I have my disagreements with Chris Stedman — he’s kind of representing the ooey-gooey side of atheism, while I’m typically on the harsh, strongly worded side (I know, you’re surprised). So, goddamn it, I hate it when I have to admit that he’s right, and that my side has been too accommodating to the fanatically godless side, which just luuurves ’em some alt-righties.
I’m still an activist, but after nearly a decade of active participation in online atheism (a loose community of forums, blogs, YouTube channels, and fandoms of figures like evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and writer Sam Harris), I mostly stepped away from the online side of atheism a few years ago. One of the biggest reasons for this was my growing concern over its failure to adequately address some of its darker currents—such as overt sexism, racism, and anti-Muslim bias.
I’ve been backing away myself, and I was smack in the middle of online atheism for years. It’s for the same reasons.
By neglecting to address its darker currents, online atheism has perhaps unknowingly planted the seeds for the alt-right’s harvest. Three years ago Reddit’s atheism subforum, perhaps the largest community of atheists on the internet, was found to be the website’s third most bigoted—meaning not just tolerant of overt displays of bigotry, but actively supportive of them. Last year, the Daily Beast revealed that the study’s most bigoted Reddit subforum, the Red Pill, was founded by Robert Fisher, a Republican state lawmaker who is also an atheist.
The problem is more widespread than figures like Spencer and Fisher, too. While championing liberal views on some issues, many of atheism’s most prominent advocates—the majority of whom are, like me, cisgender white men—have expressed troubling sentiments that align with views held by the alt-right and faced little to no consequences.
Last year Sam Harris hosted Charles Murray—who has famously argued that black people are genetically predisposed to lower IQs than whites—on his immensely popular podcast, calling Murray a victim of “a politically correct moral panic.” Harris has in the past called for profiling “Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim.” (When I challenged him on this, he suggested I “wear a t-shirt stating ‘There is no God and I am Gay’ in Islamic countries and report back on [my] experiences.”) Outspoken atheist Bill Maher rightly came under fire last summer for using racist language on air. He has also argued that “most Muslim people in the world do condone violence,” told “transgendered” [ sic] people to be quiet, and gave alt-right darling Milo Yiannopoulos a sympathetic interview on his HBO show. Lawrence Krauss, a popular skeptic who now faces numerous sexual harassment allegations, has criticized the #MeToo movement. Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most famous atheist in the world, has mocked women for speaking out about experiences of sexual harassment, shared a video ridiculing feminists, and railed against “SJWs” (short for “social justice warriors,” a derisive term for social justice activists). Look beyond atheism’s biggest names and you will find vocal Trump supporters like author Robert M. Price and immensely popular atheist YouTubers with more than a million subscribers. Their views are likely shared by more atheists than many would like to admit.
Yeah, what good is atheism as a philosophy if it can’t even find within itself a reason to condemn Nazis, bombing campaigns against Muslim countries, and discrimination and harassment against women? I know that several of the big organizations, like the Freedom From Religion Foundation and American Atheists, are quite clear that they are pro-feminism and anti-Nazi, but it seems like the base have been drifting away to the siren song of the anti-Muslim, racist right (or, as they prefer to call themselves to the point that the word has lost all meaning “centrists”).
One thing I suggest is getting rid of the concept of the atheist celebrity. By declaring just a handful of prominent atheist activists to be the movement’s leaders, it creates a hierarchal system where the same arguments against God get repeated ad nauseam, and newer ideas about how to put humanist values into action are ignored. Everyone should be a leader in the atheist movement, whether that person is fighting for church and state separation in a small town in Pennsylvania or creating a community for liberal atheists living in the Bible Belt. Martin Luther King once said, “You don’t have to know the theory of relativity in order serve.”
There’s always got to be a figurehead, apparently — even MLK has become one. I agree wholeheartedly that we have to get out of that stupid “four horsemen” mindset and recognize that an effective movement has ten thousand leaders, and no one is just a follower, and we’re always ready to criticize, and listen to criticism. Another of our problems is that our “leaders” have been remarkably thin-skinned and unwilling to tolerate disagreement, let alone act on it to change course. We need to be more adaptable.
Until we achieve that kind of breadth and resilience, though, clearly we need to make Trav the King of Atheism. All bow down and worship their wise words.