Five Reasons Why I Criticize Other Atheists

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

It has not gone unnoticed by me that a lot of my posts are not focused on the harms of religion specifically. In fact, many of my posts specifically admonish behaviors I see largely in atheist groups and communities. A cursory glance at the posts I’ve made with the most views shows that I spend a considerable amount of time criticizing nonsensical atheist positions, criticizing atheists I disagree with, and criticizing behaviors I find unhelpful in atheist communities. You’d almost think that I have a thing against atheists, but that’s far from true, especially considering I am an atheist. There are a lot of reasons I spend my time criticizing atheists, and I’d like to go into a few of them.

  1. I hold a higher standard for my peers

Perhaps this is the least rational conclusion why I criticize other atheists. After all, atheism is only a response to a single question. In a largely Christian America, the question usually means, “do you think there’s a conscious entity that made the entire universe without any evidence that he did so, created everyone wicked and sinful and destined to failure, redeemed people through arbitrary rules that he created making him sacrifice himself to himself, and also he doesn’t want penises in buttholes?” The answer to this question is not a hard one. It’s difficult to come to the conclusion that anyone who doesn’t accept this claim is legitimately smarter. You can find some data that conclude that atheism is correlated with higher IQs, or more education. However, that doesn’t mean that there’s a causal link between the two (correlation doesn’t mean causation), and some people even dispute the correlation entirely.

 

However, a large amount of my friends are atheists. I enjoy talking to atheists about things that atheists are typically into (the harms of religion, podcasts, which gelatinous fluid Pat Robertson’s face most resembles, etc.). I value the conversations I have with most of them, and we tend to share the same values. This does not mean that they are necessarily smarter, but I do happen to think they, like me, are generally on the right side of the culture wars and have the best ideas for making the world a better place. I want our shared values to be excellent values, and therefore the ones that we share should be the best we can possibly make them. As long as we use conversation as a means to explore our thoughts and positions, I am going to do my part and try to hold us all to a high standard.

Even if my atheist peers weren’t as smart as the general population and we didn’t have the best ideas, that would be all the more reason to correct them more. I want to make my groups and friend circles be the best they can be. Which leads me to my next point.

  1. I want to improve the communities I partake in

For readers who are unaware, No Religion Required is a podcast, and it has a wonderful listener base. Every week you see the same friendly faces in the chatroom. We have a loving community that Bobby and Ashley have wonderfully cultivated. We have a Facebook group lovingly called the No Religion Required Family, which is entirely apropos as it reflects the inviting and loving space that it is. There are people of all walks of life who are welcome as long as they are respectful of each other. It’s not even explicitly atheist, as there are many who aren’t sure of their beliefs, and there is at least one friendly Christian.  I have mentioned before that I think one of the things that I think atheists need to focus on in the future is developing small communities with specific focuses, and this listener base is one of my good examples.

While we have many shared values, it hardly means there’s groupthink restricting our thought, and there are many diverse perspectives. We have progressives, centrists, anarchists, and libertarians. We have firebrand atheists and diplomat atheists, and people who aren’t atheists at all. The group is a respectful space for discussion, but sometimes it may not get so friendly. There have been times when the discussion wasn’t so respectful, and there were legitimate fights. I’m not for that. I’m for respectful discourse. When I criticize atheists, I am usually criticizing terrible ideas and behaviors that lead to unnecessary conflict. Granted, my ideas are not only applicable in atheist spaces, but in any space where there needs to be more respect in discourse. When I share my ideas, it’s largely so that the groups I inhabit can benefit from them. If anything I have to say has merit, then we can all share it. This doesn’t just go for me, but for anyone in the family. They are always welcome to post in the group, or even make a post on this blog (you can too by submitting your posts here). But when we share our good ideas, our communities benefit. While I have plenty of things to say about the poor ideas that religious people have, I don’t spend my time in religious spaces, and therefore I don’t get as much personal benefit from this. However, If I’m able to say something that makes the conversation better in my communities, then not only do I benefit, but also the people I care most about.

