Monday, August 20, 2012

It's Just Atheism, Part II (or Why A+ Already Exists)

About a month ago I wrote an essay called It's Just Atheism outlining my rationale for disagreeing with a growing chorus of atheists that want to expand the definition of atheism.   I still disagree with this and given recent developments I feel the need to reiterate it again. Over this past weekend Jen McCreight posted How I Unwittingly Infiltrated the Boy’s Club & Why It’s Time for a New Wave of Atheism outlining her idea that atheism needs to change. This very quickly resulted in a follow up post Atheism+. Both posts call for a new type of social justice atheism. To be clear, I find this goal honorable and not without merit, however, I must disagree with the concept and the resulting parade of people jumping on.

I guess the easiest way to segue into the thesis of my post is t clearly state that I am a “dictionary atheist.” That, for one, won’t win me many friends with the FtB/PZ crowd. In my earlier post (which now will be considered Part I) I wrote that:
The desire to conflate a lack of belief in god(s) to a scientific, progressive, libertarian, rationalist, naturalist, secularist, humanist, skeptical, feminist, antitheist or any philosophy or method is a potentially powerful force in the culture wars. All the various cats can be herded together under one big cat tent. It brings a sense of belonging, unity, and power. Together we are stronger. There is no denying this.
I wasn’t always the “dictionary atheist” type and so yes; I understand the desire to have a large cohesive movement. While I share the goals of my fellow atheists as I listed above I have never considered that a central part of my atheism per se. They may or may not have resulted in my rejection of god, but then it became something else. To me, and to a lot of others, atheism simply is the lack of belief in god(s). It’s easy like that.

Why do I have major reservations about attaching all manners of philosophies and agendas to atheism? To "protect" atheism. I do not disagree with the goals of the social justice crowd. However, this agenda has absolutely zero to do with atheism as it is defined. It's as if they want to reinvent secular humanism for no apparent reason. A "third wave" of atheism (presumably to resemble the third wave of feminism they espouse) is unnecessary. A greater focus on humanism and building a humanists movement instead of atheism would be more appropriate.

What do I mean by "protect" atheism? By attaching these ideologies, as correct as they are, to atheism one hinders the ability to appeal to a broader demographic. Atheism is simple: Don't believe in god(s)? Welcome. That's it. Nothing else is relevant.

This is not ignoring these other issues so much as ensuring the focus of each agenda is attended to properly. Atheism as a movement wants to appeal to people that are in-the-closet non-believers and those whose faith is wavering. Get them out of religion, weaken the faith-based machines of our culture, and bolster a secular society. The addition of these other agendas has the potential to turn off those on the brink holding onto to their religious indoctrination. How many atheists were against LGBT issues, abortion, women's rights, etc. in their former religious life? Did their perceptions of these issues change overnight upon rejecting the claims that god(s) exist? Likely not. I fail to see how attaching these agendas to atheism progresses the intent of the atheistic movement. These things need to be fought for, no doubt; but they are more appropriate under the banner of humanism which has a firmly established history of a broader agenda.

From my earlier post:
When we lump all these groups together and say “this is what we are” we are automatically excluding those that live quietly on our side of the fence. These are the people that need to be attracted to being, at a minimum, open about their irreligion and be comfortable with it. This is not a critique of the outspoken. Without them (us) we would get nowhere. My critique lies within the drawing of battle lines that need not be drawn.
A few things to expand upon here: First, this is not a rejection of the social justice agenda. It is my opinion that “mission creep” will ultimately retard the growth of the movement. Yes, I know we are winning, but that does not mean it is time to change gears on that front. I think there is enough room in our movement for more than one line of attack. It is like lines of evidence. The current atheist movement is made up of those that use science to negate religious claims, philosophy to show the illogic of specific religions and the existence of their deities, using the contradictions of theology illustrate the incoherency of religion, etc. All this creates cognitive dissonance about faith. We are not done on this front. We have not succeeded. Those arguments are not over. They still must be presented and I think it is best without any appended ideologies. Let people find their humanism after they reject theism.

