I don’t believe in god. And though I meditate and seek sublime experiences, I don’t think of myself as “spiritual.”
I am, in short, an atheist.
But for the past few years I’ve been hesitant to call myself one. It’s not because I’m worried about being shunned by my friends or in my community. I live in a very secular city and work in a very secular industry. Few of my friends are religious, and those that are have been exceedingly tolerant of my beliefs — or lack thereof.
No, I’m loath to use the A word because the most vocal and visible proponents of atheism have strayed far away from promoting reason, tolerance and secular values and into promoting misogyny, xenophobia and far-right politics.
But for at least a couple years, from sometime in 2006 until sometime in 2009, I was a militant atheist, dashing off dozens of blog posts condemning religious thought for promoting murder and mutilation. I thought we, the atheists of the world, were railing against injustice and speaking truth to power.
Atheism felt just and true and important. But no longer. What happened?
Atheism as Justification for Xenophobia
Over time I sensed that for far too many people in the movement, atheism was if not a front then at least a rationalization for xenophobia or racism or both. As a long-time advocate of permissive immigration policies, that didn’t sit well for me.
I thought, and still do think, that one of the best ways a secular society can help those living under extremist religious regimes is to welcome them into our own countries. What I saw instead were atheists aligning themselves with bigots and Christian fundamentalists to promote xenophobic propaganda and reactionary immigration policies. I joined in with many other atheist bloggers in posting Fitna when it came out, but ended up feeling like a tool for doing so. That was probably the beginning of the end.
A Changing View of Religion
I was eventually swayed by anthropologist Scott Atran’s critique of Movement Atheism, and his argument that it would be better to try to curb terrorism by providing role models through media such as comic books than trying to eradicate religion.
Over time I also began to realize that I, like many other Movement Atheists, had been equating Islam as a whole with a relatively small fringe. Although I often included the caveat that most Muslims were peaceful, I wrote about “Islam” as if it were one big thing as opposed to a moniker for a great many different strains of belief. That realization was driven home as I met more Muslims personally and saw how little they shared in common with the likes of the Taliban.
Although I bristled at first at the term “Islamaphobia” since I think it’s entirely reasonable to critique religion in general and Islam in particular, I’ve come to realize that it’s a perfectly fitting term for what it describes: an irrational fear and hatred of all people who practice any form of that religion.
When you spend a lot time reading about fatwas against Salman Rushdie, it can be easy to get paranoid about a huge international network of Muslim assassins out to kill anyone who criticizes the religion. But that doesn’t exist, and the fear-mongering Islamaphobia does no one any good.
Meanwhile, I was developing a more nuanced view of what organized religion as a whole actually is, which I suppose I should save for another essay. Suffice it to say, I simply became less worried about religion as an institution.
The Monomania of Atheists
Then there was the monomaniacal focus on religion to the exclusion of all other social issues. I was particularly frustrated with what I saw as a lack of interest on the part of Movement Atheists in the root causes of extreme religiosity, such as poverty and lack of access to education. Given the broad overlap between atheism and libertarianism, I started to notice a tendency of atheists to blame poverty on religion, rather than vice versa. The end of religion was being promoted as a panacea that could solve all the world’s troubles.
I also developed a sense that Movement Atheists wouldn’t be happy with any other movement until they dropped all other causes and joined the crusade against Islam. Gay marriage in the U.S. was to take a backseat to the treatment of gays in predominantly Muslim nations. No feminist issues were to be discussed ever — not as long honor killing was still happening anywhere in the world.
Honor killing became a particular sticking point for me as I started to look into and think more deeply about “crimes of passion” (as they’re called when a non-Muslim man commits them) and lethal domestic violence in the U.S., and came to the conclusion that it had more to do with toxic masculinity than religion. That led me to fully embrace feminist thought, putting me further at odds with the atheist movement.
By 2011, when Dawkins published his “Dear Muslima” comment — suggesting that women who complained about sexual harassment in the workplace should shut the fuck up because at least they weren’t having their genitals mutilated — I’d already drifted away, but it’s the nice illustration of just about everything that’s wrong with Movement Atheism.
Consider, for example, Dawkins’s hypocrisy in writing that comment. He suggested that the incident that Rebecca Watson described — and the subsequent harassment she received as a result of daring to mention it — was so minor in comparison to the myriad ways that women suffer in other parts of the world that she shouldn’t even talk about it at all. But if people should only mention the worst of all abuses, then why is Dawkins even writing about a woman writing about her experiences? Shouldn’t he be writing about something more important?
The inescapable conclusion is that Dawkins was merely using atheism as a bludgeon to silence women who dared to speak out against abuse in the West because the topic made him uncomfortable. He felt threatened by women, and did what he could to push the conversation away from the ways men abuse women in the West.
And we’ve seen that again and again in the atheist community in recent years, from the barbaric treatment of women like Jennifer McCreight within the atheist community to Dawkins’s rape victim blaming.
If there was a single shark jumping moment, though, it had to have been the controversy surrounding Park51, the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” a planned community center that was to include — in addition to a performing arts center, swimming pool and gym, among other things — a large prayer room.
Movement Atheists thought the idea of Muslims praying inside a building two blocks away from the WTC site was so offensive that it should be illegal. Yes, the very same people who gleefully publish drawings of Mohammad to intentionally offend Muslims were offended at the very thought of someone praying in a room behind closed doors. Liberal values like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and property rights went right out the window. That was especially rich coming from the libertarians.
That whole ordeal, along with the movement’s vocal support of France’s burqa ban, laid bare the hypocrisy and irrationality of atheist movement. It was then clear that this movement wasn’t about fighting theocracy, giving voice to those oppressed by religion, or advancing the ideals of an open society. It was about imposing their own beliefs on other people. And I wanted nothing to do with it.
I started writing this about a week ago, while thinking about the role of atheism in the overlapping reactionary, pick-up artist, GamerGate, and Men’s Rights Advocacy communities — recently dubbed the “Redpill Right.” It made me think about what I’d once had in common with those men, and what had changed.
And then today, three Muslim people were murdered in Chapel Hill by a militant atheist. Someone who wrote things on Facebook that sound not entirely unlike things I used to write on this very blog.
Of course there are those, like Dawkins, who will argue that actually, it’s about ethics in parking violations. But by Dawkins’s own logic, all atheists — myself included — now have blood on our hands, by making the world safe for extremists like Craig Stephen Hicks. And there’s probably some truth to that.
Which leaves me wondering where to go from here. There’s a case to be made that I, and all other non-believers who don’t share a reactionary, misogynistic view of the world should become active in Movement Atheism, to turn it around and make it safe for the marginalized. Maybe we could even change the minds of some of the worst offenders in the scene.
But I think changing those minds will be subject to the same sorts of backlash effects that I we see when trying to convert the religious to atheism. Those of us who don’t fit in with this brand of atheism are simply best moving on. We can promote reason and secular values without the tunnel vision of Movement Atheism.
Better then to wander away and leave these sad, frightened men to shout into the darkness alone, with nary a god to hear them.