“Humanism” and “Atheism+”: What’s the Difference?

Over the past year, it has become increasingly clear that there are portions of the atheist community that are sexist, misogynist  homophobic, and transphobic. Those atheists who care about feminism and LGBTQ rights have become increasingly upset as this has played out. Many have been wondering where we go from here. Blogger Natalie Reed and I both wrote posts on this issue last week: here and here. Now blogger Jen of Blag Hag has weighed in calling for a third wave of atheism.

“It’s time for a new wave of atheism, just like there were different waves of feminism. I’d argue that it’s already happened before. The “first wave” of atheism were the traditional philosophers, freethinkers, and academics. Then came the second wave of “New Atheists” like Dawkins and Hitchens, whose trademark was their unabashed public criticism of religion. Now it’s time for a third wave – a wave that isn’t just a bunch of “middle-class, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied men” patting themselves on the back for debunking homeopathy for the 983258th time or thinking up yet another great zinger to use against Young Earth Creationists. It’s time for a wave that cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime. We can criticize religion and irrational thinking just as unabashedly and just as publicly, but we need to stop exempting ourselves from that criticism.”

It’s funny, because I predicted this almost perfectly in my own post:

“Now, having said all this, there are those in the atheist community who appear to be working to draw the lines slightly differently. They seem to want an atheist community where the lines are based on a lack of belief in God but also on a commitment to social justice, especially when it comes to issues of race, sex, sexual identity, and class. The groups I know of offhand who appear to be working on this goal most tirelessly are the bloggers at FreeThought Blogs and Skepchick. And I’m glad of that. I would feel completely comfortable joining a group or attending a conference that was united not simply by a lack of belief in God but also by a commitment to humanist values and social justice issues. I do have to wonder, though. Is such a group simply “an atheist group,” or is it something more, something that perhaps needs a new label with a definitive definition that includes humanism and social justice issues? Because that I could get behind equivocally.”

Jen received 500 comments in twenty-four hours, almost all of them positive, agreeing with her assessment. In fact, her readers even suggested a name for this third wave: Atheism+. I read both of Jen’s posts with excitement, and I’m still excited. I like the idea of an atheist community where I will feel safe, and where others will share my values. I think that’s great.

But as I read Jen’s posts, something just kept niggling at me. I finally distilled what was bothering me into two points, and I’ll share them here.

Don’t We Already Have Humanism?

In her post on Atheism+, Jen explains the label as follows:

We are…

Atheists plus we care about social justice,

Atheists plus we support women’s rights,

Atheists plus we protest racism,

Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,

Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.

It speaks to those of us who see atheism as more than just a lack of belief in god.

It sounds great, doesn’t it? Except, I have to admit, at this point I’m just a little bit confused. See, I thought we already had a term for this: Humanism.

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.

I mean, goodness, if you go to the website of the American Humanist Association and click on “issues,” you’ll find this listing:

Secular Government

Scientific Integrity

Human Rights for All

Promoting Peace

Reproductive Freedom

Women’s Rights

LGBT Rights

Civil Rights in America

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

I understand what Jen is trying to do. PZ has spoken before about “dictionary atheists,” where atheism is simply a lack of belief in a god or gods and that is it. PZ and Jen and others want atheism to be more than that. I get that. But technically, the term “atheist” means, well, what the dictionary says. Adding a “+” onto the end of it is a neat way to make it mean more, but why not just switch to the term “Humanist,” which already means everything “atheism+” is meant to mean?

Is Religion the Root of All Evil?

As I turned over and over in my mind the question of labels, I couldn’t help but be drawn back to a comment a reader left on Jen’s first post, a comment she quoted in her second post. I think this comment may help explain the reasons for choosing “Atheism+” rather than going with “Humanism.”

Religion is responsible for generating and sustaining most of the racism, sexism, anti-(insert minority human subgroup here)-isms… it gave a voice to the bigotry, established the privilege, and fed these things from the pulpit for thousands upon thousands of years. What sense does it make to throw out the garbage bag of religion yet keep all the garbage that it contained?

I can’t help but see social justice as a logical consequence of atheism. I’m for getting rid of all the garbage.

In other words, racism, sexism, etc., are the natural products of religion, and equality, feminism, etc., are the natural products of atheism. If you accept that idea, you can see how turning the term “atheism” into a sort of umbrella term under which to place all of these other causes makes sense – it’s as if they flow from atheism.

Except that they don’t.

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.

While religion can and often does help perpetuate things like sexism and racism, it can also be used to fight those things. In antebellum America, the abolitionists were by and large motivated by their religious beliefs. The rest of the country thought they were crazy, but they carried on with a holy zeal. I’m not saying they were perfect. I’m not saying that religion was necessary to end slavery (it wasn’t) – or that religion wasn’t also used to perpetuate it (it was). I’m simply pointing out that it’s disingenuous and simplistic to simply blame sexism on religion when we’re busy fighting sexism within atheism and there are Christian feminists busy using their religious beliefs to fight sexism within Christianity.

Summing It All Up

If we claim that all things good flow from atheism and all things bad flow from religion, we risk both compromising our claim to critical thinking and alienating those who could be our allies in fighting sexism and racism. At the same time, I am firmly convinced that people who believe in God are believing in a figment of their imaginations, and I have seen religion cause a great many problems and a great deal of harm, often directly through its claims to infallibility, which make change difficult.

As I see it, the reality is this: If our goal is to promote reason and eliminate superstition, then religious individuals are not our allies. If our goal is to promote feminism and LGBTQ rights, then some religious individuals are our allies. But what if our goal is both? That, I think, is the problem.

I personally would rather have a religious world where women and LGBTQ individuals are true equals than a world without religion or superstition where women and LGBTQ individuals are discriminated and oppressed. My point is simply that my number one enemy is not religion, but sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. Now of course, there are many who will assert that in a world without religion or superstition, sexism and other discrimination would disappear. In other words, that defeating sexism and homophobia would be the natural consequence of rooting out religion. Unfortunately, I don’t think this would be the case at all, as I think the recent conflict in the atheist community makes clear. I suppose in some sense I see opposing superstition and promoting reason on the one hand, and promoting feminism, LGBTQ rights, etc., on the other hand, as two different fights with two different sets of allies.

That said, I’m excited about the idea of making atheist and skeptic groups, conferences, and online communities more universally committed to the ideals of Humanism, whatever we call it. And for that reason, I’m extremely glad for Jen’s call for a third wave. My critiques are meant as suggestions and food for thought, not an attempt to overthrow or invalidate her entire idea.

It’s just that when it comes to issues like social justice, feminism, and LGBTQ rights, I personally am ready and willing to work with religious humanists and to see them as my allies. I don’t see religion disappearing in the foreseeable future, and I’m glad there are religious individuals out there working to eliminate sexism and homophobia from religion just as we work together to eliminate them from society. The way I see it, it doesn’t take atheism to eliminate sexism and homophobia, and it doesn’t take religion either. It takes people.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Rik

    Fantastic post. I think you’ve very much cut to the core of what I find problematic with atheism: Disbelieving in God is all well and good, but skepticism doesn’t make you a better person in and of itself. It might make you a smarter person, true, but it doesn’t make you morally good, not necessarily. So many atheists seem convinced that if people just saw the truth, the world would automatically be fixed; well, that’s exactly the kind of reasoning evangelicals use, too.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      It doesn’t even make you a smarter person. I’ve known plenty of atheists who aren’t terribly bright or very good at thinking logically. In parts of the country where it’s pretty acceptable to be atheist (I live in one of those parts of the country right now), these things aren’t necessary to be an atheist–you just imitate what’s around you and don’t think about it much, which is what plenty of religious people do in areas where a certain religion is the accepted social norm. One can still argue that these types of atheists are still RIGHT, whereas religious people are not, but that doesn’t make them any smarter. Also, there are plenty of really smart religious people. There’s no correlation between religious belief and intelligence, in my experience and observation.

      • Rik

        You’re absolutely right about that. I expressed myself in a little too simple terms. My point was, basically, that atheism doesn’t automatically make you a better person. It can help you grow, it can help you free yourself from bad ideas, open new doors and so forth – but just because a door has opened doesn’t mean you’ve already walked through it.

    • Mulheed

      I just wanted to know whether there may be another offshoot of us vegan atheists who might want to add sustainability and being kind to animals as another requirement?

