Some men have always been wretched. It only took the internet to make it obvious.
Women — some women, at least — have always known. For all the sense that we are in a generation finding a new voice, it may be more accurate to say that we are in a generation where an old voice has finally found volume. But volume brought consequences. Organized intimidation is now fair game for anybody audible to the mob, and everyone is audible online.
The most public victims of last year's Gamergate rage — women like Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, and Brianna Wu — were not radicals. Very few of the women who have found themselves violently threatened on the internet are. To view Sarkeesian's Feminist Frequencyvideos after reading accounts of her harassment is to be surprised chiefly by how uncontroversial her analysis feels. She points out that the video game industry caters to men; women, when included, are typically set dressing, as victims of violence or sexual reward. Is any of this truly in doubt? Is any of it more radical than a new voice reciting an old liturgy?
Yet she was harassed as if she'd proposed revolutionary insurrection, and so during the last week of August, Sarkeesian, an ordinary woman with a message so innocuous that a sane world might deem it obvious, was forced to flee from her home.
As it happens I'd spent several nights in August with one of her antagonists. He claims he's not the kind to send explicit threats, and he wasn't involved in Gamergate. He's just a man who takes a dim view of Sarkeesian, he says, and hasn't been afraid to tweet her about it. He doesn't think much of feminism in general, or at least of what he says feminism became once the voting and the jobs and the abortion rights were sorted and the word became a dog whistle for "self-pity and sexism toward men." His name is Max — although it isn't, of course — and he is a men's rights activist. I found him because I wanted to know what these men were like, not on Reddit or on Twitter or on any other forum where they are actively engaged in their cause, but in ordinary life — relaxed, after having a few, and without a keyboard to take it out on.
"I'll make you a bet, hundred dollars," Max tells me the first night we hang out. "If both of us stood up on this table right now and started yelling what we think about feminism, somebody might tell you to shut the fuck up. But they would lynch me."
Men's rights activism has been in the undercurrent of American culture since at least the 1970s and has been largely explicit in its role as a backlash against feminism. The movement has neither a central platform nor any acclimated leaders, but the central themes are consistent: It is men, not women, who are oppressed. Men are required to enter the selective service; women are immune. Men typically lose their children in otherwise equal custody disputes. Men are expected to work dangerous and difficult jobs in construction and agriculture. Beyond these overt disadvantages, they claim more subtle systemic disrespect from a culture increasingly focused on what they take to be feminine values, from emotional expressiveness to total sexual and reproductive liberation. When they vary, it is in extremity, with some merely decrying the "anti-male" attitude of feminism and others seeking, for example, to reverse the criminalization of marital rape.
When I met him, Max lived in the River North neighborhood of Chicago. River North is — at 70 percent white in a city where the white population is 32 percent and declining — one of the few places one can live in the Chicago where it is still possible to avoid even a vague awareness of the city's racial and cultural dynamics. I found Max on Reddit, on a forum largely devoted to making fun of teenage leftists on Tumblr. It was only good luck that he lived in my city and was willing to talk.
In the popular imagination, men's rights activists are "neckbeards": morbidly obese basement dwellers with a suspect affection for My Little Pony. But Max is remarkably unassuming in appearance, handsome enough and normally tall; equally imaginable in board shorts and a snapback as he is in the sort of graduation suit one wears to a first post-collegiate interview downtown. He was raised in St. Louis, one of two children. (He has a brother, younger: "He goes to school in Seattle. Kind of a hippie.") His parents are alive and married. Before Max was born, his father was a unionized carpenter in Newark, New Jersey, part of a long line of the same until the 1980s came around and Max Sr. followed the dawn of management consultancy into a white-collar job and the Midwest suburbs. When Max came to Chicago in 2006, it was for college ("not the first in my family to go to college but the first to go at the normal time" — that is, at age 18). Four years after graduating, he has a solid entry-level job at an area financial institution. "Plenty of women work there," he offers in the middle of a preliminary biographical rundown. "They're getting paid the same as me." We had not yet begun discussing politics.
Max fits in with the crowd at the faux-Mexican bar where we spend several nights in August. Eight-dollar tequila shots; polo shirts tucked in or dress shirts tucked out of pre-faded jeans; groups of guests emitting an oscillating screech from every booth. "This is just, like, my neighborhood place," he tells me the first time we walk in the door. Not the kind of spot he'd "hit up" on a Friday, or where he'd look for what he insists on calling "action."
"These girls here are a little ... eh," he said. "Could be fun. Definitely annoying." (Distinguishing them from the similarly well-highlighted, halter-topped women he shows me on Facebook as examples of what he's "into" requires some capacity for discernment I do not possess.)
He has a different-colored polo on all three nights I see him.
Max was not a member of Gamergate proper. This isn't terribly uncommon: Men's rights activists exist who disdain that particular episode, if not for its virulence then for its celebration of men who prefer Dungeons and Dragons to Monday Night Football. Similarly, there are Gamergate activists who remain stubbornly committed to the idea that they are ethicists of video game journalism, wholly detached from "men" as a generalized political class. But these vagaries — the specific grievances of Gamergate, the sort of person who self-applies "MRA" versus the sort who prefers some other acronym — are merely symptoms of a broader male sense of victimhood. It is this victim complex I intend to tell you about, not the particular schisms between reactionaries. I am interested in the style of man who makes all such factions explicable. The kind who has in these last decades felt the theoretical foundation of his inherited supremacy begin to crumble and gone into defensive crouch, lashing out at every grain of sand that shifts beneath his feet.
Some section of men have always jealously guarded their privilege, but we are for the first time seeing what happens when that same section begins to lose the assumption of its divine right. It isn't that they're monsters. Max is this kind of man, and he is not some fountain of malevolence. He is the mildest kind. I spent August with a well-adjusted man in a polo shirt who would never think to hurt someone except in self-defense, but he comes from a pot where new anger is boiling. And at least one of the bubbles so far was named Elliott Oliver Rodger, the 22-year-old man who went on a shooting spree last year near the University of California Santa Barbara — an act he said was the result of being rejected by women.
"I'm not one of those guys who's obsessed," Max tells me on our first night together. "Like, yeah, I comment on articles. I'm on Reddit — which, by the way ... it's not, like, a hub for MRAs or anything. There are plenty of feminists on there — but I do that and I tweet and stuff. But only a few hours a week max, and most of it is just reading the news."
He says this, I think, to distinguish between himself and the common, not-altogether-inaccurate conception of men's rights activists as sexually frustrated loners with too much time on their hands. But the caveat comes with some regret, as though Max wishes he were more involved in fighting the good fight. "Like, I didn't go to that big men's rights conference earlier this summer, but ..." The thought is interrupted by the arrival of his enchiladas, a subsequent discussion of our waitress's outfit, and some thoughts on "the market forces" and "basic social realities" behind it that he thinks I might be interested in.
(She is wearing what I can only describe as a perfectly ordinary outfit for a waitress: white blouse, black jacket, black pants. Max has a more elaborate take: "It's like halfway between modest and revealing. Adjust for social morals and it's, like, Victorian. She wants dignity. She wants to be chased. Same time. And fine, that's how it's always been, but I bet she'd say, ‘I didn't wear this for you!' Like: yes you did. Not because she wants to sleep with me. It's to get tips. But when you go out later, it's to attract a guy. And there's nothing wrong with that, you know?")
The discussion is not terribly dissimilar from or any less agreeable than one between any two men at any bar like this bar, except that Max is a new kind of reactionary (and I know this) and I am a lefty feminist writer who takes a dim view of his politics (and Max knows this as well). I'm not surprised to learn that those politics took shape in high school.
"When I was, like, 10 or whatever I'm sure I would've said I was a feminist if I'd known the word," Max says. "My mom says she's a feminist. And I guess in the way my mom means it, I still am. But she doesn't know how it is now. For her, feminism means ‘everybody is equal,' but if you said that now, these social justice warriors on Tumblr would call you a sexist and garbage and tell you to die. But I didn't realize that at first. I thought feminist meant ‘women should be able to vote and have jobs,' which I'm obviously cool with."
Max says he wasn't terribly unpopular in high school, but read more than was socially viable — most of it on the computer. ("No girlfriend," he says. "What else are you going to do when you're 15?") Contemporary social media didn't exist in the way-back of 2002, so Max spent his time on forums dedicated to a single topic or else loading the full homepages of magazines in lieu of direct links to stories. "People our age are lucky we got that," he says. "I think it helped us learn to seek out information on our own and not just ‘like' what's popular." (Max is 28.)
Max became interested in the usual gateway drugs of men's issues: paternity rights, the selective service, requirements that mothers sue for child support before seeking state assistance. The term "men's rights activist" wasn't one he encountered in those days; he still says he prefers thinking of himself as a "humanist."
"Putting ‘men' right in the name is a deliberate response to feminism, I think. Because feminists claim to be about everybody, but really they're about women first. So [the MRA name] is kind of trolling them, I guess."
