Careful, you might bring down atheism!

In the past, I’ve been critical of a number of atheists who have discouraged me from participating and expanding a broader secular movement. These ‘naysayers’ now have a name, according to Austin Cline. These are ‘Uncle Tom Atheists’, and they are, apparently, a big problem.

I’d like to start by pointing out how terribly insulting that phrase is. I’m not black, but I have many friends who are, and this moniker has a dark history in America. It symbolizes a divide in the African American community that discourages integration, and suggests there is a strict set of behaviors a black person should obey to ‘keep it real’. Ralph Nader called Barak Obama an Uncle Tom even before he’s taken one foot into the White House. Using the phrase is another way of criticizing someone who will not support your cause, and who you believe has betrayed your values. My message to Cline is simple: stop using words you do not fully understand.

I’m not always pleased many atheists choose appeasement with religion over confrontation, but I cannot blame them for their choice. We live in a largely religious world, and not everyone is equipped to pick up arms and ready for battle. Some just want to be left alone, and why shouldn’t they? There is nothing in the rule book of atheism that forces all card carrying members to act as representatives of the movement.

In my time managing the site and recording the radio show, I’ve talked to a number of different atheists about the future of secularism. Although many admitted they felt religion was getting a disproportional amount of attention and special treatment, it didn’t significantly impact their lives enough to make it an issue. One compared it to being single and working at a company with a bunch of people with families; sometimes you work late and they get to leave early because they have kids. Yeah, it’s unfair, but you still have a fucking good job, and you don’t feel like rocking the boat.

The livelihood of some can be threatened by their beliefs. That I kick up a dirt storm in a shitty blog does nothing to regain their lost opportunities. Turning around and insulting them for choosing appeasement over segregation would add only insult to injury.

I almost feel Austin wants a ‘them vs us’ world, where rational discussion and worrying about the feelings and hopes of other human beings are regarded as betrayal to the cause. What cause is worth fighting for when some want to throw other members under a bus for simply not seeing atheism the same way they do?

I for one would not be fighting for atheism if it didn’t embody the principles of compassion and tolerance associated with humanism. Obviously, the fact  I do fight against the injustice of religion does not mean I am an Uncle Tom for not wanting my healthy relationship with my religious friends to be maintained. We should fight the urge to put labels on people as easily as our theist counterparts have done in the past. I personally find Cline’s arguments divisive, insulting, and bigoted, and I urge people not to use his new nomenclature.

Comments (7)

  • avatar

    Jacob Fortin

    True, but it doesn’t make that quote any less wrong. The inference is still insulting.

  • avatar


    I agree. Cline’s post that you cite, & a few others, caused me to unsubscribe from his blog recently. He seems to have no concept of “choosing your battles” and no qualms with “throwing the baby out with the bath water.” We need more people with his agressive style, buy we don’t need his judgemental attitude towards people that don’t share it.

  • avatar


    That is a truncated quote from Nader. He did not call Barak an Uncle Tom but said:

    “He is our first African American president; or he will be. And we wish him well. But his choice, basically, is whether he’s going to be Uncle Sam for the people of this country, or Uncle Tom for the giant corporations who are running America into the ground.”

  • avatar


    I agree that the label “Uncle Tom” is harsh, I cringed when I saw that headline in the newsletter. So yeah, I won’t be jumping on board with that particular term. But I agree with Austin’s arguments in that particular piece and fail to see where they are insulting.

    “Some just want to be left alone, and why shouldn’t they?”

    It’s reasonable to avoid confrontations regarding religious beliefs if they could affect your livelihood, but by and large Austin’s arguments are directed at people who have the opportunity to speak up without damaging their physical or financial security, and choose not to do so simply because it would cause some momentary awkwardness, or choose to go along with chuckling at or agreeing with anti-atheist remarks because it’s the easy and more popular thing to do.

