Not just critical thinking

Why doesn’t critical thinking appear in the list of critical theories?

It’s is a popular concept these days. There’s no doubt it’s important, a baseline for not getting duped. I can be awfully obvious when people don’t have a good grasp of it. It’s also central to many people’s understandings of atheism:

‘I don’t believe in god because it’s ridiculous and doesn’t make sense. Everyone else should agree, or they’re not thinking straight’

‘if only everyone would think critically, they wouldn’t believe silly things and the world would be a better place’

‘we need atheist groups so we can show that we’re here and people don’t have to believe irrational things anymore because we’re providing an alternative’

‘we need to teach critical thinking in school so people are innoculated against brainwashing’

Unfortunately, critical thinking is only one tool, at the very lowest end of criticality: identifying untruths rather than improving realities. An atheism based purely on weeding out fictions cannot address subtlety, or arguments which derive logically from premises you don’t agree with or understand. The complexity of the world requires more than individual thinking to be critical.


Hyslop-Margison, E. J., & Sears, A. M. (2008). Challenging the dominant neo-liberal discourse: from Human Capital Learning to Education for Civic Engagement. Sense Publishers.

“Unlike the neo-liberal discourse on critical thinking that neglects these requirement, virtue epistemology reflects a coherent recognition of their combined importance.” (p311)

“Unfortunately, as we have illustrated, current models of critical thinking in education are often conceptually problematic, epistomologically incomplete, virtually ignore dispositions, and merely promote technical rationality aimed at improving human capital efficiency within difficult labour market and working conditions. The challenge for democratically minded teachers, then, is expanding the unit of analysis to explore the social, economic, and political boundaries of contemporary social experience.” (p313)

“For critical thinking to achieve its full pedagogical potential, it must encourage students to assume a far greater measure of decisionmaking power over the policies influencing their lives. This means challenging the human capital assumptions and corporate dominated educational reform movements that reduce critical thinking to technical rationality and a transferable employability skill, and correspondingly preclude serious critique of morally questionable social, economic, and labour market practices. The authors would suggest critical thinking respecting foundational rationality and pursuing an intellectual virtues approach can meet the pressing challenge of creating politically informed subjects in the democratic construction of social experience rather than mere objects of about market efficiency.” (p313)


Atheists Speak Up! podcast

UTS Atheists has started up a podcast that is critical. The first edition was about the protests against the World Congress of Families conference that just happened, and the second will be on feminism and how the current troubles in the gaming community are the same as what’s been happening in atheism and skepticism.

Tune in! Also feel free to contact UTS Atheists at if you want to be a guest on the podcast or have topic suggestions!

Speech given at Skepticamp 2013

This is a writeup of my notes for the talk I delivered yesterday at Skepticamp 2013, entitled Critical Atheism – left and right in Australian atheism/why we need an atheist Left.

Summary: Atheist and freethought movements have been active in this country for over 120 years. They have had more of an effect on our lives than most would realise, but drama, controversy and splits have never been too far away. nineteenth century secularists understood the importance of politics for their movements, but these days many of us don’t understand what ‘left’ and ‘right’ mean, leaving ‘new atheism’ representing only one side of what used to be a productive debate. Critical atheism is the start of a coherent left wing atheist movement, for those of us who want more than liberal, rationalist atheism.

The talk and Q&A were recorded and will be showing up on at Skepticamp’s leisure.

After my talk I did a couple of radio interviews for The Skeptic Zone, on a variety of related and not-so-related topics including (as far as I can remember) atheist mardi gras floats, UTS Atheists’ Society and marrying a car! They can be found at and


This story starts in late nineteenth century Melbourne, with the Australasian Secular Association. Just like us, the ASA was full of drama and ridiculousness.

