Three Challenges for Atheism+

This op-ed is a member’s response to our Sunday discussion of Atheism+ over tea and cookies. The opinions expressed in this piece are not necessarily those of the SAIU.

From the beginning, when atheos meant ‘impious’ or ‘profane,’ atheism has been about more than just whether you happen to believe in gods. Both the godly and the not-so-godly seem drawn to viewing atheism as something of much deeper import. Hence few are surprised when the ‘New Atheists’ feel no need to limit themselves to sitting in a circle and discussing how very much they all lack belief in Izanagi and Huitzilopochtli. Reconceiving atheism as a symptom or symbol of scientific skepticism, these New Atheists find just as much to rebuke in godless dogmas like Stalinism, and in all forms of caustic unreason, as they do in the worship of incorporeal intelligences.

Once atheism starts to connote anti-dogmatism, rifts will inevitably emerge as non-theists disagree internally about which ideas are unreasonable, are ‘dogmas.’ Sometimes these rifts lead to healthy debate, personal growth, and a renewed commitment to clear thinking. Whether ‘Atheism+’ will go down that path depends crucially on how its early proponents frame the discussion.

Atheism+ is a very new proposal by Jen McCreight and the Freethought Blogs community. Just as New Atheism was implicitly atheism plus skepticism, ‘Atheism+’ is atheism plus skepticism plus humanism. There are a number of different reasons for this coinage.

1. The new new atheists want to persuade other open-minded atheists to apply their skepticism to social biases and prejudices, not just to supernatural claims.

2. They want a banner under which to coordinate discussion and activism concerning important social ills. Many atheists (including ones who dislike the label ‘humanist‘) already have an interest in these topics, and want to create a safe space that explicitly allows and encourages skeptical discourse outside the domain of myth and magic. Atheism+ can be seen as a convenient label for better orchestrating and linking practices that many ‘atheist’ organizations already routinely engage in.

3. Pursuant to building a safe space, they want to exclude people looking to harass other atheists. They don’t want to cut off reasoned disagreement; but they do want to leapfrog inane controversies over decisions as simple as instituting anti-harassment policies at conferences.

Notice that these are three profoundly different goals. They may all be complementary in the long haul, but if we forget their distinctness, we risk conflating them and thinking that 3 is about excluding all dissenting voices, not just trolls and bullies. Unpacking these goals also makes it clear that there is a tension between 1 and 2. Holding separate meetings so you can focus more closely on a specific shared interest is fine, but if you go too far in this direction you’ll end up abandoning your first goal, which was to gradually move the entire skeptical movement in the direction of activist humanism, bridging the gap and sealing the rift between these two strains of irreligious thought.

My own ideas for how to achieve these goals will function as an open letter to the early supporters of this unusual humanitarian experiment. Because you’re trying to do so much at once, A+ers, you risk falling into a multitude of traps. I don’t want to see your voice marginalized or your growth crippled. We need your voice. And we certainly need your growth. Here are my three proposals.


1. Define Yourselves.

It isn’t always crazy to let a term’s usage evolve naturally out of people’s amorphous intuitions. But in an already acrimonious environment, it’s asking for trouble. People listen most to those they agree with; when we strongly and consistently disagree, we tend to ignore or misinterpret each other. Thus each faction begins to converge upon a different definition, each new ambiguity compounding both the number of disputes and the difficulty and uselessness of resolving any one of them!

This is a case where artificially selecting your terminology will serve you far better than letting different, incompatible conceptions bubble up all over the place. Some degree of miscommunication, of course, is unavoidable. But it will be far easier to combat if there exists a fixed meaning to appeal to somewhere.—and if you plan to actually build an organization called ‘Atheism+’, you certainly have a right to decide what you mean when you use that term!