  • Aniota

    Thank you very much for this post! You express a lot of things I was uncomfortable with while reading the comments on Jen’s posts, especially the black-and-white morality of “atheists good, believers bad” – isn’t the whole fucking point of this “third wave” or what have you that THAT AIN’T SO?! That there are exactly the same problems that are now again blamed only on religion by some atheists are becoming too visible in the atheist movement itself to further ignore them?
    Not to be misunderstood, I highly welcome any change of the atheist movement towards a strong focus on social justice issues, especially at the cost of losing a bunch of assholes nobody wanted on the boat in the first place. It’s been long overdue. But the shortsightedness by self-proclaimed skeptics who now again see atheism as the primary focus hoping that social justice issues will naturally follow from abandoning religion strikes me as blind as to why a need for this change has arisen in the first place.

  • Christine

    I can see why “Atheism+” would be a more popular term than Humanism. Humanism is often seen as religion with god (more so than Buddhism). It’s a code of ethics and philosophy (or at least grounds for forming those), and a commitment to social justice. Add in a meeting where you go and sing songs and hear an uplifting (or explanatory) talk once a week, and I’m not seeing much difference between that and religion. To atheists who feel that fighting against religion is really important, Humanism is too much of a compromise.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Well, as far as I’m concerned then, the burden is on them to argue why sharing a code of ethics and philosophy, a commitment to social justice, and a meeting where you sing songs and hear an uplifting talk once a week would be so terribly evil and something that needs to be eliminated from human practice. That all sounds fine to me. In fact, that’s pretty much the Judaism I grew up with (except we didn’t go once a week. lol)

      • Christine

        I was thinking more in terms of “the cultural norms among atheists who belong to a “movement” would be against using the term Humanism”, but that might be no bad thing. It automatically would eliminate everyone who thinks that religion is bad because it is religion, and you have to make sure that you have absolutely nothing in common with it. (i.e. defining themselves by what they don’t believe rather than what they do).

        That would be useful, not just because it gives a stronger sense of identity and more cohesion, but because it might help get rid of the idea that it’s ok to disrespect and mock people, as long as they’re theists. (Tolerance is based on acceptance of people, even if you dislike their ideas). The reason I say this would be useful is that a subculture where ridiculing and harassing others, even if they are very clearly Other to the subculture, is going to have a harder time preventing people from ridiculing those within the subculture. If people learn that “this is a place where everyone is like me, and we call those who aren’t stupid”, it’s very difficult to change that.

        I was very surprised to learn that there was an atheism movement and conferences. A lack of belief doesn’t necessarily mean that the people will actually believe things in common. And I’m sorry that this is the result.

      • Christine

        The “this” that I’m sorry about is the harassment and the need to split, not the splitting itself.

      • http://freethoughtblogs.com/ashleymiller Ashley F. Miller

        I would speculate that most atheists wouldn’t say that it was really a bad thing so much as a thing they had no interest in participating in and found kinda creepy and weird and way too similar to religion *for them*. But I don’t know that I’ve ever met an atheist who had a problem with the UU or secular judaism.

      • Anat

        To Ashley: There was a time I was considering getting involved with secular Judaism but even they were too Jewish for my husband. He doesn’t mind me doing secular Jewish celebrations and reading at home but he doesn’t want to be involved in any religious or quasi-religious community (including organized atheism). We work in biological research and as a result we have a very secular/atheistic social environment at work to the point that it is easy for us to pretend religion is some unimportant historical relic – until we read the news.

  • machintelligence

    Congratulations on getting there first. For so many to articulate it the idea must have been truly in the air.
    My problem with religion is that, apart from the irrational aspects of the whole “faith is the path to truth” thing, most religions have adopted all of these rotten values (sexism, misogyny, homophobia, etc ad nauseum) as gospel. If you first free yourself from religion, it is easier (but not obligatory, obviously) to adopt Humanist values. I view the Unitarian Universalists as a benign religious sect for those who want the social and ceremony aspects of religion without all of the “garbage”. Once it has been defanged and declawed religion makes an acceptable neighbor.

    To keep with the animal metaphor, it is also time to develop a sect of atheism that lets the misogynists, racists, homophobics, etc. know that they are about as welcome as a skunk at a picnic. I think that once isolated, they will never prove to be more than a nuisance to the overall movement. I am going to quote myself from the comments thread at Blag Hag, mostly because I am rather proud of it, and it is buried about 200 comments deep in a 700+ thread

    It seems like the MRA’s have learned one thing from the Gnu Atheists (and only one thing) — it is OK to be loud.
    The rape fixation of the misogynist/libertarian wankers may be due to the fact that they view rape as their only chance to have sex with a woman. They sure as hell aren’t going to attract any girlfriends or mates with their wonderful personalities. Natural selection will remove them eventually, but it is a slow process.

    But back to the topic at hand: It is possible to be a Christian Humanist, Jewish Humanist or even a Muslim Humanist ( I bet those are scarce on the ground), but it usually means disavowing some of the dogma of those religions. (I used those as examples because I am somewhat familiar with them, I have no idea where the Jainists would stand on humanism.) Those who style themselves as religious humanists run afoul of the “No True Scotsman” argument. They may be allies, but they are likely to be rejected by their co-religionists. Look at what happened to (Episcopalian) Bishop John Spong. He fought the good fight, but didn’t have much success, at least on a global basis. I don’t want to discourage those who want to reform from the inside, but it might easier to break the power of religion from the outside. This has already been happening. To paraphrase Dan Dennett:
    2000 years ago, anthropomorphic Gods were like big craggy mountains, but in the face of thousands of years of rational skepticism they have been worn down to a little hill of “the ground of all being”. Now the fog has rolled in and no one knows what is really meant by a God. How many people really believe that Jesus was the son of God, born of a virgin, without thinking “well in a metaphorical sense anyway”?

    At his point Humanism becomes a viable alternative for God given moral codes. Religion and moral/ethical considerations are really at right angles to each other. It is nice to see some atheists acknowledge this and adopt the humanist perspective plainly. Look at all of those right angles in the plus sign.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Reforming Judaism from the inside has been very successful. Most practicing Jews today are of the non-Orthodox type and adhere to a sect that has been influenced, to some degree, by humanist values and post-Enlightenment philosophy (the most obvious one being the sect that is known simply as Reform, which was a product of the Enlightenment and currently the largest sect in America). But I think part of what has made that possible is the fact that Judaism is a culture and ethnicity as well as a religion and belonging to that culture and ethnicity has always, more than dogma or ideology, been viewed as the defining characteristic of Jew, even by the Orthodox. Judaism, unlike, Christianity and Islam, was never meant to be a universalist, convert-seeking religion. It is essentially a tribal religion and, as such, is subject to change as the members of the tribe it is particular to see fit–and they may have very different ideas from one another. In this way, it’s much more comparable to an indigenous religion than it is to the two religions it most often gets mentioned in the same sentence with. Christianity and Islam, on the other hand, were always meant to be trans-cultural–they were meant to be spread to as many different people of disparate cultures and ethnicities and backgrounds as possible, so they HAD to be distilled down to an ideology, because that was the only common ground to be shared. Christianity and Islam are defined by ideology, Judaism is defined by people. I don’t think this makes Judaism or Jews “better” than anyone and, in fact, I can say as an insider that I think this characteristic has upsides and downsides. But I do think one of the upsides is that the comparative de-emphasis on ideology (or at least the presence of other things that are considered more important to identity than ideology) means that Judaism lends itself better to reform and change over time. I think this is true of tribal religions in general. It’s just something to think about, because I don’t think this is a distinction that most people in America, brought up on a steady diet of Christianity (whether they themselves ever practiced it or not) ever make.