I ask him if it's such a bad thing for feminism to be primarily concerned with the interests of women. "Maybe a hundred years ago," he says, "But, like, in 2014? Women have all kinds of advantages that men don't."
"I just don't like this us versus them."
This, Max says, is why he has been a capital-letters MRA since at least 2010. But he is aware of the broad brush he's self-applying, and there are several things he's quick to say he isn't. He is not a Pick-Up Artist, he says. He is not a Red Piller. He is not a "Man Going His Own Way." These distinctions are important within the labyrinthine network of reactionary masculinity movements, and confusing one with another is as easy and potentially treacherous as similar conflations between factions of the left. I don't imagine tribalism pays much mind to politics. It's only that when Max closes his laptop he reenters the world heir to every privilege the nation can afford. The variously maligned social justice activistshe makes fun of on /r/TumblrInAction have no such refuge.
There are some other things Max is proud to be. He is an outspoken atheist and an active libertarian. The contours are the same: a proactive anticlericalism and a distaste for regulatory apparatus couched in a vague sense that this distaste constitutes a moral stance.
This trinity is not uncommon. A survey taken last year of the Men's Rights subreddit found that 94 percent of their membership identified as "atheist" or "religiously indifferent." Another, broader study of the men's rights movement on Reddit found that 84 percent identified as "strongly conservative," with particular policy preferences along a libertarian, not traditional, bent. For those of us hailing from the nominal left, these associations have at times felt unnatural: right-wingers using the rhetoric of social justice to argue for the traditional status of men, all the while eschewing, in a way more typical of the left, the patriarchal religious institutions that have classically underpinned these values. When Max speaks about one ideology, he can hardly help bringing in the others; for him, they are all related, distinct expressions of the same worldview.
On our first night I ask him if there was ever a God in his life. We have ventured at last into a deliberate political conversation. "This is God right here," he says after slamming down a shot of Fireball.
He is surprised that I want to discuss religion and politics, but not disappointed. He seems eager to get into these subjects.
"I think religion is probably one of the biggest threats to society," Max says. "I think feminism and statism and all of that — it's not explicitly about God, but it's definitely the same religious impulse, you know?"
For Max, religion is something of a starter pack for a lifelong indoctrination into Big Lies. "I know it isn't realistic or anything, but I think if we got rid of religion, that whole kind of way of thinking about things, where you just subscribe to what you're told, where you believe these ridiculous statistics about women or in stuff like the wage gap." (Max has a very long explanation of the "wage gap myth," one that seems cobbled together from multiple readings of a few different blog posts.)
"I just think [the willingness to believe anything] starts when you're a kid with Jesus, and it sets you up to be that way your whole life about everything. When I was a kid I would have called it ‘conformist,' but that sounds kind of lame, right? But that idea."
He orders us another round and continues on with what has become a familiar line from men's rights activists (or "new atheists" or libertarians): the explicit claim that they are the last remaining purveyors of reason. "They just won't use logic"; "I'm just arguing logically"; "I'm only interested in evidence": You can't scroll down a comment section without flashing past a few of these, and they are tribal markers, not real claims. "I mean, it's ridiculous that these people go on about how I have so much power because I'm a white dude," Max continues. "Like, Americans would rather elect a gay Muslim philanderer president than an atheist. Libertarians are treated like a joke. If you think people are mean to feminists on Twitter, you should see the stuff people say about MRAs. Or just, like, you know, 'Die, white-cis-scum, die.'"
He laughs, but it feels deliberate. Otherwise he might sound like he was getting worked up.
After a pause: "Like, if I'm 'privileged,' I'm privileged to have had parents who encouraged me to think for myself." Max says this in a tone more serious than his usual dorm-room bull session affect. But the smile comes back quickly: "I guess I'm oh-so-oppressed then, huh?"
For all his derision toward the "professional victimhood" of feminists, there's something a little less than sarcastic in Max's own sense of oppression. Hard-pressed as the social justice left is to admit any advantage, the West these last decades has seen the rhetorical value of victimized stance. The irresistible cudgel of "I am oppressed and this is my experience and you cannot speak to it because you do not know" is valid enough, of course, especially in those cases where ordinary enculturation does not provide natural empathy toward some suspect class. But it is a seductive cudgel, too, especially alluring when it can be claimed without any of the lived experience that makes marginalization a lonely-making sort of suffering. American Christians are "persecuted" now; men are the ones being "squelched" by feminism; white Americans are the victims of "reverse racism." The "victim card" is a child of the '70s, and 40 years out, who wouldn't use it, no matter how disconnected from reality? We are typically aghast when reactionaries accuse the maligned of perniciously employing this rhetorical immunity, but they are not wrong to see how the trick might be exploited. The irony is only that they know this possibility in virtue of their own projection.
For all Max's talk of equal opportunity ("It isn't the same as equality of outcome!" he quotes), for all his dismissal of those who blame institutional inhibitors of happiness ("Structural oppression might as well be Jesus. He's there! You just can't see it! But trust me! I'm a priest of Tumblr and we can see it, you stupid heathens!"), for all his casual derision toward the very notion of groups who might be justified in feeling that the world was not made for them, he is entirely possessed by the idea that it is men like him who bear the true brunt of society's hatred and that it is they, not the feminists or the statists or the faithful, who see the true extent of this structural injustice.
For Max, it is all a crusade. The struggle against the church, the state, the women. It is a battle about genuine issues: issues maligned by a majority too easily beholden to the prevailing taste consensus. The stakes are high and immediate, persuasion by comment section possible and, moreover, important because the trouble with most people is that they "haven't really thought about it for two seconds." The whole trinity flows from this sense of displacement. Libertarianism follows from recognizing of a colluding party system within a power-hungry state too quick to shut down big questions. Men's rights activism follows from the bizarre misapprehension (fueled by a disconnect between the opinions of visible intellectuals and the average populace) that feminism has reached suffocating heights of power. He is a rebel with one cause in three bodies, and the pushback — from friends, from me, from the nation's opinion apparatus itself — only therefore fuels his indignation toward a society too willing to neglect inconvenient truths about the world.
In activist circles of any kind, it is common to hear that injustice is a kind of sight that cannot be unseen. All of it seemed so hyperbolic until I started noticing it. Now I notice it in everything.The "it" is typically some kind of institutional bias: the ways in which women are routinely encouraged to defer to male judgment; the way in which race, without overt malice, permeates even simple American interactions. Before, we were post-gender and post-racial, without need of an Equal Rights Amendment, on track toward total marriage equality. Then you hear something, or live it, or read it, or see. The world today is now more like history, and the motives of the people in it are more suspect than before.
Reviewing my notes from my first night speaking with Max, I become more confident that his life is some strange inversion of the same epiphany. One day, he is comfortable as a man and comfortable with what masculinity means in the world. The next, he can see behind the veil, and all that goes away. Social justice through a mirror, darkly: Men are the ones subject to genuine oppression, the ones whose issues are taken as uninteresting and unimportant. They are the ones taking terrible jobs and being drafted; committing suicide at incredible rates; losing their children, their spouses, and their homes while nobody else seems to care; shouting in the wilderness while a feminist majority squelches their dissent.
I am not the first to notice this. Last year, John Herrman noticed the same inversion in the Awl. "A great number of men, online and off, understand feminism as aggression," he said, "They feel as though the perception of their actions as threats is itself a threat. In other words, they too believe that unsolicited public attention is inherently aggressive, but only when that attention takes the form of criticism, and only when it comes from women. They live this belief on the streets, where they are nearly unaccountable, and argue it online, where they are totally accountable."
Looking at my notebook, one observation, underlined at the time, stands out: "Max says he needs online MRA communities because on normal internet, he gets shouted down and talked over." A different kind of activist might call that a safe space.
If men's rights activism has a Gloria Steinem, a kind of central activist figurehead, it is Paul Elam, the founder and publisher of A Voice for Men. The website is one of the oldest and, if there is such a thing, most respected hubs for MRA activity. Elam and his staff do, at the very least, engage in genuine advocacy on behalf of men. Moreover, they don't typically stray past boorishness and into outright campaigns of harassment, although I cannot help feeling myopic in citing this fact as some kind of high water mark amongst the MRA set. I send him an email, and he writes back quickly. We arrange a call.
Like Max, Elam sees his issues as a crusade, his atheism as important, his politics as moral in their antisocialism. He was a substance abuse counselor by trade. It was in this context that he began to see. He remembers the first time, working for a men's treatment facility in Houston, waiting in the hall with an invited speaker, a woman about to go in and address the clientele.
"I was standing outside the group room and we were waiting for her to go in, just chatting for a moment about our work," he says, "And just before going into the group, which she was being paid quite a bit of money to do, she says, 'One of my favorite things in the world is to take men's macho bullshit and shove it down their throats.' I saw a lot of this in the treatment field," Elam says, "It's just she said it in such a particularly stark and direct way. At that point I thought, Something needs to be done about this."
