(An audio version, with some additions, can be found here.)
This article is my response to a curiously written, one-sentence-paragraph-laden, self-anointed “wake up call” to “liberals, leftists, and everyone in the barely surviving ‘Secular Community.’” It is titled, “How the regressive left is killing the Atheist Movement” and in it, the author, while displaying a bewildering contempt for his readers (“You beg for short reads, and then criticize the lack of nuance.” And later, the particularly eye-roll-inducing, “Read that [sentence] again.”) utilizes a “both sides are bad” argument to conclude that only one side, the “regressive left,” is ruining the skeptic movement. To top it off, this unsubstantiated deduction is delivered with a tone of “look how much more reasonable I am than everyone else” that I wish I could say was only in subtext: “I am controversial simply because I am reasonable.” There are some things that, even if they are true, it’s prudent to let others say of us.
The piece starts off with some perfectly praiseworthy, if obvious, condemnations of false dichotomies. According to the author, it seems as though these days you either hate cops or hate black people; condone violence or support Nazis. This is something I’m sure we can all agree on. It would be better if our discourse was less divisive; if we communicated more. But when we see the author’s solution to the “Black/Blue Lives Matter” debate, the problems emerge. He writes, “Here’s a reasonably controversial reality check: Black Lives Matter. And cops have really tough jobs.” The author seems to believe this pioneering sentiment just hasn’t occurred to most people, or else, in his words, is “so reasonable that it’s controversial.” This is, frankly, an embarrassingly naïve read of the situation.
The fact is, even reasonable people are tired of the “cops have hard jobs” or “blue lives matter” response to people of color voicing their concerns over countless examples of police getting away with literal murder. The debate between Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter isn’t simply one side saying black lives matter and the other side saying “cops have tough jobs.” Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. If that were truly the debate, there wouldn’t even be an argument. The real question at the heart of the debate is, “is the status quo okay?” Is the current system in which an officer can get an acquittal after killing Philando Castile acceptable? Or do we need some form of change? If the answer is “yes, the system needs to be changed,” you are on the side of Black Lives Matter. Saying “cops have tough jobs” is not a proper response to that problem. You aren’t making some groundbreaking point by saying both black and blue lives matter. Those are empty words that anyone can utter. Black Lives Matter can easily entail police lives mattering as well, but saying blue lives or all lives matter in response to BLM is meant to silence. It’s meant to say, “No, you are wrong. The status quo is fine.” They are not compatible.
Just take a look at their websites. In Blue Lives Matter’s “about” section, there is strong language explicitly condemning Black Lives Matter: “The media catered to movements such as Black Lives Matter, whose goal was the vilification of law enforcement.” The author brought up “Backing the Blue.” Well, take a look at their Facebook page and see how often they endorse Blue Lives Matter. If you compare this to the “about” page for Black Lives Matter, you’ll see a stark difference. The Black Lives Matter website does not have any content vilifying law enforcement. Indeed, the page is quite inclusive: “We’re not saying Black lives are more important than other lives, or that other lives are not criminalized and oppressed in various ways. We remain in active solidarity with all oppressed people who are fighting for their liberation and we know that our destinies are intertwined.” The point is, you can’t simply say “both sides have a point” when Blue Lives Matter has in its mission statement, “NYPD Officer Rafael Ramos and Officer Wenjian Liu were ambushed and murdered by a fanatic who believed the lies of Black Lives Matter.” Either become more informed on the question and pick a side, or don’t comment on the issue.
Having solved race relations in America, the author moves on to a laundry list of issues that two sides overreact to. For example, on the question of Islam you’re either an “Islamophobe” or a “libtard.” However, he gives up the game when he follows it with this: “If you even hint at one of the obvious facts above, you can expect an assumption, followed by an insult, and then likely, a mob-attack from keyboard warriors who are giving liberals (???) and skeptics a bad name.” Wait a minute, what happened to the whole two sides thing? Before, both sides were overreacting and assigning malicious intent to each other, but now this behavior is just giving liberals and skeptics a bad name? This is the fundamental error of the piece. Keep that in mind as we move on.
This next part is in bold, so I suppose it’s extra important: “And we wonder why we’re losing elections, losing funding, and our conferences are getting smaller.” But wait, why are we losing elections? A moment ago, the author was highlighting a problem for BOTH sides. Why isn’t the alt-right a reason that the right is losing elections? Why isn’t the KKK’s endorsement of Donald Trump a reason why the right is losing elections? As with the previous tell, focusing only on one side reveals the bias of the author.
