Good atheists of the world, unite and speak out

Adam Lee says a lot of things about the atheist movement I’ve said before — the deplorable leaders, the avid adoption of alt-right ideology, the islamophobia and misogyny, the dominance of awful people over YouTube atheism. He ticks off all the same check boxes I do.

But one thing different is that he ends on a note of optimism. I think he makes an important point here that I’m typically too exhausted to care about anymore — it’s not all bad and hopeless.

It can’t be denied that many prominent atheists, as well as some of the louder and most vehement voices in the community, have supported Alt Right ideology and White male supremacy. However, many of the larger atheist and secular groups have gone in the opposite direction and are quietly engaged in serious work on social-justice and intersectional issues. Organizations like the American Humanist Association, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and the atheist charity Foundation Beyond Belief have a solid record of supporting women’s equality and reproductive justice, promoting the voices of people of color, and supporting non-church-based charitable programs in underserved communities worldwide.

These groups and others like them have recognized that society is diversifying, and so must the atheist movement. To remain narrowly focused on the issues of greatest concern to White men, and no others, would lead the secular community into an ideological dead end. To actively scorn the concerns of women and people of color isn’t just morally abhorrent, but self-eradicating. As for atheists, there are strong currents pulling the movement in both directions. Which one will win out, and how that victory will reshape the movement’s priorities, are very much open questions.

It’s true — some of the best, most inspiring people I’ve met have been atheists, and they do sometimes end up in leadership positions in good organizations, too often with little fanfare. Part of the problem here is that it’s easy to be loudly aghast at the scattered assholes with loud voices, and overlook the majority who share decent progressive values. While religious people are also mostly good, there’s always this one commonality they hold: an intellectual and emotional commitment to raving lunacy, proudly held. When I would attend atheist conferences, one of the biggest reliefs was finding oneself in a community where the superstitious foolishness of religious gatherings was gone, and it was a welcome absence.

We just went looking for other bad ideas in our groups, and we let them taint that joy, rather than simply casting them into the void, where they belong.

One other factor I have to mention is that the villains of atheism were passionately dedicated to making sure their views, and only their views, were allowed to be expressed. I had a conversation with a conference organizer who was feeling me out to see if I’d be willing to speak at their event, and I was…but they then explained that it was a tentative invite, because while the majority of the committee were eager to get me, there was this one guy (there’s always one guy) who hated me and was going to raise a big stink. I never heard from them again. Which was fine…I don’t feel a right to a platform.

But that’s what’s been happening: a few loud voices can dominate the discourse, and the tolerant Left tends to avoid the whole idea of “domination”, while the intolerant Right embraces it. It leads to an asymmetry that influences our perception.

In addition, the bad voices are willing to lie, cheat, and steal to secure that dominance. Just look at our Republican party. Or look at YouTube, where the name of the game is fooling the Algorithm, and using endless sock puppet accounts to generate an illusion of overwhelming numbers. Those assholes have built an amazing Potemkin village to subvert any principle of democracy or merit.

It’s hard because I’m so goddamn tired of the game any more, but I have to try and remember there is a virtue to godlessness, and a majority of good people in atheism. It’s just been subverted by an unscrupulous minority.


  1. birgerjohansson says

    A detail: We should also very loudly call out “honor culture” wherever it is- it is not just a “muslim problem “. And be aware honor culture hurts both genders A son may be slightly better treated than a daughter, but if he comes out as gay he may be killed.
    The muslims are a vulnerable group who suffer much.
    .But some -at least here in Sweden- conflate the issue of protecting the civil rights of muslims with the issue of criticism of islam as religion.
    Having read the quran and the more awful parts of hadith, it is obvious the religion has very real problems. And since muslims are explitically forbidden from picking and choosing the way christians do with their holy books,
    any imam that promotes reform is in real danger, apostates doubly so.
    Muslim immigrants are squeezed between discrimination from without and facing varying degrees of pressure to conform to tradition from within.
    This debate must not be left to the MAGA hats (in Sweden we have the similar SD).
    Also, regarding far-right atheists, the struggle for a society built along better values is glacially slow, as non-white people and women can testify. Assholes are like dandelions but they have less power today than in 1969. I am afraid this is the time scale for most major cultural changes. The old popes and bosses must die off.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    Sorry, the rant got longer than I planned. But be aware other countries have been through the de-assholisation process among atheists or believers alike, and even if things in the USA seem awful, when things start changing they can move fast.
    Scandinavian countries also had a regressive sludge, so did Holland and many other countries that are very enlightened now.

