When New Atheism was born, it served a real and noble purpose. Though open criticism of religion wasn’t unheard of, it was still uncommon enough to be shocking to many people to see anyone publicly calling attention to the dark underbelly of religion – to the privileged status it holds as considered off the table for criticism or the unfounded conflation of piety with morality. In the aftermath of 9/11, however, we could no longer afford to deny the connection between religious fundamentalism and deadly extremism. We could not have an honest conversation about our national security or shared values without acknowledging the damage religion can cause or the risks it poses. Back then, breaking the taboos that protected institutional religious privilege wasn’t just an edgy claim to notoriety; it was a moral imperative.
Another meaningful contribution of New Atheism was to show doubters and non-believers on an unprecedented scale that we weren’t alone. While many of us had remained closeted for years, either from societal or familial pressure or for want of the means to articulate our doubts, the onset of movement atheism all at once gave us the words to express our ideas and the comfort of knowing there were millions of others out there just like us. Books like Hitchens’ God is Not Great, Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, and Dennett’s Breaking the Spell resonated not only because they made such compelling arguments against the existence of god and the toxicity of organized religion, but because they expressed to the world the observations and objections so many of the rest of us had been seeing and thinking but could not articulate (at least not as succinctly or powerfully. I will never forget the first time I read The God Delusion, the first so-called “atheist” book I had ever read; I must have leapt up and shouted “Yes! That’s it! That’s EXACTLY IT!” a hundred times). We sought out like-minded thinkers in online spaces and formed virtual communities, and some were even emboldened to reclaim their identities within their own communities. We were, if not free of the stigma of atheism, at least no longer solitary in it, and perhaps for the first time we had the numbers and resources to fight it.
That was a long time ago now. For many of us who have been involved in any meaningful way with this movement (such as it is) since more or less the beginning of New Atheism, the bloom is off the rose. Just as certain films and novels that struck us as revolutionary in high school look trite and shallow in the cold light of adulthood, the scriptural counter-apologetics, witticisms about gullible theists, and preening pronouncements about our preference for difficult truths over comforting lies that seemed so clever and cutting-edge 15 years ago are now hackneyed and tired. The problem, as I see it, is that too many New Atheists never matured beyond that initial rebellious phase. They conflate seeing through the god hypothesis with following evidence. They confuse gratuitous insensitivity with being iconoclasts. Besotted with their own perceived wit and what they see as their command of rhetoric, they mistake their atheism for intellectualism.
For my part I was never really interested in the “does god exist or not” discussion, for as David A. Sptiz said, “it is scarcely necessary to disprove what has never been proved.” For a long time my primary focus was on pointing out the disparity between what religion claims – about the rewards of faith, for example – and the reality of the world we live in, not as a means to debunk the existence of god but to expose the ways in which those disparities lead to the rationalization of and indifference to human suffering. I still think exposing this failure of compassion is worthwhile and necessary, but I am no longer naive enough to think that anti-theist activism is a sufficient remedy for what ails humanity, nor that religion is the cause of all that ails us.
Growing up involves self-reflection and discovery. As each person takes a separate path, we arrive at certain destinations at different times, and bypass others altogether. People who are just now questioning or abandoning their religious faith have different questions and needs than people who left years ago or never had it to begin with, which are different still based on whether someone was a casual believer or a fundamentalist, Christian or Muslim, how religious her community is, and so on. It makes sense that much of what made New Atheism appealing to people who were already atheist (more or less) 15 years ago is appealing today to people who are only just now coming into their atheism. In this context the counter-apologetics, self-affirmations, and taboo-smashing still have great value at an individual level. Still, it is a phase that one would expect most to outgrow as they move along their journey, not a place to remain stuck forever, like an aging football captain still repeating the story of his state championship-winning touchdown 30 years later.
I hitched my own wagon to this movement in hopes of creating a world in which ancient superstitions hold no sway over civil laws; where people think critically and make decisions based on objective truths; where minds are changed based on evidence; and where “because my religion says so” is no longer an acceptable justification for hatred or for depriving anyone of their dignity or basic human rights. It has been a sad, disillusioning journey to discover that these are not universal values amongst atheists, many of whom have no more regard for evidence or morality than the theists they hold in such contempt and who seem all too happy to replace religious justifications for hate and bigotry with other, non-divine but equally flawed reasons. If the atheist “movement” cannot live up to its own professed ideals of applying the lens of reason and evidence to the world around us – and most especially to our own selves – it will rightly be discarded, and those of us who still wish to fight for change will do so under another mantle.
