Over and over and over again, we’ve heard that the Atheism Plus is driving divisiveness, is tribalistic, and is just like a religion. I’m not really sure how to answer that last one, except to point out that if we didn’t have a point when we say “hey, we have an adoption problem, people are being turned off of atheism by all the douchebags that have entrenched themselves in it”, we wouldn’t be fomenting so much hate from those same self-identified douchebags, would we?
Movement atheism largely organizes and self-arranges via the internet. The internet is a subset of reality — for the most part, the large majority of the content you see, even from trolls, originates directly from a human’s mind. Very little of that content is program-generated, though in many cases the attacks on X idea could be as easily generated by script for its repetitiveness and the patterns by which pushback is developed. For simplicity, we’ll assume that all these trolls are real human beings, and that each instance of a troll actually represents a unique human being rather than multiple sockpuppets employed to “pad out” their side of the argument. If these people are genuine, then they represent some odious philosophies that do need to be expunged from the discourse at hand.
The people are welcome to stay, but the ideas must be repudiated. Ideas like that giving offense to people is its own intrinsic good, and that you should freely talk about everyone and everything you don’t like using as vilifying terms as you can at every turn. Now, I’m not talking about calling individuals asshats or douchebags — some folks think that ANY dip into the language of vilification is awful, and I won’t argue those points of view except to note that I don’t share them. No, I’m talking about those folks who demand the right to come into your space and say terrible things about whole groups of people, either directly or by extension from the slurs they choose to use. Calling women “cunts” and “bitches” and gaslighting them and doubting their every word just because they’re women, calling trans folks “traps” or “trannies”, calling calling gays “homo” or “fag”, using “that’s gay” as an epithet. The war on racist language is largely won, where you rarely hear someone call blacks “niggers”, though ask Crommunist what kinds of coded racist language you see since direct racism is so thoroughly stigmatized! So, at the same time as I’m talking about slurs, I’m also talking about those people who can raze the earth and damage whole classes of folks without using a single uncivil syllable. The important thing to challenge is the ideas that lead to these behaviours. These ideas contribute more to a culture of hatred than individual insults ever could.
And that culture of hatred derives from a culture of privilege. The loudmouth and the bigoted subsets of movement atheism are largely populated by young, white, libertarian males. There are older folks, there are non-whites, there are non-males, but the largest and most vocal defenders of privilege are and will likely always be libertarians. Not economic libertarians or civil libertarians, no — the folks who have internalized Atlas Shrugged and Rand’s atheism and demand that classism and wealth privileges be held sacrosanct. They also hold that privilege on every other axis be upheld, largely because the adherents to this philosophy benefit from those privileges heavily. They are the folks who believe that any attempt to curtail their privileges by leveling the playing field is “fascism” or “socialism” or “naziism” or some other ahistorical use of a political twitch-word. You’d think privilege as a concept wouldn’t be so difficult to grasp, given that they are underprivileged as concerns their religious views, the hatred they get for it, and the theistic stranglehold on government that many countries endure. But apparently recognizing privilege other than religion is “fascist”.
Yes, this sort of Randian libertarianism is a minority, but just being a minority isn’t enough to warrant special protection — the 1% who own 90% of the power and wealth on our continent are a numeric minority but are not an underclass like the 99% who share 10% of the wealth and power. And yes, we’re telling you that parroting the “bitches lie amirite?” attitude is just the sort of institutionalized oppression that has resulted in so many women leaving the movement. And yes, telling you this is actually suggesting that maybe you shouldn’t do that if the end goal is to bring atheism to everyone — especially if you’re telling women that we’re better for them than religion.
