Atheism is not enough (pt 1)

(a three part blog series)

Tectonic rift at Thingvellir, Iceland. (CC, click for source)

Building a Community with Insufficient Data

I keep chewing this thought over in my head, this one nagging meme that got planted there by way of innumerable trolls during innumerable battles in my tenure on the blogosphere. It’s been percolating in my brainpan at least since the inception of the label “Atheism Plus” and the community that coalesced around it. Longer than that, in fact. Playing over and over, like a drum beat.

That thought is, atheism is not enough.

It is good, important, even vital to become an atheist; to free yourself from the intellectual and in some cases physical impediments that religion imposes. But that should be the beginning of a journey into freethinking, not the end of it. Without a god or gods, you have no moral lawgiver, so you have to build your own morality.

I wrote an essay called Mission Creep not too long ago, wherein I detailed my own journey into, through and beyond atheism. I kind of thought that would be the end of that particular train of thought, given that I argued quite strongly that our communities are presently evolving, and this evolution entails recognizing a number of aspects of social justice that intersect heavily with contrareligious social justice causes.

But the meme kept surfacing elsewhere, in any argument that even approached in a sidelong way the idea that knowing someone’s an atheist isn’t enough to know whether they’re a good person. I’ll grant you that this did come up most noticeably when Atheism Plus was first coalescing into a real “thing”, but before that, any time an atheist on the blogosphere would discuss anything to do with feminism, gay rights, politics or social justice, you’d get the same sort of arguments: that belief or lack thereof in a god means absolutely nothing else.

And that argument’s correct. In a manner of speaking.

Though, if you’re one of these people, you may not like the way this argument’s correct.

Reflect for a moment on some famous atheists in the media. Three big ones spring to mind immediately: Bill Maher, Penn Jillette, and Richard Dawkins. I can, however, tell you with some confidence that all three disagree with me on a number of, to me, fundaental values, even where all four of us agree on the point that there is (with near certainty) no deity involved in any capacity with this universe or its happenings. All four of us likewise agree that organized religion is a power structure built by and maintained by people with a vested interest in controlling vast swathes of humankind.

But there are some important and, frankly, more significant differences in philosophy between us than the slim territory on which we agree.

Bill Maher has expressed hyperskepticism about the germ theory of disease and vaccinations, verging on governmental conspiracy theories about the topic — which would be hard enough to swallow if he weren’t also blatantly misogynistic. But the God thing? I’m right there with him. Yep, there aren’t any gods. Total agreement.

Penn Jillette uses his platform to promote libertarianism, and not the nice civil libertarianism, but the truly Randian, drastically self-centered and entirely morally bereft sort that would be impossible to build a functional society around. And that’s not to mention his own heaping helping of misogyny. But on the topic of deities, he and I could probably break bread amicably.

And Richard Dawkins, the closest thing some atheists seem to have to a saint, himself has feet of clay in some areas. Even where I have immense respect for his efforts in popularizing science, in advocating for the dismantling of various religious institutions, and in his exposition on the powerful idea of memetics (which predates him somewhat, but HIS meme travelled!), I must still take issue with his repeated and flagrant dismissal of sexism in anything but the absolute worst cases imaginable — if you’re not being forced into having your genitals mutilated, you’re experiencing zero bad, by his scalar value system. But again, I know you could find nothing but overlap between he and I, on our thoughts as to whether or not some higher power exists.

And that’s not even broaching the differences we have within the fraction of the community that exists primarily on the internet. I can’t even begin to parse the ways TJ Kincaid, The “Amazing” Atheist, and I disagree about close to every moral precept he’s ever evinced, because I find the majority of them to be objectively harmful in a number of ways to individuals within society, and to society as a whole. Suffice it to say, he represents my views on no topics outside of the existence of a god or gods. If we agree on anything else, I’ve yet to see it, and I would be honestly surprised.

So we call one another out on these fundamental philosophical differences. We do it here, and get labelled as bullies for it — even while people are really being bullied by the hypocritical and ostensibly anti-bully faction aligned against us. We all do it. We draw lines in the sand and we argue against people who cross them.

Why are we — all of us, on every side of every battle within the atheist blogosphere, even those of you who absolutely hate me, PZ Myers, Ophelia Benson, Stephanie Zvan, Rebecca Watson, Freethought Blogs, Skepchick, or any ally or friendly entity thereto — so willing to draw our personal lines so differently, and to call people to the carpet over differences in philosophy who might otherwise be our allies in the battle against religious privilege?

There’s a simple answer to that rhetorical question. Every one of us already realizes, practically innately, that atheism isn’t enough.

Continue to part 2.

Atheism is not enough (pt 1)

73 thoughts on “Atheism is not enough (pt 1)

  1. 52

    Anthony K obviously meant that you hadn’t yet made a statement that assumes a conclusion about Elevatorgate. I can tell this because I can totally read his mind. (Also, reading comprehension skills. You did shortly afterward.)

