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Aug 22 2012

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, actually.

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.

Read also:
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.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    Captaintripps

    In particular A+ is more likely to succeed where Brights failed because there is already a strong group of writers, activists, and philosophers associated with one another espousing those views. Brights came out of left field and hoped people would adopt it.

    A+ already existed and was adopted before having a new label applied to it. And, y’know, who knows, maybe as the brand A+ will fail as well, but I’d wager some new label will replace it and stick in that case.

  2. 2
    jamessweet

    The other aspect where Atheism+ differences from Humanism (and I’m not the first to point this out, but it’s important) is that there is a tendency for humanists to embrace the trappings of religion in a secular way. They value the power of ritual, of communal gatherings, etc. Those who are more likely to identify with the A+ label don’t tend to be interested in all that stuff, or are even actively suspicious of it.

    (For my part, I won’t go quite as far as some have in arguing that using things like ritual and song to reinforce humanist beliefs is just as bad as using it to reinforce religious dogma, but without a doubt it is something I just simply don’t care for on a personal level and have no interest in.)

  3. 3
    Ophelia Benson

    there is already a strong group of writers, activists, and philosophers associated with one another espousing those views.

    Noooooo, just a buncha FTBullies, as any fule kno.

  4. 4
    Captaintripps

    Yes, I’ve heard that Ophelia, but tend to believe once we start trying to push back on whether or not it’s bullying the derail has begun. I could say I’ve found none nor been presented with evidence of bullying, but I’m sure some people of the other persuasion will see things differently.

    At any rate, if you guys are bullies and the leaders Amy Roth is contacting are bullies, and the Skepchicks are bullies, and The Heresy Club are bullies, and Amanda Marcotte is a bully, well, then I suppose I’m putting a real fine point on it if I say everyone around the Civil Rights movement must have been bullies, too.

  5. 5
    CT

    Glad you explained why ‘brights’ was embarrassing. People have tweeted that it was embarrassing, but not why.

  6. 6
    Bjarte Foshaug

    As Jen McCreight has pointed out, there are also “humanists” who use the label as a rhetorical weapon against feminists by insisting that whatever’s legitimate about feminism is already sufficiently covered by “humanism” (as it has always been practiced in the traditionally male-dominated humanist movement), and everything else is just “opposite sexism”.

  7. 7
    Steve Schuler

    I dunno, dude.

    When I roll the phrase around in my mind it conjures up images of “Tide Plus”, “Oxy-Clean Plus”, “Geritol Plus”, “Pampers Plus” and such like.

    Cheesy rebranding, if you know what I mean.

    I suppose time will tell, though.

  8. 8
    Jason Thibeault

    What did I just say Steve? It’s not a REbranding, it’s a FIRST branding. And your derisive comparisons to marketing trivializes both atheism and A+.

    But thanks for your input.

  9. 9
    Flewellyn

    The name “Atheism+” works great for me, although being the huge nerd that I am, I had a thought of making an acronym. I came up with:

    Atheist Skeptical Secular Humanists Organized for the Liberation and Education of Society.

    Unfortunately, this result had a downside…

  10. 10
    Wowbagger, Designated Snarker

    If non-A+ atheists want to let the A+ people that they’re for diversity and against misogyny and bigotry, it might be worth making that know – since I believe this schism is at least in part because it really doesn’t look that way at the moment; to many it appears the mainstream atheist movement has a serious problem, and one that many of its outspoken members (those who aren’t pushing A+ at least) want to either deny exists or dismiss as irrelevant to their goals.

    I wouldn’t blame anyone for wanting to leave a group where they’ve been so openly mistreated; if they’re mistaken about the proportion of the community that have prompted that, it might pay to think a little about how that happened, and whether or not something needs to be done about it.

  11. 11
    The twelfth vote

    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.

    THIS. A thousand times this!!

    I have attended skeptics’, humanists’, and “freethinkers’” meetings here in my city for several years, and been coming away progressively more disappointed. All they do is sit around and talk about what atheism or skepticism means to them, and when/if they came out to friends and family, and then make fun of believers.

