Atheists will be used to mischaracterisations of their position. One common misunderstanding is that being an atheist means ‘believing in nothing’. As we know, the term ‘atheist’ describes our lack of belief in (or denial of) the existence of gods. Of course, atheism is compatible with ‘belief in nothing’, but usually atheists will hold other positive beliefs about other issues. For instance, one might be an atheist and be pro-life, or a socialist, or a preference utilitarian, etc. The label ‘atheist’ doesn’t speak about other beliefs you might have, unless it would be contradictory to both be an atheist and hold that belief. For example, one cannot be both an atheist and believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, as belief in the Resurrection requires first that one believes in the Christian conception of God. That would be a contradiction.
With that in mind, it isn’t hard to see why I’m surprised that blogger Jen McCreight has started a new movement, or ‘wave’ of atheism: Atheism+. She sees atheism (as a movement) in its current form as a ‘Boy’s [sic] Club’, and makes an analogy with the ‘waves’ of feminism:
It’s time for a new wave of atheism, just like there were different waves of feminism. I’d argue that it’s already happened before. The “first wave” of atheism were the traditional philosophers, freethinkers, and academics. Then came the second wave of “New Atheists” like Dawkins and Hitchens, whose trademark was their unabashed public criticism of religion. Now it’s time for a third wave – a wave that isn’t just a bunch of “middle-class, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied men” 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.
That is very unfair. Take her scoffing at those debunking homeopathy for instance. Firstly, it is unclear what homeopathy has to do with atheism. Secondly, those who do spent a lot of time debunking homeopathy might have a variety of reasons for doing so. One might be that debunking pseudo-scientific claims is a hobby for them. I see no harm in that, and examining such claims can be a great learning experience in general. Another might be to prevent harm done by people peddling homeopathy as a substitute for real medicine, and this is a very worthwhile goal. One can do these things without harming the cause of social justice. That is important. We each make our own contributions in our own way. Many people do not actively help disabled people in their plight, for example. But unless they’re standing in the way of those who actually are doing that, I don’t think that we should criticise them for their lack of action (or else we’d all be hypocrites).
In a follow-up post, McCreight illuminates her idea further:
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.
It speaks to those of us who see atheism as more than just a lack of belief in god.
I’d like to think that I am all of those things. I could add more: I’m an atheist plus a socialist. I’m an atheist plus I’m pro-choice. I’m an atheist plus a Wagnerite! ‘Atheist’ describes just one part of my belief system. However, McCreight’s idea that atheism should be seen as ‘more than just a lack of belief in god’ does not make a lot of sense. If ‘atheist’ includes social justice, then saying ‘atheist plus social justice’ is trivial. If it doesn’t, then it is difficult to see how this is different from ‘first wave’ atheism.
Perhaps I’m being uncharitable here. McCreight isn’t talking about the definition of ‘atheism’, but rather she is talking about forming a new movement with atheism at its core. I still believe this is problematic.
1) There is already something like this: humanism. It involves positive ethical beliefs in addition to a commitment to rational, philosophical and scientific inquiry. One difference, however is that humanism isn’t explicitly atheist, yet I don’t see why this should matter. After all humanism already has an explicit commitment to human rationality, so it is unclear what benefit there is to getting rid of religious belief completely. We might call it ‘humanism that excludes non-atheists’ without any substantive difference, yet when framed like that it sounds rather unnecessary.
2) There are already movements that support these extra causes. If I want to fight racism, promote women’s rights or anything else, I could join one of the many groups around that are already fighting these things. They have nothing to do with atheism. We might as atheists also fight these causes, but it is not part of atheism. This also applies to things like homeopathy – we might be atheists plus homeopaths without contradiction. If there is to be an atheist movement at all, it should be to ensure that atheists are not discriminated against, but this is not to say that the atheist movement should not promote these sorts of things internally. For instance, there should be no sexist or racist (…etc.) discrimination at atheist conferences, just as there also should be no such discrimination at Wagner Society meet-ups. There is no need for ‘Wagnerism+’ for those who are Wagnerites plus believe in gay rights and so forth. Just as it doesn’t make sense for the Wagner Society to be about fighting transphobia, it doesn’t make much sense for the atheist movement to be about that either. Wagnerites might still hold these beliefs and are of course welcome to join feminist groups, but it does not make much sense for the Wagner Society itself to fight these causes.
3) It is unclear exactly which issues should follow the ‘plus’. Even if you are still on McCreight’s side at this point, you might have your own idea about what ‘Atheism+’ should mean. I have already seen requests for extra doctrines, like animal rights and so forth. What about a concern for the poor? What about a welfare state? What about supporting Palestine? It is unclear how we decide what does or does not count as part of ‘Atheism+’. What about atheism plus the view that immigration is out of control? I doubt they would support that idea (and nor would I), but why not? It is a positive belief accompanying some people’s atheism after all. Should the third wave not include these sorts of people?
4) It seems to be exclusionary. McCreight writes:
I don’t want good causes like secularism and skepticism to die because they’re infested with people who see issues of equality as mission drift.
I think that I have been arguing that issues of equality, when not confined to meta-issues like conference organisation and so forth are examples of mission drift. Barbara Drescher wrote an excellent post about the issue of mission drift in the skeptical movement. The idea that people like Drescher and I are ‘infesting’ the movement and causing it ‘to die’ is in my view, very unfair. We should be able to talk about these issues, but already ‘Atheism+’ seems unwelcoming to those who question it. What if we disagree about what exactly ‘social justice’ entails? What if we disagree on whether x is or isn’t an instance of homophobia? What if we believe that atheists+ should oppose hate speech laws?
5) Why ‘Atheism+’ and not ‘Social Justice+’? As McCreight describes it, it seems that the social justice component is the most important part. Why does she not campaign for the idea that there should be a new wave of social justice? “I believe in social justice plus I’m an atheist”. “I fight racism plus I think religion is harmful”. I think there is no substantive difference between this and her position, and yet all it does is sever ties with some strong allies. There are plenty of religious people who fought and are still fighting for some form of social justice: Martin Luther King, Mary Daly, and more recently Giles Fraser, Rowan Williams and Christina Rees (and many more, of course). Why exclude them? If you keep the social justice movement separate from extra baggage like atheism you are less likely to exclude those who would otherwise support your cause.
So what’s the harm? Perhaps there is no harm. If atheism+ appeals to some people, then I think they should go ahead join in with it. It might however lead to the view that any non-believer who doesn’t identify as an ‘atheist+’ doesn’t really care about social issues. That would be a mistake, in my opinion. It might also put off* some atheists from identifying as an atheist because they disapprove of one or more of Atheism+’s doctrines. I also feel that it lends support to the (sometimes harmful) notion of ‘atheist beliefs’.
* That is, if ‘atheism+’ becomes famous outside of a handful of blogs and lasts for more than a few weeks. I’m sceptical of that, too.