If you’ve been following the latest feud in the atheist community between “The Amazing Atheist” and Patheos blogger Martin Hughes of BarrierBreaker, then you likely won’t be surprised to learn that I’m adding my voice to the growing number of people saying that racists do not speak for them. Today I want to talk about what’s happened, and why I’m weighing in.
A Short Synopsis.
An atheist going by the name TJ Kirk (I don’t care if that’s his real name or what; I’ll just be calling him “TJ” here) has for years been running a YouTube channel called “The Amazing Atheist” (TAA). It’s the very first “Popular Channel” listed on YouTube under the topic of atheism, where his individual videos appear prominently as well. As of today he has 916,000 subscribers, which is damned near equal to all the rest of the subscribers combined for all the rest of the atheist channels listed. (By contrast, the official channel of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science has about 200,000 subscribers). So TJ is one of the bigger fish in the small-but-growing pond of atheism, which means that not only does he represent and echo the views of many atheists, but that often his channel is a person’s first introduction to the very idea of atheism.
From that exalted platform, he rants about various subjects (most of which do not appear to deal with actual atheism) and tries very, very hard to be clever and entertaining.
Alas, his reach exceeds his grasp.
Detractors abound to point out his constant barrage of sexist, racist, poorly-informed opinions. RationalWiki devoted a whole page to criticizing him, and he has a few entries on Manboobz/We Hunted the Mammoth. He’s even managed to annoy MRAs over on Reddit with vicious attacks on women that are too much even for them (think about that one for a second!). His fetid contributions (as “The Distressed Watcher”) to the pop-culture commentary site That Guy With the Glasses are roundly criticized on TVTropes as part of the site’s “Dethroning Moments.”
And none of this negative attention has made much of a dent in his popularity. He feeds his fanbase something they need. It’s that simple. And that profoundly disturbing.
If you’ve ever encountered someone who thought that atheists were smarmy, arrogant, punchable twits in love with the smell of their own farts, well, you can walk right up to TJ and thank him for helping to plant that image in people’s heads. And if you feel unsafe and unwelcome in atheism as a whole, then “The Amazing Atheist” channel generally is likely a big part of how you came to feel that way. As Chris Hall has written, TJ is “all of organized atheism’s problems about race and misogyny writ large,” much like Donald Trump is the final form of Republican leaders’ fearmongering and race-baiting over the past 40 years. TJ wouldn’t be saying this horseshit if there wasn’t a large, polarized atheist audience paying him to say it through their mouse-clicks, book purchases, and shares.
When this decidedly toxic vlogger decided to turn his attention to the topic of the black experience in America, drama was bound to ensue.
He uploaded a video on June 23, 2016 that he called “20 Answers for Black People!” (The exclamation mark was his alone, as was his impression that his “answers” were especially needed by anybody.) I really hated giving this guy even a single click, but at least now I know that not a single one of his critics is exaggerating anything they’re saying about him. (You can experience TJ’s radiant glory on Matthew Facciani’s blog, where it’s embedded along with some great commentary that might provide you with some brain-bleach).
In the video, TJ turns out to be one of those awful faux-libertarians who thinks he doesn’t see race, rejects the very idea of systemic racism, and thinks gentrification is awesome because gosh, who wouldn’t love to have artisan coffee-shops instead of ghettos full of “thugs” in a neighborhood? He feels that black people are victim cultists who are especially prone to crime, making it perfectly reasonable for white people to fear them. As one of his final salvos, he declares that it’s also silly to have a school called “The Black Business School” because white people don’t feel the need to create and attend a “White Business School,” so obviously this school is not a “real school” and won’t help black people break out of the cycle of poverty (which they are, remember, inflicting on themselves anyway). The video as a whole is a shocking display of willful ignorance, privilege blindness, and misplaced self-regard.
This is the first video of TJ’s that I’ve ever watched the entire way through. It is also the very last. It’s hard to watch someone who is this gosh-darned proud of himself when I can see so little reason for him to feel that way. I feel the same way that Kaveh Mousavi did upon his first viewing of the fellow’s work:
. . .his mockery was not a mockery of ideas, but people, and it was so nasty and so much like a bully relishing in his perceived superiority that I barely could stomach the video to the end.
Martin Hughes responded to TJ’s video with a succinct criticism of it, ending with:
And you wonder why there aren’t more black atheists. It’s because atheism is becoming an excuse for white racism, proudly and ignorantly displayed by the likes of The Amazing Atheist.
And I could totally understand where this sentiment is coming from.
A Frustratingly Long-Lived Problem.
People have been talking for years about the sexism problem they perceive within movement atheism, which is a collective term for the various groups of people who band together to accomplish goals like “keeping Creationism out of public schools” or “running annual conventions devoted to the idea of freethinking.” Not all atheists are involved with movement atheism, and not everyone involved in movement atheism actually uses the label “atheist” for themselves personally. It’s probably best to think of movement atheism as somewhat distinct from atheism as a simple label for disbelief.
