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.