Notice that a definition is not a creed. Indeed, clarifying what Atheism+ is is one of the best ways to clarify what it isn’t—that it isn’t a set of doctrines, for example. The most urgent questions you need to answer are:

a) Is Atheism+ a vague grassroots movement, a federation, or a specific organization? This is the big one. I’ll give my own suggestion in the next section.

b) Is Atheism+ a set of values, of core concerns, or of interests? If you happen to care about social justice, but aren’t interested in devoting your time or energies to that family of issues, are you still part of the Atheism+ movement? If you have an intellectual interest in respectfully discussing social justice topics, but happen to think they aren’t real problems or shouldn’t be addressed by activism, are you part of the movement? Are you welcome at A+ meetings at all?

c) Is disliking the label ‘atheist+’ sufficient for not being ‘an atheist+’? Or are you automatically included in the category if you meet a certain set of independent criteria?

Even a mission statement is not a creed. And defining yourselves better will further clarify what the point of ‘Atheism+’ is—why it isn’t just uppity humanism, for instance. As long as it tries to be everything at once, it will fail to be optimized for any of its semantic values. And it’s not as though atheists lack a taste for fine distinctions. It’s not a catastrophe if you end up needing to define one or two extra terms to sort out the confusion.

For if you do not define yourselves, you will certainly still end up defined. But you won’t be the ones doing the defining. And you won’t be happy with the results.


2. Be An Umbrella.

Your goals of attracting supporters and converting critics are both better served when you build bridges than when you burn them. And you’ll need a whole lot of help from existing humanist, secularist, and other activist organizations if you want to be seen as the Next Big Thing and not just as another escalation in the petty infighting that’s already been driving people away from the movement.

Among atheists I’ve talked with, the single biggest concern about Atheism+ that doesn’t rest on a simple misunderstanding is that it will become an exclusive, dogmatic, power-grabbing institution. Atheists, including many who are very sympathetic to your cause, feel a natural resistance to hierarchy, leadership, and structure. New Atheism had prominent spokespersons, but they never united into a single authoritative clique. It had prominent organizations, but no one of them had special claim to ‘atheism’ or ‘New Atheism.’ If you wish to replicate their success, replicate their methods—and repeat, repeat, repeat in no unclear terms that this is what you’re doing, lest people leap to mischaracterizations.

This doesn’t mean you can’t form organizations to promote Atheism+. But it might be wise to have two different terms for the organization and the larger movement, both for rhetorical and organizational purposes. I’d recommend treating ‘Atheism+’ as a single organization and using a totally different term—say, third-wave atheism—for the broader grassroots movement combining New Atheist methods with humanist values. This would encourage unbelievers who object to ‘Atheism+’ as a label, but share its concerns, to work with Atheism+ and propagate its memes. The third wave could grow into a loose coalition or federation of independent groups that regularly collaborate on charity drives, social activism, and other activities beyond the bounds of secularism. A distinction of this sort would insulate Atheism+ from concerns that it considers itself the only game in town, while also insulating third-wave atheism from any A+-specific baggage or ill will. Seems like a win-win.


3. Learn To Persuade.

Atheism+ has a rhetoric problem. A serious one. Your opponents, of course, share this fault. But I care more about helping Atheism+ achieve its goals, so I care more right now about critiquing and enhancing you plussers’ tactics and discursive habits.

This deserves its own post, but for now I’ll focus on just one key point: Name-calling kills thinking.

It doesn’t matter whether the name happens to be apt. It doesn’t matter how frustrated you are, or how entertaining your closest associates find the barb. Making a personal attack serves none of your aims. It doesn’t persuade, it alienates spectators, it offers us no real psychological insights, and it lowers the quality of discourse in general. You could spend all day writing a subtle and sublime exposition of the true meaning of charity, but if you end with a footnote denouncing the people who disagree with you as “douchebags” or “assholes”, nearly all of your effort will fall on deaf ears. It is terrifyingly inefficient to rouse the fight-or-flight response of an already wary audience. It doesn’t even matter whether the people you intended to dismiss are the same people you anger; your mere choice of tone and word will reliably short-circuit our lizard brains, making us likelier to see enemies and battles instead of teaching opportunities.

Anger yields anger. Lizard thinking breeds lizard thinking. Treating people as enemies, rather than as students or collaborators, creates new enemies. More and more, these patterns choke off real understanding and debate. More and more, you find yourselves scaring away fence-sitters where you should be calmly enlightening them. You must put a complete end to your part of the cycle.