As for conferences, I could imagine a number of reasons why they are getting smaller. Isn’t it possible that atheism, as a movement, just isn’t really as exciting or novel as it was 7 or 10 years ago? I, for one, would want to gather some data before making a definitive claim about the cause of conference attendance dwindling, but if we’re going to speculate, I’d say it’s entirely possible that the topic has simply gotten a tad stale for some people. I can only speak for myself and a number of friends who have echoed the same sentiments, but while it was tremendously exciting once upon a time to watch, for example, the brilliant Christopher Hitchens dismantle some theist with magnificent aplomb and turns of phrase, Hitch is unfortunately no longer with us. And the god debate is literally one of the oldest philosophical questions there is. It’s not as though there’s a ton of fresh new material on either side. The question is completely settled in a lot of atheists’ minds. This is not to say the movement is completely done-in or anything. Given how religious our country is, there are always going to be fresh de-converts, excited to explore new intellectual terrain with others similarly situated. My guess is that there was something of an atheism “bubble.” Demand was intense in the wake of a religiously motivated attack in 9/11, during a somewhat theocratic presidency, and was further stoked along by some truly excellent literature. And now, as is the case after all bubbles, demand for atheism as a product has settled back to a market equilibrium.
But there’s another interesting element to this equation. In that same time period, podcasts have absolutely thrived. The Thinking Atheist and Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe continue to do quite well. Shows like The Scathing Atheist, God Awful Movies, and Cognitive Dissonance are able to sell out large-scale venues, on their own, for live shows. Perhaps the key ingredient is that these shows aren’t simply “atheism.” They’re atheism AND humor. Atheism and news. If some atheists or conferences are finding their support dwindling, perhaps the market is shifting elsewhere? I want to emphasize, these are just my educated guesses. Both my and the author’s theories would need testing, and I would certainly update my beliefs with data.
Continuing in the blog post, we are treated to some more one-sentence paragraphs, before arriving at an X-Men related hypothetical Facebook argument:
In this generic example, we see the author subject himself to a political Rorschach Test. He peers into the ostensibly neutral ink blots of his X-Men example, and sees the villain he clearly had in mind the whole time: the left. He continues, “A world where asking for additional evidence is considered hateful can only be called regressive. On the left, it’s becoming quite common for us to beat one another into submission with extreme false claims, accusations, and assumptions.”
Well I don’t know, what are you asking more evidence for? This is where hypotheticals become fairly useless and real life examples are necessary. If you’re asking for more evidence of Bill Cosby’s sexual assaults before you’ll accept what dozens and dozens of women are telling you, then yes; you’re being obtuse and deserve criticism. What are we talking about though? Black Lives Matter? Do we need more evidence that our policing has a race problem? In general, of course evidence is great and jumping to conclusions is wrong, but your readers don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. For all we know, you’ve merely erected a straw-X-Man and beaten him down.
A large problem with this piece is that for every problem the author highlights, there are legitimately two unhelpful sides to the equation. But, mysteriously, only the regressive left is the target of his criticism. If you want evidence of the other side, it can be found all over the comment section:
(Note that regressive lefty asking for additional evidence in response…) Anyone in atheism knows there is no shortage of Enzos around. Why isn’t he ruining the movement? If the author was unaware of this contingent of “skeptics,” he really ought to peruse the comments on his own piece. He’ll find several more gems:
“Bringing in all these Muslims to colonize Europe.” This one reminds us that there are TWO sides to the overreaction on the question of Islam. Sure, there is a genuine group of people whom Maajid Nawaz accurately and astutely labeled the “regressive left.” They paint far too rosy a picture of Islam and shield it from any criticism under the guise of being anti-bigotry. That’s a problem, and something the left needs to deal with. However, TruthMonsters here reminds us that we can’t forget the other side of this. There are actual anti-Muslim bigots in atheism and in our society. Just ask Eiynah, Pak-Canadian blogger and ex-Muslim, who gets hate from all sides. Perhaps the author should speak to her. She could enlighten him on how bigoted the atheist community can be. Here she Tweeted a video in which a very prominent atheist, Gad Saad, compares Muslims to mosquitos. What hilarious satire! Again I have to ask, why isn’t it these people who are ruining the Skeptic Community for the author? To be honest, they tend to ruin it for me. More on that later!
