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The Rise of Conservative Atheists

atheist dan piraro

Most atheists tend to skew to the left socially and politically. However, that doesn’t mean all atheists are liberals/progressives. Atheists are not a homogenous group. There’s a diversity of opinions on all sorts of things. Some atheists voted for Donald Trump and think his present legal troubles are a witch hunt. Other atheists are hardcore libertarians. Atheists as a demographic comprises all sorts of people with diverse beliefs.

In recent years, I have noticed a rise in conservatism among atheists. Just today I read a rant by an atheist who attacked “wokeism,” particularly transgender ideology and people who refuse to stand for the playing of the National Anthem. This particular atheist believes that there’s no such thing as transgender people. Another atheist was glad the U.S. women’s team lost their World Cup match. Why? Many of them refused to participate in singing the national anthem. Jesus, some of them didn’t put their hands over their hearts!

Many atheists have had to deal with Evangelicals who deny that they are atheists; that atheists don’t really exist. Want to piss an atheist off? Just tell her you deny and reject her self-identification. When someone tells me she is an atheist, agnostic, Christian, Buddhist, or some other self-identifying label, I believe her. If someone tells me he is gay, bisexual, pansexual, heterosexual, asexual, or transgender, I believe him. How someone identifies himself doesn’t materially affect me in any way.

Yet, some atheists refuse to live and let live. They revere Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, and J.K. Rowling for their stands against “transgender ideology.” While it is certainly true that transgender people are more visible now in the United States, this does not mean this is something new. Transgender people have always lived among us. Much like the other letters in the LGBTQ acronym, transgender people have long had to live in the shadows. It seems some atheists don’t like the fact that transgender people are no longer willing to suffer in silence, locked in a prison not of their own making. I am sixty-six years old. Throughout my lifetime, various people groups have rebelled against being marginalized and being treated as less than or inferior. Once they gain some semblance of justice and equal protection under the law, these marginalized people have no intention of returning to their closets. And that’s exactly what some atheists advocate. They want icky transgender people to voluntarily return to their closets — out of sight, out of mind. And if transgenders refuse to do so? Conservative atheists support politicians, policies, and laws that will force them to do so.

It seems that these anti-trans atheists don’t care if their words and actions cause harm to transgender people (and their families). No longer interested in thoughtful discussions around the intersection of transgender people and sports/medicine, these atheists call names and post memes. One atheist said that anyone who thinks biological sex and gender are not one and the same is anti-science.

Other atheists view themselves as flag-waving patriots, not much different from the faux patriots found among Trump supporters. Some of these atheist patriots voted for Trump twice — an action I will never understand. These atheists demand all Americans stand and sing the Star Spangled Banner — that people who refuse to do so are unAmerican. Some of them even think everyone should put their right hands over their hearts and say the Pledge of Allegiance — maybe skipping the mention of God. Evidently, freedom of expression and free speech doesn’t apply when it comes to masturbating to American imperialism.

I don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance, nor do I sing the Star Spangled Banner. Often, I don’t stand for either. The reasons for this are many (and not the primary focus of this post), but to suggest that my refusal to mouth a Christian nationalist pledge and sing a War of 1812 song means I am unpatriotic is laughable.

One atheist suggested that the women’s soccer team “embarrassed” the United States on a world stage by refusing to fully participate in the national anthem ritual. I didn’t feel embarrassed one bit, and I suspect many other Americans didn’t either. How about we have serious discussions about a plethora of embarrassing American actions and inactions that should cause thoughtful people to hang their heads in shame? Quite frankly, there’s not a lot to cheer about these days. Maybe you disagree. Fine, but suggesting that I am not patriotic or that I am not a loyal American if I don’t support your political and social agenda is not only absurd, it is un-American.

