Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement

It’s Halloween, and I’ve come as myself. Fifteen, perhaps even ten years ago, this was the worst night of the year — the night I hid in the living room while Mum was at work, curled up out of sight below the window, praying on a loop. When I was younger, I believed Satan was everywhere — believed he whispered to me in the night, haunted our house and worked via my dad; believed he possessed me when I was eight; believed that on this night, his unknowing unservants came to our door. Today, as an atheist, Halloween is my Christmas, rite of all once-forbidden things.

We’ve got our monsters, atheists. In the media our public faces are racists, warmongsters and men to whom sexual harassment allegations cling like a stench. Online, our community is riddled with sexism, right wing politics and abuse. I’m sorry that’s the case, and as a result of saying so, I’ve been called any number of slurs and four letter words, been threatened and had my address published. (Female, trans and non-white friends’ harassment is much worse.) And yet I’d take this community over my former religious one in a heartbeat. I make that choice on a constant basis.

Every so often, some friend or other from the atheist SJ scene will post that they can no longer stand it round here — that movement atheism now is simply too toxic, that belief matters less than politics, and that they’d rather work with progressive believers than vile atheists. I can’t say I blame them — I’ve seen too many good people driven from this community — and yet I can’t help noticing: the trend, consistently, is that the friends who say this didn’t grow up religious. For them, inhabiting atheist space has always been a choice. For apostates like me, it’s frequently a need.

I need an atheist community — need space to speak frankly about my own abuse, find others who went through similar things and give voice to what I experienced. Like many apostates, I need a movement that affirms my anger as valid and doesn’t confuse it with the pubescent bile of the Dawkbros. I need a community that doesn’t respond to depression with prayer, to kink and queerness with polite non-acknowledgement at best, hostility at worst, to sex and poverty with vain moralism — and for me, that means a secular one. I can’t leave atheism: I have nowhere else to go.

If you’re on Twitter and you don’t follow @ThatSabineGirl, you should — she’s one of my favourite people online, and tweets about social justice, sex work and trans feminism. Just over a week ago, Richard Dawkins tweeted this:

The following exchange between me and Sabine took place as a result — lightly edited, I’m reprinting it with her consent, having managed to express things therein that I’d long been trying to say.

* * *

Sabine: What kind of atheism is so weak in its arguments that it has to resort to death threats against other atheists? Movement atheism is straight, white, cisgender men pretending they’re more oppressed for being atheist than atheists of colour, queer and feminist atheists. And a hell of a lot more of the direct harassment and abuse we get comes from those straight white cis male atheists than from religious people.

The idea that atheists in the UK are oppressed is especially ridiculous — I have literally never had anyone oppress me for my atheism. After I read The God Delusion, I started being a prick about it, then I got some pushback — but if you’re going to be a prick to religious people.

It tends to be the religious who get sideeyed in this country, in my experience, especially non-Church-of-England-ers. Aside from the full-on hellfire-and-damnation preacher types, generally religious people leave me alone — the same can’t be said for Dawkbros. The ones who fancy themselves successors to Christopher Hitchens, or who try to drive feminists, people of colour and queer folk out, are the worst. I’ve literally been stalked and harassed online for years by the latter.

Me: Question — were you ever religious, or did you grow up in that environment?

Raised atheist, but suffered Church of England schooling.

Yeah. So… a few thoughts about this.

Firstly: there is altogether too much bullshit in the atheist community, for which Dawkins bears considerable responsibility. Sorry to hear it if they’ve got at you as well. I know feminist and social justice atheists who deal with it daily. It sucks.

At the same time: a lot of us who were raised religious don’t have the option of leaving that community. The fact I haven’t walked away from atheism isn’t because it’s not awful — it’s because I have no choice. For all the bullshit, this is still better than the religious community I come from — that’s how bad it was. So in a way, I think saying ‘Screw thing, I’d rather hang out with nice, progressive believers’ can be a sign of privilege.

