Questions for ‘gender critical’ atheists

Over the last few years concerns have rightly been raised over anti-trans views in atheism. A big part of this problem is that atheists – and by implication the wider AHS+ movement of atheists, humanists, secularists, skeptics and freethinkers – are still largely defined by a few prominent figures with wanning influence, and the stereotype of the toxic online atheist, rather than our diverse communities and experiences.

There are a lot of outspoken ‘gender criticals’ in our community, and they claim that their views are based on the rationality, logic or science, which should underpin any AHS+ worldview.

A lot of people in our movement, even well-intentioned people, believe that this is an ‘important debate’ and that ‘gender criticals’ have some reasonable points or ‘legitimate concerns’, or that taking up the cause of trans rights is a form of mission creep or distraction. Many believe that trans activism, or inclusion, is a threat to the values of free speech and freethought which we hold dear.

In the spirit of freethought, these are questions, not the strongest or most comprehensive arguments for trans inclusivity. These are the questions that led me to a firmer and better informed trans-allyship. Whatever your position, and whether or not you come to the same answers as me, I hope you will consider them.

If trans activists are “ruining atheism”, then ask yourself:

One of the big divides in the movement over the last decade has been between those who favour anti-theism, and those favouring a more humanist focussed social justice. The former group are disproportionately influenced by online trolling culture, with its focus on attacking anything derided as ‘woke’ and a fetishization of shallow pseudo-rationality.

As we have seen with anti-Muslim bigotry, and generalised ‘anti-woke’ sentiments, reactionary religious groups – often heavily influenced by US culture wars – have made inroads in some parts of the atheist movement. Witness how conspiracist, pseudo-mystic, buffoon Jorden Peterson and religious extremist Ben Shapiro have been cast as brave rationalists in some sections of the movement.

I won’t pretend that five years ago the atheist or wider AHS+ movement was a nirvana of trans inclusion, or that trans rights activism was a top priority. Trans rights issues were rarely specifically addressed but fell under the broad umbrella of LGBT-rights that were a priority for the movement. The advancement of LGBT rights made possible by the concerted challenge of religious authoritarianism, was one of the tangible achievements of that movement. A legacy, certain figures seem determined to tarnish.

If trans activism is a religion, then ask yourself:

  • Why do the vast majority of atheist humanist and secularist groups with a position support trans rights?
  • Under what definition is ‘transgenderism’ a religion?
  • If trans allies believe in ‘gendered’ souls, why is this a claim almost exclusively made by gender critical groups?
  • What about trans people who categorically do not believe in souls?

Of course, these groups with a generally skeptical outlook could all be wrong, they could have all accidently become religious overnight, or been infiltrated and led astray by the tiny percentage of trans people in the population. Or they could have the institutional memory to recognise and understand how the modern transphobic movement is just repackaged homophobia, and the policy view to understand how it is being use as a wedge by the reactionary religious right. If you’re going to call everything you don’t like or disagree with a religion, then how are you going to have a useful definition of religion, or challenge someone calling any of your beliefs they disagree with a religion?

If trans activism is a threat to women’s safety, then ask yourself:

  • Why do the vast majority of feminist groups support trans rights?
  • Why do most women support trans rights?
  • Why are women more likely than men to support trans rights?
  • Why are the figures in the atheist movement most vocally critical of transgender inclusion, the same figures that have been so critical of efforts to tackle sexism in the movement?
  • Besides opposing trans rights, what are you doing to make the atheist movement more inclusive and welcoming for women and other underrepresented groups?

The discussion of trans rights inevitably focusses on trans women – with trans men and non-binary folk often ignored. We live in a patriarchal society and need to take threats to women’s rights – including reactionary religious groups – seriously. If trans rights, were a big threat to (cis)women’s rights, it seems weird that most mainstream feminist groups would be supportive. We’d surely expect gender critical views to be widespread rather than concentrated in dedicated fringe groups.

If trans activism is homophobic, then ask yourself:

  • Why do the vast majority of LGBT groups support trans rights?
  • If the gender critical movement is about supporting LGB rights, why is it so dominated by homophobia?
  • Why do trans-rights activists have a long history of supporting gay rights?
  • Are there any groups that are actually homophobic, but not transphobic?
  • Why is the campaign against LGB and T inclusive RSE in schools, dominated by religious reactionaries?
  • If trans-affirming RSE is homophobic, then why are the groups opposing it also homophobic?

One conspiracy theory is that homophobic parents are treating gay children as trans in order to make them straight. How many people are there that are so homophobic that they would go to such an extreme, but aren’t transphobic?

There is plenty to criticise about establishment LGBT groups and the compromises they make for that establishment status. But virtually every mainstream LGB group is pro trans rights, the only LGB groups that are anti-trans are fringe groups set up for that specific purpose, who don’t do anything to actually support LGB people.

Of course, you can point to examples of homophobia from individual trans activist – homophobia is deeply engrained in our society – and many genders critical activists have a long history of supporting LGB rights, but are led into homophobia via transphobia.

If trans activism is anti-science, then ask yourself:

  • Why is the gender critical movement so dominated by anti-medial and anti-science conspiracists?
  • Why do the vast majority of medical and psychological bodies support trans affirming healthcare?
  • Besides the chromosome defined sex, is there any other topic where scientific and medical understanding reaches its pinnacle and gets no more complicated at high school science level?

AHS+ worldviews place a great emphasis on science and evidence based understandings. The leading scientific and medical understandings of sex and gender may be more complicated than what some of us grew up with, or learned in school. A scientific consensus, such as sex and gender being a non-binary spectrum influenced by many factors, or a medical consensus, such as trans-affirming healthcare being the best option for many people, may turn out to be wrong or in need of further revision.

If trans activism is a threat to free speech, then ask yourself:

  • Why does the gender critical movement make such extensive use of gagging orders, and legal threats?
  • If gender critical voices are being silenced, why is there so much anti-trans media coverage?
  • If gender critical voices are being silenced, why do they have such big media platforms, while trans people are almost never quoted in articles about them?
  • If you are concerned about ‘invented’ or ‘constructed’ language, what do you think of the use of the term ‘gender critical’?

Free speech is a fundamental value in most atheist, humanist, secularist, and similar worldviews. But some parts of our movement (and this is a massive topic that deserves its own article) have taken a warped toxic understanding of free speech that is so concerned with the rights of people to spread certain views, and so opposed to free speech being used to challenge them.

If trans activism makes you uncomfortable, then ask yourself:

  • Do you think being trans, a trans ally or gender critical is a bigger threat to your employment prospects?
  • If individual trans people being aresholes online invalidates the movement for trans rights, where does that leave the atheist movement?
  • Have you educated yourself on this topic?

I have sympathy for anyone concerned about getting things wrong, or who feel left behind by a changing conversation about sex and gender. But you don’t need to sit there trying to work everything out yourself there are free accessible resources everywhere.

One more question

  • What do you think is going to happen next?

Do you think that the mainstream atheist, wider AHS+, feminist, LGBT rights movements, healthcare professionals etc. are all going to suddenly reverse course on trans rights? Based on what? Here’s my predication, and hope, in a decade or two, the flirtation with transphobia in some parts of our movement will be seen as an embarrassing history we’d rather ignore, trans rights will be seen as so widely supported, that transphobia will only be able to survive within religion.

Photo information: Person with Body Painting, Sharon McCutcheon

Activism matters: Humanists New Zealand

In activism matters we meet activists and leaders working in a variety of atheist, humanist, and secularist spaces. This week we spoke with Tim Wright New Zealand Humanists’ relatively new president, and longstanding member Gaylene Middleton.

“The NZ Humanists are a national charity that promotes humanism, secularism, reason, and science. We work on behalf of the millions of New Zealanders who are not religious, ensuring their voices are heard in public policy and debate.”

What was your first experience of activism?

Tim: Back at university I got involved in student politics on a whim. I got involved in organising the “probably no god” signs on busses in New Zealand, a fair while ago now. So that was really the first experience. I found it interesting the pushback we got from religious people. And enjoyed the feeling of working toward a common cause.

Gaylene: I had great angst as a teenager about the purpose of life and did what many do, fell into religion-I converted to Catholicism. I have a bent towards ‘event planning’ and was ‘activist’ in a religious sense until my growth trajectory took me out of religion and into humanism. My partner Iain is a long time humanist and was with Humanist NZ as president for a number of terms. I learnt from Iain. It was 2018 when Humanists International had their General Assembly in New Zealand and we had difficulty with getting visas for humanists from non-visa waiver countries that this issue became a profound moment for me.

