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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.

Mindful Cyborgs: Digital Dualism and Its Malcontents

In this episode, a conversation about our concerns about where technology takes us back to issues raised in some of the earliest episodes as we talk about the duality of “online” and “offline” and whether our concerns are rooted in technology or society. Also, perhaps a little late, a conversation about why Google Glass was such a bomb.

Download and Show Notes: Mindful Cyborgs: Cyborgian Promise, Cyborgian Perils

MIT Media Lab Course on Magic and Interface Design

From the course description for the MIT Media Lab class “Indistinguishable From… Magic as Interface, Technology, and Tradition”:

Topics will include:

-Stage Illusion as Information Display
-The Neuroscience of Misdirection
-Magical Warfare: Camouflage and Deception
-Magic Items and the Internet of Things
-Computational Demonology
-Ritual Magick as User Experience Design

Full Description: Dan Novy’s site

(via Cat Vincent)

Meet the Redpill Right

Jay Allen presents a unified theory of internet assholes (essentially what I was grasping towards, but failed to reach, at the end of my TechCrunch article on neoreaction):

They want you to lift the veil pulled over your eyes by the progressives who secretly control society. Like Neo escaping the Matrix, your choice is to wake up and see how the world really is, discarding religion, subjectivity, and feminist indoctrination. Conspiracy theorists, Men’s Rights Activists, Pick-Up Artists, GamerGate, even the Neoreaction: all of these communities share a common creed, tech-fluent and superficially self-aware. To outsiders, it’s distinctly conservative. But they don’t see themselves as conservatives at all.

Welcome to the Red Pill worldview, where the entire world is a game and the people who are winning are the best players.

Full Story: Boing Boing: A beginner’s guide to the Redpill Right

Another interesting phenomenon is the way these different but overlapping movements are trying to hijack, or at least capitalize upon, each other. For example, MRA guy Roosh Valizadeh starting a GamerGate themed website called Reaxxion.

See Also:

The Baffler on Neoreactionaries

The Future Of The Culture Wars Is Here, And It’s Gamergate

The Paranoid Style in Gaming Misogyny

Mindful Cyborgs: Coping with Depression in a Time Sick World

This week we talk about the weirdness of being on TV, the early history of the internet, and coping mechanisms for depression. This one gets really personal. Probably our most intense episode yet.

Download and Show Notest: Mindful Cyborgs: Dark Nights and the Ghosts of Tech’s Past

Technoccult Turns 15

The first version of the Technoccult site went live 15 years ago today.

I had thought about putting together some sort of mini-event today to celebrate, but I’ve been a bit too busy with other things. Plus I’m having some trouble deciding what to do next with the site. It’s hard to know exactly what the role of an old fashioned blog in the age of social media. The “link blog” seems like a particularly dated idea today.

Andy Baio recently suggested that there’s been a blogging come-back of late for mid-length content. I like the idea, but most of my writing energy goes into paid work elsewhere. That’s a really good problem to have, but I just don’t have the steam to do much original writing here. I could barely muster the strength to write this post.

Then there’s email newsletters, which as I’ve written have made a comeback. I still like the idea of doing T0 as an “email first” thing with a web archive. But there’s still the question of content and format. Mutation Vectors already feels a bit like a newsletter, and not been posted a lot besides that and links to the podcast lately, so maybe that’s the way to go.

But it’s not a great format for the dossiers, which I’ve not had time to maintain lately, but which I think could be a useful way of actually organizing and sifting through the mountains of links and information buried in a decade and half’s worth of archives here.

For now, I’ll just keep plugging away as I have for the past few years. But it feels like it’s time for a change.

Anyway, thanks for reading everyone! I hope you’re having a swell new year. Here’s to another 15 years.

Mindful Cyborgs: Your Digital Life After Your Death 2

The second part of our conversation with Willow Brugh of the MIT Media Lab about the Networked Mortality project and their efforts to help you figure out what to do with all your digital stuff when you die.

Download and Full Transcript: Mindful Cyborgs: Color Coding for Sex and Death PART 2

Mutation Vectors: Slackback Edition

Status Update

My tendonitis is flaring up and my stomach is killing me, so instead of writing up something new, here’s part of a Vectors that was originally going to go out November 29th, 2014 but that I didn’t finish due to …

This would have followed the Fantastic Death Abyss.

Browsing

This week’s must read: Deb Chachra on the 25th anniversary of the École Polytechnique:

There’s often a sense that women in the tech world make a big deal out of small events. But the myriad ways in which they are told their presence is illegitimate, that tells them that they don’t belong, is a constant pressure pushing them towards leaving technology (and game journalism, and the public sphere). In particular, when women in technology also have public voices, as with Anita Sarkeesian or Brianna Wu or Kathy Sierra, the pressure can be—is often intended to be—crushing.

I don’t think being a woman in technology is worth dying for, but I learned early that some men think it’s worth killing for.

Frank Serpico says the police are still out of control.

The Awl: the City That Split in Two

Vice: The Coming Blackout Epidemic

Listening

After posting about David Bowie’s Outside, I stumbled across Pushing Ahead of the Dame, a site written by one Chris O’Leary, dedicated to annotating every single Bowie song ever. There I learned about Leon a bootleg that may have been what Bowie originally intended Outside to be. And via O’Leary’s annotations, I’ve come to realize that OrpheanLyricist’s interpretation of Outside‘s story line is, though valid based on what was actually released, certainly not what Bowie had originally intended.

I ended up spending way too much time on this site. Here are the annotations for Leon and Outside.

Mindful Cyborgs: Your Digital Life After Your Death

This week we talk with Willow Brugh of the MIT Media Lab about what happens to all your digital “stuff” when you die. How will your co-workers get the last of your uncompleted work? What will happen to your Facebook page? Who will delete your porn folder? Willow talks about all that and more.

Download and Show Notes: Mindful Cyborgs: Color Coding for Sex and Death

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!

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