By now, you’ve probably already read this article on The New Statesman about the inception of Atheism Plus and what it means to the movement. There are, to my mind, a few misconceptions within it, and I think some people — even some high-profile people in our various communities, judging by Richard Dawkins’ recent pushback against “controversialist blogs” in response to this article — have evidently bought into those misconceptions. Chief among them is that Atheism Plus is a response to Dawkins’ New Atheism.
Any community, new or old, has its tensions, and in the past year the atheist/sceptical community has been rocked by a divisive and increasingly bad-tempered debate over sexism and, more generally, a sense that the dominant voices have tended to be white, male and middle-class. On the one hand, there have been suggestions that atheism and scepticism are philosophies disproportionately attractive to men. Indeed, the stereotype of the atheist as white, intellectually overconfident male – as Richard Dawkins – has long been a favourite among religious apologists.
While this is all in some sense true, that atheism has an image problem, it’s certainly not Richard Dawkins’ fault that the folks who’ve done the most to popularize atheism are educated white males. It’s society’s own fault that these folks’ voices are overprivileged — that those with privilege are heard disproportionately more easily than other valuable voices representing other demographics that have been left to the wayside.
The Atheism Plus movement is not a response to these privileged folks representing atheism. The people now identifying themselves as A+ have been talking about social justice, humanist ideals and privilege for some time. Factions within the community absolutely loathe the idea that these topics are being broached within “their movement”. And those intractable folks are simply horrified, despite the fact that these A+ people have been talking about these topics for quite some time. Years, in some cases. The Atheism Plus movement is primarily a response to those people who are horrified that someone would dare intermix these other concepts in “their” movement, and simultaneously it is a labeling of an already-existing faction within our communities.
So, I’ve prepared some Venn diagrams to try to help illustrate who and what Atheism Plus is a response to, exactly. First though, we have to find Atheism Plus on it. I’ve had to make a number of design choices that mean some things are not perfect. I expect people will argue with this; that’s fine. Please do. I kept the .odg file so it should be easy enough to manipulate.
Let’s start simple. First, we have atheists, and the religious. Presume that this does not include religious buddhists or other atheists who appreciate or engage in religious ritual for the time being — let’s say, for the purposes of simplicity, “religious” is shorthand for “theists”.
That’s simple enough, of course. But there are two other factions we’re talking about. There’s the social justice advocates who comprise feminists, LGBTQ advocates, those who fight bigotries, those who fight the 1% who own all the wealth and power, and every other social injustice and privilege our societies have to offer. And there’s the humanists (with a small H), who heavily but not entirely overlap the atheists, who believe (rightly) that human morality and ethics should be informed by reason and reality to the exclusion of claims of the supernatural or of divine moral arbiters.
This latter group should, theoretically, encompass only those that follow the letter of the present movement (in other words, the Humanists), including only those who expressly reject that there IS a supernatural or any deities to contend with. However, with self-identification, and with the existence of multiple movements since the Renaissance that all lay claim to the name, the circle is muzzy and probably will be contentious where I placed it.
So, where are the Atheism Plus folks in this? It should be relatively obvious, but let’s label it in the next diagram.
There are also humanists/social justice advocates who are religious — the ones who do good deeds for humankind and who advocate social change that benefits our society — who are not religious at all. If they could be convinced that there is no god, they would join A+. It is they whom we most hope to peel away from religion.
Note that while there are many people who are in the cross-section marked A+ who aren’t happy about the name, who talk about the branding as being unworkable. They are still part of that cross-section, they just have quarrel with the name, honestly.
But that’s not the whole of the story, is it? When people talk about how Atheism Plus is prejudicial to “vanilla atheists”, how we’re trying to drum “them” out of the movement or make stringent rules that define what they can and cannot do, they’re actually talking about how the A+ folks are against a small subset of our community who do terrible things and have terrible moral compasses. They are added to the diagram here. Note that there are a large number of these folks outside the atheist circle altogether — A+ are equally fed up with those folks as well.
But are we therefore calling every person who disagrees with A+’s goals misogynists, scumbags, privilege-defenders, etc! …Aren’t we?
No, not really.
This final diagram adds two more circles, describing the loudmouths, the people who love to give offense as though mere offense was its own virtue. They are the trolls, and they are the people doing most to hamstring discourse.
You’ll note there’s some overlap even in the A+ group. There are some A+ folks who are more interested in giving offense than they are in fostering communication; people who think that the fact that someone can be riled to emotional outburst actually somehow justifies riling them to emotional outburst. People who misunderstand that epithets are slaps in the face, tools in the chest that we can employ to good or bad use. They are people who have discovered the joys of calling people names, who hold the idea of being a jerk to people absolutely sacrosanct.
They overlap heavily with those scumbags in the last Venn diagram. They are not one in the same, however. These loudmouths hold that we are trying to drum them out of the community, but we’re really not — not when some of us employ those same tactics, e.g., the “New Atheists” who use confrontationalism to force people to face their cognitive dissonance.
There are lots of people who hold terrible misanthropic views or who proudly defend their privilege who try to stay civil and whose backs get up if someone shows the least hint of irreverence. And the A+ folks are not ALL against giving offense — some even wholly embrace it as its own good, while others wholly vilify it as unacceptable in any context.
I’d put in another circle to describe those people who dislike the concept of Atheism Plus, who dislike the label, or who dislike the merging of other social justice movements with their own pet social justice movement, but that would complicate an already complicated graph. And I really don’t plan on talking about the people who are pushing back against this faction’s inception in this post, but rather discussing where A+ came from and why.
You’ll notice that the A+ folks are all against a certain type of person — the kind of person who would engage in concerted hate campaigns against certain members of the community merely for being pro-social-justice. By declaring the zone in which we occupy as uniformly against this other group, we are not attacking the atheist community as a whole. We are demanding that these horrible people either smarten the hell up or expect to be slapped down. We refuse to embrace those people as “part of our tribe”, as DJ Grothe put it in his introduction speech at TAM.
And that’s fine. If you other folks want to embrace the real scumbags, you go right ahead. We’ll know on what part of the Venn diagram you fall, and we’ll know that to reach our goals, we’re best off segregating ourselves from you; disassociating from those that would embrace the scumbags and staying in our own little corner of the movement where we don’t have to fight the same fights over what privilege is or how it hurts everyone, over and bloody over again. There is, after all, only so often we can explain what privilege is or how it skews whose voices we hear.
Ultimately, we might want our slice of the intersectionality presented here to grow, and we might want to eventually raise enough consciousnesses that those “dictionary atheists” — those folks who think “there are no gods” is enough to tell if you’re a good person — become the minority, rather than the mode. We may even succeed in marginalizing or shrinking the red blotches on our communities, convincing others within the movement to cut out the deadwood, so we can go on to fight the enemies outside. That is not our immediate goal, though. Our immediate goal is to delineate a space as safe for minorities and the underprivileged, and to demand that we all take to task those who do harm to that space. We want to criticize people for doing harm to those goals without “drumming them out of the movement” as some people would have you believe. We want each person who represents the banner of atheism to best represent the plurality we’d like to see the community become.
Atheism Plus is a way for the physicians to heal ourselves. We are at least triaging what we see as the problem where members of our communities are attacking us for our social justice views so frequently and with such aplomb. We are declaring ourselves “not with those jerks”. Because those jerks are giving the rest of us atheists an awful name with their incurious, unskeptical, and frankly atavistic views on how society works.