One More Word on Atheism+

A commenter just said the following on yesterday’s post:

“Libby Ann, you don’t really sound like you’re into atheism+, from what you’ve been posting. That’s fine. I’m not really into it either, because identifying as an atheist is not even the slightest bit important to my sense of self. But do you have to keep complaining about how they’re going about it? It seems to me it does fill a niche that isn’t being met – humanists who also want to be proud about and active for specifically atheist causes. People who label themselves humanist generally aren’t focused on atheism, they’re focused on the social justice. A+ people want to do both, and they want a label they can wear that announces that quickly.”

So I want to take a moment to clarify my position to avoid misunderstanding. And I want to thank Jen for making some clarifications yesterday evening – I really found that helpful.

1) I understand the need to get away from misogynists and homophobes within the atheist movement.

In many ways, Atheism+ is an acknowledgement of the dictionary definition of the word “atheist.” I wrote earlier that given that the only thing all atheists have in common is their disbelief in a god or gods, it’s no surprise that atheists disagree on lots and lots of things. This can naturally be quite taxing for those who want to be involved with other atheists in either local groups or at national conferences or in the online community! And when those disagreements are over important things like feminism or LGBTQ rights, well, it’s really no wonder this has become an issue.

While I have generally tried to get away from this problem by stating that I am a Humanist atheist, and that the atheists I see as my allies are those who share my Humanist values, Atheism+ is simply another response to the problem of dictionary atheism.

2) I understand that some atheists don’t feel comfortable with the label “Humanist,” and that Atheism+ is an attempt to offer another option. 

Humanism, by definition, includes both atheism and skepticism and a devotion to both the good of humanity and the importance of human reason. This is from wikipedia:

The philosophy or life stance secular humanism (alternatively known by adherents as Humanism, specifically with a capital H to distinguish it from other forms of humanism) embraces human reasonethicssocial justicephilosophical naturalism, while specifically rejecting religious dogmasupernaturalism,pseudoscience or superstition as the basis of morality and decision-making.

And here’s another article clarifying just what Humanism is and isn’t. This is why I wrote a post stating that I saw little difference between Humanism and Atheism+. Jen of Blag Hag wrote in response that she wants a way to combine Humanism and atheism and skepticism. Thing is, Humanism by definition already includes both atheism and skepticism. This is why I was confused as to the need for a new label.

But after reading posts on this by Ashley Miller and Greta Christina, I began to understand something. For many atheists the term “Humanism” has connotations of “selling out” to the religious or no longer seeing religious beliefs as something that should be opposed. They want to do what Humanism proposes to do – support social justice causes – but they don’t want to use the label “Humanism.” Whether or not this connotation is correct does not change that it exists. I also realized that Humanism’s well deserved reputation of being willing to cooperate with religious individuals who share certain values in working towards common goals was objectionable to many atheists.

Furthermore, many atheists see their social justice values as flowing out of their atheism, and they want their atheism to remain front and center as they work to forward their values and goals. It is true that atheism is simply not believing in God, but they see their belief in things like equality as the natural consequence of their lack of belief in God. The Atheism+ label offers a way to say this loud and clear, and that’s appealing to many.

3) I’m glad so many atheists are getting excited about social justice. 

Really glad. I think this is a great development! And I’m excited!

4) I’m personally going to continue using the label “Humanist.” 

I personally feel that the Humanist label fits me pretty well. I don’t downplay my atheism or cater to religious beliefs, but I also see fighting for social justice as more important than atheist activism and I don’t have a problem working with likeminded religious individuals toward common goals. As I’ve said before:

If feminism flows from atheism, why are there Christian feminists? If sexism flows from religion, why are there sexist atheists? Religion is the product of humans. It’s not some force that magically generates sexism. Religion is sexist because humans are sexist. It’s not the other way around. And there are religious traditions that aren’t sexist. Religion is as good or as bad as the humans that create and follow it.

I like that Humanism puts social justice front and center and that Humanism has a reputation of being willing to cooperate with religious individuals who share certain common values. For this reason, I personally think “Humanism” defines my position better than “Atheism+.”

5) I’m glad Atheism+ will be open to cooperation with all who share common values and goals, regardless of labels or smaller points of disagreement. 

