Guest Post by Thomas Swords
About two years ago, I joined Twitter because I thought it would be a good way to connect with like-minded people about controversial topics such as atheism and politics, which I wanted to steer clear of on my public Facebook page.
I had no idea of what I was getting myself into.
At that time, which perhaps because of the blistering pace of current events feels more like a decade ago, I was a fan of Sam Harris, and was quickly exposed to the kind of “rational skeptics” who revered Harris as a secular prophet. I am just about completely de-converted from this particular cult, but while I was in it, I took the pronouncements of Harris and his acolytes quite seriously. I liked tweets and YouTube videos by everyone from Dave Rubin to Peter Boghossian to Gad Saad to Douglas Murray. I had thought that since all of these men were atheists like myself, and mostly declared themselves to be liberals, we would share most other values as well. After all, two were Jewish (Rubin and Saad) and two were gay (Rubin and Murray). Let’s just say things didn’t turn out the way I’d expected. In fact, all of these men were, if not themselves explicit proponents of taking the red pill, all too willing to ape red-pill talking points, offer full-throated defenses of red-pill thinking, and provide platforms from which red-pill-popping fanatics would spew their anti-feminist message.
Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. So let’s define terms before we go any further. In this blog, I will use the RationalWiki definition of red pill, as it captures the essence of the delusion: That those brave enough to take the red pill will be able to see the world as it really is. In this twisted echo of the classic sci-fi movie The Matrix, from which the red pill concept is lifted, the big lie is that women are oppressed. In the funhouse-mirror version promoted by red-pillers, it’s feminism that discriminates against and oppresses men.
It’s not like I really came close to red pilling, but I was, for a few months, sucked into the vortex of free-speech fundamentalism championed by Harris, Rubin, et al. This exposed me to ideas that are red-pill adjacent, like the notion that it’s condescending to women to treat them as unable to handle men’s advances and that there’s a hysteria sweeping college campuses about sexual assault.
According to Angela Nagle, author of Kill All Normies, which details the rise of the Internet subculture often referred to as the manosphere, anti-feminism was the first uniting principle of the so-called MRA (men’s rights advocates) movement. I say “so-called” because you rarely encounter any actual discussion of rights in MRA forums, though there’s no shortage of vitriol for the many depredations of the “gynocracy.” Later, Nagle argues in a recent DoubleX Gabfest podcast appearance, the MRA movement transitioned form online gripe sessions into a more explicitly political force that helped to drive major world events from Brexit to the Trump candidacy and other far-right politics. The most recent manifestation of this anti-feminist force is racism, as we have seen with the Alt Right, which is a “revalorization of masculinity” and for many of these (mostly white) men, taking the red pill is the beginning of the journey.
In my experience, the most compelling reason to spit out the red pill and reject the poison of toxic masculinity is the tremendous improvement in my relationships. This isn’t just about better relationships with women, though that would be reason enough. No, this is about better connections with women and men alike. And it extends beyond sexuality and friendship into the workplace and with all the other myriad people I encounter along the journey of life. But ultimately, it is my relationship with myself, my ability to look in the mirror and be content with the person I see looking back. That is the most profound benefit of all.
It stands to reason that by not being an aggressive asshole, I would have better relations with women. Because the red pill philosophy presumes women to be the enemy, dropping this adversarial stance allows us as men to trust women and not engage in “us vs. them” thinking. We can get to know women as allies and equals rather than inferiors to be conquered or threats to be overcome. On this peaceful foundation, much can be built, from lasting friendships to healthy marriages and everything in between.
As I was preparing to write this essay, I realized it wasn’t just my relationships with women that were better because of my having rejected pernicious sexism. In fact, I have better relationships with men, too. I think the reason for this is relatively simple: Toxic masculinity demands that men be unemotional, uncaring, and unkind, so the kinds of men who behave terribly toward women also treat other men badly. By avoiding guys like this, I have developed friendships with – dare I say – more enlightened men who treat me better and are not only more pleasant to be around but are, frankly, safer.
My family is quite progressive overall, but the small American town I grew up in was not, and I encountered many men who were not only crude and sexist, but also reckless. And again, it was their beliefs about men’s roles that led them to be this way – to drink too much and drive too fast (often in quick succession). There was always pressure to prove one’s manhood in this environment, and this led to no men being safe from either their own behavior or the impact of their peers’ actions. Today, I still go out with male friends, but there is never pressure to drink more than anyone feels comfortable with and we are all mindful of our limits, particularly when driving. I’d be tempted to attribute much of this to having grown up, and surely my friends now are more sensible with age, but I know when I’ve encountered people from my hometown as adults, I realize that all men grow older, but some never grow up.
