Every time someone writes something relatively controversial, what interests me the most is the pushback. The Atheism+ name, attached to our current third wave of movement atheism as defined by Jen McCreight and her commenters who crowdsourced the name, has invited certain specific lines of pushback that are every bit as interesting as the third-wave idea itself. Since my usual modus is to find and examine the side-concerns that otherwise are being raised but never adequately dissected and deconstructed, this post.
This new Atheism Plus (A+, Atheism+) movement is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. We’ve all actually been thinking and writing about this for a while around these parts, without ever having given it a name. We’ve long known that the greater atheist and skeptic communities have been fighting amongst themselves and have been developing Deep Rifts over whether or not there’s any room to deal with topics other than challenging creationists and theists, and we’ve all fought against the idea that there’s simply no reason to bring social justice causes into the mix when we’re already having trouble combining skepticism and atheism in a meaningful way. And the conclusion I keep coming to, since at least my essay called Mission Creep, is that we need to deepen the rifts between those of us who care about social justice and those of us who think feminism, anti-racism, anti-homophobia and other social justice causes have no place in the atheist movement — oftentimes because these people have a vested interest in those other sentiments and think they’re fouling up our common ground.
A number of others have already tackled whether atheism+ is just humanism, and I think the case has been made adequately that the factions are allied and overlapping but not identical. What I’d like to tackle specifically is the charge that this is merely a rebranding effort, and thus doomed to fail.
We all remember the somewhat embarrassing Brights movement, its stated purpose being an attempt to amalgamate humanism and naturalism into an atheist worldview. The main problem was, that was essentially a rebranding of movement atheism — sloughing off the word “atheist” to replace it with something happy and non-threatening that likewise indicates a lack of belief in the supernatural. Its intended amalgamation of meanings never really happened, and all we were left with was a group of atheists who were known primarily for atheism, a few also for science, and precious few for anything else, adopting the term. The humanism angle was all but ignored in those cases.
It was embarrassing mostly in its smugness — its presumption that the people who adhere to it are intelligent per the original slang meaning, much the same way that the word “gay” was borrowed from its original meaning of “happy”. The corollary issue to calling one’s self “bright” is that anyone who is not is de facto “dim”, or unintelligent. The messaging was, frankly, all wrong for its intent.
A rebranding effort is an intentional dissociation of a word from its original meanings. Rebranding “atheism” to “atheism plus” does not shed any stigma associated with the word. In fact, it reaffirms, for those of us who deem it important to challenge those stigmas, that we’re not going away — it takes the term “atheist” and literally adds meaning to it. In the same way that Atheist Experience has long used the phrase “positive atheism” to mean “positivity and fostering inclusion in atheism”, in defiance of the other definition meaning strong atheism, or certainty that there are no deities, the “atheism plus” label takes the part of the Venn diagram where humanists and “new” atheists and social justice advocates overlap, and defines itself as that overlap. It is additive to the meaning of atheism, defining strong moral principles around which “dictionary atheists” can rally if they so choose.
This is, in my mind, an excellent idea. I’ve long said that just because you’re an atheist — just because you got the “God question” right — doesn’t mean you’re right about anything else. The word “atheist” means only that you do not believe in deities. It doesn’t even mean that you don’t believe in supernatural or extraordinary claims like skeptics. Nor likewise does being an atheist mean you believe in the primacy of evidence like science advocates, in the rights of all people to self-determination and basic human dignity like humanists, in the damaging nature of dogmatic and rigid gender roles and institutions such as our patriarchal society like feminists. Nor does it imply you’ll actively fight racism, homophobia, or any other intolerance like social justice advocates.
Atheism Plus as a label internalizes all of this. We are atheists still, because we will challenge the stigmas associated with the name. And we include all of the commitments to social justice and humanism that we in this community are already involved in and have already delineated as our territory.
Atheism Plus is what we all already are. With very few exceptions around these parts, the commentariat all already believe in those things. We’re simply giving ourselves a name. As keeping with our self-imposed mandate for self-determination, you’re free to call yourself that, an “atheist humanist”, a “freethinker”, or anything else. Or to eschew labels altogether. Go right ahead. You’re absolutely free to do so.
So people can claim we’re “basically just humanists”, but they’re wrong. They’re ignoring all those humanists who demand they stop labelling themselves as atheists because of all the stigma associated with it; they’re ignoring all those humanists who are not SECULAR humanists who put humanity first for religious reasons; they’re ignoring all those humanists who are actively religious or who merely believe in a “higher power”. None of them are doing humanism wrong, but all of them are doing atheism wrong certainly.
And people can claim that we’re trying to rebrand atheism to make it more pleasant, but really we’re simply naming the part of the community we’ve already carved out for ourselves where mere disbelief in a god or gods isn’t our only unifying factor. We recognize that being an atheist is insufficient to determine that you’re a decent human being. We’ve defined all those things that we care about, and we’re signalling to others that this movement is about those things in concert. Atheism informs all other aspects of our philosophies, so it is at the core of the name. The plus signals simultaneously inclusiveness, the drive to bring repressed underclasses and unprivileged folks into the fold not only as tokens but to better ourselves and improve our philosophies of humanism and social justice.
We want more than mere atheism to unite us. What’s really exciting, to me, is seeing all the people who really want this to succeed.
Greta Christina – Why Atheism Plus is good for atheism
More ^Than Men – A Call for Revolutionary Action
Nathan Hevenstone – Atheism+ – What it is, and Why I want to be a Part of It
Emily Has Books – Growing Pains & Labels
… And everything I linked in the main post.