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Why I Drifted Away from the Atheist Movement

I don’t believe in god. And though I meditate and seek sublime experiences, I don’t think of myself as “spiritual.”

I am, in short, an atheist.

But for the past few years I’ve been hesitant to call myself one. It’s not because I’m worried about being shunned by my friends or in my community. I live in a very secular city and work in a very secular industry. Few of my friends are religious, and those that are have been exceedingly tolerant of my beliefs — or lack thereof.

No, I’m loath to use the A word because the most vocal and visible proponents of atheism have strayed far away from promoting reason, tolerance and secular values and into promoting misogyny, xenophobia and far-right politics.

But for at least a couple years, from sometime in 2006 until sometime in 2009, I was a militant atheist, dashing off dozens of blog posts condemning religious thought for promoting murder and mutilation. I thought we, the atheists of the world, were railing against injustice and speaking truth to power.

Atheism felt just and true and important. But no longer. What happened?

Atheism as Justification for Xenophobia

Over time I sensed that for far too many people in the movement, atheism was if not a front then at least a rationalization for xenophobia or racism or both. As a long-time advocate of permissive immigration policies, that didn’t sit well for me.

I thought, and still do think, that one of the best ways a secular society can help those living under extremist religious regimes is to welcome them into our own countries. What I saw instead were atheists aligning themselves with bigots and Christian fundamentalists to promote xenophobic propaganda and reactionary immigration policies. I joined in with many other atheist bloggers in posting Fitna when it came out, but ended up feeling like a tool for doing so. That was probably the beginning of the end.

A Changing View of Religion

I was eventually swayed by anthropologist Scott Atran’s critique of Movement Atheism, and his argument that it would be better to try to curb terrorism by providing role models through media such as comic books than trying to eradicate religion.

Over time I also began to realize that I, like many other Movement Atheists, had been equating Islam as a whole with a relatively small fringe. Although I often included the caveat that most Muslims were peaceful, I wrote about “Islam” as if it were one big thing as opposed to a moniker for a great many different strains of belief. That realization was driven home as I met more Muslims personally and saw how little they shared in common with the likes of the Taliban.

Although I bristled at first at the term “Islamaphobia” since I think it’s entirely reasonable to critique religion in general and Islam in particular, I’ve come to realize that it’s a perfectly fitting term for what it describes: an irrational fear and hatred of all people who practice any form of that religion.

When you spend a lot time reading about fatwas against Salman Rushdie, it can be easy to get paranoid about a huge international network of Muslim assassins out to kill anyone who criticizes the religion. But that doesn’t exist, and the fear-mongering Islamaphobia does no one any good.

Meanwhile, I was developing a more nuanced view of what organized religion as a whole actually is, which I suppose I should save for another essay. Suffice it to say, I simply became less worried about religion as an institution.

The Monomania of Atheists

Then there was the monomaniacal focus on religion to the exclusion of all other social issues. I was particularly frustrated with what I saw as a lack of interest on the part of Movement Atheists in the root causes of extreme religiosity, such as poverty and lack of access to education. Given the broad overlap between atheism and libertarianism, I started to notice a tendency of atheists to blame poverty on religion, rather than vice versa. The end of religion was being promoted as a panacea that could solve all the world’s troubles.

I also developed a sense that Movement Atheists wouldn’t be happy with any other movement until they dropped all other causes and joined the crusade against Islam. Gay marriage in the U.S. was to take a backseat to the treatment of gays in predominantly Muslim nations. No feminist issues were to be discussed ever — not as long honor killing was still happening anywhere in the world.

Honor killing became a particular sticking point for me as I started to look into and think more deeply about “crimes of passion” (as they’re called when a non-Muslim man commits them) and lethal domestic violence in the U.S., and came to the conclusion that it had more to do with toxic masculinity than religion. That led me to fully embrace feminist thought, putting me further at odds with the atheist movement.

Shark Jump

By 2011, when Dawkins published his “Dear Muslima” comment — suggesting that women who complained about sexual harassment in the workplace should shut the fuck up because at least they weren’t having their genitals mutilated — I’d already drifted away, but it’s the nice illustration of just about everything that’s wrong with Movement Atheism.

