Jeet Heer has been saying really smart things: read his evaluation of The New Republic‘s legacy, for example (which follows on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ evaluation). He’s an interesting and thoughtful writer.
So I wondered where he stood on atheism and religion, and went looking. Here he is in a conversation on bloggingheads, and the first part is on the New Atheism. It did make me think. I’ve long identified as a New Atheist — the outspoken aggressive part, naturally — but what he points out is that the New Atheism is now associated with a rather regressive approach. This is an important point (around 5:10 in the video):
I don’t see the point of having an atheism that is pro-status quo, pro-imperialist, and which is indifferent to issues of inequality and patriarchy. If you’re going to have that, you might as well go to church.
That the New Atheism has already become part of a doctrinaire, anti-social justice attitude is troubling, but I think it was there from the beginning. The Thinky Atheist Leaders who carved out this niche clearly didn’t think those issues were important — even while some of us who happily jumped on the New Atheist bandwagon thought they were, and were simply oblivious to the indifference of the horsemen who were galloping into the fray. Now some of us who were trotting along with the rest of the cavalry are drawing back on the reins and wondering where we’re being led, and whether this is the right course to be taking, and whether the guys leading the charge are even attacking in the right direction.
It’s very uncomfortable. Maybe I’m a New Atheist in some ways, but not in other ways, and maybe I need a new banner to rally under, or maybe we need to just let the leadership blunder into the cannons while the rest of us regroup and refocus. Maybe, rather than a frontal assault on the distant enemy, we ought to clean up the bad guys on the Patriarchy Heights to the left of us, and the Racism Heights on the right.
It’s a tough place to be, sacrificing all that momentum while we mill about and try to figure out a rational approach. But that’s what atheists should do: think.
CaitieCat, Harridan of Social Justice says
A big hive mind YES O SQUIDLY OVERLORD on that one, PZ.
How about New and Improved Atheism?
David Marjanović says
I still don’t understand this need to “identify as” something, this need to ask “how shall we call this”. Other people will give you a label soon enough, as indeed happened with “New Atheism” which you’ve always protested because there’s nothing new about it. Why rally? Why a banner? Just keep blogging and tweeting and speaking at conferences as you’ve been doing, and see if you can get more people to agree with you.
PZ Myers says
Labels are shortcuts. They help identify a set of ideas and positions.
Why name species? Why not just write out the full genome sequence in lieu of some silly latin binomial?
“I don’t see the point of having an atheism that is pro-status quo, pro-imperialist, and which is indifferent to issues of inequality and patriarchy. If you’re going to have that, you might as well go to church.”
Dude! I lurv me some Jeet Heer.
Now with secret ingredient SJW!
Eamon Knight says
‘sfunny, but I was thinking things like this 10 years ago, when I first started hanging out in these parts (no doubt because I’d spent a lot of time previously in liberal church circles and reading Christian social-justice material like Sojourners).
Yes, atheism is *true*, but it’s not the only issue, and probably not the most important one in the grand scheme of things. *Secularism* is important, and it’s good for atheists, but only because it’s good for all minority religious groups (which for this purpose, we are). *Skepticism* is important, and God is probably the most prominent, widely believed, socially sanctioned superstition out there, but again not the only one (and I would argue that, while specific sectarian god-concepts are deeply harmful, theism per se does not have to be).
And now I feel like I’ve come full circle. To paraphrase the Epistle of James: You don’t believe in God? Bully for you. Now what have you done lately to make anyone else’s life better?
Matthew Prorok says
I think that a lot of us, myself included, saw them as one enemy. Bring down the leader, and the army will fall apart, and all that. But it’s become increasingly clear that no, they are merely allies of our foe. Allies of long standing, to be sure. And those bad guys to the right and left are mercenaries, so they’re willing to ally themselves with people in our camp, too.
I might be stretching that metaphor a bit too far, but the question of how to fight enemies that sometimes oppose you and sometimes ride with you is a tough one. See: Saudi Arabia, in many senses.
A new atheist:
1.) sees an inherent conflict between science and religion.
2.) refuses to treat religion solely or primarily as a matter of “identity” — it rests on fact claims.
3.) recognizes that religious faith will create and justify ‘extremism’
4.) thinks it’s okay to argue, debate, and mock faith and religion in order to minimize its impact and change minds.
New atheism defines itself against “accomodationism,” not anything called “old atheism” or various political or social views within these parameters.
Technically, you can’t “leave” new atheism because you think some people have extended it in wrong directions any more than you have “left” skepticism because you’ve got problems with some organizations with “skeptic” in their names. There’s not even any official New Atheist club or group or convention. It’s always been very loosely based on ideas and approach and that’s a good thing. The less anchored to specific individuals or organizations the better.
You’re already an important part of the solution, just by taking new atheism in an alternate direction.
Wasn’t this the whole reason for the proposal of the “Atheism Plus” label a few years ago? Everyone seemed to more or less say, “Interesting idea, but nah.” But if you don’t label yourself, then your enemies will put a label on you.
George Peterson says
“New Atheist” is one of those buzz-terms that has already become obsolete. Sure there was a period about 10 years ago when The God Delusion, God Is Not Great, and Letter to a Christian Nation, were published on the best seller lists where a gang of Atheists reared up on their hind legs and started challenging the rampant religiosity of the Bush Age. But then the movement has expanded so much in the past five years or so, and has become so much more diverse, that the original “Gang” (Dawkins, Harris, etc) has been left in the dust. The New New Atheists are a more diverse breed.
