A smarmy NYT article about atheism and humanism

In the past few months I’ve given two talks—one for the American Humanists and the other for the Freedom From Religion Foundation—on the relationship between atheism, humanism, and social good. I started both talks by asking the audience to raise their hands if they considered themselves humanists. Every hand went up. I then asked how many of those with their hands up also considered themselves atheists. I watched carefully, and not a hand went down. That makes sense: after all, humanists believe that we are in charge of our own and others’ welfare, and nearly everyone arrives at that view after rejecting gods. To me, then, it doesn’t make sense to seriously discuss humanism without at least mentioning its origins, and that involves rejecting any kind of theism.

Still, there are those who praise humanism but can’t resist the opportunity to have a whack at atheism. And that brings us to today’s article.

If you read “The evangelical scion who stopped believing,” an article about an “atheist preacher” in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, you might be a bit puzzled at some of the gratuitous atheist-bashing. After all, it’s about Bart Campolo, a 53-year-old former preacher who became an atheist after a bicycle accident, and who has taken up a new life as a humanist chaplain and head of the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Southern California (USC). Yet the article is larded with snark—the usual cracks about atheism, not missing a few swipes at Richard Dawkins.

The explanation is that the author is Mark Oppenheimer, whom we’ve encountered before in posts about Larry Alex Taunton’s book claiming that Christopher Hitchens was flirting with Christianity at the end of his life. It turns out that Oppenheimer hasn’t missed a chance to go after New Atheism, writing a piece in BuzzFeed about the rampant misogyny afflicting the atheist “movement.” And so, when you read about Campolo’s life, and how he lost his faith and wound up as the USC humanist chaplain—a position in which he seems to be doing a lot of good—you also have to see Oppenheimer’s gratuitous take on atheism. A few snippets (my emphasis):

In the United States, since World War II, atheist activism has been located mainly in local skeptics’ clubs, whose members also gravitated toward science fiction and other walks of geek life. [JAC: !!] The clubs developed a culture of conferences: hotel-ballroom events with lots of men attending mostly-male panels, followed by book signings.

Over the last 30 years or so, these conferences have grown in tandem with the rise of the Christian right and megachurch evangelicalism, as atheists sought comfort in a parallel world. Best-selling authors like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens drew huge crowds at these “cons.” In their books, lectures and television appearances, these atheists preach an uncompromising scientism, exalt Darwin and barely conceal a sentiment that believers deserve mockery or, if one is feeling generous, pity.

To this day, atheist gatherings remain overwhelmingly male, and public perception of the movement has been tainted by a steady drip of misogynistic episodes: harassment of female attendees at the conventions; online trolling of those who have spoken out against the sexism; and the notorious tweets of Dawkins, the British biologist whose 2006 book, “The God Delusion,” has become the bible of many young atheists. (One example, from 2014: “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knife point is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.”)

And this:

The energy now is not with the controversial author-celebrities but with start-up groups, many on college campuses, that have more gender balance and less strident rhetoric and are eager to do better than thumb their noses at believers. Crucially, these nonbelievers identify as humanist rather than atheist. That is, they’ve sided with a more welcoming version of nonbelief, focused on the joy and potential inherent in being human rather than on gainsaying others’ convictions. Their project is to talk about leading a good life without God.

Well pardon me, but I’m not aware of any Big Name Atheists who spend all their time simply going after religion—and really, do they all imply that believers deserve mockery and pity?—without also suggesting ways of living life without God. Hitchens, for instance, gave his moving final talk in Houston about not relying on scripture or authority, but learning to think for oneself. Sam Harris wrote a book on morality without God (yes, his latter-day utilitarianism has met with some pushback), Dan Dennett has never, to my knowledge, said that religion should be mocked or its adherents pitied, and even The God Delusion has a positive message about how one can be moral and fulfilled without relying on a God. While the main message of these books was indeed a rejection of theism, there is always a positive side about the advantages living a life without gods.

As for the “rampant misogyny” in atheism, I haven’t seen it. Yes, of course some male atheists are sexists, as are some males in any organization, but having gone to many meetings, scientific and otherwise, I simply can’t find myself able to label atheism as rotten with misogyny. Indeed, I see more positive attitudes about equality of women at atheist meetings than at other types of gatherings.

What Oppenheimer has done here, and which he didn’t have to do, is to undercut the philosophical basis of humanism by making gratuitous slurs against some well known atheists, and painting our gatherings as instantiations of rape culture. As for “exalting Darwin,” well, wasn’t it Darwin who struck a death blow at religion by showing that phenomena once explainable only by God had a purely naturalistic basis? The “scientism” accusation, of course, is just a canard.

I won’t go on, as this kind of atheist-bashing doesn’t deserve much consideration. It’s worth nothing, however, how it slips insidiously into articles where it doesn’t belong.


  1. GBJames
    Posted December 31, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Pretty well sums up the reaction I had when I read it yesterday.

    • Rita
      Posted December 31, 2016 at 1:10 pm | Permalink


  2. ladyatheist
    Posted December 31, 2016 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    We seek comfort in our parallel pseudo-church? Is that a good or bad thing? Or is this a tu quoque, as if we have denigrated the social side of religion along with the destructive sides?

    I haven’t read every word of every atheist, but it seems that we do recognize the human need for community. So those of us who don’t belong to chess clubs or animé clubs go to geeky humanist gatherings. Yay us!

    Times change quickly. 9/11 is behind us and we have fallen back into an almost pre-9/11 level of complacency. Insidious and personal damage from religion is turning people away from religion one by one instead of by the thousands or millions post-9/11.

