Atheism’s dark side

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This post was written for the Carnival of Aces, which this month has the theme of asexuality and religion/atheism. Content note: the blockquotes below have major ace hate and rape threats.

As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, I was an atheist activist before working in asexual activism.  That means I keep close track of atheist news and discourse.  Someone once told me that it was nice to have me around, so I can keep my ear on the ground, see how atheists are doing with regard to asexuality.  I have mostly positive things to say

…That is, if I confine myself to talking about the atheists that I read and hang out with.  But there’s a dark side.  Over the past few years, the atheist movement, the giant that it is, has split into a feminist faction and an anti-feminist faction.  I, being in the feminist faction, have seen many positive changes.  But these changes are caused by the evaporation of the anti-feminists, who rather than disappearing, coalesced into a looming horrorterror.

And even if you’re not an atheist, you might have interacted with this faction already.

Have you ever heard of Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs)? Perhaps you’ve seen this recent incel blogger, giving advice on how to avoid being trapped by an asexual partner.  Or if you have a longer memory, you might remember Heartiste:

Maybe Jenni really is clinically asexual. Maybe her brain is missing a few synapses. I can abide that possibility. Or maybe, she feels no sexual attraction because all she dates are betas. In which case, one date with an insensitive jerk who isn’t an uuuuunderstanding wet noodle should clear her condition right up.

You might also remember this brief thing from The Amazing Atheist (an atheist MRA vlogger with 600k subscribers):

I am nearly 100% convinced that at least a large portion of the people who self-identify as asexual are lying.  I wish I had a research institute, because my hypothesis would actually be very easy to prove or disprove.

Maybe, lucky you, you’ve never seen any of these before.  But you’ve probably seen similar attitudes echoed by other people.

It’s easy to dismiss MRAs as an extremist group, a vocal minority, especially when we look at it from our Tumblr bubble, where the main things we complain about are other social justice people doing it wrong.  But in tracking atheist news, I end up hearing a lot about the larger manosphere.  It’s not just MRAs, there’s a whole cluster of groups like MGTOWs, PUAs, anti-PUAs, Incels, HBDs, and neo-reactionaries.1  And of course there are many more people who are none of the above, instead expressing a more nuanced and individualized hostility towards feminism.

What you may not realize, is that MRAs are a secular movement.2  It’s not a straightforward connection, but we do know most of them are atheists–although not necessarily part of the atheist movement per se.  We know they take a borrow a lot of rhetoric from the atheist movement, like the scientific hyperskepticism and anti-authoritarianism.  And, when we look at the atheist movement, there are an awful lot of anti-feminists around.

That’s really the whole story of the atheist movement for the past few years.  It’s the slowly dawning horror that anti-feminists (of many sorts) compose a significant part of us.  This first became major news in 2011, when Rebecca Watson mentioned offhand an uncomfortable situation where someone had propositioned her in an elevator at an atheist conference–triggering a major harassment campaign.  Ever since, there’s been a long string of major controversies.3  This is what kills atheism as a coherent movement.  It’s nothing to do with the difficulty of herding cats, or being insufficiently respectful to religions, and it’s everything to do with gender.

What does this mean for the asexual community, a sexual minority community which is predominantly made of women and non-binary people, a community which is predominantly non-religious?

For me, it’s like wandering underneath two giants doing battle.  One of the giants is good and the other evil.  All I can do is cheer one on and try not to get stepped on.  I feel like I’m being melodramatic, overly black and white, like this is just some flame war on the internet, a tempest in a teapot.  But then, I remember how it was before the split, when all the feminists and anti-feminists were still mixed together, and it wasn’t entirely positive.  Things are better today, with many feminist atheists making mentions of asexuality wherever appropriate.4 Plenty of asexual atheists already have their own voices, without being forced to talk about asexuality all the time.  But at the same time, things are worse, because, you know, that evil giant over there.

But let’s say you’re a more typical asexual–a non-religious woman who does not participate in the atheist movement.  You probably don’t even see the feminist atheists.  What you see are all these science geeks who argue asexuality can’t exist because SCIENCE.  You see redditors scoffing at asexuality as another Tumblr fad.  You see atheists telling you that the Christians must love you.  These things may not seem connected, but they’re all coming from a similar political context: secular anti-feminism.