Regardless if you’re bored with those arguments and battles and are dismayed at the treatment of our fellow humans by forces external and internal then creating a conflated atheism is simply not logical. While it well known that the LGBT community has some its greatest allies in the atheist movement those actually only result in the humanism found by rejecting god(s) and religion. It’s not a one-step process. There is evidence for this in the idiocy of the anti-feminist crowd that has been the catalyst for the newer atheism or A+. I do not begrudge those that wish to fight it. I do too, but honestly I do that as a humanist and “humanism” has been somewhat ignored the past decade. We have not been the “New Humanists.” We have been the “New Atheists.” If we require a new wave to inspire human equality it should be separate from the wave that removes the poison of faith. They are related, they are extensions of each other; but they are not the same. I fear joining the two will hamper both.


Andy said...

"However, this agenda has absolutely zero to do with atheism as it is defined. It's as if they want to reinvent secular humanism for no apparent reason."

Secular Humanism as a movement seems, well, a bit flacid to many (including this writer). Perhaps A+ is Secular Humanism on steroids.

The7ofSwords said...

I certainly see your point. Atheism does have a definition, and I see no reason to change it.

I also see the value in the Humanist ideal. We have so many words for this loose conglomeration of sort of allied philosophies ... atheism, NEW atheism, Humanism, Brights, Skepticism, Freethinkers, etc. The problem we face is in bringing all these together in a unified way to combat the corrupting influence of religion and magical thinking in society at large.

The other side has little problem with this: you'll often see groups of various faiths band together for one purpose or another—not just sects either, but even across major religions like Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Why? Because no matter what else, the one thing they all have in common is that they fear nonbelievers more than believers of rival faiths.

For this reason (among others), I see a need to be precise in our terminology, but to be ready to support our various allies. And while you're right that there's much more work to do in the central core of the battle between atheism and religion, and that Humanism encompasses much of what this "Third Wave" is about, I see no problem in adding yet another label. I see it as yet another movement within the atheist movement, and not a hi-jacking of the movement or a splintering off from it.

So ultimately I see A+ as being Atheism plus Humanism and social justice.

Steve Barry said...


"Perhaps A+ is Secular Humanism on steroids."

Then why call it A+ and try to add on all these ideologies to atheism, which is quite simple? If Secular Humanism needs a boost then an influx of dedicated, charged, and inspired people is all it would take to make it not "flacid."

Steve Barry said...


Thanks for commenting. I support the social justice movement among nontheists and I don't necessarily think of it as a hijacking. I just this new label is a misrepresentation of atheism.

You stated that you see "A+ as being Atheism plus Humanism and social justice" ,but all three are already Humanism! As I stated to Andy above, if Humanism seems weak or flaccid then the influx of people urging social justice in the atheist movement should focus their efforts there. I see no need to conflate the two.

This is why I spoke of "protecting" atheism. I not only think it is semantically, logically, and philosophically incorrect to append these other ideologies to atheism, but it could very well hamper our efforts in that regard.

The7ofSwords said...

I appreciate what you're saying, and I can certainly see both sides of the argument.

However, while most Humanists are atheists, there are those who aren't. (It doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but there it is.) Not all atheists are necessarily Humanists, either, strictly-speaking. (Part of the problem is that "humanism" is kind of an ambiguous term that has, itself, undergone many shifts in meaning and been adopted by various movements over the centuries.)

To me "A+" is sort of a renewal of secular humanism and ethical humanism and is kind of a reaction to the "New" atheism that, to some, seems to have placed an emphasis purely on combatting religion and other nonsense from the religious quarter. While I think this is a most worthwhile cause, I fear that elevating it to the point of ignoring any problems within the "atheism" may have caused some people to feel excluded.

The definition of "atheism" is simply a state of non-belief in god(s), and that's fine. It's a negative term, though, in that it merely describes what we don't believe, and says nothing about how we relate to the universe, what our ethics are, how we believe people should treat one another, etc. So to say, "We don't believe in any gods, but we do think that all people have the same rights, regardless of race, sex, class, sexual identity, or what have you," seems like a good idea—except, of course, for people who don't feel that way.

I dunno ... I think a big part of the problem lies in semantics. Maybe it should be "New Humanism" instead?

Steve Barry said...

I understand the need and the imperative to initiate a more defined and active non-theistic social justice movement, but I obviously have reservations about tying that to atheism. I don't want to repeat myself too much, but I think it is flat out incorrect to tie it to atheism. That is fraught with philosophical issues to me and will end up impeding the other avenues of combating religion and appealing to non-out/one the fence individuals. No, not all atheists are humanists. So creating a “newer” and “elevated” atheism that basically mirrors Secular Humanism will do what?

