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What’s in a name?

This is the second (and hopefully last) post I will feel compelled to write about Atheism+, a group to which I have been assumed (by many) to belong to, but one about which I have thus far said essentially nothing. For those of you who don’t know, Jen McCreight recently stirred things up by announcing that she no longer felt at home with the atheist community at large, and recognized the existence of a subset of the larger atheist community who are focussed on issues that transcend religion per se and moving into larger arenas like anti-racism, anti-misogyny, anti-homophobia, and other so-called “social justice” issues. Because they were still identifying as atheists, but atheists who are interested in more than atheism, they branded this movement “Atheism+”.

The fallout has been typically ridiculous, with concern trolls and misogynist assholes alike flocking to social media to decry this development as a major schism and the death of atheism and a hostile takeover by radical feminists and… take your pick. The backlash against Jen specifically was so severe that she has temporarily but indefinitely suspended her blog – an entirely understandable move that serves only to showcase how at home the contingent of hateful, small-minded jerks feels among the anti-FTB/Skepchick/atheism+/anything-that-even-touches-feminism crowd.

Of course, as I noted this morning, Jen and those who immediately jumped on the Atheism+ bandwagon didn’t create a schism in atheism, they merely identified one that already exists. It’s not the same as dumping your boyfriend because he’s a loser, it’s the recognition that you two weren’t dating in the first place and the fact that he keeps showing up at your house is getting inconvenient and creepy. There are people who want to talk about this ‘social justice’ stuff, and there are those who don’t. Those who don’t can probably be divided into those who are merely apathetic and those who foster an active antipathy, but that’s beside the point I want to make here.

One of the first posts I wrote was a first-pass encapuslation of a maxim I’ve done my best to live by ever since I took my first social psychology course: I am not my ideas. I closed that post by saying this:

If we’re able to separate our ideas from how we see ourselves as people, it allows us to abandon bad ideas more easily. If, however, abandoning an idea also means abandoning our sense of self, any attack on that belief is going to be extremely emotionally jarring, and we’ll resist it at all costs. The first step towards making progress in any discussion of competing ideas is to make the debate about the idea, not the person.

It was an act of self-admonishment as much as it was advice for others – in those days I didn’t really have much of a readership (although that post went viral for a wile, for reasons I still don’t understand). I am sure that, at various points since then, I have failed to follow through and have given in to the temptation to find fault in the individual rather than the idea they espouse, but this maxim definitely guides how I approach identifying the problems and solutions in the race discussion. Identifying racism as a flaw in the character of “racists” – using the term as a noun rather than an adjective – provides us with a far-too-convenient loophole through which we can escape examining our own behaviours and beliefs.

While I doubt anybody noticed, I have specifically avoided claiming the “atheist+” label for myself, while being more or less a pitch-perfect avatar of the work they purport to be interested in engaging in. My atheism is something that informs my life, but it is not the entirety of my identity. I am interested in the commonalities I see between religious thinking and racist and misogynist and homophobic and other forms of low-cognition thinking. I find the similarities fascinating, and believe that we can use the same techniques we use to quash religious apologetics to combat those other forms of irrational thinking. I see this as being a unified fight that can employ a parsimonious array of weaponry, making atheists (who are used to counter-apologetics) likely footsoldiers in a larger fight for reason and equality.

The reason I don’t identify as “an atheist+” is because I don’t see the label as useful in distinguishing groups of people. There are a lot of people out there who sincerely believe that they are interested in ‘social justice’ issues, but who abhor the label (mostly, from what I’ve seen, for stupid reasons). They are lining up alongside the antipathy crowd and weaving feeble explanations about “unity” and “liberty” and “in-group” in order to resolve their own cognitive dissonance about thinking they’re for social justice, and then being told that they’re doing it wrong.

Here’s the problem with their position though: saying that you support something isn’t the same thing as actually supporting it. You can say you’re against misogyny, but you just think sluts shouldn’t be allowed to have abortions – you’re not against misogyny. You can say you’re opposed to racism, but affirmative action programs just push unqualified blacks into jobs they can’t do – you’re not against racism. You can say you are opposed to transphobia, but you don’t want your kid assaulted by a cross-dresser in a public washroom – you’re not against transphobia. All of the proclamations and protestations in the world don’t mean anything when measured against your actual behaviour and the beliefs that undergird them.

For me, atheism+ isn’t something I am – it’s something I’m doing. It comes easily to me, because I’ve been doing it since this blog started. At the same time, I recognize that I might not do it perfectly every time, and in those times I am not doing atheism+; I’m doing something else. I see it as being similarly tempting and equally misleading to apply the label “atheist+” to people rather the actions of those people. You are not a better person, or a more enlightened person, or a more sensitive person, simply because you apply a label to yourself. The true challenge of the mindset required to ‘do atheism+’ is the recognition that we are not our ideas, and that it is by our works that we shall be known.

