There is a problem in the atheist community. We’ve had this problem since the boom of “New Atheism” in the mid-2000s, though it wasn’t something most atheists noticed or commented on until years later.
Modern atheism was born with the problem. Ours is a movement birthed out of a wave of anger and frustration. It was justified anger and frustration, to be sure: We saw the callous brutality of the 9/11 attacks, and then we saw the imbecilic piety offered in response by the leaders of the time, and we were outraged. Justifiably outraged. We recognized both al-Qaida’s fanaticism and George W. Bush’s prattling, hyper-patriotic homilies as two facets of the same turd. And we found cause and community in identifying that turd, and standing up for more humane, more rational principles instead.
Ours was a movement born out of justified anger. But that didn’t stop some unjustified anger from slipping into our community during the chaos, and quietly infecting our ranks.
Last week, Atheist Republic, perhaps the largest Canadian atheist internet community, published a “joke” image on Twitter. The image shows two views of the Great Mosque of Mecca; one on a “normal” day, and one while the venue was closed for a disinfectant cleaning. Variants of the latter image have been shared widely, because it’s so shocking to see the area around the Kaaba (nearly) vacant.
The “joke” in the image was the superimposing of the logo of the disinfectant brand Dettol.
Atheist Republic has since deleted the tweet, but luckily there were screen captures taken:
Behold the enlightened, rational comedy stylings of Atheist Republic.
Now, this is not really about Atheist Republic specifically. They just happen to be a convenient whipping boy for a much larger problem, both because they’re so big, and because their shenanigans are so vile.
And their behaviour since posting the image has also been predictably vile. At first they defended it – belligerently, natch; people were posting quite reasonable and intelligently argued objections to the image, including some Muslims and ex-Muslims saying they were hurt by it, and they were mocked by AR and its supporters for, I dunno, having feelings or something. I’d love to show you these exchanges, but, again, tweet deleted.
But again, this is not about Atheist Republic specifically, or even about Armin Navabi or any of the personalities associated with it. This is about a systemic problem in atheism today. That a major atheist organization could ever think it’s okay to post such an idiotic and hateful image like that is a signal of deeper rot.
Before I go any further, though, I have to deal with the gibbering idiots who will try to argue that the “joke” above is “just a joke”, that it has nothing to do with intolerance or hate, or that I’m making something out of nothing by basing my argument on it.
When someone says “that joke is racist”, perhaps the single, stupidest “rebuttal” possible is to say “but it was just a joke”. Do you… do you really not understand that something can be both a joke… and wildly racist? Do you seriously not understand that? Do you not understand that “comedy” is in fact the most popular and most insidious way of promoting and perpetuating intolerance? Everything from “dumb blonde” jokes to blackface; targets of bigotry have always been victimized via “comedy”.
Then comes the next level of the apologetics: “Okay, the joke may be ‘racist’, but that doesn’t mean it’s either inspired by or likely to promote hate or intolerance.” First, let’s deal with the dim-wittedness of the second part of that argument. Nobody is claiming that anyone will see a hateful meme then immediately fly off on a killing spree. The argument isn’t that bigoted “jokes” cause hate… it’s that bigoted jokes promote hate. If someone is not already stewing in anti-Muslim hate, then “jokes” like this probably won’t turn them into islamophobes. (Though they may desensitize them to anti-Muslim hate, making them more likely to shrug and let it happen even right in front of them.) But if someone is already inclined to hate Muslims – whatever the cause of it – then “jokes” like this validate that hatred. It makes them feel like their hatred and intolerance toward Muslims is okay, and even shared by others. Alone, a single anti-Muslim “joke” probably won’t trigger an act of violence against Muslims… but in someone already predisposed to violence, it can tilt the scale in a dangerous direction.
As for the first part, that comes back to another widely held misunderstanding of intolerance. The vast majority of intolerance is not active hate. Actually going out and yelling slurs at Muslims – never mind physically attacking them – is something that only the most extreme bigots will ever do. It’s only very rarely that someone even gets a chance to take any kind of direct prejudicial action against a Muslim (or, even more rarely, Muslims at large). Most bigotry is done more subtly, and usually passively. The most common manifestation of hate is apathy. Most bigots will never do anything actively to harm Muslims… instead they’ll just sit back and do nothing while harm is being done, because they don’t care.
And that’s exactly what’s going on here. It’s not that Atheist Republic is actively promoting harm against Muslims. They’re just passively making the idea less shocking and offensive. They’re using their power, privilege, and platform to popularize the idea that it’s okay to think of Muslims as something less than human. As germs that can be cleaned away with a disinfectant.
Oh, of course, that wasn’t their intention when posting the “joke”. Their intention was to be “edgy”. It’s not that their intentions were evil. It’s that something hateful and rotten was done because they were callous, insensitive… and, yes, stupid, but we’ll get back to the stupid part in a bit.
