Are too many atheist, freethought, and skeptic communities exhibiting religious cult-like behavior?

By Ben Alonzo

Have you ever thought that once you left a religious cult, but think you found yourself in another kind of cult? The parallels are worth discussing, and it’s something that we should be talking about, especially among the atheist, freethought, and skeptic communities. Atheism is supposed to mean apart from belief in a theistic figure or system. Skeptic was supposed to mean someone that questions or investigates claims and the validity of things. And then there’s freethought, something that was supposed to mean unrestricted thought, free from dogma, tradition, and especially religious authority. It seems that these words have been altered to the point of being unrecognizable — so much that many are distancing themselves from it – for very good reasons. When something pretends to or downright doesn’t embrace sound science, it’s time to walk away.

Regressive Cult Behavior

Before we discuss why atheists would be distancing themselves from the word atheism, freethought might not be so free, and skeptics may not be so skeptical, we have to discuss cult behavior. Pitchfork warning: I’m expecting to be attacked by the very people this article addresses for simply discussing these issues, but I’m aware of many other scientists that feel the same way, and a good scientist should value sound science more than anything else. These things need to be addressed. At least hear me out, I’m here to help and educate.

Why bother talking about this? Many scientists very concerned that even science is being hijacked by pseudoscience, identity politics, and cult-like behavior that will hold the world back – and will result in more division. This is a serious matter and more scientists need to speak up about how this is tainting scientific progress, critical thinking, and intellectual development.

There are many first-hand accounts from ex-cult members that go into great detail about their experiences. Religious cult behavior often includes these characteristics:

  • Isolation (us vs. them mentality), the idea that everyone that disagrees with us is evil
  • Inability to accept any questioning or criticism of their beliefs or ideas
  • Refusal to discuss science-based matters, value popularity of the group over reality
  • Attacking outsiders or anyone with a different opinion
  • Worshiping figures (unhealthy addiction to scientists, hanging on their every word, worshiping political figures – that is my candidate can do no wrong/will never admit it — hypocrisy
  • The promotion and practice of mindless support (echo chambers and hive minds)
  • Engaging in identity politics
  • Valuing feelings over facts
  • Promoting pseudoscience (same thing as picking and choosing only what you like)
  • Attacking those who promote, inquire, or engage in objective sound science ideas, news, or thoughts
  • Engaging in wild conspiracy theories that lack any supporting evidence
  • Willing to get violent with anyone they disagree with (e.g., punch someone or burn something down)
  • Perpetuating a system of continuous victimization, everyone is “broken” or a “victim”
  • Independent thinking is discouraged
  • Resorting to personal attacks when you have nothing meaningful to discuss or facts on your side to support your position(s).

If you see any number of these things (or most of them) occurring in your organization or group, a discussion forum, or Facebook comments, you’re witnessing cult-like behavior.

Video: Not all cults are obvious to people.

Atheism, freethought, and skeptic groups weren’t supposed to automatically mean they’re political dogma centers with cult-like collections of people (that ironically also have a pseudoscience problem). However, far too many of these clubs, organizations, and their social media accounts could be described as having multiple characteristics that are indistinguishable from any religious cult. This is a problem that more people are realizing and may have also been the reason why some of their public events have declined in popularity and relevance (Reason Rally?). Just that fact will prove the point above, simply because merely admitting it draws a cult-ish reaction. Rather than have an open discussion, using sound science, logic, and reason, and being receptive to all of that, far too many of these groups shun any dissent or legitimate discussion – no different than any of the worst religious fundamentalist groups out there.

Video: The toxic religion of identity politics.

Far too many of these groups of people are behaving very similar to the very dogma, organized religion, and oppression that they claim to oppose. Maybe people get so deep into an idea that they can’t see they’ve become what they hate. There’s an unhealthy amount of pseudoscience, identity politics, extreme dogma, hypocrisy, lack of critical thinking, independent thought, consistency, and objectiveness in many of today’s atheist, freethought, and skeptic movements. These negative traits lead to regression. It’s worth mentioning that cult-ish behavior and anti-science rhetoric is coming from both the left and right political wings. The results are the same: we move backwards, divide ourselves, and lose track of what’s important. Just think of the things we could get done, if people really focused on healthy independent, critical thought, sound science, and true secular humanism.

