Don’t Just Cut off the Head of the Monster

It’s really late as I’m writing this… so I really hope it makes sense. It does in my head. But I’m falling asleep. So there’s your disclaimer.

Recently, Ben Jealous, the President of the NAACP, accepted the National Equality Award from the Human Rights Campaign for his leadership in getting his group to openly support LGBT rights:

As I watched the clip (ignoring all his Pledge of Allegiance references) I kept thinking about how there must have been members of the NAACP who opposed the decision. Perhaps one of the arguments was that it was not part of the NAACP’s mission to support gay rights — their core constituency was much more narrow in scope. Why go beyond that?

Then, I’d like to think the conversation changed.

While promoting the “advancement of colored people” was certainly the immediate goal of the organization, the broader goal of obtaining equal rights and protection for all people included LGBT individuals as well and that’s really what they have been fighting for. So the NAACP board voted 62-2 in favor of same-sex marriage.

I don’t know if that history is correct. It’s more of a thought than anything else. But here’s the point I want to make: We’ve seen a lot of discussion in the atheist world about what we ought to be focusing on. There are people who think our only goal (as a community) should be convincing people that God doesn’t exist.

I would argue that’s the immediate goal… but the larger goal is to get people to think critically and rationally.

That means atheists should be speaking out on issues that go beyond mere theology, like education issues (where critical thinking is often thrown out in favor of regurgitation and fill-in-the-bubble tests), LGBT and women’s issues (since both groups are harmed by religious beliefs not based in fact), universal health care (since God isn’t going to take care of anybody), politics (do you need a reason for this one?), etc. Sure, we’ll have disagreements on the substance of each, but I don’t have a problem with the general idea.

It’s fine if you think your answer to the God Question is the be-all and end-all of your atheism. I just think that’s too short-sighted. We know there are atheists who still believe in prayer and pseudoscience and other nonsense. To me, not believing in God means nothing if you still buy into other forms of bullshit.

This is why I don’t get bothered by the idea of Humanism or Atheism Plus or atheists who want to work on social justice issues. While they’re going outside the narrow scope of religion that we tend to care about, they’re still fighting the same broader war, and they’re still on our side. Religion and faulty thinking permeate so many other areas of our lives that it would be crazy to pretend our community shouldn’t care about those areas as much as we do the most basic question of whether God exists.

I’m all for cutting off the head of the monster, but we can’t forget to destroy the rest of the body while we’re at it.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • dantresomi

    I agree 100% with you on this. Our goal should be to help folks think more critically, ask more questions, and get rid of outdated ideas. I do feel that our community should be involved in more social justice issues as well. 

  • julie

    I don’t mind if people think that’s all atheism is and should be, but it surprises me how much they oppose the idea of other people wanting to use their atheism in a positive way. They step up every time the issue is brought up and say “You can’t do that! Not about atheism!” 
    What I really don’t get is why they come here, where a lot of the posts focus on these issues, and then they complain about it. Okay, so go find an atheist blog that doesn’t talk about social justice. You don’t agree that we should focus on this stuff? Fine, but those of us who have been hurt by religion would like to reach out to those that are still hurting. I don’t think that stops you in the slightest from keeping church and state separate or keeping creationism out of schools.

  • Reginald Selkirk


    Don’t Just Cut off the Head of the Monster

    You had me scared there; I thought this would be about circumcision.

  • Puzzled

    If that’s the case, then there needs to be a real discussion among atheists about these topics.  I too often do not see any discussion in atheist circles – political new liberalism is simply taken as a given, with those who disagree shouted down rather than engaged.

  • ACN

    In this vein, I’m stealing aquote from somewhere that I don’t remember, and if anyone can help me attribute it, PLEASE chime in, but paraphrased (and in quotes so it’s abundantly clear that I didn’t make this up myself!):

    ” ‘The God Question’ is the level-1 end-boss of rationalism/skepticism. Congratulations on answering it. Now get back to work.”