Consider, for example, Dawkins’s hypocrisy in writing that comment. He suggested that the incident that Rebecca Watson described — and the subsequent harassment she received as a result of daring to mention it — was so minor in comparison to the myriad ways that women suffer in other parts of the world that she shouldn’t even talk about it at all. But if people should only mention the worst of all abuses, then why is Dawkins even writing about a woman writing about her experiences? Shouldn’t he be writing about something more important?

The inescapable conclusion is that Dawkins was merely using atheism as a bludgeon to silence women who dared to speak out against abuse in the West because the topic made him uncomfortable. He felt threatened by women, and did what he could to push the conversation away from the ways men abuse women in the West.

And we’ve seen that again and again in the atheist community in recent years, from the barbaric treatment of women like Jennifer McCreight within the atheist community to Dawkins’s rape victim blaming.

If there was a single shark jumping moment, though, it had to have been the controversy surrounding Park51, the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” a planned community center that was to include — in addition to a performing arts center, swimming pool and gym, among other things — a large prayer room.

Movement Atheists thought the idea of Muslims praying inside a building two blocks away from the WTC site was so offensive that it should be illegal. Yes, the very same people who gleefully publish drawings of Mohammad to intentionally offend Muslims were offended at the very thought of someone praying in a room behind closed doors. Liberal values like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and property rights went right out the window. That was especially rich coming from the libertarians.

That whole ordeal, along with the movement’s vocal support of France’s burqa ban, laid bare the hypocrisy and irrationality of atheist movement. It was then clear that this movement wasn’t about fighting theocracy, giving voice to those oppressed by religion, or advancing the ideals of an open society. It was about imposing their own beliefs on other people. And I wanted nothing to do with it.

Bloodied Hands

I started writing this about a week ago, while thinking about the role of atheism in the overlapping reactionary, pick-up artist, GamerGate, and Men’s Rights Advocacy communities — recently dubbed the “Redpill Right.” It made me think about what I’d once had in common with those men, and what had changed.

And then today, three Muslim people were murdered in Chapel Hill by a militant atheist. Someone who wrote things on Facebook that sound not entirely unlike things I used to write on this very blog.

Of course there are those, like Dawkins, who will argue that actually, it’s about ethics in parking violations. But by Dawkins’s own logic, all atheists — myself included — now have blood on our hands, by making the world safe for extremists like Craig Stephen Hicks. And there’s probably some truth to that.

Which leaves me wondering where to go from here. There’s a case to be made that I, and all other non-believers who don’t share a reactionary, misogynistic view of the world should become active in Movement Atheism, to turn it around and make it safe for the marginalized. Maybe we could even change the minds of some of the worst offenders in the scene.

But I think changing those minds will be subject to the same sorts of backlash effects that I we see when trying to convert the religious to atheism. Those of us who don’t fit in with this brand of atheism are simply best moving on. We can promote reason and secular values without the tunnel vision of Movement Atheism.

Better then to wander away and leave these sad, frightened men to shout into the darkness alone, with nary a god to hear them.

Mutation Vectors: Dead Moral Issues Edition

Cartoon of a Muslim cleric and an earth both pointing at a Muslim man. The cleric says "you're with the infidels!" and the earth says "you're with the terrorists." The man says "I'm just a Muslim"

Islamic terrorism hurts Muslims too, by Khalid Albaih.

Status Update

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
-Evelyn Beatrice Hall on Voltaire.

It took me a bit to put my finger on what really bothered me about the response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings this week, but I think this is it:

I feel like we’re all being called to defend what Charlie Hebdo said rather than just their right to say it. All the tribute cartoons, the debate over whether to reprint the paper’s cartoons, the people changing their social media profile pics to cartoons from the paper, and of course, the slogan “je suis charlie” itself, are a reflection of this.

As Fredrik deBoer points out, the idea that no one should be killed over cartooning is pretty uncontroversial. There is no danger of France or the U.S. passing a law forbidding criticism of Islam. The public, in general, are not likely to become less critical of Islam as a result of this attack. Hell, not even a Muslim police officer literally defended the paper to the death. So why the pressure to for everyone to carry the Charlie banner?