A few differences:

  • As a minority, pariah community, simply being a freethinker was more radical by default. They ran a Sunday Lyceum, waved embroidered banners and had picnics. They built the Hall of Science because noone would rent them space. Also, people could get away with more ranting, as no one was listening.
  • Politics was seen differently. This was before the current political parties dominated discourse, and drew conceptions of Right and Left into the centre. In fact it was pre-federation. It was also before Communism linked socialism and totalitarianism, and failure. Australia also narrowly escaped a civil war – maybe there was more understanding and commitment to different political philosophies.
  • Freethought was steeped in socialist and anarchist tendencies, more than the liberal ones that now dominate. The Anti-Sabbatarians arose from the ASA, going to gaol to fight, successfully, for the public library to open on Sundays. All public institutions were closed the only day working people could access them. They saw the oppressions of religion as just one amongst many problems in society. On the other side, the liberals were still active. Joseph Symes saw liberty as purely the freedom to think, and badmouthed those who did more as “the washed off filth of the association, collected in the anarchist slough” (in Sparrow). He only wanted to proselytise, and decried those who didn’t see the ‘light’ of rationalism as “dullards” who “must go to the wall”.

Today, you can see Symes’ liberal atheism in New Atheism. Though there are many great people here, the figureheads have been outspokenly liberal, even “weaponised in the service of the extreme right”

  • Hitchins called people “sluts” and “sob sister”. He said about Fallujah that “the death toll is not nearly high enough”.
  • Harris: “the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists”.
  • Hirsi Ali: “All muslim schools. Close them down”.
  • Dawkins is well known for sexist comments
  • The current president of Sydney Atheists Inc feels his mission in life is to convert people to nonbelief, and that is what will make the world a better place.

Though they may all call themselves progressive, and will do things like supporting gay marriage, they will also prop up the system and even support war, with the excuse that it will ‘liberate’ women.

Certainly some of us will “oppose the worst excesses of Islamophobia and have the grace to find the polemical excesses of Harris et al somewhat embarassing”, but that’s not really enough to round out the movement.

Most lefties – the socialists, anarchists and atheists who see religion as one part of their understanding of oppression – won’t touch this movement with a bargepole.

This has all been happening for a decade – the ‘new atheist publishing boom is considered to have been 2004-2006. Last year, some things came to a head, mostly over sexism in atheist and skeptic movements in America.

Jen McCreight had been active in atheism for several years. She started a non-theist club at her conservative university. She ran Boobquake, a response to someone saying that immodest dress caused earthquakes. Successful, well loved, she felt safe and at home in her atheist community. Then her Boobquake fame resulted in millions of propositions, which assumed her consent for all sorts of harassment just for having talked about ‘boobs’. When she turned these strangers down, it turned into vicious insults. She started talking about feminism. She says “I thought messages like ‘please stop sexually harassing me’ would be simple for skeptics and rationalists”, but no: out communities called her a “man-hating, castrating, humourless, ugly, overreacting harpy”. There were floods of rape jokes.

It’s not just her – she says that a year before, Rebecca Watson had said “Guys, don’t do that” and was still receiving constant death and rape threats.

So McCreight started Atheism Plus. Whatever may or may not have happened with women being aggressive or unreasonable or otherwise unacceptable, as I heard people saying at the time, even in this community here – this is what it all came from.

It was intended as Atheism + Skepticism + Humanism, all together. “It’s time for a wave that cares about how religion affects everyone and applies skepticism to everything“, including social issues… and itself.

I think she has it right, in the model of the Anti-Sabbatarians, and all the other radical atheists who worked for not only the right for atheists to testify in court, but abortion, birth control and the eight hour day. But she was talking about feminism, so she was howled down even more than before. She was insulted, threatened, discredited in her own communities. Everyone around her was attacked.

To me, this only highlights how correct her message is, and how important.

To go forward, instead of associating a laundry list of good things to atheism, and propping up something which flashed and burnt out, however unjustly, I’m trying to theorise a good, solid basis for a left within atheism. Critical Atheism – like critical theory, not so much critical thinking. We’ve got that down already.

The fundamentals of Critical Atheism:

  • Critique religion within the wider context of society, institutions, oppressions.
  • Thus, anti-islamophobia and anti-sexism.
  • Praxis – the confluence of theory and practice. Not just talk, and not just unguided action.

That’s only a start, though – we need help from all of you who actually are more radical than liberal – or at all interested!

