In this episode I speak with former missionary Wendy Marsman about her journey out of religion, into the atheist movement, and then out of the atheist movement. To hear more about Wendy’s story, go to http://justuswomen.co/.
In this episode I speak with former missionary Wendy Marsman about her journey out of religion, into the atheist movement, and then out of the atheist movement. To hear more about Wendy’s story, go to http://justuswomen.co/.
In this, my very first episode, I share a little about me and what I’m all about and what I hope to accomplish with this podcast. Thanks for listening!
Guest Post by Thomas Swords
About two years ago, I joined Twitter because I thought it would be a good way to connect with like-minded people about controversial topics such as atheism and politics, which I wanted to steer clear of on my public Facebook page.
I had no idea of what I was getting myself into.
At that time, which perhaps because of the blistering pace of current events feels more like a decade ago, I was a fan of Sam Harris, and was quickly exposed to the kind of “rational skeptics” who revered Harris as a secular prophet. I am just about completely de-converted from this particular cult, but while I was in it, I took the pronouncements of Harris and his acolytes quite seriously. I liked tweets and YouTube videos by everyone from Dave Rubin to Peter Boghossian to Gad Saad to Douglas Murray. I had thought that since all of these men were atheists like myself, and mostly declared themselves to be liberals, we would share most other values as well. After all, two were Jewish (Rubin and Saad) and two were gay (Rubin and Murray). Let’s just say things didn’t turn out the way I’d expected. In fact, all of these men were, if not themselves explicit proponents of taking the red pill, all too willing to ape red-pill talking points, offer full-throated defenses of red-pill thinking, and provide platforms from which red-pill-popping fanatics would spew their anti-feminist message.
Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. So let’s define terms before we go any further. In this blog, I will use the RationalWiki definition of red pill, as it captures the essence of the delusion: That those brave enough to take the red pill will be able to see the world as it really is. In this twisted echo of the classic sci-fi movie The Matrix, from which the red pill concept is lifted, the big lie is that women are oppressed. In the funhouse-mirror version promoted by red-pillers, it’s feminism that discriminates against and oppresses men.
It’s not like I really came close to red pilling, but I was, for a few months, sucked into the vortex of free-speech fundamentalism championed by Harris, Rubin, et al. This exposed me to ideas that are red-pill adjacent, like the notion that it’s condescending to women to treat them as unable to handle men’s advances and that there’s a hysteria sweeping college campuses about sexual assault.
According to Angela Nagle, author of Kill All Normies, which details the rise of the Internet subculture often referred to as the manosphere, anti-feminism was the first uniting principle of the so-called MRA (men’s rights advocates) movement. I say “so-called” because you rarely encounter any actual discussion of rights in MRA forums, though there’s no shortage of vitriol for the many depredations of the “gynocracy.” Later, Nagle argues in a recent DoubleX Gabfest podcast appearance, the MRA movement transitioned form online gripe sessions into a more explicitly political force that helped to drive major world events from Brexit to the Trump candidacy and other far-right politics. The most recent manifestation of this anti-feminist force is racism, as we have seen with the Alt Right, which is a “revalorization of masculinity” and for many of these (mostly white) men, taking the red pill is the beginning of the journey.
In my experience, the most compelling reason to spit out the red pill and reject the poison of toxic masculinity is the tremendous improvement in my relationships. This isn’t just about better relationships with women, though that would be reason enough. No, this is about better connections with women and men alike. And it extends beyond sexuality and friendship into the workplace and with all the other myriad people I encounter along the journey of life. But ultimately, it is my relationship with myself, my ability to look in the mirror and be content with the person I see looking back. That is the most profound benefit of all.
It stands to reason that by not being an aggressive asshole, I would have better relations with women. Because the red pill philosophy presumes women to be the enemy, dropping this adversarial stance allows us as men to trust women and not engage in “us vs. them” thinking. We can get to know women as allies and equals rather than inferiors to be conquered or threats to be overcome. On this peaceful foundation, much can be built, from lasting friendships to healthy marriages and everything in between.
