Confessions of a has-been atheist

I gave up on creationist debates when I realized I was being taken advantage of — I’ve always been willing to do these engagements as an opportunity for science communication, so I wouldn’t charge anything except for travel expenses. Then I did one event where, after getting there, I learned that there was a banquet planned for their honored creationist speaker, to which I was not invited. Then I discovered that he was put up in a suite in the big hotel in town, but I was told that surely I’d be able to find a motel somewhere nearby. That’s the kind of respect you get from creationists.

Atheists aren’t much better.

Would you believe I still get tentative invitations to speak at atheist conferences? (For the past 6 months, those have all been online events, of course.) I hardly believe it myself, since I consider myself persona non grata in atheist circles, but apparently some people have good memories of events I’ve done in the past, and they call or email me. “Hey, we’re in the planning stages SuperAtheistCon, and your name has been suggested as a potential speaker. Are you interested?” And I’d say, sure, if I’m free that day. They’d ask for the usual headshot and bio, and sometimes they’d ask for an abstract for the talk, and sometimes they’d even ask for a complete outline of my topic, which was usually something science-related. I’d provide what they’d ask for, and let it lie. Then, usually, silence. I’d never hear from them again.

I’d just figure, “wow, my idea must have been really boring,” which may well have been the case, and that’s OK.

A few times, I’d get a regretful call back. They decided not to go with me, after all, because one of their board members objected that I was a feminist or an SJW (unspoken: the rest of the board went along with what they thought was a legitimate complaint), and also they landed some Hitchens-loving islamophobic misogynist speaker who was more popular than me, and now they’re out of money. Fair call.

One event even got to the point where I had all the slides done for a talk when they pulled the plug. It’s sinking in that I’m not ever going to speak at an atheist conference ever again, and that atheist conferences have achieved a kind of uniformly vaguely right-wing ambience that means they don’t want me, and that I don’t want them.

That’s all fine, I do not expect to be given a platform. However, please stop pestering me with tentative requests that you and I both know will get squelched by the dominant right-wingers in your organization, especially if that request is accompanied by a demand that I do the work of providing a justification for myself. It’s getting old and really hardening me in my cynicism.

P.S. I have zero sympathy for those professional atheists who whine about getting stiffed by conference organizers like Pangburn Philosophy. Sorry, guys, I’ve always done it for the cause and not for the money, so your petty bourgeois demands leave me cold. You’re doing it for the cash, and you got robbed by capitalist parasites, but still you defend the status quo? Boo hoo.

P.P.S. Maybe another reason I get disinvited from conferences is that they know I might sneer at their headliners.


  1. says

    I think it was ElevatorGate and Thunderf00t’s freakout here on FTB that first made me realize that maybe religion wasn’t the source of regressive and reactionary behaviors I originally thought it was. The thing that brought me to atheism in the first place was my experiences with right wing religious fundamentalist anti-science politics in the US growing up and I first saw atheism and skepticism as a bastion of progress in opposition to that. As I’ve gotten older, more widely read and gained more experience, I’ve leaned more and more heavily towards class and dominance based forms of analysis and explanation for those previously mentioned reactionary and regressive behaviors. Religion seems more and more to be downstream from more fundamental structures of human society. It takes on the forms of the dominant hierarchies and helps provide rationalizations for them, but that’s about it. It serves as a refuge for people who are oppressed and exploited, helps people believe we live in a just world, and tells people that they’ve got a future when things are bleak and hopeless.

    I’m still an atheist, but it just seems so unimportant now. I still advocate for secularism, but so do lots of theists. Instead I focus on political-economics and mostly try to only deal with culture war stuff in a secondary fashion.

  2. Akira MacKenzie says

    Fuck ’em.

    If the atheist movement doesn’t appreciate your contributions because of some stupid ideological quibble with racist/sexist crybabies the grand poohbahs of non-belief refuse to rein in, then it’s their loss. You have better to do with your time, like spider ranching.

    (Singing) “Yippee-kiii-yi-ooo, Git along little ‘rachnid…”

  3. says

    For what its worth, as someone who was once a fifteen year old atheist, I think this blog and people like you and rebecca watson being a part of the atheist movement kept me from falling down the right-wing radicalisation pipeline offered by Harris and Hitchens and Dawkins.