      • machintelligence

        Judaism in most of the world is another pretty benign religion. The ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel are something else again. From what I have read, they neither work nor serve in the military and have a very high birth rate. They are viewed by many as an almost cancerous version of Judaism, especially because of their increasing numbers. They are also ultra tribal and very intolerant. As you say, tribal religions do not spread as fast, but they are not immune from troubles. I do appreciate that they do not come knocking on my door, trying to convert me.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Judaism has, for most of history, been a pretty benign religion because we were mostly the ones BEING oppressed, with little opportunity to do much oppressing ourselves. This has given Jewish culture and at least more liberal interpretations of Jewish religion a tradition of social justice and championing the vulnerable which I am proud of and very much identify with, but I don’t fool myself into thinking that we are better or essentially different from any other people because of it, or that our religion is innately more benign. You can find much in our texts to support a Judaism that is anti-oppression but, of course, you can also find plenty to support the opposite. That is what the modern ultra-Orthodox movement in Israel has done. They prove that if you give some benign, powerless people some power, they’re just as susceptible to the opportunity to use it to be assholes as anyone else–and a certain percentage of them will run with that opportunity. You are correct that the ultra-orthodox do not serve in the army, but they sure wield a lot of power in determining its oppressive agenda (a fact that does NOT endear them to their fellow non-orthodox Israelis, even the right-wing ones.) I do not hold that religion is inherently abusive, obviously, but I do pretty much believe that power leads to abuse almost always. We need to work on that as a species–hopefully, we’ll figure it out before we all blow ourselves up or destroy the planet.

        My point about tribal religions was not so much that they don’t spread as fast but that, when a religion is defined by a people, instead of by an ideology (as tribal religions are), there is much more freedom of variation from, or even rejection of, religious orthodoxy. And I think this is why moderate and liberal forms of Judaism, including forms that de-emphasize the importance of God and the God-question altogether, have been so successful. You’ll find many Jews who strongly identify as Jews and not even necessarily as secular Jews, who adhere to these forms. And a lot of people like me who feel like they walk the line between being a secular and non-secular Jew and aren’t particularly troubled by this.

        Of course, as I have detailed above, we are not immune from troubles. But they are DIFFERENT troubles. Ultra-orthodox Jews will not coming bothering you to convert, that’s true. They will come bothering ME, though–to try to bring me into their fundamentalist fold. Ultra-orthodox Jews just don’t really care about people who are not Jews–including their rights, as we see with their treatment of the Palestinians. It’s not a better attitude, it’s just a different one. They way I often sum it up to people is to say that fundamentalist Christians think “We’re better than everyone so we should try to make everyone else like us,” whereas fundamentalist Jews think “We’re better than everyone else so fuck them, who cares?” Both thoroughly unsavory attitudes, but very different. And I think it’s important to understand those differences.

        This is why I say that being a tribal religion has upsides and downsides. On the one hand, it allows for more diversity of belief and disbelief and it means that we won’t come bothering you to convert. On the other hand, it means that our douchier members WILL come bothering you if you have something they want–like, you know, land–because they just don’t give a shit about any interests but their own.

  • http://bunnystuff.wordpress.com/ Jaimie

    I believe in religious tolerance. Period. People have the right to worship as they see fit and it is none of my business where that journey takes them. To listen to right wing wackjobs or the effects of religious cults and then blanket sweep that craziness to encompass the thoughts and beliefs of every person in every religion is wrong, and dare I say it, simple-minded. Generalization is a fallacy. We can learn from some their mistakes, however. Too many atheists call believers “stupid”, or “ignorant”. How is that different from being called “wrong” and “evil” by Christians? Trading insults is for grade children, not intelligent, thinking adults. Let’s not build walls and moats and say we are the one and only ones with answers. Let’s be the ones that reach out to ALL people, not just like-minded ones.

    • machintelligence


      I believe in religious tolerance. Period. People have the right to worship as they see fit and it is none of my business where that journey takes them.

      Do you really want to go there? What are your feelings on withholding medical treatment from children for “religious” reasons? How about human sacrifice or stoning apostates to death? Religion needs moral laws imposed from the outside. It is not a reliable source for morals.

      • http://bunnystuff.wordpress.com/ Jaimie

        Come on, Mach, you know that’s not where I was going. I would differ slightly on the view with morals however. The church is good at enforcing OLD culture morals. They are pretty lousy at adapting to new ones. With this in mind we have a serious situation that is affecting the progression of our moral culture. Right wing conservative Christian politicians trying to take over government violates the principle of separation between church and state. Stopping this should hold our immediate attention.

      • machintelligence

        Sorry, Jaimie, I didn’t mean to shout ( I have no idea where all that bold came from.)

        I do agree with you that the church is lousy at adopting new moral values, primarily because God is viewed as the source, and you cannot question God. Having separation of church and state with the secular law as the supreme law of the land is crucially important. FWIW I think that this election cycle is going to be the high point of conservative religious power. When the religious right fails to win (and that is looking more and more likely), the fiscal conservatives will say “I told you so.” and step back into control. The fiscal conservatives may have viewed this election as a “throw away” anyway since Obama seemed likely to win. The religious types will be left with the choice of backing the fiscal conservatives as they have done in the past, or forming their own party, which would be political suicide. (Which isn’t to say that they won’t.)

      • http://bunnystuff.wordpress.com/ Jaimie

        No worries on the bold. :) This election has been quite a ride and I have taken a great deal of interest in following it. I agree it will probably be landslide for Obama but I don’t want people to stay home on election day! The traditional GOP is crumbling under the weight of extremism and the rather moderate views it held years ago have almost been completely eradicated. I see what you mean about the fiscal conservatives taking over and that is of great concern. I work in a long term care/rehab facility and the elderly are completely freaked out at the thought of losing their Medicare. They have already lost so much due to illness, lack of health care coverage, etc. But surprise, the people in the Catholic church are finally pushing back against the ultra-conservative teachings of the Vatican and bishops. More and more, I hear the word “conscience” from my Catholic friends instead of “obedience”. For many, nuns are considered an authority (much to the chagrin of the bishops) and Sr. Simone Campbell is leading the way for social justice. That woman does not back down! I guess we could be upset that people need a Church authority figure to follow instead of just thinking for themselves but I’m not going to go there. It’s a step in the right direction and we need to stand by them.

  • Lauren F

    I definitely agree with this post. One thing that keeps driving me nuts is this bizarre insistence by atheists (both some I know and some I just read) is the idea that if we just get rid of religion we’ll get rid of all the divisions and everybody will be treated equally. It’s like they think that all the rules really were laid down by some external god who’s just stopped existing! To me it seems like the fact that all these rules were made up BY PEOPLE who claimed to be speaking for a god makes it obvious that eliminating the gods isn’t going to eliminate the prejudices.

    I like the idea of the A+ movement though. I think it has value for people who want to do these things and make clear their religious stance – just like the religious groups that do the same. Ideally *I* would prefer social justice to be divorced from religion, to maximize the possible participants. But I’m content to have religious social justice groups and atheist ones as well.

    Does this make sense? I’m writing this on my phone and only half paying attention so I don’t know if it does.

    • Aniota

      If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you read Natalie Reed’s article linked above in the first paragraph by Libby. In this article, Natalie makes a point that I think is the crux of this whole notion that religion is the source for all discrimination: the very fact that being an outspoken atheist is the only way at all how so many otherwise over privileged “middle-class, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied men” can ever experience discrimination first hand.
      Now, this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem per se if they were just open to the possibility that not all people on the planet only ever experience the same amount and the same kind of discrimination they do. Unfortunately, however, as incidents like “elevatorgate” or the controversy of adapting sexual harassment policies on atheist meetings (seriously? are you fucking kidding me? how can there really be a controversy about this issue, for Ceiling Cat’s sake?!) all too clearly show, a good amount of atheists are unable to merely recognize the discrimination they themselves practice.
      Instead, excuses are being found as to why something doesn’t constitute discrimination against someone else – boiling down to ‘all discrimination is due to religion and since I’m not religious it logically follows that I cannot(!) discriminate against anyone, no matter what I do!’
      They confuse (I really, really like how in English this verb consists of “con”=”together” and “to fuse”!) the cause of the discrimination they experience with the causes for all forms of discrimination.

      Needless to say that it would be very unwise to start a movement on such a crooked foundation (again), because it would just lead to history repeating itself.

    • Ibis3

      bizarre insistence by atheists (both some I know and some I just read) is the idea that if we just get rid of religion we’ll get rid of all the divisions and everybody will be treated equally.