REFERENCES: – all quotes from and about Symes, the ASA and New Atheists are taken from this article. – Jen McCreight’s blog. This and the next few posts were where she set out Atheism Plus. All quotes from or about McCreight, Watson or Atheism Plus are from here.

Where to from here?

I’ve been working on building atheist communities for the past thirteen or fourteen years, and one of the challenges has always been to maintain patience when things don’t move as fast or progress as radically as I would like them to.

This is not just because I’m impatient, it’s more because I’m concerned that my well meaning actions might not only achieve less that I hoped for, but might actually end up being counterproductive. It is difficult to assess as I wait for time to provide perspective, but I hope it’s not impossible.

Sydney Atheists Inc is the organisation I started in 2008 as Sydney Atheist Action Group. It caught people’s imagination and took off in a way I could not have imagined, growing large (by merging with the Meetup group), incorporating, establishing hierarchies and getting caught up in power plays that involved bad behaviour such as threats, constant harrassment, information withholding and meeting stacking, as well as incidences of homophobia – possibly used, possibly encouraged but certainly allowed. The people who could be considered a left faction of the group were systematically alienated, while everyone else refused to acknowledge there having been any such division at all. Earlier this year, I was among the last of us to finally resign from the Committee*.

These thoughts were refocused today as I read a paper about a different community.

“Fat politics and size acceptance are crucial in establishing communities and providing  support to fat people who have sufered cruelty, shame and humiliation because of their size, but in creating communities and offering support, one does not dismantle dominant cultural ideals about the body and ideal bodily aesthetics. In moving outside these fat-friendly communities, the politics of “coming out” as fat does not formulate new modes of embodiment or being-in-the-world.” (Murray p158, emphasis mine)

I’ve worked hard on creating communities, offering support and promoting the politics of coming out. Dismantling cultural ideals is probably one note in a long list of what we want in a movement as broad as atheism, but what else is on the list of I want? And what else am I doing? Do the two match up?

Despite my best efforts, Sydney Atheists is not a Critical organisation. This is not accidental; although it has brought together a variety of different people, it is very much a New Atheist group. It has been shaped by New Atheism as that movement is the very reason it has been able to grow so large and garner so much attention. How can I look back on my part in setting the group in motion? is New Atheism a step in the right direction, creating visibility and getting us to the point where we can meaningfully write a blog like this and envisage a better atheist future? Or is New Atheism actually Neoliberal Atheism, solidifying links with right wing rationalism and obscuring the radical parts that have existed in the broader movement?

I expect my dilemma is very much like that of raising a child, hoping they grow up an atheist, a lefty, a good person, but knowing you can influence but not control the outcome. How to deal with this? Wishing for a crystal ball would really not be a good atheist response! I suspect I need to work on my praxis, continuing to act but adding more and more theory to guide me, within this nice new community of people who also appreciate such principles.

So, community: what do we want out of atheist organising? what do we want out of atheism? What do we need to do to get there? Is New Atheism a problem, an intermediate step or something else? How do improve the likelihood that our actions now don’t turn into problems in the future? Let’s talk!


Murray, Samantha, ‘(Un/Be)Coming Out? Rethinking Fat Politics’ (2005) Social Semiotics, Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 153-163

I expected to cite this article, but it didn’t happen. I will probably discuss it later, but meanwhile, read it anyway!

* I must note that the Sydney Atheists is not set in stone – new members appeared at the very AGM before which I resigned, and appear to have been active. I suspect this was made possible by a reduction in the performance of antagonism as I was not there to provide a scapegoat, but that is merely speculation. All I know is that many events have been scheduled and more advertising was done; I cannot speak on what direction the group has taken politically.


Why critical?

Critical Theory

Critical Research – post in progress…

Critical Race Theory

Critical Whiteness Studies

Critical Fat Studies

Critical Literacy – Apple, M., & Aasen, P. (2003). The state and the politics of knowledge. New York: Routledge Falmer.

Critical Atheism

(please do elaborate…)

(these are not necessarily the best references, but the ones I’ve come across or been directed to recently.)


Something that may be of interest from my previous writings, this article was published in Querelle 2012. I have updated the references, and they are also listed in the links section of this site, along with a link to the whole publication.


