Rationality Rules, Trans Athletes, and the Atheist Community

The Fresh Perspective Podcast - Episode 14

How’s it going, everyone? I’m Nick and you are listening to the Fresh Perspective Podcast.

There is a YouTuber who I consider to be a fellow advocate for science, rationality, logic, reason, and skepticism by the name of Stephen Woodford. Although I don’t always agree with him, his channel called “Rationality Rules,” contains, in my opinion, several masterpieces of reasoned argument and careful thinking. But he has now come under fire and has become something of a heretic within many circles of the atheist community. He has been shamed, denounced, and harassed by many of his heroes, friends, and fellow atheists. Why? Because he recently made a video on the ongoing debate surrounding Transgender Athletes.

If you are not interested in YouTube drama or in the schisms of the atheist community, I can totally understand that. Feel free to give this episode a pass. But I wanted to add my voice to this conversation because it reveals the ugly underbelly of a community that has traditionally been accepting, inviting, and nonjudgmental.

In my opinion, Rationality Rules didn’t do anything wrong. He doesn’t deserve this kind of harassment and slanderous abuse. In this episode, we will briefly explore the Rationality Rules Trans issues debacle, and the growing problem of thought policing, deplatforming, ideological purity tests, and political witch hunts within the Atheist community.

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In my first episode, “Who we Are and What we Do,” I said that we would not shy away from trying to uncover the facts and moral ideas behind political issues of the day. Well, here is my first attempt at contributing something useful to a political discussion. I sincerely hope that my ideas will be helpful. Based on your comments and messages to me, my audience seems like a reasonable group, and I feel like that really allows me to wrestle with controversial issues. Many of you are better educated and wiser than me, I’m sure, on these issues, so I look forward to seeing what you can add to the conversation.

This episode is mainly an open letter to the atheist community. I’m an Atheist, but the Free Thought Form to which I belong is not necessarily an atheistic group. In it, we have people who believe in a god, people who don’t, people who believe in a more Vedic conception of god, and people who are not interested in the God question at all. I am actually really proud of that because that is exactly what we wanted. We really do want every kind of person to feel welcome at our meetings and share what they have to say.

I love my fellow Atheists. These are my people. These are many of my friends. But I am getting tired of this sort of thing. This situation with Rationality Rules reminds me of when Carl Benjamin (AKA YouTuber “Sargon of Akkad”) was invited to an atheist event in 2017, only to have all of the other prominent atheist speakers who were invited cancel their own presentations in protest. Sargon has been deplatformed, ostracized, denounced, and defamed by a large part of this community. Now, why is that? Was it because he has gone soft on his skepticism? Did he publically announce on his channel that he was born again in the blood of Christ and is now a believer? Did he somehow become “less atheist?” Did he break the law or injure someone? No, frankly, his crime is that he is politically not far enough left for many people’s tastes. In addition, His sense of humor is not to everyone’s liking (as is the case with any sense of humor) and he is unapologetic of his personal views.

Now I don’t personally agree with a lot of things Sargon says. Our politics and views on many issues are different. But what do his politics, his humor, and his outspoken nature have anything to do with his distinction as an Atheist? Not a thing, and that’s the problem.

Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris have often been described as the “four horsemen of atheism.” These are extremely intelligent men, public intellectuals, and prominent leaders in the so-called “New-Atheism” movement. But on more than one occasion, several of these distinguished individuals have not only criticized Christianity but have also committed the politically incorrect sin of criticizing Islam. You may ask, “What is the big problem here? If they are prominent atheists, can’t we expect them to attack ideas from all religions?” I think that is a reasonable question. If you are in the business of shooting down bad ideas, then why in the world would you give yourself an artificial blind-spot when it comes to a certain group of ideas?

For many people in the atheist community, these sorts of comments from prominent leaders are beyond the pale, a political transgression so egregious that I have, on many occasions, heard fellow atheists say something like “I can’t wait until these old white men can hurry up and die already and leave the leadership of new atheism to better people.”

To me, that is a disgusting thing to say. It is racist, sexist, and ageist. After all, the majority of the atheist community is united by our struggle to remain firm on our position when it comes to the greatest of all theological questions, despite the overwhelming majority of the world telling us that we are wrong. We aren’t a politically motivated group, and we certainly aren’t a type of cult that enforces a shared belief system that punishes wrong-thinking at every opportunity… Are we?

Transgender rights have made their way to the forefront of many political discussions in recent years. For me, it is impossible to touch on these issues without thinking about the trans people close to me and the love and support they need.

