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Adam Lee on Atheism and Dissension

Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism has an excellent essay at Salon.com about atheism and the things that frequently divides what is referred to as the “movement.” He begins with a discussion of Atheism+ and I think he describes the goal of it better than anyone else I’ve seen:

The animating idea behind Atheism+ is that atheism isn’t a stopping point, but a beginning. We’re atheists not because we want to gather and engage in collective back-slapping, not because we want to chortle at the foolishness of benighted believers, but because we care about creating a world that’s more just, more peaceful, more enlightened, and we see organized religion as standing in the way of this goal. We consider politically engaged atheism an effective way to demolish this obstacle, to refute the beliefs that have so often throughout human history been used to excuse cruelty, inequality, ignorance, oppression and violence. (Full disclaimer: I identify as a member of A+ and as a proponent of social justice.)

What’s more, we refuse to believe that skepticism and critical thinking can be usefully applied only to claims about the supernatural. We believe that it’s equally valuable to apply them to real-world power structures that perpetuate inequality and injustice. Thus, the goals of Atheism Plus: We are atheists and skeptics, plus we defend women’s rights and reproductive choice, plus we fight against sexism and racism, plus we oppose homophobia and transphobia, plus we call for equality of opportunity and economic fairness, and so on.

Yes, that. Exactly that. He also points out that Atheism+ is not creating divisions, it is responding to them:

The truth is that the atheist movement is already divided, and has been for a while: Surveys show that there’s a significant imbalance of men over women. Some of this may be due to outside cultural factors, but some of it is surely owing to the experiences that many women have spoken out about: belittling language and condescension, unwanted sexual advances, outright harassment, and sometimes violent abuse and threats when they speak up about the other things that make them feel unwelcome.

When this kind of behavior goes unchecked, it’s no surprise that many women will choose not to participate in the atheist movement.

Yep. And we need to fix that. We may not always agree on how to fix it, but we need to get to work on it. I spoke at a conference this weekend where there were 65 people in the audience and only about 10 of them were women, which Sheila Kennedy, who was also speaking, immediately noticed. This is not in any way a criticism of the group that put on the conference, which is a terrific organization. But it’s indicative of a much broader reality in atheist and secular groups (the group I’m on the board of, CFI-Michigan, has a much more balanced membership, but I don’t really know why that is).

A few months ago, PZ put up a post with a taxonomy of the different kinds of atheists. He nailed me as an example of a “political atheist,” one who is focused not on debates over the existence of god (which frankly bore me to tears) but on working for separation of church and state and for greater justice, freedom and equality. The list was by no means comprehensive and lots of people are in more than one group, but it was still a pretty good breakdown.

Eddie Tabash was also speaking at the CFI of Northeast Ohio conference last weekend and he is a mix. He loves to debate the existence of God, but he’s also very active in fighting for separation of church and state and for the equal rights of atheists. Other people focus primarily on scientific issues, or on philosophical questions. And here’s the thing: All of them are important and effective in different circumstances.

I’m very happy about the whole Atheism+ idea because I think anything that focuses our attention on issues of social justice is a good thing. But I’m not going to go around calling myself an atheist+, I’m just going to call myself an atheist. And no one is going to try to drum me out of the movement for choosing not to take such a label. I don’t really care about labels; I care about what people are actually doing. And if you’re fighting for social justice, we’re on the same team. But let’s bear in mind that there are lots of different teams under this broad umbrella, with a different focus and a different set of priorities. Let us each focus on the things we care most about. We’ll be more effective at them as a result. And let the broader movement benefit from our efforts.

Comments

  1. says

    I was one of the 10 women in attendance at that conference! ^_~

    And was incredibly invigorated and inspired to do more! A colleague of mine are in the midst of putting together our own grassroots convention that addresses the specific instances of allies (the LGBTQ community and women) that Tabash spoke so eloquently of.

  2. says

    You know what’s so dishonest about the whole “A+ is creating divisions” thing? The fact that there’s zero evidence from these so-called “skeptics” that there’s anyone from the A+ side going around and insisting that anyone join up or adopt the name or anything like that. Ed, if you’re not going to call yourself A+ I can practically guarantee that no one is going to make a big deal out of it either way from the A+ side.

    If the people attacking A+ for being divisive would just shut up and stop attacking, they’d find out that no one cares about them either way. Hey, maybe that’s why they are fighting so hard?

