A Rant – I Quit

Posted by on December 1, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 26 comments



I’m through with being an “activist atheist”. That’s right, I no longer want to troll Facebook and Twitter for theists and tell them why they are wrong, I no longer want to make fun of theists for their unreasonable beliefs, and I no longer want to be part of the online atheist “community”.

“What do you mean? Are you going to leave the internet?” I hear you ask.

No I’m not leaving the internet, and to be honest this will not change an awful lot in what I do online. In fact, I see this as a focusing of my attention on things that matter to me personally, while leaving the detritus of online arguing to those that do it much better, and have a vested interest in this arguing. What this means is that I will no longer be dragged into debates with theists who make a ludicrous claim, then base their evidence on the very book from which their ludicrous claim originates. There is no point in it. All this serves to do is to make us feel a sense of superiority to the person making the claims. and does nothing for them except leave them with a smugness about their assumption that “atheists are all mean.” Knowing that faith overrides knowledge and truth in any situation, as this is the nature of faith in essence, arguing with a theist is akin to banging your head against a brick wall: You will injure yourself and achieve little.

“But what does this mean?”

Well, firstly let’s look at what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean I will be leaving the social networks, or even changing the style of my tweets and Facebook posts. I’ve been moving in this direction for some time now, and I think I’ve come to a point where I am only injuring myself if I were to continue engaging on a level of theistic debating. If you like what I’m doing now, and have been doing for the past six months, never fear this is the way of the future also. But if you come to me expecting me to argue the efficacy of the Noah’s Ark story, don’t bother, I’m not interested.

These “facts” as spewed by theists are self defeating, and there are many more people on Twitter and Facebook who not only do a better job of this kind of debating, but also have a vested interest in doing so. I was never injured by religion as a child, so I have nothing to prove either to myself or others.

If however the beliefs of someone are actively harmful, i.e. promoting intolerance based on belief systems, expect me to be the first to stand up and say something. I can’t allow this kind of thinking, and if I can help it, I will move to sway the believer into rethinking their position. This will be done with reason and rational discourse, not with contradicting the finer points of the religious texts.

“Your voice is needed, don’t stop doing this!”

Well, it may be that my voice is needed, and as I said, I will not stop doing what I do. Just call it a change of focus, and a finer focus on what I do and say online.

“So you are just changing your focus”

A little bit. My focus has less to do with religion and more to do with humanity and the planet we inhabit. Religion itself, by itself, is not what is harming us. What harms us is fanaticism, and fanaticism in any form tends to be come blinkered if left to its own. My focus now is towards the equality of humanity, on whatever level it needs to come from, and against the wrongdoings of people in the name of their belief systems. If your religion tells you to be intolerant toward people f a different gender to you, it is your interpretation of the religion that is doing harm, not the religion itself. It’s the way people choose to enact their beliefs that cause us harm, and it’s the blindness to these enactments that causes the fanaticism.

The problems in the world are multifaceted, and religion only plays a small part. As I said earlier this week in a rant on Twitter, whether someone believes that Jesus is the saviour of mankind, sent to save us from a fate bestowed upon us by an other-worldly incarnation of himself, is not the issue. What is at issue here is the use of this belief system to harm others, and based on what they have been told, these believers know no better than to use their beliefs as a foundation from which to build their intolerance. It’s never as simple as “theists are dumb and atheists are smart”, because that’s simply not true. Belief is powerful, misguided or not, and those who believe have “reason” to do so, even if that reason is completely irrational.

It all comes down to a simple fact: People will be more easily swayed if you don’t attack them personally. I know you might say that an attack on religion is not a personal attack, but the the believer it is, because belief is what many base the rest of their lives upon. If you attack the believer’s beliefs, it is as though you are attacking them personally, and they will shut down the conversation right there, or even worse GO INTO ALL-CAPS MODE, as if that makes the defense of belief more substantial.