Because this is such a heated issue, I should continue by saying that trans people are, first and foremost, people. You may believe that their experience has nothing to do with mental health or biology. You may take issue with how they choose to present themselves to the world. You may disagree with how they self-identify. You may think that they are the most poorly understood and oppressed minority on earth. No matter what you believe, and no matter what political views you have on the matter, transgender people are human beings who should be treated with common decency with respect to their rights and their inherent worth as individuals.

If you are not familiar with what I mean by “inherent worth,” please give my other episode a listen titled, “What are you worth?”

If you have an irrational fear of trans people or a “transphobia,” the issue isn’t with the transgender community, it’s with you. If you feel any kind of hatred to someone just because they identify as a gender different from their biological sex, then you are the one with the real problem. Fear and hatred won’t solve society’s most important problems. That is the wrong path to take, and all forms of abuse, threats of violence, and other such nonsense are below all of us.

We don’t need to hate people, we don’t need to be afraid of people who wish us no harm, and we should never force people to think a certain way.

Rationality Rules, who I will call Steve, is not a transphobe or bigot. That just isn’t his message. It is wholly inconsistent with the image he genuinely presents to the online world. I have been watching him since he got started on YouTube, and his past videos really speak for themselves. In my opinion, mischaracterizing and misrepresenting someone’s beliefs and views, as Steve’s views have been mischaracterized and misrepresented, is a crime just as repugnant as mistreating a person who is transgender.

If you believe that misgendering a trans person is a hate-filled and heinous act, then don't you also believe that mischaracterizing and lying about a person’s belief is also doing something terribly wrong?

Some weeks ago, Steve uploaded a video on his channel discussing a controversial topic. He expressed his views articulately and boldly (as is his usual style) about transgender athletes. If you are unfamiliar with the debate surrounding this issue, it stems from a few situations that arise as a result of trans people competing in sports. If you were born male, but later in life, you identify as a female, then for all intents and purposes, you - scientifically speaking - have a body that still contains at least most of the biological characteristics of a man. Is it fair then, to allow you to compete against women who were born female? Is it fair to force cisgender women to compete with you? Wouldn’t you have certain physiological advantages and certain physiological disadvantages when generally compared to them? Now you see why this is such a heated debate. In many sports, we typically have women compete against women and men compete against men because the sexes have real biological differences that would tilt the game in favor of one over the other in different cases. Because if the game isn’t fair, who is going to want to play, or watch?

There are many people who strongly disagreed with the argument Steve made in his video, which is totally fine. They even pointed out scientific mistakes and inaccuracies with some of his claims. Again, this is totally fine and can lead to amazingly productive online discussions. Everyone is sure to get a few things wrong. I talk a lot about science and religion on this podcast, and will certainly, sooner or later, make errors when it comes to certain details. I hope that I can be corrected on those when they arise, just as Steve was corrected when he made mistakes while representing some of the relevant data on the subject.

But that isn’t the problem. Many people disagreed with Steve, not on a fact-based or scientific level, but on an emotional, empathetic, and political level. So far so good. I would hope that some people disagree with Steve, just as I hope a plurality of listeners disagrees with me. If we all always agreed with one another, then the discussion would stop, and we would never progress as a society.

Steve was invited onto the Atheist Experience, a show from Texas that has changed the lives of countless listeners, and one that is often hosted by a personal hero of mine, Matt Dillahunty. The show went well and was one of the most watched episodes in the entire history of the Atheist Experience.

Who was this new YouTuber? What was “Rationality Rules” all about? Several members of the atheist community looked him up and found his video on trans athletes.

This is where things turned sour.

When Steve got back from his trip, he was faced by an official statement posted by the board of directors over the ACA, the Atheist Community of Austin, a group that produces the Atheist Experience. Here is their statement in full:

Recently, the ACA Board of Directors was made aware that guest co-host Stephen Woodford (YouTuber “Rationality Rules”) had made ignorant and transphobic videos and statements on his social media platforms in the weeks leading up to his appearances on ACA shows. We would like to make it clear that we do not share or condone his opinions or attitudes, and that we fully and actively support equal rights for the LGBTQIA+ community.

We acknowledge that the ACA did a poor job showing our support by allowing Mr. Woodford to make appearances on our shows without either addressing his controversial views on the air, or asking him to refrain from appearances until he released a clarifying statement on his channel. We also failed to communicate our feelings and intentions in a timely manner to our volunteers and fans.

