Earlier this week I was quoted in a VICE article by Humanist and interfaith activist Chris Stedman which argued that “Too Many Atheists Are Veering Dangerously Toward the Alt-Right.” The article, which suggests that there is a disturbing link between the alt-right and movement atheism, provoked a lot of predictable push-back, including a rather defensive piece on this very network by David McAfee and Hemant Mehta.
The tendency, whenever anyone criticizes problems within a movement, is to dismiss those problems as the behavior of “bad actors” (as McAfee and Mehta do in their post), not representative of the movement at large. To some degree, this is fair: the vast majority of atheists, including movement atheists, are not sympathetic to the alt-right. Atheists as a group are not to blame for what the most problematic atheists say or do. Right-thinking people roundly reject the idea that other religious groups bear collective responsibility for their worst representatives, and the same principle should be extended to atheists, too: just being an atheist does not make one remotely responsible for Richard Spencer, in the same way that just being a Muslim does not make one remotely responsible for Osama bin Laden.
Stedman’s criticism, however, was not of atheists as individuals, or even atheists as a group, but rather of the movement which has sprung up around atheism in America. The atheist movement is distinct from “atheists in general”: it is represented by organizations, it holds conferences, it promotes books. It is very much, in its own way, like a religious movement, in that it is an organized set of activities which has developed its own culture, assumptions, and modes of behavior which exist to promote a religious position. And this movement can and should be criticized to whatever extent it has fostered attitudes in its participants which lead people toward the alt-right.
It has long been an article of contention in the atheist movement that cultures and systems of belief matter when it comes to motivating behavior. We have consistently argued in our conferences, on our blogs, and in our books that systems of religious belief, and the cultures which grow up around them, cannot be exculpated entirely when their adherents act abhorrently, but that there are some ways of thinking which are inherently likely to result in inhumane behavior because of the very structure of the belief system itself. If this is a reasonable way to think (and I think it is), then it is only consistent that we should apply the same line of thinking to our own movement and ask “Are there structural elements of the movement atheist belief system and culture which might promote alt-rightish behavior?”
I believe there are features of the broad culture of the atheist movement, and elements of the way it encourages people to think and act, which can (and sometimes do) metastasize into something negative, and lead some people toward the alt-right and similar dangerous ideologies. This post is an examination of those features. I want to state before I begin my (lengthy) analysis, however, that I am a member of the atheist movement. I have been to and spoken at pretty much all the major national conferences, numerous regional conferences, and countless local community groups. I have friends in the movement (and many who were once in the movement, but have left precisely because of the sorts of issues I am about to describe). I am an outspoken atheist myself, and I represent a nontheistic community full-time: I am in some sense a professional atheist. The atheist movement has given me many warm memories and I broadly value my participation in it. What follows in in no sense an “attack” on the community of which I am a part. Rather it is an analysis of some problems with that community which I think we have a responsibility to address. Criticism, at its best, is meant to improve its object, and that is the spirit in which I offer the following thoughts.
An Identity Built On Opposition
Since my earliest involvement in the movement, it has been clear that movement atheism is concerned more with offering a response to religion than it is with crafting a positive atheist identity. It is, in large part, an oppositional movement concerned with the limitations and predations of religion, drawing its energy from the many outrages perpetrated by religious organizations and individuals. The truth of this is evident if you read popular atheist blogs, watch popular atheist YouTube channels, attend atheist conferences, or visit the r/atheism subreddit (which is filled almost exclusively with stories about people doing terrible things in the name of religion, and with responses to religious arguments).
It is an unfortunate thing, though not at all uncommon, to go to an atheist convention and hear presentation after presentation not about how wonderful and life-affirming is atheism, but about how stupid and life-deforming is religion. The biggest cheers are reserved, often, not for those who explore what a life without religion might look like, but for those who are the most critical of religious views. I have found that even within my own presentations, the parts received with most visceral excitement were sections about problems with religious beliefs and practices, while positive approaches to life given atheism were less enthusiastically welcomed. Indeed, frequently people have approached me after a conference presentation to say how refreshing it was to hear a speech which was not about the dangers of religion but instead about the positives of a nonreligious life.