    Leah Remini’s series attacking Scientology brings to light many of the abuses that are common to other cults. I hope that it has some effect on JWs, Mormons, and IFLBs.

    • Brujo Feo
      Posted December 31, 2016 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

      “IFLBs”? The only reference I found is “Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain,” and I’m suspecting that something else was intended…

  3. garthdaisy
    Posted December 31, 2016 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    I have faith that one day in the near future these non-religious “agnostics” who take snarky swipes at atheists will come to see the intellectual errors they are making and wake-up realizing that they are on the wrong side of history.

  4. Randall Schenck
    Posted December 31, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    I would simply chock up this Oppenheimer as someone with issues and he should probably seek help. Why the NYTs or anyone would carry his writings if that is what they are, is beyond me. He qualifies as someone who makes up shit. But then a PHD in Religion should qualify him for that. I could only recommend he read John Loftus’s latest book and see if that helps.

    If sexist is somehow related to atheist in any way, well good thing we don’t see any of that in religion. Does Oppenheimer know the religion of his president in waiting?

    • Carl
      Posted December 31, 2016 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      Careful there, I suspect the President elect might be an atheist. How could anyone know his religious beliefs with certainty? By what he says or tweets?

      • Posted December 31, 2016 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

        I think atheists should explicitly disown that asshole. At most he’s an “a”theist by default. He simply couldn’t be bothered about anything apart from propping up his own pathetic status. The question of whether or not there’s a god, he would decide on the spur of the moment and change the next moment if it suited him. It’s bad enough sharing some DNA with him. I don’t want to share anything else.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted December 31, 2016 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

        You would never know his religion with certainty. How could you? Anyone who lies like he does is not likely an atheist. I am think more along the lines of Pathological Narcissist. His is a religion of one.

        • Carl
          Posted December 31, 2016 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

          In my original remark I was going to suggest Trump believes himself to be god, but I couldn’t come up with a word for it (egotheist?)- but maybe Narcissotheist will serve.

          • Filippo
            Posted December 31, 2016 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

            I don’t suppose Trump’s handlers let him walk by a pool alone.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 31, 2016 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

        Trump claims to be a Presbyterian; he was married (this last time), and his youngest kid was baptized, at the Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal church in Palm Beach. When he was a kid, his family attended Norman Vincent Peale’s church in Manhattan (which, I’m sure, is the best! greatest! most fantastic! church ever), and Trump says he still goes there from time-to-time on Sundays to take his “little wine and cracker” (even if he doesn’t know “Second Corinthians” from a pair of Corinthian columns).

        Trump has admitted, nevertheless, that he’s never asked the good Lord for forgiveness — Trump and God, it seems, have a non-aggression agreement, same as Hitler and Stalin did with the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

        • Carl
          Posted December 31, 2016 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

          You are the last person I would expect to argue on the basis of what Trump says.

    • Posted January 1, 2017 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

      I anticipated that Jerry would take on this jerk because he really is the expert debunker (though I try hard myself). This guy is less a secular humanist than a
      snake oil salesman promoting self improvement through a nontheistic form of
      psychology. Psychological counselling is another term for it. “Make yourself a better person without God”. There are tons of books on this subject by authors no less qualified and no less riveted by their own importance.
      The phenomenon of atheist bashing continues apace and makes me wonder if this is not another version of that ancient quandary in which theists, fearful of god’s wrath if they deny him but doubting his existence, choose the safe path. Notwithstanding, these are subconscious atheists who lack the integrity to come out of the closet. Atheists will have to put up with this for a while and also with the slurs, most of them invented or exaggerated, about atheist sexism. All of this is a smokescreen blown up to ridiculous proportions by people who still hang on to diminishing threads of
      religious belief that they are afraid to
      declare publicly because they have come to realize that religion is a lie and they have been its victim.

  5. Tom
    Posted December 31, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Mr Oppenheimer obviously has a copy of “The Atheist Bashers Lectionary” to which at certain phases of the moon, he refers.
    Like most lectionaries it can be read without any understanding and is usually printed in very large type for those who have to spell out the long words.

  6. BJ
    Posted December 31, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Buzzfeed and other rags like it that subscribe to identity politics (even, unfortunately, publications like the NY Times) have been calling atheists sexists and misogynists ever since most atheists refused to join the “Atheism +” movement. If you would rather hear Richard Dawkins speak instead of Rebecca Watson; if you’d rather talk about the problems in *all* religions rather than excluding Islam/focusing solely on Christianity (out of a sense of duty to Islam because everything wrong with it is all the fault of westerners and darn it they’re all oppressed anyway, and Christianity is totally for white people you know); if you don’t think every convention needs a code of conduct that protects certain people and ideas from any confrontation or criticism, then you get slapped with the label of “sexist” or “misogynist” by people like Oppenheimer.

    All the excerpts you posted are merely thinly veiled exhortations to accept the politics of social justice and its leaders in all you do, or be labelled as a terrible person for your transgressions against the one true religion.

    • BJ
      Posted December 31, 2016 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      Also, notice how geeky is now a synonym for bad, as these same media outlets have been campaigning for years now to relabel as misogynist anything that draws in a largely male audience and has any sort of culture that doesn’t exactly align with identity politics and social justice.

      • Filippo
        Posted December 31, 2016 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        Seems I’ve occasionally read (in the NY Times?)that nowadays to be called a “geek” is supposedly to be somehow complimented. I’m skeptical of that.