I mean, what message is anyone supposed to take away from that “joke”, other than the “hilarious” notion that Muslims can be cleaned away with a disinfectant? What is the point being made? The most charitable reading I can come to is that Atheist Republic thinks it’s funny that the Muslims running the Great Mosque of Mecca are actually doing the socially responsible thing, given the current pandemic. Which, frankly, is a pretty stupid and offensive position to take. (I suppose if you’re really determined, you can come away with a reading that it’s ironic that Allah didn’t do anything to stop the pandemic… but that’s frankly incoherent in any case, and it certainly isn’t something that comes naturally out of the image. Like, what does superimposing the Dettol logo have to do with any of that?)
But of course, the obvious interpretation of the image – the one I have no doubt that Atheist Republic with strain magnificently to deny – is that Muslims are like germs, and disinfectant cleans them away. Great comedy there, eh?
But – yet again – this isn’t really about the boneheads at Atheist Republic. (Think it’s unfair to call them boneheads? Oh, please, just be patient. I’ll get to it.) What this is really about, dear reader, is you.
You see, the reason a major atheist organization like Atheist Republic can think it’s okay to post such a disgusting and hateful “joke”… and the reason they can get away with it without consequence… is because you… are letting them.
For far too long, we atheists have turned a blind eye to the hateful bullshit in our community. We let people go off on ignorant and intolerant rants about religious people. It’s actually quite common that I see someone pop into Canadian Atheist’s social spaces – especially on Facebook – and fire off a stupid comment about how nice it would be if all religious people were wiped out. Nobody bats an eye at comments like that, because they’re “normal” in our community now. It’s just another day when someone worms into our discussion spaces and rants about using force of law to persecute religious people. Or how they’re all dumb, deluded, immoral, or dangerous. That’s just regular chat in atheist spaces.
Here’s the thing, though. I know – both from survey data and from my own interactions with Canadian atheists over the years – that that is not how most Canadian atheists think. I know that most Canadian atheists aren’t fans of religion, but they’re not intolerant of its existence, or of the existence of religious people. I know most Canadian atheists understand the difference between disagreeing with religious people, and hating them. And I know most Canadian atheists prefer not to hate.
But none of that matters if that majority of decent, tolerant Canadian atheists do nothing when they see hate start popping up in our community spaces. Most Canadian atheists would be appalled if I accused them of thinking that the idea that Muslims can be equated to germs is acceptable… yet if you see that idea being spread in your community spaces, and you say nothing… then you do think it is acceptable. The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.
This is where a lot of Canadian atheists will try to shirk their responsibility, saying things like, “I may be an atheist, but I’m not part of any community!” Or, “I used to be active in the atheist community but I walked away (because of all the hate and intolerance, usually).” Sorry, folks, that’s not how it works. We don’t accept that bullshit from Muslims who turn a blind eye to the bigotry and intolerance their communities, or who shrug and say that extremism isn’t their problem. You don’t need to be wearing a scarlet “A” pin on your jacket and going to conventions to be part of the community. Like it or not, groups like Atheist Republic are using you as the source of their power – they’re proudly waving around statistics about how many atheists there are in Canada, and they ain’t askin’ whether those atheists are fans of Atheist Republic or not. They’re claiming you as supporters, and your silence leaves their claim unchallenged.
Every one of us – everyone who is a Canadian atheist – has an obligation to defend what that stands for when we see it being usurped and abused for the purpose of hate. It doesn’t take much! All it takes is this: If you see someone spreading hate or intolerance in the name of atheism, call it out. Point others people you know to be decent at it, and let them challenge it, too. Just say: “This is not cool.” “This is ignorant.” “This is intolerant.”
“We should be better than this.”
We’ve been complacent so long, hate has a solid foothold in our community, so doing the right thing won’t be as easy as it should be. Be we need to start speaking out when we see hatred and intolerance promoted in our community spaces.
And here’s why:
Throughout this article, I’ve repeatedly called Atheist Republic particularly boneheaded for posting that “joke”… but I haven’t explained why. I haven’t explained why that “joke”, which would be offensive on any, was particularly problematic; why it was a big enough issue to warrant this article in response.
Look at the date that “joke” was posted; it’s helpfully included in the screenshot. Mean anything to you?
That “joke” about eradicating Muslims with disinfectant… was posted on the first anniversary of the deadliest islamophobic shooting attack in history: the Christchurch massacre.
Now, I don’t believe for a second that timing was intentional. I don’t believe Atheist Republic cared enough about the people they were dehumanizing to bother to note an anniversary like that (even though Armin Navabi was also personally impacted by it). But that’s how bigotry manifests: as not caring.
This is where atheism is at in 2020, thanks to our complacency. We have let hatred and intolerance take root in our circles. We are now a community where a major organization can post jokes about a minority being germs on the anniversary of a vicious, targeted attack, where a hundred people were hurt or killed. And we’re a community that just shrugs that off as good ol’ Armin bein’ Armin, no big deal.
Except we’re not that community, not really. That’s not who Canadian atheists really are.
But unless we start taking a stand, and speaking out when we see hatred and intolerance in our community, then that’s who we will become.
We should be better than this.