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The Deep Rift in Atheism: picking a tribe April 28, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: , , ,

Over the last few years, a deep rift has emerged in the atheist community.  If you don’t know about it, and don’t care, then I’m not going to summarize it for you.  For sake of clarity, I am talking about the rift between the FtB bloggers (because they are a hive mind, of course) and those who refer to them at “FtBullies” or somesuch.  You know, like many at Skeptic Ink, the slymepit, or A Voice for Men (and other such places).

venn-scopeofproblemNow, I will start out by saying that I recognize the tribalism emerging here.  For a while, say around 2007, it looked like the atheist community was going to be a tribe of it’s own; breaking away from the tribes of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc and creating a space for those who were interested in science, reality, and who were skeptics.   Quickly, it began to fall apart a bit at a time.  From the fall of the Rational Response Squad, through #Elevatorgate, and to the “deep rift” which still causes trembling in the blogosphere today, there are a number of tribes within the larger community of reason.  Again, I’ll start by acknowledging this, and using it as the basis to say any more about it.

Nobody here is completely right.  In every camp within the atheist community there are people who have made mistakes, with whom I disagree sometimes, and with whom I will not choose to spend my time reading (which is not to say I will refuse to do so, I just don’t follow those blogs).  But that does not mean that the answer is (necessarily) to mediate the dispute by planting oneself in some neutral zone between these camps.  That philosophy of diplomacy is fundamentally flawed, as I think The Daily Show has shown many times over the years by demonstrating that Fox News is not Fair nor balanced.  Similarly, as PZ Myers once said (and I’m identifying my” tribe here), trying to sit halfway between the evidence and “those worshipping superstition and myth is not a better place. It just means you’re halfway to crazy town.”  That is, there is a side here which is more right than others (or, in some cases, all in-accordance-with-the-evidence while the other is all wrong).  In short, I think that there exists, within this rift, a side which is one the right side of justice, and sees the long term goals of the movement are worth paying attention to.  I think that side is the FtB people, for the overwhelming majority of examples.

Many do not agree.  Justin Vacula, for example,  has said that atheism has nothing to do with feminism.  He puts it this way:

Atheism, as it’s commonly understood, and how I use the term, is lack of belief in any gods. The lack of belief in any gods does not entail any other facts about a person. Atheism — although there may be a large percentage of atheists at least in America who share some unrelated common ideals — is no indication of political views, positions on social issues, guarantee of intelligence, educational background, ideas concerning feminism, or socioeconomic status.

Here, Vacula is technically correct.  Atheism, qua atheism, will tell you nothing about a person other than their lack of belief in gods.  Vacula is here playing the part of the dictionary atheist, as defined by PZ Myers.  And I will admit that I have a small quibble with PZ’s view here about why we are atheists.  I disagree with PZ semantically (because my mind works in such a way that the lack of semantic precision bothers me), but I think I understand PZ’s point in that linked post (from February 2011, mind you…and it’s still an issue…) and agree with it mostly.   On the other hand, I find Vacula’s semantic quibbling, some 2+ years later, to be grating and annoying.  Vacula, like some many around him, is missing the point while trying to be too technical, too lawyerly.

Here’s what I posted to facebook, quickly, before going to work earlier today (in part) after reading an update by Vacula;

Atheism has nothing to do with feminism, eh? Only in the most strict sense that the lack of belief in any gods (per se) is not directly related to the role of gender discrimination and structural inequalities therein are concerned. But the same skeptical methodology and the value for human rights which led me to care enough to take part in the atheist community led me to care about the rights of all genders, discrimination, and to work towards a better world for all people no matter their gender.

And so now I want to elaborate on this.  I want to explain why I think that the atheist community has a lot to add to and contribute to the many social justice movements, feminism included, and why people like Vacula should stop being a clueless douchemonkey about this, if possible.  It’s not that I think Vacula and his ilk is always wrong, that they have nothing worth-while to add, or that he should be kicked out of anything (although I will not seek him out when I go to Women in Secularism 2 in a few weeks).  It’s that I think that they are missing the goddamned point.


I don’t participate in the A+ forums.  My wife (Ginny) is a moderator there (although I think her graduate school works and upcoming website project have made her participation there nonexistent recently).  I don’t know enough about what goes on there to speak with great authority, but I agree with their general goal as I understand it.  And despite what anyone will say about the Matt Dillahunty affair which occurred there (Matt is seemingly still on board with A+, so that should tell you something), they are a dedicated group of people who care about social justice and they are people with whom I’m willing to ally myself generally.