This in itself is not too bad: there are plenty of movements out there built to oppose something rather than to promote something. Also, there is much about religion to be opposed. All across the world, every day, countless horrors are performed and condoned in the name of some religion or another, and these deserve our principled opposition. I agree, too, with those atheist activist who stress that it is particularly important to critique religious abuses because, in US culture at least, religion places a sort of shield around wrongdoing. I have found in my LGBTQIA+ activism that secular homo- and transphobia is considered despicable, while religious homo- and transphobia often receives a form of deference simply because it stems from religious concerns. This is wrong, and we should call out when this happens.
But a movement which defines itself too much by what it opposes, without due consideration to its own positive values, risks moral confusion and may even lose its moral integrity. After all, opposition to something is always based on some positive value – we think x is bad because we value something x traduces – and it pays to clarify what our positive values are. Otherwise, a movement’s priorities can drift. If you don’t know why certain things are to be opposed – if there is lack of clarity regarding the values which drive your opposition to something – it is easy to begin to oppose the wrong things. Without clarity regarding a movement’s positive values, and with too much of a focus on what the movement is against, people can start opposing things simply due to their adjacence to something else rightly to be opposed, and not because there is an independent, values-based reason to oppose it.
I have experienced this myself when arguing in favor of the construction of atheist and humanist communities. Far too many atheists in the movement are opposed to the development of community spaces for atheists not because they can identify anything inherently wrong with them, but because they sort of “smell like” religion to them. Activities like group singing are viewed with great suspicion not for any rational or principled reason, but because “that is what religious people do, and we are the anti-religion people.” Once movement atheism comes to be defined by some as simply “anti-religious,” then essential ethical nuance and reason is lost, and unethical and unreasonable positions like these ensue.
Identities built on opposition and negation are fragile in this way. They are based on a sort of othering, a sense that “we are who we are because we are not who they are.” This is ripe for abuse by skillful rhetoricians, who can turn this flimsy form of identity against marginalized groups with ease. You see just this in the atheist movement and its Islamophobia. Time and again the trope is deployed: “We are the rational, civilized, nonreligious ones, while they are the barbarous religious monsters coming to destroy our way of life.” Sam Harris trades of that dichotomy frequently. It is echoed in Richard Dawkins’ infamous “Dear Muslima.” It is central to the message of popular atheist YouTube personalities. Bill Maher is a major proponent. A movement based on specific positive values would be more resistant to this clash of civilizations narrative than the atheist movement has proven to be, because it would be able to parse out which aspects of which religious traditions are objectionable, and which are not. The atheist movement, which has taken on a broadly anti-religious character as part of its core identity, frequently fails to make critical ethical distinctions, and ends up promoting demeaning and damaging beliefs because of that.
A Sense of Superiority
The oppositional identity of movement atheism is often accompanied with a sense of superiority over the religious. In my experience of attending countless conventions, it is not strange to hear attendees and speakers declare that religious people are not only mistaken in their beliefs, but deluded, stupid, or mentally ill. A fair amount of the atheist movement enjoys mean-spirited one-upmanship in which the worst excesses of religious individuals and groups are used to reinforce a sense of superiority among atheists present. This process frequently take the following form:
- Identify a particularly heinous act performed by a religious individual or group.
- Suggest or state explicitly that the act indicts all those of that religion, or religion in general.
- Indulge in a sense of superiority that atheists would never be so foolish/wicked as to believe/do such a thing.
Of course, as an atheist myself I believe atheism to be epistemically superior to the alternatives. I believe there is a correct answer to the question “Is there a god?”, and I believe that answer is “no.” Moreover, almost all groups which come together to affirm a shared identity sometimes focus on ways in which they are better than other groups. Sports fans and Star Wars fans and fans of Peter Gabriel all do it (the last group truly is better than everybody else).
But I do not believe, and I think it dangerous for the atheist movement to promote the belief, that because atheists are correct regarding the question of the existence of god that they are therefore better people than believers. I do not even believe it correct to promote the belief that atheists as a whole are likely to be more rational than believers. Yet these are both widespread tropes in the movement. Certainly, if you were to ask people straight out whether they think atheists are better than believers most would reject the proposition. But the suggestion that this is so runs right through the atheist movement, in my experience.