My aim is to destroy irrational beliefs if and when they impinge upon the rights of others, but I won’t do it by simply saying “You’re wrong”. I see that an argument can be much more convincing if the destruction of irrational thought can be phrased in such a way that it is contained within a larger context, and one that the believers have no option but to agree with. For instance, the historical facts around the impossibility of the Noah’s Ark story, if told correctly, can be nothing but a parable designed to make humanity feel worthless, and powerless at God’s magnificence. If told as a series of mathematical or physical impossibilities, we have much more chance of swaying the believer of this tale. If however we just say “That’s a bullshit story, and you are a moron for believing it,” we are doomed to failure. And of course, simple belief in the story of Noah’s Ark has no immediate effects apart from the continuation of the delusional belief.

Of course this all depends upon the proviso that the believer is willing to listen at all. In many cases, this doesn’t happen.

“What triggered this decision?”

I have come to realise that we, as atheists and non-believers, make up such a small part of the world’s population that we can never hope to effect change in the world by ourselves. There has to be a way that we can get the theists onside with our ideas and prospective outcomes, and yelling at them is not it. In order to effect changes in the world we need the theists on our side. Most theists in the world are not completely delusional. For most it is a simple belief in an afterlife, and all the stories about the apocalypse etc., when really discussed, will be passed off as just stories used to illustrate a point. Any rational person should see it this way, and there are many rational theists. The problem is, the people we hear most from are not the rational ones, it’s the fanatics with the largest and loudest voices.

We can not do this alone. We need to convince those around us that the world is at peril, that god will not save us (nor has god promised to save us, rather god has promised to destroy us for not living up to his grand plan), and that the problems that we face as a planet can only be solved by the cooperation of people from all beliefs and backgrounds.

And sometimes, just sometimes, I see a glimmer of hope in the world, that this may actually be achievable.

In the meantime, if you haven’t already, read my articles about “Methodological Humanism” to see where I stand on these issues, and to see a possible way forward for the world. For a primer, read “Methodological Humanism“, which outlines some of the ideas behind what it means to be methodological in this sense, where the methodology behind humanism takes precedence above personal belief systems. Then read “Feminism and Humanism” which outlines how feminism is actually just a facet of humanism, and should be a default position or standpoint for any humanist. Then read “Methodological Humanism – Beyond Belief and Disbelief“, which outlines the possibilities of agreeing on the issues that are important to all of the planet regardless of belief systems. And finally read “Humanity Beyond the ‘Isms’“, which is really the basis for this post you are reading.

I hope none of this comes as a shock to any of you. Please don’t see this as a defeatist position, because it’s not. It’s simply an acknowledgement of something that has been bugging me for some time. To those who know me, my frustration with “online atheism” has been no secret. Also, none of this is aimed at any particular people. In fact, I think we still need those who will relentlessly chase down believers for their ludicrous beliefs. The only difference is, I will not be the one doing it.

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  1. I don’t blame you for feeling this way.  Looking for fights get’s old.  There are people who like to brawl in opposition to superstition and mere belief and I wouldn’t tell them to give it up.  Brawlers and brawling have their place.  But I don’t think it’s the only thing to do in service of reason, nor do I think it’s always healthy to slug away all the time.

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  2. I wear the label but don’t actively seek to defend Atheism either. I have many family members/friends that are Theists and I don’t see it as my responsibility to enlighten them with Atheism. I attempt to defend Atheism when they try to use their religion to change our laws. One of my pet peeves of being an Atheist is always having to be thinking about or dealing with religion period, So I understand you whole heartedly and think it’s a wonderful thing that you will be re-focusing your efforts on other more important issues that enrich your life and reduce the amount of unnecessary conflict in your life.