I have lost readers over the years due to my politics. Not much I can do about that. I am not going to change what I believe. I am a committed liberal/progressive/socialist/pacifist. I’m convinced that these political views best fit with my humanist beliefs. I am sure some readers will disagree with me. That’s fine. What pisses me off is when these disagreements are turned into attacks on my character. The same goes for my support of transgender people. If I dare suggest that they have the same rights and freedoms as other Americans, I am somehow supporting an immoral agenda. That these attacks come from atheists is troubling, but not surprising. There’s a rightward drift among some atheists and that will bring me into increasing conflict with them. This is unavoidable. Atheists are growing into a diverse cohort, and that will bring disagreement and conflict. What matters is how we interact and engage with people with whom we have political and social disagreements. Unfortunately, we live in the era of memes, and not friendly, thoughtful discussion.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    Rand Valentine

    Really interesting points, Bruce. The vote is upon us! I trust that you and other Ohioans who believe in democracy will be out to vote tomorrow, voting no on “issue 1.” The measure is a classic Republican effort to undermine majority vote. Here in Wisconsin we live under a complete abrogation of democracy.

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    Thanks Bruce, My family has a young woman who is trans, and her dad’s side of the family thinks she’s evil. Very hard for her and unnecessary. But they are traditional (not social justice liberal) Catholics, so nothing anyone says will sway their opinion.

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    This is one area where I do veer a little away from modern progressivism. I don’t deny the existence of transgender people in the least, and would support them in every way, accepting the way in which they identify and any medical interventions they feel appropriate for themselves. However, I do not accept that gender and biological sex are the same. This is where being a biologist (and here I’m thinking Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne) muddies the water. There are only two sexes: sex is binary. Of course there are many people for whom there is a bodily mix up of cells and gametes (I think that covers it fairly), but this doesn’t alter the fact that it’s a bodily mix up of binary cells: those binary cells don’t mutate into other sexes. It’s gender that is an issue here, not biological sex.

    There are then issues that lead out from here, such as whether transgender women can compete in women’s sports, or whether biological women should entitled to their own ‘spaces’, or at what age people should be allowed to begin interventions. These are discussions it is becoming impossible to have because of the sheer polarisation of the views. Dawkins has occasionally allowed himself to be carried too far into the transgender doesn’t exist camp, but he’s actually very clear that he does accept its existence, and JK Rowling has been demonised for, again, fairly reasonable points, but in an area where reason and moderation just aren’t being tolerated.

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      Bruce Gerencser

      I’m confused on one point. Are you saying gender and sex are one and the same? That seems to be Dawkins’ position, yes?

      My understanding is that gender and biological sex are two different things. Broadly, humans are either male or female, with deviation for some from the norm. Gender is a social construct with a wide spectrum.

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        Sorry Bruce if I didn’t make myself clear. I’m absolutely saying that sex and gender are different. I say that sex is what you are, but gender is how you feel.

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      Geoff, I do not understand how there can be a discussion when the discussion is whether or not trans people should be allowed to exist. All of the things you mentioned are being used as reasons to push trans people out of existence. The goal is not to shove trans people back into the closet, the goal is to eliminate them.

      I cannot agree that Rowling is being “demonized”. She is staunchly anti-trans and her anti-trans views grow over time. Sure, she has “trans friends” but we know how that plays out. She is in the group that believes trans women are men looking for excuses to invade women’s spaces, and that trans women are just another form a misogyny that seeks to take over female roles..just one more form of male control. She also apparently supports the idea that there is a concerted effort to push lesbians to become trans, and as a result many lesbians are transitioning, and somehow this is discriminating against lesbians and women. Her views are horrid and solidly anti trans. I did give here the benefit of the doubt when she made her first comment, but as time passes her anti-trans bigotry is quite clear.

      So, there will be no discussion until trans people (and non binary or any other gender) are allowed to exist and be equal. “Reason and moderation” will never exist as long as the topic is eradication.

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        I’m sorry Sage, but I don’t agree you are representing Rowling’s views properly. The trouble is she’s been so subjected to attacks on all fronts that it’s difficult for people who haven’t watched this from the beginning properly to glean her views. Her position is that she’s taken a stance in regard to more traditional views of women but has absolutely not denied the rights of transgender people, nor denied their existence, though she has committed the cardinal sin of arguing that there may be limits on the extent to which the rights of transgender people should be interchangeable with people of the respective biological sex. This latter is the source of her demonisation, and I am not commenting on her views in this respect.