Continuing on, I’m genuinely baffled by this next part:
Well which is it? Are the vast majority of reasonable people silent or do the masses vote you into popularity? If there are truly “masses” of skeptics who swarm any genuinely reasonable people, as the author outlines, for no legitimate reason, then what is this skeptic community? It sounds terrible. Maybe it should be destroyed if this is what it is! Fortunately for me, this hasn’t been my experience.
And next we get to the mother lode of false equivalences:
This is two preposterous statements followed by the “get out of jail free” card of “Of course I understand the differences and nuances here.” It’s fun, try it! “Punching a guy in the face while he’s trying to stab you looks a whole lot like punching a guy in the face for no reason… Of course, I understand the differences and nuances, though.” Does he? I think if he understood the differences he wouldn’t have made this comparison to begin with. I want to be absolutely clear: I don’t condone violence over speech. I had a debate on my show where I was on the side of NOT punching Richard Spencer, and frankly I have been surprised by how many people didn’t see it my way. I’ve found, though, that most of these people are fine with Spencer having gotten punched and aren’t actually promoting and perpetrating violence themselves. But it is fundamentally different to view favorably a black man punching an alt-right bigot who has declared a desire for “peaceful ethnic cleansing,” and punching blacks for trying to vote. I mean… really? In a blog post that is a plea against black and white thinking, I would hope we could all see that one of these things is kind of questionable and the other is downright evil, right?
As for blocking college speakers, the author has another “middle ground” reason bomb for us:
There is so much wrong with this I barely know where to begin. The author really ought to consult an expert before opining on legal issues. Berkeley has no authority to put such a stipulation into Milo’s contract. Berkeley is merely a facilitator of a limited public forum (important legal term…) They also definitely can’t put a content based restriction on his speech. That would actually violate the First Amendment. When I investigated this issue, I was shocked at how rigorously the Berkeley Administration has defended the First Amendment. If Milo were invited to speak tomorrow, he would be allowed to speak (assuming he agreed to reasonable time place and manner restrictions that Berkeley has in place to deal with high profile, riot-inspiring speakers like Milo.) The talk was not canceled because of the regressive left. It was stopped because an outside group of 150 agitators came in on a mission to riot and cause violence. The truth is we don’t know who these people were. Around 1,500 students peacefully protested. The distance from the entrance to the auditorium made absolutely no difference. Most of the damage was in downtown Berkeley anyway, and it was done after the talk was canceled. This tells us that the agitators weren’t just there to stop Milo from speaking. They weren’t part of the organized student protest. They were anarchists bent on destruction. Many have blamed the university or have blamed students they perceive to be “snowflakes,” but in my analysis, this is completely unfair.
The author’s solution is, once again, naïve, ill-considered, and yet presented condescendingly as a sort of parental intervention between two screaming toddlers. “Exactly. Neither of you get to be the oppressor.” It misses the most important question. At a previous talk, Milo posted a picture of a trans student and mocked their appearance. He made disgusting comments. I cannot imagine what that must have felt like; to be a student at a university and find out a group invited a speaker who ridiculed you and rejected your gender identity, while your fellow classmates jeered. Horrifying. Disgusting. The question that we all should have been asking at that point was: Why on EARTH would a group of young Republicans think it is ok to invite this man on campus? They should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. The author’s solution is legally impossible. Once the invitation is given, Berkeley’s hands are tied. So let’s focus on finding a way to communicate to the Berkeley College Republicans that trans people have dignity and deserve respect. That should be a non-partisan issue.
