Not Every Creed is a Dogma

PZ Myers has just posted an interesting piece regarding some of the pushback Atheism+ is getting from some quarters of the freethought community. Apparently, some think A+ is divisive, exclusive, a fruit of the egos of the perceived leaders, an attempt to tell people what to think, a hive mind, a religion of atheism, and an attempt to take over other freethinking groups. Jen McCreight has reported that she has been accused of trying to start a cult, of being divisive and exclusive, and of being an egotist. I’m certain that other high profile A+ers have also received such criticism.

This is astonishing to me: it looks like A+ is receiving precisely the same sorts of criticism the Humanist Community at Harvard frequently receives from some freethinkers. I am regularly accused of all these same faults by, for instance, commenters at Freethought Blogs. I have been called an egotist, a closet religionist, a wannabe cult leader, accused of telling people what to think, speaking for people I shouldn’t, setting myself up as a “dear leader”. Much the same has been said of my colleagues.

The parallel is not perfect. Some of the things HCH does (like explicit community building) and some of the words we have used (like the name “Chaplaincy” – something we’ve changed recently) might legitimately create the impression that we’re more “religious” than we actually are (the same way that people who read my blog without as obsessive a love of Ingersoll as I have sometimes think I’m advocating the construction of “atheist temples”). So some of the criticism we get is more understandable.

But the general structure of the criticism and the central concerns are similar enough to be instructive. It seems that, to some subsets of the freethinking community, any explicit statement of values – “This we believe” – is divisive and dangerous to freethought itself, bringing with it the potential for dogmatism and authoritarianism. They think every creed is a dogma.

This is a peculiar characteristic of some parts of the freethinking community. It is understandable that a community dedicated to freedom from imposed ideas and the untrammeled pursuit of truth would be extremely wary of dogmatism, of any attempt to limit liberty of the mind. But it is not the case that any strong statement of values by a group entails the attempt by that group to force those beliefs on others, nor does it follow that any group which chooses to define itself through a shared commitment to a set of values is thereby unfairly “excluding” people who do not share those values.

In fact they are doing something extremely important: focussing the discussion within the freethought community on what comes next, after the decision that god does not exist. They are saying, essentially, “I have decided I do not believe in god. Here’s what I do believe in.” This is vital because no social justice movement can exist without a positive program, and communities cannot endure without values which they endorse. The discussion they are starting is exciting, challenging, and long overdue.

By explicitly embracing a positive set of progressive values people who are identifying with A+ are endorsing a creed, for sure. But they are not erecting a dogma.

About James Croft

James Croft is a Humanist activist and public speaker who has swiftly become one of the best-known new faces in Humanism today. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently studying for his Doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As a leader in training in the Ethical Culture movement – a national movement of Humanist congregations – he is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • A Hermit

    Well said; the thing that makes us a community is the body of ideas and ideals we share.

    Actually when I was first realizing that I no longer believed in God I was heartened to find CSH’s “Affirmations of Humanism. Here was a well articulated list of ideas that I had already mostly adopted.

  • Randy

    “But it is not the case that any strong statement of values by a group entails the attempt by that group to force those beliefs on others, nor does it follow that any group which chooses to define itself through a shared commitment to a set of values is thereby unfairly “excluding” people who do not share those values.”

    Your statement is true, but it also has little to do with A+. If you spent time observing A+ and its founders, you will note that their leaders are explicitly about authority, conversion, and demonization of the other. Call it dogma, or don’t, but it’s certainly a toxic development.

    • James Croft

      I haven’t witnessed that myself, but you in principle could be right. What I’m interested in is the concept of A+, which I see as a form of Humanism with a different origin and focus to the Humanism which I most identify with.

    • abb3w

      Which “leaders” in particular do you think are evidencing these? Can you provide particular posts/comments that you consider especially prominent examples? I’m noodling with a possible description in terms of some social psychology traits (though with less moral assessment than “toxic”), which examples could help illustrate.

  • Baal

    I’d like the A+ (PZ in this case) to do something more progressive than providing an oversimplified views of their critics and then blanketly dismissing the concerns. (example oversimplification example:”Apparently, some think A+ is divisive, exclusive, a fruit of the egos of the perceived leaders, an attempt to tell people what to think, a hive mind, a religion of atheism, and an attempt to take over other freethinking group”) I think in their zeal to screen for actual true ‘safe’ people that they have forgotten or down play the value of getting along and being proportionate. PZ calls the A+ egalitarian but I don’t see it. He also in that post admits to ‘poking’ the A+ opposition. Surpise! they poke back. He then holds odious tweets as indicative of all people who aren’t happy with how A+ rolled out or how the A+ who self identify as such represent that movement in the various atheist comentariats. That’s too broad a brush. In his (PZ’s) defense, I do see that the criticism is often crappy but that doesn’t excuse him and the self identified A+ from valid criticism. He and they are insistent that the later be dismissed with the former. This beggars my credulity. Every group has negative members and a duty to publicly disclaim their harms. Not doing that group self reflection is akin to calling yourself perfect.


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