The Council for Secular Humanism (via Wiki) lists their principles as follows.
• Need to test beliefs – A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted by faith.
• Reason, evidence, scientific method – A commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence and scientific method of inquiry in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.
• Fulfillment, growth, creativity – A primary concern with fulfillment, growth and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.
• Search for truth – A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.
• This life – A concern for this life (as opposed to an afterlife) and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.
• Ethics – A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.
• Justice and fairness – an interest in securing justice and fairness in society and in eliminating discrimination and intolerance.
• Building a better world – A conviction that with reason, an open exchange of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.
This differs from the proposal for Atheism+ how? I contend that it does not.

A reinvigorated Secular Humanism with all the passion that proponents of Atheism+ are bringing to the table, to me, seems like the more appropriate approach.

Proxer said...


I think you're begging the question here. Secular Humanism isn't being reinvigorated because Secular Humanism isn't being reinvigorated.

The energy, publicity, and community that is driving these shared goals forward is coming from the Atheist community, not the Secular Humanist community.

If Humanists were creating TV shows, podcasts, blogs, rallies etc. to drive social justice for Atheists, then we wouldn't be having this conversation. They aren't. Atheists are. It turns out that a large number of Atheists have other shared social causes, and the group is naturally congealing under the banner of Atheism+.

fester60613 said...

It is not so simple for people to "find their humanism after they reject theism" because it is not a simple process.
Using religion for humanistic purposes is not a new phenomenon and has, to my mind, been the fuel for tens of thousands of missionary projects. The priest who founded the leper colony in Hawaii may have seen his mission's purpose to be for the glory of god (whatever that means), but it was also to to assist those marginalized by their illness.
I contend that religion's work on the margins of society IS humanist work in principle: that those afflicted with cognitive dissonance about the *reasons* they do the work does not detract from the humanistic results.

The7ofSwords said...

I see what you mean, because everything you listed there, to my mind, leads to a logical conclusion of atheism. However, reasonable arguments can be made to the contrary. Also, The Council for Secular Humanism, as an organized group, has the right to define their own beliefs, but they don't actually define what humanism is, as a larger concept—one which has existed far longer than it has—and like atheism, it actually has a dictionary definition:

1. any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate.
2. devotion to or study of the humanities.
3. (sometimes initial capital letter) the studies, principles, or culture of the humanists.
4. Philosophy. a variety of ethical theory and practice that emphasizes reason, scientific inquiry, and human fulfillment in the natural world and often rejects the importance of belief in God.

(bold emphasis mine)

The overall spectrum of non-believers and/or freethinkers has had room for many opinions within it. This is simply the nature of a group of people which is not only informal but which is defined by the characteristic of free and open inquiry. And within this group there have been many movements, from American Atheists to the Council for Secular Humanism with opinions ranging from Gould with his "non-overlapping magisteria" to Dawkins and his complete intolerance of pseudo-scientific bullshit and from thinkers like Chomsky to Hitchens. It really is a big tent ... or it can be.

And though I don't want to repeat myself too much, either, I think it comes down semantics. They can call it "Atheism+" or "New Humanism" or "Jen's Bunch of Atheistic People Who Are Really Concerned About Helping the Downtrodden" for all I care.

So, yeah I agree that this "A+" thing (too early to call it a "movement" yet, really) is essentially Secular Humanism, but with maybe a slightly better definition and clearly-defined atheism, but they can't (and shouldn't even try to) re-define atheism as a whole.

So, maybe "Atheistic Humanism+" or something? It's hard for me to sit here and tell them what they should call themselves, except in a case where they may actually use a word by a different definition than the one it has. So in that sense, yeah ... they can't simply say this is what "atheism" is now. (That would be hi-jacking.)

But they seem to want to say, "We're atheists, and part of the atheist "movement", but we're also this and this and that." I guess it just doesn't bother me.

To me, this is potentially just another in a long line of re-defining movements. I feel like it has a place, and now is a good time for it, considering the insane backlash (hopefully death-throes) of the extreme religious right with their constant denial of the concerns of anyone but rich white Christian males and their use of religious mind-fuckery to entice the ignorant masses to support causes which go against their own logical self-interests.

And now I'm off on a tear, so I'll close now before it becomes a political rant.

