No Place for Racism in the Atheist Community

No Place for Racism in the Atheist Community July 11, 2016


I wish I didn’t have to write posts like this, but they’re still sadly necessary.

Recently, my Patheos colleague Martin Hughes at Barrier Breaker had an interaction with an unpleasant fellow who calls himself “The Amazing Atheist”. TAA is the archetype of the smugly arrogant white-guy atheist who thinks that because he’s seen through this whole religion thing, he doesn’t ever need to learn anything else.

His perspective reflects all the toxic ignorance and casual cruelty you’d expect from a life steeped in unexamined privilege. He hates feminism, calls black culture a “victim cult”, violently threatened a rape survivor, and is an all-around awful human being in most every other way. (See RationalWiki for the whole rundown.) In spite of all this, he ranks as one of the most popular atheists on YouTube.

TAA came to Hughes’ attention when he posted a video that was like a compendium of every racist trope, arguing that racism would be solved if only people of color would stop complaining about it.

Hughes lamented, as well he might, the number of atheists who were watching this garbage. Granted, TAA probably also draws viewers from white supremacists, “men’s rights” activists, and other hate groups who aren’t necessarily atheists. But it speaks poorly of us that someone preaching this garbage in the name of atheism can find a receptive audience.

When TAA put out another video doubling down on his racism, Hughes hit back with a lengthy, stingingly sarcastic rebuttal on “how not to be a victim cult”. It’s a thing of beauty: laying out the abundant evidence that people of color still face discrimination, then dismantling the racist tropes invented to explain it away. (Seriously, if you don’t read anything else linked from this post, read this.)

To be clear, there’s no place in the secular community for hostile ignorance of the kind that TAA preaches. The point of the atheist movement is – should be – to make the world a better place by abolishing the harmful superstitions that promote prejudice and cruelty. Too many atheists have missed that message. They seem to think that our only goal should be to replace religious justifications for bigotry with secular justifications for bigotry and carry on exactly as before.

If atheists had no higher aspirations than that, our movement would be a useless failure, and the rest of humanity would be right to reject us. If we don’t try to treat people better than religious fundamentalists do, we forfeit the right to object to fundamentalism. If we don’t seek to listen and learn from women and people of color, we don’t deserve their support.

However, despite TAA’s popularity, I don’t believe he speaks for the majority of the atheist community. I’m confident that he’s only gotten as popular as he has because we’ve been less vigilant than we should about policing ourselves. It may be from a misguided desire not to split the community with infighting, or a belief that it’s better to ignore toxic trolls like him until they fade away, but either way it’s allowed bigotry to flourish in the darkness.

I’m happy to say that the tide appears to be turning. In the last few days, there’s been a slew of posts disavowing TAA’s bigotry and making it clear that he doesn’t speak for atheists as a whole. Here are just a few from my Patheos colleagues:

And last but not least, a heartening followup from Hughes: If you speak out against hate, the atheist community has your back.

I want to add my voice to this chorus and say that there’s no place for racism, misogyny, or any other kind of noxious bigotry in the atheist community. Regardless of whether you believe in gods, if you don’t believe in the basic dignity and equality of every human being, you aren’t my ally. That message hasn’t fully sunk in yet, but I’m willing to say it as many times as it takes.

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