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  3. I love this post, Martin… like always. I understand where you’re coming from completely and feel the same way about myself. That “place” in the “atheist community” simply isn’t for me anymore- and it doesn’t have to be.  Do your thing, buddy. x

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  4. I share your concerns about the value of arguing with theists, Martin. In fact, I have often felt concerned that engaging in such arguments may actually strengthen someone’s commitment to their religious position. Personally, I don’t want to be responsible for derailing or even delaying someone’s journey to freedom.
    I have long suspected that my flight from Christianity caused my dearest Christian friend to hunker down and shore up the walls around her faith. She is certainly a lot more overtly religious now than she was when we were both Christians. Although I couldn’t have done this any other way, and although I have not overtly attacked her beliefs, I feel partly responsible for her current state.
    In any case, I am determined to try and conduct myself with compassion when engaging with theists. As you rightly point out, being religious isn’t a problem of lack of intelligence or even ignorance, necessarily. There are reasons people find religion appealing. Shouting in their faces is not going to convince them there isn’t a big pay off in religion. And, as a friend of mine commented recently, until we have an alternative community to offer them in place of the one they would leave behind if they lost their faith, we should tread carefully hauling them away from their existing support network.

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  5. I don’t blame you, I’ve largely stopped looking for fights and think debating the overwhelming majority of theists is a complete waste of my time.  That said though, it didn’t stop me from writing about religion and the foibles of humanity, it just stopped me from dealing directly with the fundamentally delusional.  It doesn’t get me anywhere.  It’s no fun.  It’s the same thing over and over and over again and it never results in any demonstrable change.  Therefore, I do what I want to do and so long as I have fun doing it, I’m happy.  Looks like you’ve reached the same conclusion.  Good for you.

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  6. Beautifully articulated Marty. It is a relief to see others
    stepping down from the dogmatic soapbox of neo-atheism. My own
    abandonment of atheism sometime ago was prompted by reasons very
    similar to those which you outlined above. For me personally, the
    issue was not exclusively the pointlessness of trying to dissuade
    people from positions of faith – it was also with the outright
    hypocrisy that neo-atheism should be justly charged with.
    In the last few years since the anti-religious movement has
    been gaining momentum, I have noticed as an ideology, it is becoming
    almost indistinguishable from religion on several grounds (not
    counting to major difference that goes without saying). A casual
    scroll through any number of neo-atheist pages on Facebook, will
    immediately expose the dogmatic intolerance that its adherents are no
    more immune to than the faithful they condemn. Of course, the
    oxymoronic conduct of the unfaithful, for me, is still only the tip
    of the iceberg.

    One term that has become synonymous with ‘atheist’
    to its adherents is ‘freethinker’. This seems ironic to me, since
    neo-atheism has developed – or perhaps been engineered – over the
    last few years to become a closed system of thought. To explain this,
    it is probably a good idea to first ask what religion is? Religion is
    a self-perpetuating belief system, which is highly virulent, and
    confines its devotees to holding beliefs and views that are conducive
    to its survival and propagation. When I look at religion under this
    definition, it seems impossible for me to resist thinking that the
    same applies to neo-atheism. It really is brainwashing, just the same
    as religion: the big bang, evolution, technology, evolution,
    scientific awe, and of course, a bit more evolution – you can never
    read enough about evolution… There is also the exposure to
    religious ideas and symbols through reading and contemplation;
    although not being thought of in the same context as a faithful
    person, negative contemplation of religious concepts and symbols –
    which have themselves evolved over thousands of years to be painfully
    difficult to escape the subjugation of – will only ever strengthen
    the shackles of a neo-atheistic world view.

    There are many other
    philosophical reasons for why I am now critical of neo-atheism just
    as much as theism – but I think I have said enough here. Again
    Marty, I whole heartedly applaud your decision to get off the
    ego-maniacal soapbox of neo-atheism. There are far more sublime and
    fulfilling ideas the furnish your mind with than that crap I
    described above. And as you said in your post, not all believers are
    foaming at the mouth fanatics anyway – many of them are just as
    reasonable and rational as you and I. My suspicion is that religion
    is here to stay; what matters is not that it is abandoned, but how
    people like you and I, faithful and unfaithful, help steer it towards
    more progressive and rational grounds. Lets hope more voices like
    that of Pope Francis start cropping up in other religious
    On a final note…. What does this remind you
    of? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WK-NO13ajF0&t=6m15s

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  7. Awesome.  As an atheist minister in a congregation made up almost entirely of non-believers, I’ve long despaired of the little benefit reaped of atheist rants. We’re all in this together and it is only by focusing on what does good and addressing, appropriately, what causes harm, that we will find our way toward a resilient, sustainable future.  Thanks for being part of that work.