This is a modified and updated version of a similar list I posted in February 2016. The bad news for some people will be that they see some of their closely held beliefs being contradicted here. For my part the bad news is that the list is not only still relevant but required an update. Still, there are some things that simply must be said (and more than once, apparently).
- 9/11 was not an inside job.
- It wasn’t a “false flag” either.
- Neither was Sandy Hook.
- Neither were the shootings in Orlando, Charleston, San Bernardino, Colorado Springs, Ft. Hood, or anywhere else.
- In fact, there is no such thing as a “false flag” (a la Alex Jones).
- The moon landing really happened.
- So did the Holocaust.
- Lizard people aren’t real.
- Fluoride in the water supply is good for your teeth.
- The earth is not flat.
- And it is 4.54 billion years old.
- And it goes around the sun, not the other way around.
- There are no chemtrails, just contrails.
- The Illuminati do not control the music industry.
- Pizzagate is bullshit.
- GMOs are just as safe as conventional foods.
- Organic isn’t healthier.
- It’s not better for the environment either.
- Prayer doesn’t work.
- Astrology doesn’t work either.
- Neither does homeopathy.
- But vaccines do.
- And they don’t cause autism.
- InfoWars is not news.
- Alternative medicine is not medicine.
- Big PharmaTM is not suppressing a known cure for cancer.
- Including pot.
- No, seriously – pot does not cure cancer.
- Everything is made of chemicals.
- Trump’s inauguration crowd was not the biggest in history.
- Humans were not healthier 50,000 years ago than they are today.
- Not 5,000 years ago or 500 years ago either.
- Guns don’t make you safer.
- Gay sex does not cause earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, tsunamis, fires, volcano eruptions, landslides, stock market crashes, train derailments, bridge collapses, oil spills, or anything else.
- There is no Deep State.
- Taxes are not theft.
- Microwave ovens don’t turn into cameras.
- Nuclear power is safe.
- The Big Bang really happened.
- And it happened 13.8 billion years ago.
- Anthropogenic climate change is real.
- All life on earth evolved from a common ancestor via natural selection.
- There is no evidence for ghosts, an afterlife, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, ancient aliens, alien abductions, reincarnation, telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance, precognition, the soul, demons, spirits, angels, witchcraft, or magic.
- There almost certainly is no god.
We’ve heard a lot since the election about how the Left needs to stop accusing Trump voters of being racist, that there were many other legitimate and complex reasons for supporting his candidacy, and that rather than accuse and assume, we should ask and listen. I tried in good faith to do this with my last post, addressing it to the Trump supporters who claim to have been motivated by concerns other than racial animus, and I received two whole responses, both of which more or less said “LIBTARD!”
Where, then, are these thoughtful, intellectually defensible arguments in support of a Trump presidency? I submit they can be found in the same place as Yahweh, the Easter Bunny, and unicorns: In the imaginations of their believers. The rationale for supporting Trump as an atheist activist is even less coherent. If anything, the atheist community should be decisively opposed to the incoming regime for at least five reasons.
1. Trump has packed his administration with religious zealots who are openly anti-science and anti-secularism.
Climate change denial? Check. Creationism? Yup. Diverting public funds to Christian schools to “advance God’s kingdom?” Of course. Linking vaccines with autism? Goes without saying. Religion-based discrimination? Bring it on. The President Elect and his merry band of close advisors are uniformly on the wrong side of all of these issues – that is to say, they are on the side in opposition to the scientific evidence and consensus, as well as constitutional norms. Vice President Elect Mike Pence once opposed funding for AIDS research in favor of programs that pray away the gay. Secretary of Energy nominee Rick Perry’s policy response to drought when he was governor of Texas was to tell residents to pray. Anyone who claims to value science, evidence, and secularism should be alarmed by these appointments.
2. Trump and the GOP-controlled Senate will be packing the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, with conservative judges who are sympathetic to Christianity and likely to hold a broad view of what constitutes “religious liberty.”