If you’ve decided that you’re not particularly interested in promoting atheism and secularism anymore in favor of other goals, that’s fine. They’re not mutually exclusive, and everyone has their own priorities on the social reform front.
Well, if a relatively widely known, long lasting, wholesome title like “humanism” hasn’t been seen as satisfactory so far, what hope does any other title have? :(
I don’t think that any such goals were dropped in PZ’s post. -______-
Tabby Lavalamp says
Atheism+ started out as a great alternative, but now there’s too much baggage (mostly as a result of early well poisoning from the regressive backside of atheism).
Vatican Black Ops, Latrina Lautus says
I’m with brianpansky @13. “Secular humanist” always did have a nice ring to it.
Eamon Knight says
@14: He may be replying to me @7. (These days, I’m feeling apathetic about promoting atheism per se. For reasons I think people here will understand, if not necessarily agree with).
That’s how ents would do it. It’s also similar to the problem that doomed the Martians in Stranger in a Strange Land even though they’d gotten the info they needed to see Earthers as a danger to them that needed to be dealt with.
Naturally we try to make more and more meaningful labels that most accurately describe things; that’s pretty much the history of science.
Then we’ll also have Trinity Atheists and Morpheus Atheists…
And here’s a video of Agent Smith with the voice of Carl Sagan dubbed over it.
UnknownEric the Apostate says
AWADs: Atheists Who Aren’t Douchecanoes.
Why don’t we just cut through all the BS and call it what it is — Liberal Atheism or Progressive Atheism. While it would be great to be able to associate atheism with a core set of liberal ideals, I suspect it was only thought possible through the lens of the American atheist experience, where atheism has long been associated with the left in opposition to the right’s embrace of religion.
In other more secular nations, this association has been far more tenuous for a long time, and as the percentage of non-believers grows in the US, the atheist community will grow more diverse in its political views, and it will only grow harder to persuade people that if you’re an atheist, you should also be a supporter of gay rights and feminism. Unfortunately you don’t need to be a religious bigot to oppose those causes.
Because neo-conservatives and neo-liberals have such a stellar reputation these days…
Tabby Lavalamp says
Yeah. I knew when I typed it that it was a horrible idea.
Okay, how about “Brights”?
Lynna, OM says
If people can turn “social justice warrior” and “secular humanist” into epithets (which they have done), then any label one chooses will be associated with anti-god evilness immediately.
Still, a label that is more accurate, such as Progressive Atheists, would serve some of us well.
as far as labels go those who do not like you will always find them for you.
They may take the name you have chosen to identify as or make up a new one and it will be negative in their eyes, they may even get the label to be considered negative generally by the definition.
When I was a child we had these glasses with an inscription on the side which read “As you ramble on through life brother what ever be your goal. keep your eye upon the doughnut and not upon the hole”
For me life is not some game of thrones over power and control in which belief is part and tool. It is questioning what is it really, it is using the tools of reason to find out because what ever it is in the end we are all here together and here for a short time at that.
Like the kid in the Emperor’s new clothes keep pointing out the truth.
NateHevens. He who hates straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied men (not really) says
I just want to point out that “I don’t like labels” is a label. You can’t avoid them no matter how hard you try, because if you don’t label yourself, others will label you based on who they perceive you are. That’s the inherent nature of labels. They are, basically, inescapable.
Also, I actually take labels like “Social Justice Warrior” (and “White Knight”) as compliments. To me, these are good things.
Here’s another possible label: Social Justice Atheist
Maybe I should call myself an Atheist and a Progressive.
Bring back Venn diagrams, I say.
tacitus @ 27:
“Progressive Atheism” is a small mouthful, but it’s to the point.
I agree that New Atheism has pretty much come to mean Establishment Atheism (Guy Thing Atheism?), despite Dawkins going on record as opposing the anti-feminist ranting and abuse (and despite his endorsement of MRA feminist Sommers) and had a chuckle of the existence of the men’s rights movement. Bit-player Nugent, in particular, embodies the kind of overly loquacious word-salad defence of behaviour that most grownups can agree is simply unacceptable, wasting many thousands of words running interference for the Establishment and their anachronistic attitudes and currying their favour.
Anyway, Progressive Atheism is, after all, what this network focuses on: seeking progress not just in social/state attitudes to religion and secularism, but also in gender/sexuality/race/culture etc. I won’t go so far as to suggest it as an official label (notwithstanding my use of capitals), but as a descriptor it simply appears the best fit.
If the only was to get to the promised land is to start with a population essentially free of being “pro-status quo, pro-imperialist, and which is indifferent to issues of inequality and patriarchy” you will never get to your promised land. You have to work with the materials, people who bringing their existing attitudes and biases with them, at hand, as Lincoln said: “warts and all”.
That isn’t to say you can’t strive to educate and coach others in an attempt to knock the worse of the rough spots off before assembling your coalition, but there are definite limits to how much rejection of previous attitudes you can do and still maintain the mass and momentum necessary to carry the day in a constitutional democratic republic of 330 million people with a long and rich history of exemplifying exactly what you are trying to move away from.
Improbable Joe, one of the NEW FOUR HORSEMEN OF GLOBAL ATHEIST THINKY LEADER KINGS EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION COUNCIL says
If I hold out long enough, maybe I can be the last Thinky Leader standing?