As an ex-Muslim woman, I once sought refuge in a vocal online atheist movement that began developing in the early 2000’s, but after a few years in what became known as the “New Atheist” scene, I realized that many of the people I had thought were dedicated to values like enlightenment and tolerance had a lot more in common with the religious bigots they claimed to oppose.

Online vocal atheist communities seemed like a great fit for me, at first. As someone who grew up in a theocracy, it was cathartic to find a place to vent my frustrations on the topic of religion. Finding community is certainly not easy as an ex-Muslim; and when you’re an immigrant and a minority like I am in Canada, where I live now, that adds a few more obstacles.

Religion was never something I was fond of, even as a child. I questioned everything and the stories in scripture didn’t make sense to me. You can imagine the challenges that posed while living in a theocracy. As a result, I never really fit in and always felt like an outsider—especially growing up as a Third Culture Kid, a Pakistani expat in Saudi Arabia.

Over time, I’ve come to realize that there were several reasons I felt that way, not just my lack of belief. Identity and being an immigrant in a place where you can’t even call yourself an immigrant even if you are born there (Saudi Arabia) had a lot to do with it, too.

Both countries were still very affected by problems stemming from religion, however. Especially religion interfering in government. There were so many things that ran counter to my own progressive values. Dissent was not tolerated, women were treated like second-class citizens, minorities were treated unfairly, and anti-LGBTQ bigotry was commonplace. Encountering New Atheism seemed like a release of so much pent up anger about these things. It was wonderful to be involved with a community that seemed to be actively concerned with the same issues that I was.

I jumped right in with my newfound friends, most of whom seemed to be huge fans of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins; Christopher Hitchens, the late Vanity Fair columnist; and Sam Harris, author of the book The End of Faith. Their in-your-face godlessness seemed to be just what I was looking for. It was unapologetic, caustic, and most important of all, concerned with spreading the good word. It was a welcome contrast to holding your tongue, as one must in theocracy for self-preservation.

These “New Atheists” wanted to spread the gospel of secularism, unlike their predecessors whose atheism was more incidental to their identities. It wasn’t an overnight change, but once I became involved in the online atheist scene, I, too, began posting frequently about religion and my dislike for it.

My online content generating days began in 2010 after I had returned to Canada after living in Pakistan for a few years. I decided to start a blog called Nice Mangos based on my observations and some interviews I did while I was there. I primarily wrote about sexuality in Pakistan back then—the site was the first and only blog of its kind at the time. Of course, it was hard to completely disentangle religion from sexuality and societal restrictions around it in Pakistan, so I did touch upon it occasionally.

A few years later, I wrote and illustrated a children’s picture book called My Chacha is Gay which used simple illustrations to address the subject of homophobia in a specifically Pakistani context.

Most of the money I raised via crowd-funding for the book came from fellow Pakistanis, which was such a pleasant surprise and in stark contrast to the attitudes I had generally experienced in Pakistan. The homophobia in Pakistan always struck me as very odd & hypocritical considering that same-sex experimentation was not uncommon among men who lacked access to women because of gender segregation. Pakistan is a place where two men walking down the street holding hands would be perfectly acceptable and commonplace, but any mention of gay rights elicits howls of anger. My children’s book was the target of such anger, and I continue to receive death threats about it to this day.

I wrote my blog and children’s book under my current pseudonym…and I’m glad I did! Being a woman who discusses sexuality, religion and apostasy from Islam specifically put me in real danger and made me a target of intolerant religious extremists. I received all kinds of hate mail, rape, and death threats too.

I still get plenty of threatening messages nowadays, but the hate mail I currently receive comes mostly from Western far-right types who say Islam is barbaric, and call me a dirty immigrant. Having been the target of abuse from extremist Christians, Muslims, and atheists, it’s easy to see that they have a lot in common.

Sadly, the abuse I’ve faced is part of a larger dilemma that Muslim and ex-Muslim women face. At home, we deal with constant oppression from Islamic authoritarians; in the West, we’re beset by bigotry and tokenism from people who want to exploit our struggles in the service of their own narratives.

After several years as a blogger, I decided to expand my online voice in February of 2016 by starting a podcast called “Polite Conversations.” The show started off with a bang by getting banned from YouTube twice for posting our first episode, an interview with Iranian-British atheist Maryam Namazie. Since then, I’ve done scores of shows and met many wonderful people.

