October 2, 2013

What Atheism+ Could Have Been

This started out as one post but quickly grew to be far too long for a single post. So I'm dividing it into a two -parter. This part orients the reader to what Atheism+ was and reviews a few of the problems with Atheism+ that prevented it from succeeding. The second part will take up the question of how Atheism+ could have been successful and how something like it could work in the future.

On August 19, 2012, blogger Jen McCreight unleashed "Atheism+" upon unsuspecting atheists around the world, and some would say our 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 of us who are willing to admit that we make mistakes, our missteps often provide us with valuable opportunities to learn he 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.


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 terribly sure what social justice typically involves. Social justice tends to emphasize human rights, making it more inclusive than the particular 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 became 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 in short order 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. In Part II, I will take a look at how Atheism+ could have succeeded and how I think something like it could work in the future.