Also though: because of my background, I have been oppressed for being an atheist, and I know many apostates who have. It’s tempting to say that isn’t structural or cultural oppression of the same kind as homophobia, racism, whatever — and that’s significantly true. But then again… religions are cultures and social structures. Apostates’ oppression is real.

So you’re saying my being raised atheist is a privilege I have over someone raised religious, then?

Within the [context of this issue], I think it can be. When I look at how atheists behave, it definitely strikes me that so much of the talking is done by never-believers. It often feels a lot like being talked over and having our experiences ignored — like not having a voice. Ex-Muslims I know get this a lot.

Fair point. Being atheist in a religious environment can suck, I imagine. The worst I ever had was being forced to pretend to pray.

Oh lord, school assemblies. ‘My greengrocer closed early yesterday, which gave me a lot of thoughts about Isaiah…’

Ha! Yeah. (On the other hand, I heard a lot of classical music at the start and end of assembly I wouldn’t otherwise have heard.) But like I say, my parents come from different religious backgrounds, so religion was basically nothing but an obstacle to them. Hence they were both atheists and raised us with no religion except the background radiation of cultural Christianity we have here.

Out of interest, have you ever asked (or heard from them) about their experience leaving those religious backgrounds?

They weren’t that religious anyway. Mum’s family assimilated and lost a lot of that stuff, Dad’s family were never strong believers.

Ahh. One of the things that strikes me a lot about atheism in the UK is that, ironically, because we’re a fairly non-religious country, most atheist ‘leaders’ — Dawkins, Hitchens, leaders of organisations — didn’t grow up significantly religious.

That results in a lot o problems, I think, including that strong, angry atheism becomes the preserve of people like Dawkins who have much less to be personally angry about, and the ‘nice’ atheists dissociate themselves from it, inadvertently throwing apostates under the bus who need to be angry — many of them also queer, feminist and so on.

Damn good points. Consider my privilege checked.

All my love for having this conversation. I’ve been trying to express that, or make it into a post, for ages.

Isn’t it great when Twitter just works like that?

Yes! I had this exchange with Natalie Reed last year — you might like it. But sweet Satan, Dawkins and the atheist dudebros are indeed awful.

So awful.

* * *

Happy Halloween.

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Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement

23 thoughts on “Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement

  1. 1

    I know I had it easier with the religious upbringing than many (most?). Yet I too find having an atheist community very important, and the movement also.

    It’s so very, very frustrating that the Dawkbros seem so determined to keep the community narrow and the movement hamstrung by driving so many people away. (That sort of thing burned me out with my local group too.)

  2. 2

    I’ve been disenchanted with the atheist movement to the point where I’ve had to shy away from local events, but I can and will not leave it. I grew up with religion breathing down my neck; casting people into in- and out-groups, condemning people to hell, subjugating women and forcing them into childbirth, vilifying queer people as subhuman and driving them (and me) into fear and silence, filling me with worry about a multitude of subjects, and persuading people to be content with destitution and vote against my community’s economic well-being because they’d be going to heaven anyway. I saw all of this in my school, I saw it in my neighborhood, I saw it in my family. I defied considerable pressure to cast off my own religion, I’ve been fighting against its abuses and power structures ever since…and atheist communities are the only place I can realistically do that.

  3. 3

    I’m extremely glad that i’ve found SJ groups that are atheist and secular (in the sense of including religious individuals, but being religion-free form and content); the mainstream atheist community feels as ill-fitting now as progressive spaces that center religion (e.g. interfaith-participating humanism).