When you start something with a new label, it’s easy to become exclusive. It’s easy to say “you’re either in this club, or you’re not.” Thing is, there are going to be atheists who share the same social justice values but, for whatever reason, don’t want to personally adopt the “Atheism+” label. Some atheists, like myself, are perfectly happy with the label Humanist. Some atheists don’t feel the need to make social justice activism a part of their atheism. After reading Richard Carrier’s rather polemical post, I harbored some concern that those at the center of the development of Atheism+ might say “either declare for us and adopt our label, or we won’t work with you.” And even beyond that, it’s also important to leave room for discussion or disagreement – not on big issues like “should women be equal” but rather on questions like “what should equality look like” and “how do we get there?” That was part of what I was trying to get at in yesterday’s post.

Yesterday evening Jen put up a post that calmed a lot of my concern:

1. Atheism+ is just secular humanism! Just call it what it is!

I think there are some nuanced differences. …

But really, I don’t give a diddly what label you want. Atheist, atheist+, humanist, pastafarian, Supreme Crusher of God-Belief. Whatever. I care more about getting stuff done, and I see the humanists as our natural allies. …

2. Why does everyone have to agree with your particular dogma?

No one has to agree with me, and I don’t want dogma. I want to be able to discuss social justice issues from the context of atheism and skepticism. Discuss, not dictate. Right now we can’t even do that without being threatened, trolled, and derailed. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the views of people who support A+.

This clarification is what I wanted to see, and I am very glad of it. Jen is absolutely right that before we can even have a discussion we need a safe space. While those who share common goals will disagree on how to realize those goals, the discussion about how to do this cannot productively take place in a room full of people who don’t share those common goals.

7. But you’re hurting the atheist movement by causing a schism!

Is the Secular Student Alliance causing a schism because it focuses on students? Are any of the many atheist organizations causing schisms because they all have slightly different missions? Why can’t we have our own group too? Would there be such vitriol in response to someone starting an Atheist Knitting Club? “BUT ATHEISM DOES NOT DE FACTO LEAD TO KNITTING!” So what? Let us have our space to talk about issues that interest us. You don’t have to participate.

8. Why do you hate atheists who just want to talk about atheism?

I don’t. I think discussing reasons why God doesn’t exist, flaws in theological arguments, stigma against atheists, religious privilege, violations of the separation of church and state, and all those related things matter. A lot. They were incredibly important for me when I was just starting to call myself an atheist, especially in a conservative, religious state like Indiana. I think groups should keep on doing that! I am just personally ready to expand my list of topics.

Honestly? With these clarifications, I can wholeheartedly endorse the project of Atheism+. I won’t be using that label myself, because I think Humanism describes fits me better, but I’m more than willing to work with Atheism+ers in whatever endeavors they may put together. I’m glad to know that Atheism+ is in many ways a starting point for discussions about how to achieve common goals, and I look forward to participating in those discussions.

I think Atheism+ has a potential to serve as an excellent way for those atheists who see their social justice concerns as flowing out of their atheism and who see fighting religion as centrally important but also want to get actively involved in social justice issues and to find a group of like-minded individuals. I’m glad that there’s room for cooperation between those with similar goals across a range of labels. I especially appreciate Jen’s comment that we need room for conversations to take place. You won’t get very far discussing the best way to reach feminist goals in a room full of misogynists.

And that’s the last I plan to say about Atheism+, because I’m eager to get back to the subjects I regularly blog about. Look for some more posts on the end times coming up, among others!

  • John Small Berries

    While many who self-identify as Humanists are atheists, atheism is not required to be a Humanist. Many Deists (who believe in a God who doesn’t interfere in human affairs) believe that morality and “purpose” derive from people, not divine fiat, which makes them Humanists.

    But for another thing, atheists get a really bum rap. How many times have you heard it said that since atheists don’t believe in God, they cannot possibly be good or moral people? The “Atheism+” modement addresses this ridiculous assertion directly, demonstrating that, yes, atheists are capable of goodness, morality, and positive action.

    And the two are not mutually exclusive. I consider myself a Humanist. I am also an atheist, and wholeheartedly approve of the Atheist+ label, because I don’t define myself around a single facet of my personality (my lack of belief in gods); furthermore, adopting it signals my explicit rejection of the sexism, misogyny, and racism that some “dictionary atheists” seem to think is just fine. And if adopting this label helps widen some narrow minds outside the atheist community, so much the better.

    • Libby Anne

      I think some confusion arises as to the difference between “Humanism” and “humanism.” Big H Humanism does reject any god belief, but small h humanism does not – and this is why you have Christian humanists and other religious humanists. Big H Humanism, though, is atheistic by definition (see, for example, the Humanist Manifestos).