So, for at least the time being, while I am happy to engage in the same practices to further the same goals, I am not an atheist+. This has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not I agree with people who so identify (I do), or whether or not I think drawing attention to the distinction was a good idea (it was) – it is simply a question of whether or not I see myself as part of a group, and for this purpose I don’t. Not yet, at least.

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Comments

  1. rq says

    For me, the atheist+ label has meant approaching atheism through all of that ‘+’ stuff, rather than going to atheism outright. That doesn’t sound too clear, but it works for me. And working through all that ‘+’ stuff and thinking it all through should, I hope, result in me being ok with also being just atheist, if anyone asks. Dunno. Something like that. Meh.

  2. Brownian says

    You are not a better person, or a more enlightened person, or a more sensitive person, simply because you apply a label to yourself.

    And Staples will ban you from their stationery section if you do it right there in the store.

    On the other hand, my shirt now proudly bears a label reading ‘Shirt’, so that’s one potential source of morning confusion cleared up.

  3. Benjamin Drey says

    I just wanted to say thankyou for posting this. I hope that Jen comes back into the foray soon. She’s sorely needed. I’m loathing Thunderf00t right now for accusing her of playing the “Martyr Card” when she is obviously, genuinely hurting. I’m hoping that this furore over what seems to be a lot of misapprehension about Atheism+ (and also semantics) will cease soon. You have my full support.

  4. says

    Interesting. Since it seems appropriate to mention here, i’ve adopted the label, more as an affiliation than an identity, specifically because i want to be held to these values by the people i work with. It feels similar to identifying as a trans* ally — something i generally don’t do in conversation but a standard i express on my office door (i.e. cubicle wall).

  5. says

    I know I’m not the only person who gets uneasy with the language of “ally” when someone applies it to themselves. I try my best to be an ally to other social justice causes, but I’m either doing it or I’m not. Having done it in the past doesn’t mean I have banked points that I can spend in the future. If that’s something that one can keep in mind, then the label can be a useful shorthand; still, I am uneasy because I’ve seen people try to excuse shitty behaviour by saying “but I’m an ally!”

    But yes, if it helps to have other people be able to point out “hey, you said you were X and now you’re doing not-X”, then that can be beneficial.

  6. says

    Exactly! But-i’m-an-ally! syndrome is exactly what i want to avoid — hence the affiliation rather than identity. I can’t criticize your own stance, and mine is of course provisional. Maybe if i were more of a blogger my take would be a bit different. Thank you for furthering the conversation.

  7. says

    Sure. I’m the same way with “anti-racist” or “skeptic” a lot of the time. It’s an ideal, a goal, something to do your best to try and evince, but nobody is perfect and we all screw up sometimes.

  8. Margaret says

    …I am uneasy because I’ve seen people try to excuse shitty behaviour by saying “but I’m an ally!”

    That “but I’m an ally” thing gets right to the heart of the current “deep rifts.” So often we want to line up depending on what team/country/label we’re a member of rather than by what we are actually doing.

    Despite all that, maybe you could think about the possible value of labeling your blog (if not yourself) with the A+, just as a matter of running up a flag saying that this is one of the safe places that people can come to and expect to see comments called out for racist or sexist language. There’s nothing to prevent a site where rape “jokes” are accepted from running up the A+ flag, but they seem to hate the whole idea of A+ so much that it seems unlikely.

  9. kellyw. says

    This is the first group I’ve ever come across that I’m willing to get on board with, and I hate groups.

    I’m just a fat, gay, atheist woman who is looking for a safer space to talk with non-assholes. A+ is not my identity. The A+ forums are an opportunity to communicate with some people who aren’t going to make me rage. I come from a small town in West Virginia and my social network in the real world is basically non-existent. I’m lonely and I need this.

  10. says

    And, in serving that function, the atheism+ edifice is extremely valuable. I’d say the 101-level resources they provide are also really valuable.

    I hope that this post won’t be read as a criticism or dismissal of what atheism+ is doing, because I’m right on board with it. I am just wary of labels under certain circumstances.

  11. Wowbagger, Antipodean Dervish says

    I hope that this post won’t be read as a criticism or dismissal of what atheism+ is doing, because I’m right on board with it.

    I don’t think it does, mostly because you’re a known entity. I can imagine it’s something people just starting out might want to adopt so it’s obvious they’re interested in social justice issues, though.

  12. Arakiba says

    Atheism attracts just as many misogynist a-holes as religion. It just replaces “God made women inferior” with “Nature made women inferior”.

  13. No Light says

    Oh hai there! Fat, gay, atheist, cripchick here. In a tiny country village in the UK.