      • tubby
        Posted December 31, 2016 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

        Mr. Oppenheimer looked to his left, and took in the tall black youth who had taken a seat next to him on the 6 train. He noted the science fiction book he was reading. Sneering at this terrible display of unacceptable geekery taking place so near to his sacred personal space, Mark buried himself in the urban fantasy audio book he was listening to. Get with the times, he thought to himself, space ships are so 2016. Vampires are what’s hip in 2017.

    • David Evans
      Posted January 1, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      “If you would rather hear Richard Dawkins speak instead of Rebecca Watson”

      Well, yes I would. He has more achievements and more experience to speak about. But I also recognise that some of his recent comments have been – to borrow a fine word – deplorable.

  7. rickflick
    Posted December 31, 2016 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    “this kind of atheist-bashing doesn’t deserve much consideration”

    That was my first thought. But I have to assume it takes a toll on atheist credibility. Answering it is a tedious task, but somebody has to do it.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 31, 2016 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      It’s the same old song: we’d like atheists so much better if they would only stop trying to make their case that God doesn’t exist.

      Why do that? Believers are comfortable believing. They’re also comfortable with atheism, having their own explanations for why atheists reject a loving God… as well as comforting reasons explaining why atheism is the death of life and hope. So can’t we all just respect each other, live and let live, and change the topic to common ground?


    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted January 1, 2017 at 3:10 am | Permalink

      Perhaps it would be better not to reply with our own snark but to welcome the article as an example of free speech, which is worth preserving, even as it allows people to form their own judgements?

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted January 1, 2017 at 3:59 am | Permalink

        No. Free speech includes bullshit. This does NOT mean bullshit is somehow sacred and beyond criticism.


  8. Posted December 31, 2016 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    That’s an interesting poll you took at those meetings. I would not have raised my hand because I am not a Humanist. But I am an atheist.

    • Carl
      Posted December 31, 2016 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      I also balk at the “humanist” label. Humanism strikes me as an attempt to take on the trappings of religion without an explicit God. I may not have a grasp of what humanism is, so I don’t want to tacitly sign on to beliefs I don’t hold. I’m hoping for some enlightenment from this discussion.

      • Posted December 31, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

        I may not have a grasp of what humanism is …

        Humanism: the idea that morals are a matter for humans, not for gods.

        • Carl
          Posted December 31, 2016 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

          And nothing else? Pretty thin definition.

          Maybe what I don’t like about some humanist philosophy, is that it surreptitiously holds some transcendental views – its naturalism is incomplete.

          An example would be the Moral Sense school represented by Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith. Supposedly a moral sense embedded in the human mind can determine good and evil through feelings. Thomas Jefferson and Christopher Hitchens have expressed this view. It is not the claim that such feelings exist that is wrong, but that they reliably detect the properties of good and evil in objects and actions, that good and evil exist independent of these feelings. This is a transcendental claim counter to a thoroughgoing Naturalism.

          Spinoza, as usual, gets it right –

          “… we do not endeavor, will, seek after or desire because we judge a thing to be good. On the contrary, we judge a thing to be good because we endeavor, will, seek after and desire it.”

          • Posted December 31, 2016 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

            And nothing else? Pretty thin definition.

            Indeed so! But I think that suffices. 🙂

            Of course any individual humanist will have additional ideas they hold to, but they are not necessary to be a “humanist”.

            In other words, humanism need not be moral realist, and I agree with you in rejecting moral realism.

          • GBJames
            Posted December 31, 2016 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

            “Pretty thin definition.”

            “Atheist” has a pretty thin definition, too. When the definitions start getting “thick”, you get all kinds of confusion… people arguing over details, etc.

            • Carl
              Posted December 31, 2016 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

              Agreed. I suspect most people wouldn’t strictly go with Coel’s definition. They would have a “thicker” one.

              How about this point: Using “Humanism” is kind of a concession to people who would be offended by “atheism” and shows a lack of frankness?

              • GBJames
                Posted December 31, 2016 at 4:07 pm | Permalink


                The two terms have different emphases. One addresses an opinion about deities. The other expresses an opinion about interacting with other people. Not really the same although it is hard to be one without also being the other.

                I imagine that most humanists would embellish Coel’s definition so it would conform more closely to their own “thicker” opinion. That done, they could argue with their comrades about whether it makes sense to have “atheist churches” or not.

          • Historian
            Posted December 31, 2016 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

            I consider myself a secular humanist and this is what the term means to me.

            1. No supernatural entity exists to dictate or guide people as to what actions they should take. By definition, a secular humanist (as opposed to a religious humanist) must be an atheist.
            2. People should strive to help others because it is ethically the “right” thing to do.
            3. By doing the “right” thing, I do not only help others, but I help myself and my kin (I guess this is an evolutionary explanation). A society with less inequality and suffering promotes long term stability and thus increases the probability of survival for myself and my kin. So, yes, there is a selfish element to humanism just as there is for virtually all activities that people engage in.

            Whether an individual expresses secular humanism individually or by joining an organization of like-minded people, any resemblance to religion is purely coincidental. Some people may enjoy or require the same type of fellowship that being active in a church affords, but this fellowship in no way demands a deity, which is a necessary element for almost all religions.

            This thread has been very useful in helping me think more clearly what it means to be a secular humanist. Perhaps some comments will compel to revise my definition.

            • Carl
              Posted December 31, 2016 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

              By your definition, I mostly wouldn’t object to being labeled a secular humanist. But I wouldn’t label myself that way.

              I think your statements 2 & 3 would be better combined, leaving out the “right thing to do” from both – then there is no whiff of a transcendental concept.

              No qualification is needed for saying that ethics should be based one’s own personal flourishing and empowerment. That’s what should guide us in how we live our lives. If you employ reason from there all the good stuff about treating others well falls out as corollary.