      I think this is a false characterisation. Most religions in the world today have thousands of years of practice oppressing women, gender non-conformists, sceptics, scientists, the heterodox, and other outgroups. Since the science has demonstrated that the claims made by these religions are factually incorrect, the rational conclusion is: let’s get rid of the religion and the scaffolding of most of that other garbage goes with it. It’s harder to hang on to racism when science tells us we’re all cousins and there’s no gods cursing or favouring any tribe. It’s harder to justify crushing women into the dirt or making them cover up in tents when there’s no male god pronouncing that women are lower beings and therefore mere sexual chattel. Dismantling religion is only step one (where the other steps are concurrent). I don’t think many atheists would claim anything different–definitely not that not holding a belief in gods is a magical panacea.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        I don’t know about that. I know plenty of atheists and secular people who do just find justifying their outrageously misogynist and racist attitudes without religion–and ironically they often prop them up with science. Racist science like eugenics has, it this point, mostly fallen into disrepute, but the gender equivalent, usually going by the name of “evolutionary psychology” has a lot of respected adherents. At any rate, you can bust out some kind of BS evo-psych explanation for your sexist attitudes and still be considered a Smart Person. (And if you argue, you’re often just dismissed as a “biased” feminazi who can’t handle The Truth. Sound familiar?)

  • http://bunnystuff.wordpress.com/ Jaimie

    grade *school* children :)

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    I loved every word of this post, Libby!

    My opinion? I like the idea of simply calling the movement “humanism” because, on a very personal level, that would let me out of the no-man’s land that those of us who are not Christian (and maybe Muslim) but not avowedly atheist frequently end up in. I do not know what I believe about God, or if I do–the only things I feel fairly certain of is that the traditional Sky-Daddy God is a rather silly and unlikely idea and that the very concept of the “supernatural” is a logical impossibility. If something occurs or exists, it must have an underlying “natural” mechanism that could at least theoretically be explained, even if humans do ultimately lack the intellectual capacity to explain it. (I don’t know if we do or not but we are just specks in the universe and not that special so who knows? :-P) So if some kind of omnipotent being or beings exists, it/they MUST be natural and not “supernatural.” “Supernatural” is a meaningless term to me. (Does that make me a materialist? An agnostic? I don’t know and it doesn’t really bother me–God and belief in God were not terribly emphasized in my Jewish upbringing, compared to culture and values and heritage and continuation of our ancestors’ legacy. There was no pressure to have an answer.)

    One thing’s for sure, my identity as a practicing Jew definitely eliminates me from the atheist camp but it sure as hell does not put me in what is traditionally defined as the “religious” camp either. I believe in logic and reason and don’t believe in superstition (unless it’s my weird need to say “rabbit, rabbit” when I get out of bed on the first of every month for good luck or something silly like that lol). I share many of the same criticisms of organized religion as atheists do. I firmly believe in the importance of secular government, social justice, anti-racism etc. I am a life-long feminist and supporter of LGBT rights. I’m an ally in all the ways *I* think are important, at any rate.

    I like the idea of humanism instead of atheism+ because it focuses on what its adherents are for, what they DO believe, not what they are against or don’t believe. I don’t like the idea of having to pass an ideological test (Are you atheist? Atheist enough?) to be an ally and work towards these common goals. Because I don’t know what my beliefs are and they don’t really fit into any paradigm that most people in our Christian-influenced country have in mind. The more I read and listen, the more I realize that this is a common problem among liberal Jews–we just don’t fit. It’s probably a problem for other groups too, I just don’t as much about them. (I’d imagine Buddhists would have a tough time placing themselves.) I think more straight-up atheists who are working within the Christian paradigm need to realize that a LOT of people “just don’t fit” into either category that they’ve got in mind. But we’d like to feel welcome among people that share are most important values. The fact that many of these atheists do NOT realize this is its own kind of privilege, in my opinion.

    • Rosie

      I totally agree with this post, PP, and the one below. Buddhism being (at least in some cases) a “religion” without a deity, doesn’t fit in well. Neither does Wicca, which is new enough on the scene to not have much dogma accrued, and parts of which actively stifle the accruing of dogma. All the Wiccans I’ve met consider humanism, tolerance, social justice, and environmentalism to be their ethics, and some are even atheist or agnostic despite their love of rituals that sometimes involve various named deities.

      And as you so beautifully stated below, “I want us to learn to LIVE with difference, not get rid of all of it so we’re all the same.”

    • machintelligence

      This response is made with tongue planted firmly in cheek. :-)
      You sound like a rational materialist to me — are you sure you are not suffering from atheism denial?
      See Daniel Dennett “You Might Be an Atheist”
      Long version http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0iVCxx-GkMg
      Shorter (edited) version http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLYjCqZx0xg
      Both are funny and well worth watching.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        I have no motive to deny being an atheist. Many people in my family are and so are a lot of my friends. Being an atheist poses no threat to my continuing to identify as a Jew either. When I was a kid I DID, for at time, identify as atheist, but I began to increasingly feel that that label did not really describe me as I got older. I agree that aspects of my outlook seem very materialist and, as I myself said, I don’t really know WHAT to call myself anymore, except a Jew, which has the virtue of being both definitely true and wonderfully non-specific on this point. I could go deeper into what my questions are but it would take too long–suffice to say that, while I think that there is a possibility of something that could be called a Higher Power (which is a very loaded term whose nuances and possible interpretations I could write pages on), it must, by virtue of existing, be part of nature and not “supernatural” and I have no speculation as to what its nature could be–who knows, it could be Q. lol. (Probably unlikely. :-P)

        If you want to call me an atheist, you’re welcome to, but it’s not a label that I currently feel fits me very well. Also, I observe Jewish rituals and holidays that involve mentioning God and this does not bother me–I interpret these things symbolically. But I feel like an atheist would probably object to that.

      • machintelligence

        I was just doing some good natured teasing, hence the disclaimer. Since atheists are always being told that they really believe in God, but are in denial, I thought it might be fun to do the opposite. I collect Christmas ornaments and lights, BTW. I still recommend the videos, they are a hoot.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Haha, don’t worry, I understood the intent and was not offended at all. However, it’s a perfectly reasonable question and one I sometimes ask myself, so I answered it pretty seriously. (Except for the Star Trek references. lol) It’s not, however, a question I feel particularly under the gun to answer any time soon. After Auschwitz, emigration to the United States, and the discovery of Reform Judaism, my formerly Orthodox grandmother never resolved that question herself (and often held contradictory beliefs that she could not reconcile) and it didn’t seem to bother her–it wasn’t what Judaism was about to her anymore and it’s not really what it’s about to me. Judaism was about values, social justice, family, philosophy and preserving some of what had been lost and passing it on. Our questions about the existence and nature of God were things that we were free to grapple with in private–or not–and only talk about if we wanted to. I observe more and more that God takes a back seat in post-Holocaust non-Orthodox Judaism. Not surprising, really.

        I haven’t had time for the videos yet because they’re a bit long, but I will check them out later for sure. :-)

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Also on the subject of “All Bad Things have been caused by religion”–that view has just always driven me nuts. For one thing, for a view that is so often held by people who style themselves champions of evidence-based reasoning, it is very easy to disprove. Religion has “caused” plenty of violence and suffering but it seems to me that non-religious ideological extremism, in-group/out-group thinking, and greed (to name just a few) are equally culprits. Most of the genocides of the 20th century did not have a religious basis, for example. Really, this is easy history.

    Also, I’m just uncomfortable with the idea that religion “causes” anything to happen. Like you say, it’s people that make things happen. When religion is involved in violence, it is generally because of religious intolerance, which is really just one form of intolerance of difference. So…get rid of difference? Do we get rid of culture also, because cultural intolerance causes plenty of shit too. It seems like the logical endpoint of the view that” Religion causes Bad Things, therefore eliminate it” is to get rid of all types of difference that could possibly be an excuse for certain people to kill or oppress other people. And I’m not comfortable with that. I want us to learn to LIVE with difference, not get rid of all of it so we’re all the same. It wouldn’t work anyway. Power-hungry people who desire to do harm would just find something else to rile other people up over. They’re very good at that.

    • Aniota

      “I want us to learn to LIVE with difference, not get rid of all of it so we’re all the same.”

      Amen to that!
      (Haven’t said that in years…)

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roger-Dodger/100003671193915 Roger Dodger

      Though I agree with the core outcome you seek, I don’t think anti-religion atheists seek to rid the world of differences. Rather I see more of the opposite – atheists seek to eliminate institutions and mindsets that essentially threaten groups of different people (especially the atheists). Their angst is all the worst since they know religion is ALSO based on false and sometimes damaging beliefs. However, if all religions (especially fundamentalists) accepted atheists warmly, I think much of the enthusiasm of atheists (for strongly demanding rational thought) would wane.