How did you become the president of Humanists NZ?

Tim: More by accident than planning. I have ADHD (undiagnosed) and tend to say “yes” to things without thinking (this is a common behaviour for people with ADHD), so when Jolene announced she was retiring as president, someone said, “Tim could do it” and I said yes. A very similar story to how I got on the board.

On saying that, I’m really proud to be president of Humanists NZ. It’s a great group of people who are involved and have been doing amazing work for a long, long time.

Gaylene: I became secretary in 2000. Just because I was asked, A big feature of the tasks was the regular monthly newsletter. This task has sharpened my thought, with the help of Iain and other committee contributions.

What advice would you give Tim in his new role?

Gaylene: I see a ‘president’, or I prefer ‘chairperson’ as a person who facilitates the skills of others. I like a horizontal structure rather than the older vertical concept. We can use individual skills to the full. A charismatic spokesperson may not be the best at the nuts and bolts of organising. I think that the traditional roles of a committee have blurred with the advent of the internet and global communication. The pace of life has increased, and I think the demands on people have increased so we need new efficiencies.

What advice would you give to a young humanist who wanted to be future activist or leader in this space?

Tim: Join your local society, talk to people, and find part of the movement that you’re passionate about. That might be writing submissions, giving talks, demonstrating, or other things. Also, leading volunteers is quite different to other forms of leadership, so learning about the differences can be really good.

What do you think makes an effective humanist leader?

Tim: I think that approaching leadership from a “supporting passionate people” perspective is more important than “leading passionate people”. We all become humanists and then get involved in activism for different reasons. Supporting our volunteers and guiding them to help understand what is important is more important than leading or managing them.

Gaylene: Having respect for all the foibles we have as personalities. I agree absolutely with Tim’s comment “approaching leadership from a “supporting passionate people” perspective”. I think it is essential for new leaders to make themselves aware of group history- to stand on the side-line for a time. All new members can do this. Everybody makes efforts and often it is forward and back again.

Being an activist or leader can be draining at times, what keeps you motivated?

Tim: The fact that the people involved in Humanists NZ are a fantastic bunch of diverse folks who need very little leadership.

Gaylene: The friendship within the group. Members having time for me.

What challenges does the humanist movement in New Zealand face today, and how can activists best help address them?

Tim: I think our primary challenge is lack of visibility. The media is supposed to present all sides of an argument, but as they often don’t know about the humanist movement, they often don’t present a humanist perspective.

Tim, you recently launched a Humanist radio programme, could you tell us how that came about, and what you hope it will achieve?

Tim: See note above about impulsively saying yes to commitments without thinking them through. I wanted to start a music-based show and was talking to the station manager (a community station) about funding. He mentioned that they get funding for providing airtime to religious groups. I asked if an atheist/humanist show would get the funding as well. He said it would and asked me if I wanted to do one.

I’m always interested in how humanist groups adapt the humanist symbol for their own identity, could you tell us about the meaning behind your own version?

Gaylene: We wanted to acknowledge the Tangata whenua of our land. The koru symbol- the unfolding fern leaf is a symbol of new life, growth, strength, and peace. The green base and blue upper of the ‘happy humanist’ is a little nod towards the Maori creation myth of Rangi and Papa– the earth and sky. Our previous logo was the ‘happy humanist’ astride the map of New Zealand.

Picture information: Pattern composed of Humanists New Zealand’s logo

Why is the Catholic church allowed to hinder secondary school choice?

A case in Leicestershire shows the mess faith groups make of admissions and why secular accountability is necessary, argues Alastair Lichten.

The practice of state funded faith schools discriminating in favour of prospective pupils on the basis of their parents’ religion is well known. ‘On your knees, avoid the fees’ has become common parlance in conversations about religiously selective state schools. But the ways in which faith schools undermine families’ choices can be more diverse, complex, and occasionally counterintuitive.

The ‘NSS articles’ category contains links to my opinion pieces, written while a campaigns officer or head of education for the National Secular Society, before June 2022. You can read the full original of this article here >>>

Photo credit: Blog Letters on Brown Wood – Pixabay

Activism matters: Nathan Alexander and Todd Tavares

Activism matters is a series where we meet activists and leaders working in a variety of atheist, humanist, and secularist spaces. This week I spoke with Nathan Alexander and Todd Tavares, hosts of the Beyond Atheism podcast.

What was your first experience of activism?

Todd Tavares (Todd)

Todd: I first came into activism as a student in the wake of the World Trade Organization protests in late 1999. The protests terrified some people, but for a lot of us we saw there was something happening, people pushing back against everything that was wrong in the world. It was inspiring.

Although the movement at the time was called anti-globalization, it was really an umbrella of wildly divergent interests learning to work in solidarity. My main interest was the political and economic decision-making process, but activism in one sphere spilled over into a lot of other areas like labour struggles, environmental action, and anti-racism actions. At the time actions and protests were very spontaneous and the movement was just starting to build. Some friends and I were dissatisfied with existing student groups, so we founded our own. We built networks with groups at other schools and in the community and worked with unions and local non-profits. That would have been the introduction

Nathan Alexander (Nathan):

Nathan: I think I got a late start to activism and certainly considered myself more a joiner than an activist. After I became an atheist in the early 2010s, I started to seek out like-minded groups wherever I happened to be. (In this case, it was in Seoul, South Korea – and this is where Todd and I met.) I always thought I would make some kind of contribution to activism in the sphere of academia.

This was definitely in my mind when I started my PhD in Scotland in 2013. I feel like, at least from my own experience, doing academic research on atheism was itself a kind of activism. In my research, I was recovering forgotten arguments from historical atheists and hopefully making them known to people today.

Your show “Beyond Atheism” has a very reflective quality. Is this something the movement needs more of?

Todd: Nathan and I have talked about reflection and open-minded thinking and wondering a lot. I am not sure if it was during a podcast or offline though. What we noticed is that every atheist who was raised with a faith needed to think their way out of it. I was raised Catholic. I was confirmed in the church, but even by that point I had moved from doubting to full on disbelief and was just going through the motions. My personal journey to atheism was only possible because I thought about and questioned what I had been told and came to different conclusions. This is a pretty common story among atheists, so in a lot of ways being reflective is a descriptive quality of a lot of atheists to begin with.

One thing we definitely do talk about on the show is what a “true atheist” can and cannot do. It’s tongue-in-cheek and open-ended, and basically there is never a right or wrong answer. Atheism isn’t very prescriptive; you really only have to reject the existence of divine beings. However, for a modern, secular, democratic society to function it is going to require people to be more open-minded and able to think about complex matters in a sensible way and admit to being wrong when they are. It is difficult and higher education might be necessary to teach appropriate methodology, something the social sciences spend a lot of time on. Consider flat-Earthers, 9/11 truthers and Covid vaccine “researchers”. They all question the answers we have been given but do a very, very poor job of analysis.

Nathan: I think one of the central points in the podcast is that it is an exploration. We don’t know the answers yet and we are refining our thinking as we discuss between ourselves and with guests. Already I feel like we have learned a lot and our thinking on certain issues has been clarified.

I think studying history is helpful in many ways for this reflective approach, since it makes one humbler about their own knowledge. History is full of people claiming to have finally figured everything out. The era I study most, the nineteenth century, sees a number of people claiming to have arrived at a science of everything (like Auguste Comte) and that it was just a matter of filling in some of the few remaining gaps in the theory. Obviously, we now know this is wrong. So, I think that should make everyone a bit more hesitant about confidently stating that they have got it all figured out, when there is a good chance that in a few decades or less, they will be shown to be mistaken.

How do you think lessons from the history of atheism could help the movement deal with current issues?

Nathan: I feel like a key lesson is that many of the current issues in the movement are not new. One present issue is whether the movement should be narrowly focused on atheist/secular activism or whether it should broaden its goals to other social or political issues that are not directly related to religion. This was a debate in the nineteenth century too. Access to birth control information was hugely controversial and divided the movement then in both Britain and the United States, with some arguing that it was, at best, an inappropriate distraction to the movement’s true goals, and others arguing that it was a matter of fundamental rights (of speech, and of bodily autonomy).