The trouble continued. "I went to the administration about that particular incident," Elam explains. "And everyone who worked at that facility looked at me like I was nuts and said, 'What's the problem?' That's how pervasive this issue is."
Elam could see the truth. Nobody else could see. While the issues of paternity rights and the destruction of the family would come later, Elam's transition from counselor to pseudo-civil rights hero grew naturally out of his prior life.
He recites a litany of charges against modern psychotherapy, its anti-masculine focus on effusively articulated feelings. If one dismisses for a moment the bizarre unreality of men subject to brutal gendered discrimination, it doesn't sound terribly different, in sense or scope of conspiracy, than the complaints of feminist academics so often mocked by men of Elam's kind.
"If you want to bet that this woman identified as a feminist, I can tell you for a fact that she did, and she wasn't the only one who talked that way in that field.
"I do think that is abusive," he tells me, "when you send the message to your clients that they are either failing or succeeding based on your expectations of a stereotype." Through a mirror darkly: Elam says it is his group, not organized feminism, that is earnestly engaged in destroying traditional gender roles. It reminds me of a Pascal aphorism from the Pensées: "How is it that a lame man does not annoy us while a lame mind does? Because a lame man recognizes that we are walking straight, while a lame mind says that it is we who are limping."
Elam isn't without his objectivity. Unlike Max, he knows, for example, that his position is a rare one. Elam is not convinced that most people (normal people; the women in his office, if there were women in his office) take his crusades as common sense and only don't say so out of fear. His manner gives rise to a suspicion that he has been lonely a long time, not in the literal way, but self-consciously stranded in a shrinking section of the world. He is committed in part to his work because if more ground is lost, he will be lonelier still. If more ground is lost, there may not be room at all. Men are suffering, he says. He is suffering, but he doesn't say that outright.
All of it breeds a certain paranoia, one I encountered in all the men I spoke to. A feeling likely justified by the ordinary reaction to men's rights activism, that outsiders, especially outsiders writing for mainstream publications, are not to be trusted. That they agreed to speak to me at all remains surprising, especially in Max's case: He is friendly, willing to sit down, but insistent that his identity be protected. He seems, like so many zealots, to believe at once that he is righteous and vital and also that speaking out under his own name will bring unsavory consequences beyond his willingness to suffer.
At one point during our conversation, Elam says: "I'm just going to be frank with you, I've been through countless interviews with the media." As a result, he says, he understands why I need to ask him questions from a "mainstream" (read: feminist) sensibility, but "in a society that when we even try to talk about the issues, people are screaming bloody hell, trying to shut us down, calling us hatemongers and everything else, trying to silence us — that seems to me to be a very skewed point of view from which to be questioned." Despite this, he is nothing but polite. Indeed, none of the men I spoke to about these issues are anything but friendly, almost eager to persuade. I suspect that this is because I am, despite everything, a straight white man. To Elam, and to Max, I am a heretic, but I am not an infidel. I can still be saved.
I see Max again a few nights after our first meeting. I relate some of my conversation with Elam, and Max is quick to echo his bafflement. "I mean, people keep saying we're full of hate. We're just these angry, hateful dudes, you know? Like, we can't get laid, we hate women, all of that. And we come back with statistics, like rational argument, like an actual debate and are like, ‘No, listen, here's this and this and this with men' and here's, like, the logical fallacy in your argument, and they just call you, like, a cis-het shitlord and move on."
There's a temptation, brought on by the claustrophobia of extended conversation, a bit by empathy, and a bit by drink, to be taken in by the spirit of the argument. Men face certain social difficulties idiosyncratic to our sex, and while they are not systemic in the way that women's issues are, nor half so severe, I find it easy to sympathize with Max's frustration. In the bar, insulated as we are, when he begins talking about "just wanting human rights," I can only see his face, hear the exasperation in his voice, connect, instinctively, to that face and voice in part because they are well-mannered and in part because they are like my own. In that moment I can, if I like, forget that these issues, legitimate enough on their face, are carried out from a place of one-upmanship, that their expressions, except in rare cases, are solely as debating points, hurled between invective and harassment and the oldest hack tropes about women's bodies and choices. I can forget those things, if I like. I'm only a heretic.
A presentation at last summer's International Conference on Men's Issues. (Fabrizio Costantini/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
"I know this is like, almost a Fox News cliché way of saying it, but feminism and a lot of this stuff has been, like, a fundamental transformation of American society. We can't even see how far it's gone yet," he says. "I just think it's important to be wary of that and point out when you think things are getting too far from the truth."
He is almost starry-eyed while saying it, his voice quieter, slightly higher. Sincerity isn't quite the word so much as it's performance. Max knows how to tone the romantic's innermost profundity. Perhaps he doesn't do it consciously, but he's stealing from the movies all the same. At once ideological, forceful to the point of edgy outsider charm, and eminently reasonable, asking only for a consensus over what any fool can see. It isn't surprising that this seduces so many young men.
It's all terribly reasonable, until it isn't. This night corresponds with a particularly bad episode of police misconduct in Ferguson, and at some point we stop talking about the plight of men to watch a news live stream on my phone. Max's reaction is immediate: "This is crazy," he says a few times. "It's police brutality. I know people who say this isn't about race, but I don't get it. Like, this is obvious racism." A promising sign, but then, after a minute, "Man, feminists wish the cops treated them like this. Then they'd actually be oppressed." There's always another shoe with Max.
"Okay," I say about halfway through our second night. "Let's pretend for a minute that I take all of your issues seriously." ("How good an actor are you?" he interrupts, laughing.) "Let's say I believe men are maligned, women are taking advantage of them and profiting from it. And I believe all of this and I come to you, a men's rights activist, and say I want to get involved and help. Shouldn't I be concerned that a lot of people on your side don't seem to be doing legal or political work so much as sending death threats?"
No, Max says. The extreme behavior is mainstream in feminism these days, not in the men's rights movement. Elam claims much the same thing. Speaking about the men's rights conference he organized last summer, he explains, "Feminist activists have come out and pulled fire alarms, harassed attendees, interrupted and protested. When we had a conference on men's issues in Detroit, there was a demonstration, pressure on the hotel to shut us down. We eventually had to change venues. How much of what is really going on are you paying attention to, sir?"
Max never asks me that question outright, but I can hear it, minus the "sir," beneath a lot of what he says. I ask about the harassment of feminists — of women in general, on the street, in their homes, by classmates and strangers. How much is he paying attention to, for that matter? He shrugs it off. "I don't really see any of that stuff," he says. "I mean, I'm sure it happens? But it's not, like, organized, anyway. Guys catcalling don't have meetings to plan it."
(Years ago I was standing on a metro platform with a woman I knew. It was around 3 in the morning; we'd walked a mile to our train. She says it's the first time she's gone that stretch of road without being catcalled. I ask why. The answer is obvious. She says most men won't do it if the woman looks like she's with her owner.)
Other headlines coincide with our time together. James Foley is beheaded by ISIS; the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas breaks down. Max blames both on religious extremism and says he can't understand why "the good Muslims" don't denounce terrorism.
Extreme behavior is a sore spot for any movement, and nobody is more forgivable than one's own. Max concedes that some MRAs and associated activists go too far. "Some people doxx feminists and call their houses," he tells me. "That isn't cool. You can criticize these people, you can try to debate them, but threats are way out there."
So does he denounce the violent elements on any of his forums? He has tweeted unkind things to feminists. Does that encourage the ones who cross the line?
"What's the point?" Max asks. "I mean, it's only a couple guys, really. It's super fringe. They're not going to stop just because I say so." He fiddles with his burger. "You just have to develop a thick skin and try to ignore it. The feminists. Me. All of us. You know? Just ignore the crazy shit."
Near the end of our call, Elam had this to say: "Of course there's anger out there. I've never seen a social movement, including women's liberation, the black civil rights movement, gay rights, that did not involve some anger. So this whole idea that oh my god they're angry is rooted in the very misandry and the very bigotry that we're trying to address."
Perhaps Elam is simply more self-aware than Max is, but it is difficult to hear them talk this way and maintain credulity. It all sounds a little I'm maligned, and I'm oppressed, and society is too backward for the revolution I'm bringing, but I don't say so.
I ask Max if he has a girlfriend. Yes, he says, that they've been seeing each other a few months.
A couple of weeks go by. Vague plans had kept Max busy on the weekends; I've traveled out of town to report another story. It is September now, and we are sitting in Max's apartment.
His having a girlfriend is curious. Earlier in the evening, Max had told me (or rather had paraphrased, perhaps unconsciously, from a dozen articles and frat house bull sessions) that the base tragedy of feminism was the transformation of American women. Their entitlement. Their schizophrenic affect toward the dominance of men. Even the ones who are not feminists have been spoiled by the culture. Like "male allies" in the eyes of internet feminists, ostensibly uncorrupted women are valuable but often suspect.