One example: Lawrence Krauss, a major atheist movement figure and accused sexual harasser, wrote an article in The New Yorker arguing that an atheist supreme Court Justice “would have different intellectual habits [than a believer would]. I suspect that he or she would be more likely to focus on reason and empirical evidence.” I’m not sure this is the case, and I think this sort of rhetoric unreasonably elevates the commitment of atheists, as a whole, to reason. I have seen quite enough unreasonable behavior and pseudoscience peddled by atheists to know that the religious have no monopoly in this area, and I don’t think that just because someone is an atheist they are likely to be more reasonable. They are definitely not necessarily a better person.
When atheists combine a sense of personal or group superiority with an anti-religious oppositional identity, you get precisely the sort of clash of civilization narratives which both prominent atheist talking heads and alt-right pundits indulge in. The overlap is not perfect, and there are significant differences between the two tendencies, but the similarities are definitely there, and they are disturbing. These narratives buttress war and oppression, as they did explicitly in Christopher Hitchens’ writing (who was a staunch supporter of the Iraq War, his position driven, George Packer in The New Yorker suggests, by a combination of his anti-religious attitude and his desire to break a liberal taboos and support George Bush), and as they do implicitly every time atheist movement figures suggest that “western culture” is inherently superior to “Muslim culture” because the latter is Muslim.
Breaking the Biggest Taboos
A significant component of the atheist movement’s oppositional identity involves the breaking of religious taboos. Anti-rituals like “debaptisms” and events like “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” serve to demonstrate the atheist movement’s willingness to transgress standard boundaries of decorum in order to promote our irreligious perspective. The atheist movement prides itself on shocking religious sensibilities, as ad campaigns like American Atheists’ “Slaves, obey your masters” billboard demonstrate.
There is nothing wrong in itself with critiquing religious beliefs, aping religious rituals in an amusing way, or even mocking beliefs which are harmful or even simply silly. Mockery isn’t particularly nice, but it is not necessarily unethical. Furthermore, this taboo breaking often serves a valuable function for those who participate: just as religious rituals and sacred practices can serve to bind people into a religious community, anti-rituals and taboo breaking can help people exit those communities. This is especially important for people who have been harmed by their former religious community. A debaptism with a hairdryer, however silly it might seem, can for some people be a valuable symbol of their movement away from an abusive religious past. There is value too, in a highly religious society like the USA, in demonstrating that the cultural assumptions of the religious majority are not unassailable by the nonreligious minority. Often, the taboos atheists are breaking are parts of Christian hegemony, and atheists are “punching up.”
That said, a fair portion of the taboo breaking and mockery in the atheist movement is just mean-spirited, and doesn’t serve any positive value. Furthermore, in some atheist quarters taboo-breaking has been elevated to an end in itself, and there is a competitive aspect to it: those capable of most effectively enraging the faithful are lauded. As a community with an extremely active online presence, many movement atheists have become masters of meme, using those memes explicitly to offend religious sensibilities.
In other words, the atheist movement – and particularly the online community – has more than its fair share of trolls.
Trolling is at the heart of the alt-right aesthetic which ,for a long time, allowed it to promote truly disgusting beliefs with a fig leaf of deniability, while engaging in terrifying online harassment campaigns against their chosen targets. Intriguingly enough, we see a creepy forerunner of those precise tactics in the campaigns to silence Rebecca Watson and other women critics of the atheist movement’s misogyny. Elevatorgate preceded Gamergate, and Gamergate is recognized as a precursor to the alt-right.
Furthermore (and this is linked to my next point), there is a sense in which people “graduate” from one taboo to another when their taboo breaking doesn’t gain sufficient outrage. There is a certain cultural power, or at least notoriety, in being the person willing to break the biggest taboos. And what taboos are greater in polite society (in the eyes of the alt-right, at least) than the pillars of contemporary liberalism, belief in equality and diversity? Much has been written about the alt-right’s performative trolling, breaking cultural taboos in order to enrage liberal audiences and to limit people’s ability to tell the difference between a “joke” and a simply unacceptable attack on a group. There is a continuity of tactics here, between the competitive taboo-breaking of the atheist movement and the performative trolling of the alt-right, which should disturb us.
