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:
What kind of religion is so weak in its arguments that it has to resort to death threats against those who want to leave it?
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) October 22, 2015
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.
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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.