In 2016, I was invited to speak at a conference for Humanist Students UK (the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies, as it was called at the time) at the University of Sheffield. I was dating an English guy then and was excited to share my enjoyment of networking with humanists. He was pretty skeptical about humanism, but I was confident I could show him a good time.
I didn’t know many people attending this conference, but that was no problem! I know lots of incredible people in the secular movement who have been good friends for years. After all, atheists and humanists are all decent people, right?
Well, no. Not all of them.
I arrived at this conference with my then-boyfriend and was quickly disappointed by how unwelcome I felt by some of the angriest atheists I’d ever met.
It was painfully apparent that these folks weren’t really interested in relationship-building. They also didn’t seem very interested in exploring various avenues to do good in the world. I quickly discovered that this group preferred sitting around and bitching about religious people ad infinitum.
While there’s certainly a time and a place for venting about religion, when there is no firm stop to this venting, it gets toxic. Frankly, being in a group constantly tearing down and never building back up is a miserable experience.
I’d never been in such a toxic environment of atheists before, and I grew up atheist.
I was also appalled that a group of students took the British-status-quo-approach of referring to themselves as if they were the only humanist students in the world. I was there to speak on behalf of an international humanist organization for young people, and there they were, speaking as if young humanists didn’t exist outside their tiny little island.
I’d expect this behavior from older privileged atheists and humanists, but students? WTF?
So after socializing with this group, I wrote my speech accordingly.
I attempted to impart two meaningful points about our secular movement:
- You, Humanist Students UK, are not the only young humanists in the world, and there are a lot of exciting opportunities to connect with non-British humanists and atheists. I would be happy to help facilitate these connections.
- At some point, you need to stop sitting around complaining about religion and get out to make a positive impact in the community. The community needs to see that you are here and can do lots of good.
They did not seem to like this speech, and I was not invited back.
My then-boyfriend used this experience as evidence that he could never become involved with a humanist community. And I didn’t blame him for drawing that conclusion. These people were so miserable to be around that we ended up leaving the conference early.
When I reflect on this experience, I can now identify my mistake. Like many others in the secular community, I assumed goodness based on their beliefs rather than their values. I conflated what they considered “true” with what they considered “good.”
The secular community can agree that there is good without a god. But why do we never address the “bad without a god?”
Belief and value are not synonymous
We, non-religious folks, seem to have no issue pointing out this lack of synonymity regarding religious folk.
If we see a Jesus fish decal on the door of a business, we’ll quickly point out that it doesn’t necessarily mean that the business has good values. But if we hear someone is an atheist, we make groundless assumptions that they have good values based on their lack of belief.
“Atheist” does not mean “good person.” It means you don’t believe in a god. And as already demonstrated in my story, you can be an atheist lacking in good values.
The philosophy I grew up with at the Ethical Society of St. Louis not only acknowledges that beliefs and values are different but also prioritizes them appropriately:
Deed before creed.
In other words, what you do and how you act are always more important than the beliefs that led you to those choices.
Put another way; impact matters more than intent.
And yet another way: I don’t care what your beliefs are. If you have shitty values, I don’t want to be your friend.
We, as non-religious people, often call on the religious to take accountability for the worst people their community produces. So why are we not doing the same thing in our community?
I want to extend the benefit of the doubt to those UK humanist students who made me feel unwelcome in 2016 and imagine their values have improved since then. I certainly wasn’t a great version of myself in university. We all learn better in one way or another, especially if we’re committed to doing better.
But many atheists don’t improve their values.
Our secular communities revere atheists with poor values
Why are so many of us so quick to defend atheists who have obvious problematic views and behaviors?
Richard Dawkins is one of the most popular atheist authors of all time. Yet, he has a severe issue with how he regards transgender people, among other marginalized groups, and how he handles criticism.
Sam Harris is one of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheist movement, yet he’s a perpetrator of white supremacy and dangerous conspiracy theories.
Then there’s Steven Pinker, who has a lot of problematic views but is particularly nasty towards modern-day feminists.
Then, of course, I can’t forget Ex-President of American Atheists, David Silverman, who tweeted “Freedom of speech > Abortion rights.” right after Roe got overturned and then told me “losing choice is your fault.” (Yes, he blamed me for losing my right to an abortion.)
And with these guys, I’m only scratching the reeking surface of the rot within the movement.
Why do we continue to revere and platform these people when they are demonstrably awful people representing the movement?
How is defending any of these problematic atheists better than when Christians defend Joel Osteen, Billy Graham, or Donald Trump?
There are so many better secular folks out there
It continues to stun me that these men are prioritized over atheists with demonstrably better values and stellar track records of humanist deeds.
Why is Sikivu Hutchinson, an atheist who addresses racism within our movement, not prioritized over these racist atheists?
Why is Gulalai Ismail, a humanist forced to flee from state-sanctioned violence in Pakistan for advocating for girls’ education, not prioritized over these sexist atheists?
I could go on. The list of better candidates to be the face of the secular movement is long.
These are atheists who care about inequality, injustice, and violence. They care about uplifting the most marginalized among us.
Being a good person > being an atheist
If you made me choose between a friendship with an atheist who lacks good values and a Christian who shares good values, I would choose the Christian in a heartbeat.
And I do have Christian friends that share many of my humanist values. I may disagree with their beliefs, but that disagreement is far more manageable than a disagreement with an atheist about whether gender or racial inequality exists.
This is why I am cautious about befriending atheists, just like I am with anyone else. I can’t trust an atheist is worth befriending until I know their values and I’ve seen them in action:
“Yeah, you’re an atheist, but…
…do you acknowledge the complexity of gender identity and respect everyone’s pronouns?”
…are you aware of the challenges Black people face in our community, and are you committed to anti-racism?”
…are you also a feminist? Do you support a woman’s right to choose what she does with her body, including sex work?”
…how do you feel about extreme wealth disparity due to unfettered capitalism?”
I no longer waste my time building relationships with folks who have rested their laurels on their atheist—or humanist—identity. I have discovered that these people do not enrich my life and do not feel good when I’m around them.
Identity alone is not proof of good values. And there are more important things to do than simply lack belief in a god.
So what kind of non-believer are you?
I hope you’re the kind who supports deed before creed because I probably want to be your friend.