If you do not do this, I shudder at the loss. There are too many opportunities here, too many conversations long overdue, to let the more ancient and intemperate parts of all our brains ruin it for us.

There’s a lot of healing we need to do before we can finish saving the world. That’s true of all of us. Let’s begin in earnest.

Robby Bensinger posted this on August 30, 2012

Robby has been a member of the Secular Alliance since its inception.

13 responses

  • GregoryInSeattle said on August 31, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    You may want to recheck the links in your article: they’re broken.

  • Robby Bensinger said on August 31, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    Thanks, Gregory. They should be working now. And while we’re at it, here are some more great posts on A+:

    – Jen McCreight: Responding to common misconceptions about Atheism+
    – Greta Christina: Atheism Plus, and Some Thoughts on Divisiveness
    – Ronald A. Lindsay: Some Observations About Atheism Plus
    – Hemant Mehta: About Atheism+…

  • 1000 Needles said on August 31, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    Anger yields anger. Lizard thinking breeds lizard thinking. … More and more, you find yourselves scaring away fence-sitters where you should be calmly enlightening them.

    Sorry, but it ain’t that simple. We’re human, not Vulcan. The people that have put up with the most abuse get to have their emotional outbursts. It simply isn’t my place to tell them, after the shit they’ve experienced, that what they need to be having right now is a calm discussion. That does need to happen, and it will. But first, let them enjoy the progress being made, in all its vague and undefined glory.

  • CJ :) said on August 31, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    I despair of all of this until both sides accept that neither one is really beimg unreasonable. Unfortunately it’s all hidden umder rhetoric and hateful speech.

  • 1000 Needles said on August 31, 2012 at 4:47 pm

  • Robby Bensinger said on August 31, 2012 at 6:54 pm

    1000 Needles: I’m not criticizing anyone for having ordinary human emotional responses. But a blog post is usually one of the most counterproductive places to vent. You end up more frustrated and angry and drained than you were when you started, because even a minor misstep will get magnified in the blogosphere’s echo chamber. If you have a large readership, your blog entries aren’t just diary entries; they’re public statements that could help shape the climate of discussion for days, weeks, or months to come. My advice is meant to help those who wish to improve the quality and content of that discourse, not to dismiss their experiences or regulate their private lives. It’s not really my place to weigh in on the latter.

    CJ: Actually, I think all sides are being unreasonable, to some extent. I too am being unreasonable. That’s one of the key lessons we should take from this. Everyone regularly makes errors. We are all systemically irrational, we all predictably fail to behave in accord with our own values. But because it’s systemic, we can notice and try to correct for our failings. The A+ers can improve their method, and in so doing they can gradually correct the deeper irrationalities pervading the larger community.

    Basically, my goal is to heal the physicians enough to make them better able to care for their patients.

  • Thaumas Themelios said on August 31, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    Hear, hear, Robby Bensinger!

    I share basically all of your thoughts here, but perhaps I am less optimistic about this particular effort, Atheism+. There would need to be quite a bit of re-thinking on the part of many of its proponents to get to the point where they are ready to be what you and I would hope they would become. I believe it can happen. I just don’t believe it will happen this time around, under the banner of Atheism+. There is already too much baggage and momentum in the *wrong* direction for there to be a plausible course correction, IMHO. I believe that what you and I are hoping for is something that will have to come from people who already value those things as strongly as we do; in other words, from people *like you and I*.

    In any case, it is very heartening to hear from new (to me, anyway) voices such as yours, stating reasonably your (our) concerns in a constructive manner. Thank you for speaking out! Cheers!

