Atheism Needs to Police its Extremists

CJ WerlemanRecently, I wrote, The Human Bible Ends Before it Dies. And I was pretty hard on the atheist community. It’s not your average atheist on the street that I have a problem with. But as a movement, it has more and more problems. And certainly the most famous of the atheists do little but annoy me as I discussed in that article and When Atheism Blinds Us to Nuance.

This is not a new thing for me. Over two years ago I discussed the political problems in the atheist community, The Atheist Libertarian Connection. And then last year I wrote, Libertarianism Incompatible With Atheism. There is something about the two philosophies (atheism and libertarianism) that appeal to a certain kind of mind. Of course, it isn’t surprising at all that people who get paid thousands of dollars to talk to atheists would think it is the result of their total awesomeness, which ought to free them of any social obligations.

Sam HarrisThere is also a path from atheism to libertarianism. In the atheist community, there is an extremely common belief that their opinions are based upon reason. They don’t believe in God because there is no evidence for it. I have to say that I’ve never found this a compelling argument. I know only too well that there are lots of things I take on faith. (For the record, I am an atheist because I find God to be a useless concept — a non-answer to a question I care deeply about.) Libertarianism is usually pitched as a kind of “first principles” theory. It is thought to be rational when the best thing you can say for it is that it is vaguely internally consistent.

But there are famous atheists who don’t fall into this trap. Someone who has yet to annoy me even a little is CJ Werleman. Of course, Werleman is not that big in the atheist community. He’s far more involved in libel political discussions. When he writes about religion, he usually upsets a lot of the atheist community. And I have a great example of that. He was recently on The Young Turks and they were talking about the Bill Maher and Sam Harris dust-up. And he didn’t pull any punches: he compared Harris to Sarah Palin:

Imagine having Sam Harris as President of the United States with access to the nuclear launch codes. That is no different to the fear of having Sarah Palin in charge of the nuclear launch codes. This is a guy who has a binary world view — us versus them — good versus bad — has already said that he could possibly support a nuclear strike.

The whole video is well worth watching. What I think is important is that atheists need to hit back against Harris’ garbage. I don’t see that happening; I mostly see a circling of the wagons. And that’s, well, very tribal — just like the religious community, which, let’s face it, is really not about religion but about cultural identification.

As many atheists have pointed out, having an atheist community doesn’t make a lot of sense. It is like having a community of people who don’t believe a teapot orbits the Sun somewhere in space between the Earth and Mars. But I get it: religion (especially in the US) is really overbearing and it is nice to be around other people who share your annoyance. Just the same, it is a pretty thin strip of common ground to base a movement on. And it is very easy for the movement to get hijacks by the likes of Sam Harris, who sounds more and more fascist every day.

Atheists: police thyselves!


It’s interesting if you look at Sam Harris’ blog, you see a lot of “Nobody understand me!” articles. He’s not an Islamaphobe; people just misunderstand him. He’s not a sexist; people just misunderstand him. He’s not a western imperialist; people just misunderstand him. What’s sad is that he is a pretty smart guy and in many ways very open minded.

11 thoughts on “Atheism Needs to Police its Extremists

  1. That is a fabulous video. What a decent way for people to have a discussion. I will check out CJ Werleman’s book “God Hates You” once the one, the only single copy owned by any library in the entire state of Minnesota becomes available. (Somebody’s got it!)

    Werleman’s quite right that the “get rid of Islam and you end evil” argument is bunk. (For one thing, it’s impossible.) He nails it; desperation leads to extremism. It doesn’t have to be religiously motivated; you see lots of financially fucked people getting more fucked by hoping for good luck in a casino. What’s amusing to me in comparing Harris, Palin, and Wahhabism is that they all peddle the same snake oil. It’s the language of “I’m the only one not insulting you.” When Harris does it, it’s more offensive, because his audience has barely taken it on the chin at all. Muslims have legitimate grievances, and poor white Americans do too (grievances caused by rich white Americans, the only people Palin supporters don’t hate, but that’s Thomas Frank’s territory to explore.)