One of the things I’ve learned from the history and from doing the podcast is that there are many ways to be an atheist or secular person, and we should try to have a broad tent. Some people will prefer to work more on social issues while others will want to focus more narrowly. All are valuable. That said, I think Todd and I both have a view of activism as being focused on a wider range of goals that go beyond just the usual atheist arguments.

Todd: That’s definitely true. One of the important things we have seen is how multi-faceted activism has been historically. Atheists have been active socially, economically, and politically [active] and have achieved real results. They have been in the streets and in the halls of power. It is important to develop that institutional memory, so you aren’t fighting the same battles over and over again. Studying history helps build an atheist culture, too. The one concern I would have is becoming pedantic. It’s interesting to learn that “in God we trust” on US money is a Cold War relic, or that statues of the ten commandments started as a promotion for a movie, but there isn’t anything meaningful beyond that. History is a great tool to inform us about what worked in the past and how to improve in the future.

Being an activist or leader can be draining at times, what keeps you motivated?

Todd: Being an activist can definitely feel draining. My motivation has definitely waxed and waned over time. When I was most active it was probably the personal connections that kept motivation high. In the past, the groups I ran would try to alternate between social events and action events to keep people engaged and avoid burnout. Of course, food and alcohol are always a good way to motivate people too.

Nathan: With regard to the podcast, I feel like probably for both of us, we just enjoy doing it in general. It’s fun to talk about these issues and a great chance to talk to cool people. And so, I feel like the fact that we enjoy it at a basic level is what keeps us motivated. More generally, I feel like for writing, one thing that keeps me motivated is the thought that I have something to say – and if I don’t say it, it’s possible that no one else will.

What qualities do you think are needed to be an effective leader in the atheist, humanist, secularist space?

Nathan: One specific, practical thing I want to mention via way of a story. When I was doing my PhD in St Andrews (Scotland) in the mid-2010s, there was this “Big Questions” week sponsored by some campus Christian group. The main draw for me was that there was a free lunch and that they had some speakers talking about theological views of something like the origins of life (I don’t remember the exact thing). I went in the spirit of anthropology (and for the free lunch!) and when I went in by myself, someone from the group immediately came to welcome me and offer to sit with me and introduce me to others, etc. They were all very friendly – even when I told them I was an atheist!

The point is that this kind of friendliness and welcoming of new people is a fairly basic thing but from my experience attending atheist events, it’s usually lacking! This is a relatively minor point, but I do feel like people in the movement could stand to learn from this example of religious people’s success at creating community (with the caveat about how exclusionary many religions are).

Todd: Nathan’s point is excellent. The one thing I would add to it is that for many atheists the act of coming out is very costly. I have met people who have lost friends and family because of it. And not just getting unfriended on Facebook. These were people who had literal fights with their family members, lost custody of children, or been effectively excommunicated from their hometown. A lot of atheists who join up are primarily looking to rebuild social capital and commiserate with people who have had similar experiences, not necessarily agitate for greater secularism. Leaders need to be able to accommodate both of those aspects, to address the social needs before moving on to political desires. Sometimes you need to accept that the planning meeting is going to turn into a therapy session, but everyone will be better for it.

How can academics better engage with the nonreligious or atheists as a category?

Nathan: Hmmm that’s a good question. I feel like there is not nearly enough attention paid to the topic by academics in general, and this is surprising since it is one of the most important changes happening across western society in my view. So, the first step is to engage – period – with this issue! I think another thing is to recognize that nonreligious people exist. In history, I sometimes feel like people studying, say, the nineteenth century forget that countries like Britain and the US were not uniformly Christian. Recognizing this diversity is important and, in my own research on the racial thought of atheists, really interesting since I found many surprising views that were far outside the mainstream by looking at atheists and other nonreligious people.

Another thing I have been thinking about is this category of “nonreligious.” On the podcast and even in some writing, Todd and I have used this phrase, but I wonder whether we should be trying to do more to disaggregate it. When you separate out atheists and agnostics from the “no religion” people, there are often big differences. In politics, atheists and agnostics lean much farther left. Even on the issue of getting vaccinated from Covid, atheists and agnostics lead the way while the non-affiliated are some of the most hesitant. So, I think exploring the diversity within the nonreligious population and even being as specific as possible are important steps moving forward.

Todd: Recently on the podcast I learned that the first secular studies program is only 10 years old! We need more of that. Just hearing “secular studies” is a good reminder that all human societies have developed religions, but only rarely do they become secular. Focusing on secularism as a process and outcome is going to be a rich source for ground-breaking social research for those bold enough to get there early.

The tendency of the non-religious and atheists to lean left on a variety of issues seems pretty well documented. What’s your pet theory to explain this, and how would you like to see it better researched?

Todd: I have a lot of trouble articulating this. Nathan thinks the best way to describe it is in the phrase “No gods, no masters” which he lifted from far-left anarchists. I agree and we have discussed forms of political legitimacy on the podcast and how atheism informs appropriate behaviour, the need to obey authorities and the right to rebel. That episode has a longer answer.

In short, when we talk about the issues where atheists lean left, they are better understood as individual freedoms that religious authorities are trying to demolish or obstruct, or wedge issues used by the religious right. Atheists support gay marriage, abortion, evolution, and environmental issues pretty strongly. These are all issues that religious groups have made controversial.

I can give two reasons for why atheists take these positions. One is pretty easy to establish, the other is the pet theory that I enjoy most. The first answer is that these are bland, consensus issues that only become politicized when churches make them policy fights. These are issues that never come up for atheists because they don’t go to church. The nonreligious are free from the messaging of religious authorities and don’t take those positions, typically right-wing, because they never hear them in the first place. In Washington state there was a ballot initiative on eliminating sex ed in schools. It was initiated by religious conservatives who used religious resources to get out the vote: flyering in church parking lots, meeting in churches, that sort of thing. Washington is strongly secular, and the initiative failed overall and sex ed remained, but the ballot initiative to kill it did better where there were fewer atheists. The religious right can mobilize churchgoers and move them rightward, but they can’t affect atheists, so the result is that atheists at the very least look left-leaning. 

The second reason, which is much more difficult to establish clearly, is that atheists reject any political ruling that comes from phony authorities like God. Many atheists see the monotheistic God as a tyrant – he makes arbitrary laws, punishes randomly, and demands obedience. Famously, this is why the 19th anarchist Mikhail Bakunin reversed Voltaire and proclaimed that if God were real, it would be necessary to abolish him. Similarly, part of becoming atheist is the rejection of tradition, custom and religious authority. For an individual leaving a faith, abolishing God’s authority to achieve freedom, autonomy and a life without masters is a radical act of liberation. This rejection of religious domination may explain why [American] atheists vote not for Democrats but against Republicans so strongly. Rather than embrace Democrats per se, we may instead be witnessing the rejection of an authoritarian party aligned with the interests of the religious right. This also predicts that more conservative atheists would tend to be Libertarian, which seems true anecdotally. The result is that there is a secular drive motivating political philosophy, something that is oddly absent in the larger discourse. I suspect that there is a deeper anti-authoritarian position there too, but that is mostly projection and speculation.

Nathan, you’re an historian of racism and atheism. How could the wider atheist movement better engage with anti-racist issues?

Nathan: Research shows that atheists (at least in the US anyway) are some of the most racially tolerant relative to other religious demographics, and in my book I made the case that there is a tradition of anti-racism among atheists. But we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. I feel like listening to the experiences of people of colour is a good first step, although of course there is a great diversity of opinion among people of colour on these issues. There are those like Sikivu Hutchinson who have made the case that anti-racism is an essential part of a humanist worldview. I’m definitely sympathetic to those views, although there is also a part of me that is always hesitant to say, “you’re not a true humanist/atheist if you do or don’t do X!” (We have a segment about this on the recent episodes of our podcast!) My own view is for a more expansive view of atheist activism which also focuses on politics, including anti-racism, though I realize not all atheists would agree with that, nor with the political views I might hold.

What do you think the main divisions in the atheist movement are likely to be in the years to come? Generational divides, political, organisational?

Nathan: This is an interesting question. I feel like it relates to an earlier answer. There are simply many ways to be an atheist, and these are reflected in political, generational, and organisational divisions. I do feel like politics will continue to be the main fault-line, and it will probably continue along with secularisation. As more people become atheists, it stands to reason there will be more diversity in every way, including in political positions. As I said above, I think the key issue of division will be whether the goals of the atheist movement should be narrow or broad. But I think that there is also room for both approaches working hand-in-hand.