  4. 4

    Alex, thanks for a great post. I grew up in a religious family here in the USA. What you say resonates a lot with me. I frequently notice that Dawkins often comments from a UK perspective, where he assumes there’s not much strong pressure to be Christian, etc.
    It’s fine that he has that view, or it would be if he would just be more careful to acknowledge that many people in other situations (e.g., me) do not have his privilege. There are many great and freeing aspects of being an American, but there are also some sucky limitations. Again, I think people can be fine in many different situations, but it would be much better if people could remember than many personal experiences do not generalize the same way for each of us.
    Your essay is an important reminder that many of us face different challenges from those seen by our fellows in other venues, whether it’s a different country, or a different non/religious upbringing, or many other factors. Often, just a few simple words can be enough to signal that we accept that others may face different issues. Thinking of others used to just be considered basic politeness, but now some people act as if politeness and consideration for others constitute some modern social justice experiment, and not just part of being a successful grown-up person.
    I think Dawkins and some of his fans may be unaware of hurting others. But they don’t hesitate to call for basic politeness for the few things they want that aren’t easily available to themselves. Meanwhile, they are tempted to call any requests for politeness in other areas to be somehow some excessive SOCIAL JUSTICE crusade. While they may think they mean well, they are being inconsiderate if they ignore how they and we fit into these scenarios.
    Thanks again for your very relevant and appreciated clarity.

  5. 7

    Regarding “Dawkin Dudebros”

    As a non-white minoriy, ex-muslim, who has been a minority for more than half of my life and who lives in a country with increasing number of rightwing “defense leagues”, what bothers me more than “Dawkins dudebros” are white social justice warriors who actually don’t give a shit about people of color or minorities except to make token blog posts or facebook updates to show off their supposed “moral superiority” while at the same time supporting the wost behaviors coming from non-Christian religious fundamentalists.

  6. 8

    #6 Aanthanur

    “What kind of atheism is so weak in its arguments that it has to resort to death threats against other atheists?”
    where does that happen?

    http://skepchick.org/2013/08/atheism-sexism-and-harassment-the-price-of-speaking-up/

    It’s generally hazardous to be a woman, person of colour, transgender person, or queer person. Doubly so online. Triply so in atheist groups that don’t make an effort to police their community. Try looking at the comments of a thunderf00t video, or an Amazing Atheist video, or generally just paying attention to any conversation in which a minority member has the audacity to speak up.

    The better question is, where doesn’t it happen?

  7. 9

    When I started publicly calling myself an atheist, atheist communities were something I read about from afar. The were in the same mental category for me as the journey to Saturn in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2001 . I figured a journey to Saturn of some sort beyond the Voyager flybys, would happen someday, but I probably would not have any opportunity to be in any way directly involved in it.

    When atheist communities started grow beyond a few isolated clusters in the early 2000s, I had been an atheist with no hope of having any atheist community for over a dozen years. I didn’t know how to feel. I already knew I enjoyed participating in the online discussions, but I was really reluctant to get involved in meatspace. I grew up in a conservative, abusive religion, so I can understand why some people need an atheist community, and I’ve never liked the desire of some to throw all atheist communities under the bus, though I agree that there’s plenty to be upset about over the behavior of Dawkins, thunderfool, and so many others. As it happens, I have kept my participation very limited and mostly online, only having gone to a few events. I don’t actually see much chance that will change.

  8. 12

    i have received countless “death threats” and i have been doxxed on WUWT because i dared to debunk their nonsense.

    but why would you take it serious? such “threats” are posted over and over again on the net.
    it has more to do with the internet and perceived anonymity than it has to do with atheism.

  9. 14

    when you receive cerdible threads, you should report them to the authorities.
    they are the only ones that can do anything about it.
    what can other atheist do about it? what are others supposed to do?

  10. 16

    wtf, especially when you are assulted you should go to the police. what else should you do?

    it has nothing to do with a lack of empaty, i wonder what i should do about it. what can i do ?
    on YT when i see such a post, i report that post. that is all i can do.
    what do you expect others to do about it when you don0t even want to go to the authorities?

  11. 17

    Aanthanur DC @14,

    wtf, especially when you are assulted you should go to the police. what else should you do?