    What have American atheists suffered? Bad poll numbers? Maybe getting skipped over for promotion here and there? It’s nothing compared to what Muslims or poor Americans are up against.

    One last thing. Werleman points out, correctly, that the motivation for the 2001 plane hijackers was getting American bases out of Saudi Arabia. You will recall the common talking point after those attacks about “letting the terrorists win.” AKA, if we stop shopping, we “let the terrorists win.” Well, they won. Their goals were getting American military bases out of Saudi Arabia, causing economic chaos in the West, and recruiting more supporters. We invaded Iraq not just for the oil, but in the hopes of making it our primary regional military op center; our military presence in Saudi Arabia has been severely reduced. The wars have bankrupted us and acted as recruitment videos. To date we have handed Muslim extremists everything they could wish for and more, while ignoring/alienating the people trying to improve conditions in the Muslim world.

    (Sometimes I feel like American military/economic power resembles that proverbial kid with a BB gun. “Somebody take that away from him — he’ll put his eye out!”)

    It’s vastly important to engage people working for liberal political goals anywhere, whether they pray to Jesus or Allah or Bertrand Russell. If the Catholic nuns fighting austerity politics take over Washington, we’ll start arguing with them about birth control. Until then, we need them.

    • You’ve touched on something here that I must admit is a hidden (to me) cause of my annoyance with the atheist movement. Too much of it is all about, “Hey! We’re upper middle class college educated people! Ain’t life grand!” I will have to give that some thought, because it isn’t really fair. Just the same, what does the atheist movement stand for? I’m sick of hearing “reason” and “rationality.” Not only is it untrue, it is exactly what the Objectivists say.

      • Thing is, it’s completely OK to regard one’s privileged educational and economic background as superior. It is superior! It’s superior to what less privileged people have, just like having lots of rolls of toilet paper on hand is superior to having none when you need to shit.

        But if you try to address social issues by assuming that the people with more toilet paper are more qualified to address how bottoms are wiped, you’re being silly.

        What the Turks are doing in this video, what Reich does in his wonderful videos, is what people with privilege should be doing; using their advantages in terms of education to help spread information on important subjects, not preaching superior wisdom. What arrogant atheists are doing is the opposite; they have no interest in conversation, only forced conversion. (It’s a fun fantasy to imagine imposing your will on others, but it’s not productive.)

        If the new atheism movement locks itself in a upper-middle-class broom closet, it isn’t going anywhere and doesn’t deserve to. It has to engage with liberals of faith. It’s not gay rights; outing oneself as an atheist doesn’t wake others up to how many people are dying from a plague or being beaten to death. Religious belief in America isn’t an evil in itself; the way that belief is manipulated for political aims is. The fight is against sexual repression, religious worship of the rich as God’s beneficiaries, an imperialist “kill ‘em all and let Saint Peter sort ‘em out” mentality, and ultimately the notion that you have a personal text-message hotline to the author of all creation; that, really, you are the center of the universe.

        Many religious people also oppose these attitudes. If atheism doesn’t ally with them, doesn’t use its justifiable anger against fundamentalist kooks to fight against the political machinations of horrid bastards using religion to manipulate people, then atheism has approximately (scratch that, exactly) no point. It becomes as meaningful as announcing loudly and proudly that you are a Orioles fan.

        • There is, of course, great diversity among atheists. That’s why I don’t understand why it only seems to be a particular kind of atheist who gets really big. As it is, many women have fled the mainstream atheist movement. And it is for much the same reasons as we’ve been talking about. There is a shocking amount of resistance to changing the status quo in anything but religion in the “more rational than thou” crowd. Again: most atheists I know are not like this. But they are also better described as humanists.

          One delusion that atheists have to get over, however, is the idea that religion will die. There will always be religion. And we are best off making peace with that. What we can kill off is stupid religion. And I think that people like Hemant Mehta understand this. But again: the movement has to get rid of Sam Harris and Bill Maher and Penn Jillette and Richard Dawkins. I enjoy all of them in various forms and I agree with them all on a lot of issues. But as ambassadors for the movement, they are a joke. And I think they feed on each other. Harris used to be better. Dawkins used to be better. Maher used to better understand that he didn’t know that much. But admittedly, Jillette has always been a dick.