I mean, I don’t think Robert Faurisson should go to prison or be killed, but you’re not going to find me on the street corner handing out Holocaust denial literature. Yet there’s this weird sentiment that if you’re not spreading these ridiculous cartoons far and wide, you’re somehow against free speech. I could understand wanting to preserve this stuff for posterity sake if it were in danger of actually disappearing. It’s hard to debate the merits of something you can’t see. But these cartoons are still just a click away. Reproducing them at this point is just posturing. Which is fine, I guess. But free speech works both ways. You have the right to say what you want, and I have the right not to say things I don’t want to say.

Browsing

As to what I might find bothersome about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, Arthur Chu has a good column on the topic, where he also digs up a particularly repugnant cover caricaturing Boko Haram’s kidnapping victims. Chu:

Yes, I know that the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo identify as left-libertarian atheists, and that they’re “equal-opportunity offenders” —the exact same background and mindset as Trey Parker and Matt Stone, as Seth MacFarlane, as your typical 4chan troll. I know that, ironically, the last issue printed before the shooting was mocking a self-serious right-wing racist doomsday prophet and his fear of a Muslim takeover, that they’ve mocked Socialist President Francois Hollande and National Front leader Marine La Pen and everyone in between.

So what? There’s no particular merit to being an “equal-opportunity offender”—indeed, it’s lazy and cheap, a way to avoid being held accountable for anything you say because none of it is part of a moral worldview or to be taken seriously.

Also, the paper’s racial caricatures of Jews seems particularly distasteful given the current climate of anti-Semitism in France.

Speaking of Boko Haram, the group allegedly killed as many 2,000 people this week in Nigeria. Meanwhile, I didn’t see a lot of people tweeting “We Are the NAACP” this week.

Elsewhere, Trevor Timm asks: The Charlie Hebdo attack was a strike against free speech. So why is the response more surveillance?.

In an actually-funny use of free speech this week, the Maryland paper Frederick News-Post published a hilarious response to local councilman Kirby Delauter’s threat to sue one of its reporters for using his name in a story without permission. It certainly brightened an otherwise dismal week.

Watching

we_are_the_best_06

Yes/no movie reviews:

Blue Ruin: Yes

Blitz: No

The Conversation: Yes

Only God Forgives: No

We Are the Best!: Hell yes!

Yazidi Brace for 74th Attempted Genocide in Iraq

Vox reports:

The last night Salam Sheikh could sleep was Sunday. That was before Islamic State fighters marched into his home city of Sinjar, in northern Iraq, defeated 5,000 Kurdish fighters within an hour, and made Cheikh’s family prisoners in their own home.

Now when the 28-year-old calls his three sisters and his disabled mother, more than 6,400 miles away in Iraq, they speak only in whispers. Speak any louder, they fear, and ISIS fighters might overhear and realize they are still in the city.

Sheikh and his family are Yazidi, part of an ancient religion with about 600,000 adherents around the world, mostly in Iraq. About 200 Yazidi families live in the United States, half of them here in Lincoln, Nebraska, where they began settling after the first Gulf War.

[…]

The Yazidi, who have been persecuted for centuries, say their cultural memory includes 73 attempted genocides. The Nebraska-based Yazidi fear they are watching the 74th from thousands of miles away.

“It’s worse than the war,” Sheikh says.

Full Story: Vox: The genocide 6,000 miles away: America’s Yazidis watch and wait, fearing the worst

See also: Wikipedia entry on the Yazidi

Muslim Punks vs. Sharia Law in Indonesia

Short Vice documentary about the actively suppressed Muslim punk scene in Indonesia’s only Sharia province:

Update: I hadn’t noticed before, but the damned embed auto-plays the video. If you want to watch the video visit the site.