We have problems in science too, but we have a process to improve ourselves, review, modify, test, replicate, accept or dismiss. The best scientists use sound science by consistently using the modern scientific method, which seems to be misunderstood, even by other scientists. It’s great that more people are talking about science, especially after Cosmos returned or the popularity of Bill Nye: The Science Guy. More importantly, we should understand what science actually means, involves, and how it’s done. Science isn’t just for people in the laboratory, you can apply it in nearly every aspect of life.

What is sound science?

In order to be considered “science” or “scientific” research must have: (1) observable evidence/data, (2) a testable theory with the ability to verify/reproduce results/confirm on it a consistent basis, (3) predictability, (4) quantifiability, and (5) clearly defined terminology. This is why there was a right/wrong answer on your high school physics test. It’s not about how you feel (subjectivity), it’s about the scientific method, evidence, facts, empirical data, demonstrable results, verification, consistent replication, etc. (objectivity). Sound science is supposed to be the practice of high-quality scientific research, education, and operations. Either you’re practicing sound science or you’re not. There’s no such thing as “sort of” or “softer” science.

Real science doesn’t care about your favorite political candidate, personal feelings, or identity politics. Somehow, there are people out there that wrongfully use the word “science” as if it’s just another political party or religious belief system, it’s not. Many are still not really embracing science, picking and choosing only the bits and pieces that don’t force them to change or reconsider their existing ideologies. That’s a problem.

Objective vs. Subjective Thinking: Not Compatible

Objective science is not compatible with subjective thinking.

You can see this fact by simply studying laws by geographic location. Science is universal. The laws of physics, chemistry, geology, or any other scientific principle, don’t change over time, nor do they differ from one city to another. This is why you find widely varying laws, outdated policies, taxes, inconsistent pollution acceptability levels, differing ages of consent, drinking ages, terribly inconsistent healthcare services, and so forth (referred to as social behaviors or norms) – most of them aren’t based on universal, consistent, unbiased sound science. In fact, one could argue that ongoing wars, inequality, violence, and hate are a direct result of cult-like behavior and ideologies that result from the refusal to fully embrace sound science as a way of life, thinking, healthcare, economy, and overall government.

No matter how hard people try, subjectivity isn’t in the formula for sound science. Similar to any religion, people can grow up being taught a belief system so much that they become indoctrinated in it – and it’s hard to change. No other perspective is correct. They treat “outsiders” just like any other cult would. Any thought that dares to question your beliefs or demands evidence for your position causes an almost reflex-like attack reaction – and that is not reasonable or scientific at all. Much like a Christian picks and chooses only the “fluffy” or “nice” Bible verses, far too many take a few bits of science that they agree with and ignore the rest – that’s a huge problem.

It’s interesting to see atheist, freethought, and skeptic forums and social media groups. You can read a huge amount of posts and discover much of the above behavior is occurring on a daily basis. These groups become so totalitarian that North Korea would blush. Though dictatorships may have a self-destructive cycle, where they are so oppressive and restrictive that they eventually die off in popularity, they still do damage for as long as they exist. You cannot kill science or evolution – they will both be here beyond the lifespan of anyone reading this article. But a huge amount of the ideas and content being posted in these circles is no different than the average religious cult. Let’s talk about what divides us, at least some of the biggest things.

Consider a few examples.

You have atheist groups that practically worship political figures or movie stars so much that if anyone dares mention they support someone different, or asks someone to explain why they support that person, they resort to the cult-like behavior characteristics described above. How many atheists became atheists because churches and religious leaders refused to answer legitimate questions about the conflicts between the Bible and modern science? How many cults threaten their members, if they dare ask questions or think outside of the accepted group think?