At any rate, he likes this girl. She might be "marriage material," he says.
"Are you surprised?" he asks.
"That I have a girlfriend."
"No." I look out the window and consider that the view of the skyline alone might be worth a night in bed with a proverbial can of paint.
"Yes you are. Come on. You don't think women could possibly respect themselves and want to be with some evil sexist pig like me."
He is teasing me. Joviality is one of Max's preferred diffusion tactics. Taking on a deliberately inflated voice when directly addressing our differences is designed to produce an effect whereby we might wink at one another: We are both metacognizant, we both know the clichés about the other side. It isn't entirely ineffective. Max is naturally charismatic, and I am not surprised he has a girlfriend, only that he wants one. He looks down at his phone and smiles. Something on Twitter. He types. I wonder what kind of charisma he's employing there.
"I thought American women were all ruined," I say.
"Not all of them. You know what I mean. Just a lot. And you can never know. So it's hard to trust or invest in anybody long enough to find out."
"This girl isn't a feminist, though, I assume?"
"No. That you can see a mile away."
"So she's more traditional?"
"No. I'm not, like, looking for a housewife."
That Max is not seeking a 1950s fantasy is important to him. He asks me to say so explicitly.
"She's just cool," he tells me. "She doesn't have time for that social justice warrior stuff. She's in law school."
He shows me a picture. I'm not much for intuiting whole personalities from photographs, but I agree she has a look, an irrepressible appearance of sincerity without the usual attendant inexperience. She's capable. It's in her brow line, somehow.
Before meeting with Max for the third time, I'd placed another call to a more public face of men's empowerment. This time it was to Daryush Valizadeh, a writer popularly known as "Roosh V." He made his name as a Pick-Up Artist, one of the professional sort, a peddler of the best underhanded "one weird trick"s for seducing any woman. He is the author of more than a dozen self-published books, each of which offers tips for picking up the women in a country he has visited (the best way to exploit the insecurities of Poles evidently diverges at a book's length from the ideal manipulation of Norwegians).
Roosh is the owner of a website as well: Return of Kings, with the tagline "For Masculine Men." What dignity Elam's A Voice for Men retained does not interest Kings; this is a site that revels in its aggression. Looking late last year, without venturing past the first page, I found the following headlines: "Street Harassment Is a Myth Invented by Socially Retarded White Women"; "Twitter is Partnering with SJWs to Prevent Women from Facing Consequences"; "5 Lines That Potential Wives Cannot Cross." (I am particularly haunted by number five: You have left your old family and joined mine.) This is not a men's rights magazine but something more pure: an expression of rage, admittedly proudly, against the prevailing tide of feminism.
"I think there are two problems going on right now," Roosh told me. "First: If you're a man, society has no role for you except ‘listen to what women want.' Second, related, is that culture is telling men to hate themselves."
Of the three men I talk to, Roosh is by far the most charming. He has none of Elam's middle-aged weariness, nor the irregular intensity of cadence that makes one think of sandwich board prophets. What Max possesses in natural charisma, Roosh has given a practiced sophistication. He is funny and acutely aware that this goes much further in building rapport with a potentially hostile journalist than Elam's bitter complaining about "countless interviews" gone wrong ever could.
Roosh's story is typical for the movement. He sees a culture laid to waste by contemporary values, by feminism and the left. The decline is existential, robbing not only men but women of purpose and therefore happiness.
"There was a study. It said that women are less happy now than at any other time," he says. (He's referring to "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," an influential 2009 paper published in the American Economic Journal.)
"This was based on surveys; I don't know how accurate it is. But you see women who are addicted to their phones. They're having to work in a job that, let's be honest, is a glorified way to push paper. Do they feel happy? Do they seem happy?"
I suggest that happiness is fungible and that paper pushing may be a genderless misery.
"Are you telling me that a woman now is actually happier working for a boss in a corporate office who can fire her just because the quarterly report was bad, more so than serving her husband in a comfortable home?" he says. "I don't buy it. I just don't buy that women or anyone is amazingly happy because they can buy a new iPhone every year. If we define happiness by being a consumer zombie, then yes, maybe that's right. But anyone who has chased that knows there's no gold at the end of that rainbow."
He doesn't make a bad sophomore-year Marxist, Roosh.
I repeat this sentiment to Max at his apartment. He says it sounds a little "lefty," but he gets the drift. "Yeah, sure," he tells me, "but, like, people are adults. They can make their own choices about what to buy." (Max and I have this conversation while playing his new Xbox. He points out after about an hour that he has only put out games specifically criticized by Anita Sarkeesian).
"I thought Roosh V. was more of a pick-up, screw-the-family, get-laid sort of dude," Max says.
As did I.
For all his writing about how to sleep with multiple women, Roosh says it would be better the old way. The way where men had one partner and women had one partner. But, he adds, "It's easy to look back into the past and extract the best things that they did, and hope and wish that we had that. Of course, as humankind marches on, we can never pick and choose. So I'm thinking, what is the best deal that a man can do where he doesn't get screwed, where he doesn't have his life ruined, where he doesn't get imprisoned for something like a false rape accusation?"
In Roosh V.'s ideal world, there would be no need for men like Roosh. He claims no deep biological imperative beneath his seduction tactics. Only a culture falling apart in the West, marriages dying as women are no longer beholden to the pillars of its stability. Hooking up, going out, getting laid: These are just distractions, perhaps the best distractions still available, and Roosh fancies himself pragmatic.
I hang up the phone thinking this is all a bit more fatalistic than I'd thought.
Relating this all to Max in his apartment, I wonder what his girlfriend thinks of all of this.
"Do you talk to her about your views?" I ask.
"Uh. Not as such," he says. This is a peculiar construction for anyone, especially for someone with Max's instinct for putting others at ease.
"Are you afraid to?"
"No," he says, "No, of course not."
In the elevator a moment later: "I mean, don't get me wrong, she knows where I stand."
In June of last year, Time's Jessica Roy attended the first annual men's rights conference outside Detroit, a conference Elam was central in organizing. Among the litany of predictable observations — the destructive politics, the hostility and rage, the incomprehensible self-pity — Roy reported encountering a feeling she did not anticipate.
"What I didn't expect," she writes, "was how it would make me feel: sad and angry and helpless and determined, all at the same time. Moreover, I didn't expect to talk to so many men in genuine need of a movement that supports them, a movement that looks completely different from the one that had fomented online and was stoked by many who spoke at this three-day conference."
When Max and I were children, we would have looked the same. Middle-class, semi-suburban, precocious, with stable families and access to college-prep education. We might have had similar opinions too. Max comes from a family of nominal Democrats; he was one himself to the extent a child can be, and still is to the extent that he voted for President Obama in 2008 before switching to Gary Johnson in 2012. We aren't so different now, really — except in our work, our politics, our culture, and our fundamental outlook. This occurs to me on our first night together. When did the divergence begin? It is a question I have asked before, of high school classmates now married, of old friends, of a teenage drug dealer I knew who by 19 had been declared technically dead on three separate occasions.
So what happened? Social media came, perhaps. Max sees our age cohort as the last without all its information curated by Facebook or Twitter. This is true, but because of this we were also the last insulated, without conscious effort, from the inevitable exposure to marginalized voices brought by social media. Talk to high school students now: they've heard critical theory about gender and society and race that many of us even slightly older did not hear until the world made us. They accept it as obvious, not revolutionary. The difference between Max and me is whether we take this to be a bad thing. We were different: Max and I were both adults or nearly so before it became clear that we were living in a time when no matter how we felt about it, the theoretical foundation of our privilege was, if not nearly crumbling, at least suspect even to the mainstream.
Normative male dominance is a legacy best disposed of, but that does not mean it is not the norm, or that its loss, especially to those raised to expect its constant comfort, is not a precious and frightening possibility. For some, even little tremors are enough to set you on uncertain footing. Some stumbling men get angry, even when they've got a girlfriend, a finance job, and a million-dollar view of River North. They turn to the crusade. They cast themselves the victims. This should not surprise us. Some men, some small but loud and dangerous number, will become violent by instinct, threatened by any rustling in the trees.
Out with the bad, but Roy puts a finger on the absence: What good will come in after it? What kind of movement will support kings reduced suddenly to paupers? This is not our first concern, of course. It's not something that lends itself to sympathy or pity, but it should provoke some empathy.
At one point in our conversation, Roosh pauses for a minute, then says this: "When you teach men to hate themselves without giving them a role model, without giving them a masculine idea of who to be ... how can we be surprised that men are just lost? They are completely lost right now, and no one is doing anything to solve this problem."
Months after my last encounter with Max, I was in a bar in Chicago explaining this story to a friend. Gamergate had escalated. Sarkeesian had just appeared on the Colbert Report. "So is this guy Max one of these people making bomb threats?" my friend asks. I don't think so, I say, but I don't know. He was nice to me, but...
