A Crisis of Lack of Faith

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?

Are we referring to all beliefs, or just religious ones?

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.

Addendum: “Unless you want to believe that vaccines cause autism or gender studies will cause the downfall of civilization”

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 one 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.

Lol, religitards pwned again *high fives self*

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’ll take “Hasty Generalizations” for $400, Alex
. . . with a chaser of misogynist Relative Privation

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.”

13 thoughts on “A Crisis of Lack of Faith”

  1. How sad what you write about is true. However, I will not shy away from the word atheist nor the word feminist. I may have to explain what I mean by both of those words but I want to bolster support for them, not give up on them. I think if we are vigilant, we can have these words mean the following – atheist – does not believe in a supernatural deity and feminism – believes women should have the same rights as men. Whether atheists can become solid skeptics on all issues is, unfortunately, quite another matter.

    Thanks for your all of your work!

    Karen Garst
    The Faithless Feminist

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  2. Sorry if I submitted this several times, but I’ve tried to comment a couple of times and it’s not showing that my comment went through.

    I doubt that he ever read it, but this is what I tweeted Neil deGrasse Tyson in 2014 after I heard his reasoning for why he was avoiding the atheist label: You can’t redefine atheism just to not be labeled an atheist.

    Besides protecting oneself from being associated with a group that happens to only be associated by a single agreement about a single subject, I’m not sure what other good can come from these kinds of attempts to expect the bad apples to stop being bad and making us good apples look bad. I agree that it’s frustrating that not all atheists are reasonable and humanistic, but why should atheists be held to higher standard than any other group that’s made up of humans? And what exactly is an achievable solution to this age old struggle that’s inherent in all human groups? While I’m sure it’s not, this kind of concern seems to be a uniquely atheist phenomenon or at least is frequently being focused on by atheists. We never hear of Christians saying that they aren’t comfortable with being labeled as a theist due to the beliefs and actions of theists in other religions and the same can be said about how we never hear of people not wanting to be associated with humanity because of Donald Trump being a human (maybe we do hear the last one, but it’s only in jest).

    When Neil deGrasse Tyson complained about having the same type of concern, it really rubbed me the wrong way because of it being a huge part of Neil’s job to be a communicator and educator about reality and what is and isn’t true and instead of doing his job to inform and educate people, he is choosing to play pretend. Rather than us good apples trying to distance ourselves from a group that we still agree with when it comes to the one thing that makes us a part of the group or having unreasonable expectations about our group members, wouldn’t it be more fruitful and rewarding to do Neil’s job for him? Instead of trying to disassociate or purge, why not focus on educating theists about how atheists aren’t part of some monolithic group and about how we struggle with many of the same human failings? Maybe it’s just not possible to accomplish such a feat and that we are doomed to have to deal with theists using our bad apples against us and with us having be frustrated by members of our group not living up to our expectations. Is there really any other way to fix the problem?

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    1. Did you not read my article? I literally addressed the question of the standards for atheists explicitly. Atheists have set this trap *for themselves* by constantly bragging about how extra smart and extra logical and extra mature and extra special we are. WE set the standard, and by and large most of us don’t measure up to it. That has nothing to do with what theists do or don’t say about us. And yes, we all get that technically, the dictionary definition of atheist is very limited. But that’s not how things work in the public consciousness, and just as people like Kim Davis and Franklin Graham Jr. & Josh Duggar influence our perception of what it means to be a Christian, the veritable army of bad actors incessantly waving their atheism badges influences perception of what it means to be an atheist. That’s the problem, and your attempt to write that off as simply “theists using our bad apples against us” indicates to me that you totally missed the point.

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      1. I get all of this and was trying to say that, while I acknowledge the issue, I’m just not sure that there are any real solutions and don’t know what good it does, besides protecting oneself, to ever try and disassociate.

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  3. There are many good reasons to stand up and be counted as an atheist. Don’t let the opposition scare you off. We do not really get flag waving atheists, but yes, we should shout it from the rooftops. Can’t recall who said this, but it is true: If you have a thing to sell, and whisper of it down a well, you will not make so many dollars as he who climbs a tree and hollers!

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  4. I’m still an atheist because I still don’t believe in gods; however, I find myself having much less interest in so-called “movement atheism” these days than I used to. I’ve seen many of the same things you have, though mostly just on social media. I agree that it is discouraging. For me though, it serves as a powerful reminder that atheism isn’t enough. We’ve got to keep promoting reason, skepticism, critical thinking, secular public education, freethought, and so on. Atheism doesn’t make anybody smarter, more rational, or less prone to the many cognitive biases that afflict us all. Some of these other things might help.

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  5. Atheism have nothing to do with any of what you point out, the human tendencie of group thinking is. There are no doctrines in atheism, at all, nothing, nichts, nada, that’s the point of it actually.

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  6. Fringe “atheism” is like right-wing religion. IDK what we can do about it. It’s such a shame to have to fight this, when all energy needs to be spent on exposing the RWNJs. How one can claim rational thought but deny science is beyond me.

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  7. Tyson is an atheist because he doesn’t believe in gods. He can’t opt out of reality because he doesn’t like the potential consequences thereof. But that said, I find the idea of an atheist community absurd and have no interest whatsoever being part of one. I am an individual. I am an atheist. No one, regardless of the labels they choose to wear, has any impact on me. I find the idea of voluntarily being part of some grand atheist collective to be absurd in the extreme. Maybe if people spent more time trying to be responsible for themselves and less time trying to join the atheism club, things wouldn’t be such a mess.

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  8. “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.”

    The recent history of Atheism Plus, Freethought Blogs, and others seems to suggest repudiating bigoted voices quickly becomes a cudgel to beat ideological opponents. The online space is becoming more rigidly partisan not less.

    I personally, would not like the term atheist to merely become a political tribal marker.

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    1. I’m not advocating a movement such as Atheism+, although I think it makes sense for the overall “community” to segment based on particular priorities, such as fighting church/state separation issues (like FFRF); or supporting people who have left religion (such as Recovering from Religion Foundation); or promoting atheist/secular political candidates (like Freethought PAC); or raising up marginalized voices within the atheist community. I have no expectation that all atheists cleave to any particular ideology. The point of this article is that those of us who care about movement atheism MUST hold ourselves to the same standards as we hold our opponents. We need to stop boasting about how skeptical we are and how much we value evidence when for so many of us, those things go out the window the moment the topic shifts away from religion. If we’re going to talk the talk we need to walk the walk, or else we are no better than the religionists we disdain for their double standards, fallacies, and immunity to evidence.

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  9. Reading your article as a Christian was eye-opening. Thank you for making your point so clearly! Many Christians find themselves in the exact same position within the Christian context: wanting to distance themselves from vocal proponents of ‘their side’. Ironic, huh?!

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