        Here, incidentally, is one of her first statements in which she attempted to explain her position but which riled people even more

        “ I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them. I’d march with you if you were discriminated against on the basis of being trans. At the same time, my life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it’s hateful to say so.”

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          Ok, so when is she coming to the United States to March in the states where trans people are being made illegal? When will she speak up against Desantis and his ilk? When will she stand up for trans legislators that are not permitted to enter the legislative chamber?

          I have not seen her make any effort to stand up for trans people. She remains quiet and doing so looks the other way while people continue to attack and belittle trans people. She openly supports others who claim lesbians are being confused by trans ideology and pressured into transitioning. She was one of the first voices in taking rights away from trans people. She supports professor who are openly and virulently anti trans but hides it behind a claim of not wanting to use pronouns.

          When she actually stands up for trans people, then we can talk about how she defends them.

          In the mean time, I suggest everyone take a deep dive into the views she has expressed over the years…

          In return, I will gladly read and consider any strong support she has given to trans people.

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    ‘…Trans folk have always existed….’ I spent parts of my childhood with an uncle and aunt who ran a funeral business, late 1950s, early1960s. My uncle’s sister, Joan, liked to wear trousers, (more unusual then,) cut her hair very short and be called Joey. I knew nothing about gender identity. Kids didn’t ask awkward questions of adults back then. I overhead 2 cleaners gossiping about her whispering she ‘bound her breasts’ and ‘I blame her mum, she should have put her in pretty frocks when she was a child.’ They also said she’d been ‘teased’ in the factory where she worked, (bullied probably,) so my uncle gave her a job in his business Young as I was, I could see how happy she was to drive a hearse or walk in front of a coffin, dressed black frock coat and top hat and she loved it when mourners thought she was a man and thanked ‘him’ for his service. I guess she lived the best life she could hope for, employed by my uncle, protected and allowed to legitimately wear male garb at work. There must be many who weren’t so fortunate – and worry about the present climate of attacks on trans people.

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    Melissa Montana

    Long before the controversy over transgender people, I was getting sick of the atheist community on Twitter. Besides a lot of whackadoodle opinions, it was the rage and hatred of anything they disagreed with. Atheists are human, and prone to the same irrational emotions that religious people have. Some are thoughtful conservatives, some are RW nuts, and some are just plain crazy. One told me an atheist never became a suicide bomber. I say, wait a few years.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Nothing mentioned in this post surprises me. For most of the time I was an Evangelical, I was also a Libertarian. I knew others who similarly paired their religious and social/economic/political beliefs. For them, their “holy books,” after the Bible, were “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged.” Both were written by that high priestess of Libertarianism, Ayn Rand—who professed to atheism and was homophobic.

    (While I agreed with the ideas she overtly and implicitly expressed, I never had the same reverence for her novels: She was a lousy writer; her characters were cardboard cut-outs.)

      • Avatar
        MJ Lisbeth

        Scott—I agree. Also, one of the biggest wastes of talent I ever saw was Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper as Dominique Francon and Howard Roark, respectively, in a film version of “The Fountainhead.”

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    I remember maybe three years ago, when Patheos still had a non religious section (since deleted), there was a most annoying commenter. He was in his eighties, always wrote in caps (claimed because of his eyesight), and was the most vicious yet conceited commenter (of the kind) I’ve ever read. He had every feature that one associates with being an ultra right wing troll, especially a constant reference to his having been a paratrooper, and how brave he’d been, and how pathetic everyone else was by comparison. He was an atheist, however. Anyone who wasn’t an atheist was stupid and deluded, with no attempt at nuance. It’s as though he was an ultra right extremist who had something of an epiphany when it came to religion, but never tempered any of his other views.

    I’ve checked a few times on Disqus to see if he’s said anything on any other forums and he hasn’t. I suspect age may be the issue.

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    Anyone can be an a$$hole regardless of whether they believe in deities or not.

    My thought about gender identity – if you need to know what my gender identity is in order to treat me a certain way, then you have issues. What I mean by that is that if you feel the need to alter how you treat me because you think I am a woman, you’re probably an a$$hole. Just treat me like a fellow human and move on. If we aren’t going to have sex or try to procreate, what does it matter to you what I am?