We sincerely apologize for the pain and anguish our failings have caused our viewers, volunteers, and our ACA family all over the world. We love the trans community and are deeply distressed to have caused anyone harm. We have let you down, and we intend to do our best to earn back your trust.

The ACA is working quickly and diligently to ensure that this kind of mistake does not happen again. We will be coordinating with hosts, co-hosts, and staff to communicate any potential issues with a guest well in advance of when they are set to appear on any ACA production. The ACA will not knowingly allow any ACA production or publication to be used in a manner that’s inconsistent with our mission and position statements.

We would also love to hear from you, our ACA family. If you have any ideas or feedback on how we can do better, please email us at President@atheist-community.org

Sincerely,

Board of Directors

The Atheist Community of Austin

I think I’ll send this episode of the podcast to the ACA’s President. Their organization has done a great deal of good in the world. It would be a shame if the ideas behind their statement is predictive of the direction in which they are going. It looks like they will be more and more strict about who they let on their show in order to protect the feelings of their sensitive viewers. This idea seems odd to me, since they take live callers, each one of whom can upset the sensibilities of the listeners every time a host picks up the phone.

Now I would like to extend an olive branch to the ACA. Texas is one of the most conservative and religiously homogeneous regions in the western world. These aren’t casual republicans or casual Christians. In many ways, I think many Texas groups represent an extreme, both politically and philosophically. Now if you are an organization that tends to lean left and is atheistic, then in such a polarized environment, it may be inevitable that you are repulsed far to the left in order to balance out the overwhelmingly polarized opposition.

I’ve lived in extremely conservative and religious communities, and also spent years living in extremely liberal and irreligious communities. The popular zeitgeist has a huge influence on the intensity of the counter-arguments in the minority. Feminism, for example, is a completely different animal in Washington State, then it is in Utah. Christianity in the Vatican is almost unrecognizable when compared to the Christianity practiced in Turkey. A Science Enthusiast in Tanzania has a much different experience than a Science Enthusiast in Silicon Valley.

So, I can understand that when the ACA overreacted, they chose to err on the side of caution. With that said, I want to say again, that Rationality Rules did nothing wrong. He was interested in an important topic, and wanted to share his opinions about it. He made no moral mistake by choosing to talk about transgender rights. Did he make errors and mistakes when presenting the facts? Yes, but he didn’t do anything morally wrong. In this case, I find the conversation about the morality of his actions far more important than the discussion about the facts of his claims, and this is why:

After reading this statement, and after being confronted no doubt by angry viewers, Steve did exactly what he thought was right. He educated himself more on the topic, fully owned and admitted to his technical mistakes, and apologized in several ways and for several things. He took down the original video and created several others in an attempt to set the record straight, correct his errors, and make things right. He admitted wrongdoing and apologized. He was far more generous to his critics than he needed to be, but that was the choice he made. So the case was closed and we were all able to move on, inspired by his show of humility, right?

Not quite. Other YouTubers have publically shamed other public atheists and skeptics into denouncing and distancing themselves from Steve. Across Reddit, Facebook, and YouTube, a kind of witch hunt is underway, quick to verbally tar and feather all those who support Steve’s original argument. There is a purity test we all must face. Are you with us, or are you a hateful transphobic bigot?

But this isn’t new to the atheist community. We have been down this road several times before. The Atheism+ fiasco comes to mind. You see, the Atheist Community isn’t like other communities. You have a High school community, for example. In that group, almost everyone lives in the same area, attends the same sports events, watches the same musicals, dances at the same prom, is around the same age, and has a wealth of common experiences knitting individuals together. Another example of a community is the trans community. To be sure, the transgender community is extremely diverse, containing all kinds of people who think in all kinds of different ways. But it is a community nonetheless of people who share similar experiences, struggles, and life events.

But what about the atheist community? What do we all have in common? Well, just one thing. Or rather, we all don’t have one thing in common. We all don’t have a belief in a god or in gods.

Some of us were born into atheism. Some of us still go to a church. Some of us left religion in favor of reason and science. Some of us just hate dogma. Some of us are liberal while others are conservative. Some of us are gamers. Some of us like to hike. Some of us hang around coffee shops, and some of us own guns. My point is that the atheist community is nowhere close to a cohesive monolith. Now the argument can be made that neither is any other kind of community. After all, even Buddhists in the same room can argue all day about the core teachings of their religion. But let’s be honest here. Expecting people to get along and form a cohesive group based on non-belief can sometimes seem as futile as creating a community centered on not collecting stamps, not flying-kites, not playing halo, or not believing in crystal healing.