Another area of life that leaps out to me when I think about the benefits of spitting out the red pill is the workplace. It has been truly breathtaking to see the almost daily revelations of years of famous men’s sexually inappropriate behavior on the job, whether they are in politics (Al Franken, Roy Moore, Trent Franks, John Conyers, and of course, Donald Trump himself), entertainment (Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman, Jeffrey Tambor, and Louis C.K.), and media (Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Thrush, Charlie Rose, Ryan Lizza, and–all from public radio and television–Garrison Keillor, John Hockenberry, Tavis Smiley, Mike Oreskes, and Tom Ashbrook). As you can see, this lineup spans the political spectrum from left to right and includes men of all different racial and ethnic backgrounds. The only common threads are that they’re all men and all had enough power over others to be able to get away with abuse for years, in some cases decades. Imagine any of these men today, having worked their lives to build reputations as consummate professionals, admired by millions in some cases, only to be exposed as lecherous dirtbags, with their legacies in tatters. But do not mistake my words as any sort of apologia for these creeps; they got or will soon get what they deserve. My argument is that treating your female colleagues with respect is both good for your humanity and your career. If you can’t behave decently around women out of your own innate decency, do it to save your job.
Behaving with respect for others is, of course, also incumbent upon men outside the workplace as well. Why on earth would I want to go to my local coffee shop, pharmacy, or library and leave a bad impression of myself? And that gets at one of the aspects of all this I am struggling to comprehend: Why did the men who made these advances convince themselves the women (in some cases less powerful men) wanted their attention? Or did they just not care? Or – and this is what I fear most may be the case – did they derive pleasure in making the targets of their predation uncomfortable, even terrified? Because if it’s option C, it’s the very opposite of what I want someone to feel in my presence. I like having pleasant interactions with cashiers, waitresses (or waiters), whoever is behind the counter. I would be disgusted with myself if I left them feeling that they wanted to avoid me in the future.
Lastly, I’d like to go inward, to perhaps my most crucial relationship, the one I have with myself. This is where my most important work is done, where I build the foundation of my relationships with everyone else. Of course introspection was never taught in my school or encouraged by my peers growing up and yet it has been one of the most remarkable journeys of my life. I am hopeful this trend is changing and that the educational system is doing a better job of helping young people access and understand their feelings without merely acting on them unconsciously. I wonder if some men who have gone down the MRA’s dark path had had the opportunity to open up about their insecurities around women and sexuality, if they would today engage in such hostile behavior, both online and off? I suspect not. It has been so helpful for me personally to be able able to talk to friends, family, and even therapists about my thoughts and feelings before acting on them. Online forums that only reinforce toxic masculinity and punish vulnerability as weak force men to deny they have feelings at all. Well, feelings other than anger at women, feminism, and anyone beyond themselves whom they perceive as a threat to their fragile sense of themselves. As women continue to move toward greater equality, how sad that so many men perceive themselves to be under attack. Because as hard as it has sometimes been to sit with my insecurities and fears, I believe it has improved my relationships with women and men, and in all spheres of my life.
And all I had to do was spit out that red pill.
Thomas Swords is a creative professional and father of two who lives in a very blue coastal state. He comments on social and political issues from a progressive viewpoint and would really appreciate it if more of his fellow atheists could stop being such reactionary assholes, thank you very much. Follow him on Twitter
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.
You may have heard the brouhaha about the Google manifesto in which an angry white dude expressed his dismay at having to work alongside women because they have cooties. Unsurprisingly, a huge number of people are supporting this man because as it turns out, men and women do not have the same anatomy (who knew!), and therefore it cannot be sexist to say that these anatomical differences render women unsuitable for careers in IT. I mean, it’s just basic anatomy, for fuck’s sake! How can it be sexist to point out that women have boobies and plumbing and hormones (gross!) and neurosis?! That’s not sexism, it’s science!
