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.”