There is a new atheism brewing, and it’s the rift we need, to cut free the dead weight so we can kick the C.H.U.D.’s back into the sewers and finally disown them, once and for all (I mean people like these and these). I was already mulling a way to do this back in June when discussion in the comments on my post On Sexual Harassment generated an idea (inspired by Anne C. Hanna) to start a blog series building a system of shared values that separates the light side of the force from the dark side within the atheism movement, so we could start marginalizing the evil in our midst, and grooming the next generation more consistently and clearly into a system of more enlightened humanist values. Then I just got overwhelmed with work and kept putting it off on my calendar for when I had a good half a day or so to get started on that project.
Since then I blogged On Sexual Harassment Policies and Why I Am a Feminist (which smoked out a few of the dregs who attempted to defend their anti-humanist atheism), but closer to my growing thoughts on what separates us, and ought to separate us, within the movement was my post on (Not) Our Kind of People, which wasn’t really about any moral divide (since lots of people who aren’t my kind of people are nevertheless my people as far as basic values go, and I know they would agree; we just enjoy different company), but it paralleled my more private thinking about the evil among us. Then I read Lousy Canuck’s account of the whole abuse of Surly Amy at TAM and elsewhere, which enraged me (I had previously only known parts of that story). It shows the dregs will now publicly mock humanist values, and abusively disregard the happiness of their own people. Well, that starts drawing the battle lines pretty clearly then.
So I was chomping at the bit to find time to write something on this, but still not sure what to say or how to say it. It especially bugged me because I couldn’t get to it for lack of available time (which reminds me to mention, be warned, I am AFK most of this week and so comment moderation here will be unusually slow).
Then Jen McCreight said it for me, more eloquently and clearly than I could have. This weekend she wrote How I Unwittingly Infiltrated the Boy’s Club & Why It’s Time for a New Wave of Atheism, which was so well received (and quite rightly) that she wrote a brief follow-up: Atheism +. And Greta Christina and others have taken up the banner: Atheism Plus: The New Wave of Atheism. I am fully on board. I will provide any intellectual artillery they need to expand this cause and make it successful.
Its basic values (and the reason for its moniker) Jen stated thus:
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.
Amen to all that. But I should add to this a contribution by a reader of my blog, Christine Reece, who back in June sent me a suggestion for my planned post about positive atheism’s values, which I filed away for when I finally posted something essentially declaring battle lines the way Jen did. This in turn will lead to what I’d like to add to our discussion of underlying values.
Christine framed her points as rhetorical questions, which I had planned to blog about one at a time to open discussion on each, and I might do that if it’s needed, but I’m starting to think it’s not. We humanists already know where we stand, and that it’s not with the atheists who denounce or reject these values. So I now frame them as declarations (freely adapting and expanding on her own words, I hope she won’t mind–she might not agree with all of this):
A. Atheism and skepticism should embrace diversity (and not just be a bunch of white guys reading a bunch of white guys). In fact, we should be really keen on expanding our experience and horizons in that regard, aiming to learn as much as possible, and provide resources to help all our comrades in arms.
B. Atheist and skeptic communities should encourage everyone to apply skeptical analysis not just to religion, pseudoscience, and woo, but to social, moral, and political policies, theories and activists.
C. Considering the history of religion and how it has even warped secular life and thought in countries around the world, atheists and skeptics should spend as much time and energy deconstructing illogical and/or inhumane secular policies and claims as they do actively fighting religiously-based interference. We have to be as critical of ourselves and each other as we would expect anyone to be of religion, so we can be sure we don’t make the same mistakes. We must police the rot within, if we are to stand strong against our foes without.
D. In the field of education, atheists and skeptics should help promote courses and curricula that include logic and abstract thought rather than focusing all efforts on science. We need to train kids with a universal toolkit of skeptical and critical thinking about all issues in their lives, not just the scientific, but the social, political, and ideological as well. And we need to take seriously the effort to push for that and make it happen at the fundamental and national level.
As Christine said, “Teaching people how to think for themselves in all areas seems much more practical than providing a first-class science education that they’ll wind up ignoring.”