I decided to call. I walk outside and reach him; by the sound from the other line, he, too, is at a bar somewhere. He says hold on to somebody beside him, and a moment later is outside, too, on some other street in some similar part of the city.
He says no, he's cut it out with tweeting angrily at feminists. It's gone too far, he says. He likes debate, and maybe when things calm down he'll get back into it. Are you afraid of how this is all making your movement look? I ask. He says no: These guys are weird video game nerds anyway, they're just upset, they aren't fighting for a real cause beyond their own hurt feelings.
I ask if he feels bad about acting out in the past. If he regrets anything he said to anyone online, if he thinks he is part of the reason that ordinary women have been fleeing from their homes.
"I don't know," he tells me. "I don't feel great about it. Seriously, dude, I was thinking about when we were hanging out, and I don't think it's the best way to persuade people, on social media and stuff, you know?"
Sure. Then why did he do it at all?
"I don't know, man. You know. It's all so quick. You see something and it bothers you and you feel annoyed and, like, without thinking about it, you just, like, lash out a bit. Shitty Facebook comment or tweet or whatever. We've all been there. You're, like, right then, pissed or whatever. It's just an in-the-moment thing. You feel bad about it the next day."
"Do you apologize?"
"For being critical? No, I mean, they were still wrong."
Emmett Rensin is the deputy editor of Vox First Person.
First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at email@example.com.
50 Top Atheists in the World Today Atheists deny that God exists. Yet for an atheist to make our ranking of the 50 top atheists in the world—given in ascending order—it is not enough merely to deny that God exists. More is required.
Certainty. To make our list, someone has to be very sure of him- or herself. No mere agnostics will do. To make the cut, one has to do more than merely question God’s existence or even deny that knowledge of God’s existence is possible.
Celebrity is another requirement. To make our list, the atheist must have a public identification with atheism and must have made some public impact by challenging religion and/or promoting atheism, either in print or on the Internet. In other words, our ranking is a list of people who are well known because they are atheists, among other things—as opposed to people who are mainly famous for some other reason (like Jodie Foster or Bruce Willis). In a few cases, a person has made the list mainly on the basis of his or her attack on free will and morality—the foundation of the traditional religious view of human beings—so long as the person has also publicly identified as an atheist.
The Sheldrake-Shermer Nature of Science Dialogue
In the summer of 2015, two world-renowned thinkers, Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Shermer, discussed and debated the nature of science here at TheBestSchools.org.
Be sure to check out the wide-ranging dialog!
For more in-depth interviews of leading thinkers, click here.
Energy is another requirement. To make our ranking, the atheist must be an activist. He or she must exhibit some desire to win others over to atheism. The person must look upon atheism not just as an intellectual position or worldview, but also as a cause or movement. You might say ours is a list of atheists with attitude.
As the final requirement, we give pride of place to seriousness. Besides the certainty, celebrity, and energy of an atheist, we put a premium on the depth and seriousness of the man or woman’s case for atheism. We ask ourselves this question: How many rounds could this person go in the ring (so to speak) with a top-notch defender of religious belief? The more rounds we feel the person would last in such an imagined intellectual match-up, the higher on our list he or she appears. (Compare our feature article on influential persons of faith here.)
This last requirement leads to some counterintuitive rank assignments for well-known atheists. For instance, Richard Dawkins does not make the head of our list. Because this may disappoint some of our readers, we have, after our ranking, also ordered the atheists on our list by the number of Google hits that their names obtain.
Finally, to keep the list manageable, we have included only atheists who are still living at the time of this article’s writing.
Here, then, is our list of the 50 top atheists in the world today:
50 David Silverman (b. 1966)
Silverman is President of American Atheists, the organization founded in 1963 by the grande dame of American atheism, Madalyn Murray O’Hair (1919–1995). The group, which has local chapters in many states, is currently based in Cranford, New Jersey, where Silverman makes his home. In recent years, the group has sponsored the Christmas-season “You Know It’s a Myth” billboard campaign in the New York City area. Silverman—who should not be confused with either the Egyptologist or the television animator of the same name—has appeared on such TV talk shows as The O’Reilly Factor. He writes on his blog that “Religion is my bitch.”
49Wrath James White (born c. 1970)
White, a former world-class heavyweight kickboxer, is a prolific novelist who boxed and now writes under the name, “Wrath.” He resides in Austin, Texas, with his wife and two sons, where he runs a popular web site, Words of Wrath. His novels are horror stories with an atheist slant. He also blogs for Atheist Nexus. On his own blog, he has written that “I am saddened and somewhat disgusted by the very idea of a Black Christian. It would seem to me that after having so recently escaped our slavemasters that we would have had enough of masters.”
48Dan Barker (b. 1949)
Barker, a former Protestant minister, is a jazz pianist, composer, author, and television personality. He was ordained in 1975 in California, and served as pastor of churches affiliated with the Quaker, Assembly of God, and other denominations. He also served as a missionary for two years in Mexico. Barker announced his conversion to atheism in 1984. He is co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), and is the editor of that organization’s online magazine Freethought Today. He is also a host with the Freethought Radio Network. Barker makes frequent appearances on Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey, and similar TV shows.
Books: Godless and The Good Atheist
47Greydon Square (b. 1981)
Greydon Square is an Iraq-War veteran and rap artist, who incorporates atheism into his musical act. Born Eddie Collins in the low-income Los Angeles suburb of Compton, Square became immersed in gang culture, but changed his life by enlisting in the United States Army in May of 2001. The punning title of his 2007 album, “The Compton Effect,” reflects his background as an erstwhile physics major—to which he attributes his conversion to atheism. In his rap songs, he boasts about desecrating Brigham Young’s grave and urinating in a synagogue. The Phoenix New Times has called Square “the black Carl Sagan.”
46Paul Zachary (“P.Z.”) Myers (b. 1957)
Myers is Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, where he researches the developmental biology of zebrafish from an evolutionary perspective. He has also taught at the University of Oregon, the University of Utah, and Temple University. He runs one of the most popular atheist blogs on the Internet, called Pharyngula (a stage of the embryonic development of vertebrates). The website is notable for its over-the-top vituperation. Myers also has a flair for attention-getting stunts, like piercing a consecrated host with a rusty nail. In 2009, Myers was named “Humanist of the Year” by the American Humanist Association.
45James (“The Amazing”) Randi (b. 1928)
Born in Canada, Randi has had a long career as a stage magician, TV personality, and prolific author. However, the most distinctive feature of his career has been “debunking”—showing how his own and others’ magic tricks are done. He came to international attention in 1972 by revealing the tricks used by Uri Geller, an Israeli magician who claimed supernatural telekinetic powers. His career then became more and more dedicated to debunking paranormal claims. Most recently, he has become an outspoken atheist and critic of religion.
Books: The Faith Healers and Flim-Flam
44Polly Toynbee (b. 1946)
Toynbee has been a columnist for London’s The Guardian newspaper since 1998 and President of the British Humanist Association since 2007. Granddaughter of the famous historian, Arnold J. Toynbee, she stood for MP, unsuccessfully, in 1983 as a Social Democratic Party candidate. She has published several books on social and political topics, including Hard Work (Bloomsbury Paperbacks, 2003). In 2011, she agreed to debate Christian apologist William Lane Craig, but later pulled out, saying “I hadn’t realised the nature of Mr. Lane Craig’s debating style, and having now looked at his previous performances, this is not my kind of forum.”
43Michael Newdow (b. 1953)
Newdow is an attorney and physician famous for his atheist-inspired litigation. He was born into a Jewish family in the Bronx, but never believed in God, saying “I was born an atheist.” His many lawsuits have been aimed at forcing the United States government to remove references to the Deity from American currency and coinage, from the Pledge of Allegiance, and from oaths of office. Though some of his lawsuits have gone all the way to the Supreme Court, so far all have been unsuccessful. Newdow is an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church.
42Greta Christina (b. 1961)
Based in San Francisco, Christina is an author and blogger. Hers has been named one of the Top Ten most popular atheist blogs on the Web. She has contributed to The Skeptical Inquirer magazine and to the anthology, Everything You Know about God Is Wrong, edited by Russ Kick (Disinformation Company, 2007). The latter anthology includes her essay, “Comforting Thoughts about Death That Have Nothing to Do with God,” which has been frequently reprinted on the Internet. In addition to atheism, Christina writes and blogs about feminism and lesbianism. She also publishes pornographic fiction.
41Ophelia Benson (born c. 1948)
Based in Seattle, Benson is a philosopher, co-author (with Jeremy Stangroom), and prolific blogger, best known for editing the atheist web site Butterflies and Wheels (the title refers to Alexander Pope’s counsel against rhetorical overkill, “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?”). She is also a frequent contributor to London’s The Guardian newspaper and to TPM: The Philosophers’ Magazine, where she writes a weekly online column reviewing philosophy blogs. She has said that “religion remains the last great prop and stay of arbitrary injustices and the coercion which backs them up.”