    You’re not alone. I need to fight homophobia, ableism, misogyny and classism because they directly affect me. I get “Oh, you’re just an internet social justice warrior trying to get ally cookies” and I just laugh at them. Hard.

    A solidarity high-five for ya.

  14. Todd Armstrong says

    Atheism is not something you can go to. It only describes what you are not. Not a believer in gods. Non-belief is a description of what doesn’t exist, belief. Now that I write this; Is starting to sound semantic. LOL.

  15. says

    I think the difference is (and this is me perhaps being unreasonably optimistic) that atheism, at least in its organized sense, is more readily short-handed with formalish logic and the scientific method. These are pretty useful when combatting prejudices and low-cognition thinking. We just have to work to get these kind of skepticisms incorporated into the common toolbox.

  16. lunacatd says

    Thank you for your post, I feel the same way A+ is not something I am but the way I try to ‘do’.

    I think that supreme beings, or supernatural forces do not exist. I do think that all human beings deserve equal rights. I think church and state should be completely and utterly separate. I work to make the last two a reality, the first is my own conclusion and I think each person has to come to that understanding on their own terms, if at all.

    Others will label me as they will, when voicing my opinion they sometimes use ‘typical feminist’(if being nice) or c**t when not so nice – since in the end only the above results matter, frankly, I don’t give a damn.

    Kudos to Jen and company for creating a space for people to be able to gather and find real like-minded folks. I’ll be visiting often.

  17. says

    I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to disagree with you here. For all the talk of skepticism, logic, and the scientific method, I have not seen it applied to much outside the belief in gods, except in a small niche of atheist bloggers such as yourself and much of FtB. Look at all the organized vitriol thrown at Jen McCreight. Spend some time at reddit.com/r/atheism. Look at all the various YouTube atheists who spout science, reason, and logic without applying it. From my perspective, the atheists that actually understand the scientific method, “formalish logic,” and skepticism are actually quite a small contingent.

    But I guess I’m a pessimest. I do hope that I am proven wrong.

  18. chrisupshaw says

    Nitpic mode on:
    “noun rather than a verb –”
    Do you mean adjective? I’ve never seen “racist” used as a verb.

  19. davidjanes says

    For all the talk of skepticism, logic, and the scientific method, I have not seen it applied to much outside the belief in gods

    Sadly, I have to agree here. All too often when a scientific finding comes up that conflicts with the group gestalt on FtB, the majority of the counterarguments are emotional ad hominems not rational refutations. I would point to the study on male circumcision as an example. You can find some really good counterarguments to the study that call into question its validity in those discussions, but you have to wade through a whale-load of emotional crap to get to them. Hardly a shining beacon of rational discussion and refutation.

  20. gabby27 says

    I think the Atheism+ label is useful as a *tool* for spreading the message and encouraging more involvement by atheists in social justice issues. Like you said, it’s something you “do” rather than something you “are”, and I think having the label to encompass all of those things people will be doing makes it easier to actually get those things done, so I support the use of the label. It’s not a label that says “I’m perfect and I’ve got nothing more to improve on”, (and if anybody is using it that way, they’re doin’ it wrong ;) but a label that says “I think I’m on the right track, and I’m gonna keep going.”

  21. smrnda says

    The label will be interested and useful shorthand for me to identify sites, blogs, and events that I am actually interested in. I’ve never felt that atheist was worth my time until I found these blogs (especially this one) and the whole A+ thing because I cared a lot more about what I was for than what I was against.

  22. says

    As someone who does identify as Atheist+, may I just say, good post!

    And you provide yet another example of how someone can support the goals, applaud the methods, but not want to use the label, for entirely valid reasons! And we who do identify as A+ aren’t calling you names or anything because of it! At least, not that I have seen here.

    I do like the idea of “this isn’t what I am, it’s what I DO”, though. Good food for thought. Mmmmm, thinkyfoods…

  23. says

    I’m not exactly a random person, and in my most cynical interpretation I would imagine that even if the most staunch defenders of atheism+ were to disagree with me, I’d be handled a lot more gently than a random passerby. I could be wrong about this, and I certainly hope I am.

  24. says

    Quite likely! My point was more along the lines of “another datapoint that A+ is not ‘with us or against us’ like many are saying”. You and Rebecca Watson are both examples of people who support but don’t join. Which is totally cool.

  25. iainr says

    “You can say you are opposed to transphobia, but you don’t want your kid assaulted by a cross-dresser in a public washroom – you’re not against transphobia.”

    I’m opposed to transphobia. I don’t want my kid assaulted by anybody, anywhere. I don’t think that cross-dressers in public washrooms are more likely to assault my kids than anyone else and maybe I’m missing some context from the UK but it looks like there’s something missing there.

  26. says

    If you say that you are opposed to an ideology, it’s just that you base your fears on an acceptance of that ideology, then you’re not against it – you’re just saying you are. The whole “bathroom danger” thing is often used to justify transphobic policies and laws.

