Thoughts from QED: in defence of Atheism Plus

In case you weren’t aware of this – and you should be (it trended on Twitter) – QED just happened again. Last year’s convention gave birth to this site, and I’m glad to have gone again; it isn’t often that as Brits, the world is jealous of our skeptical meet-ups and not vice versa.

This said, parts of one panel did irk me slightly.

Yesterday on QED’s second and last day, Carrie Poppy of Oh No, Ross and Carrie! fame (her talk on anecdotes, by the way, was excellent) moderated the ‘God Panel’, a discussion between Mitch Benn, Richard Dawkins, Mike Hall and Lawrence Krauss and the programme’s one specific atheist event. When a question was posed about mistakes our movement had made, the first example given – I think by Mitch Benn, though it might have been Mike Hall – was Atheism Plus, an answer audience members seemed to like and onto which other panellists piled.

Mitch Benn (again, it may have been Mike Hall) said A+ makes atheism into more than non-belief.

Lawrence Krauss said a ‘PC’ ‘orthodoxy’ now clamps down on people who say the wrong things.

Richard Dawkins called A+ an ‘obvious example’ of atheists doing things wrong, and bemoaned the use of the word ‘douchebag’ in reference to people deemed sexist. (It wasn’t the accusations of sexism to which he objected, so far as I could tell, but the word ‘douchebag’ specifically.)

Panel speakers, obviously, are entitled to speak their minds and likely to agree at times, but this is a contentious issue, and I’d have liked to see A+ get some right of reply. I know people from this year’s QED who are pro-A+, and my Twitter responses got a fair amount of support – at any rate, it all felt rather one-sided.

It’s unfortunate there wasn’t a Q&A session afterward; had there been one, I’d like to think some defence of A+ would have been mounted – if not by anyone else, then by me. Since there wasn’t, I’m posting here (in slightly extended form) what I felt like saying at the time.

First of all, I’m not particularly a user of the A+ label. I’ve said why before, and some of that bears saying again here. Certainly, I think there are valid critiques to make of how the project’s taken shape. I’m not sure, for example, that giving the pre-existing ‘social justice’ faction of the atheist community an explicit, solidified name like Atheism Plus or carving out spaces and organisations for it has been entirely beneficial – part of me wonders if the case might be made better by floating, distributed individuals than a unified identity group – and of course, numerous (googleable) issues with the A+ forum have been raised online. So don’t imagine I’m just engaged in partisan parrying here.

But no: Atheism Plus does not make atheism into ‘a thing’, or redefine it as something more than non-theism.

To quote the FAQ on the A+ website:

Atheism Plus does not attempt to conflate atheism with feminism or any other ideology. It does not call for the incorporation of liberal values into the definition of atheism.

There. You see?

To put it another way, see Jen McCreight’s original ‘Atheism+’ blog post.

We are…
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.

Being an atheist and a feminist, and calling yourself an atheist plus [a feminist] does not redefine atheism as a positive value – no more than being an atheist and a comedian, an atheist and a physicist or an atheist and a science advocate.

If in practice, your comedy is closely related to atheism and religion, as Mitch’s seems to be; if physics plays a strong part in your atheism, as it clearly does in Lawrence’s; if you see atheism as a scientific position, which obviously Richard does – indicating the relationship between the two makes perfect sense.

This doesn’t make atheism a positive value, or define it as something other than non-theism. If you think A+ misunderstands ‘atheism’, you likely misunderstand ‘plus’.

And by the way – in Jen’s words, aren’t we all ‘atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism’? Isn’t that what meetings like QED are about? The God Panel even said, pretty unanimously, that their atheism was consequential to their skepticism and that other people’s ought to be too.

It’s abundantly clear, as far as I’m concerned, that organised atheist culture in its current form has lots of stances other than pure atheism, and that these stances are interrelated.

We’re all, or almost all, atheists plus secularists, atheists plus science supporters and skeptics, atheists plus people who think religion is a bad thing, including when it isn’t traditionally theistic. When you meet someone in an atheist space – a public meet-up, say, or a web group – you can confidently assume they hold these views.

Being an atheist, then, may strictly mean no more than not being a theist, but being a card-carrying atheist – someone who wears the Scarlet A, attends conventions and is generally part of the current ‘movement’ – has all kinds of implications. Atheist culture has its pillars already: the contention of A+ is that social awareness should be one of them.

I have a problem with the idea wanting sexism-free atheist culture is PC orthodoxy. (Insert other social inequities at your leisure, obviously.) For one thing, anti-sexism is not orthodoxy because, as one hopes Laurence Krauss can testify after his recent encounter with IERA, sexism is not radical.

