Atheism as a fandom

Oh god…I’m watching this video about how the alt-right infiltrates fandoms, and the tactics they use to radicalize members, and I’m suddenly realizing he could be talking about movement atheism, and that I watched this all play out in the last decade.

For instance, there’s the bit where they redefine the bits they don’t like, like feminism, as political, and we can’t have our group divided by politics…and at the same time conveniently redefine alt-right attitudes as apolitical. Then there’s the elevation of micro-celebrities as representatives, not because they’re particularly good people, but because they conform to the mores of the vocal minority. Or the fact that poor arguments are repeated over and over, precisely because they are bad arguments and aren’t going to win anyone over on their quality, so they have to reaffirm it to themselves and find solidarity as a chorus.

Have you ever heard an atheist declare that “all atheism is is a disbelief in god”? Think about it. That’s an argument that’s going to win no one over; it’s certainly not going to persuade anyone outside the core fandom that “Hmm, maybe I ought to give that a try”. Yet it’s the go-to claim of insular atheists to shut down any substantive discussion of goals and principles! This pseudo-apoliticism is exactly what’s allowed atheism to become a haven for the right. While on one hand feminism is declared to be a cancer that causes Deep Rifts, on the other, well, Libertarianism is just natural good sense.

Think about the takeover of the Atheist Community of Austin while watching the video. He’s not talking about atheism specifically at all, but it fits so well.

The good news is that it makes me feel better about having been mobbed out of the movement. The bad news is that atheism has been knocked out of the social conversation as a force for bettering humanity. It’s become just another toxic fandom.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    I don’t think it’s quite as bleak as you paint it. From all the polls I’ve seen, the “nones” are a much bigger and more influential slice of the Democratic party. The Libertarian portion of the Republican pie is much tinier compared to the white Christians who make up its majority, which means all their issues aside from the racism and sexism will get ignored.

  2. says

    Every video in this series is must-viewing as far as I am concerned. They detail something that should worry us all. This particular video really hit home for me as I see a friend going through this process right now and I don’t know how to stop it until he hits the other end.

  3. Stevarious, Public Health Problem says

    Wait, the ACA was taken over? When did that happen, what did I miss?

  4. consciousness razor says

    Agreeing with brucegee1962 @#1 that it’s not that bleak, despite your regular assertions to the contrary. Atheists are typically more progressive than other groups, are growing, and in some ways are an influential part of the conversation (sometimes only implicitly now, because of the effects we’ve already had on the way many people think about atheism/theism).
    Maybe at some level you do realize all of that, but fitting such facts into the story you’re telling is something I don’t understand how to do, because they just seem to contradict what you’re saying.
    Also, I’m not sure what you mean by being “mobbed out,” but to me, it seems like little or nothing has changed in that respect. You’re still blogging, as you have for many years, and … what else? Maybe you’re not invited to be a speaker at as many random “conferences” as you used to — many of them pointless, many you didn’t want to attend anyway, etc. — but by that kind of standard, almost all of us have always been “mobbed out.” And of course, few would ever use the phrase to mean things like that. So, uhh … welcome to the club I guess?
    Whatever, it’s a weird perspective, and you can have it. I just don’t think you should promulgate it as if it were the actual history, social psychology, etc., of contemporary atheism, because that is evidently a very different story than the one you tell. As the Dude says, “that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

  5. PaulBC says

    I agree that things aren’t all that bleak. I’d rather be young now than in the 80s. There are more efficient means to radicalize people now, and that is a scary, but it is no more a problem with atheism than any other group. It’s probably less of a problem with atheists in fact.

    I admit I find myself baffled by the cachet of “celebrities” like Jordan Peterson, who seems to be doing Camille Paglia’s schtick of 30 years ago and acting like it’s new and brilliant. But another point I’d like to make is that few people I talk to in real life even know who Jordan Peterson is.

  6. consciousness razor says

    PaulBC, it may help to point out that your first thought was to Jordan Peterson, who isn’t an atheist but is instead clearly and adamantly opposed to atheism. He’s “alt-right” (or just “fascist”), but that is of course not the topic at hand.
    It’s like people think they’re talking about apples, say they’re talking about apples, know perfectly well that apples and oranges aren’t identical, and yet practically the whole time this is going on, they’re actually pointing at oranges and describing them, seemingly oblivious to that fact. I think to myself, “I must have ended up in the wrong place (or they did). Where do I go for the real apple conversation? Is that down the hall?”