  • Ibis3

     They don’t seem to stand up and complain every time. Hemant posts about Light the Night? No problem. About the fight for marriage equality? No problem. About separation of church and state? No problem. About secular charities and FBB? No problem. About STEM education? No problem. About American politics? No problem. About increasing ethnic diversity in atheist/secular groups? No problem. But breathe a whisper about the rights of women, sexism, sexual harassment, misogyny, or feminism and the “purists” come out from under their rocks to harangue, whinge, and bully.

  • LucyGoosey

    I read this blog regularly because of the focus on social issues.  I’m not really interested in convincing people that there is no god or gods. I don’t care what other people believe in as long as they don’t force those beliefs on others or hurt others because of those beliefs.

  • Philbert

    The conversation changed because President Obama came out in favor of gay marriage.

  • keddaw

    Nothing in atheism, or even scepticism and rationality, says that one should or should not vote for the child-killing*, right-stripping, torture approving, anti-drug, pro-censorship, citizen spying, Constitution shredding President or his wannabe all those things opponent.

    And I for one don’t want to see people turned off the fight for a secular country by partisan politics that don’t stem from atheism.  However, calling out their lies, atrocities and BS certainly should be part of it.*If he’s taking personal credit for Osama, then he also gets the collateral damage of drone strikes.

  • jose

    Only the right kind of feminism is tolerated, ie, the one applied to other societies. We? Nope nothing wrong with us. The enlightened West has obviously already liberated their women, who as a group enjoy full equality of opportunity and no significant discrimination or violence. So stop whining, will you.

    I don’t find that compelling.

  • C Peterson

    It’s an interesting analogy… but I think it supports the view of those of us uncomfortable with the idea of an “atheist movement”, and especially of organizations that give the appearance of associating atheism with political movements.

    The NAACP is not an organization of blacks. It does not claim to tell black people what they should believe in or support. It is a civil rights organization, and as such, it is perfectly reasonable that they should be in the LGBT fight. The NAACP’s position in that respect does not lead to any confusion that blacks in general should support LGBT rights.

    We could have an organization, the National Atheist Anti-discrimination League, formed to fight discrimination against atheists. That would be a civil rights organization, and it might very reasonably broaden its mandate to other civil rights issues, including LGBT, women’s rights, etc. That would be unconfusing, because the the name, charter, and other aspects of the organization don’t carry any sense that this is an atheist organization. Like the FFRF, there’s no reason its membership would be limited to atheists. There’s no sense that as an atheist, a person should have any responsibility to believe in any particular political viewpoint as espoused by this organization. The existence of such an organization should be completely unthreatening to all atheists. It should in no way misrepresent atheism as a concept to the broader, theistic society.

    Atheism isn’t about any beliefs, it has no politics associated with it. Atheists need to be seen as people who are broadly distributed across society, and who can’t be pigeonholed into any social, political, or economic category. Atheists need to see themselves that way, as well. Atheism provides no basis to speak out about anything. Atheists who are concerned about civil rights issues should be speaking out on those issues… not because they are atheists (that would make no sense), but because they are concerned about those issues!

  • C Peterson

    Personally, I distinguish between discussion of any of these topics, and any suggestion that atheists should have any particular view on any of them.

    The former is perfectly reasonable in a community of people with a common connection (atheism) and a diverse range of viewpoints. The latter is dangerous and harmful to atheists in general.

  • jose

     Atheism is already social and political, far from being the mostly philosophical stance you lean to. The secular student alliance and american atheists and other atheist organizations won’t stop filing lawsuit after lawsuit about separation of church and state (a 100% political statement) and doing demonstrations and protests and community services, everything for the advancement of atheist people.

    I think you’re right at the beginning when you say your problem is with the very idea of having an atheist movement at all, independently of what the movement may do.

  • Achron Timeless

    The way you frame it? I agree. The way the atheism+ crowd frames it? Kill it with fire. 

    That’s the difference, and the entire issue, in how we should move forward.

  • C Peterson

    Atheism is already social and political, far from being the mostly philosophical stance you lean to.

    That’s where we disagree. It is impossible for atheism to be political. Groups like those you list are… but I don’t see them as atheist organizations. I don’t see them as representing atheists or the ideas of atheists. And connecting something like the separation of state and church with atheism is harmful, and works against secularism and also against atheists.

