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.