Todd: The divide I have seen most often is between raised atheists and converted atheists. There is a huge gulf in the understanding of how religion is lived, and I don’t think most atheists raised without religion ever come to understand what it is like. I remember a few discussions where the raised atheists would focus on technology and the converts would talk about beliefs. This division seems to impact worldviews. It is really difficult to predict how this will play out in the future since a.) more people are leaving religion and b.) they are raising children without a religion. We know that being irreligious is “sticky” in that people who leave a faith stay that way and people raised irreligious don’t generally become religious, so at some point the number of raised atheists will be much larger.

What advice would you give to someone seeking to get involved in atheist activism from an academic perspective?

Nathan:  I think that there is a lot of willingness among atheist groups to hear from academics. I was fortunate to connect with a number of different atheist/secular/humanist groups and talk to them about my research as I was working on my PhD and after my book came out. I found that they were very receptive to it, and so any other academics who feel their work would be interesting to the atheist community should definitely get in touch with any groups nearby or, even better now, virtually.

Todd: Here’s my advice. First, listen to Beyond Atheism. Second, hit us up on Twitter @NathGAlexander because we would love to talk about your work. Third, join a group on Meetup or make your own!

Photo information: Two Gray Condenser Microphones, by Pixabay

Community matters: How many AHS+ groups do we need?

Community matters is a new series where using my experience with a range of atheist, humanist, secularist and other community groups, I will be considering the challenges and opportunities facing AHS+ groups in a post-pandemic world. The series will feature practical advice and strategic analysis for anyone who wants to run, revive, reform, or start a new, AHS+ group. Other groups in this space may offer specific advice for local groups following their own approach. If you want an atheist activist group, a humanist community, a secularist campaign or a skeptics in the pup meetup, you may find additional advice. I’ll be using the umbrella term AHS+, or nonreligious where appropriate, for any community group organised around an atheist, humanist, secularist or similar (e.g., freethought or skeptic) belief or identity.

The collapse of religious adherence and broad secularisation represent perhaps the biggest demographic and social change in the UK’s recent history. It is also a change that government, public services, and our community sector have largely failed to respond to. The only comparable demographic change is our post-war transition to an undeniably multicultural nation.

Meeting the needs of the nonreligious (when looking at demographic data, I am forced to use nonreligious as a proxy for AHS+ identities), and indeed of all communities, in an increasingly secularised society, experiencing a loneliness epidemic, and where many institutions of shared culture and belonging have declined, is a challenge we all should grapple with.

Most nonreligious communities are passively rather than actively secular: a political party, knitting group, book club or park run fulfils many of our social needs. We have no shortage of online groups for people wishing to explore and connect with AHS+ ideas, but how many real-world communities do we need?

According to the National Churches Trust, there are around 40,300 Churches in the UK, where slightly under half of us are religious and Christianity merely the largest minority. That’s not to suggest we should be aiming for tens of thousands of atheist churches. That high number is largely a result of our more religious history, meaning these were once de-facto community centres and continue to be used for a range of secular purposes.

One may look around at the number of Sunday Assemblies, humanist groups and skeptics in the pubs meetup, and wonder if we have the need or space for more. I believe that our communities would be stronger, and better served with quite a bit more. Let’s start with population and some very conservative figures:

The British Social Attitudes Survey (18+ doesn’t cover Northern Ireland) consistently says that just over half of the population are nonreligious, around three quarters of the population are 20 or older, the UK population is about 66.8 million. So, call it 25,000,000 nonreligious adults

For many their non-religion will simple be a default. Let’s say it is only a somewhat active or important part of their identity for one in four. That would be 6,250,000 people.

How many of these people would be interested in being part of some sort of AHS+ community? By that I don’t mean one time contacting the National Secular Society if they have a problem with proselytising in their school, or Humanists UK when they need a nonreligious funeral. I also don’t mean attending every single possible meeting of a group. Let’s say 2.5% would be interested in attending a Sunday Assembly, a Skeptics in the Pub, or Humanist Group a few times a year. (Bear in mind that 11% of British Christians claim to attend church once a week.) That would be 156,250 people.

How many groups would that support? Some people will be part of multiple groups, a regular humanist meeting in a pub may only need 50 members to get a regular turn out of a dozen or so, a Sunday Assembly may need over 1,000 members to sustain a regular attendance of 100 or so. Let’s say on average we need one group per 300 people. That would equate to 521 groups. So, there is certainly a lot of room for growth.

The UK’s non-Christian faith communities represent a population less than a fifth that of the nonreligious. Yet our Jewish citizens support 454 synagogues (56% of Jewish households are members), our Muslim neighbours support 1,500 mosques (around 20% may attend weekly), our Sikh friends support 300 gurdwaras (39% claim to go weekly) and, our Hindu communities support around 400 temples and faith organisations.

That’s just looking at the general population, there are other specific subgroups that man support more groups. For example there are 600 student unions across the UK, how many could have a student AHS+ group?

I believe these figures are conservative, but play around with your own:

(Nonreligious population) * (active identity %) * (willing to be part of a community %) / (average people per community) = sustainable number of groups.

One might say it is easier to maintain an AHS+ or any community group in a more densely populated area, with more connections and potential meeting places, than say a disperse rural community where the only meeting spaces are a church hall or conservative pub. Another way to look at it is that there are 203 urban areas in the UK with populations over 50,000, 356 with over 30,000 and 531 over 20,000. Many of the largest population areas already sustain multiple groups in the AHS+ space. That makes my estimate of 521 sustainable groups look pretty reasonable.

Photo information: Silhouette Photography of Group of People Jumping during Golden Time, Belle Co

It’s all ‘real religion’

Selectively labelling particular positive or negative manifestations of religion as ‘real’, however well intentioned, undermines pluralism, privileges particular unevidenced beliefs and bolsters both religious supremacism and anti-religious bigotry.

All religion is ‘real religion’. That may seem a counterintuitive position from an atheist perspective. However, such a statement makes no claim about truth. There are uncountable supernatural creation myths, each are real religious beliefs regardless of their factual content. This blog also comes from a secularist perspective, challenge the privileging of any one or set of religious perspectives, and a humanist understanding of the roots and evolution of religions.

Somewhere round the world right now:

A Christian, based on their religion, is persecuting a gay person, and another, also based on their religion, is volunteering at a foodbank. They are both ‘real’ Christians.

A Muslim, based on their religion, is calling for the death of a cartoonist, and another, also based on their religion, is struggling to make zakat. They are both ‘real’ Muslims.

A Hindu, based on their religion, is oppressing a ‘lower caste’, and another, also based on their religion, is delivering dana. They are both ‘real’ Hindus.

A Sikh, based on their religion, is punishing a relative for ‘marrying out’, and another, also based on their religion, is working tirelessly to house the homeless. They are both ‘real’ Sikhs.

A humanist can argue that any positive manifestation of religion can be achieved through humanistic means, but that the negative manifestations rely on religion. An anti-theist can argue that negative manifestations of religion have sounder scriptural and traditional grounding. A religious scholar can argue that either the positive or negative manifestation is more representative.

In the UK, research shows that most RE teachers view it as their job to promote a positive view of religion and to frame negative manifestations as false or twisted versions of religion – a trend that most politicians and the media follow. There is also a tendency among some atheists to malign more rational, tolerant or progressive manifestations of religion as not being ‘real’.

Tied to this is the old apologist platitude that the perpetrators of religious violence or bigotry are ‘just using religion as an excuse’. Notably, we rarely hear of charitable endeavours by people of faith that they are ‘just using religion as an excuse’. This is despite the latter possibly being more accurate. Many ex-Christians leave homophobia behind, very few abandon concern for the poor.

Much of this is well intentioned. In December 2015 during an Islamist terrorist attack. John, a good upstanding citizen, security guard and apparently armature religious scholar gained fame for shouting at the attacker “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv”. We can all understand what motivated John and his desire not to see ordinary British Muslims maligned by, or subject to bigotry for, being unfairly associated with this terrorist. John went on to say “Isis should be wiped out, because they’re not Muslims, because Muslims don’t do that.”

Well intentioned this may be and with the greatest respect to John’s deep knowledge of theology, religious history and foreign affairs, it just isn’t true. After every Islamist attack specifically motivated by religious beliefs, we hear that Islamism has ‘nothing to do with Islam’. As well as being insultingly obviously false, it gaslights the victims of Islamist violence, does nothing to challenge anti-Muslim bigotry and upholds the idea that there are true or false versions of a religion. An honest conversation about how unrepresentative or extreme Islamist interpretations of the religion are, may be more productive.

