Some Observations About Atheism Plus

August 27, 2012

WARNING: This post contains mild language, constructive criticism, occasional reasoning, and no invective (except by way of parody).

Atheism Plus (hereafter A+) has arrived with a bang—it was just five days from Jen McCreight’s first post on the subject to recognition in the New Statesman. Congratulations to Jen McCreight (hereafter JM) for putting forth an idea that struck a responsive chord.

Of course, that response has been somewhat short of universal acclamation.  Indeed, some reactions have been very negative. My view is that some criticisms of A+ may be justified; some not. This brings me to my first observation.

1.General Attitude to New Ideas Most humanists and atheists champion critical reasoning and the scientific method; we should welcome new ideas that question our accepted beliefs and practices. Therefore, it’s not a valid criticism of A+ to say that it may cause some disagreements and disputes. A challenge to the status quo may be warranted. That said …

2. Was Its Initial Launch Ideal? JM’s initial post on her “new wave” of atheism came in the context of a semi-biographical sketch of her disgust with the “Boy’s Club” that allegedly held (holds?) sway over the secular/skeptical movement. In this post she rang the now familiar changes of the Elevatorgate controversy, the kerfuffle over D.J. Grothe’s remarks about sexual harassment complaints and attendance at TAM, objections to Paula Kirby’s comments on “feminazis,” and so forth.  There are two problems with this approach. First, by positioning the launch of A+ within the context of these disputes, it’s likely she immediately lost part of her target audience. “Oh, this is just the latest installment of that thing,” was probably the annoyed reaction of some.

Second, she was at least impliedly suggesting that one’s position on these various issues determines whether one would be welcome as part of the new wave of A+ or be condemned to “circle jerk into oblivion,” as she rather colorfully put it. Do the advocates of A+ really want one’s position on Elevatorgate or Grothe’s remarks to be the litmus test of whether one is sufficiently progressive to be part of this new wave of atheism?

Let’s be clear: People who make hateful, threatening comments to others should not be part of any segment of the secular/skeptical movement. Amy Roth’s recent series of posts from various movement leaders leaves no doubt that this is a principle with virtually unanimous support. But if someone thinks, for example, that Grothe’s remarks may just have been ill-advised or poorly worded as opposed to intolerable, that shouldn’t result in the person being lumped together with the haters.

A+ as outlined by JM and Greta Christina in later posts has some laudable features. Atheists should get more involved in public policy questions, for example (see discussion below). It’s regrettable that this part of the proposal may be overlooked because of how the proposal was initially presented.

3. Exactly Who Is Welcome? JM made it clear that she believes the secular/skeptical movement needs to be more diverse.  I doubt whether any leader of the various secular/skeptical organizations would disagree. We need more women and minorities. One, we want more people, period; two, we want to ensure our groups are representative and that we get the benefit of the perspective of a wide range of people.

However, whether intentionally or not, the way JM first expressed the need for diversity came across more as a lament about the abundant presence of old white men in the movement. This was exacerbated by a tweet she sent in which she apparently said, “Dear smug humanists: My critique of the atheist movement included you. Your groups are infamous for being mostly old, white, men.” 

Hmm. First, I don’t think that’s really an accurate description of humanist organizations currently. CFI has 200+ campus groups affiliated with it. Lot of women, and a lot of people under 30.

Second, leave the white male issue aside for the moment. Is being old an intrinsically bad thing? This would be a strange position to take, especially as combatting “ageism” is one of the explicit goals of A+.

Aggravating matters was a blog post by Richard Carrier that appeared two days after JM’s initial post which was—how to put this— a wee bit strident.  References to enemies, kicking people to the sewers, and a closing call for “everyone now to pick sides … 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 and its sexism and cruelty and irrationality.”  Effectively, Carrier’s message was: Decide Now! Decide whether you are with us or against us! 48 hours after the first tentative unveiling of A+ and before discussion of any sort of detailed program or plan of action. Decide Now—or be kicked to the sewer like the scum-sucking enemy of the people that you are.

Whew. I think Carrier may have had one too many 5-hour energy drinks that day.

So the first impression of some was that this was going to be a group more focused on exclusion than inclusion. Understandably, there has been some pushback.

The good news is that in a post on Thursday afternoon, JM clarified matters a bit. She expressly stated that her focus is on diversity and inclusion and she has nothing against old white men. (I also assume, although I don’t know if she has stated this, that Carrier did not coordinate with her when he composed his post.)

We should give people the benefit of the doubt and be charitable in our interpretation of their remarks. So unless subsequent remarks show otherwise, we should assume a person’s race, age, and gender are not relevant to how welcome they are in A+.

4. Why Don’t You Call A+ Humanism? JM is pushing A+ because she wants to do more than just refute religious claims. She wants atheists to be active on social justice and equality issues.
As some have pointed out, there already are atheists and agnostics who go beyond critiques of religion. They’re humanists.

