I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse.
Specifically, I’m sorry some of its ideas inspire abuse. To name a few things:
- I’m sorry atheists harass and aggressively malign complete strangers online because they think every religious individual personally and equally to blame for religious atrocities – or think all believers mentally ill or intellectually impaired.
- I’m sorry they think calling believers mentally ill or intellectually impaired is a fair tactic and stigmatise disability as a result, in particular with words like ‘crazy’, ‘retarded’ and ‘delusional’.
- I’m sorry atheists join the anti-immigrant far right because they think Muslims are wicked, animal or ‘barbaric’ by nature. I’m sorry atheists defend racist intimidation because they think religious groups can’t be marginalised.
- I’m sorry atheists degrade and dehumanise cisgender women because they think they’re biologically less capable of thought. I’m sorry atheists with ideas based on evolutionary psychology attack feminists.
- I’m sorry atheists with uncritical science-worshipping views harass and misgender transgender people because they they think sex and gender are empirical realities.
I don’t feel personally responsible for these things – I’m not sorry in the same way as when I step on someone’s foot or guess a Canadian’s from the US – but I’m sorry it’s the case today’s atheist movement has inspired them. Simply being atheists isn’t these people’s motivation – atheism by itself prompts no more action than theism by itself – but the particular atheist school of thought we share, which came to prominence roughly in the last ten years, produced the ideas that inspire this abuse just as particular religions produce their own.
Beyond the absence of a god, it has plenty of distinctive ideas – ideas about education, childrearing, the workings of a nation state, science’s primacy, faith’s undesirability, matter’s relationship with consciousness, the absence of an afterlife, the world’s explicability in naturalistic terms, the injustice of religious practises, the treatment of women and LGBT people – the list goes on. And the beliefs above that make some atheists abusive – about believers’ mental or moral status, the barbarity of the ‘Islamic world’, the invalidity of all religious claims to victimhood, the all-explaining role of evolution and biology as pure unconstructed truth? These are distinctly New Atheist ideas, identifiable in that movement’s rhetoric from the late 2000s to now.
Not all New Atheists accept these particular ideas – not even most. I don’t. I’d argue they’re not just nonessential to New Atheism but complete misapplications of its main values – complete failures at reason, inquiry, vigour, skepticism, scrutiny and fairness. But my view of how New Atheism’s philosophy is best applied holds no more authority than anyone else’s, and in any case: even if nonessential, even if the ideas of a minority, the thoughts that inspire the actions above emerge from the perpetrators’ engagement with ‘movement atheism’ in its current form. Quite often they say so themselves, and without it we’ve no reason to think they’d act as they do, whatever other factors are in play.
Again then: I’m sorry this is the case. Beside a multitude of things I celebrate, today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse – and while I hope those parts of it come to be marginal, they remain black marks on its record.
Having acknowledged this, then.
Next time religious aggression or abuse comes up – like oh say, I don’t know, religiously motivated Christian harassment of queer people to give a completely random example – there are a few things I don’t want to hear.
I don’t want to hear not all Christians are queerphobic. That changes nothing: those who are still cite identifiably Christian beliefs as motivation, just as New Atheism’s abusive minority cite recognisably New Atheist ideas.
I don’t want to hear queerphobic Christians have strayed from ‘true’ Christianity, which loves and defends queer people. Unless you’re the Pope – actually, even if you’re the Pope – you’re no more an authority on what ‘true’ Christianity entails than I am on the ‘true’ way to practise skepticism. Queerphobia may, in your view, be un-Christian in a theological sense (just as anti-Muslim racism is unskeptical in mine), but forms of it are recognisably Christian in anthropological terms (just as a clash-of-civilisations narrative is recognisably New Atheist).
And I don’t want to hear alternative, counterfactual explanations for Christian queerphobia that ignore the perpetrators’ self-ascribed motives and their distinctive Christian provenance – any more than I’d tell you abusive New Atheists aren’t really motivated by the ideas about science, religion and secularism they say they are. We can speculate all day about how people might behave if worldviews didn’t exist and what else in life may have influenced them, but there’s no reason to assume they’d do the same without the religion or atheist school of thought in whose name they act. As a given motive, either is usually sufficiently explanatory.
When Christian queerphobia comes up, I don’t want to hear you defend Christianity – I want to hear you defend me, just as when New Atheist abuse comes up, I’ll tell you I’m sorry it goes on instead of rush to clear my movement’s name. (Rinse and repeat for other transgressions.)
‘I’m sorry it’s the case my religion/atheist school of thought inspires this behaviour. It’s wholly counter to my interpretation, but that changes nothing in the real world, and I hope it can be combatted.’
Notice this acknowledgement doesn’t imply your worldview is a) false or b) a net ill. It’s possible to think Christianity (or any religion) is true while also acknowledging it inspires bad things – and also to think it inspires enough good ones to outweigh them. (This is, quite possibly, where we part ways.) It’s possible to think New Atheism’s core ideas are right, acknowledging nonetheless that it inspires abuse – and also think it inspires more good than harm. (Hmm hmm.) With history, we do this as it is: we acknowledge the Enlightenment produced a freer, more secular public sphere while also legitimising racism – or that churches broadened access to education while also entrenching regressive sexual morals.
Time now to do so with our own worldviews. The fruits of religions and atheist schools of thought in the real world include aggression and abuse as much as whatever happy achievements they claim – if we want to get on or improve how our teams play, we have to own up to this instead of sidestepping it.