Comment policy: Comments telling me to “show you the evidence” of TJ’s racism will not be published; if you haven’t been convinced by Martin Hughes’s thorough, science-based critiques, you’re so deep in denial that it’s not worth my time to try to convince you. Similarly, comments that are primarily insults or just telling me to “kill myself” will be tossed straight down the hole.
Watching atheists start to talk about — or desperately deny — the racism of “The Amazing Atheist” (aka TJ Kirk1) has made me feel both despondent and hopeful about the future of organized atheism. I’m flashing between extremes after recovering from a week where I’ve already spent a lot of time depressed as fuck.
I’m not going to go into laying out reasons that Kirk’s videos were racist. First of all, that should be both obvious and unsurprising to anyone who’s familiar with Kirk’s history or thinks about racism on any level deeper than “the KKK are bad people.” Second of all, Martin Hughes has done a much better job of tearing Kirk apart than I ever could. The masterful skill of his writing in his original piece and then in his follow-up after Kirk responded with a 37-minute tirade makes me envious. It also gives me hope. Knowing that we have people with that degree of skill and integrity still willing to speak up in our communities means that we may yet heal ourselves of the disease that “The Amazing Atheist” represents. Have no doubt: He is a disease, and if left untreated, he and his fans may kill any hope that atheism can make the world a better place.
Watching any of Kirk’s videos is difficult under the best of circumstances, and I have to give props to Hughes for getting through both of those things and managing to critique them in such a cogent and precise manner. Even after less than ten minutes of the second one, I could feel my brain cells dying off en masse. I didn’t want to write a critique; I just wanted to throw my laptop across the room and scream in grief and horror that this venomous asshole is the person shaping so many people’s idea of what it means to be an atheist.
But when my brain and heart were able to do their usual functions again, I thought a little more about TJ Kirk and his followers. The problem goes beyond Kirk’s basic lack of humanity and bigotry. At root, he’s a fraud: No matter how much he prances and rants about the virtues of skepticism and atheism, he’s lousy at both. He lacks the humility that secularism needs to thrive.
The Humility of Atheism
Humility is not what most people immediately associate with atheists. The stereotype most beloved by theists is that of the prideful, arrogant atheist, so completely blinded by their loyalty to science and reason that they can’t see the plain truth (i.e., God) sitting in front of them. And in fact, the reverse is true. Probably the hardest thing about atheist and skeptical philosophies is that you’re always going to be haunted by one constant, disturbing whisper lodged in the back of your brain saying: “I could be wrong about this.”
The Amazing Atheist is for people who don’t want to hear that whisper, and don’t want to satisfy it by asking those questions. He is for the people who crave the unquestionable truths and solid moral ground that priests and preachers hand out from the pulpit, yet for whatever reason don’t quite feel comfortable saying “God.”
So they turn to The Amazing Atheist and give him the same place in their hearts and minds that a fundamentalist Christian would reserve for Pat Robertson. Like Robertson, TJ Kirk comforts his viewers by reassuring them that their bigotry and hatred is reasonable and good, and they don’t have to ask that unsettling question that the rest of us hear in the backs of our minds: “Am I wrong on this?”
I ask that question a lot, and that one fact is what separates me and TJ Kirk. If Martin Hughes had written that essay about me, it would have prompted a long period of self-examination and doubt while I tried to look honestly at my words, my motivations, and what they really sounded like outside of my head. So far as I can tell, such a period of contemplation would be against the most fundamental elements of TJ Kirk’s character. The entire 37-minute rant, ugly and vile as it is, is a poor example of reason or skepticism, but it is an excellent demonstration of faith-based doctrine. The entire thing breaks down into a single referential loop: “I’m not racist,” TJ Kirk is saying, “Therefore what I said is not racist.” Kirk can take this article of faith to be as true as the Book of Genesis is to a creationist. It is solid and certain, and need not be questioned.
In some ways, that must be a very nice way to live. TJ Kirk doesn’t have to keep satisfying that little voice in his mind, demanding evidence that you’re actually doing the right thing. He probably sleeps more comfortably than I do at night. But as an ethos, it’s rotten. It results in the unabashed selfishness that he flaunts just as eagerly as his atheism. The problems of black people being driven from their homes by gentrification are not his problems, he gleefully reminds us at multiple points.