            • Posted January 1, 2017 at 2:44 am | Permalink

              I also would leave out any talk about being ethical because it is “the right thing to do”, because that idea is deeply problematic (as used there, that phrase is either circular or meaningless).

      • rickflick
        Posted December 31, 2016 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

        One thing to keep in mind about the humanist movement is that it consists of two segments – religious humanism and secular humanism. The religious one is older and somewhat passe, it seems to me. Secular humanism can be seen as being compatible with materialism. Although it incorporates values and morals so it is not just pure science. Most prominent atheists seem to be comfortable with the label.
        Humanism may be seen as a rejection of theistic placement of humanity as lowly, dependent, or a product of original sin.

        Anthony Grayling spoke about the subject:


        • Posted December 31, 2016 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

          Try this: How humanist are you?


          • rickflick
            Posted December 31, 2016 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

            90% here.

          • HaggisForBrains
            Posted January 1, 2017 at 10:32 am | Permalink

            100% – Yay!

        • Posted December 31, 2016 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

          +1, rickflick. The term “humanist movement” captures an important point – this is a movement with a history and many involved individuals. Therefore any definition in terms of a single central belief, or value, should probably be taken with a grain of salt.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted December 31, 2016 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

          Right. And just as not all humanists are atheists, not all atheists are humanists — the Objectivists, for example. Even atheistic humanism itself comes in different flavors. (See, for example, J-P Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism.)

      • Posted December 31, 2016 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        “The trappings of religion”

        Such as what?


        • Carl
          Posted December 31, 2016 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

          Regular gatherings or meetings. Formal structures one can “belong” to, with leadership hierarchies or governing boards. Any group singing.

          • Posted December 31, 2016 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

            Well, apart from the group singing (which I don’t recollect at any BHA meeting), those sound like the trappings of any secular association!

            Try again?


            • Carl
              Posted December 31, 2016 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

              Sam Harris has a theme running through much of his work pointing out that replacements for things people get from religion can be had elsewhere (morality, spiritual experience, community). It seems like secular humanism organizes itself in just this spirit, as a replacement for things lost with religion. I don’t doubt its a good replacement, but I don’t feel any attraction. I’m just not a joiner and never had any religion to lose.

              • Posted December 31, 2016 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

                Not in my experience.


              • Ken Kukec
                Posted December 31, 2016 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

                Dennett and Dawkins and some others attempted to launch something along those lines with the unfortunately named “Bright Movement.”

              • Carl
                Posted December 31, 2016 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

                I think they came to their senses and rebranded. I cringed the first time I heard Dawkins suggest “brights.” I haven’t heard the label used non-derisively for some time.

              • Posted January 1, 2017 at 3:45 am | Permalink

                Neither launched it; it was others’ initiative. Both supported it initially; Dennett more than Dawkins, I think (and came up with “Supers” for those who believed in superstition, iirc.) But neither these days seem to be close to the movement (which continues: http://www.the-brights.net).


            • Posted January 1, 2017 at 2:48 am | Permalink

              Neither Dawkins nor Dennett originated the word “Brights” (Dawkins’s interest in it was mainly in seeing whether a coined meme caught on). It also wasn’t really a “movement” with meetings and members, so much as an umbrella term for all naturalistic minded people.

              • rickflick
                Posted January 1, 2017 at 3:02 am | Permalink

                Paul Geisert, who coined the term bright and co-founded the bright movement is a one-time Chicago biology teacher, professor, entrepreneur, writer, he co-developed learning materials in 2002

          • Posted December 31, 2016 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

            PS. And of course some secular associations likely do involve group singing; the Welsh Association of Male Choirs, for example!

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted December 31, 2016 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

        @Carl Quote: “Humanism strikes me as an attempt to take on the trappings of religion without an explicit God.”

        No! Please tell me where you gathered that impression. The IHEU defines [secular] Humanism as follows:

        “…Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality”

        • Carl
          Posted December 31, 2016 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

          One of the trappings of religion I didn’t mention previously is the seeming need of its official bodies to broadcast a “creed.”

          • Posted December 31, 2016 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

            So, what’s the ”creed” that humanism’s official bodies broadcast?

            (And most secular organisations will have a “vision” or a “mission statement”, so … ?)


            • Carl
              Posted December 31, 2016 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

              Within the quotation marks in the post immediately above mine by Michael Fisher, following
              The IHEU defines [secular] Humanism as follows:

              If you want to quibble it’s an official definition and not a creed, fine. And since rights and responsibilities as the terms are generally used come from civil government, and there is none in sight, the statement invokes transcendental values on my reading.

              • Posted December 31, 2016 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

                Civil government that is human, not supernatural!


              • Ken Kukec
                Posted December 31, 2016 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

                Problem is, if you don’t have a definition, some will quibble that the concept is ill-defined and that “I don’t want to tacitly sign on to beliefs I don’t hold” by accepting the label. If you define, OTOH, some will complain it’s creedal.

                So, damned if you define, damned if you don’t.

              • Carl
                Posted December 31, 2016 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

                You’re right. The challenges I’ve posed here are a bit unfair. The intention was to draw people out a bit.

                So peace to you secular humanists. To misquote the great man: if while walking home late at night, I meet a group of men, I would be less concerned if they were coming from a secular humanist meeting than a religious service.

      • kelskye
        Posted December 31, 2016 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

        It’s really hard to see how someone could have a problem with humanism. Do you not agree that we should base our ethics and morality on a sympathetic understanding of what it means to be human?

