What Atheism Can Learn From the ‘Nones’

It should be a victory for secularism.

Young adults are leaving organized religion in droves and religious leaders are bewildered. I’ll admit that as a young ex-Christian I speak from clear bias here, but nevertheless: in my experience, older Christians don’t get it. The generation gap is quite relevant, particularly when you consider the chronology at work here. Our parents started the Moral Majority. They started the Christian homeschool movement. They started new Christian schools and universities. They genuinely believed religion, or at least their religion, possessed the potential to transform America into a better place.

And you see how successful they’ve been. America is as divided as it’s ever been and Generation Joshua is generation prodigal.

I’ve written often about the need for older Christians to listen to the ‘nones.’ Because, typically, they don’t. Again, I’m speaking from my experiences, and nobody else’s, but historically whenever I try to discuss the issues that drove me away from church, I’m shouted down and my concerns are minimized. Christians haven’t relinquished control of the conversation. They write the books and the editorials. The result? We prodigals remain data points, conversation starters. Our stories are unheard. We’re not invisible, really, but we are subjects of study. The conversation is structured in a way that deprives us of the ability to produce our own narrative.

But Christians aren’t the only culprits. Atheists aren’t often much better. It’s easy to seize upon this data as evidence of Christianity’s intellectual failure but really, the situation demands more nuance. Yes, we’re the least religious generation in history, but that doesn’t mean we identify as atheist, agnostic, or any other variation on freethinker.

In an excellent article published yesterday the Boston Review’s Claude Fischer points out that although the numbers of people identifying as atheist or agnostic are up, the real increase is in people refusing any identification at all. When asked to characterize their beliefs they answer ‘no preference.’ ‘Unaffiliated.’ ‘Nothing in particular.’ Fischer calls them the ‘nones.’

I don’t really think this is shocking. I think it’s the inevitable consequence of waging culture war. The religious fundamentalists started it and too many people responded with fundamentalist atheism. When you prioritize movement politics over people, and ideology over intellectual nuance, you’re a fundamentalist, whether or not you believe in God.

Nones inhabit the gray in a world of black and white. Consider us conscientious objectors–yes, we might have defected, but we didn’t necessarily defect to the other side. And I’m not so certain this is a problem. The Great Exodus is an unprecedented opportunity for dialogue about the cultural rifts that polarize American society. I see it as evidence that my generation’s driving concern is social justice. I prioritized it over being a ‘good Christian’ and I prioritize it still over any other label. And the research says I’m not alone.

If you want your movement to grow, atheists, you’re going to have to incorporate social justice. That means intersectionality. That means you’re going to have to talk about feminism and racism and all those other -isms that so many of you seem to despise so much.

The church didn’t take those -isms seriously, either. You see how that worked out for them.


Extraordinary Nonsense

It’s time to address a few of the more spectacular claims that emerged from the anti-feminist crowd last week.

1. The repeated assertion that it’s not victim-blaming to suggest women drink less at conventions.

Rape is, by its very nature, a thing someone inflicts on somebody else. It’s a one-sided crime. When you suggest that women take any sort of action to avoid rape, you shift the blame where it properly should be (ie, on the rapist) and transfer some of it to women. You’re implying that she is at least partially responsible for becoming the victim of a crime. You are claiming that she provoked the rapist into taking a specific action.

I should not have to explain how this is misogynist but given the vile comments that appeared in my comment section and continue to appear on avenues like Twitter, the Slyme Pit, and the Randi Foundation’s forums, it’s necessary to reiterate this basic fact. Women do not have any sort of responsibility to avoid rape. Rapists have a responsibility to avoid rape. Any other dynamic, ye who despise ‘buzzwords,’ is a manifestation of rape culture. That’s reality.

2. I am ‘straw-manning’ critics.

This popped up on the Randi Foundation forums. This is also false. People have repeatedly suggested that the women coming forward with examples of gendered violence a.) don’t exist, b.) are lying or at least exaggerating, c.) actually wanted sex and d.) shouldn’t have been drinking. Exhibit A: Brian Dalton’s latest video tirade. If I hadn’t noticed such concerning responses I wouldn’t have said anything at all, and last week would have been another typical week for me.

3. People who criticize Shermer et al are anti-sex.

This is also bullshit. Sex is fantastic. I have no problems with sex. I am not anti-sex. I am anti-rape. And while I can’t speak for the Freethought bloggers, that seems to be their position too. It’s not prudish to suggest that a man should avoid taking advantage of a woman whose judgement is clearly impaired. This is not a radical suggestion. There is no need to invoke the shade of Andrea Dworkin. If this simple suggestion sends you into a rage, there’s clearly a problem and the problem is with you, and not with me, or any other feminist. Enthusiastic consent. Google it.

4. Stollznow et al have made ‘extraordinary claims’ that demand ‘extraordinary evidence.’

We’re talking about violence against women, not Bigfoot sightings. Unfortunately, gendered violence is a common occurrence. The Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one out of every six American women will experience a completed or attempted rape during her lifetime–and it’s worth noting that women of color experience disproportionately high rates of sexual violence. Despite these high numbers, the Department of Justice reports that only three out of every one hundred rapists will ever spend a day in jail.