What is the point of atheism+? We know that atheism, per se, is simply a conclusion; the answer “no” to the question “do you currently hold an active belief in any gods?”  So why that title? Simple; it caught on from an organic conversation, and that’s how terms come to be.  It came into form here, with Greta Christina pulling together an idea that was initiated by Jen McCreight about how there is more for us to do, as atheists.  We don’t only disbelieve in gods, we have values and positive beliefs.  Granted, not all atheists share the values which the atheism+ movement embraces, but that is the nature of addition; those who don’t fall into that category are not being counted here.  If you don’t add those values, then you are not part of the set that is defined by atheism + social justice.  There is no attempt to re-define atheism, just to FUCKING ADD TO IT! Nobody has to count themselves as part of it if they are not in agreement.  Personally, I’m glad to leave some atheist dipshits behind here…OK, perhaps it would be better to educate them and bring them along, and I’m juts being cynical and negative.  Fine.

If I had my say, I’d call it skepticism+ (as I think that skepticism is the more fundamental position, compared to atheism).  But the boat sailed on that, so I’m sticking with the term until the unpredictable direction of cultural movement carries it another way.

Atheism is boring

It pains me to do it, but I will mention that Alain de Botton said that the question of whether a god exists is boring.  I detest Alain de Botton’s perspective for many reasons, and wish him the obscurity he deserves for his flat and vacuous philosophy.  But I will partially agree with him here.  It’s not the question per se  which is boring, but rather it is the way we are still answering it, the way we have been doing it for a long time, which is boring.  I’ve been around this block for more than a decade now, addressing theological claims, accommodationism, etc and it’s getting old.  Hence the need for the “third wave” of atheism which started this whole atheism+ thing.  I’m glad that there are people still handing the 101 atheist questions (my good friend Staks, who disagrees with me very strongly about the issue at hand in this post, does a good job of that even still).  In my opinion, basic atheism should no longer be the focus of anyone’s efforts within the atheist community, but should be an occasional peg to be smacked down when it becomes occasionally relevant.  We need, as atheists, to recognize that we should be concentrating on what we are for, and not merely what we are against.

I’m for feminism.

I loved Evid3nc3’s videos.  I thought his voice was remarkable and fresh, and I was glued to the monitor whenever a new video in his series about his conversion came out.  But recently he started a blog, and one of his posts from last year, entitled “Why I am not a feminist” missed the point, hard.  Being a feminist is not about ignoring the rights, plights or hardships of men [edit: Evid3nc3 wants me to clarify that his issue is that his”problem is with the word “Feminism” and the way it alienates people. It isn’t a good common banner to unite around.”  Apologies to him for misrepresenting his view.].  It’s not about focusing on women only (again, Greta Christina has said it well; the patriarchy hurts men too.  Also, see part 2).  This mistake is exactly the same as that which I identified above in discussing atheism+.  The name stuck because of the history of the subject; by studying the cultural positions, experiences, and structural discrimination of women, we learned about the problems we have with gender assumptions and the effects of those assumptions.  Feminism, as I use it (and as it is used within the atheism+ sphere) is an attempt to fix the problem for everyone, and is not misandric.  Those who identity as Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) who argue that feminism seeks to hurt men, are simply missing the point, and often will conflate some (2nd wave) forms of feminism with what people like Rebecca Watson, Stephanie Zvan, and others espouse.  It’s not called feminism because it’s anti-man, man-apathetic, or even because it seeks to reverse sexism, but because that’s the historical title that stuck.  We could try to change it, but given how cultural memes work that seems harder than just realizing that basic point that the title is historical, and not normative.

It’s time to move on

Fighting for civil, social, and human rights of atheists is a grand cause which I was glad to be a part of, and want to see continue.  I support all of the people who continue to try ato make a better name for atheists in the world, and would love to see our status as a trusted and understood group improve.  And the fact that this will continue makes me happy.  But some of us need to move on and do more—to add on—than mere atheism   Mostly, this is because it is not sufficient to merely grow our community, it is also important to make our community stronger, more mature, and more broad.  We need diversity of opinion, perspective, and experience and we cannot do so by ignoring what those potential others may teach us.  We need to open our skills up to challenges beyond mere theological claims, and be broad skeptics who understand that there are other causes and effects to the problem of religion than theology.  The role of gender is an important narrative to trace in religious history, and so is race, physical ability (ableism), colonialism, economics, etc.  As a larger community of reason, we need to open ourselves to the various disciplines from all over the social sciences, including history and feminism.