Atheists like the truth. A central part of the identity of the atheist movement is it’s self-perception as a scrappy gang of fearless truth-tellers. In the atheist movement, we like to see ourselves, individually and collectively, as the boy who called out the Emperor’s nakedness, the ones who will say what others only dare think (and sometimes not even that).
But again there is a dark side to this (and here the Dave Rubin’s, Sam Harris’s, and Peter Boghossian’s of the world make their sorry entrance). At some point – and I’m not entirely sure when – some in the atheist movement got the idea not just that it is good to champion the truth of an idea even when others resist it, but that the truth of an idea can itself be judged by the resistance it faces from certain quarters, if those quarters can be considered “dogmatic,” “brainwashed,” or “religious” in some way.
Thus, you see the sad spectacle of “champions of science” defending racist theories about intelligence and the efficacy of torture, not because the science supports those views (it most certainly does not), but because they are opposed by people the “champions” have decided are dogmatically-minded (in these cases, “social justice warriors” and what they call the “regressive left.”) I suppose the reasoning here is similar to “an enemy of my enemy is my friend”: “Any idea opposed by those who resist truth must be true.” So, the thinking here goes, “social justice warriors” like trigger warnings; “social justice warriors” are brainwashed by the politically correct activist culture of our age; so trigger warnings must be bad.
There are huge problems here. First, the epistemic principle at play is manifestly false. Even if a group of people is indeed ensorcelled by a non-truth-conducive ideology, they are still capable of believing true things. Good ideas can come from bad minds and bad ways of thinking, and not all ideas perpetuated by an epistemically-challenged group are false. Second, and here is the truly tragic thing, the “truths” that these thinkers judge to be unspeakable are in fact the oldest prejudices imaginable. As Ezra Klein has recently written, the “truths” these movement leaders are “fearlessly telling” are simply repackaged prejudices, the oppressive beliefs which under-gird our entire culture. It is no more brave to support the work of a scientific racist because the scientific community rejects their ideas than to cheer when your bigoted grandpa uses a racial slur at Thanksgiving because the rest of the table gasps.
And yet a significant segment of the atheist movement is now cheering racist grandpas. The instinct of many when faced with criticism of Harris’ embrace of racist “science” – and you can find them on every atheist internet forum, in the comment threads of every article on this issue, in the responses to Stedman’s article and the responses to his critics – is not to join the uproar contra Harris and strike against racism, but to raise their fist and cheer “Go grandpa, go!”
Earlier, I linked to a clip of Bill Maher ranting about Islam uploaded to YouTube by a fan, and it is instructive how the fan describes the video:
Bill is telling the truth that somehow many others are afraid to say about Islam.
The “truth that somehow many others are afraid to say about Islam,” in the mind of this commentator, is that Islamic culture is more violent than western culture, Muslims are more religion-addled than we westerns are, Muslims are less civilized than we are, and we are in a fight for our cultural identity against them. This is not a brave truth but an ancient prejudice. Too many atheists get this wrong – and in this they are in bad company with the alt-right, who make precisely the same move. One of the alt-rights most prevalent myths is that they are the only ones willing to speak out about problems “elites” are willing to overlook. There is little daylight in this regard between prominent atheist figures who “bravely” yell about the dangers of invading Muslims and alt-right figures who do so.
The Overwhelming White-Maleness of Being (a Movement Atheist)
Movement atheism is overwhelmingly white. Until remarkably recently, the vast majority of presenters at conferences have been white, and the vast majority of participants in those conferences remain white. The “Four Horsemen” of atheism are all white. The second tier of atheist authors are overwhelmingly white. The boards and staff of atheist and Humanist organizations are filled with white people. It is also overwhelmingly male.