Most people already know that atheism’s sexism problem is bad enough. And normally, when people talk about TJ, they criticize his various deeply-disturbing and misogynistic remarks. But racism is just as much of a problem, so I’m not surprised to see that eventually, with national events being what they are, he had to piss all over black people too.Niki of Seriously?!? has documented a great timeline of TJ/Hughes events leading up to FUCK YEAH MURRKA DAY. She notes that white bloggers reacting with outrage to TJ’s recent racism “are saying the same shit atheists of color have been screaming for YEARS. But thanks for catching up anyway,” and further says, regarding “that first garbage fire of a video,” that atheists like him “are the ones that make me nervous about being in atheist spaces that don’t explicitly have some sort of social justice bent.” She also has a great post about the content of the videos and why it’s important to voice one’s opposition to the racists and sexists infecting movement atheism.
For a while now it’s bothered me that people who use the label “atheist” often get lumped in with people like TJ. But that’s the stone-cold reality of it. He represents at least one million atheists in the world. That number isn’t an accident or a fluke.
It’s a symptom.
When the video initially went up and Martin Hughes’ first response was posted, TJ didn’t take the pushback well. At all. He’s got a habit of “self-immolating” himself (to borrow PZ Myers’ descriptive term for it) with wildly disproportionate responses and completely excessive retaliatory behavior. Exactly as he did a few years ago, he reacted now with an over-the-top rage that might remind one very much of the sort one sees out of narcissists when their grandiose and over-inflated self-image is challenged.
Martin Hughes eventually wrote a bunch of great posts about the situation:
• The Amazing Atheist’s Racism.
• The Amazing Atheist Denies He’s Racist… By Being Racist.
• Stop Being a Victim Cult: A Guide For Black Culture, By The Amazing Atheist (And Friends).
• If you speak out against hate, the atheist community has your back – including a partial list of supportive posts.
• Philando Castile’s murder is the racist claim that “black culture is a victim cult” in action.
These posts don’t just offer a refutation of TJ’s uninformed and ignorant opinion, but an evisceration of it.
And he certainly was not alone in offering this pushback. A number of bloggers have written support pieces criticizing TJ. It amused me that one of TJ’s own responses to this pushback was a disingenuous rant called “A Patheos Blogger Says I’m Racist!” when the reality is that a whole bunch of Patheos bloggers, as well as bloggers on other sites entirely, say he’s racist.
I’m thankful that Martin Hughes didn’t find himself standing up to this enraged, petulant bully all by himself. That he did not is a sign that things might be changing.
Indeed, they must.
We Can Do So Much Better Than This.
There’s more to a life of non-belief than simply “not believing in any gods.” If the eradication of other people’s beliefs is all a movement has going for it, without some game plan about what’ll happen next or some way to keep people from falling into something even worse in its absence, like TJ has, then all its members are doing is trying to dominate and rule in the once-dominant group’s place once it’s gone. And that isn’t an idea that floats my boat.
Rejecting supernatural claims is an early step in our growth after leaving religion behind. It isn’t the only step. A lot more has to happen if we’re to free ourselves of the programming that went into the creation of the social system that made those claims so attractive to so many people in the first place. If we don’t free ourselves of that programming, then we run the risk of simply switching our myopic, limited view from religion to non-religion–and thus turning out to be no better than that which we then criticize.
Can’t we do any better than that?
If we’re not moving forward and trying to improve ourselves and the world around us, then what the hell use are we?
The Amazing Atheist does not represent me or my non-belief. I totally, utterly condemn his antics and rededicate myself to doing my best to being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. When the world looks at atheists, I do not want them to think about TJ. I want them to think about the many great and inspiring people who are trying to be part of the solution as well.
An important part of the solution, it seems to me, is listening to people. And since that is going to be what our next post is about, today seemed like a good time to talk about what listening does not look like.
• It’s Past Time for Atheism to Grow Up, over at Godless in Dixie.
• This is what white people can do to support #BlackLivesMatter.
• I wonder how many more shootings have to happen to people who were just “black in the wrong place” before TJ starts wondering if he’s wrong?
Bonus Steve Shives video of an interview with Martin Hughes:
I’m going to be watching comments closely on this post, since I’ve already noticed that this guy’s fans have been merrily brigading around Patheos. To them, I will state that this blog enforces its Rules of Engagement and will not tolerate people who JAQ off by asking dumb-assed questions about whether or not their hero is racist. I’ve set up a ton of links that ought to answer that question, because Martin Hughes certainly is not the only person who has demonstrated that yes, TJ is totally 100-and-whoa-honey-percent racist. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see y’all on Saturday!