Reasonabler than Thou?
*September 27, 2019 update: I’ve become more comfortable with being described as an atheist, but the social criticism of the atheist community laid out below stands.*
On a formal intellectual level, there are a number of reasons I refuse to embrace atheism. While I don’t believe in a micromanaging deity, I find atheism too categorical. I find that the hard problem of consciousness is genuinely “hard”; I don’t rule out that we and the universe may be more than the sum of our parts. Perhaps I even have a tiny spark of “faith” in that notion, at least some of the time, but I have no interest in debating any of this. And that occasional spark of something like “faith,” such as it is, goes along with a consistent aversion to defined metaphysical dogma, of which I am suspicious due to its thoroughly attested authoritarian potential. When push comes to shove, while I work to build bridges between ex-Evangelicals and other ex-fundamentalists who find their way forward both in healthy religion and in no religion, I cannot escape the thought that organized religion–especially text-based monotheistic religion–creates problems that simply don’t need to exist without it.
Even so, there’s enough of a Kantian in me that I cannot embrace atheism and prefer to call myself a non-religious agnostic. But to be completely honest, because of serious problems with racism and sexism and a failure to address them in what I will refer to variously as “movement atheism” and “the atheist community,” I also find atheism unattractive on a visceral level. I can imagine smug atheists out there congratulating themselves at this point, concluding that my refusal to embrace atheism is merely “emotional” rather than “rational,” QED. But there’s a problem with that.
All reasoning about things that matter to us deeply is motivated; cognitive science has obliterated any possibility of an informed, good faith argument that the kind of objectivity so many atheists lay claim to is really attainable, that our emotions can be divorced from our cognitive faculties. And this deep investment in the ability to be “objective” is one of the roots of movement atheism’s failure to be inclusive. Zealous atheists’ rhetoric of reason masks a deep-seated emotional attachment to being right, to being preeminently rational, from which many of them clearly derive a sense of moral superiority. Such a deep-seated need to be right, and indeed to be the smartest or best informed person in the room–not only about the things one has studied in depth, but about everything–is a recipe for projection, deflection, and an inability to engage in self-reflection and admit to being wrong. In this respect, movement atheism has become a mirror image of the fundagelicalism that atheists, and I along with them, deplore.
Criticizing the Atheist Community is Not Support for Christian Superiority
This post is surely going to offend a lot of atheists, who may see it as giving undue succor to believers in a way that could benefit the anti-intellectual and theocratic tendencies in American life that are currently doing so much damage in the form of Trumpism. Aren’t Christians highly privileged in America? Indeed, they are. (So are the white male atheists that make up the bulk of movement atheism, but leave that aside for a moment.) I do not want my story appropriated and mobilized by others who are at cross purposes with me, and one of the purposes to which I am most devoted is exposing and fighting the theocratic extremism of the US Christian Right.
While I’m trying to preempt it here, there is a risk that certain toxic Christians, including the online coterie of generally unimpressive neo-Calvinists who have become creepily obsessed with the ex-Evangelical community as a mission field (and to whose blogs and tweets I will not link), will point to a post like this as evidence that I might be open to converting to some form of religious orthodoxy (I am not) or that I am inconsistent. I am frequently misunderstood (God did I really just type that?), but I don’t think I’m unduly inconsistent (we all live with some contradictions).
There is also a risk that some of the more defensive progressive Christians will try to co-opt the post, using my experience to justify their sense of being beleaguered and forgotten by the American Left, when I in fact find that behavior insufferable and that narrative ridiculous. A couple of tweets to illustrate my record in this regard, which I hope will nip some potential misuses of this post in the bud:
“Resounds” in the above tweet, either a mistype or an autocorrect fail, should read “redounds,” of course, and “level” should read “level of.” But hopefully the thrust of the tweet is clear. Our Twitter which art in cyberspace, when wilt thou bestow upon thy faithful an edit button?
Nobody Understands Me, or, I Might be Emo but I Strive to be Ethical
At any rate, and now at the risk of sounding like an emo sixteen-year-old, I do seem to be misunderstood with some frequency. (Speaking of emo sixteen-year-olds, there is admittedly a part of my traumatized soul that is stuck in 1996, and it wants to wear ALL THE OUTFITS in this classic Patti Rothberg music video.)
Among the various misrepresentations of me that can be found online, I am not particularly annoyed at being misidentified as an atheist. I would rather people think of me as an atheist than as a progressive Christian, though ideally they’d understand that as an agnostic who is highly suspicious of metaphysical dogma for its authoritarian potential, I am neither. And as someone who believes that the emerging ex-Evangelical community must accommodate both believers and non-believers, I would appreciate it if atheists who engage with me would pick up on that nuance.
In a recent Twitter thread in which I was criticizing the atheist community for its misogyny problem, one atheist asked me, “Aren’t you proud of your #EmptyThePews?” It’s honestly funny to me that many atheists don’t see such whataboutism as precisely the type of deflection that defensive believers engage in, but, for the record, of course I’m proud of how #EmptyThePews has become an ongoing protest hashtag and online movement. It’s important to note, however, that I framed #EmptyThePews as not anti-religious. I cast it as targeted only at toxic Christianity (or toxic religion more broadly). The movement calls for believers of conscience in churches that are clearly complicit in injustice to leave their churches for either no church or for a healthy church, as their individual consciences dictate.
While I am non-religious, I do have a strong commitment to being ethical, and, for me, ethics begins with recognizing others’ equal dignity and moral autonomy, and the validity of others’ lived experience–including, even especially, of those whose lives have been very different from mine. If I want to preach anything, it is this: epistemological humility and respect for others’ moral autonomy. This means listening with an openness to being wrong. It means respecting others’ choice to be religious, so long as the religion they practice does not harm others and they in turn respect the choice of those of us who eschew religion.
