October 2, 2013

What Atheism+ Could Have Been

Atheism+

On August 19, 2012, blogger Jen McCreight unleashed "Atheism+" upon the world, and some would say the atheist community has been divided ever since. Of course, that is not true. We were already divided, and while Atheism+ was certainly experienced as divisive by many, it would be inaccurate to say that it alone brought about "the great rift."

For those willing to admit that we make mistakes, our missteps often provide us with valuable opportunities to learn how we might get it right next time. What I'd like to suggest here is that even mistakes made by others might contain valuable lessons from which we might someday be able to benefit. Some will suggest that this post may be premature, and they may be right. Some are not quite ready to recognize the demise of Atheism+. Still, I think it might be useful to consider what was, what might have been, and what could still be for atheists who are serious about social justice.

Atheism+

At the time of Jen's initial statement of Atheism+, many of us said that the idea behind Atheism+ sounded good. What we were less enthusiastic about was the implementation. Some complained about the name itself; others asked whether what was being described here wasn't already part of humanism. Still others were turned off by the manner in which Atheism+ quickly became an "us vs. them" endeavor that seemed to be more about branding, self-promotion, and purging the atheist community of those who were not liked by those who decided to promote Atheism+ than it did about social justice. Let's set all of that aside for a moment and take a closer look at Jen's initial statement of Atheism+.

Here is how Jen initially described it:

We are…
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.
As I read these words again, I still believe that Atheism+ was not a bad idea. I do, however, think it was an idea that probably should have been allowed to incubate a bit longer before being unveiled.

I will not pretend to be an expert on social justice, but I understand it as being inseparable from the view that members of some groups experience systemic oppression. I accept the reality of oppression, and I see nothing wrong with someone wanting to identify oneself as an atheist who is interested in social justice issues. In fact, I am an atheist with an interest in social justice.

What I found puzzling about Jen's post were the added mentions of women's rights, racism, homophobia, and transphobia after social justice. These are all aspects of social justice. Listing them as if they were additional parts of the Atheism+ definition made it appear that Jen was not sure what social justice typically involves. Social justice tends to emphasize human rights, making it more inclusive than the issues Jen listed after it. For example, social justice efforts have long focused on the plight of the poor. This was nowhere to be found on Jen's list. Thus, Jen addressed some components of social justice as if they were distinct from it while ignoring others which have traditionally been emphasized in social justice.

This is what I mean when I say that the idea could have benefited from a bit more incubation and ideally from some input from those who were more knowledgeable about social justice. I suspect that this would have resulted in a much clearer and more effective statement of identity.

Problems with the Implementation of Atheism+

Lack of Skepticism

Once women's rights, racism, homophobia, and transphobia are removed from Jen's list (again, all are examples of social justice but not an exhaustive list of examples), the only other thing one finds that is distinct from social justice is critical thinking and skepticism. My initial reaction to seeing this included here was one of surprise. At the time, I believed that most atheists valued critical thinking and skepticism as key to how they arrived at atheism and not something that would need to be added on to atheism.

This was an error on my part. I was wrong about most atheists valuing skepticism and critical thinking. I would soon realize that many atheists were not skeptics or critical thinkers, at least not when it came to some aspects of their ideology. Unfortunately, I discovered I was wrong by observing the behavior of many of the most vocal supporters of Atheism+. They demonstrated little willingness to think critically or skeptically about the particular form of feminism that seemed to be at the center of their worldview.

With Us or Against Us

Richard Carrier promised to provide the "intellectual artillery" for Atheism+. Instead, he may have doomed the endeavor with his bizarrely antagonistic pronouncements. He seemed to have little interest in Atheism+ being an inclusive and welcoming group, preferring it to be something akin to a litmus test whereby one must agree with the predominant ideology to be acceptable. Criticism was not to be tolerated because it signified that someone was not sufficiently "with us" and was, therefore, an enemy.

This was an important turning point because those promoting Atheism+ could have recognized Carrier's views as toxic and distanced themselves from him. They could have made it clear that they sought to have an open and inclusive movement where all atheists interested in a broad social justice agenda were welcome. Instead, they embraced Carrier and focused on creating an increasingly narrow community. Atheism+ had become the purview of social justice warriors.

Because Atheism+ was righteous, those who offered criticism were not just people who disagreed; they were bad people. In order to be a valued member of the community, one needed to be the right kind of feminist. Those who saw feminism as being primarily about the quest for equality and not about "rape culture" were not welcome here. Equity feminists would soon be labeled "sister punishers," and pro-feminist men would be called "rape apologists." Atheism+ would become divisive and would never recover from this choice.

Radical Feminism in the Atheist Movement

I find nothing wrong with the idea that we can be atheists plus something else. I know some of you will disagree with me on this point, but virtually every atheist I've ever met is an atheist plus many other things. This is certainly true for me. Some of us were writing about how we were more than atheists and speculating about what post-atheism might look like before Atheism+ appeared. So the idea of atheists being atheists plus having particular sets of interests, commitments to various political ideologies, and the like was not new or particularly controversial. What was new and would prove to be quite controversial was the idea that the atheist movement had to adopt these other interests and causes for itself.

If we were to evaluate Atheism+ based not on the stated aims but on the behavior of those promoting it, we would likely conclude that Atheism+ was primarily concerned with promoting a particular type of social justice, primarily third-wave feminism, within the atheist movement. It was not enough to be an atheist involved in the atheist movement and an activist working with women's groups (e.g., the National Organization of Women); one needed to be working on women's issues within the atheist movement itself. That is, Atheism+ soon came to look like the main focus was one of advancing a particular form of feminism among atheist activists.

Many atheists, including many feminists and pro-feminists, had little interest in this. They did not see what atheism had to do with feminism and vice-versa and preferred to work for both atheism and feminism but to do so in distinct movements. Under the atheist banner, they worked alongside some people with relatively unenlightened attitudes to promote secularism. Under the feminist banner, they worked alongside some people who were religious believers to promote women's issues. They saw little need to pressure either movement to conform to their other interests, and they weren't thrilled when the Atheism+ crowd started to do so. And then, they too were called "gender traitors" or "MRAs."

The Endgame

When Jen wrote her post introducing Atheism+, I doubt that she imagined it becoming a small, ineffective, and much-maligned community that concerned itself primarily with attacking atheists whose brand of feminism was deemed insufficient instead of anything resembling social justice work. I do not think she could have foreseen everything that would happen or that it is fair to expect that she should have been able to do so.

The failure of Atheism+ was not an accident, and it was not some sort of conspiracy perpetrated by those who did not agree with it. Atheism+ failed because it was based on an incomplete understanding of social justice, because of how it was implemented, and because of some poor decisions that were made by members. These include a refusal to recognize the value of skepticism and critical thinking in shaping such an endeavor, the adoption of a "with us or against us" approach in which ideological purity was favored over coalition building, and the adoption of an agenda which prioritized pushing a narrow form of third-wave feminism in the atheist movement.

I believe there is much to learn from the failure of Atheism+ and that paying attention to these lessons could help guide future efforts to develop something similar.

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.