I’m not sorry atheists are divided

I’m sorry we need to be.

Jaclyn Glenn’s ‘video about Atheism+ and pussies’, in which she at no point actually mentions Atheism Plus, has been praised and pilloried seemingly in equal measure. I have the same problem with it that I did with Phil Plait’s ‘Don’t Be A Dick’ speech a few years back, which also polarised responses. Plait, whom generally I like, never says who or what it is that ‘in some specific places’ he finds objectionably venomous, and similarly, Glenn’s entire attack on feminists in atheism consists of a parodic tiff between two animal rights advocates, never naming any actual feminists, quoting them or taking to task their real views.

Speaking persuasively in platitudes, abstract principles and innuendo is easy, but no substitute for the stubborn, meaty specificity of facts. I’ve been accused of writing personal ‘hit pieces’, but when you don’t say clearly who and what you’re arguing with, this is what happens. In a more recent video, Glenn admonishes her critics for failing to address her argument, but rebutting something so nonspecific is like trying to catch smoke: there’s no outright assertion to challenge.

Based on her characters’ lines, Glenn seems to dislike atheist feminists a) because we start unnecessary and divisive arguments and b) because we can’t stomach disagreement. These objections appear to refute each other, but the first one is worth discussing. ‘My respect requires full agreement with every position that I hold’, her imaginary SJW tells the figure insisting they’re on the same side, ‘and therefore I would rather fight with you than with people who aren’t even activists [for our shared cause] at all.’

Strawish as this is, it contains a mustard seed of truth. I don’t post about religion half as much as a year or two ago, and I know I’m not alone in this among the writers I work with. I wish I did – I’m considering focusing next month’s posts, in fact, specifically on atheist topics just to get back in the game – but the truth is I’ve felt unable to. I’d love to spend my every waking hour bashing puritanism, superstition and the notion drinking the Kool-Aid is a valorous way to live one’s life, but every time I’m about to I lay eyes on my own congregation. It is, as Geoffrey Howe said of serving under Margaret Thatcher, ‘like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.’ (Americans, click here.)

To supply the specific details Glenn leaves out, ours is a movement in which…

Since I’m responding to Glenn’s video, this is to speak only of misogyny and the exclusion of women in atheism; I could give similar lists of our collective failings when it comes to class, race, disability or queerness, but that’s another post. (Actually, it’s several.) None of this is cricket.

When I remind myself and others that the people who carry out the above are supposed to be my allies, I find myself much less worried that I argue with them more than with believers. I’d be embarrassed if I didn’t: if I weren’t so divisive, and there were no rifts between us, I’d be fighting for the same new world they are, and that thought terrifies me. With friends like these, who needs religion?

If colleagues and I are creating the divisions Glenn describes, I’m proud of it, because unlike her I do find them necessary. We all want the same, she says, but I’m less sure: I want a secular movement as accessible to women as men, that challenges religious sexism with authority and isn’t the preserve of powerful men and misogynists. If building one requires rifts today, then like Jen McCreight, I want deep rifts.

I’m not sorry atheists are divided. I’m sorry we need to be.

I’m not sorry atheists are divided

29 thoughts on “I’m not sorry atheists are divided

  1. 2

    Men who make these sorts of threats on record – one of whom, cited by her, has been quoted saying adult men having sex with 12 year old girls can’t ‘under any reasonable definition constitute “rape”’ and is on record making consistent comments – maintain devoted audiences of hundreds of thousands.

    No he wasn’t. Check out the comments section on PZ’s post on the first bit of that


    And you’ll find there he is also on record for since changing his position on the comment you’re linking to.

    You don’t need to make TAA worse than he already is.

  2. 3

    Just like to point out the the Howe quote can easily be switched from cricket to baseball by swapping in “plate” for “crease”, “pitched” for “bowled” and “Manager” for “Captain”. Batsmen is a bit of a 19th Century term, but would not be completely out of place in a discussion of the national pastime.

  3. 4

    Great post.

    Every Movement, every Revolution, Rebellion, etc., has had it’s divisions and disagreements. Often violent ones. When MLK started up the Civil Rights Movement, there were lots of his own people who criticized his every move. Some thought he was going way too far, others that it wasn’t nearly far enough. Examples are endless. And there are always those who say that the people trying to do things differently are “Distracting from the yada, yada, yada…”

    Why would anyone think that Atheists are going to be different?