  • smrnda

    Religion, like other forms of ideology, are vehicles for people retaining and justifying power and privilege. The power and privilege kind of exists independent of religion, or at least it isn’t like it just sprang up into existence as soon as religion came onto the scene and before that things were idyllic. Power and privilege and oppression can find non-religious justifications if they need to, and often will to adapt.

    On my end, I’m a non-religious person but I don’t really ever label myself atheist or even humanist. I’m mostly just a leftist in terms of my political positions.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roger-Dodger/100003671193915 Roger Dodger

      Elegantly said. I’m glad you did not say religion is ONLY a vehicle for such things. Some people seem to take viewpoints like yours and limit them to the most extreme (and disingenuous) interpretations.

  • Pigtail Guy

    Atheism doesn’t explicitly exclude horrible ideas, no. And the chain of reasoning to get from there to humanism is not completely trivial either. You still need empathy and knowledge, for starters.
    The scary thing about religion of course is that you can have both empathy and knowledge, but still be a horrible person because your deity forces you, promising heaven and hell to you and others.
    Many people end up becoming atheist exactly because they have both empathy and knowledge, and recognise horrible tendencies in their religion. And so the atheism becomes a great part of their identity, because they _chose not to believe_ in whatever bred those horrible ideas. But for many apostates, that step had to be taken before they could allow themselves to infer the full breadth of humanism.

    This is an interesting difference between apostates and people who are simply born into atheism. Many apostates are in a bind initially when they lose their faith, but I think they usually have the knowledge and empathy to then infer humanism as a driving philosophy. Those born into atheism, not necessarily. They might still be either ignorant or simply lack empathy.

    Adding the plus to the end of atheism I think is actually a nice way for many to show a big part of their identity, while still acknowledging that atheism in itself isn’t enough to be a decent human being.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      I recognize and understand why atheism is important to some people’s personal identity, particularly “apostates.” People who actually grew up in an oppressive religious environment and went through the difficult process of rejecting it and rebuilding their worldview–people who don’t get to take atheism for granted–SHOULD claim the label proudly if that’s what they want. They went through a lot to get to where they are and if identifying strongly as atheist and not merely humanist is meaningful to them, they should be able to to do it without taking any crap for it. I don’t object to people personally and publicly identifying as atheist, I would just rather this “third-wave” movement that’s being talked about here be primarily defined by humanism, which would include many self-identified atheists, because I think that would ultimately be more inclusive of all the people that work towards the goals that are being identified as of primary importance.

      Also, I gotta say, this: “The scary thing about religion of course is that you can have both empathy and knowledge, but still be a horrible person because your deity forces you, promising heaven and hell to you and others.” is exactly what I’m talking about when I say that American (or maybe just Western) atheists work in a Christian paradigm that ends up just not acknowledging the existence of people who live outside of it. It’s simply not true that “Religion” promises heaven and hell to people. To my knowledge, two religions do that. Two. They happen to be the religions with the largest number of adherents by far but it’s still only two, out of many, many religions. When the debate over the problems of “Religion” is always really about Christianity (and sometimes Islam, though most Americans don’t know much about that either), those of us who were not only never Christian but were also explicitly something else just don’t know where to place ourselves. We’d like a place in this conversation too but often, both American Christians and American atheists seem hell-bent on pretending we don’t exist.

  • Adele

    I love this post. You are right on target. I particularly like this line: “Religion is sexist because humans are sexist. It’s not the other way around.” So true. I also might add that some religions are definitely NOT sexist in and of themselves – modern Wiccan comes to mind – however, for most people in the US, the fact that Wiccan is imaginary and superstitious is more immediately apparent than with mainstream Christianity because the beliefs are not so deeply ingrained in our culture. Also, in the US, Wiccans and other New Age religions have virtually no power as institutions, which makes their sexism of lack of sexism far less relevant to groups and individuals fighting against sexism.


  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/ashleymiller Ashley F. Miller

    I think self-definition as an “atheist” is important, particularly for those of us who’ve faced discrimination from family and others because of non-belief. The desire to hold on to “atheism” rather than use the term “humanism” isn’t from a fundamental difference of goals and beliefs, but from a difference of self-definition. I like atheism+ because it’s more confrontational, embraces a minority position that is loathed by many, and it is more honest about the belief that religion is one of the root causes of many social injustices. Beyond that, one of the social justice issues that atheism+ is committed to is the pursuit of equality for atheists, a public acknowledgement of our existence, and a political voice. It’s not that humanism doesn’t believe in equality for atheists, of course it does, but that’s not the focus.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roger-Dodger/100003671193915 Roger Dodger

      The problem you run into with “atheism+” is you ruin the clarity of the atheist movement. That can radically undermine the validity of atheism in debates with theists (and such debates do help to influence public policies that affect us all). One of the challenges with many obtuse theists is that they think atheism is a subjective religion or value system. Their belief in that viewpoint immediately gives them the perceived right to choose what to believe AND what to think of your beliefs. If you, an atheist, eagerly adopt a term that helps theists to associate atheism with a subjective and intellectually arbitrary *value* system, you radically undermine the attempt to enlighten others of the objective validity of atheism. Worse, it is perhaps the most painful aspect of atheism that it is about OBJECTIVE truths. Atheists do NOT have a choice in their belief system, unlike those who (think they can) choose theism. Atheism is something driven by rather clear facts (or lack thereof), it’s not about trying to say something about your subjective world viewpoint.

      Further, to make things worse, “atheism+” implies it is some kind of improvement over atheism! This hands over an opportunity to anti-atheists to point out that atheism CAN be improved. so is not only associated with subjectivity, but it needs improving! Atheism *can’t* be improved. “Atheism” is a VERY clear word that describes a VERY clear concept. There is no evidence and thus no reason to even suggest that gods exist. Please don’t muddy those waters. If you didn’t like how people treated you because you’re an atheist, just wait until theists realize you hold an atheism-based system of subjective “atheism+”. You’ll never hear the end of it. Regardless of whether the name has any impact on the actual objectivity of atheism, theists will seize on this as proof that atheism IS a subjective religion (which needs improvement to PLUS status, no less). Your nice, new word will be your undoing, and the undoing of actual atheists as well.

  • Chuck VonDerAhe

    I attended the AHA Conference in New Orleans a couple of months ago and since then the term “Humanist” has carried a bad connotation to me. More than once I was berated for using the label ATHEIST by small groups of AHA members. “Why do you have to be so (Blatant, Confrontational, Offensive, etc.).” These responses were hurled at me simply because I identified myself as an Atheist.
    p.s. – AHA membership came up for renewal. — Didn’t!

    • http://www.birminghamhumanists.org.uk/ Adrian Bailey

      That’s a shame. I hope you eventually rejoin and work to change those behaviours. People make a reasoned choice as to what to call themselves and we should respect that. No harm will be done to the Humanist movement by people self-identifying as atheists. After all, Humanists are atheists and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. It can be unhelpful to adopt a strident tone when dealing with political, religious, etc. groups, but some people go way too far in wanting to pussyfoot around.

  • ReasJack

    Daniel Dennet makes the observation that church communities facilitate a great deal of Moral Teamwork (love that term). The freethought community is making a lot of progress against the ancient bias against it. As it becomes more established the community is going to find itself increasingly asked to provide a framework for moral teamwork traditionally provided by churches. This is a sign of fledgling success. But it also provides a challenge.

    I am reminded of those lines from 2001: A Space Odessy (the novel) about the Star Child being master of the world but not sure what he wanted to do with it–but he would think of something.

    It’s reasonable, perhaps essential, that a successful freethought community (or communities–we could very well mature into many thriving ones) think about what we want to do with ourselves beyond establishing our right to exist as an accepted part of society.

    I commented on Blag Hag’s original post about inflitrating the boys club that

    Freethought, if it is to grow beyond an isolated cult (for lack of a better word), is simply going to have to integrate its worldview with all the current and future issues in civilization at large. That’s a large task. We’re not going to do a very good job of it without the equal partnership of people like the Skepchicks, or Ophelia, or Jen, or of those interested in racial discrimination or other important social issues.

    If we have nothing to say about this stuff other than, “we don’t want to talk about it”, why should anybody see us as a useful worldview?