    As for transgender athletes, I think there needs to be a lot more research done before we make generalized conclusions. I suspect that’s more sport specific – that it could make a difference in some sports but not others. Frankly, I don’t care if a transgender athlete competes with me – let’s go! I control how I train – I can’t control how another person trains. But…culture war arguments don’t leave much room for the nuances regarding topics like this.

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    Karen the rock whisperer

    The thing is, we are all human. Our brains allow us to be brilliant at some things, and really fogged at others. Thanks to the connectivity provided by the internet, we can always find others as fogged as we are, and encourage the fogginess in each other. Intractable positions get lots of reinforcement.

    I am very afraid of what this implies for the future success of democracies, especially the US. Back in 1999 or 2000, I bought my elderly parents a desktop computer. I taught my mother how to play games on it, and wrote a Perl* script that my dad could invoke to print out the closing values of the stocks he was invested in. I didn’t introduce them to the internet at large, and that was partly that they were challenged to use the device, and partly that I didn’t want my mother, in particular, poking around at the then-nascent ‘net. She would’ve found trouble, having no rational filters and trusting everything she read. Nowadays, people that age are internet warriors, and can find lots of folks online who encourage their biases. It turns nice people without good filters into keyboard warriors, WHO VOTE.

    As far as being LGBTQ goes, how does someone else’s expression of sexual orientation or gender identity affect me? People are who they are, and I can’t do anything but support good people, fully accepting and supporting their race, culture of origin, sex, gender, physical ability, etc. That includes accepting that people who are not like me will have had different experiences with the mainstream culture than I’ve had. I’m willing to engage with people whose politics are different from mine, as long as the conversation stays polite and on track. Start yelling, calling me or other people names, wishing horrible outcomes for me and/or others, and the conversation is finished.

    Last week my housemate talked me into seeing the movie “Barbie”, which I enjoyed. On our way home, she asked me if I could identify the trans Barbie. I figured there was something I didn’t catch, but she said no, simply one of the actors** who played a Barbie happened to be a trans woman. Apparently she’s found some online offendedness at the idea. She told me the part the actor played, and I shrugged. It was a woman playing a woman’s part. Why the hell should care?

    *Perl is a computer scripting language. I was a computer engineer from the beginning of 1981 through the end of 2001.

    **I’ve observed that people of all genders who act are now called actors. By using that term to describe a woman actor, I’m not denying her gender.

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      Wow Karen, Perl?? Your nerdiness is showing!

      I missed the trans actor, but I am glad she was there. I thought the diversity of Barbies was great, and this just adds to it.

      I do not understand why these Christian groups are losing their minds over trans actors or the manliness of Ken and all related things, but have said nothing about the very racy and suggestive jokes that are in the dialog.

  10. Avatar
    Bruce Gerencser

    By Claire Lampen of The Cut

    On Wednesday, the New York Times received two open letters — one from advocacy and human-rights groups and another from hundreds of contributors — urging the paper to reform its approach to covering stories about transgender people. According to GLAAD, the Times has routinely adopted a devil’s-advocate approach in articles that question medically accepted standards for gender-affirming care. Its reporting has been used by conservative politicians to justify new laws targeting trans youth, and it has published pearl-clutching columns worrying that gender-inclusive language amounts to the erasure of women or that giving children more latitude to express their gender undoes some of feminism’s gains.

    For all of those reasons, GLAAD’s first request of the Times is that it “stop printing biased anti-trans stories” immediately. Instead, one day after the letters went public, the paper published another divisive opinion by Pamela Paul, the columnist who authored both of the takes mentioned above. On Thursday, Paul came out with “In Defense of J.K. Rowling,” an op-ed arguing that criticism of the author — whose definition and understanding of womanhood seems to hinge on biological sex — as transphobic is neither fair nor accurate. Paul doesn’t take the time to analyze the Harry Potter author’s actual comments but nonetheless concludes the following:

    Nothing Rowling has said qualifies as transphobic. She is not disputing the existence of gender dysphoria. She has never voiced opposition to allowing people to transition under evidence-based therapeutic and medical care. She is not denying transgender people equal pay or housing. There is no evidence that she is putting trans people “in danger,” as has been claimed, nor is she denying their right to exist.