  3. Michael Heath says

    I was on the Atheist+ site a couple of days ago. As predicted in previous comment posts in this venue, I generally support the portion of the platform which differentiates them from the definition of atheism.

    I think the challenge for emergent groups which claim to support individual liberty is that liberty can be messy. The more responsible people act, the easier it is compellingly promote liberty and demand the government defend our liberties. However we all know people don’t always act responsibly, this is where freer societies can be somewhat messy; there’s a cost to the benefit of freedom though I’d argue that cost is small compared to the benefits. So I’ve long advocated that with freedom comes personal responsibility.

    I bring this up because I’m concerned these emergent groups will react to that suppresses or advocates for the suppression of freedom by its more authoritarian elements cracking down. That they won’t have the institutional maturity to not over-react and weigh the cost of restricting liberty to gain some benefit on better controlling bad behavior. I sincerely hope they do not; I am not predicting they will – only that the risk assuredly exists. Failing to be ever-diligent or failing to consider a full cost-benefit strategic analysis increases the odds such emergent groups will begin to hypocritically promote a limitation of freedom based on their ideology; not all that different than religionists who demand a limitation on everyone’s freedom based on their particular ideology.

  4. Michael Heath says

    Improbably Joe writes:

    If the people attacking A+ for being divisive would just shut up and stop attacking, they’d find out that no one cares about them either way. Hey, maybe that’s why they are fighting so hard?

    Are you one of the A+ organizers/administrators? I ask because you are either speaking for them in this comment or are confident you understand the A+ group well enough to assign an attribute to the entire group. I’m not sure which and therefore ask my above question.

    Given your insinuation you either speak for A+ or know them well enough to describe them; do you think A+ members will generally also respond to criticism by describing it as “attacking” and frequently utilize a “shut up” reaction?

    I’ve only read one Greta C. blog post on A+ so I’m not informed at all about their group dynamics beyond that one thread’s blog post and comment thread defense of the A+ name. So I’m not insinuating any group behavioral attributes at all on them, my questions here are sincere.

  5. hjhornbeck says

    Michael Heath @ 3:

    I bring this up because I’m concerned these emergent groups will react to that suppresses or advocates for the suppression of freedom by its more authoritarian elements cracking down. That they won’t have the institutional maturity to not over-react and weigh the cost of restricting liberty to gain some benefit on better controlling bad behavior. I sincerely hope they do not; I am not predicting they will – only that the risk assuredly exists.

    Let’s suppose your worst-case scenario happens. Does that invalidate the goals of A+? Does that mean it was a bad idea? No; a more reasonable set of “leaders” can rise from those ashes, and if they truly are better then people will join them.

    You do have a valid concern, Heath, I’m just not sure it makes much difference in the long run.

    Brayton:

    I’m very happy about the whole Atheism+ idea because I think anything that focuses our attention on issues of social justice is a good thing. But I’m not going to go around calling myself an atheist+, I’m just going to call myself an atheist. And no one is going to try to drum me out of the movement for choosing not to take such a label.

    I think most people would call me a rabid A+ supporter, because of my preference to wade into arenas hostile to the idea. For my part, I completely agree. No-one should try to drum you out, and I’ll happily defend you from anyone who attempts it.

  6. Taz says

    The only issue I have with the post is that I don’t think you can unilaterally declare that what you’re doing is not divisive any more than you can declare it’s not offensive. You may disagree with someone’s reasons for being offended. You may think they’re being unreasonable or obtuse or whatever, but you can’t just state that they’re not actually offended.

    Only time will tell if Atheism+ is divisive or not. And if it is, maybe it’ll be a welcome division.

  7. says

    When PZ posted about this, along with a statement that he didn’t consider himself a member of Atheism+, I was surprised. I figured that if you’re an atheist and you support social justice causes, then you’re a “member” (whatever that entails) whether you consider yourself such or not. He replied that he thinks the detractors consider him to be some kind of figurehead for the “movement” and are grousing about that, and he doesn’t want to be a distraction. Quite honestly, I don’t know declaring oneself to not be a member accomplishes that at all. Grousers are going to grouse. Let them. So long as they’re not in charge, who cares?

  8. karmakin says

    @hjhornbeck: It’s not so much that it invalidates the core concepts, (That being striving for equality) it’s that it may very well make them harder to obtain. That’s my concern.

