotte, of the steel-trap mind, has a fine time slapping Harris around at Pandagon. Remind me never to get into a fight with her.)
Why would women join a movement led by sexists and populated by trolls? If this is atheism, I’m becoming a Catholic.
Tauriq Moosa says the reason he became an active atheist is now why he’s not one.
I won’t be part of a movement resolutely more focused on shielding rich, white dudes than by being inclusive of marginalised, non-male, non-white people. Count me out. Call me back when we give a shit about women and you can admit those of us writing in a small corner of the internet actually care about moral action, not money, for what we do.
The only people who can survive off atheist clickbait are people who write books called The God Delusion. It’s not fucking bloggers.
I will make a prediction, right here and now. The number of people identifying as “nones” will grow in this country in coming years, because we’re on the right side of history, and because organized religion is happily in the process of destroying itself with regressive social attitudes, scandals, and their bizarre focus on other-worldly issues that don’t help people. The number of people identifying as atheists will stagnate or even shrink, because organized atheism is happily in the process of destroying itself with regressive social attitudes, scandals, and their bizarre focus on irrelevant metaphysical differences that don’t help people.
I can’t say that’s a bad thing. The name of atheism has been burdened with unfair and inaccurate stigma for a great many years, and we’re now drifting into an era in which atheism will be burdened with a totally fair and accurate stigma.
Unless we change.
I don’t know that we can.