  7. says

    It’s even less amusing when it’s not fandom per se, but academic organizations filled with members who wilfully mischaracterize other members. I left the MLA (Modern Language Association) after one too many attacks on me for being a cis pale-skinned man whose “day job” made me an official of an organization whose politics I did not share, while actually trying to learn about others’ perspectives and experiences. And anyone who claims that the American Bar Association is “liberal” has never tried to even question anything that might even marginally reduce the overwhelming conservatism, abuses of power, and all-too-often outright bigotry of the insurance-defense segment of the Bar.

    When it’s just “fandom,” it’s merely amusing.

  8. unclefrogy says

    that video was pretty good the only quibble I have with it is the idea of any kind of organized effort to radicalize people bothers me some. I do not doubt that there are people who are actively doing exactly what was described and that the process of radicalization is not very much as described nor do I think that the motivation to feel belonging to a group is very important if not primary. It is just the idea of organization edges to close to paranoia and gives the ideas and the believers more power than they might actually have and it just bothers me personally.
    the old adage divide and conquer comes to mind and to whose benefit is it for us to be divided against each other if not some important aspect of the status quo
    uncle frogy

  9. PaulBC says


    Sorry, as always not meeting your standards of focused discourse. Anyway…

    PZ did begin by saying

    I’m watching this video about how the alt-right infiltrates fandoms.

    The video itself was not about atheists, though I realize PZ’s intent was to analogize it (“Atheism as a fandom”). I am not familiar enough with the atheist quasi-celebrity category to comment. (Sam Harris maybe? I have no opinion on him except what I’ve read here.) For some reason I get news updates on my phone about Jordan Peterson, his recent breakdowns, and his all-meat diet, so he is closer to the forefront of my mind and I have partially formulated opinions.

    The prominence of Peterson as a quasi-celeb certainly doesn’t refute the point that atheists are not especially vulnerable to influence compared to other groups of disaffected youth who spend their time online. So when I read

    Then there’s the elevation of micro-celebrities as representatives, not because they’re particularly good people, but because they conform to the mores of the vocal minority.

    Peterson sprung to mind, but I suppose if I tried I could have mentioned a better example in passing.

    My point was to agree with you and brucegee1962 that there’s nothing particularly bleak going on. I should have just said that.

    (Not that it’s dispositive, but when I just searched for Sam Harris, I get “People also search for Richard Dawkins (Trending), Annaka Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Jordan Peterson, Daniel Dennett” so an algorithm somewhere has the same lumping strategy as my lazy pattern matching.)

  10. unclefrogy says

    sorry I often change the phrasing mid sentence and forget to go back a correct what I just wrote so what I meant to say was not “that the process of radicalization is not very much as described ” but that the process is very much as described. or it was not very much different as described .I do not remember which one I decided was the better
    haste makes waste is very true when it comes to me and writing words down
    uncle frogy

  11. Zeppelin says

    Yeah, sorry, but I’m going to keep telling people that atheism is nothing but a lack of belief in gods. It happens to be true, whether it’s “persuasive” or not. It’s not an “argument”, it’s (at ist strongest) a normative lexical claim.

    Discussion of goals and principles is good, and any organisation, no matter its other goals, should hold its members to high moral standards and try to make the world a better place when it can. But the reason an atheist organisation that refuses to do this is useless is precisely because atheism is, in fact, nothing but a disbelief in god. Which by itself creates no “oughts”. I don’t see the value in trying to no-true-atheist atheists who happen to be shitheads. The problem with Sam Harris isn’t that he’s somehow atheisming wrong.
    If anything I would like the word “atheist” to have fewer connotations. Right now it implies anything from “doesn’t believe in god” to “insufferable youtube skeptic” to “degenerate devil worshipper”, depending on who you’re talking to. Adding “social justice supporter” to the pool isn’t going to help anyone.

  12. ikanreed says


    Adding “social justice supporter” to the pool isn’t going to help anyone.

    No, but social justice helps people, if you can marshal your movement towards achieving it, and there’s a number of theistic threads to oppression that we all do have some duty to fight.

