Jen McCreight just called for ‘a new wave of atheism’, led by feminist skeptics and those of us concerned in general with social justice in our movement. The post has gained a great deal of attention, including a lot of praise, and led to the idea’s supporters adopting this symbol.
One commenter Jen went on to quote, dcortesi, said this about what it represents. (Expect more quotes/screencaps/links as this post goes on.)
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.
Predictably, a lot of comparisons were made with humanism (I refuse to capitalise it), about which Jen said ‘people can use whatever label they want. Humanist, atheist, atheist+, whatever. I just want change.’ Amen to that – but while I’m totally onboard with her aims, I want to say why I don’t personally like ‘A+’: why I don’t think it describes me personally, and why I feel it’s a risky brand for us to use.
Here’s something Rebecca Watson said, in the post I linked above:
I’ve long seen secular humanism as the natural path for those atheists who are ready to move beyond the conclusion that there’s no such thing as a god.
And here’s a quick exchange we had, when a friend shared it. (Click for magnification.)
I sometimes experience tension with humanists, and especially when they say our activism must be ‘positive’. To me, what’s most important is fighting false beliefs or irrational ones – that’s why I call myself a skeptic before all else – and this often means setting myself against certain things. If you’re interested in hymns about Charles Darwin, or discussing ‘the good life’ with secular bibles, I’ve nothing against that, but it’s not for me. My aim is for fewer people to believe things they shouldn’t believe.
This isn’t to be dismissed. In her ‘I’m not an A+’ post, Kylie Sturgess provides an extended list of ‘links as to why practices like dowsing and homeopathy are still highly relevant for us to investigate’; Jen’s original post complains of people ‘patting themselves on the back for debunking homeopathy for the 983258th time or thinking up yet another great zinger to use against Young Earth Creationists’, but homeopathy-belief still gets people killed, and creationism still threatens education. Christians in Nigeria kill children because of their beliefs, and psychics still exploit the vulnerable. These arguments are worth having.
Jen’s point was, I think, that we should target a broader range of truth claims, and pick which ones based on how they impact social justice. I’m down with that, but we have to present it carefully. A rhetoric of ‘we are atheists, plus anti-racists’ or ‘we’re skeptics, plus we help the poor’ might produce a school of activists for social change, who only happen to be godless – whose actual skepticism is, like certain humanists’, purely incidental to their work. Let me stress again that the rhetoric of ‘plus’, and not the actual change in our movement Jen demands, is what I think might lead to that; we don’t need ‘plus’. We need ‘therefore’.
Atheist groups generally – not sans exception, but generally – are absent of homophobia, because we don’t believe in a homophobic god. When writers on Skepchick, FreethoughtBlogs and associated sites have been accused of not doing ‘what the movement is actually supposed to be about’, the standard response has been ‘We’re skeptics, therefore we challenge gender myths, not just religion’. In both cases, our philosophy leads directly to us seeking social change: Boobquake, for example, was never just feminism by atheists. It was feminist-skepticism. This isn’t a ‘plus’, it’s a ‘therefore’.
I do appreciate, though, that there are ways we want to make our community inclusive which don’t immediately result from skepticism. So I want to approach this from another angle.
Intersectionality is valid, and often important, even if the movements involved aren’t naturally related. Suppose we don’t construe feminism as a gender-related form of skepticism; suppose we understand it plainly as a movement to make life better for women on planet Earth. It’s still wrong, in that case, to say ‘Keep out feminism out of skepticism – they’re different things’, because what this tells skeptics who are feminists is ‘Make the world better, but don’t start with the community you’re in.’ It’s the equivalent of saying ‘Pedagogy and feminism are separate, so stop trying to get more women into schools’, or ‘anti-racism and queer rights are separate, so of course the gay community can be white-only’.
On Greta Christina’s blog, there’s a post I’ve always loved and identified with, which reads ‘I feel more at home – more welcomed, more valued, more truly understood – as a queer in the atheist community than I do as an atheist in the queer community’. Almost everyone in atheism belongs to another group, and we all want those groups to be atheist-friendly. It’s only fair we make atheism friendly to other groups too – including when doing so isn’t required by godlessness alone.
In actual fact, almost every social movement has values and principles conceptually distinct from its core definition. Yes, that includes ours – because ‘atheism’ the intellectual position is different from ‘the atheist movement’ as a group of bodies. The scarlet letter is a symbol of the latter, and when we see it, we think of all our community’s other principles.
- We think of science education, for example.
- We think of secularism, i.e. separating church and state.
- We think of being against religion, and of not practicing nontheistic religions either.
- We think of skepticism in general, e.g. of alt-med.
In dictionary terms, none of these is required of atheists, but they’re central to our movement because we see them as connected to our broader aims. There are probably lots more ideas other than ‘no god belief’ which we could list here, and are fundamental parts of our community. I think ‘dirty issues like feminism and diversity and social justice’ should be in there too, because without them we’re a poorer, more isolated, less effective movement. Some examples:
- We want to reach all parts of our societies, so when Sikivu Hutchinson talks about communities of colour, economics and Christianity, we should listen to what she says.
- We want to reach all parts of our societies, so we should listen to trans atheists – and when we see other atheists using offensive language, we should at least discuss it with them.
- We want everyone to come to our conferences and meet-ups, so we should listen to atheists who use wheelchairs or have hearing difficulties, and make events as accessible as they can be.
- We want to stop religious child abuse (including sexual abuse), so we should listen to survivors and learn what not to say, and when to provide which trigger warnings.
With some exceptions, many of these social justice issues are things which churches and religious bodies are already far worse at than our movement is – and by organising with them in mind, we can be a community which gets issues they don’t, which other groups see as an ally. I agree with Jen McCreight, and the associated people in the blogosphere, that they should be essential, not optional, for effective activism as skeptics or atheists. For this reason, I don’t like using ‘+’ to represent them.
The atheist ‘A’, as an emblem of our (sub)culture, already stands for more than godlessness – it stands implicitly for secularism, science and the other things named above. We need to add diversity and social awareness to its implications; symbolising those with ‘+’ implies they’re something extra, and that atheist activism without them is legitimate. It shouldn’t be.
If ever there were a time to claim the mainstream, non-specified atheist brand for inclusivity, that time is now, because as Jen says we’re winning: ‘although the response from the haters is getting louder and viler, they’re now vastly outnumbered by supportive comments (which wasn’t always true). This surge of hate is nothing more than the last gasp of a faction that has reached its end.’
I want an endgame where the bigots in our midst, not us, need their own unique name and symbol – where describing someone simply as ‘an atheist activist’ implies on its own that they care about justice and equality, and those who don’t feel they have to use another label. To quote another of the commenters,
That will probably not happen if we use some kind of [adjective] atheism.
They’ll always be able to say “I’m just an atheist. I’m not an [adjective] atheist. I don’t need anything else.”
And that kind of “purist” self-identification is very attractive to naive people (here naive is not intended as a pejorative; there are always people who are new to atheism and who may, in the beginning, feel overwhelmed by the Deep Rifts; we want to appeal to the new and naive people).
If we brand ourselves as a subtype then we’ll always remain a subtype. We want to be the ones who, if you’re a misogynist and you don’t want to be confused for us, you’ll have to apply an adjective to yourself. We don’t want to be a subtype. We want to be the type.
[Tl;dr - I already think the atheist movement and specifically the scarlet 'A' contain more ideas than 'just not thinking there's a god', and I want one of those ideas to be social justice. I'm absolutely pro-the A+ project, but I think representing equality with a '+' makes it seem too extraneous to 'atheist activism'.]