        • Carl
          Posted December 31, 2016 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

          Do you not agree that we should base our ethics and morality on a sympathetic understanding of what it means to be human?

          I would find the phrasing “based on human nature” less objectionable. (lower woo quotient)

          But no, understanding human nature is a huge endeavor in itself. It could take a whole lifetime reaching something to base your ethics on. That’s a non-starter.

          Repeating what I wrote elsewhere in this discussion, ethics should be based one’s own personal flourishing and empowerment. That’s what should guide us in how we live our lives. If you employ reason from there all the good stuff about treating others well falls out as corollary.

          No doubt, the better one understand human nature, the more successful the endeavor will be.

          • kelskye
            Posted December 31, 2016 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

            So do you advocate treating people as a means to an end – that is, when it is in your personal flourishing, do you think it’s the ethical choice to malign or harm other individuals? If not, then why not?

            It seems to me the logical extension of personal flourishing is indistinguishable from sociopathy.

            • Carl
              Posted January 1, 2017 at 12:21 am | Permalink

              I don’t advocate any such thing.

              Treating people badly, as a means, or acting like a sociopath will most certainly not lead to my empowerment or flourishing. Behaving that way is a failure to employ reason.

              Incidentally, I’m following the playbook of the two greatest ethicists who ever lived – Epicurus and Spinoza. The conclusions you tried to draw here closely track what religious authorities have said about Epicurus and Spinoza.

              • kelskye
                Posted January 1, 2017 at 12:51 am | Permalink

                “I don’t advocate any such thing.”
                So what criteria do you use when what works for you is in conflict with others? Is it simply that you personally see no gain from lying, raping, cheating, stealing, murdering, genocide, etc. or do you think there’s something wrong with those activities from a personal perspective? Are the persons doing that not flourishing even if they gain from the act?

              • Carl
                Posted January 1, 2017 at 1:36 am | Permalink

                If you don’t see that my previous response covers this, I might need to write a treatise to satisfy you. If you have a sincere interest in how Epicurean/Spinozist ethics works, and has profoundly affected the world, read Natures God, The Heretical Origins of the American Republic by Matthew Stewart. It has a ton of other good stuff that will cheer the heart of any atheist or secular humanist as well. Happy New Year.

              • kelskye
                Posted January 1, 2017 at 2:12 am | Permalink

                I’m just trying to ascertain what you think the differences are between what you see as personal flourishing and what humanism covers. A treatise isn’t necessary, a few points of differentiation would be nice.

    • nwalsh
      Posted December 31, 2016 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

      Larry, I bet if you took the little test below you would be.

      • nwalsh
        Posted December 31, 2016 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

        Above I mean. Sorry.

    • Brujo Feo
      Posted December 31, 2016 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

      I’m also an atheist. And I don’t KNOW if I’m a humanist. Or care.

      I also don’t know where on the atheist “spectrum” I am. Since I think that the question as to whether gods exist is, and always will be, completely meaningless and a colossal waste of time, I’m guessing that most would call me a weak or soft atheist. (In fact, ASKING the question may be–note that I do not say “is”–a sign of some sort of neurological disorder.) But I’m no more “agnostic” on the question than I am as to the existence of the Easter Bunny or Harry Potter.

      That being said, I bridle a bit at the thought that thinking mockery and pity are appropriate is some sort of accusation of wrongdoing. However weak an atheist I may be, I don’t think that atheism these days is enough. Look where this live-and-let-live kind of thing has gotten us. We do need to be anti-theists. While EXPRESSING mockery or pity may not always be appropriate, we need to recognize delusion for what it is.

    • Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      So am I.

  9. Posted December 31, 2016 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    I wonder when or if this will ever stop — atheist movement = privileged, misogynistic white males. Those who repeat this have never noticed *any* of the non-white, non-male atheists who are prominent in the movement today. Nor have they noticed how easily privileged white males like Professor Ceiling Cat or Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris promote and collaborate with believing Muslims who are on board with secularism.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 31, 2016 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

      I have been attending humanist, atheist, and skeptic conventions since the mid-90’s. I won’t say how many, but dozens. When I first started, the majority of attendees were white, over 60, and male. Over the space of 20 years I’ve watched the demographics shift. Today, about half of those attending are women, and most are under 60. Not enough people of color, but there’s always some. Speakers reflect the audience (or vice versa.)

      To be informed by someone who’s apparently following a script that no, we’re still back in the 90’s is annoying. Excuse me, Mr. Oppenheimer– please don’t deny my lived experience. And how dare you ignore all the women.

      • Posted December 31, 2016 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

        Well said, S!


      • rickflick
        Posted December 31, 2016 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

        Your’s is personal experience, but I think we can also take it as an indication of more data out there concerning the demographics.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 31, 2016 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

        You owe me a keyboard for the spit-take I did on your “lived experience” line.

  10. Posted December 31, 2016 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    I would like to say something about Mr. Oppenheimer, but can’t because of da roolz.

    I think that non-religious people should be able to call themselves whatever they are most comfortable with. That may change over time. At least it did with me.

    I belong to secular organizations and have attended many local events in Oregon and Washington (meetings, lectures, potlucks, movies, etc.), and one national gathering in
    Washington DC. I have enjoyed seeing and hearing Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, Jerry Coyne, and others. I have not witnessed the misogyny Mr. Oppenheimer talks about in any of the gatherings I’ve attended. I wonder where he’s been slumming?