As I was thinking about writing this article, by chance I came across a word that summed up exactly why I care about atheism: religionormativity.

Just as we’re familiar with heteronormativity, roughly the privileging of heterosexuality, religionormativity is the privileging of religion, religious views of the world and religious interests.

Religionormativity, and specifically christonormativity, is rampant in Australia. It’s why our atheist Prime Minister spends tax money for catholics to visit the Vatican and says that she doesn’t think society is ‘ready’ for marriage equality. It’s why we see churches and billboards displaying crosses like gallows in the town square, and dub it ‘freedom of speech’. It’s why cuts to cities’ christmas budgets generate more outcry than cuts to the country’s welfare budget, and even minority religions feel the need to vocally perform their acceptance of the all-pervasive decorations.

It’s why we accept religious private schools and the fact that they often get more funding than public schools, while even the ‘secular, compulsory and free’ public schools teach christmas as curriculum for three months of the year and allow scripture teachers in to openly teach dogma every week. Primary Ethics has fought hard to run ethics classes in NSW schools for the non-scripture students who are often neglected and discriminated against, but even they dare not touch the religions’ regular access to school students, nor acknowledge any link to atheism. Now our government now upholds the right to put untrained religious ‘chaplains’ into state schools despite the High Court’s ruling against the program. Our government which still has prayers in parliament. It’s all religionormativity, and it’s dangerous. Secular people regularly accept that queerness and nonbelief are matters for adults only, which allows religions to stereotype us as the dangerous ones, who shouldn’t be around kids. Certainly not all religions commit these travesties, but they all support the religionormativity which is why we have to fight for adoption, insemination and even the right to teach. Not only do religions get tax breaks because dissemination of religion is still categorised as charitable in our law, but they also get permanent exemptions to the anti-discrimination laws that keep us out of their schools, adoption agencies and crisis shelters.

The census doesn’t give us data on atheists, as the question is framed religionormatively. However the number of people who marked ‘no religion’ has grown in this latest census to 22.3% of the population, counting us at nearly a quarter of the country, and bigger than any single religious group except catholicism, even without the 8.6% of the population who didn’t answer the question, those who answered ‘jedi’ or ‘pastafarian’ and all the people who put down their family’s religion instead of their own beliefs. Yet people still say ‘but we all believe in the same god anyway’ and really believe they’re being inclusive. And we let them get away with it.

In queer communities, we often think we’re better than that! We can analyse the effects of religious lobby groups on politics and the media, and we’re certainly clued in to the marriage debate and the motives of the players. A high proportion of us are nonbelievers, and an understanding of the destructiveness of intolerant churches and conservative religious families resonates through us, whether or not we’ve experienced the effects personally. Indeed, I’m glad to live within such an astute crowd.

However, all is not perfect. We have our own subtle forms of religionormativity that we often hold dear. In communities so full of atheists and other nonbelievers, we often let this aspect of ourselves remain closeted. We don’t want to recognise this, because we still fall prey to the idea that outing ourselves, declaring our belief structures, is oppressive to those of us who still are religious. Even while we find some people’s beliefs to often be pretty odd, we underestimate them by placing our assumptions about their sensibilities above our own freedom to be out and proud atheists, agnostics, secular humanists or whatever else we want to be.

We need to come out about our beliefs just as much as we need to come out about our sexualities. To name ourselves allows us to build communities where we can openly express ourselves and stand together for what we need. We already know this. So examine your own internalised religionormativity and come out, so that everyone else can too.


Sydney Queer Atheists and

Critical Atheism

By highlighting atheism’s place within critical traditions, critical atheism acknowledges that it is futile to critique religion without critiquing society and religion’s place within it.

Thus it follows that we reject islamophobia as it is disingenous to attack only one religion, separating it from cultural and economic factors.

We also condemn sexism and other forms of discrimination, considering it imperative that atheist movements do not continue the prejudices of religious traditions.

Critical atheism commits to exploring these topics and more, through praxis. Our scholarship must be linked to action.


These are first thoughts; feel free to contact us to join the circle and write, comment or elaborate on this piece.