If nothing else, this is all fascinating to witness and thought-provoking to discuss.

Steve Barry said...

@Proxer I don’t think I am begging the question because I didn’t state it that way. What I am stating is the Atheism+ as currently defined *already exists* as Secular Humanism. I do not see the point of rebranding it with a new name other than to appeal to those that want to differentiate themselves from atheism because of their disdain for a minority of assholes. Also, do you really think that the individuals making all this great content you speak of strictly label themselves atheists? Yes, atheism as a movement has driven it, but many of the people attending an American Atheists convention attend humanist conventions. Not all, of course, but ignoring that overlap is a mistake.

@The7ofSwords I would have no problem with “Atheistic Humanism” bridge the current atheist movement and old school Secular Humanism, but again, I don’t really see the need.

Another issue that I was concerned with and can already be seen in the comments after less than two days is a divisive “us vs. them” mentality of “plussers” vs. “non-plussers”. Really? This is beneficial how? As if everyone relating to “old” New Atheism (A- ?) is left behind in the cave of their own ignorance and misogyny. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya!

The7ofSwords said...

The splintering effect is concerning, I'll grant you that, but I think it's the unavoidable result of "growing pains" within the larger atheism.

I also believe that the "misogynist asshole" contingent is a small (but sometimes vocal) minority. If anyone is to blame for any splintering, though, it will be them. They kind of brought this on with their mind-boggling reactions to some real issues of concern among some people (i.e., women in particular) who have felt themselves mistreated and/or misrepresented.

The whole thing is unfortunate but probably necessary. Social change is never easy, but once the growing pains are done, I think we'll all be better off.

Look at me being an optimist. (A most unnatural state of affairs.)

@blamer said...

SB, this self-labeling and internal splintering (though intensely interesting) needn't be an issue of any significance.

When a young social movement expanded and added letters to become "LGBT" it apparently didn't undermine the social movement's (political/outreach) objectives to start --clumsily?-- lumping bisexuality in with gender identity.

Why? Because any groups blocking progress for "equality" (churches) are equally un-supportive of the push to normalize "gender re-assignment". Probably because conservative lobbiests clumsily or deviously lump sex/gender issues in together (as impermissible or disordered).

My feeling is that all comers are welcome, so long as you want progressives to contain the Religious Right. Godlessness isn't even a barrier to entry for our counter-holymen movement.

Anonymous said...

Here is the uniform for the new A+ atheists.

Steve Barry said...

It's always the anons...

I disagree with the name and have other reservations about Atheism+. However, likening the A+ proponents to Nazi's is outright stupidity, counterproductive, and exactly the kind of divisive rhetoric FtB gets accused of so that also makes you a hypocrite. Don’t leave that shit here.

Proxer said...


It's not about definition, it's about motivations and primary goals. Secular Humanists and Atheists+ share similar values, but their motivations and primary goals are clearly different.

You seem to be focused on semantics - you understand Secular Humanism to encompass everything described by A+, so you believe that using the A+ term is redundant. Let me rephrase the argument - we already have the word scarlet, the word crimson is redundant.

The larger group of Atheists are primarily concerned with debunking religious claims and fighting for social justice for Atheists. The Atheist+ movement is a subset of the Atheist group that also is interested in fighting for social justice on other fronts. These goals are 'shared' with Secular Humanists, but Secular Humanism isn't prioritizing these goals.

What's more, there are clearly a large number of atheists who aren't comfortable self-identifying as Secular Humanists. If they are mistaken in their discomfort, then the Secular Humanists need to do a better job recruiting.

Proxer said...

There's a longer (and better) explanation of "Why Atheism+?" here:

Steve Barry said...

My hesitation on semantics (and I know many are saying the rights things about it not being a redefinition) is simply that many of us fought hard for the simple dictionary definition in order to a) counter claims of atheism being a religion, and b) allow the greatest number of people that do not believe in god(s) to identify with it and hopefully openly so. Get them under the tent and then see what subgroup they feel comfortable fitting into. With that said, I understand your point and I can be fine with Atheism+ as a subset, IF that is what it is.

However not every proponent is seeing it as a subset of a larger movement. Some are clearly seeing it as a clear division and damn the bastards that don’t join. Richard Carrier’s comments are clear on this and many of the commenters on various blogs are using the same rhetoric. There is a thread of disdain for everyone not associated with the FtB/Skepchick narrative and I am more than a little concerned that this Atheism+ will amount to division.