Mainstream apologists continue to push this line with little care for honesty, or the victims of Islamism. The most charitable thing you can say is that this is a misguided attempt to challenge anti-Muslim bigotry by shielding Islam from criticism. The followers of a religion are not stained with the sin of everything bad done in the name of that religion, but framing such manifestation as not ‘real’, absolves the religion of any responsibility. It upholds supremacist ideas about certain religions being all good, and encourages reactive prejudices.

Because of the extent of Christian privilege in the West, we often see Christianity or ‘real Christianity’ used as a substitute for good, in a way that white once was. Well intentioned Christians hearing of an atheist’s charitable work or opposition to discrimination, may say something like “you’re a better Christian than many Christians I know”, many atheists even use such language. But this reveals a subconscious Christian supremacy and anti-atheist bigotry. Calling an atheist Christian as a compliment reveals that you can’t easily reconcile atheism with positive characteristics. I think that Chrissy Stroop is one of the best authors on this topic.

Conflating ‘real Christianity’ with goodness or virtues many Christians may hold, is an attempt to appropriate such virtues and avoid responsibility for vices. Victims of Christian homophobia are frequently gaslit, their lived experiences invalidated, and their abuse perpetuated by claims that this is not ‘real Christianity’. Those Christians working to rid their faith of homophobia, may be edging closer to the mainstream in many places, but they aren’t any more or less ‘real’.

We can’t differentiate between ‘real’ and not real religion based on specific beliefs as this inevitably privileges certain interpretations, when in reality all religions are subjected to a vast array of interpretations. When Christians abandon creationism in favour of a scientific (or at least more naturalistic) understanding of the world, do they become any more or less ‘real’? Are Muslims more or less ‘real’ if they treat one set of contradictory religious obligations more seriously than another? Are cultural Jews who abandon any form of supernatural belief less ‘real’? Modifiers and descriptions to differentiate between different manifestations of religion given their narrower definition, allow us to more fairly differentiate between ‘real’ or accurate uses of the label. But we should be careful to avoid such labels replicating the essentialism of the ‘real religion is good/bad religion’ framing.

All manifestations of religion, liberal or authoritarian, faith based or allegorical, good or bad cherry pick. Unless a religion is consciously created in a specific narrow way, then there is no such thing as scriptural literalism. The difference with humanism and other secular belief systems, is that their consensus beliefs are not claimed to be discovered by scripture or faith, but acknowledged as human and naturalistic.

Pointing out the hypocrisy of religious fundamentalist, that their claims to religious literalism are false, that that too cherry pick, and their ignorance of more liberal traditions within their own religion, are all powerful tools in the hands of religious liberals and humanist. There’s a scene in the West Wing, beloved by religious liberals. Even if you’ve not seen the show, you may be familiar with it. President Bartlet exposes the hypocrisy of a right-wing anti-gay bigot’s use of the Bible to justify her homophobia. He eloquently points all the other biblical laws, from slavery to stoning people for working on the sabbath, that she ignores. The writers were apparently unaware how much the scene exposes Bartlet’s own hypocrisy in turn.

It is fair, and important, to point out where a form of religion is so far removed from the mainstream of that religion that we are tempted to say it is not ‘really’ that religion. Unfortunately, this is manifestly not the case with either Christian Nationalism or Islamism. And even if we were to take that as a standard, how would it be applied? There was a time when Christian support for African slavery was completely mainstream, and anti-slavery positions a progressive fringe, at what point did one become, or cease to be, ‘real’ Christianity?

Photo information: Close Up Photograph of Person Praying in Front Lined Candles, Rodolfo Clix

Asking atheists: five social experiments

Are atheists less prone to pareidolia? What drives partisanship among nonreligious voters? What’s the link between tolerance, religiosity, and religious literacy? Thinking about the social research of atheists I’d be most interested in.

1. Are atheists less prone to pareidolia?

Pareidolia is the tendency to see familiar objects, for example faces or patterns, in otherwise random or unrelated images. It plays a big role in evolutionary explanations for theistic belief. We are evolved to be agency detectors but have a tendency to see agency where it doesn’t necessarily exist. The same tendency to attribute the results of natural or complex social systems to the conscious actions of powerful agents, may be a strong driver of conspiracist thinking as well.

There are various online pareidolia test, and I found a research article from 2012 entitled: “Paranormal and Religious Believers Are More Prone to Illusory Face Perception than Skeptics and Non-believers”. But I’d be interested in a large-scale study specifically testing the link.

The way I’d set this up would be to ask three opening questions, participants would be given three statements and asked to rank on a score from 1 to 5, how strongly they agree. These would be used as a measure of religious, theistic and conspiracist thinking.

Each participant would be given 7 pictures of natural environments, 2 would contain hidden figures and 5 would contain natural objects that could appear to be a hidden face. They could be shown the pictures quickly and either click a button if they saw a face, or be asked to describe the image.

My assumption would be there would be little correlation between the worldview questions and the likelihood of spotting the two genuine examples of hidden figures. But that there would be a strong correlation between religious, theistic, conspiracist and pareidolic thinking. I’d also predict that the correlation would be that theistic, rather than generally religious thinking would be most highly correlated.

To be fair, theists may argue that the problem is not them seeing agency where it doesn’t exist, but atheists failing to recognise agency where it does exist. If the test could measure both we could see if atheists had an anti-agency bias.

2. How does existential dread influence atheism?

I believe that existential dread provides fascinating insights into theistic and atheistic thinking, specifically the aspect of existential dread caused by the realisation that we are the ones controlling our actions. For me this is an inversion of the idea of there being no atheists in foxholes. On some level, I believe that we all understand that we are in control of our actions, and that we have no cosmic parent looking over our shoulder. An atheist or a theist standing atop a cliff both understand that that no god will stop them throwing themselves off.

This may partially explain why casually religious people tend to become more strongly religious around the time where they have children or when their own parents mortality becomes more immediate. Before this stage, most of us have real world parental figure above us in the hierarchy of responsibility and experience, lessening the need for a heavenly parental figure.

I wonder if there could be some way of testing how atheists and theists respond differently to this form of existential dread. Might atheists experience less such dread because they have come to terms with the lack of a supernatural overseer, or more because they feel that absence more keenly?

What would be the best way to test this, comparing self-evaluation questions designed to measure such dread directly, or coupling this with taking participants though scenarios, perhaps using videos of different situations and asking them to assess their own feelings of dread?

3. Does societal progress lead to secularisation or vice versa?

Many in atheist and wider AHS+ communities tend to be resistant to sociological explanations for their beliefs. We tend to paint atheism and humanism as arrived at through reason, and contrast this with religion as ‘just’ being something you are born into. Pointing out that atheism and humanism are also worldviews people can be socialised into, is seen by some as undermining this distinction. It would be flattering to our movement if secularisation was shown to be the driving force, and societal progress the outcome, rather than vice versa. In reality, the relationship is likely to be more complicated. I’m not sure what the beset way of teasing out the correlation and causation would be.

4. How does atheism influence partisanship?

This is a larger project that I’d like to undertake and I hinted at in my piece on why the atheist and wider AHS+ movement should support proportional representation. There is clear evidence that atheist and other nonreligious voters tend towards socially and economically left-wing partisanship. But different studies and settings show the trend to be more ore less pronounced. What is the driver, do atheists tend to be more left wing, or is there something about left wing politics that encourages atheism? Is an atheist tendency towards left wing politics driven by or a driver of religious conservatism? Should we expect the trend to be stronger in more religious countries or in countries where religious conservatism is more politically powerful? Would the link be stronger in countries with a background of high partisanship? Could we use MPR polling or other demographic data to see where atheist and nonreligious voters have the most impact, or what the impact would be of different parties better appealing to them?

5. More about religious literacy?

A supposed lack of religious literacy is a regular topic of moral panic in the UK. Atheists are often accused of religious ignorance, though repeated research shows atheists tend to know more about a majority religion than those religions’ average followers, perhaps as atheism tends to be a result of a more active process of considering the issues. Anti-religious views which may be a product of either prejudice or consideration, are often presumed to be the former. Religious literacy is often conflated with a positive view of religion. Indeed, most religious education teachers in British schools view it as their job to promote a positive view of religion.