          In the end, I’m much more with Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye. I don’t really care what people’s religious beliefs are, as long as they don’t make scientific claims. If you want to believe in the teapot, that’s fine. Just don’t tell me the climate isn’t warming because the teapot wouldn’t allow that, and we’ll be fine.

          • Yes, killing off religion works. There are no Eastern Orthodox churches in Russia today!

            The extremist atheists get more readership for the same reasons Rush Limbaugh gets listeners. They are bullies for people who feel bullied. Again, the notion that atheists have a hard time of it in America is silly, but some of them react to the existence of religion the same way Limbaugh’s crowd reacts to a Black person getting any kind of national respect; an affront and direct insult, apparently.

            Since I am not a joiner by nature I have not followed what’s going on in the atheist blogosphere at all; if women are leaving, that’s a terrible sign.

            I think I do understand where some of the extremism appeals to people. If you’re still partly in the grip of religious thinking, particularly thinking that questioning religion will damn your immortal soul, you don’t just want to break free of religion. You want everyone else to as well, because there’s safety in numbers. It can be a scary thing if you once had absolute faith and then you lose it. Personally, my “conversion experience” came so long ago I don’t even think about it anymore, but I can see where younger atheists might get riled up on websites and such.

            I can’t figure the likes of Harris/Maher/Dawkins out, nor do I especially wish to. Why figures who insult others are immensely popular in America today . . . that’s a different question. We’re a very emotionally broken society and practically everyone is filled with rage. I subscribed to an atheist magazine for a while and eventually dropped it; the one good, thoughtful article per issue wasn’t worth reading the ten other articles on “religion bad” for. But then again I also fail to understand how people can listen to Limbaugh or watch Fox News. Don’t your angry receptors burn out after a while?

  2. @JMF – That’s a good point about the type of people who become famous.

    Women aren’t leaving atheism — just the New Atheists. I can’t keep up with all the names of the different atheist sects. But that’s more what is happening. They are breaking up into smaller groups. In this way, many atheists are doing exactly what I’m calling for.

    I don’t think I’m in a position to really understand a lot of atheists, because I have always been one. The only religious change that’s taken place with me is that at one time I wanted to believe and now I don’t. But that’s just fear of death.

    As for me, I find being angry exhausting. But for the old folk who watch Fox News, it may be the only thing that keeps them alive.

  3. What a lying shit you are. Misrepresenting views, or lying about them outright. “This is a guy who has a binary world view — us versus them — good versus bad — has already said that he could possibly support a nuclear strike.”

    What a fucking lie. Integrity is key to good reporting, and this sure as hell doesn’t have any.

    • What you’ve quoted is something I quoted. But you haven’t made an argument. You are just here to defend poor old Sam Harris. You’re just demonstrating the same old tribal nature of the atheist community. This is why I’ve abandoned it. By the way: you’re a troll. Your comments won’t be read or published anymore. I don’t mind people disagreeing, but they need to add something and not just call me a “lying shit.” Just because you fall for the Sam Harris routine of saying and writing outrageous things and then finessing them later (because apparently Harris is The Most Misunderstood Man in the Word™), doesn’t mean the rest of us have to. Clearly, you believe that atheism needs apologists for its extremists. But you aren’t even that. At least an apologist would give the standard justification on Harris’ nuclear comments: “He didn’t say I was for it; he just said that it might be necessary!” Don’t mistake disagreeing with me with my lying. It makes you sound like a Trump supporter. And given you didn’t have an argument to make, I doubt you are all that different: “Our side good; their side bad!” Go away. This isn’t Twitter.

      • I’m pretty sure Harris did support a nuclear option in “End Of Faith.” Because that’s when I tossed the book aside. I at least finished Hitchens’s. The personal memories were good in that one.

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