Poisoning of a movement


Sigh. I might once have been willing to take exception to this characterization of the history of New Atheism, but I can’t anymore. I just can’t. It’s all too true, and what should have been an opportunity for reason to rise ascendant has been drowned in a rising flood of idiots who use “reason” as an empty buzzword.

Once Bush left office, the promoters of “intelligent design” curricula retreated from the public sphere, and millennials asserted themselves as the least religious generation to date; the group that had coalesced around the practice logically refuting creationists needed new targets. One of the targets they chose was women. Militant atheism had always been male-dominated, but it took several years and a sea change in American politics for the sexism within its ranks to fully bloom. In 2011, skeptic blogger Rebecca Watson described in a YouTube video how a male fellow attendee of an atheist conference had followed her into an elevator at 4 a.m. in order to ask her on a date—behavior that, understandably, made her uncomfortable. The community erupted into what was later remembered as “Elevatorgate.” A forum was created to harass Watson, and Richard Dawkins himself wrote a comment telling her to “stop whining” because she had it better than victims of honor killings and female genital mutilation.

This dynamic played out again and again. In 2012, the popular atheist vlogger Thunderf00t (real name Phil Mason) aimed his sights at Watson in a video titled “Why ‘Feminism’ is poisoning Atheism,” thereby reigniting the previous year’s controversy. This time it took off, leading him to create several follow-up videos accusing women of destroying the paradise that was New Atheism for their own gain. In 2013, Mason inaugurated his “FEMINISM vs. FACTS” series of videos, which attacked Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist video game critic who was then receiving an onslaught of harassment and violent threats for daring to analyze Super Mario Bros. This sort of idiocy, combined, again, with the growing popularity of jibes associating outspoken atheists with fedoras, neckbeards, and virginity, led to an exodus of liberals and leftists from the “atheist” tent. Those who remained for the most part lacked in social skills and self-awareness, and the results were disastrous.

And then the author starts talking about Stefan Molyneux and James Damore, and it just gets worse.

So here we are. There is still no god, religion is bunk, but the atheist movement has become a dogmatic label used by assholes, racists, and misogynists.

Comments

  1. Pascal's Pager says

    It’s embarrassing. I hesitate to label myself an atheist anymore for fear I’ll be lumped together with the movement today. I’d label myself a “dictionary atheist” just to distance myself from the New Atheists.

  2. says

    Yep. I keep my distance from the New Atheist tent, but I do still label myself an atheist, because where I am, it’s important. There’s a real cost to being an out atheist here, and for every person who is out, open, and unafraid, it opens doors for others.

  3. Rich Woods says

    but the atheist movement has become a dogmatic label used by assholes, racists, and misogynists.

    Sadly I think this was inevitable. As the number of ‘nones’ grows and the number of the religious shrinks, the arseholes, racists and misogynists who were once religious are generally just going to carry their bigotry with them to pastures new. Religion wasn’t necessarily the original source of all their worldviews.

  4. Rich Woods says

    Religion wasn’t necessarily the original source of all their worldviews.

    I mean that in terms of their personal life experience, not the centuries of religious influence which has gone a long way to shape our culture.

  5. pipefighter says

    While I certainly do qualify as an atheist, I have long since moved away from that group in favour of secular humanism.

  6. Matrim says

    This phenomenon is the reason why I stopped really identifying as an atheist. I mean, I still am, and if asked that is how I describe myself, but I’ve distanced myself almost entirely from the community. Essentially this *gestures vaguely at Pharyngula* is the only atheist-centric thing I take part in anymore. I used to watch all sorts of atheists youtubers, listen to multiple atheist podcasts, go to cons (well, Skepticon, anyway, so one con), participate in discussions, frequent atheist websites, argue with creationists, etc. It used to be important to me. Now it’s just a thing I happen to be. It’s disappointing how toxic big chunks of the mainstream movement have become (or revealed themselves to be). *sigh*

  7. gijoel says

    I think I unsuscribed to Thuderfoot about a year before Elevatorgate. It was about that idiot pastor Terry Jones burning a Koran. Thunderfoot engaged in what I felt was a histrionic display of rationality and Islamaphobia, whereby he copied and deleted the Koran multiple times and ended with burning a drive full of electronic Korans.

    I had a conversation last night about a friend, we’ll call him Bob, who doesn’t believe in same sex marriage, because they rely too much on emotional appeals and not reason. My friend pointed out that Bob was engaging in gaslighting. As she puts it,”He’s acting irrationally and then calmly claims others are irrational when they react to him”.

