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 youtube.com/user/SkepticampAU 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 skepticzone.libsyn.com/the-skeptic-zone-263-3-nov-2013 and skepticzone.libsyn.com/the-skeptic-zone-265-16-nov-2013


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!


http://jeffsparrow.net/articles/the-weaponisation-of-atheism/ – all quotes from and about Symes, the ASA and New Atheists are taken from this article.

http://freethoughtblogs.com/blaghag/2012/08/how-i-unwittingly-infiltrated-the-boys-club-why-its-time-for-a-new-wave-of-atheism/ – 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.

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