Reclaiming atheism

What with the way the world is at the moment, I've been thinking a lot about social justice. I find myself confronted with sexism, homophobia, and even racism, with increasing frequency both offline and online. Possibly it's just because I'm becoming more conscious of these things as I become more educated about the world, myself and the power dynamics therein. But even empirically it seems like the dark forces are massing.

Recently, we've seen extreme misogyny coming from both sides of the Atlantic in unrelated incidents. Homophobia, racism and religious bigotry are everywhere we look. And that's just in the last few days, and these are far from isolated incidents.

At university, one of the places I found camaraderie was in the newly founded atheist society. Here I found people who celebrated rationality, free thinking and evidence-based argument. The society, too, was not (just) about drunk philosophising and debunking. In our inaugural year we lobbied the union, we protested antisemites, we collected money for AIDS charities, we specifically promoted interfaith dialogues. We were awesome.

But after university, much to my chagrin, some of the largest atheist communities I found outside the bubble were weird maelstroms of assholery. All those vices for which I thought a clear head would hold no hiding place, were still rife.

Sexism and misogyny seem most pronounced, at least as far as I'm aware, with a sequence of recent events in particular highlighting some real ugliness. High-profile atheist Rebecca Watson's offhand comments about inappropriate conduct at a con resulted in a veritable shitstorm. A child who tried to engage positively got bombarded with casual rape jokes threats just because she's female. (Here's a link, but not one for the faint of heart.)

At its worst, the prevalence and severity of this kind of thing would be enough dissuade any sane person from approaching atheist communities. While not every atheist community online is like this, these aren't isolated cases. Even close to its best, atheism often presents a face which is that of a smug, white, middle-class man. I'm certainly not the first to comment on its lack of diversity, but this intense hostility and hatred of whole social groups?

But I know that this isn't really a part of atheism. I've been in atheist communities which weren't chauvinist quagmires. On the contrary.

Personally, I've always considered my passion for fairness and revulsion at bigotry to be grounded in a similar place to my rejection of supernaturalism and faith. For me, atheism has always been about challenging received wisdom and producing answers through dialectic discussion. But even more than that it's been about challenging my own beliefs and figuring out where I ought to fit in the world. It's humbling and empowering.

Until yesterday this feeling manifested as a general malaise at the thought of engaging with atheist communities again. Debunking theology over beer is always fun, and also important, but I've kind of done that now. (The problem with dogma, see, is that it doesn't really change to strengthen itself and present a new challenge.) And most times I've strayed toward online atheist communities who've been doing something other than philosophising, I've found Youtube-comment-level, testosterone-fueled braying (e.g. Reddit or the comment threads to Pharyngula). Or else vaguely haughty self-congratulation. Generally disappointing.

Of course there are exceptions. Many fantastic activist organisations exist whose stance is grounded, if not in atheism, at least in secularism and scepticism. But more single-issue groups, not so much the kind of loosely organised yet rallying banner of, say, the contemporary feminist or LGBT-rights movements which fight (more or less) united on many fronts.

The red atheist A with a superimposed blue plus
Picture blatantly ripped off from One Thousand Needles

It turns out I'm not the only person who's thinking along these lines. Yesterday I heard Jen McCreight being interviewed on a recent episode of Ed Brayton's excellent podcast (which I've mentioned before) about an idea she calls "atheism plus". (Jen McCreight is famous for her "Blag Hag" blog and as the progenitor of boobquake.) In fact, it was listening to this interview which began to crystallise in my head these thoughts which I'm writing here.

I can't explain the ideas better than Jen herself. But in general, the idea is to let atheists — those that are passionate about social justice, civil rights and evidence-based policy because of their atheism — be united by these common goals and motivations. This would serve both to further these specific goals, but also to elevate atheism in general out of the the funk into which it seems to have fallen. It would serve as a constructive outlet for the energies of angry atheists. It would render obsolete the tiresome question "you're an atheist... do you just believe in nothing?".

These ideas seem to me to be well-founded. To quote someone whom Jen quoted on the show and also in her blog:

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.

Exactly.

It'd be silly to claim that all injustice in the world stems from religion, but this is why people like me care about atheism. This is why I was motivated to co-found Warwick Atheists and why I still hold a personal fondness for the label, even in spite of the Reddit–Gervais taint.

Sure, it can be fun to scoff at Biblical inconsistencies or Mormon absurdities, but really I find it hard to get angry about people finding personal solace in faith. But what do I get really fired up about? Contraceptive rights, science education, secular government, religious protectionism, equal marriage rights, to name a few. Matters where those in power inform and justify their immoral actions with falsehoods and mythology. Mythology we inherited from millennia-old people who didn't have sufficient tools to comprehend their world.

Right now, I know that only with equal marriage rights can we have justice. I know this in part because I know that the myths of the Bible, however they're interpreted, are irrelevant. We must work with what we have in front of us: the fact of love and the rule of law. It's that simple.

This is not, of course, to suggest that atheism is necessary for a rational foundation for social justice advocacy. In fact, it's not the only (or even the main) source of my ethical or political views. It's just one of the ways I get there, and one I feel I've been neglecting.

So I'm pretty happy with Jen's proposed improvements to the atheist movement. Like her, I'm not a huge fan of labels (lol, herding cats), but atheism+, progressive atheism, whatever. "I just want change."

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One thought on “Reclaiming atheism”

  1. Phew, it was a struggle to get through some of those links! So much rage. I also noticed that Jen McCreight has recently been forced to go on indefinite hiatus as a result of relentless (often misogynistic) online abuse. So it's good news all round.

    I too, often find myself searching around for some kind of sane, rational, inclusive, non-toxic group, with some solid outlines and sense of purpose and social activism (as you described), and would definitely be signing up to such a movement if it was available. Will definitely check out this A+ thing!

    Furthermore, regarding the generally disturbing levels of said toxicity in anonymous online communities (I often find myself quite shaken by the sheer volume and popularity of it).... What do you think are the causes of this? Is it just a permanent part of the human condition which is exponentially more visible since the invention of online forums? Or do you think factors such as modern education/media/parenting/society etc. have had some sort of negative effect?

    Perhaps it is just a result of some sort of compartmentalism and willful blindness caused by the anonymous/remote nature of online communication which dampens natural human empathy and rationality – some people seem to have the capacity to get 'whipped up into a frenzy' of... amoral post-irony, and separate themselves from the morals they hold to in the off-line world (I think perhaps that a lot of people who make rape jokes about a 15-year-old girl on the internet would feel uncomfortable making the same jokes when confronted by a 15-year-old girl in real life, let alone actually consider enacting the rape they threaten). And if this is the case, I feel like the internet community at large needs to take a look at itself as time goes on, and step up its levels of awareness and self-regulation – I see so many incidences like the closure of BlagHag where interesting, genuine voices are being stifled by idle and extremely unwarranted abuse..

    Anyway, thanks for the inspiring blog post!

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