    I think that’s the same with Thunderfoot and is ilk. They react like petulant children and when it’s pointed out to them they try and make it about you.

  8. microraptor says

    gijoel @7:

    Yeah, I unsubscribed to Dunderfoot roughly around then due to his Islamaphobic stupidity over the Park51 nontroversy: I realized that he was just repeating the same BS lies that FOX Noise was and that disinclined me to listen to anything else he had to say.

  9. microraptor says

    That was also about the time I stopped following any of the other big YouTube atheists.

  10. astro says

    i question the premise that new atheists somehow defeated intelligent design creationists or needed new targets. the sexist atheists were always targeting women, but there weren’t that many prominent women speaking/blogging about atheism. their targets were largely religious and conservative women, and the sexism of their attacks was often ignored for the sake of their targets’ ideology.

    like harvey weinstein, they were always there.

    watson and sarkeesian were not even their first atheist/skeptic targets. i know amanda marcotte was attacked back when she worked for the john edwards campaign, and that was in 2004. ID was still going strong until 2005 or 2006, when the dover decision seriously undercut it.

  11. Matt G says

    Some of these asshole atheists still call themselves liberals and accuse other liberals of being SJWs (like it’s a bad thing). Many don’t even see themselves as sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. WTF happened to these people?

  12. Brian English says

    Elevatorgate opened my eyes. I’d been all gung-ho about New Atheism before then. I stopped hanging out on blogs of various prominent atheists when it became clear that they were gaslighting/denying what elevatorgate was about. Ah well, there are arseholes everywhere, so it stands to reason there are atheist arseholes.

  13. Brian English says

    Well, to be fair to some of those I prominent atheists, I also get bored and just stop doing the same thing after a while, so not all people’s sites I visited were arseholes or elevatorgate deniers. I’m just fickle.

  14. DanDare says

    The forum of one prominent atheist stopped hanging out with me. I was at RDF.net when it imploded.
    However it was my introduction to a community of fellow travellers who represent much of the best of modern humanity. They care about actual reason, science, human emotional needs, justice, how systems interact and are generally good people to engage with.
    We are all still out here chipping away.

  15. johnk83776 says

    Many of these bad apples impress me (a clinical psychologist) as narcissists, if not full blown psychopaths. As such they do not qualify as atheists. They may be adamant in their rejection of any of the usual deities, but that is only because they believe that they themselves are the equivalent, at least, of any other deity.

    I certainly understand some comments above from folks who are no longer inclined to participate in the “atheist movement.” Narcissists are just not the kind of people anyone else wants to be associated with. But I have also always thought it would be strange to identify myself as an atheist. I am, of course, an atheist and have always been, at least since adolescence. Just like I have always thought it would be strange to identify myself as “not French,” even though that is equally accurate.

    I certainly agree with all the principles of New Atheism as I have seen them described by PZ but I really think any organization based on these principles needs a much better name.

  16. twosevenoneeight says

    Atheism is not just being co-opted by the anti-feminists. Is has also been used a lot (I started to notice it more and more in the last 3 to 5 years) by xenophobes who want to pretend that there is a philosophical reason why they hate brown people. I have taken to just saying “I left the church years ago” or “I don’t believe in god” instead of starting to argue about labels.

  17. consciousness razor says

    These kinds of statements seem to be inviting misinterpretation:

    Matrim:

    This phenomenon is the reason why I stopped really identifying as an atheist. I mean, I still am, and if asked that is how I describe myself, but I’ve distanced myself almost entirely from the community.

    johnk83776:

    But I have also always thought it would be strange to identify myself as an atheist. I am, of course, an atheist

    If I said, “this thing here is an apple” or “this is that very apple, the one in question” or “there is no discernible difference between it and an apple,” then I (claim to) have identified a thing, as a specific entity or as belonging to a class or as having certain properties or whatever the case may be. So, your identity, at least in that sense, is basically just what you are. And if that is your self-conception as well (given that it is accurate), then in this context, I don’t see what room there could be for any other non-confused/non-mysterious use of the word.

    If what you mean is that you’re not participating in some kind of activity or another (for instance), then it would be more appropriate to say something about that instead. That’s what you could be describing, rather than confusing it with identity and making contradictory (or just false) statements about that. If for whatever reason you’re not the sort to go to conferences, it’s pretty simple to just say that; and I’m pretty sure nobody in the whole wide world will mistake you for a goddist because of it, since nothing like that is even remotely necessary for being an atheist.