As I was preparing to write this essay, I realized it wasn’t just my relationships with women that were better because of my having rejected pernicious sexism. In fact, I have better relationships with men, too. I think the reason for this is relatively simple: Toxic masculinity demands that men be unemotional, uncaring, and unkind, so the kinds of men who behave terribly toward women also treat other men badly. By avoiding guys like this, I have developed friendships with – dare I say – more enlightened men who treat me better and are not only more pleasant to be around but are, frankly, safer.
My family is quite progressive overall, but the small American town I grew up in was not, and I encountered many men who were not only crude and sexist, but also reckless. And again, it was their beliefs about men’s roles that led them to be this way – to drink too much and drive too fast (often in quick succession). There was always pressure to prove one’s manhood in this environment, and this led to no men being safe from either their own behavior or the impact of their peers’ actions. Today, I still go out with male friends, but there is never pressure to drink more than anyone feels comfortable with and we are all mindful of our limits, particularly when driving. I’d be tempted to attribute much of this to having grown up, and surely my friends now are more sensible with age, but I know when I’ve encountered people from my hometown as adults, I realize that all men grow older, but some never grow up.
Another area of life that leaps out to me when I think about the benefits of spitting out the red pill is the workplace. It has been truly breathtaking to see the almost daily revelations of years of famous men’s sexually inappropriate behavior on the job, whether they are in politics (Al Franken, Roy Moore, Trent Franks, John Conyers, and of course, Donald Trump himself), entertainment (Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman, Jeffrey Tambor, and Louis C.K.), and media (Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Thrush, Charlie Rose, Ryan Lizza, and–all from public radio and television–Garrison Keillor, John Hockenberry, Tavis Smiley, Mike Oreskes, and Tom Ashbrook). As you can see, this lineup spans the political spectrum from left to right and includes men of all different racial and ethnic backgrounds. The only common threads are that they’re all men and all had enough power over others to be able to get away with abuse for years, in some cases decades. Imagine any of these men today, having worked their lives to build reputations as consummate professionals, admired by millions in some cases, only to be exposed as lecherous dirtbags, with their legacies in tatters. But do not mistake my words as any sort of apologia for these creeps; they got or will soon get what they deserve. My argument is that treating your female colleagues with respect is both good for your humanity and your career. If you can’t behave decently around women out of your own innate decency, do it to save your job.
Behaving with respect for others is, of course, also incumbent upon men outside the workplace as well. Why on earth would I want to go to my local coffee shop, pharmacy, or library and leave a bad impression of myself? And that gets at one of the aspects of all this I am struggling to comprehend: Why did the men who made these advances convince themselves the women (in some cases less powerful men) wanted their attention? Or did they just not care? Or – and this is what I fear most may be the case – did they derive pleasure in making the targets of their predation uncomfortable, even terrified? Because if it’s option C, it’s the very opposite of what I want someone to feel in my presence. I like having pleasant interactions with cashiers, waitresses (or waiters), whoever is behind the counter. I would be disgusted with myself if I left them feeling that they wanted to avoid me in the future.
Lastly, I’d like to go inward, to perhaps my most crucial relationship, the one I have with myself. This is where my most important work is done, where I build the foundation of my relationships with everyone else. Of course introspection was never taught in my school or encouraged by my peers growing up and yet it has been one of the most remarkable journeys of my life. I am hopeful this trend is changing and that the educational system is doing a better job of helping young people access and understand their feelings without merely acting on them unconsciously. I wonder if some men who have gone down the MRA’s dark path had had the opportunity to open up about their insecurities around women and sexuality, if they would today engage in such hostile behavior, both online and off? I suspect not. It has been so helpful for me personally to be able able to talk to friends, family, and even therapists about my thoughts and feelings before acting on them. Online forums that only reinforce toxic masculinity and punish vulnerability as weak force men to deny they have feelings at all. Well, feelings other than anger at women, feminism, and anyone beyond themselves whom they perceive as a threat to their fragile sense of themselves. As women continue to move toward greater equality, how sad that so many men perceive themselves to be under attack. Because as hard as it has sometimes been to sit with my insecurities and fears, I believe it has improved my relationships with women and men, and in all spheres of my life.
And all I had to do was spit out that red pill.