    Maybe culture has changed and i’m out of touch with how Zoomers think, but I do worry about teens finding atheism without moderating influences like you in the picture

  4. unclefrogy says

    like shooting fish in a barrel, the holes in their “logic” are numerous and glaring
    one of the most consistent things about conservatives maybe the most universal idea found in all of them of what ever stripe is their affinity for authority and hierarchy of status.
    they do not seem to be able to tolerate much more then a thin veneer of democracy. very much a class oriented structure is their preferred, the working class and the poor do not qualify. how much tolerance do they have for labor organized or not ? Do any of them accept that truth can be objective and can be pursued and must be regardless of how personally disruptive it is?
    What is funny is that they still try to make the connection but are unable to actually do it.
    uncle frogy

  5. Matt G says

    Matthew@2- I grew up atheist, but otherwise have had the same set of experiences of the atheist “movement” that you have. I thought reason and science automatically led to anti-racism, anti-sexism, etc. What a rude awakening it has been.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    … atheist conferences have achieved a kind of uniformly vaguely right-wing ambience …

    [sigh], if true. Can anyone active in the a-con scene (when there was one, say, 2019), comment further on this?

  7. hemidactylus says

    Though I don’t always agree, you present a thoughtful critique of the movement atheist cavalry. You leave me questioning what it’s all about and considering post-atheism as my own stance:

    “Atheism, rejection of a belief in the existence of God in which one deeply devotes oneself to the nearly nonstop studying, writing, thinking, and talking about God. Upon reaching the philosophical and logical conclusion that God cannot exist, an atheist will dedicate the rest of his or her life to poring over books about God, fervently arguing with those who believe in God, and meeting with other devout atheists to discuss God or listen to someone lecture passionately and at length about how there is no God. The firmly held belief that there is no God gives atheists a deep sense of purpose and meaning in their lives.”

    More to life than that.

  8. robert79 says

    Personally, I’ve never understood the appeal of organized atheism. Perhaps this is because I grew up in a (mostly) atheist family in a (mostly) atheist/agnostic (or something-ism, the belief there must be ‘something’ more out there, but all religions probably got it wrong) country.

    I suspect that most organized atheism in the US is ex-religious folks who are seeking to replace the social structure of the church they knew and belonged to with something godless, but are still bringing in all the prejudices of their religious upbringing. Specifically, they miss the “I belong to X-group” feeling, and in their zeal of replacing that, they also brought along the discrimination.

  9. Efrem Z says

    It was your commitment to decent left-liberal principals during the above mentioned “elavatorgate” (and other various anti-feminist swings in the atheist movement) which ensured my viewing patronage; after many years it continues to this day (despite my crippling phobia of spiders).

    As to why the Atheist community turned so toxic… I’ll never understand. However, I’m sure it has a lot to do with the self appointed leaders of atheist movement (Those four horseshit…ahem… horsemen). They were preaching atheism as being strictly entwined with worship of the enlightenment through things like western chauvinism, right-wing reactionarism, and (famously) war-hawk military adventurism in pursuit of right-libertarian oriented social engineering…

    I might be over reaching with my broad analyses of the right-wing takeover of the skeptic sphere, but at some point after the Iraq invasion it just all seemed like hostile, right-wing, anti-social justice, grievances.

  10. hemidactylus says

    @11- robert79

    An emphasis of local atheist or freethought organizations is taking government to task for promoting breaches in Jefferson’s wall (establishment clause). That gets at the identity politics of the movement, which has its place, even as prominent atheist spokespeople (ahem, no, spokesmen) ridicule identity politics.

  11. harryblack says

    I think organised atheism and skepticism are like nicotene patches.
    They provide a temporary transition away from harmful habits but should be transitioned away from in themselves to become a self reliant individual.
    Having experience of skepticism really helps to inform how you can critique harmful policy and make your own case stronger, but if you stop at just having endless quote arguments then you are failing to grow.
    Likewise if you transition from going to church once a week to the atheist convention circuit then….what are you doing?

  12. says

    FWIW, you’ve been saying for years that you’re going to quit / are quitting / have already quit the atheist movement, and obviously it’s been a gradual process for you since you had more ties than I ever did. All I had to do was quit the atheist student group, and I can pin the date it happened down to the month. IMO, life is better in the post-atheism world, so you have that to look forward to.