This is partially because sexual violence is one of the most underreported crimes in the US. I didn’t report my assault. Most women (and men) don’t report theirs, either. There are a number of reasons for this, stigma being chief among them. When it’s considered acceptable to interrogate survivors about their drinking habits, their clothing, their sexual histories–who on earth would want to come forward as a survivor? Sexual violence is deeply traumatic. The reporting process asks survivors to relive their trauma. It’s no wonder why so many don’t immediately come forward about their experiences. Sexual violence is a crime, yes, but it has unique characteristics and it can’t logically be compared to theft, physical assault, or other crimes. Apples and oranges.

And if you’re queer, trans* or a woman of color (or all of the above) the police historically haven’t been your friends. It astounds me that a community so frantically concerned over government intrusion and official abuses of power abandons these concerns when the subject shifts from surveillance to rape. You don’t trust the government, but survivors should? The government is an enemy of the people until it comes to rape? Hardly consistent. And not very logical, I might add.

You don’t get to police a survivor’s reaction to trauma. We cope in what ways seem best to us. If someone wants to come forward via social media, they can come forward via social media and your response should be compassion, not a demand for a blow by blow description of events. People demanding ‘evidence’–what evidence do you want? Rape kit results? Because I have the feeling you’d just swear that they’re evidence of consensual sex, not rape.


People have asked me not to ‘opt out’ of the skeptic community. And maybe they’re right, and those of us who want to fight for social justice should stay in the movement. In 2011, Flavia Dzodan wrote one of the best essays on feminism I’ve ever read. Reacting to mainstream feminism’s domination by white women, Dzodan demanded an intersectional feminism, a feminism that recognizes that women of color, queer women, trans* women, disabled women have been excluded from mainstream debate, shoved to the side, drowned out. For Dzodan, an intersectional feminism isn’t a luxury or an esoteric thought exercise; it’s her reality, and a feminism that doesn’t recognize this isn’t capable of delivering equal rights for her, or for anyone else outside the mainstream. My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. That’s what she wrote. And she was right.

You should read it. And then you should read it again. Frame it, maybe.

I’m mentioning it here because I intend to demand something similar of skeptics. My skepticism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. I will question rape culture. I will demand that my experiences, and the experiences of people of color, of queer folks and disabled folks and poor folks, receive respect and attention within skepticism. Do you really think I’d have left fundamentalism if I hadn’t been the least bit skeptical about its gender roles? Its homophobia? Its ableism? A skepticism that doesn’t address gender, or sexual identity, or racism isn’t capable of addressing all the myriad reasons why people question and abandon religious dogma. A skepticism without these elements isn’t really skepticism and it shouldn’t be labelled as such. It’s just white male supremacy dressed up in different rhetoric. It is the status quo.

If you want an intersectional skepticism then we’re on the same side, and let’s organize together. If you don’t, enjoy the fringes. Rest safe in the knowledge that you are a fundamentalist and you offer nothing new or better to the world.

Opting Out

Note: I’m overwhelmed by the response this blog has gotten! If your comment has been trapped in moderation, sorry about that–I work full time and didn’t expect my blog would get this level of attention. I’ve left some particularly atrocious comments up because I feel they prove my point. So, survivors, trigger warnings ahead.

There’s a subculture with a healthy Internet presence, centered around passionate advocacy for a particular ideological cause. It has several popular male leaders. These men enjoy comfortable jobs, speaking engagements and publishing credits. That places them in a position of power in this subculture, and they’ve got the dedicated followers to prove it.

And then these leaders are accused of abuse: sustained sexual harassment, even rape, all directed at women, an under-represented demographic in this community. Rather than treat these allegations with respect and serious inquiry, there is backlash. These women, people say, are sluts. They are liars. They exaggerate. They can’t take a joke. They shouldn’t have been drinking. Their allies are traitors. They should be sued.

Did you think of Sovereign Grace Ministries? ABWE? The homeschool and Quiverfull movements? Maybe even the Catholic Church?

Reasonable guesses all but you’d be wrong. The subculture in question is the mainstream atheist/skeptic movement, as it exists in the United States. I’m referring, specifically, to the backlash now facing Karen Stollznow, Carrie Poppy, and other survivors, in addition to their allies, like PZ Myers.

For the uninitiated: the American atheist community has faced accusations of entrenched sexism for some time. You might remember Rebecca Watson and ElevatorGate. Recently, these accusations ramped up again after several women came forward to report serious allegations of rape, assault, and harassment perpetuated by atheist men at popular conventions. These men include Michael Shermer and Ben Radford, among others.

You might also guess that a community centered around the pursuit of reason would react…reasonably, and treat these allegations seriously. But you’d be wrong about that too. Shermer et al enjoy devoted followings and these followers have reacted viciously to the suggestion that their heroes could be capable of abuse.