Both toxic Christians and toxic atheists tend to violate these principles (and my and others’ autonomy and boundaries). Indeed, I once got into a Twitter argument with an atheist who insisted that if I don’t believe in a micromanaging god, I am an atheist no matter how I define myself. Such aggressive numbers grubbing is unattractive and similar to the ends-justify-the-means-tactics used by toxic Christians. As someone who considers all proselytizing objectification, I let the man know that I did not appreciate his violation of my moral autonomy. He slung a few puerile insults at me and then blocked me, but I suppose I am the “snowflake” for failing to bow to his “impeccable reasoning.”
Respecting others’ moral autonomy means accepting that human beings have equal rights. Such respect should then prompt us to examine systemic social realities and processes that create vastly unequal outcomes among groups, attempting to uncover where we are complicit in injustice and what we can do to address our complicity. This calls us to consider how various kinds of relationships and interactions can be affected by unequal power dynamics, and, by extension, to listening to and amplifying the voices of the marginalized. This means taking the accusations of those with less power against those with more power seriously (e.g. supporting #MeToo, not dismissing it as Sam Harris has by tweeting articles that undermine it).
If I want to be ethical, I should do my part to tear down white supremacism and patriarchy, both of which persist in America today despite civil rights gains. These gains themselves are severely threatened by the coalition of the (often atheist) alt-Right and the Christian Right (the primary culprits, if only because their numbers and political pull are greater, but, as last year’s Values Voters Summit shows, the lines between the two groups are blurring). Working toward social justice requires more than lip service; it requires listening, critical self-reflection, and a willingness to admit to being wrong and to apologize sincerely when that is the case. It is when (usually white, usually male) atheists seem to believe that they are immune to any possible complicity in these things, despite vast evidence to the contrary, that I find myself bumping heads with them online. Instead of trying to respond individually to their many deflections and defenses of the likes of Harris and Dawkins, neither of whom I consider defensible from the point of view of my ethical convictions, I decided it was finally time to address this in a blog post.
Yes, Virginia, There is an Atheist Community, and It Has Inclusivity Issues
It appears that one of the favorite pastimes of members of the atheist community is asserting that there is no such thing as an atheist community. They assert this in between reading the same books, reading and posting in the same fora and subreddits, listening to the same podcasts, idolizing the same Dawkinses and Harrises, watching the same YouTube videos, and attending the same conventions, all of which apparently helps to convince them that they are oh-so-remarkably-unique individuals who exist, in their eminent reasonableness, apart from such trivialities as sociological factors. Clearly it is pure coincidence that these most unique individuals also engage in the same unoriginal deflections that allow them to avoid critical self-reflection and the need to address the systemic problems with racism and sexism that are pervasive in the (overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male) atheist community.
(Shout-out to The Godless Mama, who is one of my favorite atheists on Twitter precisely because she does not shy away from addressing the rampant racism and sexism in movement atheism.)
To wrap this up, let me address a few comments that prominent New Atheist Sam Harris has made about the “masculine” nature of atheist spaces:
3. My work is often perceived (I believe unfairly) as unpleasantly critical, angry, divisive, etc. The work of other vocal atheists (male and female) has a similar reputation. I believe that in general, men are more attracted to this style of communication than women are. Which is not to say there aren’t millions of acerbic women out there, and many for whom Hitchens at his most cutting was a favorite source of entertainment. But just as we can say that men are generallytaller than women, without denying that some women are taller than most men, there are psychological differences between men and women which, considered in the aggregate, might explain why “angry atheism” attracts more of the former. Some of these differences are innate; some are surely the product of culture. Nothing in my remarks was meant to suggest that women can’t think as critically as men or that they are more likely to be taken in by bad ideas. Again, I was talking about a fondness for a perceived style of religion bashing with which I and other vocal atheists are often associated.
4. I believe that a less “angry,” more “nurturing” style of discourse might attract more women to the cause of atheism.
5. However, I haven’t spent even five minutes thinking about how or whether to modify my writing or speaking style so as to accomplish this.
Harris isn’t wrong that New Atheism’s ethos, one that prioritizes achieving rhetorical dominance via aggressive debate, is on the whole more attractive to men than women. If Harris were to give serious consideration to gender theory, however, he might come to understand that this is the result of gendered socialization, and that the ethos of movement atheism reflects toxic masculinity rather than any sort of “ontological masculinity.” Toxic masculinity is culturally constructed and harmful (including to men), but we can certainly imagine better masculinities. Most of the atheist community, however, seems too busy asserting rhetorical dominance and alienating Muslims and people of color, as well as women, to be bothered to reflect on such possibilities for “even five minutes.” It is truly disappointing to see this continue in the era of #MeToo. Perhaps #AtheistsToo is a hashtag that needs to have its moment? I just checked, and there are a few tweets, although the hashtag doesn’t seem to have trended.
New Atheism’s specific style of masculinity, as far as that goes, has largely grown out of the ethos of academic philosophy departments. I bring this up because the discipline of philosophy is one of the last bastions of toxic masculinity in the American academy. US philosophy departments remain dominated by white men who take great pleasure in establishing rhetorical dominance, and, not coincidentally, numerous stories of sexual assault and exploitation of female students by male professors in philosophy departments have come to light in recent years (see here, and here, and here, for starters). This is something that Harris and his fans would do well to reflect on. Preferably for more than five minutes.
This post has only been up for a few minutes, but this is too good not to share. Immediately after I posted this piece to Twitter, clearly without having had the time to read it, an atheist replied to me as follows:
do you believe in god(s)? if you have any answer other than yes, you are an atheist. there is no “atheist community” …. just as there is no “unicorns aren’t real” community
Thanks for proving my point.