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  8. I have always been dumbfounded why anyone thinks trolling social media and picking fights with people in any way even resembles activism.  In some venues like Facebook, there’s MAYBE a small chance you might influence people reading the thread and lurking. But on Twitter in particular, nobody sees your posts except people who are following you already – certainly your target’s followers don’t see them.  As a result, these types of arguments simply create the illusion that something is being done but are actually a collosal waste of time.
    (Please note: I’m speaking specifically of social media arguments here, not debates in general. Blog posts and in-person debates are entirely different animals than Twitter and Facebook threads.).
    So good for you, Martin.  Glad to hear you are focusing on things more likely to have an effect.

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  9. Ignoring theists is certainly better time spent. It also does a much better job of pissing them off. I’m willing to fight the good fight if someone of faith starts the argument but beyond that it’s an utter waste of time. Besides, too many atheists (and agnostics) are missing out on the point that by constantly battling with theists they are still voluntarily involved with religion. Only by truly living a life as free of religious belief as possible can one truly call themselves an atheist. It’s like a drunk believing that simply because they are sober, and go to AA, that alcohol still isn’t the ruling factor in their lives, when all they’ve done is trade in drinking for sitting around talking about drinking. It’s silly and pointless, but then so much of the internet is.

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  10. I am sorry to hear that.

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  11. Debating theists does help in deconverting them or at least to better understand atheist positions. Even though almost nobody will admit it live during the debate, deconversions happen all the time down the line as a result of hearing opposing viewpoints like that. And it works on readers of the debates as well. 
    And it’s not like there is one perfect style that will work best. Different people respond differently to different styles. Some do respond to aggressive tactics. 
    Nobody is obligated to join in, but it’s also not unproductive to do so.

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  12. I’m seeking to have atheist true numbers known. This is achieved when atheist come out of the closet. If we can reach the atheist in the closet and get them out of the closet all atheist would realize the Earth is overwhelmingly populated by fellow atheist.

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  13. ReasJack The thing is, I’ve never really gone looking for fights, they tend to come to me and the result of the fights is always the same.  Nothing ever changes, the theist always walks away from the fight with the same beliefs and spouting the same nonsense that I’ve proven is factually incorrect.  It’s really a waste of time, even if you pretend that you’re doing it for the viewing audience.  They typically don’t change their minds either.

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  14. Bitchspot1 I know what you mean about that.  All you have to do is express a contrary opinion about religious belief and odds are someone who reads it or hears it will decide a fight is necessary.  I don’t mind them in reasonable doses.  When a person is mostly trying to get me to shut up I think it’s important to push back just enough to get the message across that I won’t. Sometimes that requires a little more aggressiveness than I would have expressed otherwise, but what are you going to do?  My guide here is a favorite cartoon describing the difference between Old Atheism and New Atheism. In the first panel the cleric says “Be Quiet” and the Old Atheist doesn’t say anything. In the second the cleric gives the same command and the New Atheist just says “No”.  Expressing that NO is still important, I think.

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  15. ReasJack Bitchspot1 Oh, it certainly is important but the very fact that you’re willing to open your mouth will get a lot of theists upset and then you really have to defend yourself or they’ll run all over the Internet claiming victory.  That’s how it works and either you don’t care to have your name and/or face used as ammunition that atheists can’t debate theists, or you have to go in willing to waste your time and effort on a fight that won’t mean a thing and they’ll likely scream victory anyhow.It’s really not something that you can win either way.