I’d like to know if positive or negative views of religion are more likely to be either products of ignorance or knowledge, and more or less driven by personal religiosity. Does religiosity drive deference to, and a positivity bias in the assessment of, religion, or is this unrelated?

In my imagined experiment I would set up two screening questions: ranking participants on a 5-point scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” whether they are personally religious and whether religion is a force for good. They would then be asked to rate a set of 24 or more statements about religion as being true of false.

The statements would be in twelve groups:

 Shows morally positive aspect of religion.Shows morally neutral aspect of religion.Shows morally negative aspect of religion.
Unambiguously true statement.   
Ambiguous, but generally agreed to be true statement.   
Ambiguous, but generally agreed to be false statement.   
Unambiguously false statement.   

Based on their answers, participant’s religious literacy would be classified in one of six ways:

Well informed: Tends to correctly identify whether statements about religion are true or false, across all sets of statements.

Poorly informed: Vice versa.

Negative view, poorly informed: Bias towards believing negative statements (and disbelieving positive statements) about religion, coupled with poor identification of true/false statements when they give neutral view of religion. Suggests that negative view of religion is influenced by poor religious knowledge.

Positive view, poorly informed: Vice versa.

Negative view, motivated: Bias towards believing negative statements (and disbelieving positive statements) about religion, coupled with good identification of true/false statements when they give neutral view of religion. Suggests that negative view of religion is result of motivated bias, not poor religious knowledge.

Positive view, motivated: Vice versa.

I’m not sure I could predict what the results would be. Of course, you would get a higher degree of detail if you could ask more questions, and it would be interesting if there were differences between views of different religions.

Thanks for reading

Has anyone already done this research? Could you think of a better way to test these ideas? Do you agree with my predictions? What social experiments would you like to explore the impact of atheist beliefs further?

Photo information: Photo of People Engaged on their Phones, cottonbro

Why proportional representation is a humanist issue

Democracy has played a crucial role in atheist, humanist, and secularist philosophy. To achieve their political and social goals, the atheist, and wider AHS+ movement must support proportional representation.

My own values rooted in atheism, humanism, and secularism, lead me to support proportional representation. That’s enough justification to write about it on an AHS+ blog, but doesn’t necessarily make it a humanist issue.

As we mark the International Day of Democracy, and the UK enters party conference season with demands for proportional representation reaching new highs, I’ve been reading more on the history of humanist and secularist support for democratic reform. I’ve come to believe that there is a strong case for the humanist and wider AHS+ movement in the UK to support proportional representation.

I’ll elide over the more basic general arguments in favour of various systems of proportional representation. For the record STV (single transferable vote), is considered by many reformers to be the best over a number of measures, and is the preferred system of the Electoral Reform Society.

The role of democracy

Many religious traditions have embraced or reconciled with democracy. But the central role of democracy in secular humanist philosophy is different. Democracy is a fundamentally humanist idea, that problems can be solved and the common good derived through a purely human endeavour. The spread of democracy and the rolling back of monarchic and ecclesiastical control of governments has been a fundamentally secularist project.

By contrast theocratic and similar systems are antithetical to humanist (and other AHS+) values, not only because they tend to oppress such values, but more fundamentally because they seek to place sacred ideas or institutions beyond the power of the people to question.

The eighteenth-century enlightenment intellectuals who laid the foundations of modern humanism, wrote extensively about extending democracy and representation. The nineteenth-century freethought movement which gave rise to secularism, was fundamentally concerned with and inseparable from democratic reform. It was a more working-class movement, concerned with a rigged electoral system which denied most a meaningful vote. Every Humanist Manifesto has been created through, and stressed the importance of, a democratic process.

Democracy is not a binary state. On a range of measures, the UK is more democratic than many nations. However, trust and satisfaction in our democratic system is in decline because our voting system (first past the post, or FPTP) is increasingly not fit for purpose, failing to represent or respond to the preferences of voters. A broken democracy leading to entrenched power cannot be consistent with humanist or secularist values.

Enlightened self-interest

As critics point out, PR tends to be more popular among those whose preferences are most disadvantaged by FPTP. However, if a personal stake in addressing an injustice invalidated one’s arguments, only the most privileged in society would be able to challenge any injustice.

In the 2019 general election, Green (866,435 votes per MP elected), Liberal Democrat (336,038 per MP) and Labour (50,837 per MP) voters were most disadvantaged by FPTP, while Conservative (38,264 per MP) and SNP (25,883 per MP) voters were most advantaged. The Brexit Party are an anomaly as although disadvantaged by FPTP, their actual electoral strategy was based on gaming the system to advantage the Conservative Party. Urban areas with high numbers of younger university graduates were also systemically disadvantaged by FPTP.

The idea that support for PR is a simple anti-Conservative position is overly simplistic, and not the best principled argument. But if we are looking simply at self-interest, then atheist and other AHS+ voters have a disproportionate interest in supporting PR if either:

  1. They disproportionately support parties particularly disadvantaged by FPTP (Green, Liberal Democrat, most other small parties, and to a lesser extent Labour).
  2. They disproportionately live in geographic constituencies whose preferences are particularly disadvantaged by FPTP.

Over a decade of professional and personal activism in AHS+ organisations gives me plenty of anecdotal evidence to support these propositions and convinces me that further research would be fruitful. However, empirical research on the political affiliation of nonreligious voters in the UK, probably the best proxy to use for AHS+ people, is extremely limited. In part because the degree of political polarisation by religion is relatively rare. Much of what is available uses the 2011 census, which dramatically undercounts the nonreligious and overcounts Christians.

It should be possible to use the constituency-level data on religion, to provide some evidence for or against the second proposition. UK polling organisations almost never use (non)religious data as a factor in their general political polling or MPR models of different constituencies. (Enquiries to their press teams.) The age demographic of different constituencies could be compared to the British Social Attitudes Survey to provide weaker evidence on the distribution of non-religious voters (who trend to be much younger) in constituencies advantaged or disadvantaged by FPTP.

Good research on the first proposition is frustratingly rare. Figures from the Counting Religion in Britain blog for June 2017 looked at the 2015 and 2017, general election, though had to use recalled votes for the former. “Religious Nones” were significantly more likely to vote for parties disadvantaged under FPTP.


It’s extremely dangerous, shortsighted and divisive to base proposed constitutional settlements on narrow policy outcomes. However, if PR would increase the voting power of humanist and the wider AHS+ community (or put another way reduce their electoral disadvantage) this would tend to suggest that their preferred policy outcomes are likely to be more successful.

If we look at the campaigning aims of the major atheist, humanist and secularist groups, it is hard to imagine these being anything but easier to achieve under PR. Despite progress in many areas, we have an establishment that is overly deferential to conservative religious interests. PR could help break open the establishment. Because a wider range of interests would be represented and politics made more consensual, there would be greater potential to get secularist reforms on the agenda.

Arguments against PR

Opponents of proportional representation argue that it is more likely to lead to non-majority governments and representation of minority or fringe parties. These are consequences of democracy, and the risk of extremist or fringe parties gaining power is potentially a greater problem under FPTP.

Humanist and other AHS+ voters may be concerned that a theocratic fringe group including various Christian Nationalist parties, may gain seats under PR. But under FPTP, fringe political groups are encouraged to adopt the high risk, high reward strategy of attempting to take over an existing major party. For example, in 2015 UKIP won 12.6% of the vote but only 0.2% of seats. Had their voters been fairly represented in Parliament, the Brexit takeover of the Conservative Party may never have happened. It’s unlikely that a theocratic fringe (perhaps Islamist sympathisers in Labour, or Christian Nationalists in the Conservatives) could ever stage such a takeover, but under FPTP it can’t be ruled out.

FPTP advantages concentrated politically homogeneous groups and encourages politicians to target perceived key voting blocks rather than appealing to their whole range of voters. This may advantage conservative religious interests at the expense of more secular voters, as parties seek to court specific religious groups through self-appointed ‘community leaders’.

What should be done?

There may be reasons why the largest established groups in the AHS+ space could not actively support a campaign for proportional representation, ranging from concerns over mission creep to political neutrality requirements imposed by their constitutions or charitable status. We need to raise awareness among the atheist and wider AHS+ community, of the importance of proportional representation, and its relevance to the issues we care about.

Major players in this space could help through research and polling their members. If they had broad postal data on their supporters or their voting intentions, these could be mapped to indicate whether or not their supporters are disproportionately disadvantaged by FPTP.