This “it’s just biology that women can’t do tech jobs” mindset dovetails with the resurgence of discussions about genetically based racial IQ differences, a conversation that in some circles has never gone away but was given a boost recently when New Atheist messiah Sam Harris interviewed The Bell Curve author Charles Murray. There are a lot of reasons why Murray’s work and Murray himself are controversial, none of which I want to go into in detail here, but which are summarized and impeccably cited here. So it was with that endorsement of Murray in mind that I tweeted this:
Let’s be frank: In his interview, Harris all but prostrated himself before Charles Murray. He stated unequivocally (and incorrectly) that Murray’s work is scientifically undisputed and his methods unimpeachable, and he fawned over him as a pure-hearted hero whose only sin was to seek earnest answers to important but uncomfortable questions. Harris railed against Murray’s critics as universally dishonest SJW ideologues driven by out of control political correctness, with nary a scientific or statistical leg to stand on in opposition to Murray’s conclusions. In doing so, Harris gave his enthusiastic endorsement to the worldview that society is right to treat people according to their (assumed) genetic strengths and weaknesses. Murray’s own work – the work that Harris extolled as scientifically beyond reproach – envisions a world in which blacks, women, and others quietly accept their proper roles based on their genetic limitations. It’s just a coincidence, naturally, that white men are genetically more suited for – well, everything that results in wealth and power.
So when I credit Harris for playing a role in advancing the clearly widely held belief that women are biologically unfit for IT jobs, it’s because he DID play a role. By not just normalizing but canonizing Charles Murray, Harris has given the green light to efforts to deny the existence of racism and sexism because science itself says women and POC are less intelligent and, therefore, rightfully excluded from domains that create wealth and influence. Whether or not he personally thinks the world should work this way is beside the point when he heaps breathless praise and aggressive promotion upon – and therefore emboldens – individuals who by their own admission think it should.
As far as Harris’s protestations that even if we know that, say, blacks are dumb compared to whites, we should still judge people as individuals, these are hollow platitudes. For one thing, public policy is shaped by, and in some cases predicated upon, the probability of certain things being true; if it is widely accepted as likely that black people are dumb compared to white people, then policy related to how blacks are treated (in the justice system, employment, higher education, etc.) will look very different than it would absent such an assumption. What’s more, “reserve judgment because not every black person / woman you meet will be dumb” is hardly an egalitarian outlook, and things like the anchoring heuristic will make it extremely difficult if not impossible for POC and women to convince their white male counterparts that they really are just as intelligent – and it goes without saying that once white men have been told to expect inferiority, the burden will always lie squarely on POC and women to prove their worth.
I realize that many of Harris’s more dishonest acolytes are shrieking “When did he ever utter the words ‘women are unfit for IT jobs?!’ That’s right, NEVER!” And they’re right that to my knowledge, he has never uttered those words. But he has given his imprimatur to biological determinism, with the full knowledge that people will use that against marginalized populations for their own benefit, and will cast aside even disingenuous pleas to view each person as an individual. I am not suggesting that Harris is singularly responsible for this state of affairs – that would be absurd and unfair. But he cannot disavow his own role in this outcome.
I have watched with alarm over the past several months as a growing number of atheists who fancy themselves Rational Critics of Islam™ have taken to coupling criticism of that religion with attacks on western feminists. Take, for example, the recent hashtag #SaveDinaAli, a worthy cause in its own right. Dina Ali is a young Saudi woman who attempted to flee her country’s system of male guardianship, but was intercepted in the Philippines by male relatives who beat her and forced her to return to Saudi Arabia where her fate remains uncertain. A number of prominent atheists decided to use the hashtag not only to raise awareness about Dina’s plight, but to exploit it in an attempt to shut down western feminist voices.
To start with, it should matter to these so-called rational thinkers that such statements are flagrant logical fallacies (strawman, relative privation, and hasty generalization, to be exact). This should send up red flags about their rationalism bona fides at the very least, given that sound argumentation was once considered a necessary skill in the atheism toolkit and a person would have to be either appallingly bad at or simply not care about logic to be packing the same three fallacies into tweet after tweet.
It also calls into serious question the authenticity of one’s advocacy for Dina Ali if out of 140 characters ostensibly intended to raise awareness of her situation, a person can spare only 12 for Dina and is compelled to use the other 128 to express contempt for an entire subset of women. Honestly, it takes some spunk to declare yourself a savior of Saudi women when you can’t even write a single tweet that expresses only support for them and nothing else—not to mention gross ignorance about how advocacy works to think that shitting on one cause is necessary to advance another. Remember that ad campaign by the American Cancer Society where they declared that the parents of premature babies who give money to the March of Dimes are selfish, privileged assholes who want people to die of cancer? Me neither.