  4. 7

    Excellent gathering of the facts. Great summation: “I want a secular movement as accessible to women as men, that challenges religious sexism with authority and isn’t the preserve of powerful men and misogynists.” Exactly. How can we criticism religion’s horrible treatment of women and LGBT if our community is doing it too? Don’t these asshole men have mothers/wives/girlfriends/sisters that they love?

  5. 8

    An addressing of your final points:

    P1:Feminists have a habit of exaggeration and making ‘stuff’ up to push their agenda. Victims get sympathy, victims get attention, victims can thwart serious debate by just playing the victim card. Any SERIOUS threats on line should be and would be handled by the police.

    P2: You would be (of course) taking this man’s words out of context, if you were to present them here …which you haven’t. So why even present this point? To make your list look longer?

    P3: By far the most important word here is ‘accused’…but what also should be added is “without evidence only hearsay”

    P4: People who want to treat cyberspace as a courtroom and defame others deserve to be sued.

    P5: How many of the 14.4% were feminists? (it is in their interest to find spaces unsafe for women, blame men…this is what feminist theory predicts)

    P6: Nothing wrong with these polices (which have always been in place by the way) as long as they are not written viewing the world through a feminist lens.

    P7:Cannot agree with Berro.

    P8: Are you accusing Atheists here? Non-feminist Atheists? Do you have supporting evidence for this claim?

    P9: Greg Laden, Stephany Zvan, Ophelia Benson, and Melody Hensley are all guilty of doxing…Laden is also guilty of threats of violence towards a former FtB contributor.

    P10: MH should remain on the fainting couch.

    P11: Are you again accusing Atheists for this? Do you have evidence?

    P12: It is the Radical Feminists over at the Rad Fem Hub (esp. Cathy Brennan) who do this sort of thing.

    P13: No Comment (I have no idea what you are specifically pointing to here but I an confident that this is not endemic in the Atheist Community)

  6. 12

    mofa @8:

    (I have no idea what you are specifically pointing to here but I an confident that this is not endemic in the Atheist Community)

    At first I thought that your list of evidence-free assertions were simply you spouting off standard talking points in the face of overwhelming evidence that you are in the wrong. Now I see that you are incapable of actually following links that would have educated you on the subjects handily provided within the OP to educate yourself on what is specifically being pointed to.

    I’m sorry that you are incapable of clicking on links, that must be quite a hardship. It also probably explains why you provided zero sources for your list of talking points that equate to “Nuh-uh!”

  7. 13

    MOfa: hahahahaha! Thank you for pointing out the needs for rifts. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the past 3+ years since “Guys, don’t do that” can simply laugh off all you P# points as Slymepit talking points that have been thoroughly debunked and pointed out for the lies, exaggerations and misrepresentations that they are.

    I do not want to be in any movement with you, unless it is flushing you into the toilet bowl of irrelevance. Like most slymepitters, you get off on the drama and love stirring up the drama and keeping it going for you have, apparently nothing else in your life but the drama.

  8. 15

    right on; I’m reminded of a saying from an Islamic Philosopher; ” A rational foe is preferable to an ignorant friend.” I shifted from the secular movement to politics first because with the happenings of the past I found the issues mentioned, class, sex etc, including government corruption and inequality are more important and worth fighting over the results of our societal problems; because we can’t fight this stuff here without fighting it everywhere.

  9. 18

    In some ways I agree with you here. However, i think it all boils down to why anyone would have any expectation whatsoever that that which we have in common would extend one tittle past the specific commonality of a lack of belief in a deity?

    I watched jaclyn’s video purely as a result of your linking it here and I do think that you need to seperate the general issues she makes with the specifics. The whole issue of gendered slurs (a specific) appears to be largely an argument made lacking any kind of nuance and with conclusions reached a priori and ad hoc arguments then made after the fact (which is exactly what we criticise the religious for).
    I can certainly understand Glenn’s frustration with the whole subject (i spent some time attempting to pick it apart myself and vlogged on it twice some time back to get it off my chest) and how the obvious baises such positions betray ( and all of this is ofc purely my opinion) do no favours to real social justice issues to which a much larger number of people are (potentially) highly sympathetic.

  10. 19

    @noelplum99 (#16)

    I’m unsure what your second paragraph means and have no particular interest in arguing with your third, but to answer (or rather, challenge) your question, organised/movement/‘new’ atheists have all sorts of unifying views beyond the lack of belief in a deity.

  11. 20

    I’d then invite you to list me some of them (politely, i realise this is your blog ofc, so let me include a “please” in that!).

    Just be careful to differentiate between theism in the broader sense and the specifics (and especially the social specifics) that come our way courtesy of Abrahamic monotheism. After all, we lack more than just a belief in YHWH do we not?