    I will make note of one obstacle we have to a greater degree than our theistic counterparts. Many self-identified freethinkers share the trait of hating to be told what to think. For them the issue is less one of trying to come up with the best answers, and more a visceral defense of a form of intellectual libertarianism. It is easy to see people of this habit of mind reacting poorly to calls for advocacy of any kind. (Penn Gillette seems to be of this kind, and my perception has been that he struggles, and often fails at not being a dick when that passion is aroused.) This is not to say they don’t try to be rationalists as well, but that their cue to passion is that they just can’t stand to be TOLD!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roger-Dodger/100003671193915 Roger Dodger

      I think if you want to make atheism seem useful, you must let it stand on its own. If you thing atheism can only be perceived at-large as useful when it is melded with a subjective value system, then you would have an at-large association of atheism with subjectivism. So much for objectivity, the ONE thing that defines the point of atheism!

      If you want to appeal to others and convince them that losing their religion does not strip them of acceptable worldviews, show them worldviews that are acceptable. There is no need to conflate “worldviews” (ie, what should we do) with objective truth. They must be shown to be complementary, or you have already lost your “battle” for the betterment of humanity.

  • Ant

    H ~ A+


  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/blaghag Jen

    Honestly, I see A+ as Atheism + Humanism + Skepticism. Not all Humanists are atheists or skeptical, not all skeptics are atheists or humanists, not all atheists are humanists or skeptics…but I was to bring it all together. Why keep atheism as the label, then? Well, for one, the atheist movement is the one I most associate with, and progressive atheists interested in social justice is already a growing group within the atheist movement. It seemed natural to focus my efforts there. But also, “atheist” is still seen as a dirty, confrontational word, while “humanism” is often a softer way to dodge the drama…since most people don’t really know what humanism means. I’ll keep using the word atheist until it becomes destigmatized.

    But really, people can use whatever label they want. Humanist, atheist, atheist+, whatever. I just want change.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      Actually, I’m pretty sure that Humanism (big H) does include atheism and skepticism. Wikipedia states that it “embraces human reason, ethics, social justice, philosophical naturalism, while specifically rejecting religious dogma, supernaturalism,pseudoscience or superstition as the basis of morality and decision-making.” Small h humanism is what doesn’t, so that’s where you get Christian humanists, etc. Now I could be wrong, but this is my understanding.

      I do agree that which label one uses comes down to semantics if the goals are the same. I just hope that different people who mean the same thing picking different labels doesn’t create misunderstanding. And I absolutely agree with those who desire to remove the stigma from the term “atheist” – while I would call myself a Humanist, I also use the term atheist, and I think the two can easily be used together for clarification (though technically that’s not necessary, since big H Humanism rejects the supernatural by definition).

      • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

        Oh dear — I’ve been using “humanism” to denote the set of ideas (with the qualifiers “religious” or “atheist” when disambiguation was necessary), and “Humanism” for people who want to use it as a primary identity the way other people use “Christian”, “Catholic” etc. I’m a small-h (in my sense) but not big-H because I just resist identifications.

        Someone once asked me if my (grown) kids are Humanists — you could *hear* the capitalization — which rubbed me the wrong way since it sounded just like the way evangelicals will ask whether one’s other family members are Christian, ie: Are they in the Tribe? If not, are you doing your duty to bring them in? Screw that.

    • Aniota

      Jen, while I wholeheartedly agree with your goals for the atheist movement and think that A+ might very well turn out to be great unifying banner for all the outspoken atheists who cannot take the discrimination going on inside the movement any longer, I am still not comfortable with you quoting danielmchugh’s comment approvingly. He might see “social justice as a logical consequence of atheism”, but the precise reason A+ is so gorram necessary is that a lot of atheists don’t – which is why you wrote those posts in the first place, if I’m not severely mistaken!

      • ReasJack

        In some ways it’s like religions that have to be seen as they exist in the world instead of their preferred idealized theory of themselves.

    • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

      This. I want the whole ball o’ wax. I’ve been into social justice issues all my adult life — as a Christian I was in the Sojourners end of things rather than the Jerry Falwell end. And I want the skepticism/critical thinking because I was into that too, and that is the reason I became an atheist And the secularist advocacy. And I want to say to the squishy Humanists who dabble in alt-med, and the socially liberal religious, and the atheist-skeptics who support MRA and read Ayn Rand: I agree with you about this, and about that — but this other thing you’ve got here is total bullshit (maybe bad enough to prevent us working together on the stuff we have in common).

  • Ibis3

    Haven’t read the comments yet, but Ashley Miller has a response that I think gets to the heart of it:

    it is more transparent about the belief that religion is one of the root causes of many social injustices. My humanism is more than just secular, it is anti-religion.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      I do think that’s where you end up with some differences. There seems to be a spectrum among atheists from those who blame ALL problems in the world on religion to those who are so accommodating of religion that you might say they “kiss up” to it. (If SE Cupp is actually an atheist, which I seriously question, she’d be at this far end of the spectrum.)

      I think that those who are more accepting of religion probably prefer the term Humanist while those who see religion as evil are more likely to use the term atheist, and that this trend gets amplified over time as people adopt or shun labels depending on what they think of those who wear them, not simply of what the actually mean. If you define atheist as “atheist who thinks religion is the root of all evil” and humanist as “atheist who thinks religion has some good ideas and can do some pretty good things and isn’t so problematic at all” then you have a sort of atheist-humanist spectrum among those who don’t believe in a god. Thing is, that’s not what either of those terms mean.

      Where do I fall in the spectrum? Somewhere in the middle I think.

  • Erista

    As far as I’m concerned, religion will always be a potentially explosive problem. Does light and love and equality flow from atheism? No. But neither does atheism have a book said to be sent by our ultimate authority that says that wives should be to husbands what the church is to Christ, that women should not speak in church, that gay people should be stoned to death, that rape victims should be forced to marry their rapists, that non-believers deserve to be tortured for the rest of eternity, and more.

    I used to try so very hard to convince bigoted Christians that the Bible doesn’t say the shit they think it says (women should submit to men, homosexuality is evil, blah blah); the problem is that it does, and no amount of waffling on my part will convince a bible believing Christian that the bible says something other than what the words on the pages clearly lay out. I don’t know how to get around that and still maintain that the bible is a message from an all knowing, all powerful, all good being that we owe our complete allegiance to.

    If we manage to make religion progressive enough that it ignores all of the above, that’s great . . . except that in 100 years, that “divine” book will still be around to tell people to stone gays to death.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      But is that the book’s fault? Or is that the fault of people who actually think that it’s possible to derive the Whole Truth from a single freaking book that was written thousands of years ago. Because it seems to me that THAT’S the problem. The book has no power in and of itself. It’s only as powerful as people make it and the KIND of power it has depends entirely on what people choose to read into it–a kind, tolerant message, or a cruel, intolerant one.

      Again, it’s people that are the problem here. Intolerance, misogyny, homophobia etc.–it’s PEOPLE that do these things, not abstractions, even if the people do justify their actions with abstractions.

      • Erista

        No, it’s not just the problem that people think that they can derive the whole truth from the Bible (and other religious texts) although that is a part of it. The other part is that people think they can derive ANY truth from it. When the bible says that “Leviticus 18:22 Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination” one either has to declare that, yes, homosexuality (or at least male homosexuality) is an abomination, or one has to declare that the Bible is just wrong. And unless there is some kind of objective standard by which one can decide which verses are correct and which verses are incorrect, there’s no way to fight against verses like Leviticus 18:22, assuming one asserts that the Bible has some kind of divine authority. If it all comes down to personal preference (“Leviticus 18:22 is wrong because it isn’t consistent with my view of God”), then one really can’t fight against the opposing personal preference (“Leviticus 18:22 is correct because it is consistent with my view of God”); all we have to go on is the hope that any given society will have more people whose personal opinions cause them to ignore the horrible parts of the Bible.

        In short, if any part of the Bible is wrong AND we have no objective way of determining which parts of the Bible are wrong, then trying to derive ANY truth from the Bible is not viable.

        I would love it if I could figure out a way to make the Bible into a text that uniformly spoke against sexism, homophobia, transphobia, genocide, and similar things, but the simple fact is that the Bible is not such a book. One CAN find good passages within the Bible, but those passages are possibly balanced and probably over-weighed by the truly horrible passages. If one allows the bible to be a source of truth, then any of the passages may be taken as a essential part of the whole truth.