What troubles me the most about this trend is how it seeks to set western women as adversaries against their sisters in the Muslim world, exploiting the troubles of the latter simply as a vehicle for tearing down the former. “Western women have it so easy,” they say. “Western women have no problems. They’re too self-involved and too obsessed with petty grievances to care about the oppression of women in the Middle East.” Of course plenty of western women actually do have problems, and not all of them are trivial; so when we hear those accusations and understandably put a hand up to say, “Hold on there, hoss, that’s not quite true,” they seize that objection as proof positive that we in the west think we have it just as bad as women who live under sharia—even though no one has actually said this, or even thinks it.
Attacking western feminists who are concerned about, say, the evisceration of women’s healthcare in the US because women in Saudi Arabia live under sharia is exactly the same thing as attacking someone for raising awareness about birth defects because cancer kills more people. By this “reasoning” only the absolute worst atrocities in the world should ever be addressed, in which case curing diseases or fighting Islam would likely not even make the short list. Moreover, as low as my opinion tends to be about humans in general, even I will admit that most of them are capable of thinking more than one thought at a time. I can be outraged by legislative assaults on women’s bodily autonomy here in the US while at the very same time being outraged by what happened to Dina Ali, and no matter what the anti-feminists claim, I can do something about both of them; I do not have to choose one or the other (and to suggest that I do is yet another logical fallacy). On the other hand, constant attacks that misrepresent and undermine feminism not only do nothing to help women like Dina Ali—they compromise our ability to effect change on important issues closer to home, such as reproductive freedom and pay equity. (I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether that consequence is a feature or a bug.)
Here, though, is what strikes me as the real crux of the issue: Conflating the legal status of women with the lived experiences of individual women. Literally no one—at least, no one with a shred of intellectual honesty—would argue that in general, women in the West have better legal standing than women in the Muslim world. That is a given, and the constant accusations by anti-feminists that western women don’t understand this basic truth are simply lies meant to discredit western feminism. That being said, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the life of every individual western woman is objectively better than the life of every individual Saudi woman, or that the only women who know hardship are those who live under sharia. Crimes like child sexual abuse, rape, and domestic violence are not constrained by national or religious borders; they may be treated differently by the legal system and economic status may influence access to treatment resources, but the trauma they inflict on their victims is not so easily predicted, categorized, or dismissed. Said another way, telling a Canadian woman “At least you were just raped and not raped AND stoned for adultery” should strike every reasonable and ethical person as not just lacking in empathy, but as downright cruel in how it both minimizes the violence of her assault and scolds her if she has the audacity to not feel all that lucky. Moreover, there is absolutely nothing to be gained—least of all for the women that these anti-Islam crusaders purport to fight for—by such attempts to measure and quantify degrees of suffering and assign it more or less validity based on whether it was caused by Islam.
It is worth noting that the “yeah, but sharia” brigade that is so eager to silence western women over issues of misogyny that still exist in the West because women in Saudi have it worse seem to have an odd blind spot when the subject is no longer the status of women. I, for one, struggle to recall any of these same characters shrugging off Milo Yiannopolous being disinvited from speaking engagements on college campuses because Raif Badawi had it a lot worse.
Are there things that western feminists get wrong? Absolutely. Are there examples of excessive pearl-clutching over grievances that really are petty? Of course. Are these challenges unique to western feminism? Not by a longshot. Do I have to choose between fighting for my sisters at home and my sisters abroad? Hell no. I don’t have to choose; I won’t choose; and I will continue to speak out against anyone who says I must.
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.
Intellectual honesty is uncomfortable. Personal growth usually is too. It is easy to talk ourselves into believing that only others suffer the impairment of cognitive bias, or that we are otherwise exceptional and therefore exempt from the rules we expect others to follow. It feels good to be right and even better to be righteous, whereas admitting fallibility can be awkward, humiliating, or painful. But we must resist the siren song of comforting self-delusion and struggle, however clumsily, to reserve the highest standards for ourselves.
Moving beyond superstition and tribalism isn’t just about the satisfaction of being right: It’s about making the world a better place. It’s about clearing away the excuses and the ignorance that too often get in the way of seeing our common humanity, and finding our way to a more ethical, more moral, more productive society.