I haven’t been on the atheist conference circuit in the past year or so, but news reached me about a secular group called Mythicist Milwaukee. I’d normally be a big supporter of their mission, since they were apparently formed to defend the mythical-Jesus theory of Christian origins and that’s something I also advocate.
However, I’ve heard disturbing reports about their annual Mythinformation conference. It seems that this year, it had less to do with advancing Jesus mythicism and more to do with giving a platform to some of the worst atheists out there.
Mythicist Milwaukee chose to invite several questionable speakers, but far and away the worst was Carl Benjamin, also known as “Sargon of Akkad”, a YouTube personality with a smorgasbord of truly awful views. He’s a Donald Trump supporter, pro-Gamergate, anti-racial-justice, and defends a wide variety of conspiracy theories. He claims to be pro-free-speech above all else, but he wrote a petition to suspend all “social justice courses” at universities.
Most of all, he’s known for rabid misogyny. He says that feminism is a mental illness. He blamed feminists for Elliot Rodger’s murderous rampage. He laughed on air over the murder of a fellow YouTuber at the hands of a romantic partner. Most repulsively of all, in 2016, he tweeted the following at a British MP, Jess Phillips, in response to her spearheading an anti-internet-harassment campaign:
I wouldn’t even rape you, @jessphillips. #AntiRapeThreats #FeminismIsCancer
Sargon never apologized for this disgusting remark, although he insists that it wasn’t technically a threat and that makes it OK. Stephanie Zvan explained on Facebook why this isn’t believable:
And that’s the point of such a statement. It introduces doubt about whether such a threat exists because if it didn’t, no one would think to say anything. Saying “I wouldn’t even rape you” or the classic organized crime “It would be a shame if anything were to happen to it” introduces the subject when it would otherwise be assumed that violence would be off the table. (source)
Indeed, it’s obvious that you can convey a threat through indirect words. Imagine if a mobster said to a shopkeeper, “I’m not saying I would do anything illegal, but a lot of suspicious fires happen in this neighborhood if you know what I mean, so why not pay me some money as insurance and I’ll make sure nothing happens to this place.” Any ordinary person would understand this to be a veiled threat of extortion even if a naively literal interpretation would find nothing wrong with it.
In response to Mythcon’s decision to invite this lowlife, several other invitees dropped out (some more grudgingly than others). But the conference organizers held firm in the face of criticism, even if their justifications bordered on incoherent. Basically, it boiled down to, “It’s not our concern what he’s said or done elsewhere, also he’s popular, and also free speech, so there.”
On the other hand, they did invite and then disinvited Amos Yee, a Singaporean atheist who’s been persecuted for his irreligious views, but who also says child porn should be legal. Clearly, even Mythicist Milwaukee concedes that some views are beyond the pale. By refusing to cancel Sargon’s invitation, they were sending a message that his misogynist opinions fall within the bounds of acceptability.
On stage at the conference, Sargon was interviewed by Thomas Smith, a skeptic who runs the Serious Inquiries Only podcast and who’s not at all sympathetic to Sargon’s retrograde views. In a lengthy episode, Smith says that he thought long and hard about dropping out, but ultimately concluded that because the conference was going to happen no matter what, he might as well show up to challenge Sargon rather than give him a platform where he could spew his bigotry unchallenged.
However, as Smith speculates, Sargon’s reputation likely preceded him, meaning that many of the ordinary conference-goers had no interest in their conversation. This left behind only the hardcore fans who came to see their idol. The low point of the interview had to be when he challenged Sargon to defend his “I wouldn’t even rape you” comment – at which point, his sycophants in the crowd broke out into whoops, cheers and applause (there is video of this). Clearly, Sargon’s fans are just excited by the idea of getting to say “rape” to a woman, whatever the excuse.
People like this represent the worst of atheism and the worst of humanity. As Smith said on his podcast, they have no interest in examining the evidence or proving their points by reason. Their only tactic is to say the most offensive and vile things possible, then claim that they “win” if it makes other people upset. This juvenile offense-for-the-sake-of-offense, you-can’t-tell-me-what-to-do mindset would be bad enough coming from a sullen teenager. It’s especially small and pathetic coming from Sargon, who’s 38 years old!
Their behavior isn’t only irrational and anti-intellectual, it’s destructive to the causes they claim to care about. It makes all atheists look like hateful bigots and drives away people who’d otherwise support us, and it makes us look like hypocrites when we criticize bad behavior by religious leaders. Any woman, person of color, or sexual assault survivor would be completely justified in saying that if the atheist movement puts people like Sargon on stage, then they want nothing to do with the atheist movement. This is no hypothetical: we’ve already lost many good activists who are fed up with atheist groups condoning hate and prejudice, and if we keep going this way, we’ll lose more.
David Silverman of American Atheists gets what it means to be a decent human being:
I heard people laugh and cheer at a victim of sexual assault being taunted via Twitter with a shameful shitty tweet.
My blood boiled. My adrenaline flowed. My bile bubbled. If you’re one of the people who cheer when victims get taunted, you’re an asshole. And I don’t want to have anything to do with you. I want nothing to do with you until you figure out how to have some empathy.
When you’re organizing an event, the most important thing you can do is make sure that people feel welcomed. Celebrating the diversity of our community also means recognizing that we have work to do to make our events reflect the larger community of atheists. It’s something I strive for every time I sit down with my team to work on our events.
We can’t tolerate intolerance. We can’t abide elevating those who spend their time trolling, and harassing, and alienating the very people who we’re in this fight to help. We have serious work to do and we need serious conversations about how to do that. I don’t have time to waste on people whose only interest seems to be provocation for provocation’s sake and not on making the lives of our fellow atheists better.
If we follow these principles, we still have a chance to make a difference and to forge a more compassionate, more rational society free from the suffering of religious superstition. If we keep going in the direction that groups like Mythicist Milwaukee want to take us, we’ll end up as a punchline – a circus of hateful clowns who jeer and gibber from the sidelines, while the rest of society scorns us and religious fundamentalism runs rampant.