    I could go on with other examples of Dawkins saying things that are misogynistic in the sense of dismissive of sexism aimed at women. But I’m having so much fun with you flailing on this one.

  2. 54

    Meh. I actually don’t find SIWOTI amusing; just annoying. I’ve made similar such comments on PZ’s blog.

    Maybe I’m getting too old for this shit.

    (Which is kind of funny, since according to the slymy doxxers I’m still living in my parents’ basement. They’ve made photoshops. Spent a lot of time on them. The irony isn’t lost on me. I just don’t find stupid amusing.)

  3. 55

    I know I said I was done for the night, but I realised that I made a mistake. When Anthony said “assumed a conclusion” I thought he was talking about knowing what I was thinking, not what I said about the EG incident not being sexist or misogynist. That was a mistake on my part and a pretty careless one so I apologise for that.

  4. 56

    Jason, there used to be a feature on the website where derailing comments in a thread could be moved to an alternate thread. At times when you have idiots like Jonathan — whose denial of Dawkins’ cultural insensitivity and lamentably pedestrian sexist attitudes is mind-numbing proof of his ineptitude — you could sweep away the derail to the alternate thread to, you know, allow intelligent conversation to occur? Which sadly is lacking from his comments, and which contribute to pretty much no discussion of your actual post having occurred in well over half the thread to this point. Anthony’s frustration at having to answer Jonathan’s foolishness is evident: multiply that by the number of those readers who read and engage with the comments.

    For me, the attacks on developments within atheism such as Gnu atheism or Atheism plus underline that concepts such as an ‘atheist movement’ (or substitute, skeptical, feminist, humanist, etc, etc) are exceedingly weak coalitions, and it’s a social fallacy to believe that because A is friends with B, C, D, and so on, that B, C, and D are obliged to be friends with one another. And as atheism is only a matter of not having religious, theistic belief, which is a relatively unimportant matter or qualifier if you are atheist, then it follows that there are a number of more important qualities that you would like to see reflected in the people you count as allies or friends.

    Furthermore, it’s both natural and desirable to draw personal boundaries in social interactions with other people. People can be assholes, and there’s no obligation requiring anyone that they must, on pain of social ostracism and opprobrium, be forced to remain friends with people who ride roughshod over other people’s boundaries. A curious feature of the current rift is the resemblance to the male separatist wing of the ‘Men’s Right Movement’, known as MGTOWs: they say they want nothing to do with women as they’ve Manfully Gone Their Own Way, yet they can’t help sniping at and stalking the people whom they’ve supposedly left behind. (It goes without saying that it’s pathetic to define your activism by the people you want to stop from going on and about their business without reference to you, but the negative evidence continues to amount.)

  5. 57

    I think this will be my last post on this thread, since the discussion seems to have hit a wall.

    Anthony K:

    Willfully mischaracterising? Because in context, the point is completely lost if Dawkins referred to FGM, unescorted driving and travel restrictions, and threats of violence and death, rather than simply FGM. Right.

    My point, as I have stated many times, is that Dawkins has never claimed anything less than FGM is “zero bad”. The DM comment that you used in support of JT’s generalisation actually shows it to be wrong. The “zero bad” comment referred to a specific incident, yet in his post JT did not make reference to that, allowing it to appear as if it was a broader opinion of RD’s. This is incorrect.


    I could go on with other examples of Dawkins saying things that are misogynistic in the sense of dismissive of sexism aimed at women. But I’m having so much fun with you flailing on this one.

    I’ve actually enjoyed the discussion as well, for what it is worth. And perhaps you could supply examples. But they still would not show that “anything less than FGM is zero bad” in the eyes of Dawkins, as I could easily point out instances where he has argued against sexism and misogyny.


    I admire your bravery in insulting me from behind the shelter of your keyboard. It’s telling that in all your attacks on me you failed to engage with anything I said. Clearly you didn’t consider that worthwhile, which is fair enough. I am curious about how my addressing a specific part of JT’s post could be considered derailing, but since I will probably be met with further insults it is perhaps best that I leave this here.

    Thank you for the discussion, everyone.

  6. 59

    My point, as I have stated many times, is that Dawkins has never claimed anything less than FGM is “zero bad”.

    And my point, as I have stated at least once, is SO FUCKING WHAT?! Dawkins’ behavior in this instance is just plain abysmal, childish, and inexcusable. Trying to rescue his rep by quibbling over whether Jason’s critique is literally accurate in every word, is just plain pathetic and ridiculous.

