What the history of feminism has to teach Atheism+

What the history of feminism has to teach Atheism+ August 23, 2012

As many of you certainly know, over the past year there has been a lot of talk within organized atheism about creating inclusive spaces – making sure that women, minorities, and LGBTQ individuals feel safe and welcome at conferences, in local groups, and in the online community. I think that one of the most important things to come out of all of this is that we need to oppose hostile environments. We need to make sure that everyone, regardless of their sex, race, or gender orientation is comfortable in these spaces.

This concern has, in the past week, generated the idea of creating a “new wave” of atheism called “Atheism+,” which would function as a sort of sub-movement within the atheist community and would be openly and avidly feminist, anti-racist, and pro LGBTQ rights, among other things. There is a lot of excitement about this idea, but I have also seen some people express concern.

I’ve written before that atheism, by the dictionary definition, is simply not believing in a god or gods. I’ve pointed out that it’s no wonder there is disagreement among atheists on a whole range of issues, because the only thing all atheists agree on is not believing in God. I’ve also pointed out that things like racism and sexism are human problems, not simply religious problems. It’s not a surprise, then, that there are all sorts of different atheists with all sorts of different beliefs. I mean, Ayn Rand was an atheist, and I disagree with her on pretty much everything.

The goal of Atheism+, as I understand it, is to bring together those atheists who agree on issues like social justice and equality. Atheism+ is to be about working toward social justice and equality and about being open and accepting of women and minorities and supportive of their rights.

But there’s something I’ve learned from feminism, and that’s that not everyone who shares common goals agrees on the nuances of those goals or about how to get there. Feminism is defined as the pursuit of social, political, and economic equality for women. What that should look like and how to get there are issues not all feminists agree on. In fact, sometimes they very much disagree.

Is pornography objectifying to women and therefore something to be opposed and eliminated, or not? Is the choice to be homemakers antithetical to the goal of economic equality and therefore something to be opposed and eliminated, or not? Feminists disagree.

And you know what? That’s okay, because, as I see it, feminism is a discussion, not a rulebook. Beyond a belief in the importance of working toward women’s social, political, and economic equality, feminism doesn’t have some sort of religious creed everyone has to sign in order to be called a feminist.

Unfortunately, not every feminist has agreed with me on this (you see what I mean about disagreement!). Disagreements among feminists – disagreements that are often not about the eventual goal of equality but rather about what that looks like and what we need to do to get there – have at times led to serious infighting, splintering the feminist movement and hampering its ability to make meaningful progress. There have been feminists who have declared that anyone who is into BDSM can’t be a feminist, or that anyone who is a stay at home mom can’t be a feminist, and so on. There have been feminists who label anyone who disagrees with their specific methods or their specific vision for what equality looks like – whether or not they support the end goal of equality – “anti-feminist,” “sexist,” or “misogynist.” And in the process, some people who do believe in the importance of women’s social, political, and economic equality have been turned off of both the label and the movement, often even closing their ears to what could be a profitable conversation and refusing to have anything to do with a movement they fallaciously see as part of the problem.

The truth is, I don’t want Atheism+ to make this same mistake.

I’m not saying I think atheists with social justice goals should have to work with misogynist, racist, or homophobic atheists – I mean my goodness, I wrote a whole post saying that I don’t see misogynist, racist, or homophobic atheists as my allies! I’m all for opposing hostile environments and for working with like minded individuals toward social justice and equality! My concern is simply that we need to find a way to do this while still allowing room for genuine, honest intellectual disagreements about the substance of feminism, social justice, and other such issues.

One reason some people have expressed their distaste for the label “Humanist” is because it is, they say, vague. I personally like this vagueness. Feminism is also vague. Being vague allows for a conversation, a discussion, and the understanding that those who share the same goals and values may still at times disagree – which is okay. And normal. And to be honest, something you should expect within a community of free thinkers.

As the argument goes, Atheism+ is not vague. It is direct. It states exactly what is believed and adhered to, and it draws a line in the sand. Richard Carrier finished his post on this topic with the following:

I call everyone now to pick sides (not in comments here, but publicly, via Facebook or other social media): are you with us, or with them; are you now a part of the Atheism+ movement, or are you going to stick with Atheism Less?

Then at least we’ll know who to work with. And who to avoid.

This call to choose sides and this “us versus them” mentality makes me extremely uncomfortable. When some of Carrier’s readers called him out on this, or disagreed with him or his tone or some small point of substance, Carrier dismissed them with comments like “So, one vote for douchery. Got it” and “Accept it or GTFO” and “This is a fallacy called ‘false analogy.’ Own it or renounce it. Be rational or GTFO.” I understand the desire to disassociate from those who are racists or misogynists, but what worries me is that the comments I quote above were directed at those who simply disagreed with Carrier’s methods and tone, not against people who had made racist or sexist remarks.

My concern is that this insistence that all who agree must adopt a specific label and this sort of “with us or against us” way of thinking may result in a marginalization of those who share the same values and goals but not the label or specifics and an inability for anyone within the sub-movement itself to express dissent or disagreement, even while still sharing the core beliefs of feminism, social justice, and so on, without being pushed out, marginalized, shunned, and labeled as a bigot. My concern is that it may stifle productive discussion and result in a list of specific positions one must endorse to avoid being marginalized or called a bigot.

Any movement that does not allow for dissent and discussion is authoritarian by nature, and I don’t want to see this happen to Atheism+. I guess what I’m saying is that there needs to be an understanding that even people who have the same goals in mind can have disagreements on how to reach those goals, or what exactly those goals need to look like, and that’s okay.  I understand the need to marginalize outright misogynists, racists, and trolls, but creating a hard and fast “us versus them” mentality, condemning dissent, and calling someone a bigot at the first moment of disagreement will only lead to alienating and pushing away those who might otherwise be natural allies in this endeavor.

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