    Not all the criticism is coming from the “right” (If you look at social justice as a “left” thing and hierarchical traditionalism as a “right” thing), there’s some coming from the left as well. There’s a very real ideological conflict between intersectionalists/individualists and cultural essentialists, or at least between those forms of communicating what social justice entails.

    A+ looks a lot like a group for cultural essentialism. I’m not sure how accurate that is in terms of what people actually believe, but the way things are often communicate (I.E. talking about groups as if they share common traits) certainly gives people that impression.

    If that’s not the case, then there’s a serious communications problem with the language used inside the movement that probably should be changed.

    In any case, intersectionalists like myself think that cultural essentialism is a political and a cultural dead end. Political as it’s a bad sell to people and turns them off, and a cultural dead end in that even if you CAN sell it to people you’re not really going to actually fix anything in the first place. At best you’re replacing one set of stereotypes with another set of stereotypes.

    I do believe that groups (PETA is a good example) can do very real harm in terms of moving a cause forward. I see a lot of red flags to think this might happen here as well.

  9. eric says

    Michael Heath @3:

    I bring this up because I’m concerned these emergent groups will react to that suppresses or advocates for the suppression of freedom by its more authoritarian elements cracking down. That they won’t have the institutional maturity to not over-react and weigh the cost of restricting liberty to gain some benefit on better controlling bad behavior. I sincerely hope they do not; I am not predicting they will – only that the risk assuredly exists.

    Can you give an example of a concrete issue on which you think they are at risk of suppressing freedom or restricting liberty in order to control bad behavior?

    Given your past comments about A+ on Ed’s boards, I think I know what example you may have in mind. But I don’t want to put words in your mouth; I’d rather you mention specific areas that concern you than me guess at them.

  10. maureenbrian says

    Michael Heath @3,

    That is the challenge of the Enlightenment – to make the best “better world” we can with all the knowledge we can muster but still with our own cumulative imperfections, of which we sometimes become aware only as we work on the greater project. Better than waiting for Magic Man to put it all right, though.

    The only authoritarianism I am seeing is people who are more comfortable at or near the top of vertically organised groups – and good luck to them – telling people a little lower down the tree which experiences they are allowed to have had and whether or not they are allowed to discuss them in public. Which is where we came in!

    Michael Heath @ 4,

    It is already clear that, at this stage, Atheism+ is a notion which sets no great store by a formal membership scheme. It has no sacred texts, no keepers of the priestly regalia, no secret police. It works collectively, happy to disagree or agree and often with exactly the same people. Whether this remains the case we shall have to wait and see but there are many of us who are well used to working in that style and have found it very productive.

  11. Michael Heath says

    Gretchen write:

    When PZ posted about this, along with a statement that he didn’t consider himself a member of Atheism+, I was surprised. I figured that if you’re an atheist and you support social justice causes, then you’re a “member” (whatever that entails) whether you consider yourself such or not.

    I think it would be unfair to assume that about others. I certainly don’t consider myself a informal member in spite of generally agreeing with their platform; that’s given that I have no idea whether this group will actually behave in a manner they claim to aspire to behave or will consistently promote their planks, even when it’s inconsistent with broader partisan groups advocacy. We are after all bombarded with hypocrisy and tribalism; so informal affiliation should be earned or not assumed at all, where it’s obviously premature to make such judgments with A+ since they’re still in start-up mode.

  12. abb3w says

    @0, Ed Brayton:

    We may not always agree on how to fix it, but we need to get to work on it.

    Bingo.

    I’m not convinced the A+ will be a fix. For really abstruse reasons (I’m more a philosophical atheist, interested in giving political atheism diamond-rebar underpinnings), I don’t identify with it nor expect to. I don’t think its current incarnation is particularly optimal. However, I think it’s an experiment of interest, that will be of benefit if it works, and at worst will fade to obscurity without derailing the growth of the larger social trend of freethought rather than religiosity. I don’t think the worst case scenario of it being more widely destructive will pan out.

    @0, Ed Brayton:

    But I’m not going to go around calling myself an atheist+, I’m just going to call myself an atheist. And no one is going to try to drum me out of the movement for choosing not to take such a label.

    Probably not; you’re too high profile for mere neutrality to be a problem. There seem some hints at inclination for a minority among A+ followers to treat lesser figures that way, with any criticism increasing the risk. I think that’s a potential longer term problem.