As for being called a douchebag, he and Richard Dawkins are public figures. Public figures say things, and sometimes they get heat for it. Your views being criticised, as most of us wish creationists would realise, is not evidence of a conspiring hegemony – it’s evidence not everyone likes all your views, and not everyone thinks you’re above being told so.

Among some sections of the skeptic-atheist community, I see a tendency to deny culture exists at all; to insist even in the teeth of overwhelming evidence that structures like gender and race are never relevant to anything. The keystone of A+, as I see it, is the radical notion that culture does exist, bringing with it an array of influential social contexts – and that if we want to be effective at getting skeptical or atheistic messages across to all parts of society and not just some, we need to be aware of these.

If we want to be an optimally effective movement, we need not just to be a white movement, and that means not only making white atheists visible.

If we want to be optimally effective, we need to avoid exclusionary imagery and language about minorities in our publicity.

If we want to be optimally effective, we need to make sure everyone can afford to come to our events, including low-waged and unemployed people.

If we want to be effective, we should keep events accessible for wheelchair users, provide signing for deaf audience members or those with limited hearing, and generally accommodate attendees with disabilities.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

This isn’t PC orthodoxy. It’s common fucking sense.

About those ex-gay bus ads planned in London

There are three key points no one seems to have made about those homophobic ads that just got banned from London buses.

1. Remember Reverend Lynda Rose, who smeared Evan Harris with pro-life leaflets just before he lost his seat in Oxford West? Here are some of the leaflets, if you don’t. The Guardian quotes her on behalf of Anglican Mainstream, the Christian group behind the adverts.

2. Transport for London is a local government body. As a secularist, I don’t think it should be promoting any belief group, however nasty or nice their message. (This includes, in hindsight, the Atheist Bus Campaign which the BHA took over.)

3. The ads that just got banned? They didn’t get banned.

It looks certain we’ll see the usual cry of persecution from Christian groups who don’t get their way in the next few days, and the same misplaced appeal to free speech HOTS Bath made when told they needed evidence prayer could cure cancer. [Update: we will. They’re about to sue for human rights violation.] But Boris Johnson is chair of TfL, and it’s not censorship if that organisation doesn’t want to run an ad campaign. (I would note though that with London’s mayoral election coming up and the gay community one of Johnson’s electoral weak points – he previously supported Section 28 and compared gay coupling to bestiality – it seems possible his motives were less than pure.)

A friend who runs an atheist group at Cambridge said on an NSS Facebook threat that ‘there’s a major difference between “You are allowed to say what you like” and “You are allowed to say what you like on the side of my bus”.’ Quite: if Anglican mainstream want to put their ads on someone else’s buses who’s willing to promote them, I can’t see why they should be stopped.

As far as truthfulness, can we really ask Advertising Standards to rule on whether “ex-gay” is a real status? Sexual identities are subjective, slippery things not meant for empirical scrutiny, and I have no trouble believing a good psychologist could induce in a vulnerable person a sense of revulsion at queer sexuality, or stop them identifying as gay – with enough suggestion and pressure for long enough, anyway.

We might answer that by saying ‘They’re not really straight, though, are they? They’ve just been convinced they are.’ But how do you distinguish between someone’s ‘real’ sexuality and their perception of it? A great many people who identify as straight have queer sexual potential they don’t acknowledge, having grown up with anything outside heterosexual norms being stigmatised. We know you can teach someone to feel disgusted by queer desire, because parents, politicians and priests have been doing this for centuries; the only difference is that where they called this prevention, “conversion therapists” call it a cure.

It’s completely unethical, of course, and the people who do it should be stripped of all psychiatric or therapeutic qualifications. (The coverage in The Guardian is in part from Patrick Strudwick, whose amazing exposé on ex-gay “therapy” placed it atop the media agenda.) But how do you police social suggestion, and specifically the homophobia meme? If believers who do this aren’t claiming authority on mental health, as vicars and teachers in faith schools don’t, then what grounds do we have for forcibly stopping them? You can’t ban an attitude, after all, and isn’t an attitude – albeit a highly concentrated and coercive one – all conversion treatments are instilling?

It’s an example, in the end, of why secularism isn’t enough. Even once we’ve banished religious bias from the public sector, ended legal and financial exeptions for faith groups and done everything else we need to do to separate church and state, we still won’t have stopped the vulnerable being preyed on in church and at home, and filled with destructive ideas about sex, themselves and others. The only way to fight groups like Anglican Mainstream, in the long term, is to discredit their beliefs. Vive l’hérésie.