  • Ibis3

    You’re right. I stand corrected. Atheists can talk about sexism against Muslim women in the Mid East and Africa. No problem. They can even sometimes talk about how women are treated closer to home in Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull, Mormonism, or Orthodox Judaism. As long as that doesn’t bleed into a discussion of feminism or women’s equality in the larger society. Safe topic: Purity Balls are creepy and absurd. Not-safe topic: Unwanted sexual advances by strangers at atheist community events are creepy and inappropriate.

  • jose

    Glad we got that cleared up.

  • Arthur Bryne

    Lernaean Hydra, anyone?

  • Ewan

    I think the point of convincing people that there are no gods is that, to continue the analogy, cutting the head off the monster kills the rest of it. Without both the specific teachings of some of the major religions, and the general habit of slavish thoughtlessness that they encourage, there’d be less of the hurting people.

  • Arthur Bryne

    Lernaean Hydra, anyone?

  • Don QuixotedeKaw

    Oh how the hypocrisy burns.
    How can people so right be so wrong. I’ll again waste my time in attempting to
    explain the idiocy of anti-theism. What you are fighting for, if you are
    fighting at all, is your privilege to merit that others respect your honorable,
    responsible personal autonomy. Anti-theism doesn’t do that, because it dehumanizes
    those who have been intentionally trained to be in error, and to resist any
    correction to that error. It does not respect the merit of others who believe
    that they are personally behaving honorably and responsibly. THEY DO NOT KNOW
    that they are not autonomous, that their values have been fiddled with, their
    control knobs tweaked. And no amount of gasbagging from us is going to change
    that. They have to question THEMSELVES, not BE questioned. The only way that
    will happen is if mythocrats (their vampiric brainwashers) are charged, prosecuted,
    and imprisoned for racketeering, and misprision of treason via conspiratorial
    seditious propagandizing and political and economic sabotage. We have them, red
    handed. And you anti-theists want to keep on shaming the victims, portraying
    your fellow prey as though they were predators, while doing NOTHING to end the
    reign of the predators themselves. To reiterate, you all are the smartest
    dumbfucks in the room. Atheism is a side effect, of demanding that the merit of
    your responsible personal autonomy, be communally honored. If you dismiss the
    responsible personal autonomy of those who are in error, because they have been
    programmed to be in error, then you are no better, and no less sociopathic,
    than the mythocrats themselves, as dismissing the responsible personal autonomy
    of others, IS THE PROFESSION of flimflamming, con-artist mythocrats. We only
    have one big job to do, and that is to bring humanity up to speed, and into
    this century. We can’t do that by dragging the mentally chained and manacled
    with us. We have to stop those who make and install those restrictions on
    people’s cognitive abilities. And the only way to do that is to remove from
    them, the power that they have illegally stolen from us all. Stop whining about
    people believing in gods; that’s bullshit. Nail the fuckers to the wall who
    create those peoples (and ours) problems. People will stop believing in
    bullshit by themselves, when there’s no one left allowed to force people from
    childhood on, to drink the cognitive koolaid.


    Do it right; re-emphasize the
    criminality of governance through myth.


    Re-emphasize the treason of
    racketeering with the intention of destroying our republic.

  • Atheistblog

    One should be clear. The reason why atheist should lobby for
    marriage-equality or for properly teaching evolution and keeping
    creationism out of the class room is not that these issues are terribly
    important. ‘They are not. The reason is that succeeding in these goal
    makes it harder for religious extremists to prevail in society and thus
    lowers their political influence. (As an added bonus this particularly
    applies to Islam.)

    But my issue is this. When the fight against creationism in the class
    room was on its peak  people like Jerry Coyne, but more relevantly
    Hemant and PZ Myers, have argued that it is not enough to lobby for this
    singular issue. That you have to attack the root of the problem religion
    itself. With regards to social issue these people seem to advocate a 180
    degree change of tactics and I have yet to see the justification for it.