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted December 31, 2016 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      Maybe he just hangs out with groups who really treat women well and always equal, like Islamist? But never those sexist atheists.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 1, 2017 at 4:21 am | Permalink

      I just checked da roolz and I can’t see anything that stops anyone calling Mr Oppenheimer anything they feel appropriate, such as a mendacious raving weasel*.

      (The prohibition is on calling other posters personal things).

      However I will concede that reference to ‘da roolz’ is a convenient shorthand for indicating extreme displeasure without having to resort to epiphets. 😉

      (* my description, of course, I wouldn’t seek to pre-empt yours)

  11. Posted December 31, 2016 at 2:04 pm | Permalink


    To this day, atheist gatherings remain overwhelmingly male, …

    Really? Any stats?

    … and public perception of the movement has been tainted by a steady drip of misogynistic episodes

    Is that really true? Or is that merely the perception of a few vocal bloggers?

    harassment of female attendees at the conventions

    Really? Any specific examples?

    online trolling of those who have spoken out against the sexism

    There probably has been some of that, sadly, though quite often “trolling” has become an alternative word for “disagreeing”.

    and the notorious tweets of Dawkins,

    Not all of those were particularly well judged, but very few were actually “misogynist” or even “sexist”.

    One example, from 2014: “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knife point is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.”

    If that’s the worst example then that doesn’t amount to much. In response to replies, Dawkins re-thought the tweet saying that he hadn’t considered the betrayal-of-trust aspect. But anyhow, I fail to see why suggesting that stranger rape at knife point is worse than date rape is “misogynist”.

    At worst it might be untrue or insensitive, but he was clearly saying that both date rape and stranger rape are bad.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted December 31, 2016 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

      Yes well, PHD in Religion Oppenheimer, has no statistics. This is just part of the no evidence game he is taught to play. With no facts to support his claims he just plays the old slight of hand trick – attack the enemy you create and justify nothing. It is g*d’s work.

    • John B.
      Posted December 31, 2016 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

      >harassment of female attendees at the conventions

      >Really? Any specific examples?

      I suspect Oppenheimer had in mind Rebecca Watson: http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Elevatorgate

      Obviously he’s using one absurd and anomalous incident for his own specious generalization, a temptation lazy writers with rickety arguments are prone to.

      • Posted January 1, 2017 at 5:42 am | Permalink

        I don’t think that even Watson supporters regarded that incident as “harassment” as opposed to clumsy and poor etiquette.

        • Posted January 1, 2017 at 6:55 am | Permalink

          The harassment came after, in response to her “Guys, don’t do that” video. But that seems distant now … But I don’t think any of the online attacks “within the atheist movement” are significantly different in volume or odiousness from what we’ve seen in general, re: _Ghostbusters_, Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, &c., &c., &c.

      • Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:57 am | Permalink

        I think he is more than lazy. He is bigoted.

  12. geckzilla
    Posted December 31, 2016 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    If anything, the author observes a bias, but manages to misplace the blame on atheism. Scientists tend to be atheists, and for the majority of recent history they also tended to be male and biased against women in certain regards, which I refuse to call misogyny until you find one of those rare individuals who doubles down once it’s exposed for what it is.

    Really, nearly the whole world is biased in various ways about women—even women themselves at times. I can’t think of any group other than skeptical, rational humanists who have made a greater effort at exposing and reducing the most harmful of these biases.

  13. Posted December 31, 2016 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Is it misogyny to deny the existence of an all-powerful MAN in the sky?

  14. Historian
    Posted December 31, 2016 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Certainly, many, if not most, atheists have mocked religion at one time or another. That is, they have made fun of the practices and beliefs of religions that issue truth claims, which are patently absurd. It is hard to resist doing this. Although such mockery may gave the atheist a momentary sense of superiority over the unenlightened, ultimately it as a poor way to convince the religious of the irrationality of their beliefs. I suspect many more of the religious have abandoned their ways by being exposed to the reasoned arguments of Hitchens, Dawkins, and Coyne than by being laughed at.

    I also suspect that on occasion most atheists have taken pity on the faithful for their need to find fulfillment in life by adhering to superstition. But, again, this does nothing positive. Atheists should concentrate their energies in the intellectual and political arenas. For me, I don’t particularly care what people think. I do care about what they do. Despite polls showing that non-believers are growing group in the U.S., the religious still have great power to influence events as demonstrated by the last election. Mike Pence will shortly be vice-president and we can rest assured that he will do everything in his power to advance the fundamentalist agenda. The separation of church and state is in jeopardy. Atheists and those of faith who believe in the separation must work in alliance to thwart what Pence has in mind.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted December 31, 2016 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      Agree with you that mockery won’t deconvert the religiously committed. But it can help to tilt the spectators and fence-sitters in the right direction.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted December 31, 2016 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      I am learning from those smarter than I that mocking religion or g*ds is not the way to make much headway. Belief in g*d is not the problem as they say – belief without evidence is the problem.

      • Posted December 31, 2016 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

        I disagree. Believing in the Loch Ness monster is harmless. Believing in the god monster has caused all kinds of misery.

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted December 31, 2016 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

          No. I think Boghossian is correct to say collapse the faith and the whole structure will fall. Stick with asking Socratic dialectical questions about how they know what they know. Ask them to examine their own religion the same way they examine others. How can mine be the right one with all these others next door that you are certain are bogus. Critical thinking and Skeptical thinking must go together.

          • Posted December 31, 2016 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

            I can’t disagree with that. Well said.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted January 1, 2017 at 4:49 am | Permalink

          I tend to agree. And can I say on behalf of Nessie that he/she could surface tomorrow and eat a scientist for lunch in front of the newsreel cameras of the world, without invoking one iota of magic or requiring the revision of one physical law.

