Leaving the New Atheist Movement: An Interview with Pat

Recently, a woman named Pat posted a quick message on her tumblr blog about how she left the New Atheist Movement. Intrigued, we began talking and what follows below is a transcription of our interview. Pat would like to remain (mostly) anonymous. Since her first language is not English, some substitutions have been made and designated in the bracketed dialogue below. This interview was our first time having an actual conversation aside from the occasional miscellaneous comment online.

[The interview was preceded by a short introduction of my blog and its purpose. Pat shared with me a photo of her dog, Monica, named after a character from the tv show Friends.]

Nica1

Interview with a Former Movement Atheist

Sarah: Before returning to the university, you had been out of college for almost five years. What made you decide to go back to school? Particularly as a student of theology?

Pat: My husband and Fidel Castro. [laughs] We moved from Florida to New York when Castro stopped being President in 2008. Or maybe right before, I can’t remember. Castro is in my imagination a lot. . . I wrote a paper once about how Castro is a symbolic figure for extremists. Some people go straight to Hitler in history. For me, it’s Castro.

S: Did your view on Castro have anything to do with your atheism?

P: Not really. I became an atheist, because I identified with that community. I didn’t like the term New Atheist very much, so I called myself a Movement Atheist. It’s more neutral. . . When I signed up for my first intro class, I was a New Atheist until I discovered the meaning of Movement Atheist. Really, I had been in the Movement the whole time.

S: What aspect of the community did you particularly find yourself drawn to?

P: Social justice, the more friendly part. That part [distinguished] itself from the misogynistic and racist parts of my life.

S: You said that you were a New Atheist before you “discovered the meaning of [a] Movement Atheist.” What drew you away from considering yourself a New Atheist? Was there anything specific?

P: As I took more and more course[s] in religious studies, it became clear to me that the New Atheists were largely ignorant of the work done in religious scholarship and dismissive of very real work done by theologians [who] are developing ideas that aren’t based on a face-value reading[s] of scripture.

S: I don’t want to misconstrue what you’ve said, but it seems like you developed a heightened appreciation for religion during your time as a student which is what ultimately caused your departure from atheism. Is this true? Or am I reaching too much with that statement?

P: No, this is true. Definitely. I appreciated what religion does for people, for the positive aspects, and for the ability of people to have spiritual lives outside of the monotheistic worldview. . . a more classical worldview. . . Learning about religious experiences led me to doubt more and more. . . I finally rejected believing things that have not been verified as a [moral] hazard.

S: I am actually glad to hear you mention the word ‘doubt’ in relation to atheism. Were there any professors who stuck out to you during your studies?

P: Yeah! [laughs] Having an atheist rabbi for a professor helped me a lot. . . There was also a Buddhist professor who said he didn’t believe in literal [post-mortem] rebirth.

S: Essentially, during your time as a religious studies major, you stopped believing in an empirically verifiable objective reality. Did either of those professors help you or push you toward that revelation?

P: I didn’t notice when it happened, so not really. Not them. . . It’s only looking back on it that I’m aware of it. This isn’t to say that I reject the scientific method or that I don’t believe in the possibility of objectivity.

S: You’re just more open to a subjective reality, then?

P: Exactly. Yeah. . . I believe in human existence being subjective. There may be an objective reality. I don’t know. Although, I think there is, but it is unknowable. . . I think that’s when the Movement began to look, well, really silly. Trying to deconvert people to a rational worldview was impossible, because a rational worldview was impossible.

S: What was one of your least favorite aspects of the atheist movement?

P: Mockery [of religion] as a way to advocate secularism.

S: What about your favorite part?

P: The community. The community was awesome.

S: I read on your tumblr bio that you now identify yourself as a “closet-case agnostic mystic.” Can you talk about that little bit?

P: These days I practice Zen Buddhism. Olaf Stapledon is why I call myself a mystic. I don’t know whether a personal God exists, but I doubt it. But I also believe there is a benefit in attempting to contact to the [ineffable.] I don’t know whether [post-mortem] existence happens, but I doubt it too. But I think that the time I’ve lived is some sense eternal. I don’t know a lot of things, and I think a lot of them either aren’t knowable at all. . . or maybe can only be known outside of words.

S: I don’t want this question to sound as if it has an obvious agenda, but I’m curious to know if whether you stopped believing in the possibility of perceiving objective reality before or after you began practicing Buddhism. I’m asking only because I think the direction of cause-and-effect could be interesting to consider.

P: I would say before, but I’m not certain of it. That is tough. Buddhism definitely strengthened my [conviction.]

S: Are you asked to speak about your religious ideas very often?