Andy said...

I've been shifting some of my thinking on this A+ business. I think you hit the nail on the head, Steve. While the merits of A+ in the abstract are open to debate, there is little doubt its manifestation will be obnoxious (just the name "A+" is reminiscent of a high school club for advanced placement students).

Proxer said...

I'm not understanding the concern over "ruining the definition of atheism." Are you concerned that non-atheists will see Atheist+ sites/blogs/etc and assume that the views expressed there are held by all Atheists?

picky said...

From my observations, I've noticed that many religious theists want nothing more for there to be an "atheist ideology". Many want for atheists to be forced to group around a specific life view that will represent all atheists. That allows them to focus on the things done wrong "in the name of atheism" and use that against other atheists. Which is why I share Steve's hesitation on the semantics of A+. Atheists are individuals, yet some people are trying to make A+ as more than a subset. They're trying to make it a representation of atheism that you are "required" to agree with to be atheist. But if atheism is supposed to be only the lack of belief in a God, how can it then have other requirements added to it?

Steve Barry said...

I didn't say "ruin." Let's call it "confusing the definition of atheism."

I've already stated this portion of my argument. My concern is with those that are on the fence about atheism or living quietly on our side of the fence. The simplest definition of atheism is likely best as it would allow the greatest number of people to self-identify as an atheist. Having separate ideologies added onto atheism may create confusion as to what atheism really is.

Proxer said...

OK, so your concern is that Atheism+ will inhibit some people from identifying as Atheists. I think that it actually helps those people. It more clearly delineates Atheism as "non-belief in gods"; so the Atheist Experience talk show will stay the Atheist Experience, just about atheism, nothing else.

You could even have bloggers who have Atheism+ posts (or whole blogs) while maintaining strict-Atheism posts. Drawing this clear line would, in effect, say to potential self-identifying-atheists: "If you want to be an Atheist, we welcome you. There are also people over there who like to do other stuff with their Atheism, and they call themselves Atheists+, but you don't have to involve yourself with that side of our bit tent if you don't want to."

As things stand, people will read Greta Christina and the Crommunist Manifesto and may think that all Atheists have to be Feminists, which is actually incorrect.

Eric said...

I am a newbie atheist. I have stepped down from my positions of responsibility in my church and spoken with my wife, but I'm (still) procrastinating writing a coming out letter to my family.

I personally cannot rally under the banner of Atheism+. I'm still dealing with the issue of whether human beings have intrinsic value. I'm even not convinced religion is bad - I just believe it is incorrect; I'm open to the idea that in some sense it may be better to be deceived.

As such I felt excluded when I read Mr. Carrier's post. I will be an atheist even if it means being relegated to the crowd of misogynists, racists and homophobes. But, it makes what is the beginning of a lonely time in my life that much lonelier.

Proxer said...


First of all, welcome to the group, and I feel your pain. Good luck with the letter writing - that can be so hard to do well.

I also completely get that you're not interested in Atheism+: That makes perfect sense. I've also thought a lot about the concept of intrinsic value and I don't have an answer one way or the other. Luke Muehlhauser and Alonzo Fyfe put together a podcast on Desirism that approaches the concept of intrinsic value in a different way than I'd heard before. Harris' utilitarianism seems like a good 'approximation' of morality - a tool like stepwise integration that doesn't work well in all cases, but is still useful in many cases. I've also heard a bit about Contract Theory of morality that was interesting.

Also, I think Mr. Carrier is the one being a douchebag. There's no need for *every* atheist to self-identify as Athist+, and there's definitely no reason to go alienating those who choose not to.

Steve Barry said...


Than you for commenting and I hope you find the words to tell your family when you decide to. No one is rushing you. Take your time and think about it.

As for Dr. Carrier's post, please do not let that be a factor one way or the other on your opinion of atheism or even atheism+. He is but one voice.

I will not pretend to know much about the philosophies that Proxer mentioned regarding human intrinsic value. I believe that we have value. My reasons are less than grounded in anything other than my opinion. I find philosophies that tend to paint human value as a negative are generally religious in nature. You're feelings in this regard may be unresolved issues with "Original Sin" and the negative connotations of a lack of faith.

Good luck.