    @2, Improbable Joe:

    The fact that there’s zero evidence from these so-called “skeptics” that there’s anyone from the A+ side going around and insisting that anyone join up or adopt the name or anything like that.

    Are you including the assorted commentariats among “anyone”, and using fairly broad sense of “anything like that” that might include suggeting that non-supporters are all bad people somehow?
    I don’t have time today for a systematic search for an example, but I’m pretty sure I can turn one up here on Freethoughtblogs.

    @7, Gretchen:

    So long as they’re not in charge, who cares?

    Those who worry about their appearance being the earliest symptom of a problem which had been anticipated for several years and poses a significant long-term threat of making the Freethough movement just as bad as the religions it seeks to supplant.

    @8, karmakin

    A+ looks a lot like a group for cultural essentialism.

    I think that may be a manifestation, rather than root problem, but interesting.

  13. Michael Heath says

    eric writes:

    Can you give an example of a concrete issue on which you think they are at risk of suppressing freedom or restricting liberty in order to control bad behavior?

    Given your past comments about A+ on Ed’s boards, I think I know what example you may have in mind. But I don’t want to put words in your mouth; I’d rather you mention specific areas that concern you than me guess at them.

    A+ is in start-up mode so I have neither any examples from them nor would I judge them so prematurely. All start-ups have growing pains. My concern is a general one given my reading of history. I have no idea what you’re alluding to regarding me; my problem with their name isn’t related to this topic where that’s the only topic I recall posting about them.

    As I already noted, I was promoting my hope the leaders of this group are and would remain cognizant of history and the fact humans frequently react to instances of bad behavior with an authoritarian response. A response which fails to consider the full context their reaction deserves within the paradigm of their claimed principles.

  14. Michael Heath says

    abb3w writes:

    I don’t identify with it nor expect to. I don’t think its current incarnation is particularly optimal. However, I think it’s an experiment of interest, that will be of benefit if it works, and at worst will fade to obscurity without derailing the growth of the larger social trend of freethought rather than religiosity. I don’t think the worst case scenario of it being more widely destructive will pan out.

    This represents my position though I don’t weigh-in on whether their, “current incarnation is particularly optimal”, given I don’t know enough about them to make any conclusions about this.

  15. abb3w says

    @10, maureenbrian

    The only authoritarianism I am seeing is people who are more comfortable at or near the top of vertically organised groups – and good luck to them – telling people a little lower down the tree which experiences they are allowed to have had and whether or not they are allowed to discuss them in public.

    That would be the high-SDO types — which, yes, are one type of authoritarian. The other would be high-RWA types — although Michael Heath would term those high-LWA, due to them being to the political left. However, whether their politics are to the left or the right, they still appear to fall within the sense of Altemeyer’s high-RWA, which sense I use.

    The A+ movement would appear in part to be a reaction to high-SDO personalities reacting in a manner considered threatening, with the threat response increasing tendency to the high-RWA expression, among those who are more directly threatened and those who have a higher basic tendency.

    Michael and I had related a bit of back and forth a couple weeks back. Our primary difference seems to be over the terminology — he seems to have trouble translating that my use of RWA encompasses both his LWA and RWA categories. From what I can tell, none of the “undesirable” traits Altemeyer correlated to RWA vary with political views when RWA is controlled for; thus, I consider his distinction moot to counterprodutive — political orientation seems likely to change easier than RWA tendency. I also suspect his reading on authoritarianism is relatively more from political theory and less from empirical experimentalism than mine.

  16. abb3w says

    @14 Michael Heath: This represents my position though I don’t weigh-in on whether their, “current incarnation is particularly optimal”, given I don’t know enough about them to make any conclusions about this.

    In biology, initial mutations seldom hit absolute optimum; there’s usually a sequence of incremental improvements. I’m anticipating something analogous.

  17. frogmistress says

    I was one of the 10% in the audience that day, as well.

    I was also the lone woman in attendance of the dinner afterward.* I was an afterthought invitation because my husband helped record the talks. The rest of the attendees were the officers, all male.

    Don’t get me wrong, ours is a great group! I have enjoyed my membership and participation with them. But, diversity does not appear to be our strong suit.

    Another thing missed in all of this, and I am still kicking myself for not asking about the omission in the Q&A for Tabash, is that there were only three people of color that I saw. That’s a REALLY low ratio that no one seemed to want to bring up.