I’ve been paying attention to all sides of this deep rift over the last few years, and they all claim the same crimes of the others, and I’m sick of it.  But the truth is that I’ve learned much more from one side of this than any other. Those at Skepchick, FtB, and even Patheos have been a source of great personal education in recent years, and rarely have I read anything which has brought about personal growth or understanding from anything written elsewhere within the atheist community in recent years.  It’s not so much that one side is right concerning the deep rift per se, but that they have been attuned to ideas which have raised my consciousness more, while other places have just been doing either the same old boring atheist blogging (and not much else) or vilifying the so-called “bullies” elsewhere.

I get it; your feelings are hurt, and you don’t like the people over there.  I don’t give a shit because your blogs are boring, your perspective parochial, and your continuous victim-playing as old as your blogging style.

I’ve moved on and think mostly about the intersection of atheism, skepticism, and polyamory.  Some others are thinking mostly about the intersection of race, feminism, etc with skepticism and atheism.  But at least they have moved on.  You, my atheist brethren who are complaining about the bullies, have not.

It’s time to do so or become irrelevant, at least to this blogger.



1. Michael - April 29, 2013

I love these fabricated controversies!

2. shaunphilly - April 29, 2013

yes, because people are pretending to argue over such things….

The controversy might be silly (and it might not), but it is not fabricated. It’s a real controversy, some sides of which are just stupid.

3. Xanthë - April 29, 2013

Fabricated controversies? Huh.

Having been personally defamed by the transphobic assholes over at the SlymePit, I disagree that the controversy is fabricated. There are horribly unpleasant people in the atheist community who get their jollies out of being vile to people, and ignoring their vileness or minimising it as ‘boys will be boys’ does nothing to help – particularly in trying to make the case to the larger community outside of movement atheism that non-belief in gods doesn’t make you an amoral person. I don’t want to be a part of a movement if the face of it is to be people like Vacula, Thunderf00t (Phil Mason), or The Amazing Atheist (TJ Kincaid).

Good post, shaunphilly!

*waves to Ginny, who I imagine reads this*

4. kickgas - April 29, 2013

Seems that we have a huge pool of “Type A” Atheists swimmingly competing for attention. What did Ella Wheeler say? “So many gods so many creeds so many (secular) paths that wind and wind, when just the art of being kind is all this sad world needs.
Too, it might be an interesting study to look into the why and how of the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s secular, social and business models in comparison. Egos in check, they seem to have gotten it right. So far.

5. Yukimi - April 29, 2013

I liked your post and I agree with most of it so I shared it on Secular Women. Have a nice day! =)

6. radi4music - April 29, 2013

Thank you for writing this, shaunphilly – you’ve most eloquently hit the nail on the head. I’d long tried to clarify for myself why I am sick of the broader atheist/skeptic movement (after less than a year of being involved actively), but it was only with A+ that I realized what was missing.

The staunchly anti-A+ers are marginalizing themselves out of the movement in the long term (they’ve already made themselves irrelevant to me, personally), but the damage they’re doing to already vulnerable people in the short term is inexcusable.

7. gingertcs - April 29, 2013

Love this so much. If I were to write something to summarize the place my recent years of introspective have lead me, it is this. I’ve had this love/hate relationship. The answer is move forward and mature or this movement will wilt under the weight of its own sense of self satisfaction.

8. Miri - May 1, 2013

I get it; your feelings are hurt, and you don’t like the people over there. I don’t give a shit because your blogs are boring, your perspective parochial, and your continuous victim-playing as old as your blogging style.

I admit this made me chuckle. Great post! I don’t really write about the deeeep riiiiiifts because, while I care deeply about the ways in which said rifts are screwing over people I care about, I honestly just want to keep writing about the issues that I started my blog in order to write about.

9. Melvin - May 12, 2013

I came here through the link of Evid3nc3 and only read that part.

I think Evid3nc3 his point has value. People like me don’t know anything about feminism and are subject to bias because of a name. So I like it that Evid3nc3 clears up this point for someone who is curious to literally read a thing or two on the subject (I don’t have the time to dig in, for me personally there are more interesting things to read).

My opinion before his posts on feminists was: not much of an opinion at all, but because of the name I guess I was biased to believe it was more about women defending themselves than men. I thought it was a temporary opinion (= lack of information).

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