  • Robby Bensinger said on August 31, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    Thank you for the kind words, Thaumas. I don’t see the current voices of A+ as being dramatically unlike us. They’re already learning a lot about the impact a few small gaffes can have, and I think a little research and reflection will make it increasingly obvious that most of their current critics could eventually be persuaded of their blind spot to gendered prejudice, if we did more to shift the debate toward analyzing the sociological and cognitive science data demonstrating the ubiquity and destructiveness of gender biases. It might take a few years, or even decades, but at least we’d be making progress. These are people who are already trained to take scientific evidence seriously, to be skeptical, and to update their beliefs. Certainly we should expect to have an easier time fixing atheists’ views on gender than fixing theists’ views on theology.

    There will never be a perfect movement. And if we treat the A+ers as a monolith, treat their decision procedures as incorrigible, or dismiss them as an Other rather than trying to collaborate with them on finding a better way, we’ll be making an even more severe version of the very error we’re criticizing them for. I claim that most of the anti-A+ crowd is fairly reasonable, and could be brought around if we altered our rhetoric and refocused the debate. And most of the A+ crowd is even more reasonable, and could teach itself how to better get through to these anti-A+ communities. So I have high hopes for the so-called “assholes” and “douchebags” out there, and even higher hopes for the plussers themselves, for quite related reasons.

  • Thaumas Themelios said on August 31, 2012 at 11:52 pm

    “and I think a little research and reflection will make it increasingly obvious that most of their current critics could eventually be persuaded of their blind spot to gendered prejudice”

    Ironically, I think a little research and reflection will make it increasingly obvious that most of their current critics *are on the same side* regarding gender issues, sexism, harassment, etc.

    It’s not those topics which most of their current critics have trouble with. What most of their current critics have trouble with is how they treat others who might have different opinions on this or that minor question. I happen to know this, because that’s what my main concern is about, and why I criticize their behaviour.

    I think you might want to take a closer look at *who* some of their current critics really are, and what they *actually* say. Take, for example, Paula Kirby, or Russell Blackford, or Jean Kazez. Look at what they actually say; then look at how many of the Atheism+ folks (more specifically, those who also are part of the FtB or Skepchick contingent) handle such criticism. Not well, in case you’re wondering; but *do* check it out for yourself.

    “There will never be a perfect movement. And if we treat the A+ers as a monolith, treat their decision procedures as incorrigible, or dismiss them as an Other rather than trying to collaborate with them on finding a better way, we’ll be making an even more severe version of the very error we’re criticizing them for. ”

    And again ironically, these behaviours you’re warning of are the same behaviours I have warned of regarding the Atheism+/FtB folks already: Treating their opposition as a monolith, assuming they are incorrigible, and dismissing them as ‘other’ rather than trying to collaborate. It is, indeed, quite severe and worrisome.

    I’ll point you to a specific example where I deliberately challenged a specific issue which I felt was problematic, and for which I was very well prepared to receive a vitriolic backlash. The commentariat at FtB did not disappoint, soon attacking me personally and even some calling for my banning — merely for expressing my critical but differing opinion on something I felt was very important. See this thread (start from the beginning for context, but my first comment is #11; watch the reaction it provokes):

    That, and many other reasons, are why I’m less optimistic than you that this is going to be a simple challenge of convincing a few people to tweak their rhetoric. I think it’s a much deeper attitudinal issue than simple word choice.

  • Tria MacLeod said on September 1, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    I think point 3 is the key. They way in which things are said can have a HUGE impact on how they are understood. But considering the many different people involved I doubt we will ever have a ‘common tone’ regarding how we deal with things. This is true of any group though. Take the current atheist bloggers in general. You have the calm almost technical approach to writing, the academic approach, you have the casual blogger who can run the gamut. And you have the firebrands who like to be as rude and in your face as possible. It is similar to giving the same news story to Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern and Casey Cassum (sp?) and expecting them all to deliver it in exactly the same manner.

    And as with any group of people, we all have our outliers. Some of them are going to be ‘in your face’ obnoxious and looking for nothing more than a conflict or raging. You are going to have the diplomats who want everyone to get along and you will have the bridge builders. If your opposition picks any one of those (usually the aggressive fundamentalist) and tries to claim your whole group is ‘exactly like them’ it is dishonest, but unfortunately it is human nature to do so.

