Atheism Plus What?

Okay, so having declared myself for Atheism+, let me address a few controversies surrounding the issue of the relationship between Atheism+ and Humanism. Is “Atheism+” just a rebranding of Humanism as James Croft contends in his excellent consideration of the issues involved? Are there substantive philosophical differences? Will there be substantive organizational differences? If so, what are the pros and cons of these?

As I see it, Atheism+ is a hybrid of New Atheism and Humanism. Of course it was already possible to be both a New Atheist and a Humanist (take James Croft for a prominent example). But it was also possible to be a Humanist and an Accommodationist (see Chris Stedman). Stephanie Zvan does a nice job of articulating how much she prefers what I will call a “New Atheist” approach to social justice that takes religion itself (and not just bad religions) to be one of the barriers to social justice.

New Atheists have long been fighting to have religion itself called into question as one of the evils that needs to be addressed in the world. To this end New Atheists have highlighted rather than downplayed the ways that religions contributes to other evils in distinctly important ways that cannot be morally ignored. If Humanists consider their Humanist values to be of primary importance and atheism to be a secondary issue, they are more likely to treat criticism of religion itself and of the religious aspects of social injustice as secondary to the point that they compromise their atheism and team up with religiously compromised allies without ever adequately criticizing their religious errors.

Atheism Plus does not bury the “atheism” part but keeps it at the forefront of one’s socio-religious identity.

Personally, I am sympathetic to Humanists who work with religious progressives and am inclined to do so to some extent. But I would never do so at the expense of treating atheism as a matter of irrelevance and ceasing my criticisms of theistic, faith-based religion. Maybe some other Humanists are as relatively committed to atheism in addition to their social justice work as I am. They may be New Atheist Humanists. Again, I think James Croft is someone like that. But Humanism as a broader movement is much more equivocal on this issue.

Besides the issue of whether to team up with other progressives who are religious and to downplay differences with them in order to do so, there is the related issue of humanistic religion itself. Many Humanists identify Humanism as an atheistic religion and not just as an atheistic social justice movement. So far Atheism Plus is consistent with the predominant New Atheist viewpoint that religion itself is a bad thing and that there should be no atheistic, rationalistic religions to replace theistic, faith-based ones. Identifying with Atheism Plus allows someone to affirm a social justice politics and ethics without committing to what she might see as the extra religious baggage that organized Humanism has acquired.

Since not all Humanists have been in favor of making Humanism into an atheistic religion, quite possibly we may have two menu options: Humanism for the social justice conscious atheists who want ethical/religious community and Atheism Plus for the social justice conscious atheists who are steadfastly irreligious and anti-religion. In such a casemay wind up close to being a Humanist in terms of the content of my beliefs and practices but nonetheless someone who prefers identifying primarily with the word atheist and so be drawn to the word Atheism Plus anyway.

Personally, I am more open to atheistic religions (as long as they are austerely rationalistic, pluralistic, anti-faith, anti-authoritarian, pluralistic, inclusive, egalitarian, non-dogmatic, social justice conscious, and philosophical in nature). So, if the dividing point between Humanism and Atheism Plus becomes the question of religion or no religion, then I may wind up straddling the divide uneasily (as I have already been doing as a tentatively pro-atheistic religion New Atheist). This also may come down to whether I wind up convinced that the specific dangers which religion itself invites can ever be stopped, or whether they inevitably will ruin any religion.

There is another potentially interesting difference between Humanism and Atheism Plus and it is that Atheism Plus is the result of a ground swell focused distinctly on one side of social justice debates within the atheist community. Humanism, at present, is defined much more by an articulation of certain values on a more abstract philosophical level. The implementation of those values may in some cases be robust and in other cases slack, much like with other religions. There is the ostensive philosophical commitment to a rather broadly defined and vague set of values, on the one hand, and then there is the real world interpretation of those values, and praxis according to them, on the other.

While Humanists have of course made any number of strides towards giving their abstract values tangible and effective instantiations, more widely Humanism encompasses some people who are not as committed to social justice in practice and Humanist groups run the risk of being just as insufficiently inclusive of marginalized groups as the broader atheist movement. I have no idea apart from competing anecdotes how much the broader atheist movement’s problems with diversity are shared by Humanist communities.

But it is notable that Atheism Plus is being founded as specifically an anti-marginalization form of atheism and not a vaguely defined commitment to “the human”. In the past “the human” celebrated by Enlightenment Humanists quite often rather explicitly and tangibly meant the “wealthy white heterosexual cisgendered neurotypical male”. In practice those calling for Atheism Plus think Humanism still does concern itself only with such men, and are tired of having to negotiate with those who disagree about whether to proactively change the situation.