    The problem is this. It is difficult in your role as an atheist to one
    day work to together with moderate religious groups for marriage-equality
    and the very next day tell the same people that their religion is bunk.
    People will either not work together with you anymore or they won’t take
    you seriously or both.

  • allein

    The best way to get people to start questioning themselves
    and their beliefs is to question them. It’s a lot easier than rounding up all
    the religious leaders and throwing them in prison (which is what it seems you
    are advocating here…good luck with that).

  • C Peterson

    Anti-theism need not dehumanize anybody. It need not be approached as an attack on individuals at all, but rather, as an attack on ideas… something that everybody engages in. To suggest that being anti-theist is somehow different than being anti-anything else makes little sense.

  • Arthur Bryne

    My web browser really, really hates me.

  • Arthur Bryne

    Harmful? In what sense, and with what ordering of help to harm? The suggestion neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg….

  • Arthur Bryne

    You might care to look into the work of Altemeyer, and other researchers on the RWA and SDO metrics. There’s data to suggest atheists may tend to be relatively low-RWA, high-SDO; which in turn would leave the behavior relatively unsurprising.

    While Atheism precludes being a jackass “because God commands it!!!”, it doesn’t preclude being a jackass.

  • Arthur Bryne

    “Should” versus “Shouldn’t” are concepts across the is-ought divide. I’d agree about atheism philosophically, but they’re within the scope of the critical method — though there’s an implicit need to address what bridge across the divide is being used.

    Anthropologically, modern western atheism appears associated with a value placed on what I’d term empirical correspondence truth.  Thus, the opposition to BS and lies, which are disproportionately correlated with (though not exclusive to) the religious and political right. However, additional ought-values seem to increasingly be associated to the social cluster. The A+ label is vague about what exact ought-values are added, but at least indicates an addition.

  • Ullrich Fischer

    Right on, Hemant.  A+ in my book!  :)

  • C Peterson

    As I’ve said before, any connection between atheism and any political viewpoint misrepresents atheism, turns some theists who might otherwise accept atheism away from it, and polarizes atheists, potentially pushing them away from other atheists or preventing them from coming out.

    You may or may not personally feel harmed, but I think that atheism as a whole is.

  • Ibis3

    But I don’t see you saying so in every thread about any of those other things. When was the last time you complained that Hemant should not be advocating for secularism or giving to charity because doing so “harms atheism”?

  • Ibis3

    Thanks. I’ve had this bookmarked for a while and have heard summaries, but I really ought to read it myself.

  • Deven Kale

    That was a terrible cut and paste job there. Who are you plagiarizing?

    The biggest problem with your entire post is that you’re implying there’s only one good way to get rid of religion, and the rest suck. The implication that this is the only way that will work and the rest will fail miserably is false. In reality, different things affect different people in different ways. I can easily see the idea of prosecuting those at the top failing to convince a very large number of their followers. In fact, it will strengthen their resolve.

    Some people will be convinced by questioning, others by being questioned. Some find the lies of religion on their own, and others need to be guided. Some, as you say, will need to see those church leaders (many of whom are also just as victimized as their followers) prosecuted for their crimes against humanity. But to say that only one method is the proper method, and that all others are inferior, is not only wrong but destined to fail.

  • Rick Jackson

    How does the “atheism+ crowd” frame it objectionably?  

  • Rick Jackson

    See, this is where you’re wrong.  Atheists aren’t the only ones fighting for marriage equality.  Yes, a large portion of the atheist community is for marriage equality, but there are a substantial portion of the country that is either nominally religious that also supports marriage equality.  In this case, there is room for us to be both true to our roots (saying religion is bunk) and to support the cause of marriage equality.  There isn’t just one front.  There are multiple fronts and multiple arguments. 

    And to say marriage equality and creationism are not important issues is patently false.  Marriage equality is important to those of the LGBTQ persuasion and by association is important to me as a straight ally.  Creationism is important as it affects the education of the future workforce, potentially impacting the progress of science.  You may have the high-minded idea that the destruction of religion is the single most important goal ever, but again, this is not a single front.  All atheists do not necessarily have to focus every shred of their attention on the destruction of religion.

