I’d like to begin by stating that I’m in full agreement with Jen McCreight’s general sentiment in her recent essay: “We can criticize religion and irrational thinking just as unabashedly and just as publicly, but we need to stop exempting ourselves from that criticism.” 100% agreement, no reservations.
While the so-called New Atheists (or Gnu Atheists, or whatever) have brought great public attention to religious issues in the the bastion of Christianity that is the US, they have been, in my opinion, largely a step back when it comes to… Well, things that matter.
Now before you leap down to the comment section, bear with me a second. Let me elaborate.
The New Atheists made it socially acceptable to stand up and shout down the religious, to rant about religion publically, and to question the grounds of privilege of religion. And this is all good. But atheism is, at best, nothing more than a critique of a religious position. Jen makes the comment that “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.” And while this certainly seems to be the case, it’s really not an accurate view. At all. The philosophers, freethinkers and academics who are passed over so quickly criticised religion. Publically. And unabashedly. Have you read Nietzsche? How about Bertrand Russell? Or Hume? As guarded as Hume was, his assault on religion is uncompromising, and the “New Atheists” owe more to Hume than they ever credit. And Hume was guarded in his criticisms: at his particular time, people were put to death for
merely owning a copy of the bible in English blasphemy, nevermind atheism.
I think the Availability Heuristic looms large here, and we need to be careful lest we dismiss all that has gone before. The existence of television, youtube, and lack-of-murder (relatively speaking) makes it seem as if none of this has happened before, as if the New Atheists were somehow doing something new: they weren’t. They simply had access to mass-media in a way that was never before available. Russell is, unfortunately, no longer available for interview (what with him being dead), but here’s a man on par with Hitchens for eloquence, if not passion. Anyone heard of Simone de Beauvoir?
Those philosophers, freethinkers, and academics were all on the same page with Jen (caveat: they were also predominantly men, and men of their time, which means they were most certainly not on the same page with regards to feminism, in particular, but they were certainly more egalitarian than their contemporaries) with regards to ethics, humanism, and secularism. I wholeheartedly support Jen’s call to Atheism Plus, while wholeheartedly hoping that this means a return to the philosophers, freethinkers, and academics that Dawkins and Harris (oh, Sam Harris, you make me so sad and mad…) have basically just ignored.
Let’s absolutely get be ethically informed. Let’s absolutely have an interest in social justice (for any and all groups). Let’s absolutely hold our own views and practices up to scrutiny. Let’s absolutely stop pretending that Skepticism started in the US in the 1950s, and only applies to bigfoot, flying saucers and homeopathy (not that I’m advocating Phyrric Skepticism, but skepticism does go back 2500 years…).
I have never, I have to admit, been comfortable self-labeling as an atheist. I am, of course, an atheist. But I’m not An Atheist in the way I see it bandied about by the “Atheist Community”. Philosophers (one of which I am not, but aspire to be) are generally atheists, but are not Atheists, because it’s not seen as a worthwhile label. And sure, a chunk of that is the privilege of being nested within the safe, tall walls of academia. But Russell was an exemplar of a philosopher, a man who got arrested for pacifism, and was kicked out of his job as professor in the Univeristy of the City of New York even before he started. And for him, it was confusing as to why people kept asking him about atheism.
Because atheism is a conclusion, not a premise. I have not provided any stories for Crommunist’s “Because I am an atheist” as the rest of the story would be “and nothing follows from that”. Both trite, and something of a kick in the teeth for people for whom Atheism is a significant part of their self-identity. The sniping about ‘what atheism is’ is something that bothers me, I have to admit. There’s the group that wants to insist that ‘atheism is simply the lack of belief in gods’ and the other that asserts that ‘atheism is the belief/knowledge that there are no gods’, and each of them criticises the other for A) using the label wrong and B) merely antagonising people within “the movement”. Atheism, as part of an evolving English, covers both groups to the exclusion of neither, they differ by degree of certainty (in essence, the former is an agnostic atheist, the latter is a gnostic atheist (and I don’t mean that in the New Agey way)), not kind of belief. For myself, being an atheist (of any stripe) is a consequence of my rejection of Dualism, combined with a commitment to a certain level of warrant being required for a negative belief: if I am justified in believing that there is no beer in my fridge (and last I checked, there wasn’t), then I am justified in believing that there are no gods, as there is roughly the same evidence in favour of the existence of a god as there is for there being beer in my fridge. (“Beer” also has the advantage of not being a self-contradictory concept, and referring to an actual, real, concrete ‘thing’)
Back on topic
I think Jen is off to a fantastic start. And I largely agree with Temple of the Future that she’s doing Humanism (or, if you prefer, Temple of the Future was doing Atheism Plus before it was cool), and the label is only relevant insofar as it affects membership. (TofF makes some excellent points about how this raises the question: why are people who are in favour of Atheism Plus not in favour of Humanism? I.e. What could Humanism be doing better?)
Unlike atheism, many things follow from a commitment to social justice. And they are all pretty damn awesome.
There seems to be some bizarre pushback, objecting to the observation that Atheism+ is a rebranding of Humanism. Quoting JT Eberhard:
Are all humanists atheists? No? Then how is **ATHEISM** plus a rebranding of humanism? *boggle*
Humanism is atheistic in its approach. Yes, absolutely, there are religious people who also self-label as Humanists. I’m not sure what this has to do with refuting that Humanism is atheistic.
JT Eberhard’s argument seems to be (and I’m paraphrasing):
1. Humanism is atheistic if and only if all humanists are atheists.
2. Not all humanists are atheistic.
C. It is not the case that Humanism is atheistic.
This is a valid argument, but the first premise isn’t sound. A quick substitution:
1. Catholicism is bad if and only if all Catholics are bad.
2. Not all Catholics are bad.
C. It is not the case that Catholicism is bad.
You need to seperate out the thrust of the -ism from the particular beliefs and actions of the -ists. Humanism is atheistic. Sure, some groups are religious in their outlook. It’s a shame they have been doing Humanism wrong. (and no, I’m not arguing that “they’re not Humanists”, thus setting myself up for the No True Scotsman Fallacy, but I’m arguing that they are not exemplars of Humanism)