This isn’t ‘feminism’. It’s Islamophobia

Laurie Penny writes:

I am not writing here on behalf of Muslim women, who can and do speak for themselves, and not all in one voice. I am writing this as a white feminist infuriated by white men using dog-whistle Islamophobia to derail any discussion of structural sexism; as someone who has heard too many reactionaries tell me to shut up about rape culture and the pay gap and just be grateful I’m not in Saudi Arabia; as someone angered that so many Muslim feminists fighting for gender justice are forced to watch their truth, to paraphrase that fusty old racist Rudyard Kipling, “twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools”.

We are the fools, if we believe that accepting aggressive distinctions between nice, safe western sexism and scary, heathen Muslim sexism is going to serve the interests of women. The people making these arguments don’t care about women. They care about stoking controversy, attacking Muslims and shouting down feminists of all stripes.

For decades, western men have hijacked the language of women’s liberation to justify their Islamophobia. If we care about the future of feminism, we cannot let them set the agenda.

Full Story: The Guardian: This isn’t ‘feminism’. It’s Islamophobia

I dislike the term “Islamophobia,” but lacking a better term, I can’t help but agree — even though of I’ve been guilty of this in the past.

This form of hijacking is especially common in the atheist community, with the likes of Richard Dawkins and Pat Condell using it to dodge criticism of the community’s own treatment of women.

See also: American Muslims Have Mainstream Values and Honor killings and “crimes of passion”.

Did the FBI Thwart Its Own Plot in Oregon?

I was out of state when this happened, otherwise I probably would have covered this sooner. As usual, Glenn Greenwald delivers the goods:

It may very well be that the FBI successfully and within legal limits arrested a dangerous criminal intent on carrying out a serious Terrorist plot that would have killed many innocent people, in which case they deserve praise. Court-approved surveillance and use of undercover agents to infiltrate terrorist plots are legitimate tactics when used in accordance with the law.

But it may also just as easily be the case that the FBI — as they’ve done many times in the past — found some very young, impressionable, disaffected, hapless, aimless, inept loner; created a plot it then persuaded/manipulated/entrapped him to join, essentially turning him into a Terrorist; and then patted itself on the back once it arrested him for having thwarted a “Terrorist plot” which, from start to finish, was entirely the FBI’s own concoction. Having stopped a plot which it itself manufactured, the FBI then publicly touts — and an uncritical media amplifies — its “success” to the world, thus proving both that domestic Terrorism from Muslims is a serious threat and the Government’s vast surveillance powers — current and future new ones — are necessary. […]

We hear the same exact thing over and over and over from accused Terrorists — that they are attempting to carry out plots in retaliation for past and ongoing American violence against Muslim civilians and to deter such future acts. Here we find one of the great mysteries in American political culture: that the U.S. Government dispatches its military all over the world — invading, occupying, and bombing multiple Muslim countries — torturing them, imprisoning them without charges, shooting them up at checkpoints, sending remote-controlled drones to explode their homes, imposing sanctions that starve hundreds of thousands of children to death — and Americans are then baffled when some Muslims — an amazingly small percentage — harbor anger and vengeance toward them and want to return the violence. And here we also find the greatest myth in American political discourse: that engaging in all of that military aggression somehow constitutes Staying Safe and combating Terrorism — rather than doing more than any single other cause to provoke, sustain and fuel Terrorism.

Salon: The FBI successfully thwarts its own Terrorist plot

It’s entirely reasonable to assume that the FBI agent’s recording gear malfunctioned or that someone made an honest mistake in configuring the equipment, as anyone who has worked with recording gear can tell you. But from a strictly legal standpoint, it seems like that should be a big strike against the FBI. Unlike Greenwald, I’m not a lawyer, though, so I don’t know.

From what little I know about the case, it does seem that Mohamud was motivated to commit violence. But the specific plot and access to weapons was furnished by the FBI. Even taking the FBI at its word, its difficult to see Mohamud as a great threat on his own. Still, it’s clear that there are some angry people in this country willing to do violence to our citizens, and as Greenwald points out, there’s relatively little discussion as to why. Regular readers of this blog know that I’m no friend to Islam, but it’s clearer every day that US foreign policy is a bigger driver for terrorism than religion.