  13. Rowan vet-tech says

    So you think that becoming an atheist means that there’s no need to look at all the religious morals and claims you’ve been brought up to? “I don’t believe in a god, but I’m just dandy following morality based on a god and believing things based on a god that I don’t believe in anymore and doing things based on the teachings of that god I don’t believe in and existing with laws based on the teachings of the god I don’t believe in”?
    So if this god teaches that women are inferior and shouldn’t have rights, and there are laws that were created to match that and everyone around you agrees with it, you’re just going to keep believing it too? No “this idea is based on a deity. I do not believe that deity exists. This idea then becomes baseless from that angle, maybe I should re-examine the idea”?
    This is why so many atheists come across as raging misogynistic and homophobic assholes.

  14. chris61 says

    @14 Rowan vet-tech

    Like zeppelin I believe that being an atheist means I don’t believe in a god. Not believing in a god says absolutely nothing about the moral principles that I or any other self-professed atheist chose to follow.

  15. Zeppelin says

    I agree, like I said in my comment! I just don’t see how lying and pretending that atheism somehow logically entails social justice, pretending that atheism by itself is an ideology (or rather, arbitrarily calling the particular ideology you’re looking to promote “atheism”), helps with that.
    It doesn’t even follow from atheism by itself that theistic oppression is bad or should be opposed! You have to add. at the very least, some sort of moral valuation of the truth and of ethical consistency.

    @Rowan vet-tech

    I wasn’t brought up to any particular religious morals or claims, because my family have been atheists for three generations as far as I can determine and overtly religious argumentation is rare in German public life.

    But even if I had been: after you discard your religiously justified principles (note that a lack of god-belief by itself doesn’t even entail this — maybe your ethical system is more interested in outcomes rather than logical consistency, and you’re happy with the outcomes of theistic morality) there is nothing about a lack of god-belief that tells you what principles you should have instead. No ethical precepts follow from not believing in god — you’re only excluding, from the infinite number of theoretically possible ethical systems, those that rely on a god for justification.

  16. ikanreed says


    Yeah, but a lot of the alternative moral codes you find in ethical philosophy instead DO logically entail social justice.

  17. unclefrogy says

    I don’t know about anyone else but Atheism is not the starting point nor the ending point it is one of the results of my experiences and my thinking for my entire life and one of my motivators has been questions about morality and equality. How those questions intersected with the real history of our universe as we have discovered it has led me here where I am today.
    If your only claim of atheism is a none belief in gods without any other questioning connected to it no questioning the morality and practices of the culture you live in then i would say that your atheism is mere anti-authoritarianism
    uncle frogy

  18. PaulBC says


    First off, I agree that atheism has specific consequences in regard to ethics, mainly in ruling out the arguments used by religious people “Do this because God says so and he is all-powerful.” “The poor may look miserable now but their reward is in heaven, etc.” (and to get picky here, you could have a religion where these arguments don’t apply, but they definitely never apply without some religious assumptions). These consequences are important. If all we have is what we see around us, and the happiness and misery we perceive is the whole reality (not a shadow world with some putative fulfillment) this makes a difference. I believe it should encourage compassion and understanding, but of course you could reach different interpretations. No matter what, it establishes a set of conditions that is very different from the ones most religions would tell you exist.

    But a lot of people may reach (or be born into) an atheistic worldview without a deep concern for the implications just as they may understand any random fact without thinking it through any further. I think it is odd to insist such people are anything other than actual atheists (whatever mere anti-authoritarianism is). It’s still atheism. It may not be a very interesting kind. They might appear incurious or benighted for stopping there. But you don’t need to make up a new term for it. In Faith No More Phil Zuckerman makes the point that most atheists are not particularly angry or outspoken about it. There are diverse and personal reasons for atheism, and the only real commonality is the rejection of religion.

    Another thing to consider is that even a “none” in current terminology who just doesn’t have any religion by default may not have a philosophically deep perspective but still has a defense against religious arguments. If I say “Your reward is in heaven.” they have absolutely no reason to believe me. I have said something that simply doesn’t make sense. So an increasing number of incurious, default atheists is still a big problem for religions, and an opportunity for those who want to undermine the most common arguments that make absolutely no sense unless you’re religious. This is a pretty significant consequence for those whose atheism is merely a “lack of belief in God.”

    Some people are going to care more than others, but I don’t think you should rule out the less interested as somehow unworthy of the term.

  19. PaulBC says


    I wanted to address this specifically:

    [Atheism] is one of the results of my experiences and my thinking for my entire life and one of my motivators has been questions about morality and equality.