But as I got further into New Atheism, I began seeing troubling indications that many of the people in the movement seemed to be motivated by anti-Muslim bigotry rather than a desire to oppose intolerance and superstition. This wasn’t a realization I came to easily or quickly since I too had personally had been falsely accused of Islamophobia because of my criticism of religion, so that obscured things for me for a while.

At the time, it was harder to see who was criticizing in good faith (no pun intended) and who was motivated by anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant views. But after Donald Trump emerged as a political figure in the United States, the truth became much easier to spot, as bigots were emboldened and dog whistles turned into blaring sirens.

My concerns about movement atheism really escalated in 2015, when the reactions to the European migrant crisis I saw around me were more in line with the far-right than the compassionate, secular humanism I had been expecting. I was appalled as I saw prominent New Atheist figures sharing anti-migrant propaganda. One popular atheist publication even began publishing articles from notorious bigots like Katie Hopkins and supposedly “satirical” covers that depicted migrants in dehumanizing ways as insects or through racist caricatures. I was disturbed when I saw people like Sam Harris sharing and endorsing anti-migrant interviews with far-right figures like Anne Marie Waters—who was too extreme for UKIP (a far-right party in the United Kingdom).

Instead of welcoming refugees fleeing Islamic fundamentalism, many within New Atheism were joining the reactionary effort to close Europe’s doors. This moment was what really began to open my eyes to the hollowness and hypocrisy of this movement.

Despite my worries, however, I still had some hope that perhaps the disgusting behavior I was observing was merely the product of misunderstanding, rather than a turn by some atheists toward the far right.

In pursuit of that thesis, I decided to voice my concerns publicly through an open letter to Harris about a podcast discussion (horrendously titled “On the Maintenance of Civilization”) he’d had with Douglas Murray, a far-right anti-immigrant English commentator who had once lamented the declining levels of “whiteness” in London, had a friendly conversation with a white nationalist like Stefan Molyneux, and had generally allied with many extreme figures on the right in their advocacy against refugees.

I expressed concern to Harris that, during his Murray interview, he had said he would rather vote for Ben Carson, a man he proclaimed to be a “dangerously deluded religious imbecile,” over the atheist socialist Noam Chomsky because at least Carson knew that the real “enemy” of American society was “jihadists.”

At the end of my letter, I invited Harris to come onto my own podcast to discuss the topic further. Several months later, I was delighted that Harris accepted my offer to appear on Polite Conversations. Our interview took place in November of 2016, just before Donald Trump was elected as president of the United States.

Ahead of my discussion with Harris, I hoped that he would be able to address my concerns. But as our conversation progressed, it became increasingly evident that he was unwilling to budge in his positions, regardless of the amount of evidence and examples I provided. Instead of responding to the specific points I made, Harris responded with generalities and hand-waving as he doubled- and tripled-down in his support for people like Douglas Murray and YouTuber Dave Rubin, whose supposed “deeply journalistic agenda” I was unable to perceive.

While I appreciated his courtesy in appearing on my show, the more I thought about our exchanges afterward, the more I realized how evasive Harris had been—and eventually through this exchange and other observations, I came to the conclusion that my concerns about New Atheism merging with the far-right were true. I now do a miniseries documenting my journey into and out of New Atheism called “Woking Up.” I’m still very much an atheist, but not that kind of atheist.

Once Trump took office in 2017, the trends I had noticed before became glaringly obvious. Rubin, who had risen to prominence thanks to Harris’s help (he not only appeared on his first episode to assist in launching Rubin’s show, he also regularly promoted his episodes and funded him on Patreon) began making paid videos for PragerU, a propaganda network started by Dan and Farris Wilks, Christian supremacist brothers who are big donors to Texas Republican Ted Cruz and many other extremist causes.

After building a career as a professional atheist, Rubin told a Religious Right YouTube channel that he now believed in a god, thanks to the ministrations of Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychologist whose first claim to fame was his transphobia and deliberate misinterpretations of Canada’s Gender Identity Rights Bill C-16.

Since his emergence in 2016, Peterson has worked diligently to flatter his far-right Christian audience with interminable lectures that mostly amount to justifying Bronze Age theological pronouncements. Ditto for Bret Weinstein, a former biology professor who presents himself as a sciencey secular type while frequently shilling for ivermectin, the anti-parasitic drug beloved by the Christian right that Weinstein falsely insists to be a miracle cure for Covid-19. He has now openly embraced the anti-vaccine movement as well.