  12. 21


    A naturalist/materialist philosophy in general.
    Support for the separation of church and state.
    Opposition to pseudoscience/alternative medicine.
    The view of supernaturalism, and religion in particular, as undesirable.

    The latter view has often been expressed in terms of religion’s harmful effects on (for instance) women and LGBT people, so we can take concern for the welfare of these groups as another part of common new atheist organising rhetoric. Atheists who make that concern explicit are only be consistent: if you oppose religion partly as a cause of misogyny, homophobia and so on, it makes sense attempting to eliminate those wherever they occur.

  13. 22

    Alex Gabriel @ # 15 – thanks for the pointer.

    I didn’t read the whole link, but was intrigued at how an 11th-century Persian mystic came to echo 4th-century Roman/African bishop Augustine of Hippo in the cited passage. Odd how the English version comes via an Urdu translation rather than straight from the Persian, but some renderings of the Judeo-Christian scriptures traveled through even more versions to get to “the West”.

  14. 23

    @Alex, thank you for your response

    A naturalist/materialist philosophy in general………..
    The view of supernaturalism, and religion in particular, as undesirable.

    I want to respond to those together because it strikes me that these are effectively two sides of the same coin. If someone has a commitment to methodological naturalism it surely follows that they regard supernatural explanations as severely lacking.

    The problem is that I think your viewpoint here is simply skewed. Skewed, I propose, because the types of atheist you (and I) interact with online are a very selective and non-representative bunch.

    If you look at the 2011 YouGov survey of over 63,000 respondents

    19% chose “I do not believe there is a God or gods, or any other spiritual power”
    10% chose “I do not believe in a God, but do believe in some higher spiritual power”

    So i suggest to you that there are a whole lot of atheists out there who nonetheless have not abandoned notions of the supernatural. In fact, I personally know people who have lost their deistic religious belief but then gone searching through all manner of new age bullshit for something else to cling to, or who simply refuse to accept that their “cannot be more to life than this”

    Perhaps that is one of the problems with the atheist movement. For all the talk of inclusivity as an aspiration what attempts are made to make Buddhists feel welcome? To make those who still cling to woolly spiritual claptrap (you can probably tell I would not be the individual for the job!) want to attend and add their voices?
    From what I have seen the very opposite appears to be the case with movement atheism (of which I don’t claim a part btw) seemingly aligning itself with the sceptics community and thereby immediately marginalising a huge number of people. And nobody seems particularly bothered by that but i am throwing it out there.

    Support for the separation of church and state.

    Ok, I will concede this one. My initial statement was maybe a little lacking.

    I suppose this is true of all groups. We could say that all philatelists have in common with one another is an interest in collecting stamps but that would ignore that they are almost certainly also all interested in advancing the status of philatelists and philately.
    So it is with the religious (muslim and jewish leaders here champion maintaining the status of the C of E) and so it is with us atheists. Seperation of church and state is but one way in which we would stop religion receiving preferential status above and beyond that which it merits on a purely democratic basis. Sure: I should annotate my original statement but take it that i concede the point and the annotation is made 🙂

    Opposition to pseudoscience/alternative medicine.

    i think you are conflating scepticism and atheism big style here. The majority of people i know in day to day life (and have had any kind of conversation which grants me an insight into their position) are irreligious but very few of them have anything other than the most marginal interest in debunking alternative medicine and pseudoscience. Quite honestly, I’d take Ken Miller over 99% of them.

    The latter view has often been expressed in terms of religion’s harmful effects on (for instance) women and LGBT people, so we can take concern for the welfare of these groups as another part of common new atheist organising rhetoric.

    We are talking about apples and oranges now. the very fact you use the phrase “atheist organising rhetoric” makes me suspect you are well aware of this already. That a voice purporting to represent atheism (and solely atheism) becomes suffused with socio-political goals (goals I otherwise support, in these cases, btw) does not make them arise necessarily out of atheism.

    Note, you say “religions harmful effects”. You also say this:

    if you oppose religion partly as a cause of misogyny, homophobia and so on, it makes sense attempting to eliminate those wherever they occur.

    So now we are talking about religion. generally organised religion and specifically organised abrahamic monotheism.
    We are no longer talking about belief in a god versus the absence of a belief in a god but sets of cultural values codified over centuries and expressed in contemporary religious ideologies.

    Sure, I oppose religion. I am an anti-theist. maybe we could say that anti-theists potentially have a lot more in common (with one another) but then anti-theism is ideological and atheism is not – so you would expect that, surely?

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