  • 3lemenope

    The reason why atheist should lobby for marriage-equality or for properly teaching evolution and keeping creationism out of the class room is not that these issues are terribly important. They are not. 

    Just because they aren’t important to you doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Tell someone that they don’t have death-bed hospital access because the state won’t approve of their relationship officially, and find out just how important it can be to a person to have the right to marry. Having kids learn creationism instead of facts may seem picayune in the big picture, but even saving biology teachers the time they would need to spend deprogramming trash out of their students’ heads so they might have time to muster a solid biology curriculum, or in a professor’s case, do some actual biology might be worth it. Not to mention that when kids learn to use their Bibles as science textbooks, they are not likely to drop the habit as adults, and this crack in the rationalist dam will make them more vulnerable to BS in the future. It teaches them to degrade how they view claims of authority from scientists in favor of people who wear religious vestments, to accept irrational things as sensible and reject facts they find discomforting. 

    And they will vote, you see. In droves.

  • 3lemenope

    Uh, he’s been singing this particular song on the topic at least since I’ve been here, so it’s not new and not exactly a secret where he stands.

    I personally find the perspective pretty odd. I mean, yes, there probably is this philosophically-pure concept of atheism that one can point at, the “merely not believing in a(ny) god” that not many people besides philosophers take note of or spend much time thinking about. As a philosophical position, it is astonishing in its lack of obvious entailments; it says very, very little about a subject to whom it is applied. 

    In the really real world, though, it seems that actual atheists of one stripe or another use it not as a pristine philosophical monad, but rather as a descriptive adjective, an organizing principle, something held in common amongst groups to build camaraderie and organize efforts. There is nothing that the term itself *demands*, but the term obviously does have the power to unite like-minded people together for community and action, and some successfully use it for that purpose.

    Is there a danger that people will become confused between the philosophical definition and the social one that is continually evolving before our eyes? Not really, because there was never any hope that they were thinking about it in the former terms at all anyway, and those few that were were never in any danger of confusing them in the first place.

  • Mdwelch27

    Actually, I think we should promote rational and critical thinking above all else.  That is the highway to creating more atheists.  Can anyone think rationally about any religion without rejecting it ?  In the meantime, can we really not agree on rationality as our greatest potential and best way forward.  Hell, even if we disagree widely on where our reason takes us individually, we should be able to agree upon and promote reason as our best bet for a better future.

  • julie

    I disagree. I think there are conservative atheists and there are liberal atheists, and that’s completely okay. Obviously Hemant is a liberal atheist, so naturally he’ll talk about liberal politics and social justice. That doesn’t mean he’s forcing you to, that’s just what he thinks is right.
    It only polarizes atheists in the same way it polarizes everyone else. People are very opinionated about politics and we’re not immune to that.

  • C Peterson

    I complain any time that atheism is conflated with a political position.

    There are many discussions in this forum about secularism, anti-theism, and other subjects often of interest to atheists that do not do that. If Hemant, or anybody else, advocates for secularism here, that’s great. If they do so by taking the position that it’s an atheist concern, I’m likely to speak up.

  • C Peterson

    I’m not sure what you find odd. There’s nothing “philosophical” about the idea that atheism means not believing in gods. And it is most certainly incorrect, both in theory and practice, to assume that atheism carries any beliefs with it.

  • C Peterson

    Thank you. You make my point perfectly. Atheists have a wide range of opinions. And I’ve never remotely argued that they shouldn’t state those opinions, or fight for whatever causes are important to them.

  • Achron Timeless

    Vengeance discrimination. You usually can’t get 3 sentences out of them without hearing the word “privilege” misused as a cudgel. I’m waiting for the day when they realize having an internet connection is a sign of “privilege” and get off my web.

  • welltheydo

    Oh, just turn this into a lefty blog already.  Enough trying to co-opt atheism for purposes of “social justice.”

    (And yes, I am a hardcore right-wing conservative materalist atheist.  A few of us do exist.)

  • Deven Kale

    I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this basically is a lefty blog right now. Does the name have to have “lefty” or “liberal” in it in order for that to be official or something? Hemant’s so much as admitted it himself a few times in a number of posts.