This doesn’t just go for the small atheist groups that I’m a part of. There are also problems that atheists run into in the larger communities and movements. I don’t tend to make large, sweeping posts criticizing problems from all across the atheosphere, because this blog doesn’t get much reach. However, sometimes I say something that resonates with other atheists, which allows people to share them and spread ideas that they think have merit. Such was the case when I wrote my piece criticizing atheists who insist that there isn’t really an atheist movement. It turns out that people I admire, such as Seth Andrews, Dave Silverman, and Ed Brayton found in it things they had wanted to say for a long time but haven’t, and they shared that piece around. Now, if they get annoying critics in the peanut gallery who trot out lazy denial of the atheist movement, they have an easy thing to link to and share so they don’t have to say much. Perhaps even the naysayers came across it and may have had their minds changed a bit. If that happened at all, that’s good. Because it’s relevant to my next point.

  1. Atheists are the most likely people to listen to me

I’m not really a famous person. Even the most famous atheists in the world (currently Dawkins and Harris) are barely household names. Even the “monsters of atheism” like Matt Dillahunty and Hemant Mehta are only recognizable in places like secular conferences and gatherings. No Religion Required is a somewhat popular podcast, but only popular within atheist circles, and I’m a co-host who at this point isn’t even appearing regularly on it. I’m not going to be a public figure anytime soon, which is perfectly fine by me.

However, since joining the crew to regularly say dick jokes into a microphone and make fun of the Bible, I’ve met a lot of atheists. By my estimate, I’ve probably made 400 atheist friends on Facebook in the past two years because of this. I’ve made a Facebook and Twitter page exclusively for the show, and I have ~350 followers on each platform. These are largely atheists, or at least people who don’t rely on faith in their daily lives. As such, whatever I say is going to be seen and heard by atheists.

Atheists usually don’t need me to tell them that faith is an unreliable tool to gain knowledge, or that Christianity is full of flaws, or that we have a thorough understanding of evolution and its mechanisms. Even if I do think these things, and even if I think more people should recognize these, I don’t need to preach to the choir. There are much more prominent voices who are saying these things, and often much better. When I do go into counter-apologetics, or get into flaws of Christianity, it’s if I have things to say that haven’t really been said before. I’m coming in after of multiple atheist movements have been here for decades, and have largely responded to religious nonsense in many, many ways, so I’m not going to say much that hasn’t already been said before. And I’m perfectly happy with that.

The point is that we have largely made our case against the religious. We are gaining momentum and that’s good, we should keep doing that. But there’s other work we can do. Now that we’ve made a dent in today’s culture, we need communities that help each other decide how to live, using tools like secular humanism and critical thought. That is one of the roles I see myself in partaking in. So while I’m not out protesting church and state violations on foot, I can still do the work that needs to be done here.

  1. I’m most likely to listen to other atheists

I love arguing with other people, and dishing out disagreements with my friends. While being an atheist doesn’t logically lead to being smarter or better critical thinkers, you can find plenty of them who occupy atheist spaces, and often times the stereotype of the argumentative internet atheist holds very true. Atheists and skeptics are never going to agree on everything, and they will often let that be known proudly. If I’m wrong about something, they are often the first to let me know. And that’s good, I don’t want to spread misinformation, so I’m glad that they’re here to keep me honest and factual.

It also helps that we often have common ground in our conversations. Again, atheism only implies a lack of god belief, but there do tend to be a few shared values and opinions among nonbelievers and freethinkers. It’s often nice having conversations where there isn’t a huge gap in worldview. Both of us know that we can safely ignore what the Bible says, and we aren’t worried about blaspheming. We can focus on real-world problems, and not waste time on the supernatural. We can talk about honing our skepticism skills and developing our toolbox for dialogue and critical inquiry. When we disagree, even violently, it’s not about how many angels are dancing on a pin. It’s about policy and ethics, and they are often firmly grounded in evidence. This isn’t the same for many god-believers. I’m happy to argue with them, and I will. But if their argument starts with, “The Bible says…” then I know that the conversation will not be that productive. Again, I will still debate them, but my conversation will not so much focus on something like a real-world issue, but more of a focus on why we should follow religious rules from a holy text at all. There’s nothing wrong with having this discussion, but I’ve had it a million times, and I know how it will likely go. Perhaps I have a chance of planting seeds, but ultimately I will not grow that much or learn from that conversation, because I’ve had it before. When I’m talking to another skeptic, we both have far more of an opportunity to learn from each other, and they are far more likely to raise something I hadn’t considered before.

