I don’t want to write too much about this, since this new Washington Post piece by Chris Stedman, formerly a humanist chaplain at Harvard but now a “freelance humanist”, is pretty much a clone of all the articles in Vox, Salon, and BuzzFeed claiming that atheism (or New Atheism) is toxic and moribund: it’s sexist, racist, and xenophobic. Atheism, it’s said, makes fun of religious people, thus not fostering “dialogue” and driving away possible converts.
So your assignment this morning is the short piece, “I’m an atheist, but I had to walk away from the toxic side of online atheism”, and I ask for your reactions in the comments. I’ll put a few of mine here:
1.) Note that the title is “online atheism”. Well, yes, many people—and not just atheists—tend to turn nasty when they can post anonymously online. Some atheist websites are cesspools, which is why I try to keep the atmosphere civil around here. That said, there’s no evidence that atheist websites are worse than other secular websites. Further, when Stedman raises the usual victim trope about all the nasty names he’s been called (and I do deplore those who made fun of his sexual orientation, appearance, and so on), it’s not clear that all of it, or even much of it, came from atheists. He gives several examples of online name-calling, but how many of those were from the faithful, or people who weren’t atheists at all?
2.) While online trolls may make some atheist sites unpleasant, my own experience giving talks and attendng many humanist and atheist meetings is not one of pervasive sexism, racism, or bigotry. Yes, I’m a man and not subject to sexual harassment, but all I can say is that I haven’t ever seen it—not once. It is true that there’s a paucity of minorities at these meetings, and in the community as a whole, but I’m not convinced it’s because “movement atheism” is racist. Rather, blacks and Hispanics, for instance, tend to be more religious than other groups, which may make them less likely to join atheist organizations. We need to do better in welcoming minorities, but I think nearly all atheist groups now make a conscious effort to include women in the program. While some people may have left atheism because of its so-called toxicity, I haven’t seen the egress that Stedman has, nor does he give any data supporting that. If so many people are leaving atheism, why is it growing?
3.) To repeat, the data in fact show that nonbelief is increasing in the U.S., and not just among men. If atheism has failed, why this growth? (Granted, many “nones” are “spiritual”, or accept a god but don’t affiliate with a Church, but pure nonbelievers are also becoming more common.) If you simply look at the data, atheism is winning, regardless of whether a few individuals leave “the movement.”
4.) Contra Stedman, I have talked to many people who have been exposed to atheism (and converted to it) by the Internet. In fact, that’s the main way atheists found each other, and found support, over the last two decades. Many people have been converted by listening to videos of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, regardless of any statements they’ve made that have caused them to be demonized. Not everyone can afford to travel to meetings, but the Internet is free. And even if some website commenters were nasty and ad hominem, those talks (and their books) will remain as eloquent critiques of faith, and will continue to deconvert the faithful as the years pass.
5.) Personal note: Right at the beginning of his piece, Stedman includes me along with the Blog That Shall not be Named as one of his nasty critics after he appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s show. But I reject his implication that I was unfair. Here’s what he wrote:
A number of prominent atheist bloggers criticized my interview, saying I was awful and suggesting I was allying with O’Reilly. The comments were worse. Anonymous posters ridiculed me, saying I should decline future television invitations because I was too “effeminate,” my physical appearance made atheists seem “like freaks” and my “obvious homosexuality” made me an ineffectual voice for atheists.
Well, check the second link for yourself. I maintain that my post was constructively critical, did not make fun of Stedman, and, in fact, neither did my commenters. Since Stedman says he welcomes constructive criticism, what’s he beefing about here? (I’ve added the O’Reilly/Stedman clip to the original post, and you can see it here.)
6.) Stedman argues that the nastiness of online discourse impedes the course of mutual understanding:
My experiences helping people better understand atheists have been deeply rewarding, and so has working to support atheists struggling with life’s challenges or with families that don’t accept them. I can say without hesitation that my shift from blogging about atheism to community-building was the right decision.
h/t: Diane G