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  16. Bitchspot1 true wisdom. thanks for sharing

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  17. This is an excellent deconstruction of the basic point of argument and one that Im not sure can be resolved anymore easily.  Your position on humanism is at the heart of your faith in the ability of humanity to control the world.  Theists, on the other hand believe that mankind are stewards of the earth, not deities with the power of life over death.  The law of entropy lies in the favor of theists in this area.

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  18. Methodological humanism. I like it.
    You should check out the online community at Seth Andrew’s The Thinking Atheist forum. Hell we got a Calvinist running the place (and yes that did cost us a few members). Tell ’em GirlyMan sent you.

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  19. Good on you for making that decision, maybe you unconsciously noticed that it was not working…
    When you attack someone they become more entrenched in their beliefs and become better at arguing…

    I think this is worth repeating and putting it in big black letter in Bold ….Whenever you attack someone, insult, show contempt the person who is at the other end of the argument becomes better at arguing and tightens their belief…..
    That is exactly the opposite of what you are trying to do !

    Go to YouTube and search for “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orW1AstN7AI” in this talk he covers chapter 4 of his very badly titled book : “A Manual for Creating Atheists” ( bad title , bad title ) watch a brief 4 minute introduction to the book http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8f70wZ-mLR8 

    https://twitter.com/aliveness_ape said it best with this quotes: 
    “If you think religion as opposed to epistemology, is what the modern atheist movement is about….. then you haven’t understood the discussion”

    “If you don’t understand that questions related to epistemology lay at the heart of all public policy & human suffering issues, you’re lost.”

    Religion is a failed Epistemology, in other words is a failed way to people to come to knowledge…Hence the reason why showing facts and evidence to believers is useless and probably counter productive….a more effective way is to try to get people to acknowledge 1st that what they know they came through them in a not so reliable way…once you do that then you can move on to evince and facts and science and all the rest.

    Street Epistemology comes along after 20+ years of studying and teaching by http://boghossian.com/ a philosopher at Portland State University. 10,000+ students and a life dedicated to doing exactly what you were attempting Martin…..to get people to use evidence and reason when making knowledge claims about the world.

    Watch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VBPw0jjjfs for more

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  20. Could not agree more with the position of discussing epistemology, however, that has its own difficulties.  An agnostic/atheist argues what is the known universe as true.  A theist argues what is not the known universe as true.  Belief in deity is an acknowledgement that there is something beyond known truth, just as a physicist argues string theory or parallel universes.  There is no way for a physicist to know for sure, yet they continue to look and argue for their position.  Einstein argued his theory of relativity for decades before he found a way to prove it, and when asked if he was excited about the proof he replied, laconically, “I always knew it.”  Not believed, knew.

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  21. Epistemological arguments have a basic flaw.  An Atheist/Agnostic argues from a position in the known universe and wants proof based on the physical laws of that universe.  Theists argue from the perspective of the unknown universe and the creator of the physical laws of the known universe.  A theist has as much physical proof of his belief as a physicist has of string theory, but that lack of proof does not deter the scientist from search of proof OUTSIDE of the known universe.  Einstein face a great deal of opposition for his relativity theory for decades until he found a way to prove it outside of common perspective.  When asked if he was excited to find the proof, he replied laconically, “I always knew it.” Knew, not believed.
    As a theist I can accept that I cannot prove the existence or non-existence of a deity on this plane, so I do not argue that point.  An atheist who wants to argue on the plane where local physical laws do not apply would be interesting.

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  22. loucovey1  
    Epistemological arguments have a basic flaw.  An Atheist/Agnostic argues from a position in the known universe and wants proof based on the physical laws of that universe.  Theists argue from the perspective of the unknown universe and the creator of the physical laws of the known universe.

    Epistemological arguments are not arguments, they are conversations regarding knowledge claims, all knowledge claims….

