Atheism + some mission-creep and potential confusion

A+ image, credit OneThousandNeedles

So, the battle lines are now being drawn – at least according to some. Yesterday, Richard Carrier posted this:

In the meantime, I call everyone now to pick sides (not in comments here, but publicly, via Facebook or other social media): are you with us, or with them; are you now a part of the Atheism+ movement, or are you going to stick with Atheism Less? Then at least we’ll know who to work with. And who to avoid.

There’s much more to his post, and much of it is very good, very thoughtful and not at all disagreeable to me. So I’d encourage you to read it, and not to read this post as a rejection of what Carrier said. But I do want to reject his conclusion, and try to explain why it’s important that we all should reject it. The reason for this rejection is not simply the logical fallacy it seems to contain – namely asking us to embrace a false dichotomy – but more because it’s premature to ask for us to choose between poorly-defined (and potentially undefinable) alternatives.

But first, a backwards step, seeing as many of you might not know what I’m talking about. On August 18, Jen McCreight published a post that called for a new wave of atheism. Three posts since that one have sought to define what Atheism+ is (or should be), and have repeatedly emphasised the communitarian aspect of this definitional process – we are all encouraged to chip in with our ideas and suggestions. There’s plenty to love about all those posts, and I heartily endorse the sentiment of Atheism+.

What is that sentiment? As the name implies, it’s atheism, plus a focus on other things. To quote McCreight’s second post in the series:

We are…
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.

That’s a good list, as I’d imagine that most readers of this blog would agree. But we wouldn’t necessarily agree on how to care, support or protest those things. We wouldn’t even agree on how to define the things we’re supposed to care about, protest or support. We’d agree about being decent people, in other words, but not necessarily agree on how to do that. And while reaching agreement on how to do that might be an important task, it’s not clear that it’s atheism’s task. To put it more clearly, I’m not sure that all of those (and other) worthy goals can best be accomplished under the banner of “atheism”. Especially not on Carrier’s terms, because – as someone who cares about social justice, for example, I’ll be damned if I’ll let him tell me that I can’t collaborate with a Methodist (not an A+ person, so someone “to avoid”) to address some issue of gender discrimination in a community.

Carrier might of course simply be indulging in a little hyperbole, which is understandable given the battle-ground I recently alluded to. I doubt that he’d have a problem with my collaborating with a Methodist – he’s rather asking us to take a stand against people who are unsympathetic to those goals. Certainly, at least those people described by Jean Kazez as

people who are seized by a desire to attack women when there’s the least hint of a question about male behavior at blogs and conferences. The notion of codes being imposed on their behavior sends them into a rage. These are the people whose existence you have to find surprising … and very disturbing. At the very least, they’re seriously lacking in empathy. Some of them even seem to feel an awful lot of hatred. I don’t know how numerous they are, but too numerous–and their ranks seem to be growing too.

But others also, like the “subtle trolls” I spoke about in my previous post on this topic area. And, those who enable or support the people Kazez describes above, or those who don’t denounce them. There’s a range of people who could be included in those who should be ostracised. But the problem is that it’s not always easy to identify them. One commenter on Stephanie Zvan’s site seems convinced that I’m one of the enemy camp, and I’m of course certain that I’m not. How will these decisions be made? A tribunal, or a democratic vote perhaps? And how does one repent after being exiled, and who gets to do the forgiving?

That’s somewhat facetious, I know. But the terms that this debate is quickly taking on lends itself to that. People are working towards what will quickly become an orthodoxy, and it’s going to happen too rapidly to be carefully thought out. Or, it’s simply going to be forgotten in a few months, as Notung argues here. As mentioned above, I’d have to agree with the 3rd point he makes – that it’s unclear exactly which issues should follow the ‘plus’. As for then deciding how to define those issues, I don’t think we can be complacent or confident (as some commenters at McCreight’s posts seem) about how difficult that might prove to be.

For social justice projects or strategy, we’d need to agree on an economic policy. As polarised as this issue is in an election year in the US, just after/during a global financial meltdown, while #Occupy rhetoric is still fresh in our minds… what chance is there of agreement on this? If we’re going to include a concern for the environment, can we simply throw climate sceptics out of our “circle of trust”, or do they get a chance to make their arguments? For feminism, what about people like me, who support it only as a contingent, necessary evil, because I hope to one day live in a world where race, gender, sex and so forth make absolutely no difference, so am loath to emphasise any such features, even in the short term?