      • Rosie

        Thing is, Erista, even those who most aggressively defend their reading of Leviticus 18:22 skip over nearby passages calling shellfish, mixed textiles, and tattoos “abominations”. The book has its problems, certainly, but it only has as much power as *the readers give it*, same as books by Marx or Ayn Rand or anybody else. The problem is in regarding ANY text as an absolute authority…or any kind of authority, really.

      • Aniota

        I’m with you on the need to cherry-pick the Bible for it to convey a morality acceptable to us nowadays (hey, it was written ages ago, no surprise here). I am, however, quite fond of Leviticus 18:22 because the ‘abomination’ part allows for just the kind of cherry-picking some evangelicals might accept (if they’re up for a little humor).
        Leviticus 11:9-12 states that “Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you. ” So, both gay sex and sea food are abominations.
        Jesus states in Matthew 15:11 “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’””
        Therefore, since Jesus says that it’s fine to eat things that are considered an ‘abomination’, thus making the whole ‘abomination’ issue obsolete, it makes no difference whether you put a shrimp or a dick in your mouth / eat sea food or eat out a vagina.

        Now if only more evangelicals saw this reasoning as valid…

      • machintelligence

        Wow! I wouldn’t touch this comment with a ten foot

        *wanders off trying to think of something without phallic imagery*

  • Falls Apart

    I’m pretty much on the flip side of this: I’d consider myself fairly religious, but am so tired of hearing religion and morality conflated. Believing or not believing in God is a point of view, not a virtue. You can be right about it, you can be wrong about it, but you can’t be moral or immoral about it. I believe that an Atheist who cares about all human beings and treats everyone with respect and kindness to the best of his/her ability is on much, much better terms with God than someone who’s self-righteous, bigoted, or hypocritical, but deeply religious.

    • ReasJack

      I am interested (sincerely) in how you would try to define “deeply religious”. I know this can be tricky, like the old bromide about obscenity…I know it when I see it. I won’t attack or try deconstruct it (at least not without invitation). Of particular interest to me is whether you think it is the same thing across confessions. Does deeply religious mean the same thing when talking about a Sikh compared to an orthodox Jew. If so, what is the commonality. This is tangential to the thread I know, but it’s been on my mind lately.

      • Christine

        Falls Apart’s post could have been mine. I agree with every single word there and would state them as my own given the chance.

        When I say “deeply religious” I tend to mean someone for whom it is a significant part of their lives, who is religious with intent, and (generally) follows the dictates of their religion. You can make sure you cover your hair so no one but your husband sees it (or so that even he never does), but that doesn’t mean you’re more religious than someone who wears a tank top. I would generally say that someone who is “deeply religious” is somewhat of a mystic (some combination of fasting/meditation/prayer/etc), but this is going to be based on my cultural bias – as a North American I’m mostly familiar with Christianity and Islam, with a little bit of Hinduism and Buddhism thrown in there for good measure. I know that some religions are more quotidian than what I’m familiar with, and that’s where the “I know it when I see it” comes in.

        In my case it means that (until I had my daughter) I went to mass at least 90% of weekends (probably more like 95 or 99%). I fasted for most fast days (obviously not since getting pregnant), I tried to pay attention to religious teachings and actually evaluate them, and ones I thought were sound I attempt to live by. I found most of the information about the religious aspects of baptism which were given when we went to the info meeting before having the baby baptised to be really obvious (“Why are you going to church if you don’t know this?”). And Sunday mornings when I go “I might well be too sleep deprived to make it to mass” I throw on clothes and go to my husband’s church down the street (but that’s as much because I’m not stuck with the baby all morning).

      • Falls Apart

        What Christine said, basically. If someone is deeply religious, his/her religion means a lot to him/her and has a big impact on his/her life. And, yes, I would consider this pretty much the same over all religious denominations, at least, from what I’ve seen. Some of the best people I know are deeply religious. So are some of the worst. My guess as to why this is would be that religion is such a powerful thing, is capable of causing such great goodness and beauty, that, conversely, it must also be capable of causing great evil and cruelty.

  • Marc Jagoe

    This is a great article. It really highlights many of the same things that I’ve been saying to friends for a few years. Atheism is not a worldview and it is not the same as Humanism. Atheism is a lack of belief in a god or gods and you are going to get people from all sorts of sociopolitical backgrounds that share that with you. Many of them will hold views that you find repugnant but that is just what it is. You can’t build a social justice movement out of just a lack of a belief, no matter how hard you try. For some people, their progressive views may in fact be an extension of their atheism and that’s fine. They may work from a secular position, starting with nothing, and arrive at a place of social justice. That’s just not true for everyone, though, and I think that people in this movement have a difficult time accepting that. But you have to.

    For the A+ thing to work, the shared values and ideas of the people starting it must be broadcast front and center. There can be no room for ambiguity and no room for people to unwittingly stumble in it. I still have my doubts about a social justice movement being born from atheism, but perhaps at some point it just becomes a matter of semantics and just a label and the ideas take precedence if they are universally shared in the movement.

  • The Prof

    What you are talking about is Humanism, not atheism. So why call Humanism ‘atheism+’ it already has a name. I am a member of our local humanist group. Although I am an atheist too. But I do see humanism as very different. While people have prejudiced views on all sorts of areas, mainly due to social conditioning and their experiences, they can be atheists. Humanists have a credo, equal rights for everyone. So why re-invent the wheel?

  • Froborr

    I had a few things I wanted to say, but Petticoat Philosopher said pretty much all of them as well or better.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Awwww, thanks Froborr. Also, I just realized where else I’ve heard you’re name–you’re one of Maryann Johanson’s regulars. I’m Lady Tenar over there, although I haven’t had much time to comment often lately. :-P

      • Froborr

        Ha, yeah. I haven’t commented in months, but I do still read her regularly…

  • http://www.birminghamhumanists.org.uk/ Adrian Bailey

    Here in the UK there’s been a rapid growth in the last couple of years in the Skeptic movement. I’d characterise this as pro-science, pro-critical thinking, anti-woo, but not atheist or anti-religious. As such it’s been a breath of fresh air and a great addition to the spectrum of thought centres. The subject of atheism has started to rear its head and this has made me uncomfortable. I’m an atheist, but something is lost if the skeptic movement is no longer inclusive and theists stay away.

    • machintelligence

      Tut – tut, we wouldn’t want to break the spell, now would we?
      Why is religion privileged from analysis by skeptical means? I am always suspicious when a sentence begins “I am an atheist, but…”

      • Adrian

        I didn’t say that religion should be “privileged from analysis by skeptical means”. My point is that skeptic is not a synonym for atheist and should not be used as a euphemism for atheist either. Most religious people, in the UK at least, are open to having their beliefs analysed, but what is not acceptable is for them to be made to feel unwelcome at meetings.

      • machintelligence

        Are the atheists in you area that obnoxious and intolerant of theists? I know we have a bunch like that in the USA, but I think they are a (loud) minority. Or do the theists refuse to rub elbows with atheists? This is far more common here, where some fundamentalists view us as “devil worshipers”. Face it, most of us became atheists by applying skepticism to religion.
        PS. Thanks for using the US English spelling, When I read sceptic my brain sees septic and I do a double take. :-)

  • http://theanswers42.blogspot.com Margaret Nelson

    There are no “waves” of atheism. Atheism isn’t a philosophy. All it means is that you don’t believe in or accept that there’s a deity (a-theism = without theism, from the Greek). You can’t assume that anyone who describes him or herself as an atheist shares your values, or that they actually have any. For these reasons, I prefer not to describe myself as an atheist. Labels allows others to make assumptions about what I do or don’t think. The word is widely used by the ignorant as synonymous with secularist, and many who call themselves atheist are also anti-religionist, which doesn’t necessarily follow. I’m not mad about calling myself a humanist either, as I differ about what that means with many nominal humanists, thought I’ve been involved with organised humanism for over 20 years. Freethinker is sort of all right, but on the whole I’d rather avoid labels altogether, and let people work out what matters to me from how I speak, write and behave.

    • Anat

      [quote]You can’t assume that anyone who describes him or herself as an atheist shares your values, or that they actually have any. For these reasons, I prefer not to describe myself as an atheist. Labels allows others to make assumptions about what I do or don’t think.[/quote]

      Which is not a reason not to use labels, it’s a reason to use multiple labels.