    Dick to the Dawks made an unmitigated ass of himself — in response to a casual bit of advice that wasn’t even directed in his vicinity — and his junior-high phallocratic BS put a lasting burden on someone who had done no harm; and AFAIK he still hasn’t had the guts to admit he did anythying wrong. And all his fanbois can do is bitch and quibble over his critics’ choice of words. Seriously, are you guys TRYING to make the atheist movement look stupid?

  7. 61

    My point, as I have stated many times, is that Dawkins has never claimed anything less than FGM is “zero bad”.

    Dawkins claimed that what Rebecca Watson experienced was zero bad and not indicative of sexism or misogyny. He’s wrong. It was bad because it was disrespectful and inconsiderate and creepy, and it was sexist because it fits with a larger pattern of men feeling entitled to ignore women’s stated boundaries, so long as there’s a minute chance that pushing said boundaries will lead to them getting their dicks wet. It doesn’t matter what EG intended by it, the fact is that this pattern of behavior–ignoring what women say in favor of pushing their boundaries and trying to coerce, trick, or seduce them into sex in the face of repeated refusals–exists in society because of sexism, and if men want to come off as something other than sexist, they have to behave in ways that don’t fit a sexist pattern of behavior. No, it isn’t easy, and no it isn’t fair, but then sexism isn’t fair so go fuck yourself if you have a problem with it.

    He has also claimed that religious indoctrination of children is worse than the sexual abuse of children. He’s wrong. He even used his status as a survivor of childhood abuse to prop up this claim, which I find insensitive in the extreme. His experiences with childhood sexual abuse are not representative, nor are his experiences of childhood religious indoctrination.

    Dawkins fucked up. He’s speaking from ignorance combined with privilege and it makes him look like an ass. Doesn’t mean that everything else he’s done is worthless. But your hero has feet of clay.

    Fucking deal with it, Mr. “Skeptic.” Sounds to me like you’re suffering from the Halo Effect that Jason mentions.

  8. 62

    Lattice of coincidence: I was just reading the interview on Alternet with Blake Page, the West Point cadet who quit over religious discrimination and he said:

    There are no Humanist chaplains. The army officially refuses to recognize Humanist chaplains and refuses to allow us to put Humanist on our dog tags. I have atheist on my dog tags even though atheism doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s not a philosophy. Humanism means something: We should be good for the sake of being good; we should care about other human beings. That means something, but I’m not allowed to say that on my tags, and we don’t have chaplains out there representing our worldview.

  9. 63

    For Christ’s sake. Jonathan, the “anything less than genital mutilation is zero bad” comment was hyperbole, and really obviously so at that. When somebody says “I’ve said this a million times”, do you ask for sources for exactly one million previous times the person has made this statement, or do you assume that what they mean by it is “I’ve said this a lot”? Similarly, when somebody says “Richard Dawkins seems to think anything less than female genital mutilation is zero bad”, you should read it as “Richard Dawkins only seems to see sexism when it’s blatant and extreme, while being blind to the little everyday things”, because no, of course they don’t literally mean that he thinks the only type of sexism ever is female genital mutilation.

  10. 64

    To correct Raging Bee, RW’s use of the example in “Guys, don’t do that” was in fact a characterisation of the sexist nature of atheist gatherings, and specifically one of the reasons that gender parity doesn’t exist at many of them.

    Actually, IIRC, RW’s “guys, don’t do that” comment came in a purely informal speech where she was mostly talking about what a great time she had at the conference. Her mention of the EG was as the sole non-wonderful incident in an otherwise enjoyable conference.

  11. 65

    SS said :”disrespectful and inconsiderate and creepy”

    How do you know he was creepy, were you there? He started a conversation with another human being in an elevator, that’s what some of us do instead of looking down at our shoes. Are you are advocating a look down and shut up kind of world where everyone is suspicious of each other…now that IS creepy!

  12. 68

    […] This is another bit of privilege, and it can manifest itself in nasty ways when you aren’t aware you’re doing it. (Have you noticed yet that privilege has that hallmark of being something you’re generally unaware of?) You notice little ways that the underprivileged try to even the score, and dismiss those little ways as being some sort of overreach — you attack the Women In Secularism conference for being all about women when the whole secular movement “should” be pluralistic by fiat because we’re all rationalists, and yet you are willing to dismiss every grievance a woman might legitimately have with our movement. You might fight back against “fascism” like harassment policies, and try to prove them unnecessary by repeatedly harassing people who advocate for them. Or you might simply back off and say “whoa, whoa, I don’t want to be involved with all that divisive feminist stuff, I just want to be rude to Ray Comfort and Sylvia Browne, leave me out of it”, even though that de facto benefits the people who would rather (overtly or otherwise) that this movement stay an old boys’ club. The fear of overreach or the temptation to sit on the fence about such things — to keep our powder dry and only fight the fights that are directly related to the core “mission” of the movement — actually undercuts this movement, because that same core mission would be very well served by increasing our numbers and diversifying the pool of ideas within it. […]

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