Of course they need the first-class science education, too. And a model for promoting that is Will.i.am’s STEM center project–if you ever thought Will.i.am was lame, think again: see him talk about this on the Graham Norton Show, and note that when the actress beside him says he’s amazing, she’s reacting to the fact that he had previously on that show talked about how he had also given all his UK profits to a royal educational charity (The Prince’s Trust, which he later mentions in the video clip; the dude really is awesome, just read what he’s up to as far as promoting STEM education).
But that’s not enough. The skill to think critically, skeptically, and rationally in all areas of life must also be promoted and cultivated. In fact, I think it’s time we push for communication studies to become one of the standard (and tested) fields in primary and secondary education, right alongside language, literacy, history, math, art, athletics, and science. How communications manipulate people is so fundamental to our lives now, it is a scandal we aren’t fully equipping kids for how to approach and deal with it. That field would include logic (especially identifying fallacies and being able to diagram and analyze real-world claims and arguments), defensive rhetoric (how to identify methods of manipulation in communication), and a basic understanding of how advertising, filtering, framing, and statistics can be abused to mislead and misinform in all media.
I mention this last point, even though it is the least controversial thing about Atheism+, because it really does underlie how many atheists lack this understanding in themselves and instead even denigrate its importance to policing racism, sexism, and irrationality in the movement itself. The idea that we should not be criticizing each other when we say illogical or ignorant things is self-defeating and self-destructive, and the very first corrupt value we need to kick to the curb.
Which leads me to the first value we must lay as the foundation of Atheism+:
1. We believe in being reasonable. This means, first, that we believe in being logical and rational in forming beliefs and opinions. Which means anyone who makes a fallacious argument on any matter of real importance and, when shown that they have, does not admit it (when given the chance), might not be one of us, and if they persist in doing that, is definitely not one of us, and is to be marginalized and disowned, as not part of our movement, and not anyone we any longer wish to deal with. This does not mean we must disavow anyone who happens to hold an irrational belief or have reached a conclusion irrationally, but only those atheists who explicitly oppose or reject the very idea of rationality. In other words, any atheist with whom we cannot even have a rational discussion.
Being reasonable also means we believe it is right and good to politely negotiate to find mutually acceptable compromises in matters of policy and coexistence, which includes agreements on the use of resources. But that does not mean capitulation: compromises must be mutually acceptable, and both parties must genuinely aim at that; if there is no such compromise to be had (not even one of mutual acceptance of our differences), then we are in one form or another enemies, and we must admit that.
I do not think it is in our interests any longer to cooperate in silence with irrational people, when it is irrationality that is the fundamental root cause of all human evil. Anyone who disagrees with that is simply not someone we can work with. We need to make the requirement of rationality in all our dealings with anyone fundamental. Even if we cooperate on limited projects with people who will be rational only in that limited sphere of cooperation (for example, interfaith projects for the common good), we still cannot hold our tongue and not continue to denounce their irrationality in any other sphere if we feel we need to, because to do so would be to become a traitor to our own values. Because being rational and reasonable is what we stand for. And it will always be what we stand for. Openly and passionately, and without compromise.
Although we must still give leave to people in political situations who have to hold their tongue, simply for pragmatic reasons and not because they are actively denying or undermining our values in this regard. For example, the NCSE is and has to remain religion-neutral and thus cannot “affiliate” with Atheism at all, much less Atheism+, even if many who work there are atheists or even Atheist+ enthusiasts. As with many other businesses and enterprises, it simply would not be appropriate to their mission. But we aren’t all working for the NCSE.
Reasonableness is not enough, however. In my book Sense and Goodness without God, and in my formal demonstration in chapter 14 of The End of Christianity, I lay out the empirical and logical foundations of objective moral facts on atheism. And the three principle values I discover to be fundamental truths about how all humans ought to govern themselves are reasonableness, compassion, and integrity, generally in that order.
So the second value we must lay as the foundation of Atheism+ is:
2. We believe in being compassionate. That means we believe it is important to have empathy for other people (men, women, white people, black people, rich people, poor people, and anyone suffering illness or misfortune or unfair treatment, and so on) and to act in the best interests of human happiness (rather than in the interests of our own vanity, greed, or self-righteousness, for example).
