Lessons from Atheism Plus

A+ began just over a year ago. I’ve never been wedded to it personally, though I like the general concept; my interaction with it is limited, more or less, to being mildly critical in August 2012 and fending off some more ridiculous attacks this April.

This expresses my broader feelings rather well. I’m supportive, in principle, of atheist discourse being more socially conscious; I’m supportive of Atheism Plus existing, for those who want to be involved with it; I’m supportive of them taking on the A+ label, if so they wish, while personally I don’t feel much need for further labels; while I’ve always thought A+ has much potential, I’d raise strategic concerns about parts of it; at the same time, the core of opposition is contrived, reactionary, antediluvian. (Those core opponents by and large seem to find subtlety and nuance challenging, so I hope this makes things clear enough.)

That the brand now tends to be drenched whenever mentioned in automatic vitriol and derision – the same derision on the whole that greets anything resembling online feminism – has poisoned the well to a hard-to-ignore degree. It’s tough to retain the optimism many people had about the project when it started, but the pushback looks to me like it distorts the picture now and then. Atheism Plus has a forum with several thousand members, it’s been represented at national conventions (and despite the down-voting campaigns of YouTube atheism’s lesser denizens, got a strongly positive reception there), it’s developed a communal means of dampening harassment and abuse on Twitter and significantly raised awareness of accessibility improvements (transcripts for video discussions, signing at events, audio-convertible web content). These strike me as good steps, and Atheism Plus – as I’ve been reminded in my more critical moments – isn’t going anywhere.

It takes subcultures time, and sub-subcultures more time still, to stabilise. I don’t identify as A+, I’m not a member of its forum, I’ve never had much engagement with it and aspects of the project trouble and dissatisfy me. At the same time, its potential to be valuable once things calm down remains, and it might be sensible not to let jeers and smears drown out its uses thus far. RealityEnthusiast has a blog post testifying personally to some of these:

I thought as a group we’d do things like talk, write, and start various projects. I thought I would help by organizing and writing. I assumed I was qualified to do both. I did not expect to be confronted almost immediately by the staggering dimensions of my own ignorance and arrogance.

I am a white, straight, cisgendered, American man. I have a history of depression, and I suspect I fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, but for the most part I happen to conform to the dominant culture’s standards for normalcy. Until I began to pay serious attention to the stories and experiences of people not like myself, however, I had little reason to think critically about those standards, how they inform my identity, how they affect the way I view and treat others, and how they operate in our society.

Atheism Plus put me in contact with people who did not have the privilege of ignoring or treating as academic problems such as racismsexismtransphobia, and ableism. These people were fighting daily for the recognition of their humanity. They did not need my analysis, advice, well wishes, statements of solidarity, or even my friendship–they needed my assistance. They knew more about the reality of their struggles, the goals and methods of their oppressors, and the needs of their respective communities than I did, so if I really wanted to help out, I would have to shut up, listen, and learn.

Until the Atheism Plus forums gave me access to safe-space conversations among trans and genderqueer people about how they experience their bodies during sex, I did not realize how simplistic some of my assumptions about the body, gender, sexuality, and human identity really were. The gender I feel myself to be is not hampered or hindered by the physical realities of my body. I don’t know what it is like to have a disappointing or frustrating relationship with my body, to have my natural expectations and desires stymied by the presence or absence of certain parts, or to have parts that refuse to provide the sensations I need for fulfillment. Neither does the gender I feel myself to be conflict very much with the gender role I was assigned at birth. I don’t know what it is like to be counted as a type of person I know I am not, to be forced to move, act, speak, and look in ways that are fundamentally unnatural to me, to be told the specific combination of traits that are natural to me is impossible and therefore non-existent, or to have my purported non-existence render my humanity invisible to most.

Through reading firsthand accounts of people whose bodies and societies betray them, I was able to see that gender dysphoria is not the result of confusion or defiance, but has to do with brain/body parity and the ubiquity of inaccurate and incomplete gender categories. Dysphoria manifests in the lives of the affected in understandable ways and requires practical solutions at both the individual and societal level. I credit Atheism Plus with illuminating the struggles of gender-nonconforming people for me and showing how their more visible choices such as clothing and hairstyle do not exist solely for others, but connect to their internal reality in meaningful ways and have potentially restorative functions.

Real people with gender dysphoria alerted me to a fact I was aware of but hadn’t really considered before: I have a gender! Before this, I thought my male body automatically dictated my masculinity. But, if a quirk of genetics or hormones could have easily resulted in a major break between who I feel myself to be and what kind of body I have, then minor breaks might exist. And if society could get trans and genderqueer people so disastrously wrong, it could get me wrong. A critical look at my gender identity and role was now possible for me. This was tremendously empowering. I was free to deconstruct and reconstruct my identity to better suit my actual nature.

In their writings, womanist and black feminist activists revealed the existence and functioning of some of the stereotypes occluding my vision. I began to look at popular media portrayals of black women in a much more critical way after the racist utility of many of these images was made evident. I also began to understand the enormity and complexity of the project to alienate and stigmatize black women, the toll this constant assault takes on their minds and bodies, and the reactions such treatment can elicit.

I would like to conclude with a list of 25 noteworthy things I learned during my first year of involvement with Atheism Plus.

I have my critiques of Atheism Plus, and I’ll offer them soon enough. Give RealityEnthusiast’s list a look, though. It’s encouraging reading: that people are learning this from our community doesn’t make atheists look bad, it makes us look better.

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.