My concern, in short, is that if we’re going to reach agreement on any of these issues, we might only get there through ruling certain question as out of bounds – perhaps even bullying them off the table, a phrase I think I owe to Jean Kazez. And if we’re forced to choose sides, a consequence might well be that all we succeed in doing is to institutionalise the current disagreements in the freethought community, rather than to get closer to solving them. In the meanwhile, there are groups already in existence that support those “plus” goals, or at least most of them, and who can probably be persuaded to support a larger list if a case was made.

I think, for example, of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, or the Council for Secular Humanism. They’ve been working hard for quite some time on a closely overlapping set of goals to those of the “Atheism +” movement. The question I’d urge the A+ supporters to consider is whether they’re not reinventing the wheel to some extent here, and also making life significantly more difficult for organisations like these – who often already struggle for support and funding. Just the sort of organisations, then, which could do with the ideas, energy and insight of all those who are currently enthusiastically talking about starting something new.

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  • http://evidenceandreason.wordpress.com Jason Bosch

    It does seem a bit that some people have got so attached to the atheist community, and the often-shared goals, that they think those should now become goals of atheism. I agree that issues of equality and social justice are important but I don’t see those as part of atheism. Atheism should be about rejecting religion. It should be a smaller part of a bigger movement, not the bigger movement that contains the smaller parts.

    • http://twitter.com/tauriqmoosa Tauriq Moosa (@tauriqmoosa)

      Agreed. You should read Notung’s post that Jacques links to above. It’s a good read.

  • http://twitter.com/OpheliaBenson Ophelia Benson (@OpheliaBenson)

    True, about the difficulty of identifying the real trolls, and the risk of institutionalizing the current deep rifts…But all the same I think it could help to marginalize certain kinds of behavior, or rather of harassment.

    • http://synapses.co.za Jacques Rousseau

      Agreed, it could do those helpful things. I hope it does – just concerned about mindless – and sometimes thoughtlessly hostile – bandwagoning.

  • http://gravatar.com/joshuaslocum JoshS

    Jacques, the mindless and hostile bandwagoning is not even distributed between “both sides”. Those of us with humanist ideas are tired—-really, truly exhausted—of our time being taken up by people who want to do anything *but* address the goals we favor. We’re ready to move on. And it’s not thoughtlessly hostile. I hope you’re helpfully suggesting the same caution to those who oppose this effort. Are you?

    • http://synapses.co.za Jacques Rousseau

      Yes, Josh, I am. And I agree with you.

  • http://thewritingengine.wordpress.com Luarien

    Atheism+ isn’t about making Social Justice the goals of atheism, itself. That’s silly, and it ascribes some kind of weird Agency that the philosophical notion of Atheism doesn’t have.

    What it does is allow people to self-identify as something more than “just an Atheist”. I’m not just an Atheist, I also follow philosophies that naturally flow out of not believing in a divine agent and examining the world I live in honestly and dispassionately. I follow a worldview built on empirical information and rational examination. That’s what makes me A+.

    And, as a note, the reason that someone probably thinks your’e in the enemy camp is because you don’t understand what Feminism is (the whole “not in the short term” bit). Feminism isn’t trying to make women superior, it’s trying to make women equal. There’s a lot of catching up that has to be done and, were you to examine the issues surrounding gender dispassionately and academically, you could see that. As several studies have. So instead of irrationally getting hung up on the word, examine what the academic discipline of Feminism is all about and what it means before dismissing it blithely in the middle of a not awful questioning of a new movement.

    • http://synapses.co.za Jacques Rousseau

      A few too many assumptions – and prescriptions – there for my liking. These words and concepts can be debated without thinking that there is malicious intent in doing so.

  • Dave

    The a+ thing isn’t anything new, just something for the FTB clique to call themselves. The name is terrible, by the way. It connotes the same mixture of self-satisfaction and condescension that doomed the “brights” label. Actually, scratch that. It’s perfect for them.