          Unlike G*d.


    • Posted December 31, 2016 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

      And do you have any data to support your suspicions?

      It may seem trite to say that you can’t reason a person out of a position they didn’t reason themself into, but studies have show that that’s the case: Fact-based arguments against entrenched beliefs only encourage the believers to dig in. (And this is as true of non-religious beliefs.)

      And frankly, ridiculous beliefs deserve ridicule.


      • Historian
        Posted December 31, 2016 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

        You may very well be correct that fact-based arguments will change few entrenched minds. I will not dispute this. Then again, mocking religious people will probably change few minds as well. That is why few very of the religious will leave the faith, but we know that some do. But, at the margins, I suspect more do because of reason than mockery. No, I do not have statistics to back this up, if they actually exist. But, when you hear about clergy leaving the fold, their explanations for leaving involve reason (e.g., being exposed to the arguments of the people mentioned above), not mockery. Perhaps you would say that their minds were never actually entrenched.

        • Posted December 31, 2016 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

          I’ve never advocated mocking religious people!


          • Historian
            Posted December 31, 2016 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

            I think there is a thin and blurry line between ridiculing a person’s belief and mocking him personally. Suppose you said this to “Jack.”

            “Well, Jack, I think your religion is total nonsense, nothing but pure superstition. But, don’t take this personally, I’m only talking in the abstract, not about you personally.”

            Would Jack take your statement as you mocking him? I think so. I think very few people would see a difference between abstractly ridiculing or mocking something they deeply believe in and an attack on themselves personally.

            • Posted December 31, 2016 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

              Nevertheless, there is a difference.


            • Posted December 31, 2016 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

              * & the religious have their own parallel: Hate the sin; love the sinner.

              • Ken Kukec
                Posted December 31, 2016 at 11:12 pm | Permalink


                But the sinner might be as lief to take it personally, too, if he or she learned to sin at the knee of a tribal elder, if sinning was central to his or her self-identity, and if the sin were seen as the key to life everlasting.

              • Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

                My observation is that most of them have a problem with the second part :-).

            • Brendan Reid
              Posted January 1, 2017 at 8:56 am | Permalink

              Dan Dennett has often said:

              “I listen to all these complaints about rudeness and intemperateness, and the opinion that I come to is that there is no polite way of asking somebody: have you considered the possibility that your entire life has been devoted to a delusion? But that’s a good question to ask. Of course we should ask that question and of course it’s going to offend people. Tough.”

              • Posted January 1, 2017 at 9:01 am | Permalink


              • Historian
                Posted January 1, 2017 at 9:52 am | Permalink

                There’s a difference between asking tough questions and mocking a person. You gain little by making the other person feel like a fool (even if that’s the way you actually consider him).

                Here are two ways you can make the same point to an individual.

                “I think your whole life has been built on a delusion. How can you believe this crap without a shred of evidence to support it?”


                “I do not believe in what you believe in. I need evidence to support something before I will accept it. Your faith provides no credible evidence. If you want to accept the teachings of your church solely on faith, that’s your right. But, if you demand evidence in all other aspects of your life, then you may want to consider why in the matter of religion you don’t demand it.”

                For the person whose mind is not totally closed, I think the second quote is more likely to get him thinking because he is much less likely to feel that he is being mocked.

              • GBJames
                Posted January 1, 2017 at 10:48 am | Permalink


                I do not think your example is really one of “mocking a person”. It is certainly blunt and direct, but “mocking”?

                I think you need to attack the person, not the stupid idea, for that to be true. The closest thing to attacking a person here is to point out the fact of having based a life on a load of hooey. And it is a view that is held without a shred of evidence.

                Telling the truth is not mocking.

              • rickflick
                Posted January 1, 2017 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

                Historian: Yes, you’ve identified the best way to approach someone about their sincerely mistaken idea that the moon is not made of cheese, but what if you suspect out-and-out fraud? Does a TV preacher asking the elderly poor to go to their cookie jars and send them their last emergency five dollar bill deserve such deferential treatment? How about the archbishop of child fiddling who eventually is called to the Vatican to protect the reputation of all the sincerely deluded? I reserve contempt and scorn for these people and reserve the right to mock them in the hopes that others will be alerted to the fraud.

              • GBJames
                Posted January 1, 2017 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

                “…mock them in the hopes that others will be alerted to the fraud.”

                Indeed. The main purpose of mocking religious claptrap is to influence 3rd parties who might think a moment or two about the absurdity of that-which-is-mocked.

  15. Posted December 31, 2016 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    “a sentiment that believers deserve mockery or, if one is feeling generous, pity”

    I’m sick of this “poor innocent believers” schtick. When the oppressed raise a shield, the oppressor calls it a sword and cries “I’m under attack”. Daring to question is called “strident” and calling for equality considered “oppression”. After tossing the monkey from your back, the monkey wimpers and asks “But why did you hurt me?” And those who have grown comfortable colluding with private disbelief but pubic “agnosticism” lash out the harshest at those who dare challenge the status quo. I was looking forward to reading this article as I hold Compolo in high regard, but you’ve, instead, saved me from a poisonous diatribe.

    • Posted December 31, 2016 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

      The prevailing sentiment is that bogus, counterfactual beliefs deserve mockery and that believers are worth enlightening – and have the capacity to be enlightened.