Update: My friend Johnny Brainwash has taken a look at the affidavit and has a post on it:

The specific notion of a car bomb was Mohamud’s, but he had no clue how to go about it. Not a single operational detail would have happened without the FBI. He did buy some of the bomb components, sure, but with money and a shopping list provided by the feds. He also provided some Google Maps images and a disguise, both also at the request of undercover agents. Beyond that, he couldn’t even get to Portland if the FBI didn’t give him a ride.
This alleged plot, like nearly every alleged jihadi plot in the US, amounts to nearly nothing. Not that the kid is blameless or should get off scot-free, but he wasn’t much of a threat. Not compared to people who have committed genuine terrorist acts on American soil in the last couple of years, and certainly not enough to justify the feramongering that has gotten an added boost out of this. The story isn’t “OMG America under attack!!1!” It’s more like “look, another dumbass with fantasies of jihad- at least this one didn’t set his nuts on fire.”

He adds in the comments:

I don’t necessarily ascribe such specific intent to individual FBI’ers, or to the agency as a whole. It’s their job to catch criminals, and their budgets and prestige depend on it, so they’re going to catch them even if it takes some wishful thinking to create them. I think lots of law enforcement types, like lots of other folks, buy into the narrative of terrorists lurking under every bed, and so they don’t always realize when they’re going overboard.

I think others of them probably do realize, though.

I’m sort of leery of ascribing intent these days, preferring to describe observed behavior. Remarkable how it untangles things sometimes.

See also Mr. Brainwash on who is and isn’t a terrorist.

United Nations No Longer Condemns the Execution of Homosexuals

The General Assembly passes a resolution condemning extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions and other killings every two years. The 2008 declaration included an explicit reference to killings committed because of the victims’ sexual preferences.

But this year, Morocco and Mali introduced an amendment on behalf of African and Islamic nations that called for deleting the words “sexual orientation” and replacing them with “discriminatory reasons on any basis.” […]

The resolution, which is expected to be formally adopted by the General Assembly in December, specifies many other types of violence, including killings for racial, national, ethnic, religious or linguistic reasons and killings of refugees, indigenous people and other groups.

Reuters: U.N. panel cuts gay reference from violence measure

Mosque Notes

freedom of religion

I’m not familiar with Leon Wieseltier (whom Alex Pang says he usually dislikes), but I agree with portion of this essay on the mosque that isn’t behind The New Republic’s paywall:

Collective responsibility. One of the most accomplished Jewish terrorists of our time, Baruch Goldstein, came from the Jewish universe in which I was raised. When he committed his crime, there were a few former and present citizens of that universe, a revered rabbi of mine among them, who demanded a stringent communal introspection; but the critics were denounced as slanderers who tarred all of religious Zionism, or all of “Modern Orthodox” Judaism, or all of Judaism, with the same treasonous brush. The killer, we were angrily instructed, was an aberration, and any generalization from his action was an unwarranted imputation of collective responsibility. I disagreed. Baruch Goldstein murdered in the name of Judaism, with an interpretation of Judaism, from a social and intellectual position within Judaism. The same was later true of Yigal Amir. They did not represent the entirety of Judaism, or of the Jewish institutions that formed them—but the massacre in Hebron and the assassination in Tel Aviv were among their effects. If the standpoint of broadly collective responsibility was the wrong way to explain the atrocities, so too was the standpoint of purely individual responsibility. There were currents of culture behind the killers. Their ideas were not only their own. I am reminded of those complications when I hear that Islam is a religion of peace. I have no quarrel with the construction of Cordoba House, but not because Islam is a religion of peace. It is not. Like Christianity and like Judaism, Islam is a religion of peace and a religion of war. All the religions have all the tendencies within them, and in varying historical circumstances varying beliefs and practices have come to the fore. It is absurd to describe the perpetrators of September 11 as “murderers calling themselves Muslims,” as Karen Hughes recently did. They did not call themselves Muslims. They were Muslims. America was not attacked by Islam, but it was also not attacked by Jainism. Mohammed Atta and his band (as well as the growing number of “homegrown” Islamist killers and plotters) represent a real and burgeoning development within Islam, an actualization of one of Islam’s possibilities, an indigenous transnational movement of apocalyptic violence that has brought misery to Muslim societies, and to us. It is not Islamophobic to say so. Quite the contrary: it is to side with Muslims who are struggling against the same poison as we are. Apologetic definitions of Islam will not avail anybody in this struggle.