  13. says

    I don’t think that I ever believed that godlessness would be a cure-all, though I did expect (how could I not?) that it would remove one reason people are awful to each other. It wasn’t until my first TAM, and the only one that I attended officially instead of briefly crashing, that I realized how strong the “fuck you, I’ve got mine” contingent was. Michael Shermer saying that leftism is like Intelligent Design, Penn Jillette declaring that we should abolish public schools … I took a lot in stride that I shouldn’t have, mostly because of the good I found in the informal side conversations and the people I met when we ditched the main events. The question of what message the formal structure was willing to send by who it chose to elevate did not strike me with sufficient force.

  14. billseymour says

    Many thanks for FtB in general, and your own blog and Mano’s in particular.

    I was always kind of wishy-washy about whether I believed in the supernatural; but about fifteen or twenty years ago I discovered the late Robert Todd Carroll’s on-line The Skeptic’s Dictionary, and it became clear to me that I’m an atheist.

    Then around the time of ElevatorGate and “Dear Muslima”, I was following a blog by a grad student somewhere in Oklahoma IIRC (I don’t remember her name) who totally freaked out at even the mildest critism of Dawkins. That’s when I realized that atheism, by itself, does not necessarily imply rationality. (She was also something of a potty-mouth, which I normally don’t mind; but I object to strong words losing their power through overuse…maybe because I’m an old fart.)

  15. mnb0 says

    @2, @7 and others: better late than never, as we Dutch say. Hopefully you’ve learned the lesson never to follow uncritically any “leader”. Given all the feathers stuck in PZ’s behind on this page I stay pessimistic.

  16. leerudolph says

    captainjack@19: “I don’t believe in Atheism.”

    Well done! An absolutely minimalist rhetorical masterstroke.

  17. nomdeplume says

    I used to be surprised that there were scientists who were religious, scientists who voted for conservative parties, scientists who were climate change deniers, scientists who were arseholes. Surprised in the same way about atheists. But really I guess there is no reason why science and atheism shouldn’t encompass the whole range of human philosophy and psychology.

  18. says

    @#11, robert79:

    That might be true of the average supporter — I don’t claim to know — but it’s pretty clear if you look at the leadership that they don’t care about maintaining a social support network, they’re holding on to prejudice because they personally benefit from the institutional structures built around it. All of the “four horsemen”, for instance, were either British or ivory tower intellectuals; you can’t imagine them saying “I would love to abolish the prejudices and social strictures which came with religion, but then where will I go for potluck dinners? I cannot permit the supply of Mrs. Jenkins’ baked beans with crispy onions to be interrupted!” Dawkins and so forth don’t want to examine the status quo because it might lead to awkward questions about why all the major figures in atheism who do such a good job of keeping each other in publicity and therefore income are, like major Republicans, never more than one negation away (and usually none at all) from Straight White College-Educated Cis Heterosexual Male.

  19. DanDare says

    Here in Oz the atheist groups are draining out to either RWNJ groups or humanist groups.
    Theists have been trying to climb into the humanists groups but in most cases they either don’t stay or find out they are atheist.
    I’m working with a dozen others to form a national body by the end of the year. My personal desire is to see the movement focus on the thinking process.

  20. chrislawson says


    The skeptic groups can be as bad as the atheist groups. They will happily chortle along with you as you apply a skeptical lens to Bigfoot hunters and homeopathy, but they’ll run you off the card at the slightest application of scientific skepticism towards chromosomal gender determinism, neolib economics, bell curve aggrandisement, and so on. I’m sure there are great skeptic groups out there, so I’m not trying to tar them all with the same brush, but TAM and the JRF were much more about skepticism than atheism and it didn’t save them from falling down the rabbithole.

  21. Timothy Hamilton says

    Apatheism. Apatheist.

    Christians take it for granted that “everybody knows” that the question of God’s existence is the most important uestion imaginable. It’s a little disorienting for believers to reply to their question, “Do you believe in God?” with “why does that question matter?” Or they have to explain why one particular Jew living in 1st Century Palestine is special, even if his existence were proven.