Thomas Swords is a creative professional and father of two who lives in a very blue coastal state. He comments on social and political issues from a progressive viewpoint and would really appreciate it if more of his fellow atheists could stop being such reactionary assholes, thank you very much. Follow him on Twitter
When New Atheism was born, it served a real and noble purpose. Though open criticism of religion wasn’t unheard of, it was still uncommon enough to be shocking to many people to see anyone publicly calling attention to the dark underbelly of religion – to the privileged status it holds as considered off the table for criticism or the unfounded conflation of piety with morality. In the aftermath of 9/11, however, we could no longer afford to deny the connection between religious fundamentalism and deadly extremism. We could not have an honest conversation about our national security or shared values without acknowledging the damage religion can cause or the risks it poses. Back then, breaking the taboos that protected institutional religious privilege wasn’t just an edgy claim to notoriety; it was a moral imperative.
Another meaningful contribution of New Atheism was to show doubters and non-believers on an unprecedented scale that we weren’t alone. While many of us had remained closeted for years, either from societal or familial pressure or for want of the means to articulate our doubts, the onset of movement atheism all at once gave us the words to express our ideas and the comfort of knowing there were millions of others out there just like us. Books like Hitchens’ God is Not Great, Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, and Dennett’s Breaking the Spell resonated not only because they made such compelling arguments against the existence of god and the toxicity of organized religion, but because they expressed to the world the observations and objections so many of the rest of us had been seeing and thinking but could not articulate (at least not as succinctly or powerfully. I will never forget the first time I read The God Delusion, the first so-called “atheist” book I had ever read; I must have leapt up and shouted “Yes! That’s it! That’s EXACTLY IT!” a hundred times). We sought out like-minded thinkers in online spaces and formed virtual communities, and some were even emboldened to reclaim their identities within their own communities. We were, if not free of the stigma of atheism, at least no longer solitary in it, and perhaps for the first time we had the numbers and resources to fight it.
That was a long time ago now. For many of us who have been involved in any meaningful way with this movement (such as it is) since more or less the beginning of New Atheism, the bloom is off the rose. Just as certain films and novels that struck us as revolutionary in high school look trite and shallow in the cold light of adulthood, the scriptural counter-apologetics, witticisms about gullible theists, and preening pronouncements about our preference for difficult truths over comforting lies that seemed so clever and cutting-edge 15 years ago are now hackneyed and tired. The problem, as I see it, is that too many New Atheists never matured beyond that initial rebellious phase. They conflate seeing through the god hypothesis with following evidence. They confuse gratuitous insensitivity with being iconoclasts. Besotted with their own perceived wit and what they see as their command of rhetoric, they mistake their atheism for intellectualism.
For my part I was never really interested in the “does god exist or not” discussion, for as David A. Sptiz said, “it is scarcely necessary to disprove what has never been proved.” For a long time my primary focus was on pointing out the disparity between what religion claims – about the rewards of faith, for example – and the reality of the world we live in, not as a means to debunk the existence of god but to expose the ways in which those disparities lead to the rationalization of and indifference to human suffering. I still think exposing this failure of compassion is worthwhile and necessary, but I am no longer naive enough to think that anti-theist activism is a sufficient remedy for what ails humanity, nor that religion is the cause of all that ails us.
Growing up involves self-reflection and discovery. As each person takes a separate path, we arrive at certain destinations at different times, and bypass others altogether. People who are just now questioning or abandoning their religious faith have different questions and needs than people who left years ago or never had it to begin with, which are different still based on whether someone was a casual believer or a fundamentalist, Christian or Muslim, how religious her community is, and so on. It makes sense that much of what made New Atheism appealing to people who were already atheist (more or less) 15 years ago is appealing today to people who are only just now coming into their atheism. In this context the counter-apologetics, self-affirmations, and taboo-smashing still have great value at an individual level. Still, it is a phase that one would expect most to outgrow as they move along their journey, not a place to remain stuck forever, like an aging football captain still repeating the story of his state championship-winning touchdown 30 years later.