I have never been particularly involved with the American atheist, humanist or skeptic communities. I sided with Rebecca Watson during ElevatorGate, but the extent of my participation in that fiasco is a single blog post. The backlash Watson received made me wary of any further interaction with this community; I didn’t think that as a feminist, and especially as a survivor of sexual assault, I could share my experiences without finding myself the object of harassment. And after my experiences with Christian fundamentalism, I felt I’d really hit a lifetime quota for that sort of abuse.

But then this week happened. About a month ago, I appeared as a guest on God Discussion, which is run by Al Stefanelli and Deborah Beeksma, along with other members of Homeschoolers Anonymous. I didn’t realize then that Stefanelli has a reputation for being an anti-feminist blowhard. If I’d known, I would have never agreed to appear on his show. His views only became known to me after I read his latest screed against PZ Myers. I felt then, and still feel now, that Stefanelli’s post showed a deep ignorance of how rape and assault survivors respond to trauma, and that his attack on Myers was unwarranted.

And so that’s exactly what I said on Stefanelli’s Facebook. I didn’t accuse Shermer or anyone else of rape. I said, simply, that I was disturbed by Stefanelli’s post for the reasons I described above.

Cue the abuse. I got immediately swarmed by atheist anti-feminist men and the situation escalated until one of them threatened to kill me. Several times, in fact. Al’s since deleted the threats, but as far as I know, he still acknowledges that the threats were made. The person making the threats is possibly unwell; he also told me he’s a genetically engineered soldier. But that doesn’t make me feel any better about the fact that someone repeatedly threatened to kill me.


Which seems reasonable–unless you’re EllenBeth Wachs. Wachs, who identifies herself as the past president of the Florida Humanists Association, told me I’d brought the death threats upon myself for being so easy to troll. She repeated those statements on Twitter.

EllenBeth Wachs1 (2)

EllenBeth Wachs2 again

I’m not sure why Wachs is so convinced the person was joking; there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that’s the case. I have no idea if I was being trolled or not, but ultimately this doesn’t matter: making death threats crosses a line. It’s never funny. It’s totally inappropriate behavior and if Wachs was in the least bit invested in actual rationality, rather than the fevered defense of Michael Shermer, she would have acknowledged that.

But she hasn’t. She still thinks it’s hilarious that someone threatened to kill me and the abuse didn’t end there. Shocked that I called her behavior sociopathic, she demanded an apology–for obvious reasons, she didn’t get it. And that’s when she name-dropped my boss and threatened to call him.


Summary: she laughed at me for getting threats, told me I deserved it, then threatened my job.

And this is from an atheist. Not a fundamentalist Christian. An atheist. Someone who calls herself rational.

Her definition of rationality is as creative as Ken Ham’s definition of science.

Wachs’ abuse is just a highlight of the abusive tweets I got from other atheists, mostly men, over a 24 hour period. And let me reiterate: I’ve never actually accused Shermer or anyone else of committing a crime. My offense? I suggested atheists take rape allegations more seriously.

This isn’t reason in action, it’s fundamentalism. If your response to the suggestion that you take rape seriously is threaten and abuse me, then you are not rational. If your response to anyone making these allegations is to blame them for their own trauma, you are not rational. If you immediately assume that a woman who says she’s been raped, assaulted or harassed is lying, you are not rational. If you refuse to believe even the possibility that someone you admire is capable of assault, then not only are you irrational, you are actively protecting a toxic subculture.

I grew up with this bullshit. I went to school with this bullshit. I got over this bullshit years ago. My patience for it is buried right alongside my faith in God.

I will not participate in any movement that attacks survivors. I will not swear allegiance to a set of leaders at the cost of my ability to think critically. I will not do either of these things because these are the trappings of fundamentalism and I rejected fundamentalism years ago at no small personal cost.

Over the last 24 hours I’ve heard that I’m milking this for attention, that I’m out for a career as a professional victim. Let me tell you something: if I really wanted to be a professional victim I already have enough material to last me two lifetimes. I experienced religious abuse. I survived a sexual assault. I have an incurable genetic disease.  I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for years.

And the only reason that I am stable, gainfully employed and yes, happy, is because I have rejected victimhood. I am not a victim. I am a survivor.  I do not owe you anything.

I commented on Stefanelli’s article because I know what it’s like to be attacked when you finally come forward about sexual assault. If your response to that is to wish me dead or otherwise abuse me, that says more about you than it does about me. It tells me that you’re fanatical. You’ve bought into this idea of culture war and just like the Christian fundamentalists I knew,  you’re willing to sacrifice the vulnerable in order to protect your movement. If survivors have become collateral damage for your cause, then something has gone terribly, tragically wrong.

So count me out. I’d rather stay here in no man’s land than fight in the trenches on either side of this war. And right now, I feel like I’m stranded in the middle and both sides are trying to gun me down.

But you know what?

That means I’ve done something right. When you speak truth to power, expect power to shout you down. Or at least, it’ll try. I don’t intend to let it win.

See you in the middle.