Some of my favorite debates are between atheists for this reason. I, like many of my peers, are looking forward to the debate between Bart Ehrman and Robert Price on whether a historical Jesus existed. I also learned a lot in Matt Dillahunty’s debate with a representative from secular pro-life. And there was much to be gained from the three part debate series on Atheistically Speaking between two prominent atheist voices on social justice issues. None of these had to be justified with “because the Bible said so” or had to do with the existence of souls or had any ties to a church doctrine. These were based on facts where people didn’t have to overcome a massive spiritual divide to converse an issue. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t have a side on any of these debates or think that they were equally matched. At the same times, these debates were productive and informative to me specifically because there wasn’t that barrier to overcome, so we could get to the real meat of the issues more effectively.

abortiondebate

[Image: Matt Dillahunty and a Secular Pro-Life representative, Kristine Kruszelnicki, square off in a debate over abortion at the 2012 Texas Freethought Convention]

This is also true of conversations I have with progressive Christians who have shared values with me. We may not agree with each others’ supernatural views, but we don’t have to talk about that. Likewise, we have a mutual interest in helping the marginalized, because we have a shared sense of empathy between us. We often don’t have to spend time focusing on why we want to help people, we can discuss how, or share personal uplifting stories of how to help others. There are plenty of Christians that I am far happier to converse with about death with dignity, reproductive health, LGBTQ issues, etc. compared to some atheists I know.

Again, this doesn’t mean that I require a certain amount of agreement for a discussion to be worth my time. I do have to pick my battles, though. I’m willing to converse with people over wide ranges of disagreement. I just find that the ones that are most worth my time are ones where we don’t have to focus on fundamental facts of how things work. For the sake of my sanity and mental health, I just tend to spend those out a bit more.

  1. Ultimately, atheists as a collective have flaws, just like any other group

To state the obvious, atheists are humans. This means they are imperfect. As atheists, this doesn’t mean that we think that we deserve to burn forever for eternity. However, within our own circles, we tend to perpetuate misinformation. We have our own biases, and sometimes we may tend to spread something around that makes us feel good but isn’t totally correct. We may be willing to pass around a meme or two without fact-checking it. It’s good to keep ourselves accountable just like any other humans.

At one point, I made a rather incendiary post directly targeted at atheists in particular:

“For atheists who think that words don’t matter and don’t hurt people, you should STFU about:
Childhood indoctrination
Thoughts of hell leading to panic attacks
Bullying in schools
Suicide
Donald Trump
Gaslighting
Domestic Abuse

When you’re done talking about these, maybe you’ll have a consistent worldview that I’m willing to discuss”

Some of these are tied to religious harm, which admittedly not all atheists may care about, but my audience tends to do so. I got a ridiculous amount of backlash for it on social media. Most of it didn’t even disagree with the bulk of the post, but rather that I had the audacity to criticize atheists specifically who think that these examples are harmful. Anyone could have the hypocritical view that words don’t hurt, but those things are harmful, not just atheists. So why have the audacity to call them out?

Because atheists are people too, and they deserve to be called out. Sure, I could have easily called out “people” who do something wrong, but would that have the same impact? The examples I listed are common problems that atheists will often discuss. But there’s also a large contingent of atheists who show a large amount of verbal disrespect and condescension towards other human beings under the guise of “rational discourse” and “I can’t hurt you, I’m just using my words.” This is a big problem endemic to atheist communities, largely because atheists are flawed beings just like the rest of us. And it’s our job to keep each other accountable.

If I just said, “people” instead of atheists, would I have had as much impact? Perhaps the atheists scrolling by may have thought I was making a criticism of people in general, and wouldn’t have taken the time to look through the list. Perhaps due to my internet moniker, an atheist thought this was a post by a religious person attacking atheists, only to discover that I’m “one of them”, and really lobbying a criticism at my own community to improve it. Either way, I’m not particularly swayed that I should have generalized my criticism because #allpeoplemakemistakes. I’m glad I focused my criticism on my own tribe, and I think more people noticed it as a result.

Hopefully this makes sense. As atheists, we can learn from each others’ mistakes and criticisms, and learn how to grow together. We should recognize that it’s not our nonbelief that makes us better people, it’s our actions and how we treat others, and we can always stand to grow. I want to help other atheists grow, and I’m happy when they help me grow.  Let’s grow together.

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