  27. mildlymagnificent says

    For all the talk of skepticism, logic, and the scientific method, I have not seen it applied to much outside the belief in gods ….

    I suppose I can be glad in one way that I never expected any better from self-styled skeptics on social issues. Anyone who’s ever seen the ludicrous, recalcitrant hyper-skepticism of these people when discussing climate science knows that logic and scientific method aren’t relegated to the backseat. They’re jammed into the luggage on the roof of the car and may never be seen again, let alone used for their designated purpose.

  28. says

    Both of these replies are touching on a pet peeve of mine: thinking that disagreements about values are (or should be) moved by facts.

    On the first one by (e)m: what kind of fact is going to be relevant to demonstrating that men and women should be moral equals? Or that women should not be subjected to threats of violence (and actual violence, obviously)?

    Sure, the evidence shows women have much the same capabilities and experience life in a very similar way. How does that help us convince the hardcore misogynist crowd? Clearly it’s done next to nothing. They don’t even listen to facts; they’ve made a (negative) value judgement and they will stick to it.

    On the second comment by davidjanes: what level of proven benefit from circumcision would justify it as a cultural practice overriding self-determination? And how would you know?

    Maybe one of these days I’ll get bored of pointing out you can’t derive an ought from an is, but it hasn’t happened yet.

  29. says

    Kagerato

    both of these replies are touching on a pet peeve of mine: thinking that disagreements about values are (or should be) moved by facts

    That was not my claim. My claim is that many of the atheists who claim to use facts, logic, and the scientific method do not do so. A shining example is the type normally seen attacking feminist bloggers who try to justify their position with “evidence” that does not correspond with reality. Another is reddit.com/r/atheism which has over 1 million followers. Many of the popular posts there show a basic misunderstanding of the scientific method.

    Sure, the evidence shows women have much the same capabilities and experience life in a very similar way. How does that help us convince the hardcore misogynist crowd? Clearly it’s done next to nothing. They don’t even listen to facts; they’ve made a (negative) value judgement and they will stick to it.

    That is a much better way of articulating what I was trying to say by pointing out the people who attacked Jen McReight. These people do not use facts and evidence. They claim to, but they do not.

    What kind of fact is going to be relevant to demonstrating that men and women should be moral equals?

    To quote Crommunist himself:

    This brings me back to my recurring thesis on diversity: it benefits everyone. Policies designed at actively increasing the number of perspectives present in an organization, whether that be a school or a business or a political movement, are going to make that organization better grounded in reality and less prone to make decisions that are rooted in a particular selective viewpoint. The benefits are going to be shared disproportionately by those who are on the lower part of the power divide, to be sure, but the simple truth is that everyone’s world gets better.

    Personally, I think that empathy is much more important in value judgments. Crommunist is the one making the claim that

    atheism, at least in its organized sense, is more readily short-handed with formalish logic and the scientific method. These are pretty useful when combatting prejudices and low-cognition thinking. We just have to work to get these kind of skepticisms incorporated into the common toolbox.

    If you disagree with that then take it up with him, not me.

    davidjanes
    If you say that you agree with me, you should probably take a look at my comment where I say: “except in a small niche of atheist bloggers such as yourself and much of FtB.” So you are quote mining me and disagreeing with me while claiming to agree with me. Please do not use me to make an unrelated point about circumcision, something that is not relevant to the discussion at hand. You have also not provided any examples of the bloggers at FtB doing the things that you claim that they have done. In other words: Citation needed.

  30. davidjanes says

    The only *point* I was making is that there is some really craptastic and illogical argumentation going on in that discussion not to take a side or to affiliate either of us with a position in that particular debate. As I stated, there are some good logical points being made about bias in the study, but you have to don hip waders and wade into a sewer of unconvincing emotional rants to find them.

    I do guess we do disagree about how small a subset of the FtB commentariat actually practice reasoned argument and skeptical thinking, however.

  31. anthonyallen says

    Great post, although I have one small bit of nitpicky-ness.

    You can say you are opposed to transphobia, but you don’t want your kid assaulted by a cross-dresser in a public washroom – you’re not against transphobia.

    I am against trasnphobia, but I don’t want my kid to be assaulted by anyone in a public washroom, or anywhere else, for that matter.

  32. says

    For me, atheism+ isn’t something I am – it’s something I’m doing

    In that case, I don’t think you know what atheism+ is.

    One thing’s for sure – it’s infinitely far from what it claims to be.

  33. says

    Well you said it. Did anything change? Did the big mean A+’ers suddenly realize the folly of their ways and change their crappy club to something you approve of? When is the ticker tape parade planned?

    Honestly, why do people think that unsupported (and even unargued) assertions in a blog comment are anything other than a masturbatory exercise?

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