    I read the article and comments you linked to. As a cis-woman I understand exactly why people were getting upset with you. When anyone walks around with a camera near the ground and pointed up that is suspect behavior. It is reasonable to suspect them of being up to no good, especially when they are told to stop doing it and refuse. As for your insistence that there was no proof that he actually took photos. 1} I have dropbox and no photos are stored on my phone, they go immediately to drop box so I can take all sorts of photos and video without physically possessing them (Occupy protocol) 2} In cases of harassment does it matter if he follows through and takes the photo? Does it matter if your harasser actually beats you or is the threat of a beating enough to prompt action? 3] You were claiming that having suspicions regarding this unnamed man were ruining his reputation while (despite your claims to the opposite) completely ignoring that what his actions were. Not to mention the same fellow has had issues with doing this on several occasions at several different places. You were claiming that we weren’t being skeptical enough of ‘rumors’ yet you expected us to believe that some guy would walk around at multiple events where women where wearing skirts while he had a camera specifically mounted to take upskirt shots and be naive enough to think he never once took a picture….and you don’t understand why people were getting fed up with you? Honestly?

  • Robby Bensinger said on September 1, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    Thaumas: I don’t like to reify ‘sides’ too much, but yes, I take your point. We could distinguish three different hostile but potentially receptive audiences for A+: Those who agree with them in substance but dislike some extraneous feature of the organization; those who substantively disagree, but only because they lack education about the nature and prevalence of prejudice; and those who harbor a factually mistaken ideology (e.g., from MRA) about the topics, that would need to be supplanted before any progress could be made. I had shifted to discussing the latter two, but my original post is mainly about persuading the first group.

    At the same time, it’s not fair to notice different types of opposition to A+ without noticing different types of support for it. The formative posts of A+, and most of the discussions started by A+ers, are very positive and productive. We oughtn’t condemn the lapses without also praising the good stuff they do.

    “And again ironically, these behaviours you’re warning of are the same behaviours I have warned of regarding the Atheism+/FtB folks already”

    I think you missed my point, because you reiterated it as a rejoinder. I was warning that if we dismiss A+/FtB in this way, we’re doing the same thing we’re accusing them of, but worse.

    It sounds like we all largely agree about what the problem is, and how to go about solving it. It would probably be unwise to get distracted rehashing a single incident from the front lines of the blog wars (plus I don’t have the time to read all the comments there), when we can get more done brainstorming new solutions and working together to promote the ones we have.

  • Robby Bensinger said on September 1, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    Tria: I don’t think any movement needs a Rush Limbaugh. Anything remotely resembling that style of rhetoric is deeply destructive of human projects in general, too much so to be worthwhile even if it results in us getting more news headlines.

    I’m fine with people acting as “in-your-face” “firebrands” provided that that simply means expressing one’s criticisms in a frank and direct, but civil and level-headed, manner. (More in the discursive style of Sam Harris than of, say, TheAmazingAtheist.) I see the value to having some members of a movement act more as diplomats and bridge-builders, while others act more as consciousness-raisers and social critics. But I see no legitimate function in either case that is served by name-calling, being “obnoxious” (as opposed to merely confrontational) or antagonistically “raging.” It does more harm than good. This is a lesson still to be learned both by A+ers looking to persuade other atheists, and by atheists in general looking to deconvert the religious.

  • Thaumas Themelios said on September 1, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    Tria: Your reply to me repeats several unverified claims, and as such does not address my focused concern in that thread; in fact, it is an example of exactly the kind of behaviour I was (and still do) pointing out as dangerous and unethical. I do not want to derail Robby’s comment thread by rehashing a previous controversy, so this will be my last comment on the subject in this thread. Suffice it to say that your reply is not at all convincing to me. It misses my point entirely, IMHO. It is this kind of response that makes me extremely wary and suspicious of the agendas of many folks associated with Atheism+, since there is an enormous overlap between those who were promulgating the false rumour, and those who support Atheism+. I am interested in ethical activism. I will never support anything I feel is unethical. I consider rumour-mongering (among other behaviours) to be thoroughly unethical. That is my position, and I’m not alone in it.

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