“If you voted for Hilary, you can’t be my friend, you’re an f****** communist idiot.”
“If you voted for Trump, you can’t be my friend. Nazi. Bigot.”
“If you don’t worship Jesus, you can’t be my friend. The Bible tells us not to associate with non-believers, they’re evil.”
“I hope you die of cancer for not voting for Hilary.”
“We need to ban all of those Bernie bot millennials. I don’t want to see another post about Bernie Sanders. Either you support Clinton or you’re dead to me.”
“All men are evil and if you don’t think that you’re exercising your evil male privilege.”
“Jesus is the way and life. If you don’t believe that, you’re of Satan.”

Remember the Salem Witch trials? Religious nuts murdered innocent people because they thought they were possessed, guilty of some kind of horrible crime, without any legitimate evidence of the claims made against them. Innocent until proven guilty with sound science evidence should be the standard, but it isn’t. The very same people that make fun of people for believing things that aren’t verified go around posting slanderous, libelous content regarding a number of various people, including various public figures. This is also hypocritical because it isn’t the way they would want to be treated. The prevalence of digital social media just spreads this much quicker than anything in world history. It’s a shame that you find so much of this within groups that claim to stand apart from religious oppression.

Many people have written to me, asking me to get involved in social media arguments. Who doesn’t like talking to people? What I saw wasn’t any kind of healthy “debate.” The comments section can be a place of absolute delight or horrible torture. There’s been a few times where I’ll go see what someone wants me to read. In one particular case, it was astonishing to see what was done to one atheist, specifically the witch hunt and personal attacks that resulted from her posting simple questions and a few links to science journals that supported her position. Within minutes, this group of people responded like fire ants, attempted to post her home address, and even made violent threats against her and her family. Rather than have a reasonable, dignified discussion, most of the atheists in the group engaged in petty, aggressive, illogical, hypocritical, and unreasonable behavior. It got so bad I encouraged to leave the group and delete her social media account for her own safety. She had gone to the group for support and to discuss news, but this group wasn’t having any discussion that remotely challenged their existing beliefs or exact political ideologies. This isn’t rare, it’s a real problem.

People need support, but they’re associating with groups that behave no different than the worst religious cults. They left one cult and find themselves in another.

As a movement, atheism has potential, but it has too much identity politics coming from its loudest mouths and supporters. Scientists have a hard enough time reminding people atheism isn’t a religion, so people shouldn’t act like it is one. It’s not every atheist, but the large numbers are troubling and clearly divisive. You will find much of the above dividing nearly every popular atheist figure, in one way or another.

There’s also skeptic organizations that perpetuate wild conspiracy theories, such as the notion that vaccines caused homosexuality, governments have never historically lied to citizens to further a political agenda, climate change is a hoax, or chemtrails are real. How in the world can you claim to be a skeptic without understanding basic science and the scientific method?

“Global warming was made up by banks to make money. No scientist actually believes it.”
“They did more chem trails today. I got the flu from it. They’re killing our kids.”
“I’m a vegan and don’t eat that sh*t scientists put in the food. They killing us.”
“There’s nothing wrong with diet drinks, they’re perfectly healthy. You can drink as much as you want and nothing happens.”

Skepticism seems to mean not much more than listening to your favorite political figure, eating up biased pop culture articles, regurgitating political talking points, or a 30 second Wiki search that makes you an expert on whatever issue. Just what exactly does skeptic mean anymore? Again, not all skeptics are bad, but dive into the forums, organizations, and social media groups that use this label to see what they’re discussing.

In another example, consider the atheist and freethought groups that refuse to acknowledge or discuss how many countries with Islamic-based laws treat women and gays. How can a secular collection of people deny the harm that comes from the world’s most extremely oppressive, regressive religious systems? How can we fix an issue when we refuse to acknowledge its existence or the solutions?

Coming from the same group:

“I hate Christianity, it’s evil and the biggest problem now. So much homophobes and violence in it.”
“Islam is beautiful and has nothing to do with terrorism and homophobia. Islam is so peaceful and we should support it. F**k off Trumptard.”
“I hate how Christians won’t bake a cake for gay people… so wrong. F**k Christians.”
“In some Islamic countries, they throw gays off of buildings or murder them just for being gay. They get a death sentence. Let’s talk about that if we hate on Christians. ” (this guy was shunned by the group and banned for making this statement, even though it was true).