The piece ends with sentiments that we can absolutely all get behind:
I agree with all of this. Anyone would look at this and agree. That’s right, even “regressive lefties” like me. This is the issue. One could just as easily write a mirror of this blog post and say the anti-PC religion is ruining skepticism. The argument is incredibly easy to make, especially in the wake of the Conceptual Penis Hoax Paper perpetuated by Peter Boghossian (frequent Dogma Debate guest) and James Lindsay. The news of this hoax paper was embraced by scores of skeptics, frothing at the mouth to finally see the field of Gender Studies revealed as bunk. But as Phil Torres and many others pointed out, the hoax was, in itself, a hoax. (I both did a breakdown of why the hoax is a failure, and also debated co-author James Lindsay on it.) Indeed, when the authors posted about their triumph, lots of us asked for more evidence, and we’re the ones constantly labeled “regressive.” Why were these “skeptics” so easily fooled? Because when it comes to their blind spots, they aren’t really skeptics at all. They are ideologically motivated against PC culture and are willing to embrace almost any evidence of their narrative no matter the source. Like when Boghossian linked Infowars because it comported with his irrational hatred of safe spaces. Or when he linked a pro-life propaganda site because it fit his anti-PC narrative:
For me and many others, the people who are actually ruining the skeptic movement are those with a blinding anti-PC, anti-feminist bias. But this raises the obvious question: who gets to decide what the skeptic movement is? In reality, atheists are merely a group of people who find that there isn’t evidence to support a belief in god. And on a good day, we hopefully all agree in Church/State Separation. That’s about it though. We tend to share some beliefs, but they aren’t logically entailed by atheism. In fact, if you’re talking about the Secular Community, that includes plenty of believers who believe in strong Church/State separation. So really, Secularists don’t all agree on even the god question!
Of the social justice oriented and anti-feminist oriented factions of atheism, neither side gets to be correct by default. We don’t all have to agree on that question to have a movement. What’s so frustrating about “How the regressive left is killing the Atheist Movement” is that the author claims to be finding a middle ground in all of this in the name of protecting the skeptic movement, but in reality, what he is doing is deciding on these PC/anti-PC questions and then putting those who disagree with him on the other side of the line. This is revealed in the very beginning when he lists the guests in this series. “Today’s podcast episode continues the set of conversations with Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Adam Carolla, Pete Boghossian, and Lawrence Krauss on Dogma Debate.” Wow! 5 white men, and the host, another white man, are going to school all of us about, and I quote, “about what it means to be reasonable.” For the record, I don’t know what Lawrence Krauss is doing on that list. I’ve always known him to be a friend of social justice causes, and whatever episode of Dogma Debate that was has disappeared behind a paywall. So, being incredibly optimistic, maybe Krauss was a lone voice of dissent? But it would truly be the lone voice, since Boghossian, Shermer, Carolla, and Dawkins are all vehemently anti-PC, anti-safe spaces, and often anti-feminist. Oh and they all fell for the gender studies hoax, hoax. And that’s fine! The author can, of course, have his positions on social justice questions and discuss them with all the white men he wants. He just has to be honest about the fact that he’s taking a side. When you dismissively refer to Evergreen’s Day of Absence as “No-Whites Day,” you’re taking a side. (Maybe he should have Brett Weinstein, another white man, on the show to talk about that situation!)
The way I see it, the author, and anyone else who wants to keep a skeptic/atheist/secular community alive, has a few options. 1. Simply focus on the main questions and problems in atheism. Devote your time solely to secularism. To debating god’s existence. To fighting any religion fueled bigotry. Or 2. Do as some do and wear your political values on your sleeve. I would put myself in this camp. On my show, Serious Inquiries Only, I do not hide the fact that I am a liberal or that I’m more partial to social justice causes. In my view, there’s simply nothing wrong with being an overt partisan and ALSO caring about secular/atheist causes. But when I advocate for the social justice side of things, I don’t do so under the illusion that I speak for the atheist community. As much as I wish it weren’t the case, the truth is I don’t get to speak for all of us! I don’t get to say “You disagree with my view on social justice? You’re ruining atheism!” Individuals get to decide for themselves what causes are most important to them. And for a lot of us right now, there are more pressing issues than atheism sometimes. And frankly, skeptic-bro behavior can turn us off sometimes. Like when we see almost every prominent skeptic embrace a false narrative about an entire field of study with no evidence. Or when we hear one person’s side of a story about Evergreen and somehow the whole “skeptic” community has rendered judgment on it. You don’t have the right to tell us we can’t speak up because we’re hurting atheism. Don’t worry, we’re able to focus on social justice and donate to Freedom From Religion Foundation. It’s possible to care about multiple things at once – I’m doing it right now.
Extra special awesome thanks to Eli Bosnick, Alix Jules, Amy LaValle Hansmann, Andrew Torrez and most importantly to my brilliant wife, Lydia!