  3. doubtthat says

    Very good article. I think this section is important to remember for our mental well-being:


    blockquote>Polls consistently show that the nonreligious are among the most progressive demographics in the United States….

    It goes on to give stats.

    This makes a lot of sense. 100% of the atheists I know in my personal life are progressive humanists (or any similar term/concept). I only know the asshats on the internet.
    I say that not to dismiss the threat they pose – they are very bad and need to be taken seriously – but I do think it’s important to remember that the broad project of moving away from old, irrational, bigoted belief systems has some value – if and only if it is paired with humanist morality.

  4. says

    While I don’t have an issue with orgs like AHA or FFRF, I respectfully disagree with pinning all our optimism on them. I consider myself to have taken a different path: forsake the atheist movement (except to the extent that FTB itself counts), and move onto other progressive communities.

    I also imagine there are many readers here who have never considered themselves part of the atheist movement, and certainly aren’t interested in taking part now. And that’s fine too. Progressivism will live on.

  5. says

    I don’t think it’s a question, I think it’s settled. They won the platform, we’re a fringe. The problem is that hate motivate, hate speech sells massively more than anything positive. I wrote about it over here and I don’t think my only commenter quite got what I mean. I’m not very hopeful that we can match the passion of haters, because they are literally pinged in the pleasure centers of their brain by donating time / money / attention to fascists.

    No one is getting excited about advocacy for human decency because there’s no pleasure payoff in it. I’d like to see a workaround, a way of changing the numbers, but that “people who just want to see the world burn” contingent is probably always going to be more active, more engaged than the rest of us, even if non-creeps have demographic advantage. And we don’t always! Bolsonaro won with a legitimate majority in Brazil, which the orange didn’t.

    I’m open to ideas on how to counter that effect, or alternately would love to be shown convincingly that I’m wrong.

  6. marinerachel says

    I’m past caring. It’s great.

    Because of where I live and the field I exist in, I don’t encounter people of faith often (and if I do, their faith never comes up.) My atheism isn’t something I suffer socially because of. I don’t find it interesting or crave the companionship of atheists. Maybe if that weren’t the case, I’d care about the global perception of atheists.

    I don’t though. I’m not interested in being part of any atheist thing. Atheism doesn’t interest or matter to me. It just is.

    If it does to other people and there’s reason for optimism, I’m thrilled for those folks.

  7. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Great American Satan,
    Douglas Adams wrote about it in his Hitchhikers’ Guide trilogy (of 5 books):

    “We can’t win against obsession. They care, we don’t. They win.”
    ― Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe and Everything

  8. nomdeplume says

    Odd how compulsive the obsession is to make other people believe exactly what you believe, no more and no less. Most noticeable in fundamentalist religions of course, but it is sad to see the same tendency among some atheists.

  9. says

    No one is getting excited about advocacy for human decency because there’s no pleasure payoff in it.

    Slight correction: There is. It comes in the form of slowly developing healthy relationships that lead to a happier life. However, rage is more immediately satisfying, so I think this is a question of instant gratification vs. delayed gratification. Of course, your main point still stands, but given that there is a benefit to being decent, it might be possible to do something about this. Somehow.

  10. microraptor says

    birgerjohansson @1: A) Christians are explicitly forbidden from picking and choosing which lines in their holy book they believe in. They still do it anyway.