There is nothing inherently wrong with white men – I am one myself. But when a movement has had a long history of being peopled overwhelmingly by white men, it almost inevitably becomes narrowly focused on issues which affect and concern white men. The problem with movement atheism in this regard is that it is infected with a white-maleness of perspective, which prioritizes white men’s concerns over those of women and people of color (let alone genderqueer, fluid, trans, and non-binary people). This shapes the topics which are addressed in conferences, in our journals, and in our online spaces; it affects how those topics are addressed; it determines, to some degree, who gets to become a spokesperson for the movement; and it determines which issues we view as central to movement atheism’s mission, and which we view as peripheral or optional.
The endemic whiteness and maleness of movement atheism has been painfully obvious for years now, in the sluggish institutional responses of much of the movement to matters of sexual harassment and in its often tepid response to engagement with the Movement for Black Lives. When I spoke at the American Atheists conference in 2015 about the importance of atheist engagement in the Movement for Black Lives it was precisely because I had received so much pushback from people in the movement about linking the two together. While things like church-state separation and science education are seen as properly central to atheist activism, things like uplifting the dignity of black and brown people and of women are too often seen as “extra,” or even deviations from the True Atheist Path. Could this be because of the overwhelming white-maleness of the atheist movement and its leadership? I think it could be. I think it absolutely obviously is. People will shape movements around their own concerns, and often experience a demand for representation and respect by underrepresented groups as an imposition on them which turns them away from what is “really important.”
The alt-right shares a white-maleness of perspective. Certainly, it takes this white-maleness significantly further than the vast majority of people in the atheist movement do, and far further than any atheist movement organization does. But in some ways what the alt-right is doing is not all that different. The alt-right are doing explicitly and purposefully what the atheist movement has, for decades, done implicitly: putting the concerns of white men at the center, and marginalizing the concerns of everybody else. The best thing the atheist movement can do – which I think to some extent it is doing – is to openly confront its white-maleness (and its cis-straightness) and fight against it. Pretending we don’t have a problem here will make the problem worse.
The Atheist Persecution Complex
Atheists are oppressed in America. I have written at length defending this proposition. Atheists face political marginalization, social ostracism, and widespread mistrust. We are victims of a structure of oppression which limits our life options, that is for sure. Frequently, the oppression of atheists is underappreciated, ignored, or denied, including by the social justice community who (as I will argue in a forthcoming post) tend to overlook religious privilege when examining the oppressive structures of society. It is right that the atheist movement speaks out against the oppression of atheists.
At the same time, there is a difference between between accurately recognizing our status as an oppressed group and asserting our dignity in response, and wildly overstating the extent to which that oppression affects our lives to the point where we make ourselves out to be the most marginalized group in America. The latter risks underplaying other oppressions, and undermines efforts to address them, while fostering a sense of resentment and entitlement which can become toxic. The fact is that many of the members of the atheist movement are doing perfectly OK despite our atheism. I include myself in this, even given the fact that I am a gay atheist, and therefore a member of two oppressed groups. I still try to recognize that, in the big scheme of things, I am remarkably privileged. The atheist movement as a whole does not always encourage an appropriate recognition of the privileges enjoyed by many of its participants (often white, highly-educated, economically comfortable men), while reinforcing the idea they are uniquely oppressed.
There is something distasteful – and something rather alt-rightish – about having conversations with rich white guys who are professionally and politically influential about how oppressed they feel, while around them people of color are taking to the streets asserting their right to survive an encounter with the police. There is something profoundly icky about sitting in a conference hall while atheist leaders crow triumphantly about how atheists are disliked “even more than homosexuals!”, while gay kids still attempt suicide at depressingly high rates.
I am not saying that atheists do not have legitimate grievances about how their atheism affects their life. We do. Privileges in one area do not cancel out oppressions in another. But the lack of perspective – the feeling of unique and particular marginalization – is, I think, dangerous and distorted. It is also a perspective which animates the alt-right, which is driven (in part) by the sense that an entitled group is losing some of its privileges, and is calling that “oppression.”
Peculiarly Atheist Problems
A common response when the atheist movement faces any sort of criticism is to assert that atheism, per se, does not have anything to do with these problems, but that the problems are instead inherent to humanity, and that obviates the atheist movement of any responsibility for them. Atheist movement blogger Jerry Coyne, in his response to Stedman, articulates this view:
“I’m not sure what Stedman means by atheists “adequately addressing some of its darker currents”, but those are currents not of atheism but of humanity.”