    Epistemology does not differentiate between theists or non-theist its only interested in how both of these parties came to make knowledge claims and the Epistemologists tries to differentiate between knowledge and beliefs then he helps theists and non-theists to determine degrees of certainty in knowledge claims made by both parties.

    The Epistemologists would ask ( it would be more a conversation on the topic than a mere question )
    Atheist/Agnostic .. How do you know that… How would someone know what the known universe is and how does he/she know to ask these questions and how does the Atheist/Agnostic come to the knowledge of proof based on the physical laws of the universe ??
    The Epistemologists would ask ( it would be more a conversation on the topic than a mere question ) 
    Theists .. How do you know that… How would someone know what there is an unknown universe, how did you come to the knowledge about the creator of the physical laws of the known universe??

    The Street Epistemologists also asks whether the person values belief revision and a few more questions…

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  23. Street Epistemology loucovey1 OK, so you’re bringing in a third position.  I can get that.  It actually divides the agnostic from the atheist nicely.  A true agnostic is someone who just doesn’t “know” and I would imagine that’s how they would respond to either position honestly (although most agnostics I know seem more comfortable with the atheist position).  From my position as a theist, my position is solidly existential.  I know because of my personal experience.  The true atheist claims to be an objectivist and rejects person experience or documentation that may tend to disagree with a position of non belief.  A theist is bound by personal experience and must reject a position that a lack of physical evidence is proof his experience is wrong.

    What it comes down to in my view is (1) do you believe that human beings have the capability of improving the lot of the earth on their own, or (2) do you believe they need help from a higher power.  As a student of history, the proof seems that the first position has been significantly disproven while the second is still up for debate, but has a potential for a positive outcome.

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  24. Even after reading this post and the Slate version of this post, I’m not entirely clear on what exactly you are going to quit doing, Martin. From what I can tell, you are still going to “stand up and say something” against “intolerance based on belief systems” and try “to sway the believer into rethinking their position” using “reason and rational discourse” but you are going to stop doing it in a certain way. Apparently, you are going to henceforth avoid “contradicting the finer points of the religious texts,” making fun of theists for their unreasonable beliefs, and generally being a dick to theists, e.g. “That’s a bullshit story, and you are a moron for believing it.” I’ve never seen you take such an approach, but I can readily agree that it’s not particularly productive to alienate one’s audience from the get-go.

    It might be helpful if you could point out some specific examples of arguments not worth having. Is it futile to try to convince Young Earthers to accept a scientific account of how the Earth came to be what we see? Is it futile to present philosophical arguments against theism? Is it futile to carefully critique the internal consistency of any given set of scriptures?

    I do have to disagree with you strongly on one point, “Faith overrides knowledge and truth in any situation, so arguing with a theist is akin to banging your head against a brick wall: You will injure yourself and achieve little.” This runs counter to my personal experience, and that of countless apostates I’ve known who will tell you that arguments with friends were what spurred them to reexamine their faith in the first place. Such fatalism and prejudice (assuming all theists are equally unreachable) sets back the cause of humanism.

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  25. I’ve been moving in a similar direction. Peter Boghossian’s book directed me towards a more anti-faith position than an anti-religion one. Arguing the Bible is largely pointless. Challenging the reasons for holding on to the fantasies is more productive.

    The fight is less about hauling a person out of his pit and more about planting seeds of doubt, that will grow into a tree he can use to climb out by himself.

    I won’t entirely move away from theological debates, but there’ll be fewer of them.

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  26. I urge you to study Islam and the Koran so you will have a renewed outrage against that evil fascist ideology under the guise of a religion.

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  7. On “quitting” activist (atheist) communities (or maybe, just changing strategy?) - […] last year, my friend Martin Pribble blogged – in a piece that was later adapted for […]
  8. On "quitting" activist (atheist) communities (or maybe, just changing strategy?) - Towards a Free Society | Towards a Free Society - […] last year, my friend Martin Pribble blogged – in a piece that was later adapted for […]

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