Books: Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense, Why Truth Matters, and Does God Hate Women?
40Michael Shermer (b. 1954)
Shermer is an Adjunct Professor at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, as well as a journalist, prolific author, TV personality, and cycling enthusiast. He currently teaches an interdisciplinary course at Claremont called “Evolution, Economics, and the Brain.” He is also the editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine, the chief organ of the Skeptics Society, which is devoted to attacking religion and promoting atheism. He is perhaps best known as an advocate for the highly speculative field of evolutionary psychology, which seeks to find evolutionary explanations for all fundamental aspects of human behavior.
Books: Why People Believe Weird Things, The Mind of the Market, and The Believing Brain
See also our interview with Michael Shermer and our Focused Civil Dialogue on the nature of science, featuring Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Shermer
39Susan Blackmore (b. 1951)
Blackmore is an English popular-science author who holds a B.A. in psychology from St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, and a Ph.D. in parapsychology from the University of Surrey. She later became disenchanted with parapsychology and made a career out of debunking paranormal claims. After that, she became a supporter of the supposed science of “memetics.” Most recently, she has become an outspoken critic of religion in the U.K. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and one of the 55 signatories in 2010 to a controversial open letter to The Meme Machine demanding that Pope Benedict XVI’s official invitation to visit the U.K. be withdrawn.
Books: The Meme Machine and Consciousness: An Introduction
38Sumitra Padmanabhan (b. 1953)
Padmanabhan is President of the Rationalists’ Association of India and General Secretary of the Humanists’ Association. The former organization, which was founded in Kolkata (Calcutta) in 1985, is also known by its Bengali name, Bharatiya Bigyan O Yuktibadi Samity (literally, Indian Science and Rationalists’ Association). The latter organization was established in 1993 “with the aim of replacing all established religions with Humanism.” The Rationalists’ Association’s announced aim is “to eradicate superstition and blind faith, which include religious fanaticism, astrology, caste-system, spiritualism and numerous other obscurantist beliefs.” Padmanabhan is also Executive Editor of The Freethinker online magazine.
37Ayaan Hirsi Ali (b. 1969)
Hirsi Ali, a vocal critic of Islam, is a feminist and atheist activist, author, and Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, DC. Born Ayaan Hirsi Magan in Mogadishu, Somalia, she was granted political asylum by The Netherlands in 1992, after which she changed her name and renounced Islam. In 2003, aged 33, Hirsi Ali was elected to the Dutch parliament. She wrote the script and provided the voiceover narration for Theo van Gogh’s controversial film, Submission, about the eploitation of women in Muslim countries. After van Gogh’s murder by a radical Muslim in 2004, Hirsi Ali went into hiding, eventually resettling in the United States in 2006.
Books: Infidel, The Caged Virgin, and Nomad
36Philip Pullman (b. 1946)
Pullman was born in Norwich, U.K., and took a third-class English degree at Oxford University. He worked as a middle-school teacher while writing the children’s books—more than 30 by now—that would make his reputation. However, he only achieved real celebrity with the publication of his best-selling trilogy, His Dark Materials, between 1994 and 2001. The trilogy is loosely based on Milton’s Paradise Lost—except that the Satan figure is the hero, while God is the villain. It has been praised by atheists as an antidote to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, which Pullman has denounced as religious propaganda. He is outspoken on behalf of atheist causes in the U.K.
Books: His Dark Materials and The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
35Woody Allen (b. 1935)
Allen, a former stand-up comedian, is a playwright, jazz clarinetist, and world-renowned filmmaker. Born Allen Konigsberg in Brooklyn, he began selling jokes to newspapers while still in his teens. Allen’s trademark black humor reflects strong atheist convictions, emphasizing the futility of human existence—for example: “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” In 1992, Allen was at the center of a sex scandal involving the daughter of his companion, the actress Mia Farrow. Some of his subsequent films are less funny than unpleasantly bitter.
Books: Getting Even, Without Feathers, and Side Effects
Films: Love and Death, Stardust Memories, Deconstructing Harry, and Match Point
34Ian McEwan (b. 1948)
Born in Aldershot, Hampshire, McEwan is considered by many to be one of the finest novelists of his generation in the U.K. From the beginning of his career, his work has been characterized by an extremism verging on cynical detachment with respect to his main subjects: sex, death, and moral evil. But it is with Black Dogs in 1992 that his books begin to acquire an explicitly theological dimension. In his recent work, McEwan’s heroes tend to be raionalists who are almost crushed by the irrational forces threatening them. He has written that “Atheists have as much conscience, possibly more, than people with deep religious convictions.”
Books: Black Dogs, Saturday, On Chesil Beach, and Solar
33Michel Houellebecq (b. 1958—disputed)
Born Michel Thomas on the French Indian Ocean island possession of Réunion, Houellebecq is one of the most controversial literary novelists in the world today. Abandoned by his parents, he was raised by his paternal grandmother, whose maiden name he adopted. In 1998 his second novel, Les particules é l é mentaires, enjoyed an enormous succès de scandale. His books are graphic satires of the nihilism plaguing modern society in a godless universe. However, any moral force they might otherwise have is undercut by Houellebecq’s evident loathing of human beings. He has written that “God doesn’t exist, and even if one is a bloody idiot, one finishes up understanding that.”
Books: The Elementary Particles, Platform, and The Possibility of an Island
32Martin Amis (b. 1949)
Son of the famous English post-war comic novelist, Kingsley Amis, Amis fils is the author of nearly 30 books, including novels, short-story collections, and works of non-fiction. He is both prized as a stylist (of the “postmodern” school) by other writers and appreciated as a chronicler of men behaving badly by the broader readingpublic. His masterwork is generally considered to be the “London trilogy” (see below), published between 1984 and 1995. Atheism is implicit in the worldview expressed in Amis’s work, rather than one of his explicit themes. Speaking of religion, he has said: “I think in Europe, we have outgrown it. We’ve waited it out, and it’s gone.”
Books: Money, London Fields, The Information
31Philip Roth (b. 1933)
Author of over 30 highly acclaimed books, Roth is considered by many to be America’s greatest living novelist. A perennial Nobel Prize candidate, he has won every major American literary prize. Roth grew up in a Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey, but his unsparing depictions of his largely Jewish characters have been controversial within the American Jewish community. His always pronounced misanthropy has taken on an explicitly atheistic tenor in his late books, with their dominant theme of human frailty, futility, and the finality of death. He has said in a recent interview: “When the whole world doesn’t believe in God, it’ll be a great place.”
Books: The Human Stain, The Dying Animal, Everyman, and Nemesis
30Ray Kurzweil (b. 1948)
Kurzweil is an entrepreneur, author, and leading light of the influential “transhumanist” movement. In the 1970s, his company, Kurzweil Computer Products, Inc., developed the first practical optical scanning software. Recently, Kurzweil has risen to national prominence with a series of books in which he claims that we human beings are on the verge of shedding our bodies and “uploading” our minds (our “software”) into superior, artificial “hardware.” In so doing, he argues, we are destined to become immortal. He calls this event “the singularity.” He has been harshly criticized by P.Z. Myers and others, but his ideas are the logical extension of premises most atheists share.
Books: The Age of Intelligent Machines, The Age of Spiritual Machines, and The Singularity Is Near
29John Brockman (b. 1941)
Brockman is a literary agent, book editor, and self-proclaimed “cultural impresario.” He serves as publicist for many leading atheist authors. However, Brockman is perhaps best known as the founder of Edge.org, a web site promoting speculative thought about the nexus of science, technology, and culture. He has said: “I mean I don’t believe: I’m sure there’s no God. I’m sure there’s no afterlife. But don’t call me an atheist. It’s like a losers’ club. When I hear the word atheist, I think of some crummy motel where they’re having a function and these people have nowhere else to go.”
Books: The Next Fifty Years, What We Believe but Cannot Prove, This Will Change Everything, Culture, and The Mind
28Susan Jacoby (b. 1946)
Jacoby, a former newspaper reporter, is a bestselling author and blogger. She contributes to The Spirited Atheist blog at The Washington Post, as well as to one of her own. Jacoby is Program Director for the Center for Inquiry–New York City, and sits on the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America. Though she is a strong atheist activist, her voice is one of relative moderation. She has written that: “Atheism, in a mature form, is not angry anarchy that lashes out at religion, but simply looking for a collective and personal moral code independent of an external god.”
Books: Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism and The Age of American Unreason
27Victor Stenger (b. 1935)
Stenger is Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado. He has done research on the properties of neutrinos and other elementary particles. He is best known, however, as a prolific author of popular-science books and as a crusader against paranormal claims and against religion. Stenger has a special interest in challenging claims that the so-called “fine-tuning coincidences” constitute evidence for the existence of God. He is a long-time Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and is famous for saying: “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.”