This does not mean we can’t be angry or mean or harsh, when it is for the overall good (as when we mock or vilify the town neonazi); ridiculing the ridiculous is often morally appropriate, and insults are also appropriate when they are genuinely appropriate (because, in short, human happiness would be destroyed if we didn’t marginalize that which can destroy it). It also doesn’t mean that we won’t act against evil, ignorance, and all the sins of vanity, greed, or self-righteousness. To the contrary, it is our compassion that compels us to do so. Our compassion entails we will and must always be the enemies of the uncompassionate.
And this is where the biggest divide exists in our movement today. Everyone who attacks feminism, or promotes or defends racism or sexism, or denigrates or maliciously undermines any effort to look after the rights and welfare and happiness of others, is simply not one of us (and if you think it’s divisive of me to say that, you simply must read Greta Christina’s Atheism Plus, and Some Thoughts on Divisiveness). They have rejected compassion as a fundamental value. Regardless of what they say, that is in actual fact what they have done.
Indeed, as the Surly Amy story shows, there are clearly many of us who disregard the happiness of others just to hurt them, mocking or insulting (or even threatening) them merely to please one’s own vanity or self-righteousness, in complete disregard of the pointless misery it causes another human being. That is fucking cruel. And if you are complicit in that, or don’t even see what’s wrong with it, or worse, plan to engage in Christian-style apologetics for it, defending it with the same bullshit fallacies and tactics the Christians use to defend their own immorality or that of their fictional god, then I don’t want anything to do with you. You are despicable. You are an awful person. You disgust me. You are not my people. [And BTW, I no longer include Dr. Harriet Hall in these remarks in any way, as she has made quite clear she had no idea how her own actions in this matter were misconstrued.]
Even the most rudimentary application of The Golden Rule would have caused any of the people who treated Amy as they did, or Rebecca Watson, or any of the many women and men who have been targeted by this shit, to stop themselves well beforehand. “Wait. Would I want people to treat me this way?” No, you fucking wouldn’t. So alas, you are a hypocrite.
In Sense and Goodness without God (V.1.1.1, pp. 295-96) I made the point that all biblical religion is fundamentally fucked because at its root it fails a most fundamental moral test: it valorizes Abraham, who is willing to murder his own son to prove his faith–which means he placed faith above compassion, above even basic human decency. Almost every evil perpetrated by religion today can be traced to that diseased debasement of humanity, in the fundamentally corrupt values represented in that story. Many atheists are building the same corrupt edifice, and instead of “faith in god” trumping human decency, they are placing their own vanity, privilege, and self-righteousness above human decency. Basically, it makes them feel good to hurt people. And that’s what makes them evil.
Indeed, “I don’t like you, so I am going to make you personally miserable” is their value system, rather than “I don’t like you, so I am going to have nothing to do with you” or “I don’t like something you said or did, so I will still respect you as a person and look after your basic welfare, but I am also going to explain in a logical and empirical way why I think you are wrong, and what I say might be harsh, but I will take the greatest care to ensure it is, to the best of my knowledge, relevant and true. But I’ll hear you out if you think I’m wrong about that.” No, that would be reasonable, and reasonably compassionate, behavior. Which these atheists know not of.
(I am by no means talking about respecting actual criminals, however. Their punishment is due. But even them we won’t needlessly torment. Their punishment must be productive, and deserved.)
And so I am declaring here and now, that anyone who acts like this, is not one of us, and should be marginalized and disowned, as not part of our movement, and not anyone we any longer wish to deal with. In fact it is especially important on this point that we prove that these vile pissants are a minority in our movement, by making sure our condemnation of them is vocalized and our numbers seen. We must downvote their bullshit, call it out in comments, blog our outrage.
Don’t assume that because someone else did that, that it’s covered and you can give it a miss. No, we need to show numbers. So speak out wherever you see these two sides at loggerheads, and voice your affiliation, so it’s clear how many of us there are, against them. And this very much is an us vs. them situation. The compassionate vs. the vile. You can’t sit on the fence on this one. In a free society, apathy is an endorsement of villainy.