Or maybe asexuality doesn’t even need to come into it.  You just hear about how the atheist movement harasses its women, or otherwise mistreats them.

This might give you a negative impression of the atheist movement.  I can say, as an insider, that your impression is entirely justified.  I’m so sorry.

1. MGTOWs are “men going their own way”, men who choose not to have relationships with women, because supposedly feminists ruined everything. PUAs are pickup artists, people who exchange dubious tips on how to get sex from women. Anti-PUAs and Incels (involuntary celibates) generally agree with PUA goals, but think the tactics don’t work. HBD means “human biodiversity”, basically a “rational racism” movement. Neoreactionaries are basically libertarian anti-democracy geeks, a small group that is only notable because it splintered off from well-known rationalist community LessWrong. In general, a good resource (biased in the correct direction) to learn about these groups is the RationalWiki.

2. Note that there are also pro-feminist and religious men’s movements.  But for some reason the particular men’s movement that dominates on the internet is the secular anti-feminist one.

3. I’d also like to point out that there’s a parallel feminist war in video games, which is getting much bigger than the one in atheism. There’s even a significant overlap.  For instance, we have Thunderf00t, who used to be well-known for his videos attacking creationism, but is now known for attacking atheist activist Rebecca Watson and games critic Anita Sarkeesian.  He’s not the only one like that.

4. Shout-outs to Queereka and Brute Reason as examples.  Your mileage may vary, of course.  Feminist atheists are generally very sex-positive, and tend to have the problems associated with that.

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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16 Responses to Atheism’s dark side

  1. caelesti says:

    I remember reading about the “incel” concept years ago, but it was written about by a woman (cis, heterosexual IIRC), and she discussed it in a fairly politically neutral way, mentioning issues such as shyness, social anxiety, the stigma of being an older virgin, disabilities and perhaps body issues (like attitudes towards people of the “wrong” size) It would seem that since then, the label has been grabbed by certain people (hetero men in particular) and misused for political reasons. IIRC, the original lady ran an “Incel Project” but abandoned it after she found a partner.

    I’m not surprised by the MRA + organized atheist connection. Same people, making the same arguments.

    Have you not had issues among feminist atheists who are “sex-positive” in the sense that Everyone Must Have Sex!? Just curious.

    • Siggy says:

      I’ve generally had very positive experiences with feminist atheists. I like to think that they’re actually better than feminists in general, because they don’t go for vague meaningless statements like “rape is about power, not sex” or “everyone is a sexual being”. But I guarantee you someone else will say they’ve had a negative experiences, since I’ve heard those stories.

    • Siggy says:

      One small correction is that I’m not trying to make a connection between MRAs and atheist orgs. The orgs themselves (eg the Richard Dawkins Foundation, James Randi Educational Foundation, Skeptic’s Society, Center for Inquiry) are a sort of battlegrounds, and people are always complaining when they handle harassment issues poorly or when leaders make comments that are too conciliatory to the other side. Like, people are still mad at Richard Dawkins for “Dear Muslima”, and mad at JREF for its awful handling of harassment at conferences, but neither of these things reach the level of MRA stuff.

      Really the whole connection is rather loose. There are many varieties of secular experience, and many varieties of anti-feminist experience, and these spheres overlap. The Amazing Atheist does not actually self-ID as an MRA, for instance. I don’t know the specific religious views of Heartiste or other major MRA voices. But the connection’s still there, and it’s deeply uncomfortable to many people.

    • Aqua says:

      That reminds me of a post I read about the origins of the “incel” concept, but sadly, it’s from a blog that got deleted recently.

      There are still people who identify as incel because they feel down on their luck with relationships, and many of them are too shy to initiate, or struggle with social anxiety. What they mean is closer to what the incel community originally was. I’ve met a few, and I feel bad for them for being overshadowed by the more vocal people who identify with that label.

  2. luvtheheaven says:

    “You might also remember this brief thing from The Amazing Atheist (an atheist MRA vlogger with 600k subscribers)” – I remember, with shame, the time when I had to UNSUBSCRIBE from his YouTube channel, many years ago, after having mistakenly thought he was worth following, but his anti-feminism stuff started becoming very off-putting quite early on, BEFORE elevatorgate and all of that.

