“I feel obliged to never talk about my atheism”: Natalie Reed on science, postmodernism and the left

Someone on Twitter accused me a couple of months back of ‘ridiculous pomo ramblings’. (Given there are days when I’m not ridiculous, this felt unfair.) Because they’re part of the don’t-call-us-TERFs brigade and I’m a troll, a bit of shade proved irresistible.

Natalie Reed, formerly of this blog network, tweeted me back, and we got to talking – on science, philosophy, atheists and the left. In light of recent arguments, our conversation’s been back on my mind, so I’ve transcribed it, lightly edited, below. I’m reminded why Natalie, having been driven out, is such a loss to the secular scene.

* * *

NR: People certainly use it as one. Mostly people who have absolutely no idea what postmodernism actually is or means. I think they think of it as just, like, hyperrelativism and Damien Hirst aesthetics.

AG: It strikes me as a tad ironic how the most radical quotes from people like Irigaray and Harding, totally decontextualised, are used by dudebros to go ‘Stupid mad women! Science! Yurrrr!’

That’s another really odd thing – how ‘postmodern’ has gradually come to be a sort of dog whistle for ‘feminine’ or female intellectual achievement, or the invalidation or belittling thereof – ‘women’s thought’ being dismissed as ‘just pomo’ and so on. And then that gets into how femininity and women and postmodern thought alike are both contextualised as weak, artificial, overly fussy, impractical, unrealistic – in contrast to the ‘natural’ and ‘pragmatic’ and ‘realist’ and ‘scientific’ hard-choices-that-have-to-be-made [image] of men, masculinity and not-pomo.

PZ Myers was booked to speak somewhere and there were comments saying ‘He believes in postmodernist concepts like patriarchy!’

Hahaha – that is epic. Also also: the idea the entirety of the humanities and social sciences are ‘postmodern’. The humanities and social sciences are contextualised as ‘women’s fields’ or feminine courses of study, not as ‘robust’ and ‘strong’ and ‘hard’ and ‘rigorous’ and – well, you see my point – as the hard sciences: the rock hard, thrusting, throbbing sciences, penetrating the dark, moist recesses of empirical truth. And of course the fact that the demographics in the humanities really do have stronger representation of women.

You’re sailing perilously close to CALLING NEWTON’S PRINCIPIA A RAPE MANUAL!



The thing that really bothers me is how many people think the proper response to the chauvinistic invalidation of that which isn’t ‘hard science’ is to do the whole western-thought-versus-other-ways-of-knowing [shtick], which is just further playing on the same intellectual field – further contextualising women, people of colour, queers and so on as apart from reason and science – and continues contextualising science and reason and thought and truth as the domain of white cishet men. And I’m like, no – fuck that. Human brains are human brains, we all have those same potentials for reason, intuition etc.

I end up being thought of as a racist imperialistic western aggressor or whatever by a lot of people due to being atheist and believing in the value and validity of science, while at the same time I’m utterly despised as a pomo crazy-trans-lady SJW by the world of atheism and skepticism and science, with my soft squishy humanities brain, undoubtedly incapable of thinking of anything outside of extreme relativism. It’s very frustrating.

This is what pisses me off the most – there’s so much actual woo in outlooks like Irigaray’s that has nothing to do with postmodernism.

Yeah, exactly. And postmodernism isn’t new age. It’s actually very very much opposed to that kind of mentality.

A lot of my secular writing is about building a discourse between two binary outlooks – I feel like that on bashing religion. I and others spend so much time trying to build a responsible, informed, non-down-punching antitheist rhetoric, only for simpering faitheists and dudebro fuckheads alike to piss all over it.

Right? And then all that work doesn’t matter, because the theistic people who are being bashed by the fuckheads end up simply assuming any and all atheists are like that, and of a proselytising, arrogant, imperialistic ‘We need to save everyone from themselves!’ standpoint, and so it becomes impossible to even openly identify as atheist in a lot of socially progressive spaces without being immediately contextualised as aggressive, imperialistic etc. I mostly feel obliged nowadays to never talk about my atheism.

Boy do I feel that.