    Amanda, I would love to participate in that if you are looking for help!

    *It was great meeting and talking with you, Ed!

  18. says

    I haven’t visited the A+ forums, but I suspect that what happens there is similar to what often happens in the comment sections here, and in almost any internet forum I’ve ever seen. That is, if someone comes in and offers a contrary opinion on even the smallest detail, even if they express agreement with the basic goals but think a different tactic should be used, or urge the group to be more accepting of differing opinions, they are accused of being a “concern troll” and shouted down. Again, I haven’t been there, and likely won’t go there (I only have so much time, and far too many ways to fill it already — hell, I barely read my own comment section more than once a day), so I don’t know that for sure. But it’s pretty much a universal trait on internet forums.

    Of course, sometimes people really are being concern trolls and are rightly dismissed. And it can be difficult to tell the difference. But we are all prone to kneejerk reactions and to behaving tribally, ganging up on someone who challenges the consensus and drumming them out. And sometimes they deserve it. But sometimes they don’t. Like I said, I’ve seen it in the comments here many times, and it makes me uncomfortable — at least when I perceive that the target of that behavior is really just trying to make a reasonable point (as I said, sometimes they’re just being assholes and are rightly being blasted). But this is pretty endemic to human beings, so it’s hardly unique to this circumstance.

  19. eric says

    Heath @13:

    A+ is in start-up mode so I have neither any examples from them nor would I judge them so prematurely. All start-ups have growing pains. My concern is a general one given my reading of history.

    Okay, great! I hope we can agree that we should not let such a hypothetical risk act as a brake on A+ social action, since that action is geared towards addressing a concrete, ongoing problem (marginalization of women and minorities). I’m not saying put our heads in the sand over the possibility of over-reaction, but I am saying prioritize it appropriately.

  20. Enon says

    ” . . . and we see organized religion as standing in the way of this goal.”

    All organized religion? The Unitarians? The Quakers?

    I followed the link to PZ’s taxonomy of atheists and got a good reminder of why I almost never visit any more, despite the fact that I was a very early reader of Pharyngula, back when PZ ran it from an old Mac under his desk. Back then, he had a version of the site that presented just the biology sans atheism; it was an extremely useful resource for confronting the creationist college students I was encountering at the time.

    Now I find the site extremely off-putting, especially the comments. I would apply Al Stefanelli’s remark about the Atheism Plus forums to Pharyngula specifically and to most gnu-atheist sites generally (my apologies to Al for applying his remark more generally than he probably would):

    “There is, undeniably (to me, at least – your mileage may vary), a climate of exceptionalism and an air of superiority that is getting pervasive within the forum[s], and it is bordering on hubris and arrogance.”

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/alstefanelli/2012/10/09/qanda/

    For the record, I am first a philosophical atheist. I embrace naturalism and find concepts of the supernatural to be incoherent at best. I don’t make a big deal about it as I recognize that other people hold other philosophical beliefs and experience the world differently than I do. In action, I am a political atheist and a thorough-going accommodationist. I think defending and expanding freedom of conscience and opposing hegemonies (including Christianist ones) to be pragmatic activities, trying to rid the world of religions and god-belief much less so. There is an strong streak of anti-religious and anti-clerical fanaticism in much of contemporary atheism that I find repellent.

    Most of what little money I can budget for charitable giving I send to the American Friends Service Committee. I don’t agree with their theology but strongly support their ethics. (And they won’t refuse my support because of my beliefs.)

    The lack of strident arguments about the existence of god(s) and the prevalence of good information about attacks on liberty and freedom of conscience is why this blog is one of the few atheist blogs I find worth my time and attention.

  21. abb3w says

    @19, Ed Brayton:

    But it’s pretty much a universal trait on internet forums.

    […]

    we are all prone to kneejerk reactions and to behaving tribally, ganging up on someone who challenges the consensus and drumming them out.

    Apparently prejudice against “derogated” groups tends to correlate to high-SDO, prejudice against “dangerous” groups tends to correlate to high-RWA, but both (RWA more than SDO) tend to be prejudiced against the “dissident”. So, while the trait might be qualitatively universal, the trait apparently varies quantitatively.

    Thus, PZ has a dungeon, for the sufficiently dissident such as those who don’t even accept the basic convention of rational thought. However, it seems a lot easier to get banned on most fundamentalist forums.

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