    This is quite the post. Thanks for sharing all of this. It’s definitely a perspective that needs sharing.

  3. Zanna says:

    this blog deserves a big shout out here

  4. notunprepared says:

    Militant atheists scare me more than militant Christians do. Maybe because I don’t have theological arguments to back me up with atheism (because they have no theology) like I do with Christianity. With Christians you can fall back on “love your neighbour” and tell them not to judge others because only God should judge, and I find that tends to shut them up rather quickly. Atheists don’t have an equivalent, and you can’t use scientific logic (like Bogeart or you know, actual biology unlike the shitty biology they use) because they always have an excuse about how it’s biased or bad statistics or something. And if you disagree with them, you’re an idiot sheeple who is just following the masses.

    And as for gaming…yeah that community is toxic as hell. There’s a good reason I only play one-player games and don’t participate other than with my friends.

  5. L says:

    Yeah I’ll jut say… that I much much prefer to be around theist feminists than atheist feminists. Talk about yikes.

    • Siggy says:

      May I ask what you see as the difference?

      • L says:

        I just get along with them much more. I’ve found that atheists, even in casual conversation with them, tend to just pepper topics with anti-theist sentiments, scientisms, and derigatory language. It makes me uncomfortable to even have the possibility of that happening when I hang out with an atheist. And ive found that being feminist, in at least the atheists I’ve had bad experiences with, doesnt temper their oversharing of opinions that alienate me.

    • Hollis says:

      I agree with you, though reading your reply I think it’s for different reasons.

      I’ve always found that theist feminists understand that there are reasons to not want to do the sex, whereas a lot of atheist or non-theistic feminists tend to be on the full on “there is no shame in having sex like Religion tells you there is so Have All the Sex”. And for me, it was far more radical for me to be able to say no to sex than to be able to say yes. Because even in my sort-of-religious upbringing, there was a definite expectation of sex (just the right type of sex), and a lot of my experiences with non-religious people there is also an expectation about sex, whereas with theist feminist folks, they understand the complexities and pressures placed on people about sex and are far more likely to validate those feelings/pressures.

  6. kokiri85 says:

    I tend to think that the sexism and misogyny (among other things) in my religion are extra background gunk from the culture and times when the scriptures were written that unfortunately seeped in and mixed with the real core ideas, so now some people keep dragging that extra baggage along because they think it’s a necessary part. But atheism doesn’t HAVE scripture with ancient cultural baggage, and yet it spawned sexism and misogyny out of nothing all over again?

    As a Christian I kind of wanted to feel vindicated that religion isn’t the source of all bigotry like some people say, but mostly this is just really depressing.

  7. Sara K. says:

    Religion often offers an ethical floor and ceiling, whereas atheism offers neither.

    Take Judaism for example. Judaism incorporates some sexist and misogynist ideas. Some religious Jews embrace these. Some claim that Judaism is a gender-equal religion and ‘splain all of the sexist and misogynist bits. Some religious Jews reject the sexist and misogynist bits and stick to the parts of the religion they are comfortable with.

    OTOH, Judaism also has rules such as a husband may not force his wife to have sex or physically abuse her. This rule may not be easy to be enforce (only men can initiate divorce) but the rule is clear enough that it is very difficult for a misogynist religious Jewish man to justify marital sexual or physical abuse.

    So, Judaism both offers both a ceiling and a floor with regards to how to treat women (even though some religious Jews do not follow them, and have major disagreements about where the ceiling and floor actually are).

    Atheism in itself says nothing about how to handle gender. That means that no theology saying that you have to be sexist/misogynist, but there is also no theology saying that you *shouldn’t* be sexist/misogynist.

    I know people who have turned away from religious Judaism partially because of the treatment of women, and I can also imagine that some misogynist people might turn away from Judaism because they feel that Judaism grants women too many rights.

  8. sablin27 says:

    I’d rephrase “secular anti-feminism” as “self-righteous victim mentality”. The belief that because you’re the oppressee, you can’t be the oppressor, that your pain is the thing that matters, not that of people different to you. And the nasty edge is added by their fear of losing their grip on their convictions, their need to keep their world-view intact.

    Attacks on women, asexuals and so on aren’t about these groups at all, but about some atheist communities tendency to accept disregard of other people and other viewpoints.

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