Can you imagine what that would be like? All non-crystal-healing-enthusiasts, meet on Tuesday at 5:00. There we will discuss... What exactly?

Here is something important to remember: Atheism is the answer to only one question. That’s it.

All of this is to say that the so-called atheist community is filled with all kinds of people, who very rarely agree on more than one thing. Perhaps you can make the argument that atheists tend to be nonconformists, free-thinkers, and skeptics. When you get a group of nonconformists, free-thinkers, and skeptics in a room, perhaps it is inevitable that you will find massive differences among them in what they believe.

So when I see outrage mobs forming, quick to decry and shame one of our own because his politics aren’t proper atheist politics, I call foul. Atheism is NOT a political position. Atheism is about one thing, and for an atheist organization like the ACA to slander and lie about a fellow atheist in order to appease a politically polarized base seems to me like behavior antithetical to a group promoting tolerance, open-mindedness, and inclusion.

In the past, the thought police were the religious elites who chained up people like Giordano Bruno and Galileo. Think of all of the most oppressive, fascist, and authoritarian governments from history. Free-thinking, disagreement and a diversity of opinion were all silenced under the political power of the ruling classes. They have the military, so your argument is invalid!

If it weren’t for people’s protected freedom to think, freedom to speak, and freedom to publish their controversial ideas, the atheist community would not exist. It would only be a sparse collection of closeted atheists, keeping their mouths shut.

But in the cases I listed above, it isn’t the government or the church trying to discourage a diversity of ideas and free-thinking. No, this censorship has come from the rot festering within the atheist community itself. If I wanted to, I could do nothing but make my own daily videos of examples of this rot. But that may be futile. Those who see it, see it, and many of those who don’t see it probably don’t want to see it. Nevertheless, whenever I get even the smallest whiff of that rot, I feel like I need to say something. Likewise, if you ever sense that someone is being bullied into keeping their mouth shut, you should speak up too.

When it comes to Steve of Rationality Rules, I think this story has a happy ending. The original post by the ACA has been officially retracted. In this case, calmer minds and the better angels of our nature prevailed. But for every Steve, I wonder about all of the other atheists who have been permanently banned and shunned by the community at large because of their nonconformance. You may argue that people like Sargon, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and even Steve Woodford are actually morally repugnant bad actors who deserve to be ostracized and removed from the conversation. But to my ears, that sounds an awful lot like a medieval church trying to justify the public condemnation of a heretic and blasphemer. Whenever some organization claims the high ground of absolute moral superiority, it doesn’t tend to go well for free thinkers.

Ten years ago, when I left religion, spirituality, and faith behind, I was hoping that the atheist groups I would join would be meccas of tolerance, open-mindedness, inclusion, freethought, skepticism, and a love for science. I was hoping that they would not be exclusive belief-oriented sects of politically-correct Puritans. I was hoping that the atheist community would be the exception to the rule.

I’ll end on this note, and I really do appreciate you hearing me out on these issues. If something like this happens again, what do you think we should do? I think that if we had a public atheist with seemingly racist, sexist, or otherwise repulsive and bigoted ideas who had something to say, I say let them say it. Allow them a platform among fellow atheists. Let the sloppy and immoral arguments out and into the sun, so that they can be contested, debunked and destroyed by the better moral and logical arguments. Let bad ideas onto the battlefield, so that they can be dominated by good ideas. Then the conflict and conclusions of the aftermath can be left as they are, exposed, for the world to see. My new faith is in people, and when presented with the best arguments from both sides, I believe that we can trust people to think for themselves and come to the correct conclusions.

Perhaps one day, rather than see most of us segregated into divisive and polarized religious or political groups that are unified by a rigid belief, we would instead find ourselves belonging to groups based around shared values and goals, allowing for a plurality of opinions on how those goals may be reached. This is how science works, and this is what my friends of the Free Thought Initiative are all about.

If you have enjoyed this conversation or have learned something from it, please leave a like, subscribe, and share it with other open-minded people. All of those small things really do make a big difference and help others find our group and our podcast.

That is all I have for you today, but the conversation continues across social media and in the comment sections below. Do you agree with today’s message? Am I mistaken about some detail? How can I better elaborate on this topic in the future? Feel free to share your perspective!

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Written By Nicholas Burk, Executive Board Member © 2019 Free Thought Initiative