The people who balk at the notion that these memes might drive people out are largely the sort of libertarian that thinks THEIR privilege is good, and simultaneously ALL privilege is mythical. They believe that might makes right. That identifying behaviours that do real damage to the movement is equivalent to “drumming them out” — SPECIFICALLY them, even. They decry the divisiveness, the “deep rifts” that we’ve created. Never mind that these rifts have existed since atheism self-arranged around the idea that there are no gods, where this hardly a coherent community makes, and that people differ on all manner of other axes and we can’t all be right about all of them. These same people would prefer to drum US out, but since that’s the sort of thing we’re fighting against, the exclusionism and tribalism that creates factions and rifts and real pain to underprivileged classes, they perform their very best judo on us. They do whatever they can to make the rifts our fault. Because we pointed them out. They’ve fully internalized the Kindergarten meme of “who smelt it, dealt it”.
Since we’re all atheists, and the worst thing in the world is religion, they attack the thing that directly confronts their views of the primacy of their privileged position as “religious”, even though the people who identify as “atheist plus” are generally the following:
1) a subset of movement atheism who therefore also explicitly reject dogmatic religion;
2) a subset specifically made up of people who also hold humanist ideals and want to discuss social justice issues (primarily, at the moment, feminism);
3) consider those humanist and social justice ideals as being informed by their atheism;
4) question behaviours by so-called “leaders” of movement atheism that conflict with their philosophies about humanism and social justice;
5) have no leaders or accepted dogma, given the range of opinions WITHIN the label that conflict with one another;
6) have already had folks cleaning house within the label by demanding changes to behaviours identified as harmful from its own members;
7) have shown themselves open to social justice issues that aren’t necessarily their “pet” issue.
Atheism Plus is a nascent movement, and it’s not a movement at all. It is the result of Jen McCreight managing to light the tinderbox whose flint a number of us, myself included, have been trying to strike for years, by calling for a third wave of atheism where “New Atheism” hasn’t been entirely successful on many fronts as concerns internal coherence. A+ is the inevitable end result of the realization that movement atheism is very largely populated by people who insist that the fact that we have no religion means we must never curtail behaviours no matter how antisocial or harmful. This is, of course, both incorrect as a rule for building cohesive social structures, and as a characterization of the actual purpose and effects of A+.
I’ve said this before — I consider the “atheism plus” label a mere shorthand. It is an optional label that one can employ of you want to indicate to people that not only are you an atheist, but you also care about other things which are informed by your atheism. It means you have had it with those movement atheists who would prefer to keep acting exactly how they’re acting, even if it means trans folk and women generally — the two largest groups presently put off by their bigotries — get marginalized or ostracised, either by design or by accident. Misogyny, cissexism and other forms of overlapping gender-based discrimination are our best-represented, most visible bigotries in our movement. That’s not to discount other problems like ableism, or those hideous “race realists” who mangle science to prove racism, mind you — those must be challenged as well. Adopting the A+ shorthand is a signal that you won’t stand for any of that. It means you are willing to build a safe space where those anti-egalitarian and misanthropic ideas are dismissed for the bigoted and often religiously-derived prejudice that they are.
But while there’s a few people willing to turn this into a “with us (against prejudice) or against us (and for prejudice)”, I’m not.
With every person who by their behaviour embraces bigotry and prejudice whether they’re conscious of it or not, I’d rather tell them the effects of their behaviour, and convince them that to be a better person they need to change their behaviour, because some of these people are simply unaware. If they refuse, then I distance myself from them. If they’re stubborn and intractable and have been uncivil for any length of time, if they show no signs of abating, if they go on the attack, then I distance myself from them. Not “we”. Not unless you choose to judge these people by their behaviours the way I do. And they’re still free to keep acting like the douchenozzles they are — just as I’m free to associate with them or disengage as I see fit. It impinges not one whit on their ability to keep saying ridiculous nasty things about people, that I’ve said “not here”.
Meanwhile, even when they refuse to be corrected on those shitty behaviours, I still have a lot of respect for some of them. Say, for instance, Richard Dawkins’ work on popularizing atheism. And his works on scientific matters are unparalleled. I do think some of his ideas about feminism and social justice are muddled and fuzzy and in some very specific cases completely incorrect and damaging, and he’s said some absolutely terrible things to some people that are damaging to the brand of atheism altogether, so he does not represent me on any label other than “atheist” and “science-booster”.