In a way, TJ Kirk’s failure as a skeptic is even worse than merely being a bigot. It’s one thing to have prejudices; we all do. But with the tools of skepticism, Kirk and his fans would at least have the chance to become better people. They could look at those prejudices, test them, and discard them. If Kirk has his way, they won’t. The message of his channel is that we shouldn’t ask questions about racism or rape culture or any of those other messy social justice issues. If you’re a fan of The Amazing Atheist, you can be assured that you’re not a bigot just “because”.
Sometimes I do wish I could get that question out of my head and live with stable certainty about my own morality. I would sleep better. I would enjoy movies and television more, and I could eat food without wondering where it comes from or buy my shirts without wondering what kind of sweatshop they were manufactured in. I would enjoy myself more.
But not really. To stifle that little question, the one that insists you always question yourself, would mean that I had decided to live with a comforting little fantasy world, as unreal and unbelievable as the one that theists construct.
The reality is that in the world we live in, being racist is the default. It is natural for white people to believe all the things that TJ Kirk spews in his videos. He and I and every other person in this society were raised on myths about the pathology of the black family, or the neighborhoods swarming with thugs, or any of a million other slanders against people of color. They are as pervasive in our society as the water surrounding fish. We inhale them every day of our lives until they become part of who we are at a cellular level.
To not be racist (or sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic) requires that you take positive, deliberate action. It demand that you look at all those racist stereotypes and look at them like a good skeptic, holding them up against the facts and then discarding them when it’s obvious that they’re molded out of the same bullshit as Heaven, Hell, and the Garden of Eden.
And it means that you have to let that question keep playing over and over in your head, even when it’s uncomfortable: “Am I wrong on this? Am I being racist?” Even for the best of us, the answer will sometimes be “Yes.” I can’t think of anything more terrifying than to acknowledge that one fact.
There are some who will say that this is me flaunting my liberal white male guilt and encouraging other white men to be ashamed. They’re wrong. Yes, I have a straight flush of societal privilege: I’m a cisgendered white man, but I don’t feel guilty about that. Guilt is something about the past, about what you’ve done. What I am is responsible, which is about building the future. I am taking responsibility for being a better person than my culture requires me to be.
If any of TJ Kirk’s fans are reading this, I’m not asking you to be ashamed or guilty. I’m just asking you: Please be skeptics.
The Amazing Atheist Isn’t the Real Problem
That brings us to the final point, and perhaps the most disturbing: The Amazing Atheist is not the real problem. We are. TJ Kirk is all of organized atheism’s problems about race and misogyny writ large. He is the reflection of issues that go far deeper and farther than his single YouTube channel. To paraphrase Voltaire, if TJ Kirk did not exist, it would be necessary for atheists to invent him.
I think that a lot of us have screwed up by treating Kirk as an annoying, disgusting crackpot who could be benignly ignored. He can’t, any more than Donald Trump can be ignored as a serious candidate. Just as a Trump presidency could kill democracy in the United States, TJ Kirk and his ilk could kill atheism. There are already large numbers of people — especially people of color, queer, women, and non-binary people — who avoid organized atheism because we regularly allow people like Kirk to thrive. It breaks my heart, for example, that the brilliant trans blogger Kat Blaque has said that she avoids atheist communities because they’re too toxic. It breaks my heart in part because I know that it is absolutely true. I know also, that there are countless others just like Kat Blaque who would say the same thing. The fact that we have thousands of people who are just fine with losing the contributions of Kat Blaque and people like her is the part that makes me feel despondent about the future of organized atheism. We cannot survive becoming irrelevant.
On the other hand, we have people like Martin Hughes and like my colleagues here at The Orbit. They give me hope that we can be something more than a club for white guys who want to stroke their egos. Let’s hope that the latter are our future.
Martin Hughes’s Original Pieces on Patheos:
- The Amazing Atheist’s Racism
- The Amazing Atheist Denies He’s Racist…By Being Racist
- Stop Being A Victim Cult: A Guide For Black Culture, By The Amazing Atheist (And Friends)
Niki responded here on The Orbit: Stale Bread Atheism
- Matthew Facciani: The Atheist Community Needs to do a Better Job of Welcoming People of Color
- Andrew Hall: Bonus: Martin Hughes Responds To The Amazing Atheist (Audio Interview)
- Steve Shives: YouTube Interview with Martin Hughes
- Just for the sake of this essay, I’m going to pretend that I believe this pathetic little Star Trek reference is actually TAA’s name. Apologies to William Shatner, James T. Kirk, and anyone who’s ever geeked out on the Starship Enterprise and its fellow vessels serving in the Federation. ↩