But JM doesn’t want that label. She gives reasons, which you can read for yourself. Whether one finds these reasons persuasive really doesn’t matter. One can’t force someone to use the label “humanist” if they don’t want to, and I don’t care what JM or other advocates of A+ call themselves, nor am I concerned whether they’re using the humanist model without giving appropriate acknowledgment to humanism. We’re not Apple and Samsung.

5. So What Is the Precise Content of the “Plus”? As indicated, I don’t give a fig for nomenclature. I do care about the secular movement and its direction. I do care about whether it uses its resources efficiently. I do care about whether we remain sufficiently unified to achieve the objectives we presumably all share.

So I don’t care whether JM dislikes the label humanist, but I’d like her to explain where she would go beyond the issues on which CFI and AHA (and some other organizations) are already working.

CFI has long been active in supporting LGBT equality, in supporting reproductive rights, in supporting equality for women, in opposing suppression of women and minorities, not just in the US but in other countries, in supporting public schools, in advocating for patient’s rights, including the right to assistance in dying, in fighting restrictions on the teaching of evolution, in opposing religious interference with health care policy, in promoting the use of science in shaping public policy, in safeguarding our rights to free speech, and in protecting the rights of the nonreligious. We focus on these issues because: 1. they are the issues where religious dogma and/or pseudoscience continue to have significant influence and, therefore, they’re the issues most closely related to our mission as a secular/skeptical organization; and 2. we have limited resources of money and staff time; we can’t do everything.

So do the advocates of A+ believe some or all of these issues are not worth spending time on? If so, why? What other issues will A+ be focused on? What are the connections between these other issues and atheism? Where will A+ find the resources to focus on these other issues?

Social justice is great. After all, who’s against social justice? It’s when one starts to fill in the details that disagreements arise.

As of now, A+ is a proposal in search of a program. It’s probably unfair to expect more of it at this stage; it is less than two weeks old. But precisely because it’s in its infancy, it may be premature to consider it the new wave in atheism.

Conclusion I hope my observations will not be considered unduly critical. It is difficult to put forth a proposal such as A+, as we atheists and humanists tend to be an unsparing bunch of critics; JM should be commended for her willingness to submit this proposal for consideration. As indicated, I think there have been some missteps in the presentation of A+, but at least to some extent these can be corrected. The bigger challenge may be in specifying exactly what A+ adds to the movement. I look forward to the further elaboration of A+ so we can consider and discuss in a calm, rational manner exactly what its implications are. I sincerely hope that it turns out to be something that strengthens the movement.

Comments:

#101 SimonSays on Sunday September 02, 2012 at 5:08pm

@Zed the apostate

To clarify: you’re saying your account to CFI was deleted?

I’m confused because you seem to be posting under a CFI account (ie not a “Guest” one).

#102 Jamie Stanton on Tuesday September 11, 2012 at 5:54am

The goals of Atheism+ are ostensibly for social justice, but “on the ground” (in the forum) they represent a very narrow form of social justice that rests wholly on a left-wing form of feminism that requires one accept things like “the patriarchy” and “mansplaining” are real. They have a forum - called “education” which is there to preach, not debate these tenants. Words like “stupid” are branded as “ablist”. It is really just far-left feminism, and has little to do with atheism.

What I think is needed is not a new wave of atheism, but a new wave of feminism that drops the dubious marxist worldview and dodgy science. One that embraces Enlightenment values and a basis in the scientific method, not an impenetrable worldview that rests on battling intellectual criticisms with emotional responses. Viva Fourth Wave feminism.

#103 SimonSays on Tuesday September 11, 2012 at 6:14am

@Jamie Stanton: What “dodgy science” have you seen on the Atheism+ forum?

What “marxist” views are being espoused in any substantial way?

Also, kindly point to an understanding of feminism that isn’t left-wing. My understanding is that feminism is progressive.

#104 Jamie Stanton on Tuesday September 11, 2012 at 7:41am

@SimonSays

One that springs to mind was poster saying that criticism of Naomi Wolf’s new book Vagina and its dodgy neuroscience, was “Mansplaining” and because she “dared to talk about womens bodies”. That in a nutshell explains the relationship to science, but also anything whatsoever to do with evolutionary psychology or science that even hints there may be behavioral differences between men and women. That is all smothered in ideology.

Patriarchy Theory and its broader cousis Kyriarchy theory, are essentially class war as applied to gender.

Try “Who Stole Feminism” by Christina Hoff Sommers is a good overview of women’s rights from a different perspective. This is the problem; women’s rights and social justice are not wholly the domain of the Left, as much as they want them to be. In the UK, the Conservative party had the first female PM in the 1970s, and the first gay party leader (Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson). I am not a right winger, but I detest the Left trying to “own” these issues and call everyone else who doesn’t buy their ropey ideology bigots. That is what is happening with Atheism+.

