Atheism, plus some other stuff

I support Atheism+. I’m not going to wade too deep into the circumstances surrounding its inception in this post; I just want to explain what I believe this “new wave” of atheism is about, why I am for it, and why I think the outrage against it really needs to stop. Others have done excellent work dispelling misconceptions, but I feel compelled to put this in my own words as well so there is no doubt where I stand.

For my atheist readers who have been hiding under a rock, or for my religious readers who have no clue what I am talking about: Atheism+ (pronounce it “atheism plus”) is about being an atheist in the sense of not believing in any gods as well as also promoting and working towards a variety of “making the world a better place” type goals. We are atheists because we value evidence-based, critical thinking as the most effective way to reach correct answers, and we’ve also applied our critical thinking skills to society and culture. We want an end to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of prejudice and discrimination. As atheists we believe this life is all we get, so we support and actively work for social justice so that this life is as good as possible for as many people living it as possible.

One important thing to remember is, we didn’t adopt these values because someone told us to just now. We’ve been atheists and we’ve cared about these sorts of things all along, and “atheist+” is just an adjective we’ve started using for ourselves in order to label ourselves more clearly. It gets tiring after a while, being asked, “But what do you believe in?” as though being an atheist somehow means holding no beliefs about anything at all. It’s also frustrating when we use our blogs or other media to talk about fighting discrimination, helping the needy, or other social justice goals, only to be told, “You’re supposed to be talking about atheism! This isn’t atheism!” Identifying with Atheism+ is a way to announce to the world, relatively quickly and succinctly, “I am an atheist, but (and!) I care about some other things too, and I’ll talk about those things from time to time.”

Are we redefining atheism? No, we are not. If we were trying to do that, we wouldn’t be using a new name to describe ourselves; we would be saying, “This list of causes is what atheism is all about.” Instead, we are specifically pointing out that in addition to being atheists, there are some other things we care about. Those things happen to dovetail nicely with our atheistic perspective, at least given the way we’ve arrived at it.

Is this a perfect name? Eh, probably not. It’s a little gimmicky and awkward, and the social justice aspect isn’t immediately obvious to people who are hearing it for the first time. (Atheism, plus what, exactly?) The fact is, it wasn’t subjected to a focus group. Someone suggested it in a comment thread, and it just sort of took off from there. But now that it has taken off, and that there’s a forum and a subreddit using the term, we’re sort of stuck with it. That’s how language works; you could raise a similar objection to the word “skeptic,” but as a community we’ve just moved on. Words are symbols we use to communicate concepts, and “Atheism+” is now a symbol that’s effective at referring to the sub-demographic of atheists we’re talking about here.

Are we saying you’re a bad person if you’re not “one of us”? No. At least, I’m certainly not. (Since we aren’t a monolithic entity, just like “regular” atheism isn’t, we’ll disagree with each other on some things.) The way I think of it, there are a variety of good causes out there, and each of us only has so much time, energy, and mental fortitude to devote to such things. We also have to work, eat, sleep, and occasionally even have fun with friends — we can’t all be fighting for every cause out there, 24/7. Off the top of my head I can think of dozens of goals that I’m fine with in the abstract, but with which I don’t personally identify because they just aren’t high enough on my personal priority list. There are groups I don’t join because I have some quibbles with how that group goes about its activities, even though I’m on board with their mission in principle. I don’t think that makes me a bad person.

At the same time, I have to point out the difference between “refraining from identifying with a cause” and “actively working against a cause.” If you would rather spend your time on something else, go right ahead. But if you want to argue that inequalities within society do not exist, or that discrimination is a-okay, we have a serious problem. I find it almost unimaginably bizarre that there are people out there who are angry at us for trying to combat racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry. If it’s really necessary, I can present you with the many reasons why I think it’s bad to treat people differently simply because they have different skin pigmentation and/or different ethnic background, or because they have different genitalia and/or a different gender identity, or whatever other demographic attributes you’d like to talk about. But I hope it doesn’t come to that. And yes, if you want to ignore all the evidence and insist that you be left alone to treat women as inferior to men (etc.),  I am pretty comfortable calling you an asshole.

I’ve noticed that the people who identify as “against” Atheism+ fall into these two main camps. On the one hand, we have the well-intentioned, generally reasonable people who aren’t fond of the name, or think it’s sort of unclear what exactly we’re about, or worry that our goals are overshadowed by some of the drama and baggage that’s come along with the group’s origins. These are the “refraining from identifying” folks. And to you I say: fine, to each hir own. But I really wish you wouldn’t waste your effort being “against” us any longer. You’ve made your points, but we’re not going to change the name, and we’re not going to disown some of the people who’ve really inspired us. We totally get that you think Atheism+ is suboptimal as it stands, but if you don’t think our efforts are seriously detrimental to society at large, please just let us be. (Actually, this is sort of where I’m at with the Foundation Beyond Belief now. I really do get what it’s like to feel this way.)

On the other hand, though, we have the actual racists, sexists, and other bigots who don’t like having their privilege challenged. These are the people who in one sentence claim no problem exists, and in the next sentence offer apologetics for bigotry, or even threaten to assault a woman who’s spoken up about experiencing discrimination. Or maybe they’re even aware that they’re being bigoted, but they’re proud of it. Frankly, I’m kind of glad that Atheism+ has brought these people out into the open, because now it’s completely undeniable: they really do exist. This is what we’re working against.

All right. I hope this post was clear. I feel like the entire conversation surrounding Atheism+ is saturated with misunderstandings, overreactions, and anger … and I don’t want to exacerbate that. I just wanted to put my two cents out there, to be up front about where I stand in all this chaos. I welcome discussion, from whatever perspective, as long as everyone keeps it civil.

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  1. Ok, cool idea. I would have to say that if you are an athiest (which I am not) you should at the very least be working towards some greater goal or the improvement of mankind. If not, then you are essentially soulless. Whether you believe that there is a god or not, you must at least see that there is beauty in the world and that going through your life doing nothing of consequence or hating other people is a waste. It is a waste of your time. I think that it is admirable that you want to improve society. However, I would remind you that bigotry and evil and horrible soulless people are found everywhere, and in every ideology. I would hope that you would not confine your efforts to those sorry wrecks of humanity that fall under a religious banner. Also that by curing them of their religion you will in no way cure them of their anger and hate.

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