Hypocrisy much? Some of these freethought people should visit the very countries with ideologies they staunchly support to personally witness how women and gays are treated, rather than blindly continue to support such oppression. Christianity isn’t the only religion that brings the world hate and destruction. Again, not all freethought groups are bad, but dive into the forums, organizations, and social media groups that use this label to see what they’re discussing.

Be prepared for personal attacks, there’s no questioning or discussion allowed. Numerous atheist, skeptic, and freethought groups will ban you for any discussion of any topic that their dictator(s) find triggering or offensive, which could apply to literally anything and everything – talk about subjective. This is exactly how many religious cults prevent people from actually questioning or thinking about anything. Offensive means anything they disagree with or that challenges them, for example. This is as anti-science, regressive, and anti-intellectual as you can get.

Video: Lawrence Krauss on Science and Religion.

Science gets me excited because it’s a no-BS approach to life – the only proven way to progress as a society. I’ve never taken a medical science, geology, meteorology, or other science course that began with the professor stating, “trigger warning… don’t worry, we’ll ignore anything you disagree with or that could cause you to be offended, question your current beliefs, the world, or require you to independently exercise critical thinking skills. Don’t worry, there are no wrong answers, only how you feel. You will never be questioned, challenged, or feel uncomfortable.” Science has always challenged me to have wider perspectives, gain more skills, exercise critical thinking, embrace change, new information, improve myself, ease the suffering of others, become more understanding, efficient, healthier, faster, and so much more. No other thing in life or history has given humans the priceless utility status modern science has achieved.

It seems as if many are actually offended by modern science. It’s not a problem with science, it’s a problem with the way that person thinks.

Are You Offended by Modern Science?

What does this have to do with science? It was modern science that paved the way for world development, filling in the ignorance gaps once held by superstitious religion, replacing ignorance with evidence-based critical thinking – which gives us the life and comforts we enjoy today. Many atheist, freethought, and skeptic individuals say they came to their liking of these concepts because of science, and many describe themselves as pro-science, but do they really understand or support science?

Modern science contradicts nearly every major claim of the Bible, for example. But take this a step further. If you moved past religion and applied modern science to your personal beliefs about sex, politics, economy, law, wars, and health, would you find any conflicts? Are your beliefs based only on sound science? And if you find conflicts between your ideas and sound science, are you willing to consider changing? These are legitimate questions everyone should be asking themselves. We have to make sure we’re different than religious cults, not just hypocrites.

Remember the Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye debate (debacle)? Atheists made fun of Ken Ham for saying that basically nothing would change his mind about creationism, evolution or science – no amount of evidence, nothing. Yet, at the same time, many atheists, skeptics, and “freethinkers” remain so stuck in various unscientific beliefs that they refuse to embrace sound science and change – and nothing can change their minds? They are no different in refusing to accept science – just as much as the religious cults they make fun of for doing the very same thing. This is essentially a bit of hypocrisy and you will find parallels like this in millions of discussion forum and social media posts. You’re not pro-science, if you only pick the few parts you like, and you go beyond ignoring the rest – to the point of attacking anyone that dares to discuss it with you.

Here’s a really odd example. Remember diabetes, cancer, and heart disease? What does science say about being overweight and unhealthy? Science says overweight people are unhealthy and at higher risk for all kinds of negative health impacts. In the same secular groups discussed above, there were these attacks anyone that posts science data on healthy eating or exercise, for example. “Fat-shaming” was an attack word used to label people refusing to promote or congratulate those living unhealthy lifestyles. This was kind of confusing at first, and I used to ask, “what the heck does this have to do with atheism or freethought?” These “fat-pride” posts were popping up all over these “secular” groups and it finally made me realize it all comes from the same place – willful ignorance, inconsistent critical thinking, anti-science, and anti-intellectualism – the very things that are damaging the secular movement. Unhealthy thinking can lead to unhealthy lifestyles, no surprise.