  • http://blamer.wordpress.com @blamer

    This internal issue highlights for me the tension between being principled (Atheism+) and being pragmatic (New Atheism warts and all). At this point in history I lean towards the latter as being more urgent. I don’t feel the identity of an atheist is threatened by “those” atheists.

    If the atheistic can agree that social betterment necessarily involves curtailing the political clout of the Religious Right in the GOP, then I suggest the only strategy available to progressives is to do what (says me) good lefties do best which is co-operate and negotiate. Ours ought be a subculture of unity on specific issues, not schisming.

    if influential godless individuals and groups insist on only helping the outreach efforts of the like-minded, then I see little hope of influencing public policy & public opinion (again, says me). As contrarians to conventional wisdom we must remember there is “greater good” in the leveraging of (sub)groups that we know to be factually mistaken and/or think to be ethically wrongheaded INCLUDING helping advance a “good” pet project of an influential “douche-bag” whether it’s done carrying the flag for Atheism(+) or otherwise.

  • http://synapses.co.za Jacques Rousseau

    This Rebecca Watson post is worth reading, and I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment in the 2nd-to-last paragraph. It’s the momentum she describes in the concluding paragraph – and the possible directions it might take – that I’m a little nervous about.

  • Barry Pearson

    I have just posted to my blog:
    “Enlightenment” is better than “Atheism+”.
    http://blog.barrypearson.co.uk/?p=2399

    I wonder whether “Atheism+” is taking off because so many of the advocates are in the USA, where atheism is a big deal? In Europe it can be pretty boring!

    I don’t object to atheists extending their viewpoint, but atheism isn’t the only valid starting point, and from a global point of view isn’t the most important. If we all treated religions as hobbies, (which is really what religious practices are), the other problems become far more important than religions.

  • Ric

    I agree with you 100%. It’s why I won’t join their movement. I agree with the tenets but I am dismayed by the vicious attacks against honest questioners and the dismissal of ANY disagreement as bigotry.

  • Sarandos

    I have recently stumbled onto this blog, (being a South African atheist in search of a place to share ideas), so I have not had the luxury of following all the threads and discussions referenced above. My apologies therefore if I am repeating what has already been said or rehashing issues that have already been settled. However, in this case it may be an advantage to comment on the woods before having been caught up in the trees.

    The whole concept of attempting to define a “denomination” of atheism is extremely disconcerting. At first glance, the discussions above look dangerousy like the types of discussions early christians may have had in the first few centuries CE, some sort of on-line Nicene Council trying to decide on the moral parameters that will define the “New Atheist”. It appears that the seeds of mutual excommunication have already be sown :”Then at least we’ll know who to work with. And who to avoid.” And as Jaques has so eloquently put it, who decides the details? A council of Atheism+ fathers? Do they wear a hat with a “+” on it so we can know who they are? Maybe they can carry a stick shaped like a “+” to establish their authority in dictating the morals that should be followed by all right thinking atheists.

    I’m sorry, I’m being extreme and facetious to make a point. For me atheism is about free thought. In my opinion, one of the key pillars of atheism is that morality is inherent in human beings, and atheism therefore rejects the notion that we need a divinely ordained set of rules to avoid sinking into anarchy. But that is only a start. Where our inherent morality takes us from there should have nothing to do with our belief or non-belief in a god. Saying that moral humanism is the natural consequence of atheism is dangerously close to saying atheism wil lead to immorality and chaos. Although it may one day be true to say that all moral humanists are atheists, it cannot be true that all atheists are moral humanists. Tens of millions of Russians in the Stalinist era can confirm that.

    I think it is a very slippery slope to therefore try to pursue political or social agendas in the name of atheism. I’m all for organised atheism, and even more in favour of antitheist activism. I’m even all for something like “Atheists for Womens’ Rights or Gay Rights or Against Racism”. But to try and write that tyope of thing into some sort of atheist constituition is ludicrous.

    We need to be very careful about mixing ideologies. Unlike Christian Democrats, atheist democrats are really just democrats. Atheist schools are really just schools. And atheists are really just free people who can discuss and argue and fight about issues based on reason, without ever worrying that their opponent will invoke some sort of divinely inspired authority to enforce their views. Let’s keep it that way before we end up turning atheism into a new religion.

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