    No, she simply doesn’t seem to believe that trans women really are women — an attitude that denies the validity of their existence. When Rowling flags herself as an ally — when she writes that “trans people need and deserve protection” or “I want trans women to be safe” — she routinely follows up with some form of “but” that draws a thick line between trans women and all other women. That is why some of Rowling’s former fans have branded her a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), and while she dislikes the label, she shares the gender-essentialist view at its core: that womanhood is fixed, intrinsic, and anatomically determined. Rowling has stuck to this line for years, even though doctors and scientists agree that sex assignment and gender are not the same thing.

    The first controversy came in December 2019, when Rowling tweeted her support for Maya Forstater, a British researcher whose contract was not renewed when the think tank that employed her found “offensive and exclusionary” language — such as her statement that “men cannot change into women” or “transwomen are male,” to name just a few examples — in her social-media and Slack history. In Rowling’s retelling, this was a case of a woman being “forced” out of her job “for stating that sex is real” — an oversimplification but a telling one. Trans-exclusionary feminism relies on the idea that “sex is a biological fact and is immutable,” as Forstater would put it, and that it determines whether a person is a man or a woman.

    Operating on that premise, Rowling has identified menstruation as a hallmark of womanhood, wondering what to call “people who menstruate” in a June 2020 tweet. “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people,” she wrote, “Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” This, too, received pushback: Having a uterus is a prerequisite for getting a period, and while many people in that camp are cisgender women, many others are trans men, nonbinary people, the list goes on. At the same time, lots of cisgender women can’t or don’t get periods for a wide range of biological reasons including menopause, an overactive thyroid, and polycystic ovary syndrome. In response to the criticism of her quip, Rowling reiterated her stance: “If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.”

    The truth is that sex isn’t the decisive factor in determining identity that Rowling thinks it is. What of people born with XXY chromosomes, androgen insensitivity syndrome, or ambiguous genitalia? But Rowling won’t let it go, and her obsession seems rooted in a misplaced fear — that trans women will harass, assault, even rape “natal girls and women” if they are allowed to use the same protected spaces. In an essay addressing the June 2020 Twitter controversy, “TERF Wars,” Rowling acknowledged that trans people, and particularly trans women, face disproportionate rates of violence. According to a recent study, they are more than four times as likely as cisgender people to experience rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault — including at the hands of a partner. But, Rowling wrote, “When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman — and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones — then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.” It’s not, though. There’s no evidence to suggest that trans people are committing crimes in bathrooms.

    Every time she starts talking about trans issues, Rowling seems to resurface another damaging and debunked misconception. She has claimed, erroneously, that youths who transition often “grow out of their dysphoria” and regret their decision — an attitude that is, right now, guiding Republicans as they restrict access to gender-affirming care for minors. She has speculated that hormone therapy is just “a new kind of conversion therapy for young gay people.” In that sense, beliefs like Rowling’s are dangerous — particularly when they’re peddled by a figure with her level of reach and influence.

    Paul and Rowling are both cisgender women — a status for which neither is under attack (I say all of this as a cisgender woman myself), but which naturally means they can’t speak with authority on what it means to be a transgender woman. Yet when Rowling’s trans readers say, “What you said hurt me and here’s why,” she seems to skip over introspection and springs to self-defense. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, yes, but opinions can be offensive too. They can be bigoted. They can be factually unsupported. They can be damaging. They can do harm — intentionally or not. That’s something Paul and the Times don’t seem to grasp

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    Barbara L. Jackson

    I am entering my comment two days after the comments I have seen.

    I agree deciding one is atheist does not make someone fit in a particular file as described below.

    What we need is a social idea of gender which is more live and let live. People are different from each other. The ideas involved in Gender are determined mostly by the general society than by individuals themselves. We seem to need to have a set of folders in which everyone can be filed. We should allow there to be an OTHER file where some people can exist.

    Let’s quit attacking other, live and let live unless you try to shove me in a folder, where I do not agree I belong.

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Bruce Gerencser