It’s troubling to see so many atheist, freethought, and skeptic forums and social media circles act like religious cults, getting offended by scientific thoughts or discussion, prohibiting any questioning or dissent, banning people that challenge their viewpoints, attacking scientists for pointing out where people might be wrong or how they can improve in life, and the demand that people respect illogical ideas, inhumane practices, pseudoscience, or feelings more than sound science itself.

We should be excited about science. There’s so many topics we could discuss. We’re powerful when we work together. We can accomplish great things. We must also acknowledge that people might have different opinions. People should not live in bubbles, shielded from different opinions or ever having their beliefs challenged. It’s also important to realize that opinions are not the same as scientific facts. We don’t have to respect all opinions. We certainly don’t have to respect anti-scientific religions that don’t respect basic human rights. Facts have significance over feelings or opinions. We’re in trouble when personal feelings become more important than being receptive to sound science.

One thing is remarkable. True pro-science forums, atheism, freethought, and skeptic social media discussion groups should be a receptive place for people to discuss science. Unfortunately, you will find, as have many other pro-science people, that an alarming amount of these circles have become hostile towards sound science, open discussion, and questioning of the ideas or validity of something. It’s a problem that’s getting worse. Maybe pro-science people should not waste their time in these circles, especially with an audience that isn’t receptive or is superficial towards sound science matters.

The Other Side

Indeed, atheism, freethought, and skepticism movements should involve support for legitimate social justice, gay rights, and countless other major world issues, but the ideas and actions must be based on sound science, not just feelings, political party talking points, or other subjective agendas.

Whenever identity politics injects itself into causes, it usually involves a large amount of baseless claims or the use of pseudoscience to further itself. Just like religions use sensationalism, fear and ignorance, political agendas love using the same tools. This creates a problem for legitimate science and support of great causes because people are often unable to distinguish between a good cause and bad cause. Science tells us that a plethora of biases can ruin a data set. It makes sense that the same goes for our most prominent political movements. Many are stigmatizing the “hive mind” behavior of humans. Group think can be a good thing, if the members of the group are critical thinkers that embrace sound science. Remember, each of the parts makes a whole. Whenever we have too many distractions, we lose focus and momentum for our cause(s). Once a movement has too many distractions, it’s time to either fix it or ditch it.

Walking Away

After sitting down with several other scientists and public figures last year, many of us decided to begin a process of distancing ourselves from these labels and movements. There are also some public relations firms that are suggesting prominent science communicators stay away from the terms: atheist and skeptic.

We know that political movements, and human nature, have historically morphed various words we once knew into something vastly different. A movement can also attach negative stigmas to something that was once positive.

It also seems as if “it is whatever you want it to be” is the ideology being perpetuated about science, which is absolutely false.

There’s a line in the sand that professionals have to take, which is part of being a leader, and it’s not always the popular culture thing to do. But science isn’t popular culture, opinion, or about making people always feel good about whatever they believe to be true. The recent 2016 presidential election really brought this whole issue back up, primarily because of the huge amount of division that took place.

Hysterical headlines once flooded the secular community, especially after the 2016 election results were final. Both sides used fear and ignorance tactics, causing further divide and stress among the public. Regardless of who’s in the White House, science still exists, scientists continue to work behind the scenes, research continues, and real things are being accomplished. Nobody’s saying there aren’t challenges, but science doesn’t need the division of identity politics. We need to move forward.

We have to decide if we’re going to be a part of any organization or movement that is promoting pseudoscience or anti-science, religious cult-like behavior. For the practicing scientist, this decision should be clear: choose sound science. The problem is communicating this to the media, political movements, and the overall secular community that passes itself off as in love with science – at least the parts they like. This might seem scathing, but the problems and solutions discussed here should get some consideration. We can do better than this, speaking towards the entire secular spectrum.

Some Solutions

We can generate a lot of excitement and positive attention for atheism, freethought, and skepticism, if we can fully embrace sound science as the top priority, promote consistency, understanding, independent thought, and stop dividing people with identity politics. Science and identity politics are not the same thing – and they are not compatible. Things aren’t going to change overnight, but it starts with the individual.

