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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