I hitched my own wagon to this movement in hopes of creating a world in which ancient superstitions hold no sway over civil laws; where people think critically and make decisions based on objective truths; where minds are changed based on evidence; and where “because my religion says so” is no longer an acceptable justification for hatred or for depriving anyone of their dignity or basic human rights. It has been a sad, disillusioning journey to discover that these are not universal values amongst atheists, many of whom have no more regard for evidence or morality than the theists they hold in such contempt and who seem all too happy to replace religious justifications for hate and bigotry with other, non-divine but equally flawed reasons. If the atheist “movement” cannot live up to its own professed ideals of applying the lens of reason and evidence to the world around us – and most especially to our own selves – it will rightly be discarded, and those of us who still wish to fight for change will do so under another mantle.
You may have heard the brouhaha about the Google manifesto in which an angry white dude expressed his dismay at having to work alongside women because they have cooties. Unsurprisingly, a huge number of people are supporting this man because as it turns out, men and women do not have the same anatomy (who knew!), and therefore it cannot be sexist to say that these anatomical differences render women unsuitable for careers in IT. I mean, it’s just basic anatomy, for fuck’s sake! How can it be sexist to point out that women have boobies and plumbing and hormones (gross!) and neurosis?! That’s not sexism, it’s science!
This “it’s just biology that women can’t do tech jobs” mindset dovetails with the resurgence of discussions about genetically based racial IQ differences, a conversation that in some circles has never gone away but was given a boost recently when New Atheist messiah Sam Harris interviewed The Bell Curve author Charles Murray. There are a lot of reasons why Murray’s work and Murray himself are controversial, none of which I want to go into in detail here, but which are summarized and impeccably cited here. So it was with that endorsement of Murray in mind that I tweeted this:
Let’s be frank: In his interview, Harris all but prostrated himself before Charles Murray. He stated unequivocally (and incorrectly) that Murray’s work is scientifically undisputed and his methods unimpeachable, and he fawned over him as a pure-hearted hero whose only sin was to seek earnest answers to important but uncomfortable questions. Harris railed against Murray’s critics as universally dishonest SJW ideologues driven by out of control political correctness, with nary a scientific or statistical leg to stand on in opposition to Murray’s conclusions. In doing so, Harris gave his enthusiastic endorsement to the worldview that society is right to treat people according to their (assumed) genetic strengths and weaknesses. Murray’s own work – the work that Harris extolled as scientifically beyond reproach – envisions a world in which blacks, women, and others quietly accept their proper roles based on their genetic limitations. It’s just a coincidence, naturally, that white men are genetically more suited for – well, everything that results in wealth and power.
So when I credit Harris for playing a role in advancing the clearly widely held belief that women are biologically unfit for IT jobs, it’s because he DID play a role. By not just normalizing but canonizing Charles Murray, Harris has given the green light to efforts to deny the existence of racism and sexism because science itself says women and POC are less intelligent and, therefore, rightfully excluded from domains that create wealth and influence. Whether or not he personally thinks the world should work this way is beside the point when he heaps breathless praise and aggressive promotion upon – and therefore emboldens – individuals who by their own admission think it should.
As far as Harris’s protestations that even if we know that, say, blacks are dumb compared to whites, we should still judge people as individuals, these are hollow platitudes. For one thing, public policy is shaped by, and in some cases predicated upon, the probability of certain things being true; if it is widely accepted as likely that black people are dumb compared to white people, then policy related to how blacks are treated (in the justice system, employment, higher education, etc.) will look very different than it would absent such an assumption. What’s more, “reserve judgment because not every black person / woman you meet will be dumb” is hardly an egalitarian outlook, and things like the anchoring heuristic will make it extremely difficult if not impossible for POC and women to convince their white male counterparts that they really are just as intelligent – and it goes without saying that once white men have been told to expect inferiority, the burden will always lie squarely on POC and women to prove their worth.
I realize that many of Harris’s more dishonest acolytes are shrieking “When did he ever utter the words ‘women are unfit for IT jobs?!’ That’s right, NEVER!” And they’re right that to my knowledge, he has never uttered those words. But he has given his imprimatur to biological determinism, with the full knowledge that people will use that against marginalized populations for their own benefit, and will cast aside even disingenuous pleas to view each person as an individual. I am not suggesting that Harris is singularly responsible for this state of affairs – that would be absurd and unfair. But he cannot disavow his own role in this outcome.