      • John Small Berries

        Thank you for the correction. I had not been aware of that.

      • Per Smith

        That is true but it does set the eradication of God belief as one of its primary objectives. In fact the manifestos make it quite clear that other traditions often work towards similar goals and thay those goals are more important than atheism. Atheism+ appears to have it’s root in New Atheism’s antitheism and anti-religiousness, considering the rejection of belief a primary objective. The first manifesto, while already rejecting even Deism, in terms of belief, conceived of Humanism explicitly as a nontheistic religion. So while Humanists are atheists too, they are not often Atheists of the New Atheism and in actual practice you’ll also find a fair number of apatheists and agnostics identifying as Humanists as well, to be fair.

      • Per Smith

        CORRECTION: Sorry typing on an iPhone. The first sentence should read…”It does NOT set the eradication of God belief…”

  • Per Smith

    Just so no one mistakes me I want to add that yes nonbelief is a central tenet of Humanism on top of which the ethical system is contructed but eradicating all theistic belief and/or all religion across the globe is not its primary objective. It does seem to be the primary objective of the New Atheism and Atheism+ though. Cheers.

  • LaurenF

    Now I feel all embarrassed. I was kind of angry when I wrote that post. I waited before writing it, but the angry didn’t go away and now I feel like I should have tempered that more.

    I think it was partly because you’d posted about things like sexism flowing from being human instead of being religious that was part of it. Because I totally agree with that, AND I also see it as being where part of the value of atheism+ as a concept comes from. Like, “Yes, we know that being atheist doesn’t automatically mean you’re not going to be a bigot, and that’s why we’re using this to explicitly designate our desire to work for social justice causes.” Also, I’d already read Jen’s clarification post before I read yours. I think if I’d realised you hadn’t read that post I might have reacted a little differently. Somehow I just assumed you would have seen it though. Sorry about that.

    • Libby Anne

      I posted before Jen, so of course I hadn’t seen her clarification when I wrote my post. But no worries. :-)

  • Brian63

    Libby Anne wrote:

    “…the only thing all atheists have in common is their disbelief in a god or gods, it’s no surprise that atheists disagree on lots and lots of things.”

    Instead of that phrasing, I think it would be much more accurate to say that the only thing atheists *necessarily* have in common is their disbelief in a god or gods. Atheists very commonly do have other values, beliefs, interests, goals, etc. in common, but that is an outgrowth of various other aspects of our worldviews we have in common (such as advocating government/religion separation, which is not necessary to be an atheist but which atheists often support anyway). Likewise, favoring gay rights is not a necessary part of being an atheist, but it is common to do so anyway, primarily because the most common “reason” to reject them is because of religious beliefs which we do not hold.

    While atheists may not *necessarily* (aka by definition) hold any other beliefs in common besides certain beliefs about the non-existence of a god, we commonly do anyway due to other elements in our belief systems and values. They also happen to be common in humans overall, but religions manage to suppress them (which is why deconverts often come to adopt more liberal positions on those matters than they had as religious fundamentalists).


  • Mike

    I was actually wondering myself so thanks for the post:) I do take issue with the idea that bigotry of various kinds is purely based on human issues and that religion is not a cause. There are obviously bigoted atheists. But, I honestly think that’s a false equivalence. To take one example, name me the major atheist organizations that fight for “traditional marriage” or have policies that prevent them from serving in any position. How many major Christian religious organizations really support full gay rights (i.e. can get married, hold positions of power in the church, etc)? I don’t know that Atheism does much to improve me and it certainly doesn’t magically remove my biases, but I do know that Atheism means I never felt compelled to support any conclusion based on dogma or found it sufficient to defend the biases I have.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      But comparing atheism to religion is ITSELF a false equivalency because atheism is not actually a belief system. There may not be organizations that are explicitly atheist in their missions that do as much damage as many religious organizations. Those aren’t the things to look for, The point, to me, is that a lack of religion does not PREVENT people from doing every bit as much damage as religious organizations or regimes. Nazi Germany did just fine without religion. (Yeah, I know the Nazis have been appropriated by everybody anywhere who wants to make a point about anything but they actually affected my family so I’m allowed.)

      • Mike

        I do not follow why it is unfair to compare two groups in terms of what they broadly advocate for rather than comparing one off examples, but perhaps I am missing a detail. As far as Nazi Germany, I do not object to referencing nazis in general, but in this particular case I would be interested in how one makes the case that they were not religious. Hitler publically identified as a Christian, associated himself and his party with religion and religious symbols, and spoke publically against atheism. Is that not your understanding?