  • amycas

     I will say this about C Peterson: while I disagree with him about his wider point, he is consistent. He’s not one of the people who only complains when Hemant (or anybody) talks about feminism. He brings this up pretty often.

  • amycas

     That’s funny, because in those discussion, I can’t seem to use the word “privilege” without the person I’m talking to misunderstanding what the concept means.

  • Coyotenose

    I’m almost certain that he isn’t of those people who only comment to complain about The One True Definition when womens’ rights come up.

  • Coyotenose

     Seriously, I don’t know where the idea originated that this is a politically- and socially-neutral blog.

  • Rick Jackson

    Vengeance discrimination? Like blogging and commenting about some of the vile nonsense coming from atheists? What should they do? Not talk address it?

  • C Peterson

    I’ve never taken anybody to task for discussing any social issue, or for choosing to be an activist for any social issue.

    Agree or disagree, my single complaint is a simple one: I don’t see how atheism can be viewed as a social issue, and I think we are harmed by attempts to paint it as such.

  • towercam

     I disagree with the last line.
    Atheists who are concerned about civil rights issues can indeed rightfully speak out on the matter using Atheism as the basis of their talk.
    It’s religion that’s at the base of these crippling intolerances and socially accepted cruelties. Let the beast be named: Fear-Ignorance.

  • Achron Timeless

    Wow, I’ve never given anyone a point and had them literally run in the opposite direction and claim they found it. Bravo.

    The real question here is do you want me to hold your hand, write several pages of text for you, and hope you make it though it… or do you just want the dots that you can easily connect yourself?

    I’m more of a dots person myself.

    The atheism+ crowd prides themselves on bullying people into silence if they dare question their goals or methods. In fact, there was a little experiment ran by Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience to try to prove that this kind of thing was a myth and that they were actually decent folk. Instead he proved just how fanatical they can be. At the moment I think they’re still misrepresenting the events of said experiment as some sort of vile act. Mere minutes of digging into that experiment will lead you to an endless rabbit hole of examples. Just to get you started, Matt created an account and questioned why someone was banned. That person was banned for questioning… etc. etc. You can do your own homework on that.

    Aside from that, pretty much par for the course is “we feel discriminated against by this group, let’s discriminate back but harder!” and then sit around and collectively pat themselves on the back for being so much better than everyone else. If I wanted that experience, there’s a baptist church just down the road.

  • C Peterson

    Yes, they should absolutely speak out about the negative role of religion in many civil rights issues. But atheism has nothing to say about that. An atheist may well believe that religion has a positive impact on society (and many atheists do make just that point). The argument here is one of anti-theism or secularism, not atheism.

    It is completely irrational to support civil rights because of atheism.

  • Antinomian

    Give us the link to your blog if you want to talk about Social Darwinism.

  • Richard Treitel

    It took me some time to work out what made me so uncomfortable about this post.  It was the unstated (and, I hope, unimplied) connection between “critical and rational thinking” and issues like universal medical coverage (which, by the way, some Christian nations do provide).  I agree 100.0% that critical and rational thinking are important to atheism, perhaps more important than atheism, but anyway, all atheists ought to promote them.  However, to come to conclusions by thinking rationally, you have to start from facts.  Most religions require you to accept some set of facts without proof, and they affect the conclusions you can come to, but atheists whose lives have contained different experiences are reach going to start from different facts and can be expected to reach different conclusions.  Christians must (in theory) believe in a duty to help the poor; atheists are free to disagree about that, and about very many other things.

  • Scott Graves

    Almost nobody cares about atheist metaphysics.  People want to know how atheism will improve their lives or how it will impact the society they live in.  Suppose you have this politics-free atheism.  Who cares and what good does it do anybody.

    I don’t concern myself with atheism so I can gaze out of bus windows with a  look of intellectual satisfaction on my face.  The philosophy must have social implications if it’s to be interesting at all.

  • C Peterson

    That’s good… because there is no such thing as atheist metaphysics. It barely qualifies as a philosophical view at all.