    When you realize that a lot questions/issues important to Christians are also important to identifying as an atheist. Atheists start looking like their at best Protestant extremists. Many of the same questions are asked by both believers and atheists. Either atheists, new or old, are Protestant extremists of some kind, or they are piss-poor strategists fighting the way their “opponent’s” want them to fight, and letting them set the agenda. What sealed it for me was Dawkins acknowledging the importance of Christian moral teaching (my memory is a little fuzzy on the specifics). In short, atheists look a lot like heretics.

  22. says

    @20 oh yeah, lesson learned. I’ve gone full anarcho-syndicalist in the time since ElevatorGate. No gods, no masters and all that hullabaloo. To some extent, I maintained some distance from “leaders” in the atheist movement because a bunch of them kept insisting on really (almost comically) uninformed and bigoted positions on the War on Terror, but it wasn’t until the Thunderf00t meltdown that I really realized that I had nothing in common with the bulk of the atheist movement. It was my own mistake, but I figured I could look past how bad many atheists in the anglo-sphere were with regards to imperialism and the like because I didn’t really have any other social movements or groups I felt I could attach to.

    @28 oh yeah. That’s been a widely discussed topic in anarchist and communist groups I’m in. In retrospect, nu-atheism looks like a reflection of Protestantism

  23. leerudolph says

    Matthew Ostergren: “No gods, no masters”.

    I read somewhere, once, that 19th century Russian anarchists (or anarcho-syndicalists) had the Biblical name “Nebuchadnezzar” (presumably adapted to Russian, as I assume “Nebuchadnezzar” is adapted to English or whatever) as a signal, because it sounds like “ne Bog k’ne tsar” (again, or whatever), that is, “no God and no Czar”.

  24. mrpieceofwork says

    I just saw a video by Noel Plum rehashing a bunch of vitriol over this post. I had no idea you were so “hated”, Makes me wonder, though, why is he pulling this up? The way he talks about you would suggest he went well out of his way to find this. Also, it smacks of the butthurt reactions (read: deflecting, dismissive) spewed by all those who have been called out on their shit. Seems to be a hell of a lot of that going around these days.

  25. Tim Lister says

    Or maybe you’re just an unlikeable person with the mentality of a petulant teenager who has nothing worthwhile to add to the conversation.

  26. Andres Villarreal says

    I used to be a Pharyngula fan, but you, P.Z. Myers are too toxic, too divisive to follow except by a total sycophant. I feel the pain of any fan of yours who fought to get your name included in any kind of event, only to find that it is impossible to find a selecting committee where you are acceptable to all. It is not the right, the left, the up or the down. It is the will to have a nice discussion with amenable people.

  27. John Morales says

    Andres, the amenable one, and not at all toxic:

    […] you, P.Z. Myers are too toxic, too divisive to follow except by a total sycophant.

    sycophant: a person who acts obsequiously towards someone important in order to gain advantage

    So, PZ is an important person, and his followers gain an advantage thereby.

    (Heh — my advantage is that I get to sneer at bombast)

  28. KG says

    Ooh, a slimepitter invasion, once they think no-one’s paying attention to this thread.

    I used to be a Pharyngula fan, but you, P.Z. Myers are too toxic, too divisive to follow except by a total sycophant – Andreas Villareal@32

    Yeah, yeah, sure you did. I’ve disagreed with PZ on numerous issues over more than a decade – most recently about John Maynard Smith, whom he wrongly characterised as a gene-reductionist, perhaps most heatedly over Olivia Benson’s Islamophobia and transphobia (always difficult to admit to yourself that a personal friend has toxic views, but PZ came round in the end).

    only to find that it is impossible to find a selecting committee where you are acceptable to all – Andreas Villareal@32

    Being “acceptable to all” when “all” includes a bunch of privileged bigots is something to be ashamed of.

    Bog off, slimepitters.

  29. Silentbob says

    @ 31 mrpieceofwork

    Makes me wonder, though, why is he pulling this up? The way he talks about you would suggest he went well out of his way to find this.

    Noel Plum is some idiot who got banned here 7 years ago(!) and still hasn’t gotten over it. Holy fuck the egos of these idiots are fragile.

    Hey, Noel, it’s okay, I’m sure your mommy still loves you, you can stop obsessing over the biologist in Minnesota now.

    @ 35 KG

    perhaps most heatedly over Olivia Benson’s Islamophobia and transphobia (always difficult to admit to yourself that a personal friend has toxic views, but PZ came round in the end).

    Well he at least knows her name you utter pillock.