September 1, 2012

Why Atheism Plus is Perceived as Divisive

Dealing with divisive issuesI think I was about 5 or 6 years old at the time, and my family was living in California. The crime rate in the city where we lived was rising but hadn't gotten really bad yet. My friends and I were allowed to play around the neighborhood with what now seems like a surprising lack of adult supervision. The summers were hot, and I rarely wore shoes. My feet were used to the scorching pavement. If the few photos I've seen of myself at the time are any indication, I looked like a happy kid - a kid who needed a haircut and a bath much of the time - but a happy kid. I do not have many clear memories from this time, but those that do stand out generally confirm that this was a positive time in my life.

I remember letting a friend borrow a new ball I wasn't using one day. He promptly lost it, did not tell his parents, and refused to replace it. I did what seemed natural to me at the time. I stole one of his beloved toys when he wasn't looking. I'll never forget being dragged to his house by my mom, forced to apologize and return the toy. The lesson of the day was that "two wrongs don't make a right." The fact that he mistreated me did not give me the right to mistreat him.

When I see post after post promoting "atheism plus" from some of those writing for Freethought Blogs, I find myself remembering this lesson. One of their primary arguments seems to be that it is not fair for people to characterize their efforts as divisive when they are responding to other divisive behavior in the community (e.g., sexism, misogynistic insults, threats). I find myself thinking that they have a point, but then I remember that two wrongs don't make a right.

Greta Christina writes,
For a solid year, far too many women in this community — and especially feminist women — have been relentlessly subjected to a torrent of hatred, harassment, and abuse… and to a torrent of people ignoring this behavior, rationalizing it, trivializing it, or getting angry at us for even talking about it.
I'll assume that this is a fairly accurate description. Even though some of what has been labeled harassment may have been rational disagreement, I do not doubt that there has been genuine harassment and threats here. But does this entitle those promoting "atheism plus" to harass, bully, demean, or threaten others?

I agree with at least 90% of Greta Christina's post. She's right that there is nothing inherently divisive about "atheism plus social justice." She's right that the atheist community is already divided in many ways. And while I applaud her for saying that those who prefer to keep their activism focused on traditional atheist issues are "fine with me," she has to recognize that this is not the sentiment expressed by some of the other FtB bloggers.

So where does my disagreement lie? First, she's largely ignoring allegations of bullying by some of those who are now promoting "atheism plus." The fact that atheism plus came from FtB cannot be separated from the responses it has received. Second, I think she's wrong to suggest that sexism, misogyny, and threats "are not being called 'divisive'" because these things have been called out and condemned with some regularity. In fact, much of the community seemed to share the "atheism plus" goals until it was presented as an "us vs. them" thing and they started being called names or blocked for asking questions and expressing alternative opinions on some suggested policies. Third, when Greta Christina asks why it is divisive for a group of atheists to "create one space in the world where we don't have to deal with this shit," she seems to be forgetting what divisive means. When you create a space from which others are deliberately excluded and told they are unwelcome, how is this anything other than divisive?

I think the most important of Greta Christina's rhetorical questions may found before the ellipses here:
Why is Atheism Plus being seen a terrible threat to the cohesion of the movement… and yet a solid year of feminist women being subjected to actions and words that demean us, objectify us, inappropriately sexualize us, and literally threaten us and make us unsafe is not getting called “divisive”?
Atheism plus is being viewed as divisive because of the manner in which some of those writing for FtB and Skepchick conducted themselves prior to the advent of atheism plus. It is divisive because of the manner in which it was introduced. Atheism plus is divisive because it has been presented by its supporters as a deliberate strategy for dividing the community into "us and them." The rest of Greta Christina's question (i.e., everything after the ellipses) is relevant and unfortunate, but it does not excuse the behavior of some of those behind atheism plus. Two wrongs don't make a right.

The refrain sounding loudly throughout much of the online atheist community since atheism plus was introduced is a simple one:
I agree with most of their social justice goals, but I think they are going about it the wrong way.
What most people seem to mean by "going about it the wrong way" involves the litmus tests, the "us and them" mindset, the speed with which dissenters are insulted, blocked, and marginalized. Until this changes, I suspect that atheism plus will continue to be viewed as divisive.

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