Both the National Secular Society and Humanists UK have launched history projects in recent years. Yet I could find only one reference to proportional representation. They could do more to talk about their history of support for democratic reform. With many local humanist, skeptic and other similar groups returning to in person talks, now would be a great time to look into a guest speaker on PR.

There could even be a push to have a motion on proportional representation put before the next World Humanist Congress. Perhaps someone should set up an AHS+ PR campaign group, though if that seems an acronym overload, then something like ‘Humanists for PR’ could work. If you want to get involved in a group supporting proportional representation, then most political parties have a dedicated chapter. There are also cross party and non-partisan groups including Get PR Done, the Electoral Reform Society, and Make Votes Matter. If your support of proportional representation is particularly influenced by your humanist or secularist values, then say so.

Photo information: Close Up Photo of Vote stickers on People’s Fist, Mikhail Nilov

Activism matters: Paul Golin, Society for Humanistic Judaism

Activism matters is a new interview series where we meet activists and leaders working in a variety of atheist, humanist, and secularist spaces. This week we spoke with Paul Golin, executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ).

The Golins

How did you become the executive director of the SHJ?

I’d spent almost two decades working in the organised Jewish community on the phenomenon of intermarriage.

Turns out, intermarriage is incredibly popular among Jews—there are now many more intermarried households in the U.S. than so-called “in-married” (two Jewish spouses) households—but intermarriage was incredibly unpopular with the subset of Jews who run the organised Jewish community, such as most rabbis and philanthropists.

Attitudes toward intermarriage have shifted away from condemnation over the years, somewhat, and I’d like to believe I had a small role in helping that along, but my work was very much as an “insider-outsider.” I’m intermarried myself, yet one study found that only 6% of my fellow married Jewish communal professionals are also intermarried, compared to 60% of married American Jews. I knew I was advocating on behalf of a giant “silent majority” who felt as I did, but I was speaking to the subset in power who disagreed, didn’t care, and/or felt threatened by it

Has that insider/outsider dynamic influenced your advocacy?

In many ways since I came on at SHJ late in 2016. Around a fifth to a quarter of U.S. Jews are atheist, and a recent Pew Survey found that only 24% of all American Jews believe in “the God of the Bible.” At only 10%, Orthodox Jews are less than half the number of atheist Jews! Yet you’d never know it by who runs the Jewish community and how they present on issues of religiosity. We don’t have proportional voice in the organised Jewish community, in large part because many of us have been pushed out or have walked away after feeling marginalised.

The connection with my current advocacy is natural and overlapping. I knew I was an atheist (at age 11) long before I intermarried (at age 36). It was my humanistic values—to find the inherent equality in all people—that led me to reject the steady drumbeat I heard since childhood of: “YOU MUST MARRY JEWISH.”

I didn’t know that there was even a name for my set of values until I learned of humanism very late in life. I was invited to speak to the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, our movement’s educational and rabbinic-ordaining arm, and the connection was clear and immediate. I joined their board, and when SHJ came looking for an executive director, it was the perfect fit.

The truth is, though, I didn’t come to my humanistic values in a vacuum. Much of it came from the same liberal Jewish family and community that were struggling with their own ethnocentricity and xenophobic fears, particularly after emerging from the Holocaust. Deep down, most Jews recognize the truth in humanism! Even if they don’t yet know that word. That’s why I’m still so excited about the potential for Humanistic Judaism, as the best definition for what so many Jews already believe.

How can mainstream religious and inter-faith communities better represent the voices of their more humanistic and secular minded members?

I’d love for there to be bigger and more diverse conversations around belief. That’s certainly what I’ve been working on. It’s not about judging those who believe in the supernatural or trying to “convert” them to humanism, it’s simply about providing representation for the many folks who already believe as I do, which might then open the doors for those who are closeted about it.

In countless ways, I see how secular Jews have been marginalised from the organised Jewish conversation. This is a relatively recent phenomenon, as there was a strong tradition of secularism in early and mid-20th Century Judaism, including the Jewish socialist movements, Yiddishists, and Zionists. Yet last summer when the national Jewish newspaper—founded over 100 years ago by ardent secularists—ran a series that interviewed 17 thinkers about their understanding of God, no room was made to include even one Humanistic rabbis or atheist Jew.

Why do you think that is?

I understand the challenge that liberal religion faces in “rebranding” God to mean something more metaphorical. On so many social justice issues—reproductive justice, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s equality, the environment—there is no daylight between humanistic values and liberal Jewish religious denominations. To be in partnership, we don’t need to first nail down whether they really believe in the supernatural or not.

I would like liberal religious people to be more aware of non-theists as allies and find more ways to include us. For example, we have encouraged our interfaith partners to say, “as people of faith and conscience” rather than just “as people of faith.” They’re usually happy to accommodate.

And we’ve promoted wording that allows us to sign on to statements that otherwise would’ve excluded us. For example, liberal Jewish social-justice statements arguing for LGBTQ+ inclusion often include lines like, “Because God created man in His image.” Well, I won’t sign that, because I believe man created God in our image.

However, I can’t disagree with the sentence, “Jewish tradition teaches that God created man in His image.” That’s a factual statement, something both religious and secular Jews can agree upon. Even if I see it only as myth and metaphor, I can sign on to an accurate portrayal of my religious tradition. The quote becomes about the relationship that people have to that ancient teaching, without claiming supernatural origin of humanity as fact.

Is there something unique about the Jewish experience in this regard? Would the support for humanistic or nonreligious Muslims, Sikhs, Christians etc. be different?

I will let others speak on behalf of their own traditions, but Judaism has always been more than just a religion. The ethnic/familial ties are inextricable. For the first thousand years, it was a collection of tribes based on a physical geography. Aspects of that continued down to today through the various Jewish ethnicities (Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Mizrahi, etc.).

It means that even if I completely disavow Judaism as a religion, I’m still a Jew by ethnicity because it would be absurd to claim I’m “half Polish, half Ukrainian.” Neither side of my family were ever granted Polish or Ukrainian citizenship, they were isolated into Jewish shtetls from the dominant population for centuries, and while intermarriage of course happened, integration never did. “Jewish” is listed as a result on genetic tests like 23andMe!

That’s a complicated and at times uncomfortable legacy, suggesting it’s something in our “blood” that makes us Jewish. Personally, I reject that, and stand with SHJ’s definition of “who’s a Jew” as anyone who declares themselves as such and “identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.” Still, the vast majority of Jews are born into it. Many would rather identify as atheist Jews than nothing or no religion, because the ethnic and cultural connection still provides deep resonance.

The founder of our movement, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, considered Judaism a culture in which religion is just one small aspect. Before him, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism called Judaism a civilization. For any ethnicity, it’s not just about the genetics but the literature, music, art, history, food, and community that come with being part of the group. For atheist/agnostic Jews, we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We can keep what we like; only a tiny minority of Jews claim it’s all-or-nothing.

If a religious identity is organised around cultural practices, rather than theological beliefs, can challenging or reforming parts of those practices be more difficult?

Many atheists from other religious backgrounds still celebrate cultural aspects of their religious heritage without the theology, and without too much difficulty. I presume not every household exchanging gifts under a Christmas tree believes Jesus was messiah. Where does the cultural expression end and the religion expression begin?

During Hanukkah, most Jewish households light a menorah and say blessings. Even if they use the traditional theistic wording (which Humanistic Jews don’t), are they really praying?! I don’t think so. For all but the most observant Jews, it’s a cultural more than religious expression.

I think the fundamental question behind Humanistic Judaism can be applicable for secular people of all religious backgrounds and none: What’s meaningful? Particularly around holidays and lifecycle events like weddings, births, and funerals, having rituals and liturgy can add meaning. Even at the end of the week—Friday night family meal, statement of thankfulness for what we’ve got, staring at a flickering flame for a few minutes—can be beneficial. Singing together with other people can improve your mood. Our ancestors knew this inherently, but now there’s science to back it up (for those of us who need proof!). Rituals need not be directed at some invisible audience in the sky, it’s for our own benefit, and for our friends, family, and community.

What do you think atheist, humanist and secularist groups can do to better support the development of future leaders and activists, particularly those coming from religious, or culturally religious perspectives?

Lately, it seems there has been a coalescing among the major organisations in the secular non-profit ecosystem around shared social-justice concerns, which I think is great. We’re all on the same team. We want to see separation of church and state, full representation of secular Americans, and support for progressive causes like reproductive rights. And we’re partnering more with allies from beyond the non-theistic communities. Focusing on commonalities rather than differences makes a lot of sense.