So, Atheism Plus does not assume that “of course if we just adopt a Humanist philosophy social justice will take care of itself”. The disillusionment Jen McCreight expressed last weekend was specifically tied up in the realization that the necessary philosophical and practical steps from abstract Humanism to real world inclusive progress and ethical cultivation were simply not happening.

Rather than continuing to wait and lobby under the broader umbrella of atheism or Humanism, movements incorporating many more types of atheists and Humanists, her call was for a splintering so that those who agree that inclusion is a first order priority could either reform existing institutions or, if need be, set up new ones rather than wait around for a consensus.

Reflecting on this over the last few days, I think her thinking is sound. A set of atheists defined more narrowly by its anti-marginalization stance is crucial given the resistance of a sufficient number of atheists and Humanists to see why this follows from their other purported beliefs and values that they supposedly share with the anti-marginalization atheists.

There is a danger of factionalism. Amusingly, I saw an antagonist on my Facebook page claiming that this schism proves Atheism is a religion after all. See? Atheists disagreeing means they share a schismatic religion. Of course if we all agreed and had no divisions then our monolithic agreement would also be proof we have a religion, make no mistake about that.

The simple fact is that we are a socio-political-philosophical group thrown together by our shared marginalization from the dominance of theism and faith-based religions in our cultures and politics. Since we find this shared minority philosophical outlook and social status to give us surprisingly a lot in common we are invested in identifying as atheists. But now we are figuring out how to work from our shared agreements, on the one hand, and how to divide ourselves from those we disagree with in practically debilitating ways. We deal with ethical questions, epistemological ones, meaning ones, metaphysical ones, and even religious ones–as all people do. Some of us may be religious. Some of us will steadfastly refuse to do so.

Having shared philosophical groups binded in part by atheism does not make us a religion. Having shared ethical groups binded in part by atheism does not either. And just because competing atheistic religions may arise does not mean we are schismatic like religious people are unless we’re claiming the others are “not true atheists”. I personally prefer the idea of multiple atheistic religions if they are to exist at all. And it is possible (or at least I sure hope it is possible) for atheists to have religions without being guilty of the faith, dogmatism, or authoritarianism we criticize in theistic, faith-based religions.

Finally, even though atheist religions exist that does not necessitate that atheism is itself a religious belief. It is grounded in philosophy–no claim to special revelation. It is held as a rational conclusion and not as a matter of rejection of evidence. Even if atheists are wrong, unlike the faithful we are not believing deliberately against evidence, nor in spite of what we take to be lack of evidence, but only in accord with what we take to be the best metaphysical conclusion or the best restraint from belief according to proper epistemic humility.

But I digress. Even if Atheism Plus does not represent a religious schism could it still be worrisomely divisive?

I think it is important that Atheism Plus denounce all hatred in thinking and in tactics. I think it is important that we not verbally abuse and denigrate other atheists. (Or religious people for that matter.) (Or anyone for that matter.)

I think it is important that we care about more than social justice but also care about ethics in general and about rationalism and charitable debate with those that disagree. I think it is necessary that even as we draw an ethical, social, political, and philosophical line in the sand that we scrupulously evade the temptation to self-righteous hatred (which is the most seductive kind of hatred for otherwise well-meaning people).

I think it is vital we celebrate our overlaps with Humanists and other atheists and religious progressives and other human beings in general, even as we find points to contend against them. And I think it is valuable that we be perpetually philosophically introspective and open to constant reexamination of our beliefs and values and their justifications. Our commitment to our views and our values should never be dogmatic but should always be rooted in reason and refined by it.

But as long as we are doing all that, I see no problem in saying “our socio-political-ethical-epistemological values are non-incidental to our atheism, and our atheism is non-incidental to our socio-political-ethical-epistemological values”.

And I think Humanists should accept mathat for many New Atheists “Atheism Plus” is an immediately more pleasing and palatable way to affirm their shared ethical and political values than Humanism, since it allows them to simultaneously keep at the forefront both their justifiable suspicions of religion itself and their identities as atheists. I think this is some New Atheists’ way explicitly meeting you halfway, Humanists. I would take it without quibbling about whether this is a new idea or whether it horribly ignores decades and centuries of Humanistic tradition.

I think New Atheism has always been a moral and philosophical movement at its core.

“Atheism Plus” is a segment of New Atheists coming to terms with that explicitly. Great!

And it is doing so with its eye squarely on inclusiveness outcomes. Doubly great!

Let a thousand flowers bloom, dear Humanists.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.