Atheism+: A legitimate concern

One thing that’s mystified me regarding the Atheism+ movement is why anyone would be against it. I’ve seen and heard about various forms of opposition and/or abuse aimed at trying to kill it off and silence those who speak up about it, but so far I haven’t seen anyone offer a thoughtful and reasonable argument about why Atheism+ should be opposed.

Until now. FtBlogger Edwin Kagin raises what I think is a valid concern.

Atheism means without a belief in a god. That’s it. Within that shell are many many different points of view. This became clear a few years ago when several life members quit the organization American Atheists because it’s then President was actively working for the defeat of President George Bush. The quitting life members liked Bush and thought the organization had no business being against him, or for or against anyone else for that matter. I know this because they told me.

I could not imagine any atheist being in favor of Bush. But these folks were. I have also met atheists who are members of American Atheists and who oppose a woman’s right to choose. And who are opposed to gay marriage. And all sorts of things like that. The only thing that they all have in common is being atheists. Start taking sides on social issues and learn what chaos is all about.

He gives the example of the National Rifle Association losing half its members over taking a stand on abortion, and fears that a similar fate might befall organizations such as American Atheists, severely crippling their ability to fight for the rights of atheists in society.

That’s a valid concern, but I believe it’s one that can be addressed.

Let’s get the obvious point out of the way first: American Atheists, as an organization, does not have to enlist in the Atheist+ movement. They can be the Atheist* movement, where “*” is a wildcard character that matches any atheist. That’s fine. Appeal to the broadest possible base to benefit the greatest number of atheists. I don’t think anyone has a problem with that (and certainly no one on the A+ side has said that all atheists need to be A+ atheists). It’s perfectly reasonable for AA to be A* and not A+.

That said, I can’t help but point out that AA is already an A+ organization, and always has been. Think about it: atheism means “without belief in God.” Atheism can be compared to not eating smoked oysters (tried ‘em once, can’t stand the things). I don’t need an Americans Who Don’t Eat Smoked Oysters organization. I can walk down the street any day of the week and be surrounded by people who are also not eating smoked oysters. My membership dues in such an organization would be wasted, because there’s no expense involved in not eating smoked oysters. And likewise if the American Atheists were about nothing more than not believing in God, there’d be no point in joining, because there’s no expense involved in mere lack of belief.

“Wait a minute,” you may say, “it can be very costly to be an atheist—people discriminate against you, and threaten you and sometime even literally attack you.” You’re right, all those thing are true, but they’re not the product of disbelief, they’re the product of social injustice. In a world where everyone was atheist, you wouldn’t suffer those consequences, because they’re not the product of disbelief on its own. The reason there’s a problem, and the reason we need organizations like American Atheists, is because we live in a world where you have to fight for social justice in order to get people not to harass and harm you simply for being what you are.

And that’s what A+ is all about: recognizing that social injustice is a problem that demands opposition from men and women of integrity and good will. I agree, AA will be most effective if they focus exclusively on their corner of the battleground, and address specifically the aspects of social injustice that adversely affect atheists. There is neither need nor benefit for them to try and become American Atheists, Feminists, LGBT, And See Footnote For Additional Causes Supported Organization. American Atheists, all by itself, is just fine. That’s a specific cause that needs to be specifically addressed.

And yet, underlying that focused approach to social justice, there’s a common principle here, because the foundation for atheist rights is the idea that everyone is entitled to certain fundamental human rights. We can’t say “Equal rights for me and not for thee,” because “equal rights” by definition means everybody has the same ones. How can any organization promote social justice without offending those antisocial individuals who want to deny the legitimacy of equal rights? (Answer: “unsuccessfully.”) Like it or not, atheists who want justice and tolerance for themselves have common ground with everyone else who is fighting the same fight.

Should American Atheists embrace the A+ ethos, and publicly declare that from now on they are a feminist, pro-gay, pro-choice organization? No. That would dilute both their focus and their base, and no one would benefit from that. And likewise, for the same reasons, they should not oppose the A+ movement, or go out of their way to alienate atheists who are feminists and/or pro-gay and/or pro-choice. A+ can’t become a schism unless people fight against it. And there’s no reason to fight it, because it’s all about the social justice that AA is fighting for and that we all need and want for ourselves.