    B) Muslims pick and choose which lines in their holy book they believe in. If they didn’t, Islam wouldn’t have so many sects and groups like IS wouldn’t be attacking other Muslims for not being Muslim enough.

  11. says

    I know I’m late to comment, but I felt I had to say something about some of the things being said – for example by Great American Satan@5 and a_ray_in_dilbert_space@7. Both suggest that the reason that atheism as a movement has fallen to the dogs is that the dogs are more committed or “obsessed” than the decent people.

    That’s simply not true in my experience. For a little over two years now, I have been struggling to recover a major Canadian atheist platform after it swung hard right and lost virtually all of its readers. The recovery has been phenomenal, but what’s made it so great is not the numbers but the people who have become its new community. While they’re not die-hard, drum-beating, banner-waving atheists, they’re all decent people who believe in progressive ideas. They’re not out there screaming in the faces of religious people, but they’re there when they’re needed, speaking out for the people who really need help.

    The idea that the alt-right style atheists are more committed is simply fallacious, but it is exactly that kind of defeatist assumption that has ceded so much of the territory to them. We get alt-right atheists lumbering into our spaces all the time, usually commenting on stories of horrific events with brain-dead, inflammatory stuff like “good”, or “they deserve to die” – rarely anything with anymore intellectual substance than that.

    When I first took over the platform, they went unchallenged, and they proliferated. But I made it a policy to actively call them out and challenge them. I can assure you, they are not committed to their positions… or anything, for that matter. Challenge their bullshit just a little bit, and they’ll quickly fall apart into rage and incoherence. And once they get really offensive, ban ’em. Problem solved.

    When I started doing it, man, it was a slog. There was so much bullshit and hate to respond to. But the more I did it – the more I made it clear that our community spaces were going to be positive community spaces – the more that decent people came back. And then they started stepping up to protect the spaces. A couple times I had to rein them in – “It’s good that you’re standing up to that a-hole, but maybe don’t use that kind of violent rhetoric” – but today, I rarely have to step in myself. And when I do, it’s mostly because I feel like it, and just happened to get there first – if I left it, I’m sure it will get challenged.

    It is not true that the alt-right assholes are more committed (or “obsessed”). The reason they proliferated was because it was easy. When left unchallenged, they flock in like a swarm of locusts, which can make them seem formidable. But individual locusts are just as easy to swat as any other grasshopper. And yes, they do continue to pop in from time to time to test the waters, to see if they’re stagnant and putrid enough for their slime to take root. But they’re not hard to brush off. Put just a little effort into making it hard to be an asshole, and they flee back to their pits.

    The comment area of this very blog proves the point. Make a space actively hostile to assholery, and it turns into a space where decent people can enjoy decent conversation. Yes, assholes will attempt to infiltrate; you can’t let your guard down completely. But it does get easy once you’ve built a community up, because the effort gets spread around.

    The failure of “New Atheism” is that it gave the high ground – the leadership roles – to the wrong people. That happened because the jerks were consistently promoting a very small set of terrible people, while the decent people were spreading their support to get more diverse voices. Maybe that was naïve, maybe it was not strategic. But whatever it was, it was not because the jerks were more committed; at best they were more narrowly focused, as small minds are wont to be.

    The leadership (insofar as atheism has a “leadership”, and insofar as the leadership of “New Atheism” ever represented it) is lost, but the decent people – who always were and are still the majority – are still there. They’re just completely without anything to rally behind. But they’re there. They care. And given a place where they can gather without being hounded by baying assholes, they do come together, and do good things.

    As for the community I’m taking care of, it’s a work in progress. And I mean for “a work in progress” to be read both ways.

  12. DanDare says

    This is a very timely article. My community recently had a meeting to come up with a mission statement. Instead we built a description of our community values. Without such a description it’s easy for the loud bullies to change the perceived value set.
    So we will revisit and adjust the description over time to ensure it both maps the community values and continues to engage the community.