    As has been pointed out your victim blaming is disgusting. Please stop it. Instead of telling victims to report to the authorities have you ever considered teaching the trolls and assholes not to send threats and not to harass in the first place? You might want to think long and hard about that and why that never even occurred to you.

    it has nothing to do with a lack of empaty, i wonder what i should do about it. what can i do ?
    on YT when i see such a post, i report that post. that is all i can do.
    what do you expect others to do about it when you don0t even want to go to the authorities?

    Well for starters you can get behind and begin supporting those who are out in front on this issue. Feminist thought leaders like Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn have been dealing with this shit for years and they are now blazing their own trail towards a safer online experience for all women.

    Recently they met with Google Ideas to discuss solutions along with several other prominent targets of harassment and cyberviolence. Companies like Google, Twitter, YouTube, etc. can develop and implement technological solutions that help to make online spaces more safe and welcoming. They can make it harder for people to engage in threats and harassment using their platforms.

    Spent the day with a group of smart & passionate activists strategizing solutions to end online harassment with the @googleideas team.

    https://twitter.com/femfreq/status/646777923152687104

    Anita and Zoe then testified in front of the U.N. about cyberviolence against women. The U.N. can help to push for stronger legislation and global standards that protect women online.
    https://twitter.com/UN_Women/status/647113416956620800

    Bottom line you can continue to stand on the sidelines and heckle the victims for not reacting the way you think they should react or you can get in the game and join the winning team in this fight against cyberviolence aimed at women.

  12. 18

    ” your victim blaming is disgusting”

    i don’t blame the victims at all. what the heck are you on about.

    “have you ever considered teaching the trolls and assholes not to send threats and not to harass in the first place? ”

    wow, how unrealistic. you expect that trolls listen to me and others? they just laugh and go to the next voctim and troll them.

    “You might want to think long and hard about that and why that never even occurred to you.”

    LOL

    “Well for starters you can get behind and begin supporting those who are out in front on this issue.”

    support them how? posting comments telling trolls to not troll? not very realistic.

    “Feminist thought leaders like Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn have been dealing with this shit for years and they are now blazing their own trail towards a safer online experience for all women.”

    well i surely do not think they deserve death threats, but i also do not agree with them on many issues.
    but i surely support them to go after those that post death threads and harras them. aslong they use legal ways.
    and those two went to the authorities.

    “Recently they met with Google Ideas to discuss solutions along with several other prominent targets of harassment and cyberviolence. Companies like Google, Twitter, YouTube, etc. can develop and implement technological solutions that help to make online spaces more safe and welcoming.”

    yes, and i support that. depending on the solutions they have in mind.

    “They can make it harder for people to engage in threats and harassment using their platforms.”

    they should be much harsher anyway, people that post death threats should be perma banned. (sure they will just create a new account and continue) but then legal action should be taken by those companies.

    ” heckle the victims for not reacting the way you think they should react ”

    what the heck? the victims you bring up here, have exactly reacted the way i expect them to react. they went to the authorities, heck even the highest authority we have internationally.
    yet when i say that is what they should do, it is heckling the victims? blaming the victims?

    in my region there were several groups active that broke into hosues. the police recommended to make sure you lock all your doors, report suspicious people, have timed lights etc.
    is that also blaming victims? heckling victims?
    the police did not release statements asking those groups to not break into houses,

    you have a strange view of what constitutes blaming the victim.

    with no word did i say the victims deserve to receive death threads. they don’t , but telling trolls to not troll has never actually worked. it is a dumb idea totally unrealistic.

  13. 20

    Amazing how far inland sealions are getting these days…

    Thanks for the post, Alex. Although I wasn’t actually brought up atheist (my parents were milk-and-water English Christians when I was a kid, later following sibs and me out of religion, and I was sent for four years to a rather awful “School for the sons of missionaries” – Eltham College – may it go bankrupt), really the worst I personally suffered from religion was intense boredom. So the temptation to give up on movement atheism is considerable when Dawkins pukes out some particularly vile piece of bigotry. I’ll bookmark this post to help me resist temptation!

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