About a year ago, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson appeared on Sam Harris’s Waking Up podcast. The two discussed many things, but what stood out to me most at the time were Tyson’s comments regarding the criticism he has sometimes taken for declining to profess his atheism:
“I have seen the conduct of outspoken atheists and there is conduct they exhibit that I do not, and so if there’s an emergent sense of what an atheist is, and that sense is being defined by those who are most visible, then I have to say there’s got to be some other word for me, but not that word.”
As much as I respect Dr. Tyson, when I heard these words I admit was slightly put off. After all, I myself was an outspoken atheist, and I didn’t see my behavior as crossing any lines or as otherwise being offensive enough that others in my own community would wish to distance themselves from me. What’s more, I saw the actions of other outspoken atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Harris himself as urgently necessary: Breaking taboos, sticking a pin in the bubble of religious privilege, and normalizing the non-theistic worldview were important undertakings if we wanted to rid the world of superstition and the endless problems that come with it. In many ways I saw this work as not only necessary, but noble.
Fast forward to today, and my heart breaks to admit that I now identify 100% with Tyson’s position. The label of “atheist,” along with the labels “skeptic” and “rationalist,” have become so weighted with the baggage of bad actors that I too am left wondering what to call myself so as to not bear the guilt by association.
When I first stumbled into the world of online atheism around eight years ago, I thought I had finally found my tribe. “These people get it,” I thought. “They get me.” I didn’t have to explain how it could possibly have come about that I wasn’t a lawless, hedonistic savage if I didn’t believe in fairy tales. I didn’t have to bite my tongue through discussions about prayer or hold back from pointing out that the phrase “Jesus died for our sins” is baffling and nonsensical. I could let my guard down and just be myself.
Back in those days I eagerly devoured books, articles, Facebook posts, memes, and anything else I could get my hands on regarding the topics of belief and unbelief: Materials that explained why religion not only isn’t required to make someone a good person, but often has the opposite effect; lamenting the pervasiveness of religious privilege and gullibility; coaching readers in the skills of argumentation, including how to identify and avoid logical fallacies; and, most of all, congratulating atheists for their cleverness in seeing through the emptiness of religious claims. After all, we rejected the god hypothesis based on a lack of scientific evidence, a logical and dispassionate assessment of scripture, and because we could dismantle the poorly framed arguments of its proponents. Right? We happily substituted the word “humanist” for “atheist” because our objection to religion was not only to its untruth, but to the oppression, cruelty, and injustice so ubiquitously carried out in its name. Right? Surely this kind of intellectual prowess made us special; surely we would apply the same tools of rationality, logic, respect for evidence, and humanist ethics that we applied to the god question to all other endeavors. Right?
Wrong. It is clear that scientific evidence and consensus count for far less among atheists than most atheist Facebook memes would have you believe. To pick the lowest hanging fruit, I am routinely confronted by atheists who are anti-vaccine, anti-GMO, and anti-nuclear power. Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus on the safety and efficacy of all three of these, whenever these facts come up in conversation there is a flurry of pseudo-scientific, long-since-debunked comments combined with no small measure of garment-rending, and previously satisfied followers head for the exit in droves. Is this the kind of behavior one should expect from people who profess with such fervor to be beholden to the scientific method?
But science is not the only realm in which atheists fall short of their self-aggrandizement: Conspiracy thinking is also not uncommon in our “community.” Mention any conspiracy, from 9/11 trutherism to birtherism to pizzagate, in any online atheist group and you will uncover passionate, devoted subscribers to every single one. Many such conspiracies have been legitimized, even promoted, by prominent atheist voices. Furthermore, double standards, logical fallacies, and general intellectual dishonesty are rampant within atheist enclaves. For example, some people will take Christianity to task for the crusades while absolving ISIS of its roots in Islam. Other people will seek to silence criticism of almost anything by pointing out how much worse life is under shariah law. Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias lead to reflexive rejections of contrary arguments and evidence in exactly the same manner that is derided when observed in theists. How could this be possible if part and parcel of being an atheist is a commitment to following the evidence and to applying extra scrutiny to one’s own personal beliefs? Ask yourself how often you see this behavior in the atheism-focused discussion groups and pages you frequent, or in the self-anointed leaders of movement atheism on YouTube and social media.