The New Republic: Mosque Notes

(via Alex Pang)

I haven’t said much publicly about Park 51 thus far because I’ve been having trouble expressing myself eloquently enough. But I think Wieseltier pretty much nails it.

On a related note, I found Pat Condell’s recent remarks about the project disturbing.

People keep framing this as a religious freedom issue. But there’s a difference between practicing your religion, which everyone has a right to do, and rubbing your religion in people’s faces as a triumphalist political statement, which is what’s happening here. I’d be interested to know just how bad an insult has to be before it’s no longer protected by the First Amendment. After all, the Second Amendment gives Americans the right to bear arms. But in practice you need a permit to walk around packing hardware, and not everyone can get one despite the Second Amendment.

It is indeed an issue of freedom of religion – and it’s also a freedom of assembly, a freedom of speech, and a property rights question.

Anyway, the intent of Park51 should be applauded because it sets out to do what we, in a civil society, should do when we disagree: have open and peaceful discussions about the issues. Not blowing people up or sending police to buildings and telling the owners what religion they can practice on the premises.

I’m not really interested in splitting hairs of whether Park51 will be a mosque or not, or how close it is to Ground Zero (for the record, it’s really really close to Ground Zero, but I have a hard time calling it a mosque – but I don’t think it’s important). But this essay makes one other important point:

There’s one more catch for the opponents of the so-called Ground Zero mosque: by the same logical leap you can call the Cordoba Center a “mosque,” you can also call Ground Zero as it already exists a giant, open-air mosque. Muslim prayers are already taking place right on the edge of the construction site, and not for world domination. Families are going there to pray — for the souls of the dozens of innocent Muslim victims who died on September 11.

American Muslims Have Mainstream Values

Islam

About 9 in 10 American Muslims support progressive policy positions on health care, school funding, the environment, foreign aid and guns. However, smaller majorities take positions on other issues that are very much in line with those of conservatives and religious people. They favor school vouchers (66%), government funding for religious social service groups (70%), making abortion more difficult to obtain (55%), the death penalty (61%), income tax cuts (65%), forcing U.S. citizens to speak English (52%) and even stronger laws to fight terrorism (69%).

So American Muslims tend to be conservative on social and religious issues and liberal on economic and human rights issues, making their attitudes more similar to those of Catholics than to those of conservative Protestants.

Forbes: American Muslims Have Mainstream Values

See also: Will Europe Be Islamafied in 40 Years?

Will Europe be Islamafied in 40 Years?

Islam

Spoiler: Probably not.

I’ve seen the video in question. This article is a year old, but I hadn’t seen it before. Worth bookmarking if you tend to get a lot of forwards on the subject.

This seven-and-a-half minute video “Muslim Demographics” uses slick graphics, punctuated with dramatic music, to make some surprising claims, asserting that much of Europe will be majority Muslim in just a few decades. It says that in the past two decades, 90% of all population growth in Europe has been Muslim immigration. […]

But are any of the video’s statistics true?

Spoiler: Some, but the video is wildly misleading and contains many errors.

Population projection is an inexact science. No-one knows how many Muslims will be living in Europe or anywhere else by 2050. The current trends suggest that by 2050 Europe will have a bigger proportion of Muslims, although nothing like the level suggested in the video.
But the big assumption here is current trends. Levels of immigration and fertility change over time.
It is certainly true that immigrant communities often have higher fertility rates but over time these usually fall into line with the indigenous population. This might not happen with Muslim immigrants. But nobody can know and that’s why, according to Dr Hinde, it is so hard to guess the future.

BBC: Debunking a YouTube hit

Something this debunking doesn’t address: Islam is a religion, not an ethnicity. The number of individuals of middle eastern descent doesn’t equal the number of Muslims in a country.

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