Ostensibly this was to be the thrilling conclusion of my road journal series ‘Into the Wild Expanse’, but a confluence of circumstances between my recent jaunt to the American Atheists Convention and several recent posts on various other sites have kind of forced my hand to make this post a muddle of different topics.
So, You’re a Minority Group with an Alt-Right Problem …
This week Chris Stedman at Vice published a piece saying that the Atheist “community” (because apparently we’re still putting that word in quotes to maintain plausible deniability) has a substantial subgroup that both identify as Atheists and are adherents to far right political ideology. Which, if we’re being honest, should not be a surprise to anyone.
Fellow Patheos blog Friendly Atheist then helpfully pointed out that “No, Most Atheists Are NOT Veering Dangerously Toward the Alt-Right”, and correctly pointed out that just saying ‘too many’ is not a firm number and any attempt to argue that Atheism has any inherent political leaning is absurd. At around the same time, Vice also published a piece by Sarah Lyons detailing issues of racism within the Pagan community, which I suspect many in the Atheist community may be peripherally aware of but not to the extent that Satanists are because we have considerably stronger ties to that community through symbols and metaphor.
It’s also certainly true that Satanism has, and continues to have, plenty of skirmishes among its adherents over political ideology and I’m certain the same can be said by Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or any other religion. So the only interesting outlier here is that Atheism is the non-religion in the same way 7Up is ‘the un-cola’. There’s nothing new in all this political wrangling for a cohesive set of afirmative beliefs within a group.
Atheists Shouldn’t Just Brush This Under the Rug
It’s true that Stedman’s article lists a vague ‘too many Atheists’ and Atheists, being a data-driven lot, go nuts about that because they like hard numbers. The problem is whenever this sort of thing comes up everyone is quick to point out that it’s only a small number of voices in the media without actually considering the reach of those voices in the wider population.
For example, it does appear like the vast majority of content creators and organizations who focus on Atheism are not any sort of alt-right. But consider this: at the time of writing this Hemant Mehta has about 300 Patreon patrons, Aron Ra has around 670 … TJ Kirk (formerly the Amazing Atheist) has closer to 800. It’s even harder for fractional groups like TST. Lucien Greaves has fewer than 200 Patreon patrons (and don’t even ask about my podcast’s Patreon … or do, I could use the money).
Meanwhile, last weekend at the American Atheists Convention I overheard a conference organizer cheering an attendance of 850 people, none of whom that I met expressed anything resembling hard-line politics at all. However, at the same time the Sargon of Akkad fiasco at Mythcon IV last year drew around 500 people, which is not an insignificant number seeing as Mythcon has only been running for a few years and American Atheists has been at this for over a half-century.
So to the extent we’re talking about real numbers without doing any hard polling, my personal overview is that the Atheist “Community” (sigh … more on that later) is about as equally split as the rest of the country. Yes, it’s true that Atheism by itself has no ethos, but I do believe that at the least Atheists need to recognize that it’s high time to split non-belief into two distinct camps of egalitarian and supremacist.
This isn’t incidental, for a long time (over the last decade or so) the Atheist movement including Humanism and other non-theist religions, secular activist groups, and anti-theists have marketed Atheism as being superior to theism because it’s more rational and skeptical of claims. The house of cards that has been built rests firmly in telling people ‘yes, you are a maligned minority, but take comfort in the fact that you’re a critical thinker who doesn’t fall prey to the pitfalls of emotionality and let that soothe your ego’.
Now sure, a lot of Atheists will be quick to point out ‘I never said I was better than anyone else’ … but the fact remains that many prominent Atheist content creators have, and continue, to use their Atheism as a point of pride which signifies that they believe themselves to be superior thinkers to (or at least more reasonable than) many others. In my recent trip to AACon no one I met was like that, but to deny that there are people like that using their Atheism to bolster such positions is just ignoring the obvious. It doesn’t stop others from capitalizing on the ego-stroking serotonin spike that comes from being told ‘yes, you get it! You really are BETTER!’