#105 SimonSays on Tuesday September 11, 2012 at 8:23am

@Jamie Stanton:

I do not see an instance of the phrase you quote “dared to talk about womens bodies” when I do a search of the atheism+ forum. Can you provide a link to the piece you are referring to?

So this “different perspective” is:

“Sommers coined the term “Gender feminism” to describe what she contends is a gynocentric and misandric branch of feminism. Gender feminists typically criticize contemporary gender roles and aim to eliminate them altogether.”

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equity_feminist

Is this a classification you would agree with?

#106 Jamie Stanton on Tuesday September 11, 2012 at 8:36am

You can see the thread here. The criticism is evidence of “male privilege”
http://atheismplus.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=715&p=7674&hilit=naomi+wolf#p7674

Yes, exactly, Gender Feminism characterises the bulk of posters in Atheism+, and this worldview in strongly asserted its “education” forum.

My point is that as it exists, Atheism+ is a very narrow form of social justice, almost indistinguishable from this school of feminism.

#107 SimonSays on Tuesday September 11, 2012 at 9:10am

@Jamie Stanton: I think your contention that “the bulk of posters” at Atheism+ is gynocentric and misandric (per the classification you just endorsed) requires a hefty amount of substantiation that is probably beyond the scope of this comment section.

I am not surprised by your stance however. There is a widespread misconception that feminism often entails hatred of men.

Anyhow, my limited experience and previous familiarity with many of the commenters elsewhere is in sharp disagreement with your assessment.

#108 Jack (Guest) on Tuesday September 11, 2012 at 9:24am

Having been pushed off the comment section of ftb for bringing simple passing criticisms of A+, it wouldn’t surprise me if the same bullies would be around on the A+ forum.

#109 Jamie Stanton on Tuesday September 11, 2012 at 9:34am

@SimonSays

Ah, I see, I missed those terms when I read it earlier. I did *not* say they were all misandrists, although there are many unresolved issues relating to men on display in the forum. They by and large promote the school of feminism that promote notions of “rape culture”, “male privilege” and this whole constellation of concepts related to the idea of Gender feminism.

These topics have “101” threads in the education forum, because they are to be the foundations of all future topics. To get on board with Atheism+, you have to accept these underlying concepts and the associated worldview. It is like a religious forum that there can be discussion *within the scope* of these topics but it is dangerous territory to question its very existence. That is “trolling”.

Women’s Rights are not the same as this one school of Feminism.

#110 SimonSays on Tuesday September 11, 2012 at 5:37pm

@Jamie Stanton:

I guess I’m still not sure where your objection is. Are you saying that in the US and indeed most of the world men aren’t aren’t given preferential status over women? That’s all “male privilege” is. There’s entire UN agencies devoted to achieving gender equality, I am just not seeing why this is controversial.

#111 Jamie Stanton on Wednesday September 12, 2012 at 2:26am

@SimonSays

Re-read the last line of my comment.

Has society existed along patrilineal lines since the dawn of agriculture? Yes. Have women existed in a state of outright subjugation throughout this time and had a uniquely bad time throughout history? To borrow a phrase from Ben Goldacre; “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that”.

I am *not* saying that women have it easy in most countries in the world. Quite the opposite. My problem is with the agressive tactics used in this school of feminism is if anything counter productive to women’s rights and plays into the hands of its enemies. If you are interested, I have written a blog on the subject;

http://www.jamiestanton.com/2012/09/womens-rights-is-a-pivotal-issue-of-the-21st-century-but-popular-feminism-is-doing-more-harm-than-good/

In the context of Atheism+ it is often not used in an strictly academic sense, but more often just used to discredit the opinions of men, along with buzzwords like “mainsplaining”. They are playing “privilege top trumps” and use emotional argumentation along the lines of “you are discrediting my opinion because I am a woman” instead of because there are disagreements over the credibility of the topic.  This, in turn, leads to weakening credibility further, and is compounded by banning people or calling them - and I quote - a “miserable fucking idiot”. 

http://atheismplus.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=467&p=4561&hilit=miserable+fucking+idiot#p4561

By aggressively trying to associate women’s rights *in its entirety* with one school of feminist thought, and then acting in such a way, it has the effect of discrediting broader women’s rights movement.  And that is a problem.

#112 Willa Cartwright (Guest) on Saturday September 15, 2012 at 3:52am

Oh I am so sick of all this ... Atheism+ is only making things worse.

This only exists because of ‘elevator-gate’ and Rebecca Watson’s screeching insistance on injecting “feminism and misogyny” into every conversation.

I remember when this nonsense started - it was all so unnecessary.

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