The Online Atheist Community: Still Terrible

The Online Atheist Community: Still Terrible June 26, 2017


I haven’t written much about the regressive elements within the atheist community in a while, but that doesn’t mean they’ve gone away. On the contrary, they’re still around and they’re just as loud and repulsive as ever.

We got an unfortunate reminder of that when the Atheist Foundation of Australia announced that Clementine Ford, a feminist writer and speaker, had accepted an invitation to their 2018 Global Atheist Convention. The Facebook page where they made the announcement was promptly deluged with hateful messages.

To the AFA’s credit, their volunteer moderators have done a bang-up job. They’ve even pointed out that the backlash solidifies, rather than undermines, their decision to invite Ford. Even so, the sheer number of comments that had to be deleted for extreme rudeness, slurs, misogyny or outright threats of violence is a depressing commentary on how unenlightened the atheist community is. That’s especially true because many of those commenters were venting their bile on women in general, not just the speaker:


…as one of the 4 admins here watching this over the last 36 odd hours, here’s an observation.

Just on 10% of all comments (that have been also deleted) have included threats of physical violence by men against not just Clementine Ford but other women here. These have included suggestions of being raped and having throats slit, a women told to ‘sit on a knife’, called whores and sluts, retards and so on.

Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. But hey, as one person made note. The women here deserved the threats because they were feminists.

You can make all the usual defenses – that these obsessive trolls are a minority of the disgruntled, that some of them may not be atheists at all, that the impersonal medium of Facebook comments makes people feel uninhibited and unleashes them to behave in a way they’d never dare in person – and some of these arguments may even be true. But the longer this goes on, the more I’m coming to believe that it doesn’t matter. If a woman’s first encounter with the atheist community was a hive of online nastiness like this, I couldn’t fault her for feeling repulsed, regardless of how representative it is of all nonbelievers.

It’s not just women who get the message that the atheist community is a hostile place. People of color from a Muslim background feel it just as keenly, according to Hussein Kesvani in Vice. He writes about why he became an atheist and why he later walked away from the community that should have supported his decision:

I became an atheist for a few years during my late teens and early twenties. A combination of metal-induced angst, anime chat forums and a charity shop copy of Hitchens’ God Is Not Great led me away from the Islam I grew up with and toward the supposed enlightenment of atheism…

Yet, for a growing number of people who turn to the internet to talk about leaving religion, the online atheist / sceptic community has become more alienating than accepting. Atheism – like most online communities – has always had characters who enjoy being confrontational; Pat Condell – the former comedian, turned old man shouting at clouds – existed long before Reddit. However, recently, rather than remaining an outlier, content like Condell’s – which disregards theological critique for snarky racial and orientalist tropes about Muslims – has become a staple of the online atheist community.

As he points out, some of the biggest and most popular names in atheist YouTube traffic in grossly offensive stereotypes about Islam. They may insist that it’s only the religion they object to, but many wavering Muslims who are considering atheism hear a message of bigotry and racism loud and clear. Every member of a marginalized minority knows that “I’ve got nothing against you, you’re one of the good ones!” is a hollow protest. “Good one” status can be taken away just as easily as it’s granted.

A member of an ex-Muslim support group quoted in the article says:

“On the one hand, the atheist community almost fetishises people who’ve left Islam, but it’s not because they care about us; it’s because it reinforces their assumptions about what Muslims are.

“The majority of ex-Muslims leave Islam because they have issues to do with theology. There is a fear of being cast out by your community, but the process of leaving Islam is basically the same as anyone leaving a religion. Yet, the online atheist community – whose spokespeople are apparently white straight guys – make these videos talking about Muslim barbarians raping white women, or imposing sharia law on schools and cinemas. They don’t realise that they’re implicitly talking about our families, friends, the people we still care about.”

This is just what I wrote about in 2010 about making non-white atheists feel welcome. When you make a sweeping attack premised on the supposedly uncivilized nature of Muslims themselves, rather than a critique narrowly targeted at the specific beliefs we object to, you send people of Muslim backgrounds a message that they’ll always be regarded with suspicion and disfavor by atheists. That’s a powerful argument against them taking the risk of leaving Islam. Why leave the only community you’ve ever known, if you have no guarantee that another one is waiting to welcome you?

If our goal is to create a world of reason, this isn’t the way to do it. We in the atheist community are only harming ourselves and impeding our own goals when we let the noxious weeds of bigotry proliferate among us. We need all the allies and supporters we can get. Whether it’s women, ex-Muslims, or any other minority, we can’t afford to alienate people who’d be sympathetic to our cause. Doing anything else is guaranteeing that we’ll remain a permanent minority in a world dominated by religion.

I wouldn’t write critiques like this if I didn’t believe we have the potential to be better. As John Horgan reminds us, it’s too easy to fall into habits of tribalism – to believe that all the bad guys are out there, and we just need to bash them until everyone sees the light. Skeptics and atheists aren’t immune to this tendency.

But if we can’t get past this mindset, our cause is doomed. We, of all people, ought to have the tools to overcome the artificial boundaries of bigotry. If we refuse to use them – if we’re just replicating the tribal behavior we decry when religious believers engage in it – then the atheist movement is worthless.

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