    That’s your experience, and I’m sure it’s shared by a lot of people, but it’s not the only motivation. Personally, having been raised Catholic, I might have continued in that faith if I actually believed it. But the main issue is just that it never made much sense. Not the way other things I was taught made sense.

    There was certainly a point in my life (way back) that I thought, OK, if I give this a chance then one day as I grow in “faith” I will accept some kind of “truth” that is very different from the kind of truth I understand as factual information. At a certain point, I concluded that’s just not going to happen. It was like that, nothing dramatic. Of course, I can understand people leaving because of the abuses that have come to light over the last couple of decades, but that wasn’t it for me.

    Second, there are many religions in the world. They can’t all be true. It would certainly be very strange if I just happened to be born in the one that is (that is not a refutation, but it is mighty suspicious that people just happen to believe the religions they were raised to believe).

    To be clear, I find it a much greater mystery how rational, educated people continue to hold onto religious belief, and this has absolutely nothing to do with the ethical implications. Why do people believe these things? I have met religious Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus among others, who are also highly educated, ethical as far as I can tell, and rational about normal everyday events. How do they do it? I suspect there are more closeted default atheists and always have been than anyone wants to admit.

  20. unclefrogy says

    well if you do not believe in the ultimate authority god and that god is a foundational part of the culture you belong to bound up with the morals and practices of that culture and you do not question the status quo of that culture it’s morals, ethics and practices then it would appear that your problem is one of who is the authority and not norms of your culture and it’s believes and practices so merely anti-authoritarian. That is not a judgement positive or negative it is how it appears to me and is neither right nor wrong. Just another of those who accept the status quo or at least major parts of it without a thought.
    life is short and we make our own way through it.
    uncle frogy

  21. DanDare says

    I organise the “Atheist Community of Kenmore”.
    When we first started we had regressives join but they didn’t get traction and left.
    That is not because we are atheists. The regressives were atheists too.
    Its because we are a community and that does entail better behaviour and principles.
    The atheism part simply lets us shed religious dogma, making us free to form a better community, but also creating a vacuum which bad ideas can fill, since most atheists were previously theist. I am one of the few who was not.
    We eventually workshopped the community’s sense of values and came up with very much what PZ has often urged, but not because we were atheists, because we were diverse humans forming a real life community.

  22. PaulBC says


    Well, I still don’t see how you get to anti-authoritarian. Suppose that hypothetically you are strongly authoritarian. You live in a religious culture. For whatever reason, you happen not to accept the religion as the truth, and do not believe in any notion of God. Out of authoritarianism, you might feign your belief and force it on others, but are you an atheist? I would say yes. Alternatively, suppose you just never gave much thought to religion or to authority. Suppose you were brought up within the same religiously dominated culture without any religious beliefs of your own. Apart from that, you are very flexible and pragmatic. You are law-abiding because it works out for you but have no strong feelings one way or the other towards authority as such. To repeat, in addition to all that, you don’t believe in God. Are you atheist? I don’t see why not.

    I also don’t think either of the above scenarios are very far fetched. I’ve probably known people like this. I think it’s also very difficult to be sure what people actually believe in terms of religion, because what they say has a lot to do with social acceptability. They may have more stake in maintaining good relations than expressing a genuine viewpoint.

    In short, while I see your point about the interplay between religion and authoritarianism. I don’t see the correlation as inevitable.

  23. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    To Zepplin
    Why do people attend atheist conferences and join atheist groups? They might do it for personal satisfaction. They might also do it in order to combat the influences of religion on society. That second option is a moral motivation. They’re joining the group in order to improve society. So, if these people were to discover that their atheist movement is not making the world into a better place, such as because of the presence and toleration of serial sexual abusers, libertarians, alt-right fascists, and the like, then they probably won’t want to stay in the movement, because staying in the movement suddenly became contradictory to their goals.

    Maybe you just want an echo chamber where you can sit down with friends and high-five each other, and tell each other how smart you are. Whereas, many of us here are activists and we want to change the world, and change it for the better, and we cannot change it for the better when our groups are being taken over by regressive assholes.

    Atheist organizations cannot just be “just atheist” organizations. Otherwise, a great many of them will become my enemy, just like most religious groups are my enemy, because they are standing in the way of making the world into a better place.