Books: Not by Design, God: The Failed Hypothesis, The New Atheism, and The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning
26Jennifer Michael Hecht (b. 1965)
Hecht is a true polymath: she pursued advanced studies in France and received her Ph.D. in the history of science from Columbia University; she has published two well-received volumes of poetry and three meticulously researched but popular books (one of them a bestseller) in the esoteric field of the history of ideas; and she currently teaches writing at Columbia University and New School University in New York. She also maintains a busy schedule of interviews, lectures, and poetry readings. Hecht’s approach to atheism is informed more by the arts than by the sciences—a perspective she promotes through her blog, Poetic Atheism.
Be sure to catch our interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht.
Books: The End of the Soul, Doubt: A History, and The Happiness Myth
25Fang Zhouzi (born 1967)
Fang, who holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry, is a poet, popular-science author, and blogger who made his name by publicizing corruption in Chinese academia and by debunking Chinese traditional medicine. Born Fang Shimin, he was attacked with a hammer by hired thugs in 2010, but escaped with only minor injuries. A prominent surgeon whose work Fang had criticized was jailed for ordering the attack. He writes that “Religion wants you to believe blindly, while science wants you to doubt, to rely on evidence and logic. They have fundamental conflicts. I have always opposed efforts at reconciliation.” None of Fang’s books has yet been translated into English.
24Jerry Coyne (b. 1949)
Coyne is Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. Educated at Harvard University, where he studied under Richard Lewontin, he is a specialist in the problem of speciation. He runs a web site called Why Evolution Is True, and has published a bestselling book by the same name. He is a frequent contributor to The New Republic, The Times Literary Supplement, and other prominent publications. He confesses to impatience with the New Atheists, remarking: “[H]ow much is there to say about a movement whose members are united, after all, by only one thing: disbelief in divine beings and a respect for reason and evidence. What more is there to say?”
Books: Why Evolution Is True
23Robert Wright (b. 1957)
Wright is a journalist, bestselling author, and founder of Bloggingheads.tv. Currently Senior Future Tense Fellow at the New America Foundation, he is a revisionist Darwinian evolutionary psychologist, who believes emergent and nonlinear dynamical effects influence the evolutionary process. Wright is also a critic of the dogmatism of the New Atheist authors, qualifying his own atheism as follows: “I would say there’s reason to believe there is some sort of purpose unfolding through the natural workings of the world. This doesn’t by itself establish the existence of a god, much less a good one, but it seems to cut against the grain of pure atheism.”
Books: Three Scientists and Their Gods, The Moral Animal, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, and The Evolution of God
22Richard Carrier (b. 1969)
Carrier is a historian, author, and blogger. He received a Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia University in 2008. As a crusading atheist, Carrier’s specialty is attacking the historicity of the New Testament. He has said that he thinks it “very probable Jesus never actually existed as a historical person” (original emphasis). He has also been an active promoter of atheism on the Internet, formerly serving as Editor-in-Chief of the Internet Infidels/Secular Web site. He now runs the Naturalism as a Worldview web site, as well as a blog. He also participates in numerous public debates with Christians.
Be sure to catch our interview with Richard Carrier.
Books: Sense and Goodness without God, Not the Impossible Faith, and Why I Am Not a Christian
21Michel Onfray (b. 1959)
Onfray is a philosopher and prolific author who teaches in the philosophy seminar at the Université Populaire de Caen (UPC). He has written more than 50 volumes of philosophy, journals, travel, and political and cultural commentary. The principal focus of his philosophical writing, both historical and systematic, has been philosophical hedonism. His 2006 Traité d’athéologie (translated as Atheist Manifesto) became a sensation and elevated him onto the national stage in France. The Traité d’athéologie has been closely associated with the books of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism in France, Italy, Australia, and elsewhere. He traces his philosophical lineage to the Cynic, Diogenes of Sinope.
Books: Atheist Manifesto and La Puissance d’exister: Manifeste hédoniste
20Steven Pinker (b. 1954)
Pinker is a psychologist, linguist, and bestselling author. Born in Montreal and a naturalized U.S. citizen, he is Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He is best known for advancing the “language instinct” hypothesis, and for promoting a version of Darwinian evolutionary psychology. It has been announced that Pinker will join the faculty of the New College of the Humanities in London, the all-star university founded by A.C. Grayling. He has said that “I never outgrew my conversion to atheism at 13, but at various times was a serious cultural Jew,” and that “Atheists are the most reviled minority in the United States, so it’s no small matter to come out and say it.”
Books: The Language Instinct, The Blank Slate, The Stuff of Thought, and The Better Angels of Our Nature
19Patricia Churchland (b. 1943)
Churchland is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, where she is also an adjunct faculty member at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. A native of British Columbia, she is married to the philosopher, Paul Churchland. Together, the Churchlands are associated with the position called “eliminative materialism,” which claims that our everyday “folk psychology” concepts, like love, ought to be eliminated in favor of neuroscientific concepts, like oxytocin levels. Discussing morality, Churchland writes: “Evolution sets the brain’s style of drives and emotions. Experience in a culture shapes the style into specific habits and preferences using the reward system.”
Books:Neurophilosophy, The Computational Brain, and Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality
18Paul Kurtz (b. 1925)
Kurtz is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York, Buffalo. He is both a productive scholar and a prolific author of popular philosophical works. Among Kurtz’s notable achievements are the founding of both Prometheus Press, a publishing house dedicated to promoting science and atheism, and a number of skeptical, rationalist, and atheist organizations, including the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism. He has also served as Editor-in-Chief of the latter organization’s in-house magazine, Free Inquiry. These oganizations may be said to combat paranormal claims and religion in equal measure. Kurtz has been called the “Father of Secular Humanism.”
Books: The Transcendental Temptation, Living without Religion, Humanist Manifesto 2000, and What Is Secular Humanism?
17Peter Atkins (b. 1940)
Atkins is Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford. Born in Buckinghamshire, U.K., he is a prolific author of textbooks on quantum mechanics and physical chemistry, as well as of expositions of physics and cosmology aimed at a popular audience. He is an outspoken critic of religion, and engages in frequent debates with Christians on college and university campuses around the world and on television. He has written: “My aim is to argue that the universe can come into existence without intervention, and that there is no need to invoke the idea of a Supreme Being in one of its numerous manifestations.”
Books: Creation Revisited, Four Laws That Drive the Universe,and On Being
16William B. (“Will”) Provine (born c. 1942)
Provine is a historian of science specializing in population biology and the Modern Synthesis in evolutionary theory. He has published the definitive study of the distinguished geneticist, Sewall Wright. A Tennessee native educated at the Unviersity of Chicago, he is Distinguished University Professor at Cornell University, where he holds appointments in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, the Department of History, and the Department of Science and Technology Studies. Provine, who is a hard determinist as well as an atheist, rejects all forms of teleology in biology and claims that “evolution is the greatest engine of atheism ever invented.”
Books: The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics and Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology
15David Sloan Wilson (b. 1949)
Wilson is Distinguished Professor at Binghamton University (formerly known as State University of New York, Binghamton), with appointments in the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Biological Sciences. He is best known as a proponent of the controversial theory of group selection, which he defended in the book Unto Others , co-written with Elliott Sober. He is also known for his evolutionary theory of the origins of religious belief, detailed in his book Darwin’s Cathedral However, he has been critical of the New Atheists, whose dogmatism he has denounced as a “stealth religion.” Most recently, he has spearheaded an effort to apply Darwinian principles to urban renewal.
Books: Unto Others, Darwin’s Cathedral, Evolution for Everyone, and The Neighborhood Project
14Alexander (“Alex”) Rosenberg (b. 1946)
Rosenberg is Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. He is a proponent of philosophical naturalism—the idea that natural science, when complete, will describe reality exhaustively. He only recently began to be known outside the academic community, publishing a widely noticed op-ed piece in the New York Times (see below) to help publicize his new book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality Rosenberg claims that natural science must eventually take over all of human knowledge: “400 years of scientific success in prediction, control and technology shows that physics has made a good start. We should be confident that it will do better than any other approach at getting things right.”
Books: Darwinian Reductionism, Philosophy of Biology, and The Atheist’s Guide to Reality
13Sam Harris (b. 1967)
Harris is a best-selling author and television personality who is regarded as one of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheist movement. He is from a Jewish background, but was raised in a secular home. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Stanford and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA. His neuroscience research focused on the neural basis of belief, using fMRI technology. He is the co-founder of Project Reason, whose aim is to “encourage critical thinking and erode the influence of dogmatism, superstition, and bigotry in our world.” Prominent among his controversial pronouncements on public affairs is his call for a new “science” of morality.
Books: The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, and The Moral Landscape
12Anthony Clifford (“A.C.”) Grayling (b. 1949)
Born in what is now Zambia, Grayling was until recently Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London. In 2011, he founded the “all-star” New College of the Humanities in London. His academic work has focused on skepticism and related problems at the interface between epistemology and metaphysics. He is also concerned with articulating a naturalistic foundation for ethics. Over the past decade, Grayling has become an outspoken critic of religion in the U.K. He was a signatory to the 2010 open letter protesting the British government’s invitation for an official visit to Pope Benedict XVI.