I have strongly chastised DJ Grothe for some terrible anti-woman and anti-feminist messaging that has tangibly harmed the TAM brand and harmed movement skepticism, and his handling of the idea of implementing harassment policies that are less of a policy and more like a secret police force that nobody knew about until it swung into action and treated harassment into “protect the victim from physical assault” when no assault was in the making. He does not represent my views on feminism, on harassment, or on tribalism, given his “this is our tribe” speech at this last TAM. But he is an unparalleled skeptic in traditional skeptical matters like homeopathy, ghosts, UFOs and other matters. While I wish he would examine the sociological concept of privilege and how his repeated poor messaging has actually hurt his causes, I have immense respect for the man’s scholarship in those other matters.
But that’s not to say that those behaviours are acceptable by virtue of the good they’ve done — you don’t get a free pass for murder by doing charity work for thirty years. Nor is it to say that atheists need a set of laws or moral precepts to follow for adoption of the label “atheist”. You’re an atheist by merely denying the existence of a god or gods… but that’s not enough to build a coherent society around. If you want to build a movement that is accepting of more than cis-gendered men — accepting of any underprivileged person on any axis, in fact — then you need to acknowledge that these people deserve respect. And respecting them means not condoning trollish behaviour that explicitly denigrates the personhood or value of those several underprivileged classes.
So, we’ve taken the advice of those folks who demand that atheists stop talking about feminism by saying “well, we’re not JUST atheists, we give a shit about this other stuff too”. We’re tired of being told we’re splitting up the movement by those tribalists who really would like us to leave the movement altogether, so we’re modifying the label to fit us better. It is only divisive if you find being explicitly told a person’s views on other topics somehow damning of your own views.
It also indicates that when we are told we’ve done something that plays into a privilege that harms a subset of society, we are open to correcting that privilege in ourselves. I often forget to include alt tags or descriptions on my images for the blind or vision-impaired, because I’m fully sighted (though I require corrective lenses). I almost never think to include descriptions of videos or provide transcripts even though they’re available, because I’m not hard of hearing. Well, I suspect I have some hearing loss from my time working through school at a lead refinery, but it’s not enough that turning up the volume a little or asking someone to repeat from time to time doesn’t solve. It very often never occurs to me to do these things until someone corrects me on my privilege. Not once have I said “oh come on, I really doubt anyone who’s in X group really cares enough to know what I’m talking about here”, because at least one person just did so. And if there’s one, there’s more than one.
So, I do my damnedest to include alt tags on images, though I often only remember after publication. And wherever there’s a transcript available for a video, like the recent Google Hangout that Ophelia, Stephanie, Alex, Debbie and I had on A+ that was kindly transcribed by A+ Scribe, I will gladly include it in the post not only because it benefits the hard-of-hearing community, but also the folks who might want to reference a specific section of the video in a post of their own. Not only are we aiding an underprivileged group in enjoying the same content we do, but our community is stronger and better for it.
I am hard pressed to think of a single vector for which correcting our privilege as a community wouldn’t strengthen it, and that includes putting down the kinds of targeted vitriol that women and feminists endure on a daily basis. Privilege as a sociological concept is a powerful one, for its explanatory power and the mountain of evidence that it exists and that we all benefit from fixing the structures that lead to and support it. And whether you want to use the label as a shorthand, or you’re on board with all of the ideals the label is intended to represent and would rather eschew the label, either way’s fine with me. The words used to represent the idea matter less than the actions taken to realize the idea.
Those people who are pushing back against being told that their behaviours are harmful to our movement keep claiming that this is like a religion. What they’re really telling you is that they’d rather never be told to stop doing shitty things to good people. What they’re saying is that only religions tell you what is helpful or harmful, even if the people claiming it are able to provide evidence of harm where religion never does.
That’s a truth claim about the world that I think we can all agree — well, all of us but those privileged jackholes, anyway — is bullshit.