P: Not a lot. My husband asks. Not my family. . . I am rambly when I talk about religion. This is why I can’t be a teacher. [laughs] Or maybe I’d make a good one, who knows. I’m not very good at public speaking.

S: Are you able to pinpoint the exact moment when you weren’t able to regard yourself an atheist any longer?

P: I didn’t so much leave the Movement as I drifted away. . . It happened over several months, and I don’t think I can pinpoint the exact moment when I no longer considered myself one. But that’s neither here nor there.

12 comments

  1. LAMarcom · May 6, 2014

    Thank you for sharing this.

  2. happierheathen · May 6, 2014

    Thanks for posting this!

    Personally, as a natural born heathen who’s never been indoctrinated into *any* system of belief, I view the “new” movement(s) about as dimly as I view religious organizations, and for approximately the same reasons. I can understand people feeling compelled to convince themselves of the correctness of their new-found belief systems by way of trying to convince others of their correctness, but it really is, in the final analysis, coercing others to participate in the individual’s (or the group’s) self validation. That’s one of the hallmarks of narcissistic personality disorder and a behavior I think best gotten through as a phase of life rather than perpetuated indefinitely by making an institution of it.

    I speak only for myself and acknowledge that I may be wrong. Thanks for letting me litter your blog. :)

    • Sarah Key · May 9, 2014

      Litter away! I personally agree with you, and I love the way you worded your argument. In the interview with Pat, I found her use of the word “deconvert” particularly interesting.

      With interviews, I think I tend to want to sit back and just allow the other person to speak. More embodying the listener than the adversary. This approach might change in the future, depending on who I am talking to, the subject matter, and what the other person’s comfort level is like with me, but in this particular instance, I just really wanted to become the active listener. Interviewing, without journalistic intent, is a new ball field for me.

      It is, as always, a pleasure to receive a comment from you. Hope you’re doing well!

      • happierheathen · May 9, 2014

        One would never guess that it was a new or relatively new experience for you. You did a fine job of mostly getting out of the way and letting the story be Pat’s. Your questions provided insight into your subject, of what you knew about her that the reader could not otherwise have known. Darn fine job, and in a compelling realm.

  3. ladyfaile · May 6, 2014

    Very interesting. As a pro-science atheist and skeptic, I often consider if reality is truly objective. I also lean towards the subjectivity of reality, since many studies of the brain has shown that it knows no difference between was it true or what we believe to be true. Belief is a powerful tool. So since I cannot completely know if reality is subjective or objective, I focus on rejecting harmful beliefs that prevent critical thinking, understanding, and respect towards other human beings and towards our world. This, I think, is so much more important than advocating the “absolute truth” of reality.

    • Sarah Key · May 9, 2014

      Well said! I am definitely pro-science and would like to eventually start talking more about science-related subjects on my blog in the future. I tend to an outspoken advocate for skepticism, and I actually thought there was a healthy amount of skepticism in this interview. I would be interested to see what you think about that.

      • ladyfaile · May 10, 2014

        Good, we need more atheists that put skepticism before their beliefs. I find that skeptics are usually atheist, but few atheists are skeptics…

  4. amymwright · May 6, 2014

    I’m interested in how Pat’s disbelief in an experience of objective reality might connect to her mysticism. Stimulating conversation–thanks!

  5. Catholic Tap House · May 6, 2014

    This was refreshing to read… And a positive reminder! I think one of the hardest parts about my religion and just being in Catholicism is the community surrounding it. This interview is a good reminder to look at your environment and persons within it as sources of light and opportunity. Thanks, Pat and Sarah! :-D Nice job.

  6. Corvin · May 6, 2014

    A fascinating look into a belief system that I admittedly know very little about. I had no idea that there were different “denominations” within atheism, although in hindsight it is only logical. Thank you!

  7. D. Eaton · May 7, 2014

    The entire time I read this I imagined you talking to that dog. That’s one deep dog.

  8. @Ghanta_Clause · July 14, 2014

    It’s impossible to have a sense of subjective reality without the objective. The objective is an informant. I cannot condone personally the idea of subjective reality, because it is too narrow. I do not glorify the world by viewing it subjectively. The objective worldview glorifies me.

    The world does not depend on my stance. It exists outside of me.

    Self discovery can be found through subjectivity, but it can be found through objective mindsets too.

    Subjective outlooks are more likely to abide by exclusion or outsider principles. Objective reality is a better balance. It needs to be there for anything remotely resembling balance at all.

    The discussion here reminds me of the Nyad video clip article. The value of subjective and objective stances was questioned there too. It was only a softer dialogue and maybe an explanation that needed to be explored in their talk.

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