    Also, I for one would love for the word “atheist” to be associated with “social justice warrior”. That would be great. Far better than being associated with “amoral sociopath”. I for one would love to socially suppress and repress those who are against social justice. I don’t want them to feel like they belong in atheist groups, or anywhere else. This sort of social pressure is how you achieve change.

    So, again, if you want to join a “just atheist” organization, fine. That’s your right. However, doing so means that you will become my political enemy.

  24. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    I think it’s also very difficult to be sure what people actually believe in terms of religion, because what they say has a lot to do with social acceptability. They may have more stake in maintaining good relations than expressing a genuine viewpoint.

    I strongly suspect this is itself associated with authoritarianism. Persons who have been trained to tow the party line, even when it doesn’t make sense, and especially when it’s obviously harmful, and going to be much more likely to be authoritarian and support authoritarians, especially via tribalism.

  25. John Morales says

    DanDare @22, just googled that. What I found is the “Kenmore Atheist Community” on FB, prominently featuring Christopher Hitchens. That the one?

    (Banana benders, eh?)

  26. John Morales says

    [Gerrard, the idiom is to “toe the line”, that is, go up to it but not beyond. No towing]

  27. tinkerer says

    @15 chris61

    [blockquote]Like zeppelin I believe that being an atheist means I don’t believe in a god. Not believing in a god says absolutely nothing about the moral principles that I or any other self-professed atheist chose to follow.[/blockquote]

    Not this again! We’ve been through it dozens of times and yet people still completely miss the point. Yes, simply being an atheist doesn’t mean one has moral concerns or wants to further progresive values – that much is bleedin’ obvious. But if you’re involved in movement atheist, which is what PZ is talking about (and which is also bleedin’ obvious), then atheism is no longer just part of your background beliefs along with the world being round and water being wet, it’s now become an important factor in how you think society should be run. It involves your sense of morality and values otherwise you wouldn’t be in movement atheism.

    Come on poeple, it’s not complicated!

  28. PaulBC says


    I understand your point. I draw the line at the suggestion that “atheist” only be applied to a committed movement atheist (which seemed to be what unclefrogy was saying). It’s a word with a simple, descriptive meaning and can be used for that. I also think that the larger trend of “Nones” is more significant than movement atheism even if people who have simply dropped religion (or never practiced any) aren’t particularly self-reflective about the fact. It represents a massive social reorganization no matter what.

    Actually, I disagree with chris61:

    Not believing in a god says absolutely nothing about the moral principles that I or any other self-professed atheist chose to follow.

    It’s true that for a hypothetical individual, nearly any specific ethical principles can be made consistent with any belief or lack of belief in God (I say nearly because some are limited to religion, such as faith or blasphemy).

    In aggregate, though, religion influences parenting. It influences politics. It influences openness to challenging information. As Phil Zuckerman states:

    Numerous studies reveal that atheists and
    secular people most certainly maintain strong values, beliefs, and opinions. But more
    significantly, when we actually compare the values and beliefs of atheists and secular
    people to those of religious people, the former are markedly less nationalistic, less
    prejudiced, less anti-Semitic, less racist, less dogmatic, less ethnocentric, less closeminded, and less authoritarian [footnotes omitted]

    So in practice, you would reach a very different conclusion than you would from trying to work in out in terms of consistency. I believe, however, that Zuckerman’s findings apply to many who are not movement atheists but simply reached this viewpoint among other beliefs.

  29. consciousness razor says

    Two things:
    A is an implication of atheism. If in fact there are no gods, then A. In other words: if atheism is true, then A. (And what if nobody in the whole wide world believed it, etc., while it is still true that there are no gods? Then A)
    B is a belief which a person must have, in order to be an atheist. In other words, if a person does not have belief B, they are not an atheist. That is to say the person does not satisfy that necessary condition, which we may decide is a feature of how we should use our term “atheist.”
    The point: A is not B, and atheists are not atheism. If you were confusing them, then you were confusing them. Am I talking to you? Probably. Don’t feel bad. You’re certainly not the first to confuse the issues in this way, even though it’s really not that complicated…. Alright, you can feel a little bad, but it gets better.

  30. chris61 says

    @ consciousness razor
    But what are the implications of atheism beyond the obvious that they aren’t determined by religion?

  31. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    To chris61
    Let me answer a question with a question: What does the meaning of “atheism” have to do with the goals and targets of atheist conference organizers and atheist group organizers? If you’re going to play the moral nihilist, then you should expect turnabout.

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