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    I personally don’t have a whole lot of respect for atheists who DON’T want to work with like-minded religious individuals towards common goals. If having everybody you work with share your personal philosophy is more important to you than trying to make the world a better place, you need to seriously get over yourself. And, um, if people see their social justice beliefs as flowing naturally from atheism, well, they’re free to believe that but I consider that just as much a faith position as anything else. As you have noted, Libby, it sure ain’t backed up by actual, observable reality. I understand why atheism is so important to many people’s personal identity, particularly people who had to take a lot of flack from people close to them for embracing it. No problems there. But to people who refuse to work with anyone who doesn’t think just like them and make up their own facts, I have to ask, what’s the point of criticizing religion if you’re just going to do a bunch of the things that make it worthy of criticism to begin with?

    Just my two cents…

    • Paula G V aka Yukimi

      I kind of think that the part of not wanting to work with people of religious organisations if they have common goals isn’t something that has been stated in any of the posts but more the interpretation of some people. I’m pretty sure that Atheism+ will work for example with Gay Christian organisations for fighting for gay rights, with religious charities (that don’t proselytise) for helping disadvantaged people, etc…

    • James W

      “But to people who refuse to work with anyone who doesn’t think just like them and make up their own facts, I have to ask, what’s the point of criticizing religion if you’re just going to do a bunch of the things that make it worthy of criticism to begin with?”

      So well stated! Most atheist groups I’ve encountered are primarily interested in belittling religious people. For those who have had negative and damaging experiences with religion, it’s understandable that collectively bashing others’ beliefs can be cathartic. But to continue following that path as a raison d’être is at best juvenile and at worst an embrace of the same kind of scapegoating that religious fundamentalists engage in. The new anti-theists seem to have identified religion as The Problem from which flows all of our world’s ills, and I can only hope that the more rational among them will soon begin to see that passionately informing religious people that they’re stupid is not an efficient way to promote rational thought OR progressive values. Sorry, but when anti-theist New Atheists grow up, they become Humanists. Atheism+ seems phenomenally silly; I suspect that many of its adherents prefer it over Humanism simply because they’re suspicious of anything that doesn’t have “Atheism” in the title. And because they had actually never heard of Humanism before someone replied: “um, you know this already exists, right?” It’s funny how Hitch and Dawkins debates/lectures on YouTube don’t teach you everything you need to know about the world.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    I respect your position completely (although I’ve pointed above something I don’t think it’s necessarily true) but it made more sense to me your anterior post when you said you preferred humanist to atheist+ because it is more vague and so. I think that you are measuring this new movement a tiny teeny bit more harshly than you might a religious group (which it’s kind of normal since we should police more seriously groups that are close to our values) like I don’t know Christian Feminists or another group. There are plenty atheist groups than collaborate with religious charities, take part in interfaith associations, … and although an atheist labels might make it more difficult, it doesn’t necessarily means they don’t work with religious groups with common objectives. I’m kinda repeating myself.

    Apart from that two other reasons people don’t prefer the humanist label is that they think that humanists are trying to create religion like rituals and stuff and they are repelled by that (I don’t have anything against religion in itself but for example I wouldn’t be able to be UU because of that same reason although I’m personally perfectly fine being a humanist or attending a wedding of a friend in a cathedral)and that they think nobody si going to know what they are if they say to a normal person I’m a humanist while almost everybody knows what atheist means. I’m sorry if I’m not making any sense, I don’t know why I keep writing post at almost 4 AM in the morning.

  • Mama Bean

    I just read this post about H+ (transhumanism) which is only peripherally related to what you’ve been discussing here, but I thought I’d post the link of what I was reading:
    Apparently there is more at the wiki entry, too. Not adding anything to the discussion, just thought you’d be interested in it :)

  • Martin Hodgson

    I’ve written a book for my kids explaining the non-religious world-view their mum and I share. I don’t think I used the words atheist or atheism in the book once, rather I used the term non-religious and encouraged ‘free-thinking’. ‘Atheism’ didn’t feel like something I wanted to sell to kids – I’m not sure why.

    However, when choosing a subtitle for the book (main title is ‘What I’ll Tell Tom’) I chose ‘The Atheist Kid’s Bible’. It seemed more catchy than ‘The Non-Religious Free-Thinking Kid’s Bible’ I guess :)

    So Atheism+ is an interesting notion. We’ll see if it catches on. Details of the book are here if anybody is interested…