October 3, 2013

What Atheism+ Could Have Been, Part II

English: Rally for social justice, Beersheba, ...
Rally for social justice, Beersheba, Aug 13 2001 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In the first part of this two-part post, I reviewed what Atheism+ was and examined a few of the problems that prevented it from succeeding. In this post, I'll take a look at how Atheism+ might have succeeded and how something similar could work in the future.

I recognize that some of you are not interested in seeing anything remotely like Atheism+ succeed. Based on the experiences you have likely had with some of the proponents of Atheism+, this is understandable. If you have tried to offer constructive criticism, you have probably been called all sorts of names (e.g., "chill girl" or "misogynist") in an effort to silence you. You may have even had your reputation assailed through charges of "harassment" and "abuse" even though you've done nothing of the kind. I realize that most discussions of Atheism+ you see on the Internet quickly attract social justice warriors and that this has likely colored your perception of the whole affair. I understand this, but I continue to think that there are aspects of Atheism+ worth salvaging and that much of what we find objectionable is more about the delivery than the idea.

How Atheism+ Might Have Succeeded

With some changes, I think that Atheism+ (or something a lot like Atheism+) could have succeeded. Imagine the difference the following adjustments might have made to the reception Atheism+ received from the secular community and the degree to which it would become influential:
  1. Use a descriptive name. Many people had negative reactions to the Atheism+ label itself, and these should have been fairly easy to anticipate. Slapping a "+" on the end of a label we are already using to describe ourselves and coupling it with the self-righteous attitude of some of the Atheism+ supporters was a recipe for disaster. Just imagine how different things might have been if they had decided to call themselves something like Atheists for Social Justice.
  2. Be inclusive and welcoming. Right from the start, Atheism+ appeared designed to divide (e.g., "you're with us or against us") and was soon used as a cudgel with which to bash anyone perceived as lacking in ideological purity. Those who asked too many questions were called misogynists or "sister punishers." Had the initiative really been about advancing a broad social justice agenda (rather than the promotion of third wave feminism), I'm inclined to think that it would have been presented as far more inclusive and would have modeled the principles which supporters claimed were important to them. Since its inception, the most vocal proponents of Atheism+ have managed to alienate many potential allies through their behavior.
  3. Spend more time doing social justice work offline and less time attacking others online. An effective social justice effort might involve blog posts about offline work, brainstorming, outreach, and a host of other things. It is difficult to see how writing volumes about one's perceived victim status online accomplishes much that looks like social justice. By sharing accounts of actual social justice work, one might serve as an inspiration to others.
  4. Adopt a broad social justice agenda that looks beyond the atheist movement. It is difficult to imagine that there aren't far more pressing social justice concerns than the number of women invited to speak at an atheist convention or what person A said about person B on some atheist blog. If much of what the Atheism+ crowd did seemed trivial and/or petty, it was probably because their focus was on changing the atheist movement rather than broad social justice work. Some will dismiss this as a "Dear Muslima" statement, but that does not make the point any less valid: people are more likely to be inspired by meaningful action.
  5. Recognize that we must remain skeptical of even our most cherished ideology and seek criticism to avoid fanaticism and groupthink. If something like Atheism+ is to succeed, it has to be open to criticism and willing to change what isn't working. It cannot simply declare its political ideology beyond skepticism and expect to thrive.
  6. Model the values one seeks to inspire. When those who claim to be champions of social justice appear to derive so much pleasure in calling people names on the Internet, doxxing, or attempting to have people they don't look removed from their positions, we have a problem. The most effective social justice activists I've known are almost always incredibly decent people who embody the values they seek to instill in others. They lead by example.
An accurately labeled movement that did not court controversy or seek ideological purity but instead welcomed atheists in pursuit of a broad real-world social justice agenda would be something very different from what Atheism+ ended up being. I think that such an effort might have worked. At the very least, I do not think such an effort would have ended up fueling such a divide. Those who wanted to be involved would have an opportunity to do so; those who did not would not be devalued. We'd recognize that the atheist movement is big enough for all of us and that we are strengthened by our diversity.

A Lesson For the Future

The day may come when atheists interested in social justice attempt to create something like what we are discussing here. And should that happen, I think the lessons of Atheism+ could be helpful. Here's what I think might be the most important lesson of all:
If this is really about social justice, it is vital that we begin with an accurate understanding of what that means and a deep commitment to living the values we are seeking to promote. Social justice, at least as I understand it, is about equality, empowering people to change oppressive structures, redressing the myriad wrongs experienced by oppressed people, and compassion. If we preach empowerment and compassion while seeking to silence critics and dissenters through efforts to harm their reputations, snark and name calling, shunning, pile-ons, block bots, and other forms of childish aggression, we expose ourselves as hypocrites and reveal our agenda to be something quite different from social justice.
Many atheists are already engaged in social justice efforts and doing just fine without Atheism+ or anything like it. More power to them. And yet, there may be some advantages to having something a bit more organized and on a larger scale. Perhaps we'll get it right next time.