Trump has repeatedly promised to appoint Supreme Court judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade. But SCOTUS isn’t the only windfall for the forced-birth crowd: Trump will have the opportunity to appoint dozens of judges to the federal bench all over the country, and based on his list of SCOTUS potentials, all of them are likely to share the same hostility to reproductive freedom and will thus be enthusiastically approved by the GOP-controlled Senate. State legislatures, emboldened by the demise of Roe and a federal bench warm to Religious LibertyTM, will begin restricting access to contraception by giving employers more and more leeway to deny insurance coverage for it on religious grounds and permission to fire workers who are using birth control or become pregnant. Ten Commandments monuments in courthouses and state houses will be deemed “traditional” rather than religious and be allowed to remain, thus signaling all non-Christians of the inherent bias against them in both the making and the upholding of laws. Marriage equality will be undermined or overturned, and when the courts uphold the First Amendment Defense Act (which Trump has promised to sign), discrimination against LGBT people – and really, anyone else to whom a so-called Christian business owner objects – will be fully legal and constitutional. The wall of separation under Trump will be weakened or obliterated.
3. Trump’s open hostility towards the press and his history of retribution against critics suggest he is ambivalent towards free expression.
It is curious to see so many self-proclaimed free speech advocates supporting a man who just a few weeks ago declared that burning an American flag should result in a year in jail and loss of US citizenship and who has not had a press conference since July 27 of last year. Granted, Trump’s flag-burning statement was so ludicrously anti-constitutional that one’s instinct was to simply laugh it off with a shake of the head and an “as if.” But that laughter quickly turned to bile upon remembering that this came from the man who is about to move into the Oval Office. Did he really not know that flag-burning is constitutionally protected speech? Or did he know but thinks it should not be? And how unsettling is it that we even have to ask these questions?
Almost as troubling is Trump’s decades-long record of ruthlessly going after those he perceives as having criticized him, a trait which has not abated in the slightest since his election. It’s bad enough when the person trying to run you into the ground for a bad restaurant review is a rich mogul with a thin skin. When that person is the most powerful human being on earth with the entirety of the Justice Department, the military, and the rest of the United States government infrastructure at his disposal (not to mention perhaps the Russian one), a chilling effect on frank discussion and criticism is inevitable. This should be unnerving to us as citizens and downright outrageous to us as atheist activists; weakening the grip of superstition and destigmatizing atheism are predicated on our ability to criticize, satirize, mock, dismantle, and otherwise not defer to the closely held beliefs of others regardless of whose sensibilities we may offend. A climate in which public figures, journalists, and ordinary citizens are reluctant to challenge those in power for fear of the repercussions ought to be the New Atheist’s and Free Speech Warrior’s worst nightmare.
4. A registry of Muslims is not very far removed from a registry for atheists.
Admittedly, the Trump transition team has been unclear on what kind of registry they are proposing. Some claim it would simply be a registry of immigrants from majority Muslim nations, or nations with known terrorist activity. On the other hand, when Trump surrogates cite the World War II internment of American citizens of Japanese descent as a precedent, it is reasonable to question just how limited a Muslim registry would really be. Remember too that despite what we hear about “islamophobia,” religiously motivated hate crimes against Jews outnumber those against Muslims three-to-one, and the newly emboldened (thanks, PEOTUS!) white nationalist movement is already turning up the heat on American Jews. In this climate of singling out and marginalizing American citizens from religious minorities, and given that polls consistently show atheists effectively tied with Muslims as the most disliked group of all, as well as the common belief among religionists that godlessness is the root of all evil, is it really that hard to imagine repercussions for non-believers? Even if not in the form of a registry, the systematic collection of information on groups and individuals based on their perceived subversiveness is not outside the realm of possibility. Either way, there is no reason to think that the persecution of religious minorities will start and end with Muslims.
5. Trump represents the antithesis of humanist values.
Yes, I know that not all atheists identify as humanists, and not all humanists are atheists. Humanism is, however, often used as a loose synonym for atheism, and it is at the very least a common theme among nonbelievers that humans are not the filthy, pitiful sinners that theology asserts, and that people have inherent worth independent of the approval of an omnipotent creator. Add in such values as kindness, generosity, humility, willingness to seek evidence and admit error, and support for universal human rights and you’ve got yourself a pretty good description of a humanist irrespective of religious belief. Can you think of any list of honest Trump adjectives that includes the words kind, generous, humble, or willingness to admit error?