UPDATE: See http://freethoughtblogs.com/blaghag/2012/09/goodbye-for-now/ - although I don’t (see below!) wholly agree with Atheism Plus, the harrassment Jen McCreight has had to put up with is totally uncalled for. It goes way beyond reasonable disagreement, and has often featured real, nasty misognyny. It reminds me of Laurie Penny’s piece about the huge abuse that women get online. I am very sorry to see her go, but understand why..
Well, while I’ve been mostly offline (at least in terms of serious blogging, due to factors some know about) this summer, there have been some very odd developments. At least they seem odd to me. Atheists, particularly in the
USA have been falling out. Nothing new in that, you might think, as they always have; sharing only a disbelief hardly inclines towards unity. However, the falling out here has had odd consequences, such as the proposal of ‘Atheism+’ as a possible solution. Here I want to take a look at this development and what, if anything, it might mean.
The whole A+ (for short.. it is annoying, but I’m using it – my ability to type is seriously impeded!) thing requires an appreciation of the context, which some of us here in Europe might lack. The atheism/scepticism/free-thought people in the US seem more organised to start with. It may be that they need to be- faced with a deeply religious culture, the Bible-Belt, religious TV and radio, and the like. It may also be a cultural thing about joining, organising and meeting. Maybe. There are events, blogs and ‘movements’ on a greater scale, and some trace the current issues to one of these events. This have become known as ‘elevatorgate’ (in Dublin, not the US, but the community and response seems centred there) – I won’t say more but see http://skepchick.org/2011/07/the-privilege-delusion/ - and you’ll see that Dawkins seemed to act like an idiot, and add to the perception that atheist, etc groups were dominated by male, middle-aged white guys (like society?).
The debates on (various) blogs became more divisive. More bitter and futile. A bit like in religions that forget about converting unbelievers and obsess about orthodoxy in those who do believe. Not that some weren’t in the right here, and others in the wrong, it just seems to have got beyond being about that. The whole ‘FreeThought Bullies’ meme/hashtag got started. Different sides complained of being bullied, silenced, marginalised and excluded. You can read about the whole unedifying business here: http://www.atheistrev.com/2012/08/the-freethought-bullies-meme.html
That is (some) of the background.. There’s a summary at http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/religion/2012/08/atheism-plus-new-new-atheists (it being in the New Statesman helped it gather a lot more UK notoriety)…
So – this is where it comes out of – but what is it? Much of it is to be found on the Free Though blog pages, such as http://freethoughtblogs.com/blaghag/2012/08/how-i-unwittingly-infiltrated-the-boys-club-why-its-time-for-a-new-wave-of-atheism/ where Jen McCreight calls for a new wave of atheism. An atheism that won’t put up with rape jokes, social inequity, anti-feminism, anti-diversity monoculturalism and the like. Sounds good.
Now – quite a few have pointed out that a form of atheism that goes beyond mere disbelief towards political secularism and social justice already exists. It’s called humanism. Now – readers of the book are aware that I don’t much like humanism, for various reasons, and although Greta Christina has nicer things to say about Humanism – she is keen to distinguish it from Atheism+ see: http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2012/08/23/humanism-is-great-but-its-not-atheism-plus/ Atheism+ is less polite/genteel/apologetic, less about replicating religious structures, and not as apolitical (about broader issues outside secularism) as humanism. Furthermore, many young people recognise atheism as describing them where they don’t for humanism. See the blog post for more differences, though I’m slightly of the view that they are over-done for much of the piece.
So – how so: what, you’d be entitled to ask is it? It’s own blog defines it at http://atheismplus.com/?page_id=127 - but is vague so far.. However, a handy sidebar gives the key tenets:
Atheists plus we care about social justice.
Atheists plus we support women’s rights.
Atheists plus we protest racism.
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia.
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.
A place where people can discuss atheism, social justice, and other topics without the risk of threats or harassment. Take part in the conversation!
Well – who apart from homophobic, bigoted, racist atheists wouldn’t agree?
There does seem a need to (mostly in the US it seems) to stand up to idiots in the atheism ‘community’ – particularly on certain blog platforms. So far – these seem in favour of A+ as a notion. But..
There seem two possible responses here, neither seeing a need for A+ as a movement, (though as a blogging platform away from those who driven people away from others it seems fine). I tend towards the latter position, but I’ll outline the former.
This initial position is that atheism doesn’t entail any social justice conclusions. It means a lack of belief in God- nothing more. From this you can’t deduce that feminism is preferable to patriarchy, or that justice even makes sense. In this context, atheism is just a denial – it needs something different and positive in order to make to claims outlined above. Something extra- but that ‘plus’ just adds to the atheism – it doesn’t say what it is that people believe in. They actually seem to believe in people, and their equality and dignity. In humans. Maybe atheism should stand for the disbelief and another term for the positive beliefs in the equality and worth of all human. Perhaps something like ‘humanism’?
[A more cynical writer might claim that all A+ want is in Humanism, except for the credit for starting a movement, and the sense of a new-beginning. I wouldn't dream of it..]
Actually, although I am tempted by this position, and see a role for older uses of humanism perhaps, I favour a different position.
I don’t agree that atheism has no intellectual or political consequences. Even if many atheists don’t think through what atheism implies, and refuse to take those consequences on board, it still implies them. I don’t see a need for atheism plus, as I take the view that atheism already, actually, implies all the things that A+ is seeking.
Atheism implies a lack of ‘essences’ that make men, or women, or people of this or that sexual orientation, or with this disability, or lack thereof, better than each other. All privilege is socially constructed, in an atheist context there is no intrinsic basis for any of it.
I agree with Sartre when he writes
‘Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position‘ – He sees that atheism sees us as equally thrown, alone and in need of value. What, though, of social justice? Well, the personal demand for equal recognition, for being valued irrespective of race, gender, orientation, disability and ethnicity isn’t divorced from having a social dimension. Just as atheism itself implies equality of worth amongst persons, this equality of worth has socio-political implications of equality and mutual respect. While we, quite rightly, need to argue about what they look like, some might take the view that the feminist, social justice, human worth consequences of atheism already have a name: surely that’s called Marxism?
We might balk at that term, call it atheistic existentialism or socialism, but ‘atheism plus’ seems to be better captured by these terms. While I really think the term itself will falter (and I don’t much like it, as I hint here), and go the way of ‘brights’, and that it actually represents a return to (legitimate) concerns that have been sidelined rather than a ‘new wave of thinking’, I do hope that it does give us pause to consider where being a atheist actually leads, and what it implies for questions of equality and diversity.