Public figures should not give any further momentum for ideas or movements that aren’t based in or willing to fully support sound science. Many of us have previously left cults, but we find ourselves in another cult, and it’s time to distance ourselves from it. Anti-science and overall anti-intellectualism is toxic to development as an individual or nation.

Leaders of atheist, freethought, and skeptic organizations should do everything they can to ensure sound science has the most prominent voice and a favorable discussion environment. Some leaders actually go way outside of sound science, into the realm of political correctness, identity politics, or even infusing religious overtones, just to increase their membership numbers. This may seem like a temporary gain, but it’s superficial, never lasts, weakens your organization, and is inherently dishonest of the leadership.

Either you’re an atheist group or you’re not. Either you support freethought or you don’t. Either you practice skepticism or you don’t. There will be degrees of acceptance, but it can’t be to the point of contradicting what you’re supposed to stand for. These secular ideas should be simple terms with clear meaning, but identity politics and cult-like behavior have blurred what they mean – and caused such enormous division among these movements.

Video: This video pissed off many, but wasn’t there some truth to it? The atheist, freethought, and skeptic movements could become something stronger, if they were consistently pro-science, removed bias, identity politics, and other distractions.

Many science public figures are ready to support sound science organizations, but the enthusiasm towards secular movements isn’t energized as much as it could be because of the factors discussed above. No amount of excuses or spinning is going to change that fact. There’s room for improvement and it must start with examining the mission statement and actual activities and rhetoric coming from these movements.

Don’t deny the importance of modern science. You wouldn’t have atheism, freethought, or skepticism without it. Sound science should be a top priority and part of the mission statement of any secular, progressive organization.

Actions speak louder than keyboard warriors. Do something, give money, start an organization, organize events, meet people, teach, or write a book. If you have special skills, get involved. You would be much more productive doing something else, instead of participating in culture of perpetual outrage, the digital lynch mob, and spreading pseudoscience. At some point, you have to decide whether you want to be a part of a movement or not.

Members should examine the organizations they belong to, especially to ensure they’re supporting sound science. If they aren’t, consider finding another organization, discontinue financial support, and continue your journey with science as an important element in your life. You might be discouraged to see some of the larger organizations behaving this way, but keep some hope that this may be partially because the “discourse microphone” is just being held by the wrong people (loudest voices or a few given elevation by the media), and that a growing amount of people continue to embrace sound science. Progress is being made, whether you hear about it or not.

You’re not alone, don’t ever give up. Seek other pro-science people and groups. Continue to share sound science in these groups. Question everything and everyone. Encourage independent, critical thinking skills. Be a consistent skeptic – on all matters. Exercise free thought for all of the issues you care about. Take a science course, read a science book, support sound science blogs. Do your part to embrace sound science. When science is on your side, you have a huge advantage over others. Move forward. Move on to something better.

Suggested Related Reading:

Why are you still a Christian after reading this (thorough)

Identity politics is destroying liberals

Pseudoscience comes from the left and right

Have you experienced any of this? Join in the discussion forum below.

Author: Ben Alonzo is a unique science and tech expert, professor, entrepreneur, and journalist. He founded and is the CEO of the tech firm Storm Sector, LLC. Ben holds an MS in Information Technology, MS in Geoscience, MS in Health & Nutrition, and a BS in Geoscience. He is a highly rated professor that teaches a wide variety of college courses within earth, environmental, computer sciences and public health. His diverse background spans enterprise information technology, healthcare, weather forecasting, consumer electronics, digital media, web development, and business leadership. He holds numerous professional licenses and certifications, ranging from information technology to healthcare and emergency medical technician. Ben is a tech entrepreneur and is business partners with multiple restaurants. He is also a private pilot, fitness pro, musician, and loves filmmaking. Alonzo has written about science and tech for over 10 years. You can see some of his past articles on the Houston Chronicle, Heart, and other networks. In his free time, he likes scuba diving, storm chasing, and the gym.
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