This is true to an extent: there is nothing about being an atheist which inherently, on its own leads to any of the problematic behaviors described above. Certainly, these behaviors and attitudes are found within every religious and nonreligious group across the world. So in this limited sense Coyne’s position is fair.
But this response strikes me as disingenuous and rather coy, because the point of we critics is not that there is something inherent to atheism itself which leads to bad behavior, but that there are problems within the atheist movement which do so. The atheist movement has distinct characteristics – it hosts events, writes books, builds communities, is represented by organizations – and these characteristics inform a culture. That culture can, and should, be evaluated according to ethical principles, to see whether it is a good one or not.
Looked at in this light, the criticism makes sense. It would be wrong to say that because humans all over the world are racist, are sexist etc, and because there is no inherent link between being and atheist and being racist, sexist, etc, then the atheist movement cannot be racist, sexist, etc. Of course it can be. The atheist movement in the USA exists within 21st century US culture, and that culture is infected with all these oppressive cultural notions, and those notions have most certainly infected movement atheism.
Indeed, I think there have developed peculiarly atheist movement versions of particular oppressive narratives. There is a form of atheist movement racism characterized by a sort of “clueless colorblindness.” This is the latent racism of the white lament “Why can’t we just all be humans?”, which brushes racial oppression and violence under a rug made of “We Are All Africans” t-shirts. There is atheist sexism, which indulges in junk science to explain away disparities in income and power enjoyed by women vs. men, and employs the hyper-skepticism of the dudebro to silence those who bravely come forward with their experiences of harassment. As an example of atheist homophobia, we need look no further than the response from the Slymepit to Stedman’s recent article, where one user links to critiques of Stedman’s article, saying:
“Coyne and TFA take on Chris “Faitheist” Stedman‘s latest nancy girl whine about atheism’s non-existent violent lurch to the alt-right”
In the eyes of some in the atheist movement, strongly-stated anti-religious attitudes are considered “masculine,” “powerful,” and by implication “straight.” More cooperative and diplomatic approaches are coded as “feminine,” “weak,” and “homosexual.” I myself have been criticized in these terms numerous times. (Of course this is also an example of atheist sexism.) There is a peculiar atheist transphobia, which weaponizes “rationality” to try to explain that trans people are really “deluded,” and which appeals to junk science to “prove” they don’t exist. There is atheist ableism, particularly in equivocation of religious belief with mental illness, and the concomitant stigmatization of the mentally ill that entails.
For every strand of -phobia and -ism, there are versions which have taken root in the atheist movement, and which are informed by common attitudes, arguments, and cultural assumptions central to the movement. These are our particular responsibility to address.
The Way Forward
The existence of alt-right atheists does not indict all atheists. The existence of areas of overlap between characteristics of the alt-right and characteristics of the atheist movement does not itself mean that the atheist movement is filled with alt-right sympathizers (something Stedman didn’t say in his piece, and which I am not saying here). Rather, it indicates areas of concern which leaders and organizations in the movement should take seriously, in the hope of making improvements. None of the above problems are unique to movement atheism. Many of them are worse in other movements.
But we atheists are not responsible for other movements: we are responsible for our own, and our own needs some work. I believe the atheist movement – our set of institutions, publications, events etc. – have developed a set of cultural norms, common assumptions, and frequent behaviors, including some which bear a disturbing similarity to central features of the alt-right movement. I think we should take those areas of overlap seriously, and work to address them.
The atheist movement has made some strides toward addressing these issues in the past few years, which are heartening, and many recognize these challenges and want to overcome them. I’m excited, for instance, by this weekend’s Secular Social Justice conference (watch online!). The best approach to critiques offered by those like Stedman is not to bury our heads in the sand in defensive diatribes, but to think hard and do better. I believe we can.
Edit note: it was brought to my attention that the response to Stedman on Patheos I mention at the start was written both by David McAfee and Hemant Mehta.
Support my work on Patreon. Please. This sort of stuff takes ages to write! 😉