  16. zoolady
    Posted December 31, 2016 at 3:31 pm | Permalink


  17. keith Cook ¿
    Posted December 31, 2016 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Emotive as it is, it is sheer frustration to remain reserved and controlled when faith rules decision making of individuals and states and further reduce humankind to a bunch of pathetic morons. We are quite capable of that without religion. With the evidence so overwhelming to the contrary and unless one is a recognised speaker of note, mockery is a welcome relief and of course nothing changes except upsetting geezers like Oppenheimer… oh dear, nevermind.
    It could be construed as being bullies to the faithful after all they come in all varitie0s, nice , bad, some very bad and everything in between but Oppenheimer needs to remember it is not the person, it is the redundant ideology that is being dissed.
    How do we move forward shackled to fairytales..

  18. ploubere
    Posted December 31, 2016 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    The comment I posted on the article:

    I don’t get all the snide comments about atheism and atheists, implying that all are harsh, misogynistic and mostly male nerds. Atheism is a term that simply means lacking a belief in a deity or deities: a-theism. There are no defining characteristics or personalities that accompany that simple commonality, and it’s not a dogma or set of beliefs. It’s simply a rejection of unproven assertions.

    Instead, I would propose common characteristics of those who denigrate all atheists: snide, judgmental and somewhat ignorant of what they are criticizing.

  19. Joseph Stans
    Posted December 31, 2016 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    The NYT has become too smarmy for me.

    • Filippo
      Posted December 31, 2016 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

      “The NYT has become too smarmy for me.”

      All too often, how something “seems” to a NY Times reporter is apparently a reportable “fact.”

    • Posted January 1, 2017 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      It seems that left-leaning periodicals that I, while disagreeing with much in them, regarded as serious, are in a fast decline. First the Guardian, now the NYT.

  20. Posted December 31, 2016 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    “Well pardon me, but I’m not aware of any Big Name Atheists who spend all their time simply going after religion—and really, do they all imply that believers deserve mockery and pity?”

    This mockery thing really highlights the problem with religious thought, since even the non-religious bridle at the religious being mocked, because of the privileged position of religion in society.

    And that, surely, is the motivation behind any calls to mock, such as there are from new atheists. So long as cartoonists and film directors are still being killed by gunmen for disrespecting religion, such mockery is not *gratuitous*. It’s not because the mockery necessarily does any good (although it might); it’s because it’s a normal part of human interaction and we don’t ring-fence any other areas of discourse from ridicule, so why should we ring-fence religion?

    We should need a very strong argument to privilege this one very active area of our political lives above all others. And religious arguments simply don’t justify that privilege.

    So this is not a call to mock belief and believers, but to not not mock religious belief and believers, just as we would not not mock the beliefs and believers of any other facts about the world, if we found them ridiculous. We could even be wrong to find them ridiculous; so then we would be worth ridiculing. So it goes.

    • Posted December 31, 2016 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

      I think you are not not right.


    • rickflick
      Posted December 31, 2016 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

      I think you are more or less right. I think it’s often a good idea to stress the difference between bad ideas and people who might unknowingly espouse those views. But that’s not always the case.
      The way the Hitch mocked Jerry Falwell at his death, I found quite funny. “If you gave Falwell an enema he could be buried in a matchbox.”
      He called Falwell a contemptible little toad, a charlatan. I quite agree with this sort of mockery. What Hitch accomplished with this sort of humor is to deny the fawning respect people automatically assign to those who affix “the reverend” in front of their name. He also drew attention to his life as a fraudulent bible pounder. No one else accomplished this so succinctly.

  21. kelskye
    Posted December 31, 2016 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    To identify as an atheist or a humanist seems to me to be missing the point. Neither is a matter of identity. An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe there is a god, while a humanist is someone who believes that value ought to spring from a sympathetic understanding of the human condition. Arguing for atheistic conclusions, humanist values, and for secularism (the separation of church and state) are all parts of the cultural conversation at present. The “new atheists” make humanist and secularist points in their presentations anyway.

    The day identity politics finally dies, the better off we will all be.

  22. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 3:28 am | Permalink

    Language is tricky, especially about words like atheism and humanism (or religion). Everybody brings their own experience to debates about definitions. Which is why I try to avoid being tagged as ‘An Atheist’ or ‘A Humanist’ although I might reasonable claim to being both.

    I’ll point out one organisation in the nearby town where I spent my employed life – the Leicester Secular Society. Set up in 1851(!)it has the aim of “…advocating and campaigning for an inclusive and plural society free from religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination.” This seems to me to be a less divisive and more inclusive way forward.

    You can find plenty of information about it on the interwebs.

  23. Kevin
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    Mark Oppenheimer lives a very different life than mine. I too could write an article based on my life’s perspective and it would be provincial.

    For one, he either does not understand science or chooses to ignore its fundamental relation to how religion will fade.

  24. Posted January 1, 2017 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    This seems somewhat relevant to one of the discussions above: The dark rigidity of fundamentalist rural America: a view from the inside.


    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Ant, fantastic article. Everyone here should read it (but this comment is probably too far down the line to be seen).

  25. Christopher Bonds
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Hitchens, for instance, gave his moving final talk in Houston about not relying on scripture or authority, but learning to think for oneself.

    That’s it. Religion says in effect that we are incapable of thinking for ourselves, and if we believe that we are, we are deluded, benighted, (“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”), etc.

    • Christopher Bonds
      Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      I would add that, according to Christianity, we are not only incapable of thinking for ourselves, but we will NEVER be capable of doing so.

  26. Marilee Lovit
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Oppenheimer wrote, “Atheists and agnostics have long tried to rebottle religion: to get the community and the good works without the supernatural stuff. It has worked about as well as nonalcoholic beer.”

    Not all atheists are trying to rebottle anything. Some of us just walk away from the bar and find other things more interesting.

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