  18. John Morales says

    consciousness razor, there are other possibilities.

    Perhaps (I think probably) the meaning is they no longer divulge the fact routinely.

    If for whatever reason you’re not the sort to go to conferences, it’s pretty simple to just say that; and I’m pretty sure nobody in the whole wide world will mistake you for a goddist because of it, since nothing like that is even remotely necessary for being an atheist

    They’ve made it quite clear they will acknowledge they are atheist but don’t wish to be associated with mainstream atheism as it stands.

    Consider comment #1.

  19. Akira MacKenzie says

    Pity, New Atheism seemed such a good idea at the time: no longer being ashamed for not being a superstitious knuckle-dragger like the rest of the mob. Demanding the incredulous rubes who push magical thinking to “put up or shut up.” Standing up in Dubbya’s redneck shit hole of a America and loudly and proudly proclaiming that you don’t buy into a false view of the world invented by ancient goat herders.

    Why can’t we have nice things like a open, activist atheism willing to take on the religious mouth-breathers who are fucking up the world with their beliefs, especially now in Trump’s America?

    *Yes, even. The supposedly “smart” theists. I don’t care how many diplomas hang on your wall. The second you talk about gods and the supernatural, a fucking moron who needs a straight jacket, a lobotomy, and a rubber room.

  20. Vivec says

    I’m not exactly cool with framing some of the worst human rights abuses of the mental health system as a thing people are capable of deserving by virtue of merely being religious.

  21. Matrim says

    @consciousness razor

    And if that is your self-conception as well (given that it is accurate), then in this context, I don’t see what room there could be for any other non-confused/non-mysterious use of the word.

    The thing is, though, it’s not really part of my self-concept anymore. It used to be, now it’s something I barely think about. Yeah, it’s technically still part of my identity in a very literal sense, in that, when asked or when something directly related pops up I still recognize that I am an atheist, but I’ve really stopped using the term internally because it has so many bad implications anymore. And the more disillusioned I get with the movement (which, to be honest, doesn’t happen all that much anymore because I’m so divorced from it now that I only peripherally encounter it aside from here), the less I identify with it. It’s technically accurate to refer to me as a trained bomb squad technician, but I haven’t done that stuff for nearly a decade, so I don’t think of myself as one anymore, it’s not part of my identity even if it is still an accurate descriptor of what I am.

  22. Matrim says

    Ugh, forgot my last point:

    And, like being trained to disarm explosives, my atheism matters so little in my daily life and my self-concept that I don’t really identify with it anymore, regardless of whether or not it is accurate to apply the term to me.

  23. Akira MacKenzie says

    Vivec @ 20

    Yeah, you’ve got a point. I take it that part back and leave a sincere apology in its place.

    Now to find a more constructive means to vent my rage at the sorry, shitty state of the world…

  24. The Very Reverend Battleaxe of Knowledge says

    The assholes who have hijacked the New Atheist movement have astutely gauged the true function of religion in our society–as the ideological support for regressive social policies, misogyny, racism, and xenophobia–and have decided to take it over lock, stock, and barrel. There is a much readier market for a philosophy bolstering these attitudes in today’s America than there is for one asking us to become better people, so they’re winning.

  25. lotharloo says

    And don’t forget that Thunderf00t is the “reasonable” one among the asshole youtubers.

  26. rorschach says

    The 2018 global atheist convention in Melbourne should be a real hoot. I might just hang out in the general vicinity (no way I’m paying for the event) to see who shows up to see Dawkins, Greta Christina and Jane Caro in the same event. I really don’t know what the point is, other than creating income for the rotten atheist foundation, the speakers invited are from such fundamentally opposed corners of the atheist spectrum. And I note PZ is not listed this time either…
    Just curious, were you asked PZ?
    I think these events are pointless now, we have learned that while we may have unbelief in deities in common with Dawkins or Mason, these are horrible troglodytes in most other respects, and you wouldn’t want to share a bathroom with them, let alone a conference.

  27. consciousness razor says

    Matrim:

    The thing is, though, it’s not really part of my self-concept anymore.

    All I mean by it is that you made a statement like this while thinking it is true:

    I still am, and if asked that is how I describe myself

    If that is so, then I would say it is “really” a part of your self-concept. To still be an atheist is precisely the same thing as to still really be an atheist. That doesn’t add anything except for a couple of extra syllables.

    but I’ve really stopped using the term internally because it has so many bad implications anymore.