Satanism went through this ages ago. LaVey’s concept of the “alien elite” borrowed heavily from Nietzsche, Rand, and Ragnar Redbeard to evoke that same sense of superiority. Thing is, as a (to quote CoS’s current Magus Peter Gilmore) “Law and Order” religion, if the law is tilted in your favor then you can never be certain whether your successes are based on your own merits or just because you had an unfair advantage. It’s one thing to believe you’re the hero of your own story. Everyone does that. It’s entirely another to try and tilt the landscape to your own benefit and suppress decent. If you really believe you’re a better person than the next you should relish the opportunity to compete on a level playing field so you can prove it. You can even “punch-up” and play the underdog. But by merely taking advantage of systemic inequality you’re being a coward reaping cheap thrills from hollow victories.
Now About this Putting “Community” in Quotes Thing
I get it, people have a visceral complaint when people start ascribing moral positions to a label they identify with, especially if they don’t agree with those positions. Satanism can get away with it and has split off into groups based on nuance of thought on various issues (despite CoS’s objections). And yes, if we’re being completely honest it’s a pain in the ass because divisions within a movement make it more difficult to unify those groups when big numbers matter. People get mad at each other for splitting off into factions and you end up with something like this scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”:
But … at AACon last week there were entire presentations on how to foster community by forming small groups that cater to the motivations and needs of those people, so let’s not pretend it’s not an objective. That’s an objective for a very good reason because people have a need for it. I found this hilarious during Nick Fish’s talk because the structural recommendations for community outreach were all things TST has been doing for years.
It’s kind of it’s own form on intersectionality. The loudest Atheist voices, in the movement’s current iteration, are disproportionately white cis-het male, in that order. The four horsemen (Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris) were able to jumpstart a ‘New Atheist’ movement by illustrating that the social privileges they get/got from being white cis-het men shielded them enough to speak openly on the issue of their non-belief in ways that women, PoC, and LGBTQ+ Atheists could not for fear of retribution from friends, family, employers and others.
That environment has lead to the predominant Atheist voices also being white cis-het men. What we see when members of disadvantaged groups try to assert social equality issues is the cry of ‘dictionary atheism’ to downplay their concerns by saying Atheism itself makes no moral claims beyond ‘lack of belief in god’. Case in point, Sam Harris has been vociferously anti-Islam, and has suffered some loss of social capital, but not to any extent that I think he’s particularly worried about it. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, on the other hand, has been all but excised from the community for raising many of the same issues with significant first-hand experience … how does that make sense?
The other problem is that alt-right Atheists likes to point to studies that support their claims but fail to account for the sampling errors that result from the inherent biases of the culture in which that data was collected. That is to say, it’s easier for a white cis-het male to be taken seriously by other white cis-het males already in the science industries, to get a job in the sciences, to get their research published, the observational bias of those people choosing to focus on issues important to them to the exclusion of others etc. etc. etc.
What alt-right Atheists are doing is exploiting Atheism’s marginalized status to circle the proverbial wagons and defend their own privilege rather than try to help level the playing field.
Now look, I get it. You don’t want to bite the hand that feeds. If someone comes into your organization offering to help, you want their support. You want all the support you can get because we all operate on shoestring budgets and every person you shun equates to a bunch of people whose money you’re saying you don’t want. But every group needs to draw a line somewhere; and that’s fine. They can go do their own thing. At the AACon I spent a lot of time hanging out with someone from the Oklahoma Feminist Atheists and she was was pretty angry about how she was treated by the Oklahoma Atheists group she split off from because of a values disagreement. That’s going to happen and you just need to accept it. At the same time though, you need to have at least some shared values for a group to have any kind of cohesion. If you run a group that expresses pro-choice values you don’t want that one fedora-sporting jerk coming in with atheistic pro-life arguments wasting time at your meeting just because he agrees with you on state sponsored 10 commandments monuments. Conversely, if you run a group that truly believes that religion is inherently bad even if it’s non-theistic, then you don’t want me in your group just because we agree that churches shouldn’t be tax exempt. I get it, I really do. Litmus and purity testing sucks and we shouldn’t have to do it, but there has to be a point where you, as an organization say ‘we don’t agree with this’ and Atheism is widespread enough now that organizers need to start considering it. Just being a non-theist isn’t enough anymore for constructive organization. You need to have affirmative values and find your niche.