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.