    I don’t think it’s generally a question of which words you do or don’t use in your internal dialogue.

    Also, this may be helpful…. atheism itself doesn’t have bad logical implications. Nothing bad follows from it. Instead, you’re presumably using “implications” in the sense that you have made various associations with bad atheists in the movement. You’ve tied it up in your mind with those people or their behavior, but it’s not as if any of that somehow derives from (or is implied by) atheism. If however you were rejecting atheism as a system of ideas, since you thought it implies bad stuff, which you’ve thus resolved to prevent/avoid, then that would be compelling evidence that you’re not to be identified as an atheist anymore.

    It’s technically accurate to refer to me as a trained bomb squad technician, but I haven’t done that stuff for nearly a decade, so I don’t think of myself as one anymore, it’s not part of my identity even if it is still an accurate descriptor of what I am.

    Well, presumably what you haven’t done for nearly a decade are missions or training sessions, maybe no Taco Tuesdays with the rest of the squad, etc. (I don’t blame you! That sounds stressful, to say the least, except for the tacos of course.)

    However, it’s not the case that you’ve lately started believing in one or more gods, which is what I understand an “identity/self-conception as an atheist” to be about. Similarly, my sibling is a non-practicing or non-churchgoing Catholic — still a Catholic, unlike me, but maybe not doing all of the things you expect a Catholic to do, what our Catholic parents want, what the Pope thinks Catholics should be like, blah, blah, blah. People get to have identities like that, which is why I don’t think it’s helpful to construe that sort of thing as a non-identity.

  28. Scientismist says

    Pity, New Atheism seemed such a good idea at the time: no longer being ashamed…

    Like Akira MacKenzie (#19) I was initially hopeful. I thought it was a movement to make the argument, as a central part of the public face of atheism, that the supernatural gods were a failed hypothesis, as a simple, rational statement of highly probable scientific fact.

    But I was wrong. The few voices for that opinion were swamped (once again) by those who had become disenchanted and angry with whatever God they had been taught to believe in. And when you are just angry at a fictional character, and don’t understand that the only reason you know its fiction is because of the hard work of human beings of all sexes and sexual identities and orientations, and of diverse races and even personal religious beliefs, you may find it hard to realize that when you dismiss the human value of the majority of your potential colleagues, you are undercutting the value of “mere” human knowledge, and weakening your own epistemological position (not to mention being a hypocrite).

    As far as atheist (or free thought) organizations are concerned, the FFRF (Freedom from Religion Foundation) gets my support. They do what needs to be done — resisting creeping theocracy through legal action.

  29. Pierce R. Butler says

    LMFTFY: … the atheistmerican movement has become a dogmatic label used by assholes, racists, and misogynists.

  30. ikanreed says

    It was SUCH a fucking heel turn, I can’t imagine their feet weren’t bleeding.

    The problem, in my conjecture, was the libertarians. You know the ones. The people who were always part of our movement who always loved to simplify and reduce and simply and reduce well past the point of matching data, and instead just throwing occam’s razor at complex things like society and government.

    It’s hard to blame the evangelicals for their view that Nazi Germany was atheist, now that I see a third of our membership lining up behind a pseudo-christian totalitarian fuckwit racist.

  31. Akira MacKenzie says

    ikanreed @ 33

    The problem, in my conjecture, was the libertarians.

    Indeed, I’ve had more than a few Randite wannabes tell me that my left-leaning politics tell me I wasn’t a real atheist because my God was now the state or that I traded Big God for Big Government.” Whether it’s Church, the State, feminist skeptics asking not hit on them in elevators, Blacks asking not to be called “n*gger,” it appears their entire ethos boils down to “NO BODY TELLS *ME* WHAT TO DO!”

  32. Akira MacKenzie says

    EDIT: …tell me that my left-leaning politics meant that I wasn’t a real atheist…

  33. secretsupernova says

    I remember this one video by a YouTube atheist guy where he used this evolutionary psychology bullshit to justify slut shaming. I wonder if he knows that he holds he same stance as abstinence only sex educators who tell girls that if they have sec they’re useless chewed pieces of gum? The only difference between this brand of atheists and religious conservatives when it comes to sexism is that they use pseudo science instead of religion to justify their misogyny.

    They don’t want to undo the sexist and homophobic things religion has done to society. They’ll only mention religion harming women when they’re in the mood to bash Muslims. In all other cases they’re interested in little else than poking at easy targets like creationists to make themselves feel smart.