Which really really sucks. And it’s because if I do, people think of Dawkins, and then think that because I’m a strong atheist, I must therefore have that certain approach.

What makes it worse for me is that ninety percent of others in those spaces are more-or-less atheists, but – wait – my atheism actually matters to me? Vicious and unacceptable!

Yeah, totally. But a lot of them have so internalised the notion atheist equals Dawkbro that they won’t even say to themselves that yes, they are indeed atheists, and do indeed think there are no such things as literal deities. What troubles me is that, like, it’s something that absolutely should matter to people. Religion is a big deal, y’know?

And it really does have very significant social impact. But I think most social progressives have ended up scared to allow it to matter to them because they’ve never even seen a version of strong atheism that wasn’t this ugly, aggressive, patronising white-cishet-bro thing. And it’s next to impossible for those of us who aren’t that to be able to successfully model such an atheism. For most people, there’s no framework for allowing their atheism to be meaningful at the same time as remaining conscientious about issues of imperialism, relative cultural power or the role of religion for marginalised groups.

It is possible to believe religion is a dangerous thing, and that theist-literalists are indeed wrong, while also acknowledging that religion can be a positive thing, not wanting to go around trying to forcefully ‘educate’ or convert people, being mindful of the nuanced relationship between science, enlightenment and colonialism, not thinking theists are ‘stupid’ or somehow intellectually lesser, not thinking religion is the sole locus of oppression and not thinking being an atheist makes you a less oppressive, more enlightened, smarter or otherwise better class of person. But such possibilities just don’t exist in the discourse as is.

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“I feel obliged to never talk about my atheism”: Natalie Reed on science, postmodernism and the left

10 thoughts on ““I feel obliged to never talk about my atheism”: Natalie Reed on science, postmodernism and the left

  1. 1

    Can I just say “yes yes yes yes this yes” an awful lot of times, over and over, and have it be a comment? Particularly that last paragraph. I constantly feel tugged between how I feel about religious institutions, my atheism, the positive impact of religion in several of my friends’ lives, the interaction between religion, culture, and identity… And in all of that, the shadow of the Dawk-bros getting in the way of nuanced conversation.

  2. 2

    I freaking love Natalie Reed. She has such a nuanced perspective, and is so intellectually honest. Her early blog posts on transgender issues helped me understand a lot of the basics of that subject, and her later more complicated posts helped me develop a critical outlook that’s shaped how I’ve read a lot of gender-related writing since then. She takes the same careful approach to atheism in the conversation here, mindful of how many forms of oppression interact with each other in really complex ways.

    I miss her so much. I will do many happy dances if she ever comes back to blogging, but as it stands I wish her all the best on her other endeavors.

  3. 5

    Seeing as this conversation played out on Twitter, congratulations for your efforts in curating it into a more readable long format. I too miss seeing more blogging from Natalie but I deeply sympathise with her reluctance to talk about her atheism.

  4. 6

    Mostly people who have absolutely no idea what postmodernism actually is or means.[…] And postmodernism isn’t new age. It’s actually very very much opposed to that kind of mentality.

    It refers to a lot of different things, actually. Trying to use the word in the way it is being used here in this defense is bad communication at best, and possibly just incoherent.

  5. 8

    I cannot express the level at which I miss Natalie Reed. Her blog was one of the best here and I’m so sorry she’s out. I’m not criticizing her for that decision, obviously. I just… I just miss her outlook. She’s brilliant.

    I completely understand her reluctance with atheism, though. I face that, too. I’m definitely a weak atheist (or agnostic atheist), but I’m also an anti-theist. A rather strong one, at that. But I don’t want people to assume that this means I think Dawkins is right. Because I think he’s a fucking asshole. I also don’t want people to think that I actually believe that “atheism is the last minority it’s still okay to hate”, because that’s unmitigated bullshit.

    I want people to know that despite being an anti-theist, I’d rather work alongside a left-wing/socialist/”radical leftist” SJW Christian, Jew, and/or Muslim than a libertarian atheist.

    But thanks to Dawkins being “the Face of Atheism”, trying to navigate that sucks…

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