Stay In Your Lane

Remember this old debate?

Dictionary Atheists disbelieve in gods and dislike religion, but that’s it. The fact that the universe is an uncaring place, that we’re products of chance and necessity rather than benevolence, that we only have each other to help ourselves through this life…none of that matters. So when you say that reason demands equality, when rationality dictates community, when justice ought to be part of the godless agenda, they reflexively throw out that dictionary definition to deny any expectation that there ought to be more to atheism than cussing out gods. They’re intellectual cowards who run away from the full implications of living in a godless universe.

So I get despairing letters from people who once saw atheism as a shining promise, and now see it as a refuge for the same old haters, the same old deniers, the same old reactionaries trying to use their received wisdom as a [tool] to silence new voices and new ideas. And sometimes I feel a little despair, too.

That’s PZ Myers from 2013. This “dictionary atheism” was often invoked whenever one of us wanted to pipe up about social issues. It was a call to stay in our lane.

[CONTENT WARNING: Transphobia]

I was reminded of that history when Katy Montgomerie covered the transphobic book of the day. The central thesis of it goes something like this:

[Helen] Joyce pitches it as a tale of institutional capture by a “powerful new lobby” of billionaire-funded trans activists who are poorly representative of ordinary trans people, rather than a book about transness. If so, it would have benefited from fewer pages of highly contentious speculation about what makes people trans and more interviews with policymakers, activists, the ordinary trans people she considers misrepresented, and others capable of explaining exactly how a radical minority cause seemingly won over quite so many politicians, judges, employers and other traditionally conservative forces. Instead, we get an exasperated polemic accusing activists of so aggressively overreaching themselves as to provoke “a backlash that will harm ordinary trans people who simply want safety and social acceptance”.

This should be a familiar tactic to my readers. “New Atheism”  was coined by Gary Wolf back in 2006 as an attempt to divide-and-conquer the atheist movement, by arguing a minority of atheists were irrationally angry against religion, while all those “Old Atheists” held much more nuanced and favourable views. Feminism has seen several “New Feminism“s before Christina Hoff Sommers made it her schtick. Deploying this tactic against people fighting for transgender rights is the opposite of unexpected.

Who are these billionaire trans activists, though? Joyce names a few, one of which sticks out to me:

The third billionaire funder of transactivism is George Soros, via his Open Society Foundations (OSF), a network of independently managed philanthropic institutions. OSF has made multi-million-dollar donations to both the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, and in 2010 gave $100 million to the HRC, the largest donation the campaign group had ever received. OSF pays for the production of model laws and ‘best-practice’ documents on trans-related issues. To highlight just one example, in 2014 it supported ‘License to be Yourself’, a guide to campaigning for national gender self-ID laws. … This pattern of funding helps explain the gap between trans campaign groups’ rhetoric and the policies they pursue. The talk is about the world’s downtrodden: poor, homeless trans people forced into survival sex work, lacking health care and harassed by the police. But the money comes in large part from the world’s most powerful people: rich, white American males. The two groups’ needs and desires barely overlap at all.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: George Soros didn’t donate to the Human Rights Campaign, and “License to be Yourself” is actually a campaign against laws which force transgender people to be sterilized if they wish to be legally recognized. However, multiple factual inaccuracies are not what I was thinking.

I also know what some others are thinking: accusing someone of being funded by George Soros is an antisemitic dog whistle. For that matter, a surprisingly large number of billionaires that Joyce lists are Jewish. Even if we quibble over the details, the “secretly funded by a cabal of wealthy internationals” trope has firm roots in antisemitism.

Surely no outright forgery in modern history has ever proved itself more durable. In the early 20th century, the Protocols [of the Elders of Zion] were concocted by Tsarist police known as the Okhrana, drawing upon an obscure 1868 German novel, “Biarritz,” in which mysterious Jewish leaders meet in a Prague cemetery.

This fictional cabal aspires for power over entire nations through currency manipulation and seeks ideological domination by disseminating fake news. In the novel, the Devil listens sympathetically to the reports that representatives of the tribes of Israel present, describing the havoc and subversion that they have wrought, and the destruction that is yet to come.