    “Although many admitted that they felt that religion was getting a disproportional amount of attention and special treatment, it didn’t significantly impact their lives enough to make it an issue.”

    That’s kind of the problem with any sort of activism, isn’t it? I’m straight, anti-gay activism doesn’t affect me directly, but if I don’t speak up when someone makes an anti-gay slur then I do feel that I’m contributing to the problem rather than working towards a solution. If it doesn’t significantly impact their lives, is it possible that they’re passing on situations where they could speak up for themselves, also without it resulting in a significant impact on their lives?

    Aside from the use of the label “Uncle Tom”, what about his arguments did you find “divisive, insulting, and bigoted”?

    I’ll apologize right now for a delay in a response to any response you give me, I’ve got a busy night ahead but I’ll check back in tomorrow.

    ungullible – As to unsubscribing from him, I have to laugh because I did just that about 6 months ago, but quickly changed my mind because in my case I realized it was myself I had the problem with, not Austin (not saying that’s the same for you though). I don’t expect to agree with any one blogger or writer on every single post they make, but if I were to delete my subscriptions/RSS feeds to every blog every time someone said something that I found offensive I would quickly be left with nothing to read. Take Christopher Hitchens (please – ba dum bum). I find him to be, in spite of his outspoken support for equal rights for women, often infuriatingly misogynistic in tone when he writes or speaks about women on a more personal level, and I disagree strongly with some of his political views. But his command of English, written and spoken, is impressive and very enjoyable.

  • avatar

    Jacob Fortin

    you can’t make a blanket statement and then say that your comments were directed at people who can speak up and choose not to. Why the hell should we force any of them to even discuss their beliefs? I think that with time and patience, atheism is going to continue to flourish, but not everyone needs to tow the “party line”.

    Calling someone a betrayer for not wanting to confront religious people all the time is divisive, plain and simple. As for the analogy with gay rights, forcing everyone to speak out isn’t going to win people any favors. People have to come on board at their own pace, but you won’t accomplish that by bashing heads and forcing your beliefs down everyone’s throats.

  • avatar


    From Austin’s post:

    “Nothing here, and certainly no one thing, means that a person is necessarily making oppression of atheists easier. These are signs of problems, not proof or error or even malice, but if you find yourself doing any of them you should stop to reflect on what’s going on.”

    There’s a difference between being unnecessarily rude and defending yourself and others, and an even bigger one between defending yourself and actually joining in the ridicule, actively undermining atheist viewpoints with phrases like “I’m an atheist BUT”, or differentiating yourself as a “good” atheist as opposed to those “bad” ones to score social points. And asking people to stop participating in that sort of BS is not the same as “forcing” them to discuss their beliefs. Just don’t participate in the bashing. Also, standing up for the rights of non believers does not have to “out” you as a non believer, my family is religious and they would stand up for atheists if the subject arose. Also, most believers I know who might engage in what they saw as light hearted atheist bashing would quickly back down in the face of a simple, polite response of disagreement.

    The content, if not the approach, of his post is good, and I find the behaviors he describes to be very frustrating. But I do agree that his approach, trying to affix a label to any group of people, is divisive. Name calling doesn’t ever really come to any good end.

    In general, 1. the phrase “Uncle Tom” should be relegated to the waste bin and 2. Austin should refrain from trying to affix a label to people, whatever its historical connotation, and stick to making his points. I for one still value his writing and think he’s a good ally.

    I noticed he doesn’t have comments open on either of his “Uncle Tom” posts. Have you emailed him about this? Not saying you should, just curious because if you haven’t then I might – he’s a pretty high profile online atheist, it would be nice to see him address his approach and the language he’s chosen.

  • avatar

    Jacob Fortin

    generally I do my own thing in the atheist circle. The other main atheists guys don’t pay attention to me and I don’t blame them. I’m a bit of a wild card, and I range from silly and fun to crazy serious. So, no one is sure just how to categorize me, and I love it!

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