This also applies to the sexists and racists and other dirtbags who try to make themselves seem reasonable through the specious tactic of merely not using curse words or insults, as if that is all that it takes to be a reasonable person. No, when you see apologists for sexism and racism and other anti-humanistic views of the world, views that have at their core a fundamental lack of empathy for other human beings and a pathological disinterest in seeing how things look from perspectives not their own, views that place narcissistic self-interest above genuine concern for how other people are doing, even when they try to mimic what they think “sounding reasonable” looks like, you needn’t resort to invective or insults, but on the same even keel they are pretending at, simply declare that they are not one of you, but are one of them. The people we want nothing more to do with. Until and unless they realize their own sins and repent of them. Feel free to calmly explain why.
(But be empathic enough to assume at first that someone being an ignorant dufus is really just ignorant and misinformed, and not a douchebag; give them at least one shot at being educable, before kicking them into the sewers to wallow with their peeps.)
And of course the third value we must lay as the foundation of Atheism+ is:
3. We believe in personal integrity. That means we believe in being honest and forthright, and consistent in our values. Hypocrisy to us is among the greatest sins, and we will denounce it everywhere, and purge it whenever we discover it in ourselves.
This may seem uncontroversial, a no brainer, but it really needs special emphasis, it needs to be something we consciously define ourselves by, so that it is ever on our minds when we decide who to be and what to praise or denounce or fight for or against. It must actually shame us when we are discovered to be hypocritical or dishonest in any significant way, and our integrity ought always drive us to correct ourselves when that happens. Our integrity ought to be important to us.
We must integrate this ideal of personal integrity into our very self-identity. Those who don’t, those who aren’t shamed by being exposed as liars or hypocrits, those who persist in being dishonest or inconsistent even when their dishonesty or inconsistency has been soundly proven, is not one of us, and is to be marginalized and disowned, as not part of our movement, and not anyone we any longer wish to deal with.
The nexus of these three values does entail there can be such things as unreasonable compassion (like destroying your own happiness through excessive giving, or not giving babies vaccinations because needles hurt) or unreasonable honesty (like aiding a murderer by telling them where their target is hiding) or dishonest compassion (like tricking someone into losing a lot, by being generous to them now) or uncompassionate honesty (like being unnecessarily frank about someone’s appearance), or even dishonest reasonableness (like merely pretending to be reasonable). These are all moral failures. But there can be honest debate about where the boundaries are drawn when values come into conflict, as long as that debate is always governed by the most fundamental value of being reasonable (as defined above).
There can also be many other uncertainties and disagreements over whether someone or something really fulfills these values, and good people can fall short of their own values from time to time. The only issue at hand is whether we are at least on board with the idea that these are the values we should hold ourselves to, and with doing our best to hold ourselves to them. That is the question of what sort of atheist we are: an atheist who embraces these values, or an atheist who does not. The rest is open to honest and reasonable discussion, disagreement and debate. But we have to draw this line, so we are no longer mixed in with the atheists who refuse either to embrace these values or sincerely work toward embodying them, so we no longer give tacit endorsement to them or their toxic contributions to the atheism movement.
In a future post I might explore further what I think the values of Atheism+ could be, beyond the general principles I have laid out here, unless others cover it better. And I will consider these posts a living document. If from sincere and constructive criticism in comments I am led to alter or revise what I’ve said above in any way (beyond clarifications that can be well-enough addressed in comments themselves), I will do so, and announce the changes in the comments, so there is a record of them. Because I think the values of Atheism+ are to be built collaboratively, and don’t have to be dictated by me alone.
In the meantime, are you an atheist? Do you identify as an atheist? Then I can’t insist, but I do ask that you to defend these goals and values (not in comments here, but publicly, via Facebook or other social media): are you with us, or with them; are you with the Atheism+ movement, or do you at least cheer and approve it’s values and aims (since you don’t have to label yourself), or are you going to stick with Atheism Less and its sexism and cruelty and irrationality?
Then at least we’ll know who to work with. And who to avoid.
And on what exactly I mean by that, see Being with or against Atheism+.