That said, we can still acknowledge and discuss the tensions in our work. So many folks have been injured by religion, mentally and even physically, that secular spaces may be a natural outlet for religion-bashing. And there’s a lot to bash about religion! Such safe spaces are needed for folks who have been marginalised and hurt. And yet, a more nuanced understanding between cultural aspects versus the theology or practice or power of religious community might be helpful.

A segment of the secular community will always feel that because religious theology is wrong, and has been used to justify terrible actions, all remnants of religious tradition should be abolished. I understand that perspective and often feel the same! But more often, I encourage conversation about what we’re gaining and what we’re losing, what we can keep—for our own benefit—and what to discard.

The most famous thing Judaism gave the world is monotheism, but I’d argue the best thing Judaism gave the world is the weekend. Shabbat, a day of rest, it’s just a great idea! Nobody who wants to abolish religion is giving their weekend back just because it had a religious origin. It doesn’t mean you have to spend it in church. Doesn’t mean you need to do any rituals at all on the weekend (though you probably already have some if you think about it). But what if there are rituals and practices that work for secular people, shouldn’t we celebrate it and help our people benefit from it?

How could the wider atheist, humanist and secularist movement better support this?

Considering the major secular organisations already offer ordination programs for lifecycle events, I think we may be missing an opportunity by not better promoting the diverse offerings available across the secular ecosystem of secular ritual, song, and liturgy/poetry for folks to benefit from in community. I know it’s not an easy sell. Sunday Assembly seems to have come and gone. I don’t think HumanLight ever quite got off the ground, though Darwin Day seems to be gaining traction. Instead of reinventing the wheel, repurposing existing culture that folks already connect to can help us reach even more people with humanism as a philosophy.

I’d also love to be in collaboration with fellow secularists on more clearly articulated, optimistic visions of a humanistic future. With the religious right in power, so much of our time is understandably spent playing defence! But one of the great advantages that religion has over us is their vision for the future, either in an afterlife or in a messianic age, and we need to offer better counternarratives beyond simply pointing out that theirs is make-believe.

Obviously, there are some wonderful narratives about a future without religion in popular culture. So many of us who grew up watching Star Trek are now humanists (and scientists!). What’s the narrative from within our own secular movement, about where we want the world to be in 10 or 20 years? We are very clear about what we don’t want. What’s the positive vision for a post-religious world? How do most people’s lives improve? That kind of future visioning would be exciting to me. Too much of our time is consumed by the latest weekly atrocity from the Supreme Court. I’d love to see a weekend conference called “Secularism 2040” about visioning a positive humanistic future.

Photo information: Cookies for Hanukkah, by cottonbro

The impact of 9/11 on the atheist movement

The 2015 film Spotlight, through both its background and foreground events, highlights many of the factors which influenced the modern atheist movement. The main narrative follows intrepid reporters working to uncover the (open secret of) institutional child abuse perpetrated by their local religious hierarchy, in doing so undermining that institutional deference. In the background we see adverts for AOL and the coming internet revolution that will crush the viability of such traditional journalism. The second major background event depicted is the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, 20 years ago this week.

The extent to which 9/11 influenced and has continued to influence the modern atheist and wider AHS+ movement is significant but may be more nuanced and less prominent than some narratives suggest. 9/11 was certainly the largest in a series of incidents which pushed religious fundamentalism into mainstream media debate. Without this push, mainstream publishers would not have supported Letter to a Christian Nation (2006), The God Delusion (2006), Breaking the Spell (2006), God Is Not Great (2007). But then again, these books were five years later and while all mention 9/11, this would not be surprising in any political book at the time and is a main theme in only one.

Post 9/11 western foreign policy does not explain how widespread the rise of non-religious thinking has been across almost every society, regardless of any nation’s relationship with that foreign policy.

9/11 was only one event in an interconnected series of Islamist violence and western militarism which unleashed and been used to excuse a wave of anti-Muslim bigotry which has been a major influence on the relationship between Muslims and wider society in the west. There have been genuine problems with such anti-Muslim bigotry in AHS+ spaces. We must do better at recognising and confronting such prejudices. That legitimate criticisms of Islam and Islamism is often conflated with such bigotry is a separate problem.

The aftermath of 9/11 was marked by clash of civilisations narrative used to defend western foreign policy and militarism. This was narrative was particularly popular in the early days of the ‘war on terror’, before its foreign and domestic excesses were clear for all to see. Though I don’t see any evidence that atheists were particularly susceptible to this jingoism.

The clash of civilisation narrative certainly had a huge influence on the modern atheist movement in its early days, and many saw 9/11 as a seminal illustration in a clash between rationalism and irrationalism. I think that almost everyone would now recognise that as overly simplistic.

Christopher Hitchens’ prominent support for the ‘war on terror’ was so prominent because of how much it put him at odds with so much of the mainstream atheist movement. Even Sam Harris who among the ‘four horsemen of new atheism’ was the biggest proponent of the ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative and (not coincidently) had some of the most simplistic views of Islam was not a big fan of US foreign policy.

9/11 had an indirect influence on some of the other major factors that influenced the rise of the modern atheist movement. Of these the biggest factor by far was the rise of the internet. This allowed many atheists and potential atheists to, for the first time, link up with and hear from others who shared their opinions. The role of the internet in creating the modern atheist movement and making mockery of religion possible, led to overlaps with online trolling culture that was significantly influenced by post 9/11 anti-Muslim bigotry.

If the internet expanded the atheist movement, it was the Bush Jr presidency (itself consumed by post 9/11 foreign policy) that politicised it. US cultural hegemony meant that this was true far beyond their shores. Though the Blair premiership also played a role in the UK. Pre 9/11 atheist movements leaned left and progressive, due to their humanist influences. But this politicisation was accelerated in the UK and US by the culture wars of the early 21st century, over creationism, gay rights, and state funding of religious initiatives.

If support for the worst excesses of the post 9/11 war on terror was a major motivator for the atheist movement, then why did this political polarisation turn most atheists against the political parties most supportive of those excesses?

These culture wars set the foundation for the resurgence of Christian nationalism and the modern alt-right. Anti-Muslim bigotry and online troll culture certainly made a minority of the atheist movement sympathetic to such politics.

The third major factor in the rise of the modern atheist movement was the increased public consciousness of the scale of institutional child abuse within religious institutions. It’s hard to see any link between this and 9/11.

Overstating the influence of 9/11 is part of a general trend among those critical of the atheist movement, including internal critics and many mainstream religious scholars, to not accept atheists’ self-reported reasons for their beliefs. Every single atheist I have ever met has some combination of two main motivations: intellectual or moral problems with religion. Of course, there are other factors, but it is amazing the extent to which many discourses about atheism seek to downplay these main ones.

Right-wing critics of atheists don’t want to recognise the legitimacy of their intellectual or moral concerns, so they either imagine or overstate motivations that fit their own biases: ‘atheist just want to sin or hate western Christian civilisation’. In the same way, many left-wing critics imagine or overstate motivations that fit their own biases: ‘atheists are just prejudiced’.

Liberal and centrist commentators’ bias towards ‘both sidesism’ has shaped their response to the modern atheist movement. Atheists are demonstrably less sexist, homophobic, transphobic, racist etc. than their religious critics, they don’t support anti-scientific dogmas, so arguing they are ‘just as bad’ is difficult. One strategy to overstate the influence of toxic parts of the moment, another is to try to tie atheism to something terrible. Just as we see ridiculous attempts to blame atheist for Hitler or Stalin, we see attempts to blame us for a Christian led foreign policy that has killed millions.

A lot of people’s conceptions of the modern atheist movement formed in this very early period between 2003/07, where 9/11 had more potential to be an influencing factor. I first got involved in 2007 and never remember it being a major topic of debate. By 2010, the biggest divides within atheism were over social justice issues. I doubt 9/11 could possibly be a major motivating factor for anyone who got involved in the movement in the last few years. The oldest Gen Z atheists could only have been five years old at the time and are part of the least religious generations in history. On the other hand, there certainly seems to be a generational divide in the atheist and wider AHS+ movement. Older atheists who had more potential to be greatly influenced by 9/11 are generally less motivated by humanism and social justice issues.

Photo information: View of Lower Manhattan, Thomas Svensson