  • Stephanie

    I really enjoyed this post, Libby Anne. I haven’t been extremely involved in this conversation but I feel like you illuminated it perfectly. On a side note: your point about people’s nature being independent of religion or atheism reminds me of a quote from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s novel Good Omens. It’s their hilarious and often insightful take on the Apocalypse–have you read it?

    “It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.”

  • Parse

    In other words, racism, sexism, etc., are the natural products of religion, and equality, feminism, etc., are the natural products of atheism. If you accept that idea, you can see how turning the term “atheism” into a sort of umbrella term under which to place all of these other causes makes sense – it’s as if they flow from atheism.
    Except that they don’t.

    Here’s my take on this issue. I don’t see these as exclusive domains; racism, sexism, feminism, and equality – all can spring equally from atheism and from religion. I believe it’s true that religion “gave a voice to the bigotry, established the privilege, and fed these things from the pulpit for thousands upon thousands of years.” However, I also believe that there are also large numbers of Christians who go beyond a base reading of the Bible, and use their belief system to advocate for and support equality, feminism et al. Atheism+ is roughly the same thing – going beyond the basic tenets of Atheism (there are no gods, Occam’s razor, standards of proof, etc) to advocate for and support equality, feminism et al.

    In pursuit of these goals, ‘progressive*’ believers are our allies. But simply because we’re in pursuit of the same ends, doesn’t mean we should hide our religious viewpoint. There is Progressive* Christianity, and Reform Judaism, so why can’t there be A+ Atheism?
    * This is, of course, if ‘progressive’ means what I think it does. If I’m wrong, I hope that a) what I meant is obvious by context, and b) somebody would help me out with the correct term.

  • Morpheus91

    Great post! I’ve felt something of a disconnect from the atheist community lately, because a lot of energy is devoted simply to mocking religion. Now, I would really like a world without religion and superstition, but I think it’s ill-considered to drive away the intelligent, caring people that hold to religion. What good does being right do if we just sit around smugly telling each other how right we are? For this reason, I’ve come to identify more as a humanist and feminist of late, despite also being an atheist.

  • DanniHouse

    I see where ur coming but I do think we can do both. I believe that sexism, racism, transphobia, heteronormativity etc. are very important to address as is destigmitizing atheism (in the process of calling out believer privilege).

    I don’t think we should drop the atheist label as a compromise just because it would be more difficult to recruit believer allies. The new atheist movement has been great in getting people to unapologetically be vocal about their atheism to the point that the atheist label or identity has taken on its own empowering meaning (especially with the coming out campaigns). Groups labelled as atheist continue to grow and the fight that atheists have been having (from Jessica Ahlquist controversy, to the billboards etc.) to the growth of atheism around the world all has meaning within the atheist label or identity. The label has taken on a life of its own that has significant meaning for myself and many others. I think the time to drop the atheist label is when nonbelievers are no longer discriminated simply because they don’t believe. The time for me to drop the atheist label is when I can say that I am an atheist and people don’t instantly think of amoral, aggressive, militant and so on. That’s a large part in why I still keep this label and why I am really happy to embrace the atheism+ anti-sexism, anti-ableism, anti-racism etc. label.

    Not only has it taken on its own meaning our we continue to push for acceptance as well as a more inclusive atheist community (under atheist+).

  • Eutopian

    I consider myself a Eutopian, but I suppose I’ve defined this as my personal set of values. I always had trouble labeling myself, and I think a label is an important thing if it can be an accurate symbol or icon for what you stand for. I’m an atheist, but with a social conscience. I believe in women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, environmental importance, fiscal responsibility, reason, rational thinking.
    Looking at the definitions given in the original post, I feel I fall under Atheism + and Humanism as here defined. Politically I’m mostly Green, which seems as much of a non-starter here in multi-party Canada as it is in the USA. Just remember there is a Green candidate for President… :P
    I’ve always felt that Humanists were too open to religion, and that Atheists were too mean in their opposition to it. I understand Atheist anger, but also people’s desire for more than just dictionary atheism.
    I don’t feel that any of the current labels fit what I stand for, which is why I made my own. Eutopia is from the Greek good+place. Not a utopia, which is a place that is perfect and so cannot exist as it is no+place, not a dystopia, because it isn’t a place that is trying to be perfect, but eutopia, a place that is better than where we are now.
    If there were more Atheist+ Humanists, the world would be a eutopia :)

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    I embrace all those labels, atheist, freethinker, humanist, sceptic , a feminist, pro-gay rights, … and now a member of the Atheism + movement. I don’t think they exclude each other. I understand why this new wave has been deemed necessary after all the drama and I want to participate.

    Also, I must admit that I don’t understand completely all the problems with the label. I get that Humanism exists but, apart from the incredibly catholic connotations that term has here, there are christian feminists and other such groups and I don’t see nobody jumping all over them for wanting to make their christian label relevant to their activism. I’m all for de-stigmatising the atheist label which to many people sounds like a dirty word.

    I really don’t know if this will be something durable or not but I’m willing to give it a good try. you may think a new label may be a waste of time but I think it has served to give people something to grab into and get new hope and I value that.

  • John Connolly

    In one word, Humanist describes me far better than atheist does. In fact, it is a much more positive word to use in the Christian society that we life in. It doesn’t give the immediate negative confrontational connotation that atheist does, requiring more time to justify than you usually have on first meeting someone conditioned by Christianity , nor does it convey any of the positive values that we represent and are trying to promote.

    To call Humanism a compromise shows a lack of awareness of its potential . It’s all about semantics. There would be nothing wrong with the word religion, either, if it were not being used to promote supernaturalism. There are many sincere Christians who have dedicated their lives to helping others, but unfortunately for all the wrong and mythical causes. The social aspect of religion, what’s called fellowship in UU is something that needs to be more universally adopted for atheists to reap the benefits of fellowship that are sorely lacking in our overly individualistic, nihilistic group today. I’ve never had greater friendships than I found in a UU fellowship in Denver, where I also experienced some of the most thought provoking talks and cutting edge ideas, like Ted talks, right there in our own group. I sorely miss it ever since I moved away.

  • James W

    I very much agree with what John Connolly says above. I’m a humanist who is very active in my UU congregation (Santa Monica) but while I get a great deal out of it (and it is a very Humanistic congregation with a long tradition of non-theist ministers), the religious/church trappings of UU are not for everyone, especially those who can’t separate the idea of a congregation and a Sunday service from old dogmas.

    Also – there seems to be a lot of confusion in the atheist/humanist community about “religious humanists.” Keep in mind that Religious Humanism is the same (non) belief and philosophically identical to Secular Humanism… the only difference is that it is practiced in the context of a congregational model like a UU church or Ethical Culture. These days “humanism” almost always refers to the modern definition, a non-supernatural philosophy, so it would be inaccurate to think that working with religious humanists requires a leap for secular humanists, atheists etc.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roger-Dodger/100003671193915 Roger Dodger

    Thanks for this great post. You left out one controversial point. IMO, it is quite possible (maybe likely) that if atheism eventually becomes dominant, morality as we know it could decay. After all, true atheist thinkers who honestly review evidence would agree there is NO moral law written in stone, by a higher power or otherwise. WE create morality and science indicates this is because it is our nature, not because their should be some natural morality. Trying to convince people they must create morality when there is no godly fear in them might become a challenge. It seems foolish that Jen of Blag Hag is upset with the atheists and wants to redirect the atheism movement, when the core of atheism is “show me”, don’t start “telling me” (what is immoral, such as sexism).

    Jen should look to the TYPE of people who FEEL like achieving a certain morality She could accept that humanists are her best philosophical friends and humanism should become her goal. Instead, Jen seems bent on ignoring humanism while attempting to popularize a term and a movement called “atheism+” (though a better name might be Humanism Lite). Unless, of course, Jen seeks to take in membership dues for “atheism+”, sell ads on her blog next to her “atheism+” articles, and sell T-shirts online. Then “atheism+” is an admittedly great idea. Maybe she could open a membership office in Brooklyn and capitalize on all the hipness there for her new new hip movement.

    Meanwhile, the people in the trenches doing real humanism will worry less about cute names and keep at the business of edifying our collective existence.