Harris himself has also carefully cultivated a right-wing audience, endlessly ranting against “wokeness,” “critical race theory” and “leftist identity politics.” While the coronavirus pandemic has pushed his obsession about Islam out of the news cycle, he still sometimes goes out of his way to throw a little jihadism-fearmongering into other subjects. Just recently on an “Ask Me Anything” episode he warned, “…given how disruptive Covid has been, I would bet that the threat of bio-terrorism has increased significantly… …and if you’re a nihilist, or you’re insane, or you’re a jihadist, or you’re a fanatic of some other stripe, well then, bio-terrorism just got its Super Bowl commercial.”

Even as far-right movements around the globe have come to power thanks to inspiration from Trump, Harris has continued to use his platform to focus on petty grievances with college students, anti-racists, Black Lives Matter, and the political left in general. Instead of highlighting the alarming growth of right-wing extremism, Harris has downplayed it as irrelevant, a “fringe of the fringe.”

Despite his reputation as an advocate for atheism, Harris’s content has barely examined the violence-glorifying Christian supremacism that metastasized into the murderous chaos of the Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol. Within the year after the attack took place,  Harris published only two podcast episodes about it according to his website search. Even then, the event was portrayed as some sort of response to “wokeness.”

A few days after the first anniversary of Jan. 6, Harris did mention Trump and the Capitol putsch, but instead of putting the attack in its proper theocratic context, he framed the ex-president as just a “cult leader.” While Trump certainly does inspire adoration in some supporters, it’s an incomplete picture, like most of Harris’s Trump criticism. That’s because Trump did not create the manic hatred we all saw on Jan. 6, he took advantage of it. But according to his website and Google, Harris has never even used the term “Christian nationalism,” even as numerous journalists and scholars have published hundreds of articles, research papers, and books on the subject.

Everyone has their own priorities, but it’s certainly interesting to see that one of the original “four horsemen” of New Atheism evinces little to no concern about a growing and malignant Christian supremacist movement in his own country that was nourished by one of its major political parties to conduct the first violent invasion of the American Capitol since the War of 1812.

A key part of the far right’s strategy to radicalize theologically conservative Christians has been the spreading of lurid and often false tales about Muslim immigrants and migrants. Unfortunately, Harris and many others in the former New Atheist movement have been more than happy to oblige. But in promoting and defending hatred against Islam, right-wing atheists are doing more than just enabling their fellow ideologues, however. They are also undermining the position of atheism in society. Trump and his underlings have been crystal-clear that their goal is Christian supremacy—having government explicitly promote Christianity while giving non-Christians fewer rights and forcing them to be silent in public.

“Christianity is under tremendous siege,” Trump said in a 2016 campaign speech to an extremist evangelical group. “We don’t exert the power that we should have.”

“Christianity will have power,” he promised. “If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that.”

Unlike so many of the promises he’s made over the decades, this was one that Trump actually kept. He appointed hundreds of Christian nationalist judges intent on throwing out abortion rights rulings, he gave them unparalleled access to his staff, he appointed many of them to the highest echelons of power. He catered obsessively to their authoritarian policy demands. And after four disastrous years, Trump’s strategy of unlawfully clinging to power was conceived and executed by Christian Right activists.

Despite everything Trump and his fellow Republicans have done to promote and enforce Christian supremacism, right-wing atheists are still continuing their quixotic obsessions with random left-wing activists and college students, while also cozying up to theocrats. Figures like James Lindsay who emerged from the New Atheist scene are now prominent allies of the Religious Right with close ties to Christian nationalist organizations like Sovereign Nations. Richard Dawkins, meanwhile, is praising church bells and denouncing the “aggressive-sounding Allahu Akbar,” and Douglas Murray is making videos about the supposed “god-shaped hole” in the human psyche.

You simply can’t make this stuff up. It is beyond parody.

Nowadays, no one wants to be called a “New Atheist” anymore, because of the baggage and connotations the term carries, but the evangelical right-wing atheists still continue doing the same things. Whether they call themselves the “Intellectual Dark Web” or “heterodox,” their anti-left sentiment remains. It’s very different from the vast majority of atheists who actually do embrace pluralism, science, and human rights.

I left Islam because my skepticism was prompted by progressive values. I did not expect to see the same bigotries and conservative biases in the atheist scene that claimed to oppose these things. I learned the hard way, however, that bigotry and discrimination were not what my former associates opposed, it was Islam, it was minorities, immigrants … and brown people.

Joining hands with Christian nationalists to own the libs makes a certain kind of sense by this twisted logic. But it’s definitely not atheist activism.