But Godless Mama, you say, atheists are only human. We make mistakes and are subject to the same brain wiring and cognitive biases as anyone, so it’s unfair for you to hold us to a higher standard. We are indeed mere fallible humans; that much is true, so far as it goes. But the hyperbole and braggadocio that permeate most atheist forums offer no such caveats. “We change our minds with evidence” and “We prefer uncomfortable truths to comforting lies” are two of the most common sentiments to be encountered within online atheist communities – yet the typical Internet Atheist has no better a track record at either of these than the typical religionist, despite their near-constant proclamations to the contrary. I am not unfairly holding atheists a higher standard; it is atheists themselves who claim to operate on a higher standard. I am merely pointing out the regularity with which we fail to meet that standard.
The worst disillusionment for me by far is the widespread rejection of humanist values among so many Internet Atheists, including among many who have anointed themselves spokespersons for movement atheism. The lines between criticizing the theological doctrine of Islam and the demonizing of Muslims have become blurry; discussions that in the past sought to make legitimate points about the peculiar aspects of Islam that make it uniquely dangerous at this moment in history or presented evidence that religious fervor motivates behavior are now framed in terms of anti-immigrant animus, argued in favor of policies that seek to keep refugees from Islamic regions from eroding “western values.” Western feminists are mocked, derided, attacked, and dismissed for discussing challenges faced by Western women because Saudi women living under Islamic male guardianship have it tougher. So-called “rationalists” go to great lengths to explain why it’s actually irrational to suggest that 13-year-old children can’t consent to sex with adults and how it is only morality, not logic, which takes children off the sexual menu. By 7:00 this morning I had already encountered someone online saying he wants to “oven” elementary school-aged trans children; someone who posted a GIF writing out the phrase “Hitler did nothing wrong;” a dozen people with references to “free helicopter rides” and white genocide in their bios; and someone telling me that my “grandchildren will be murdered by darkies.” Know what else all these people had in their bios? References to their atheism, skepticism, or rationalism.
I do not for one minute think or mean to suggest that these individuals account for the majority of folks in the nebulous group called “atheists.” I get it that a lack of belief in god is neither an ideology unto itself nor predictive of any other views or values. I’m also not saying that by dint of unbelief in god any atheist is required to hold any particular worldview. I am now, as I have always been, fully prepared to accept that atheists are as diverse a group as any other, with the same distribution of heroes and villains and everything in between as any other. But if it is true – and it surely is – that the “Hitler did nothing wrong” crowd doesn’t represent atheists as a whole, then it is also true that the “We change our minds with evidence” crowd doesn’t represent atheists as a whole either, and the ubiquitous declarations about atheists’ superior critical thinking skills, commitment to evidence, and logical clarity should be dispensed with as generalizations that don’t consistently align with reality.
My point here is not about atheists but about movement atheism, which has become corrupted by the rising prevalence of voices that, at the end of the day, espouse a lot of views that are strikingly and chillingly similar to the religious ones we claim to oppose. Being an outspoken opponent of magical thinking, of interference by religion in the public sphere, and of the many toxic ideas put forward by religion is still an important and worthy cause. But it is time to let go of the idea that religion owns the market of bad ideas. It is time to let go of the conceit that atheists are more willing to challenge their own beliefs than theists. It is time to do away with the notion that to the extent atheists have a PR problem we don’t bear at least some measure of accountability. Above all, it is time for those of us who believe in the cause of movement atheism as a means to making the world better – to eliminating justifications for bigotry and hate and violence, to guiding humanity towards making better choices based on evidence and ethics and empathy rather than on ideology – to clean our own house, to repudiate the voices of bigotry and hypocrisy within our own ranks, and to amplify those voices among us who are intellectually honest, morally courageous, and who better represent the most noble aspirations of our movement.
I do not want the term “atheist” to become inextricable in the public consciousness from concepts like bigotry, arrogance, indifference to suffering, or selfishness, and I am willing to fight to prevent that from happening. But if I fail, then I will join Dr. Tyson in shunning that label, and find some other word that describes me, “but not that word.”