I’m going to lay this out there: I think Atheism Plus is good. And I don’t just mean “good” in the sense of “morally right.” I mean “good” as in “good for the health and future of atheism.”
As most readers here know, Jen McCreight recently proposed a new wave of atheism — an “atheist plus” wave that explicitly focuses, not just on atheism, but on the intersections between atheism and racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other social justice issues — externally in what issues we take on, and internally in how we deal with our own stuff. I’ve already chimed in briefly with a “Hell, yes, I’m on board.” I now want to start talking about why.
I don’t just think the principles of Atheism Plus are morally right. I do think that, and I think that’s the most important thing about it. But I also think it’s good for the future of atheism. And I think atheism will be stronger if more atheists support it.
Much of the pushback on the Atheism Plus idea has come from people saying that it’s divisive: that the atheist movement has to include everyone who calls themselves an atheist, and we can’t expect every atheist to line up around the same social justice issues.
There is no nice way to say this, so I’m just going to come out and say it:
There is no way for an atheist movement to be inclusive of everyone.
An atheist movement cannot be inclusive of atheist women… and also be inclusive of people who publicly call women ugly, fat, sluts, whores, cunts, and worse; who persistently harass them; who deliberately invade their privacy and make their personal information public; and/or who routinely threaten them with grisly violence, rape, and death.
An atheist movement cannot be inclusive of atheists of color… and also be inclusive of people who think people of color stay in religion because they’re just not good at critical thinking, who blame crime on dark-skinned immigrants, who think victims of racial profiling deserved it because they looked like thugs, and/or who tell people of color, “You’re pretty smart for a…”.
An atheist movement cannot be inclusive of trans atheists… and also be inclusive of people who think trans people are mentally ill or freaks of nature.
An atheist movement cannot be inclusive of atheists who are mentally ill… and also be inclusive of people who think mental illness is just a failure of willpower.
An atheist movement cannot be inclusive of poor atheists… and also be inclusive of people whose basic attitude to systematic poverty and economic injustice is, “Screw you, Jack, I’ve got mine.”
Repeat, for many more marginalized groups that I don’t have time to list here.
And an atheist movement cannot be inclusive of atheists and potential atheists who are women, people of color, trans people, poor people, mentally ill… and also be inclusive of people who think that welcoming these people into the movement just isn’t a very high priority. The movement cannot be inclusive of atheists and potential atheists who are women, people of color, trans people, poor people, mentally ill… and also be inclusive of people who think sexism, racism, misogyny, transphobia, poverty, mental illness, and other forms of marginalization are trivial or non-existent problems that we can’t be bothered with.
There is literally no way to make the atheist movement inclusive of all these people. So we have to ask: What are our priorities?
When people say, “This should be a one-size-fits-all movement,” what they ultimately mean is, “Our size should be the size it is already — the size that comfortably fits straight, white, middle-class, college educated, cisgendered men.” They may not mean that consciously or intentionally… but that is the upshot. In order to make the atheist movement more welcoming and comfortable for a wider variety of people, we have to risk making things somewhat less comfortable for some of the people who have been — somewhat understandably, and often out of ignorance rather than hostility — building a movement that fits themselves.
There is no way to make an atheist movement that fits everyone. So we have to decide: Who do we want to make it fit?
Let’s look at this. Let’s set aside the moral issues for just a moment, and look at some hard-nosed, practical questions.
When we look purely at the numbers game… what will get us more numbers? Let me give you a hint: There are a whole lot of women in the world, and a whole lot people of color, and a whole lot of poor and working class people. And there are a whole lot of middle class white men in the world who care about women and people of color and poor people: who have them/ us as friends, colleagues, romantic partners, family members, and who give a damn about making their/ our world a little less toxic. Aiming for the “everyone we’re currently not reaching” demographic — as opposed to the “handful of whiny entitled douchebags who don’t give a damn about anyone who isn’t like them” demographic — is pretty much a no-brainer.
And when we look at our public image… what face do we want to present to the world? Do we want to keep presenting a face that is consistently white, middle-class, college-educated, cisgendered, and male? Or do we want to present a face to the world that looks like, you know, the world? Do we want to present a face to the world that looks like we know we live in the 21st century?
And when we look at the youth and student atheist movement… where do you think they’re lining up on these questions? I’ll give you a hint: When I give talks to student groups about diversity, they are overwhelmingly on board. They are usually way, way ahead of me. And they usually do not want or need to talk about the “Why?” of pursuing diversity in our community. They want to talk about “How?” The students are the future of this movement — to a great extent, they are the present of this movement — and they overwhelmingly think this stuff matters.
And finally… let’s look at history. Let’s look at the history of other social change movements: the LGBT movement, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the labor movement, the environmental movement. Every single one of them has been bitten on the ass by this issue. Every single one of them failed to deal with this issue in their early days of becoming visible and vocal and activist. And every single one of them now desperately wishes that they could find a time machine, go back in time, and tell their early leaders to freaking well get this right… before bad habits got entrenched, before bad feelings had decades to fester, before vicious circles and self-fulfilling prophecies got set into a groove, before this turned into a minefield.
I’ve said this before, and I will no doubt say it many more times, and I’m going to say it again now: As frustrating as these conflagrations are, as upsetting as they are, the fact that we are having them now gives me enormous hope. It means that in ten years, twenty years, fifty years, we won’t have to hash these issues out. Or at least, we won’t have to hash them out as much, and the hashing out won’t be as ugly. If we learn nothing else from history… we can learn that.
Then, of course, we have the moral issues. The idea that atheist women, atheists of color, trans atheists, poor atheists, mentally ill atheists… you know, matter. The idea that this movement belongs to all of them, to all of us.
Add all that up. Put it on one side of the scale. And on the other side of the scale, put in the fact that some atheists aren’t interested in sexism, racism, transphobia, poverty, mental illness, and so on. Put in the fact that some atheists are, indeed, actively and toxically hostile to some or all of these issues. Put in the fact that some atheists are only willing to make the movement more diverse if “diversity” means “new people joining and doing things the way we’ve always done them.” And look at what most of these atheists have been contributing to the movement. Other than, you know, spewing toxic waste into the atheosphere.
Where do you think is the bigger balance?
Where do you think the future of this movement lies?
“Atheism plus” is not trying to re-define atheism. That’s the whole point of the “plus” part. “Atheism” still just means “not believing in any gods.” “Atheism plus” means “not believing in any gods — plus caring about and working towards social justice.” Many of us have decided that “not believing in any gods” isn’t enough. Many of us have decided that we’re no longer willing to work with people who say we’re stupid, who say we’re lazy, who say we’re freaks of nature, who say they want to kick us in the cunt — or who say these things about our friends and colleagues and compadres — just because they happen to not believe in God. If you want to participate in an atheist community that focuses entirely on atheism, to the point where it ignores the fact that many women, people of color, poor people, trans people, and other marginalized people do not currently feel welcomed in it… be my guest. I, for one, am moving on.
And if this causes deep rifts in the community — and if those rifts cut sexist, racist, self-absorbed, hateful, “screw you, Jack, I’ve got mine” assholes out of it — I say Mazeltov. That’s not a bug. That’s a feature. We will be a stronger movement without them.
Getting It Right Early: Why Atheists Need to Act Now on Gender and Race
Race, Gender, and Atheism, Part 2: What We Need To Do — And Why
Why I Have Hope: Atheism, Sexism and Blowing Up The Internet
Race and Inclusivity — A To-Do List
Examples of Racism in Atheist/ Skeptical Communities?
The Reason Rally, and Why It’s Good to Keep Hammering On About Diversity