  34. sarah00 says

    I didn’t grow up religious (I was about 11 before I realised the bible stories weren’t just more boring versions of the Norse or Greek myths) but I came to the atheist/skeptical movement largely through PZ just over a decade ago when I first heard about creationism as a biology undergrad. It was all very interesting and read a lot of different blogs, and over time I moved more towards the general skepticism side, of which atheism seemed just one part.

    And then elevatorgate happened, and I thought wtf? How is suggesting that propositioning someone in a lift in the early hours of the morning was not a great idea, especially when the person being propositioned had spend large chunks of their day saying how they hate it when people do that, a bad suggestion? And I saw the huge overreaction from people who felt that this was censorship and puritanism and how no-one would ever have sex ever again if we all had to do this and I was very confused.

    And then atheism+ happened. I liked atheism+. I thought it was a great idea. If people have said they don’t want these ideas in their club then going off and forming your own club which does want those ideas seemed a reasonable response. And then the internet exploded again, with people abusing and harassing people for doing essentially what those abusers and harassers had told them to do – take their ideas elsewhere.

    And then we had shirtgate and the internet exploded again with people shouting down those who thought that wearing a shirt showing scantily clad women wasn’t really the most appropriate attire for a global broadcast of one of the most momentous moments in the history space exploration.

    And I started to realise that it was the same arguments cropping up again and again. The trotting out of ‘anecdote isn’t evidence’ when women gave their stories, the cries for proper peer-reviewed research on the topic and when this was provided the cries that sociology wasn’t a real science so it could all be dismissed without consideration, the cries of ‘I’m not like that/I’ve never seen that therefore it can’t possibly be true’, the arguments from emotionless (as they scream at you that you’re being emotional about having to recount your rape story for the umpteenth time), the nitpicking, the dismissal, the hyperskepticality, the claims of ‘I’m not biased, you’re biased’, the constant requests for you to explain things to them again and again and again without ever showing any real interest in learning but more as a way to wear you down so you leave the conversation and they can claim victory.

    I realised – through the help of PZ and others – that just saying I’m an atheist and a skeptic isn’t enough. It’s not enough to know that creationism and homeopathy is stupid. I need to look critically at everything. And in doing so I realised how unbelievably biased the world is against women, minorities and non cis/het people. And that seemed a more important fight to me that arguing with people about whether or not ghosts were real. It also requires a much deeper understanding of bias and skepticism and what counts as evidence and it also requires a level of self-reflection not necessary when discussing whether the moon landings were hoaxed. It is increasingly clear to me that many skeptics are unable to recognise that and so put women saying that they’ve been harassed and sexually assaulted in the same category as people who claimed that homeopathy cured their cancer. I don’t know how to make them understand the difference but I do know that any skeptical movement that can’t tell the difference isn’t one I’m interested in being a part of. So I call myself skeptical, but not a skeptic (TM). I don’t believe in god, but I’m not an atheist (TM). But I am now a feminist and I don’t think I’d have got here without the help of PZ and many other bloggers, some of whom are writing on ftb and the orbit. So thank you.

  35. says

    It’s hard to blame the evangelicals for their view that Nazi Germany was atheist, now that I see a third of our membership lining up behind a pseudo-christian totalitarian fuckwit racist.

    Except that the evangelicals are lining up with them. It’s almost as if there’s a group of people who, regardless of the details of their beliefs, are just plain assholes.

  36. Nogbert says

    I’ve decided to always spell sceptic the old fashioned way and allow the skeptics to keep their spelling. That way I can say I am not a skeptic but I do try to practice scepticism when appropriate. A skeptic, if I’m asked for a definition is a sceptic asshole. Or arsehole as we non North American anglophones often say.
    The clue is in the K. Think KKK.It helps to remember the correct spelling.

  37. ikanreed says

    @38.

    Oh no, I’m still not sympathetic to evangelicals themselves. They’re still overwhelmingly cruel and capricious to their fellow man in the pursuit of whatever back road to a theocratic state they can find.

  38. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    I’ve decided to always spell sceptic the old fashioned way and allow the skeptics to keep their spelling. That way I can say I am not a skeptic but I do try to practice scepticism when appropriate. A skeptic, if I’m asked for a definition is a sceptic asshole. Or arsehole as we non North American anglophones often say.
    The clue is in the K. Think KKK.It helps to remember the correct spelling.

    Considering that I can’t think offhand of a single other word where the “sce” construction doesn’t have a soft/silent c, and that they assholes are the ones who are “septic…”

Leave a Reply