    That is so not what I want to focus on. For months I’ve been yearning for more social justice and real action, real positive change for society as a consequence of our atheism. I helped start a new atheist group here in town with that specific intent. And now, with Jen’s post and so many others at FtB, it clicks into focus–we’ve all been moving towards this goal for at least the last year, probably longer.

    But now we suddenly understand where we’ve been going individually, and can join together to continue on as a unified group!

  12. 12
    Rieux

    Jamessweet @2:

    [T]here is a tendency for humanists to embrace the trappings of religion in a secular way. They value the power of ritual, of communal gatherings, etc. Those who are more likely to identify with the A+ label don’t tend to be interested in all that stuff, or are even actively suspicious of it.

    Mostly just to be difficult, I’ll pipe up as a gnu atheist and enthusiastic A+er who, at least by gnu standards, has an affinity for “trappings of religion in a secular way[, e.g.,] the power of ritual, of communal gatherings, etc.” For another (and more important/prominent) example, one could also cast a glance at Adam “Daylight Atheism” Lee, who is (as I used to be) a Unitarian Universalist gnu atheist.

    For whatever it’s worth, when it comes to dealing properly and productively with the + issues (though unfortunately not the A ones), UUism is miles ahead of the atheist movement. Which is yet another reason why the recent nastiness that has led to the birth of A+ is so infuriating: we’re being far outpaced on justice issues by a church.

    Anyway, you’re probably correct that a majority of A+ers are not down with choirs’n’congregations’n’such. Also, I’m hardly an Important Gnu whose presence and predilections must needs be taken into account at all times… but, y’know, generalizations, SIWOTI, pwnZORd, etc.

  13. 13
    James Croft

    Yet more misinformation about Humanism, unsourced (as usual) and woefully inaccurate. This sentence is particularly odd: “We all remember the somewhat embarrassing Brights movement, its stated purpose being an attempt to amalgamate humanism and naturalism into an atheist worldview.” This displays a number of basic misconceptions: Humanists are by definition naturalists and atheists already.

    This is also confused:

    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”.

    One by one: Those first people are making strategic arguments which are not central to the definition of Humanism, and therefore the point is irrelevant; this confuses the meaning of both the “secular” in “Secular Humanist” and the “Religious” in “Religious Humanist”. Depending on what you mean by “for religious reasons” the individual’s you describe may or may not be Humanists – more specificity is required for a cogent point; these last are not Humanists because they are reaching for the supernatural, which is explicitly rejected by Humanism.

    As I’ve said in response to many of these posts, it’s great to promote a social-justice oriented atheist movement, but don’t misrepresent your allies as you do so!

  14. 14
    'Tis Himself

    Okay, Croft, we understand you’re a humanist and you wave your banner proudly. Now let the rest of us discuss why we’re perfectly willing to let you and your fellow humanists go your way and we’ll go ours. Thank you for your concern and have a nice rest of your life.

  15. 15
    Tom Foss

    Jason:

    You’re absolutely free to do so.

    Fascist.

  16. 16
    Johnnis

    @Tis Himself, comment 19

    Wow.. So you really don’t care about the truth?

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    [...] praising or decrying what they understand it to be. Some Humanists have been calling it humanism, despite specific claims that it is not. I have heard it called bigotry, exclusionary, a club for those who [...]

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    [...] applies to more of what we do believe, and not just what we don’t believe. Jason Thibeault , from Lousy Canuck, defines it thusly : ‘the “atheism plus” label takes the part of the Venn diagram where [...]

  3. 19
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    [...] What’s in a name? Quite a lot, actually. [...]

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    [...] in the places where atheism and other social justice issues intersect. As Jason Thibeault wrote in What’s in a name? Quite a lot, actually.: And people can claim that we’re trying to rebrand atheism to make it more pleasant, but really [...]

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    [...] Lousy Canuck: What’s in a name? Quite a lot, actually. [...]

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    [...] that end, I guess we need another Venn diagram like the one I used to explain what exactly the atheism plus label is constructed in opposition to. The last one worked well enough to describe the factions at play; [...]

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