Books: Against All Gods, Meditations for the Humanist, Life, Sex and Ideas: The Good Life without God, and The Good Book: A Humanist Bible
11Lawrence M. Krauss (b. 1954)
Krauss is Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, as well as Director of the Origins Project, at Arizona State University at Tempe. He is a cosmologist, who was one of the developers of the theory of “dark energy.” He is also known as a critic of string theory and the “multiverse” concept. He testified before the Ohio school board in 2004 in a hearing on the teaching of evolution, and worked as an adviser to Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. He is given to provocative statements like “Forget Jesus. The stars died so you could be born.”
Books: Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science and A Universe from Nothing
10Christopher Hitchens (1949–2011)
Hitchens was a journalist, essayist, autobiographer, world-class debater, blogger, and one of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheist movement. He was born in Portsmouth, England, but moved permanently to the U.S. in 1981, where he eventually became a naturalized citizen. He first attracted widespread public attention through his blistering attacks on Mother Teresa. Widely admired as a brilliant stylist, he wrote many bestselling books and was a regular columnist for Slate online magazine. He made innumerable appearances on television and in documentary films, as well as on debating platforms at college and university campuses around the world. He died one week after this ranking was first published.
Books: The Portable Atheist, God Is Not Great, The Quotable Hitchens, and Arguably
9Stephen Hawking (b. 1942)
Until his recent retirement, Hawking was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge—Isaac Newton’s old job. Since 2009, he has been Director of Research at Cambridge’s Centre for Theoretical Cosmology. His major contribution to cosmology has been the discovery that black holes evaporate by means of the “Hawking radiation” mechanism. A victim of Lou Gehrig’s disease, he was catapulted to world fame following the publication of his bestselling A Brief History of Time in 1988. With respect to God, he has said: “When you look at the vast size of the universe, and how accidental and insignificant human life is in it, that seems most implausible.”
Books: The Universe in a Nutshell, The Theory of Everything, The Grand Design, and The Dreams That Stuff Is Made Of
8Steven Weinberg (b. 1933)
Weinberg occupies the Regents Chair in Science at the University of Texas at Austin, where he also leads the Theory Group in the Department of Physics. He won the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics, jointly with Abdus Salam and Sheldon Glashow, for his work on the unification of the electromagnetic and weak forces of nature. Weinberg has also made many other seminal contributions to today’s Standard Model in physics. He has written a widely used textbook, The Quantum Theory of Fields as well as the classic, The First Three Minutes, and other bestselling books for a popular audience. Weinberg has said that “Religion is an insult to human dignity.”
Books: The First Three Minutes, Dreams of a Final Theory, Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries, Lake Views: This World and the Universe
7Richard Dawkins (b. 1941)
Dawkins is the most famous of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheist movement, and perhaps the most influential living atheist. He was formerly Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. In science, Dawkins’s main contribution has been as a popularizer of such ideas as uni-level “genic selection” and “inclusive fitness.” Through his outstanding gifts as a writer, Dawkins has had an incalculable impact on the dissemination of modern evolutionary theory to the general educated public. He claims that human beings are “gigantic lumbering robots” controlled by our “selfish genes.” In recent years, he has instigated a series of publicity campaigns against religion in the U.K.
Books: The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, Unweaving the Rainbow, The God Delusion, and The Magic of Reality
6Edward O. (“E.O.”) Wilson (b. 1929)
Wilson, a native of Alabama and one of the world’s foremost experts on ants, is Emeritus University Professor at Harvard University. His research on ant societies led to the publication of his seminal work, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, in 1975. His ideas on the evolution of “altruism” in human society were hugely controversial at that time, and remain so—now rebranded as “evolutionary psychology”—today. In later years, Wilson became deeply involved with the movement to save endangered species and thus preserve the Earth’s biodiversity. He has written that: “Religion [has] to be explained as a material process, from the bottom up, atoms to genes to the human spirit.”
Books: On Human Nature, Biophilia, Consilience, and The Future of Life
5Daniel Dennett (b. 1942)
Dennett, one of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheist movement, is University Professor, Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He introduced the idea that the theory of natural selection is a “universal acid” that eats through every theoretical domain it touches. Dennett’s distinctive position on human nature combines a computationalist perspective on the mind with an ultra-adaptationist approach to biological traits. This combination led to his notorious claim that “your great-great- . . . grandmother was a macro” (a software module). He describes belief in God as a “useful crutch” that we have outgrown.
Books: Consciousness Explained, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
Read more about Daniel Dennett in “The 50 Most Influential Living Philosophers.”
4Quentin Smith (b. 1952)
Smith is University Distinguished Scholar and Professor of Philosophy at Western Michigan University (WMU) in Kalamazoo. He works in a number of different fields of analytical philosophy: language, mind, physics, religion, and the metaphysics of feeling. Probably, his most significant contributions have been to the philosophy of quantum cosmology and the philosophy of time. Smith’s work on the “natural selection of universes” has had an impact within physics itself, and he has also collaborated with the prominent Christian apologist, William Lane Craig. He denies the existence of a personal God—and so is an atheist—but he defends a form of pantheism.
Books: Theism, Atheism and Big Bang Cosmology, Time, Change and Freedom: An Introduction to Metaphysics, Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language, Language and Time, and Consciousness: New Philosophical Perspectives
3Kai Nielsen (b. 1926)
Nielsen is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Calgary and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal. Born in Denmark, he was educated in the United States. After teaching at New York University, he has made his career in Canada. Nielsen, who is the author of more than 30 books and 400 scholarly articles, is one of the founders of the Canadian Journal of Philosophy. His work has focused on the unintelligibility of the various concepts of God, and on the naturalistic grounding of ethics. Nielsen has been called one of the leading atheists of the century.
Books: Ethics without God, Naturalism without Foundations, Naturalism and Religion, and Atheism and Philosophy
2Michael Martin (b. 1932)
Martin is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Boston University. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University in 1962. He has written or edited numerous monographs and anthologies devoted to the critique of religion and the vindication of atheism. Though not as well known to the general public, Martin is highly regarded among professional philosophers, believers and nonbelievers alike. He has written: “My object is to show that atheism is a rational position and that belief in God is not. I am quite aware that atheistic beliefs are not always based on reason. My claim is that they should be.”
Books: Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, The Case against Christianity, Atheism, Morality, and Meaning, The Impossibility of God,The Improbablity of God, and The Cambridge Companion to Atheism
1Peter Singer (b. 1946)
Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Born in Melbourne, he is one of the world’s most controversial philosophers. A Utilitarian in ethics, he believes that only sentience, not species membership, confers moral value. This leads him to ascribe greater moral value to healthy adult nonhuman mammals than to unborn, newborn, mentally defective, and comatose humans. Singer has written: “The notion that human life is sacred just because it is human life is medieval.” We believe his blend of philosophical sophistication, extremism, and high public profile makes him the most formidable living atheist in the world.
Books: Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, The Expanding Circle, Rethinking Life and Death, Writings on an Ethical Life, Unsanctifying Human Life, and The Life You Can Save
Read more about Peter Singer in “The 50 Most Influential Living Philosophers” and “The 10 Most Controversial College Professors in the U.S.”
So, that’s our ranking of the 50 top atheists in the world according to our combined criteria, emphasizing both celebrity and seriousness.
Here is an ordering of the same 50 names in terms of celebrity alone, as determined by a Google search. The number of results (in parentheses) for each atheist was obtained by searching on the exact name, using quotes (“Richard Dawkins”). Where an individual is well known under two different versions of his name (“E.O. Wilson” and “Edward O. Wilson”), we have ranked him according to the higher score. For common names, a descriptor (“Michael Martin” atheist) has been added for disambiguation purposes. The searches were conducted on December 8, 2011.*
* The search queries were run again on Tuesday, September 01, 2015, and the list reordered according to the current search engine result-set.
|Rank||Name||2015 Search Results||2011 Search Results,|
|1.||Woody Allen||82,500,000||(32,600,000, #1)|
|2.||Stephen Hawking||21,100,000||(13,200,000, #2)|
|3.||Richard Dawkins||6,760,000||(11,400,000, #3)|
|4.||Christopher Hitchens||2,370,000||(6,020,000, #4)|
|5.||Michel Houellebecq||959,000||(2,410,000, #9)|
|6.||Philip Roth||747,000||(4,400,000, #6)|
|7.||Sam Harris||744,000||(5,680,000, #5)|
|8.||Ian McEwan||672,000||(2,870,000, #8)|
|9.||Michel Onfray||626,000||(204,000, #39)|
|10.||Peter Singer||594,000||(2,140,000, #10)|
|11.||Philip Pullman||576,000||(3,210,000, #7)|