While that thinking is understandable, it is entirely wrong.

I see a number of people are accusing me of antisemitism. This is profoundly untrue, hurtful and damaging. I will give people who have tweeted such accusations 48 hours to delete their tweets. If this isn’t done I will consider legal action.

No true anti-semite would threaten to sue people who accused them of being antisemitic. Since Helen Joyce is threatening to sue anyone who accuses her of being antisemitic, it follows that she cannot be antisemitic. Thankfully for you, the person who accused Helen Joyce of being antisemitic, you were almost certainly unaware of her lawsuit threats before now, and therefore didn’t have this decisive evidence at your disposal. If for some bizarre reason this truth-bomb isn’t enough to convince you, consider this: Helen Joyce does not think she is an anti-semite. Checkmate, atheists!

Anyway, most of the above just repeats Montgomerie’s discussion of the book. My main thought was somewhere else, on three of the promotional blurbs written for Joyce’s book.

‘A frighteningly necessary book: well-written, thoroughly-researched, passionate and very brave.’ — Richard Dawkins

‘A sane, humane book.’ — Daniel Dennett, author of Consciousness Explained

‘Well-researched, compelling…a deeply compassionate reminder that there are real trade-offs to be made in human rights activism.’ — Ayaan Hirsi Ali

When, exactly, did famous atheists become experts on transgender rights? What on Earth would have prompted Joyce or her publisher to reach out to prominent atheists for their opinion on a social issue?

This makes more sense within the world of right-wing publishing. Abigail Shrier’s book, for instance, got blurbs from two largely-discredited scientists but also Dennis “imperialism is good” Prager, Ben “sell your house” Shapiro, and Michael “Greta Thunberg is mentally ill” Knowles. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the main project on the far-right is the replacement of facts and evidence with opinion, and a side-effect of this is an emphasis on popularity rather than expertise. It doesn’t matter that Dawkins, Dennett, and Ali know nothing of sex and gender, in this worldview, what matters is that they influence the right demographic. Hence blurbs from them can be valuable.

Of course, all three of these people could have said no. All three could have realized their expertise was in atheism, or biology, or the debate over free will, or Islam. Given the option of staying in their lane, however, these thought leaders didn’t hesitate to opine on a social justice issue.

There’s another side effect of this focus. Guess who else contributed blurbs to Shrier’s book?

“Gender transition has become one of the most controversial issues of our time. So much so that most of us simply want to avoid the subject altogether. Such evasion can be just the thing that gives the majority an excuse to look away from the suffering of our fellow human beings. Abigail Shrier chooses to take the bull by the horns. She dives straight into this most sensitive of debates. The product is a work brimming with compassion for a vulnerable subset of our population: teenage girls. It is a work that makes you want to keep reading because it is accessible, lucid and compelling. You find yourself running out of reasons to look away. A must-read for all those who care about the lot of our girls and women.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and member of Dutch Parliament from 2003–2006

“Every parent needs to read this gripping travelogue through Gender Land, a perilous place where large numbers of teenage girls come to grief despite their loving parents’ efforts to rescue them.”

Helen Joyce, senior staff writer at The Economist

Ali in turn has helped out by hosting both Shrier and Joyce on her podcast. All this cross-promotion helps blast out the underlying message without any need to face a strong critique, creating an “echo chamber.” This isn’t due to some conspiracy or plot amongst the members, it naturally arises among people with shared values who want to avoid criticism. The result can be self-reinforcing, as when you step outside the chamber things tend to go poorly and thus you’re drawn ever-tighter into the depths of your safe space.

Ali, Dawkins, and now Dennett are part of the right-wing’s echo chamber, weighing in on social issues they demonstrate no understanding of. That whole argument over “dictionary atheism” really was a lie invoked to shield people’s opinions from critique. Long before Phil Torres noticed the right-ward lean of atheist pundits, PZ Myers saw an early version of the same playbook.

So don’t be afraid to place “be gay, do crime” next to “no gods, no masters” on your bookshelf. I can assure you the book shelves of dictionary atheists are no less cluttered.