On August 18, BlagHag blogger Jen McCreight wrote a post called, “How I Unwittingly Infiltrated the Boy’s Club & Why It’s Time for a New Wave of Atheism.” As a cry against an ugly strain of sexism and misogyny in the godless movement, and a call for a “new wave” of atheism that explicitly focuses on social justice, McCreight’s post quickly sparked the formation of a new and rapidly growing online community dubbed “Atheism+.”
I was on board as soon as I heard about it. And as one of the earliest adopters, defenders, and public voices of Atheism+, I want to introduce it to humanists who aren’t aware of it, or who have heard about it and are wondering what it means.
What is Atheism+?
From the FAQ: “Atheism Plus is a term used to designate spaces, persons, and groups dedicated to promoting social justice and countering misogyny, racism, homo/bi/transphobia, ableism and other such bigotry inside and outside of the atheist community.”
Okay, that’s nice. What does it mean in the real world?
Right now, the most tangible form of Atheism+ is (a) an online community and (b) an online library with research and other writings about social justice, privilege, discrimination, and more. (It’s currently being amassed at atheismplus.com.) In the forum, atheists discuss social justice issues (within atheism, and in the world at large), organize action, seek and provide support, and just hang out. There’s a special educational forum, where introductory questions get civil responses, where people sincerely asking 101-level questions will get patient answers from folks who aren’t sick of answering them, and where folks who are sick of having their conversations derailed for the hundredth time by 101-level questions can point people.
Why the name?
The name—much like the community itself—burbled up from the grassroots. When McCreight called for a new wave of atheism, a commenter with the handle Pteryxx suggested calling that wave “Atheism+” and hundreds of others immediately ran with it, expressing enthusiastic assent, designing logos, and proposing slogans.
This story actually answers a lot of questions about Atheism+, because a lot of folks seemed to think it was cooked up by a cabal of prominent atheists, with the vision, messaging, and rollout carefully crafted. But it wasn’t that way at all. Atheism+ is a grassroots movement, the crystallization of an idea that’s been percolating for a long time. Projects that come out of it—such as the A+ Scribe project, which is now transcribing atheist videos and podcasts for the deaf and hard-of-hearing—are self-organized by members of the community.
This has its downsides. There was, for instance, some early writing by proponents of Atheism+ that took a hostile, “you’re either with us or against us” tone, very much counter to the general attitude of the community. That might have been avoided if there actually had been a coordinated rollout. But there are huge advantages to a self-organized, grassroots community organically springing up from an unmet need. I assume most humanists will see that.
What’s the context? Why did this happen?
The diplomatic answer: Lots of atheists are passionate about social justice issues—racism, sexism, poverty, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and more. They see how religion often perpetuates social injustice, and at the same time they see how the godless communities have often failed to make a home for marginalized people. They want a place to discuss these issues, and to take action on them. For many atheists, Atheism+ is that place.
The somewhat harsher answer: For over a year, outspoken feminist women in the atheist movement have been bombarded with misogynist abuse, harassment, humiliation, slut-shaming, invasions of privacy, and vivid threats of violence, rape, and death. And conversations about this, and about ways that other marginalized people are made to feel unwelcome in the atheist community, have commonly been met with rationalization, trivialization, changing the subject, denial (that the problems exist or that they’re in any way serious), victim-blaming, and more. Even what should have been an entirely uncontroversial proposition—that sexual harassment policies could go a long way toward dealing with the sexual harassment that sometimes happens at atheist and skeptical conferences—was met with a firestorm of controversy. (Advocates of implementing such policies were met with vile, often grossly sexualized abuse and threats, thus, ironically, proving their point.)
A lot of atheists—especially women—are sick of this. They feel exhausted, frustrated, demoralized. Some people who’ve contributed greatly to the movement are on the verge of quitting, or indeed have already quit. And others new to atheism—especially women—who’ve seen all this unfolding may decide to simply stay away. Atheism+ is an attempt to give these people a safe space.
Why is this necessary?
What’s more: As of this writing, a month after the site was started, the Atheism+ forum has 1,983 total members, with 28,336 posts on 1,644 topics. If you have any doubts about whether Atheism+ is necessary, those numbers should put them to rest. As Stephen T put it on the Atheism+ forum, “I’ve lost count of the number of members (in their introductions and elsewhere) who’ve written that they previously only lurked on forums/blogs. That the atmosphere and pushback intimidated them. Many of these people now have tens of posts. Some of them have over 200.” Atheism+ is clearly giving a home to a huge number of atheists who haven’t felt like they’ve had one.
Isn’t this divisive?
The diplomatic answer: No more than any other self-defined subset of the community. This isn’t an attempt to re-define atheism for everyone, or to force people out who don’t toe a party line. This is a subset of atheism for atheists who share certain values and interests. It’s no more divisive than an atheist knitting group.
The somewhat harsher answer: The atheist movement is already divided, as I’ve already pointed out. In this sense Atheism+ isn’t creating a division—it’s recognizing one that already exists.
If people want to pursue social justice in a godless context, why don’t they just embrace humanism?
There’s a lot of similarity between Atheism+ and humanism. If you look at the FAQs and mission statements of various humanist organizations and of Atheism+, you’ll see lots of overlap. But they’re not identical.
The reality is that atheism and humanism are perceived very differently, and the communities and movements often attract different people. Atheism is largely perceived as more confrontational, more defiant, more in-your-face, more actively opposed to religion and engaged in persuading people out of it. Humanism is largely perceived as more diplomatic, more friendly, more focused on creating secular replacements for the rituals and structures of religious communities, and more willing to work with religious groups on issues they have in common.
Even if this difference were just a matter of perception, that perception shapes reality. Different people are drawn to the various secular, skeptical, and freethought groups, and they shape the communities and organizations they’re in. Lots of people are drawn to humanism who aren’t drawn to atheism, and even actively reject the label. And vice versa.
But don’t take my word for it. When I asked people in the Atheism+ forum why they participate in Atheism+, either instead of or in addition to humanism, here are some of the answers I got:
Radi: “The reason I am so excited about Atheism+ is that, while it does overlap considerably with secular humanism, it comes from a very specifically non-religious standpoint, and all that follows from said specifically non-religious, non-superstitious standpoint.”
Onamission5: “Maybe it’s my fundamentalist background, maybe it’s the religious abuse I suffered, but I don’t feel like I can be myself 100% if I have to avoid claiming my staunch atheism.”
apxeo: “Atheism’s willingness to engage in confrontation and conflict, to draw sharp lines in the sand, probably attracts a different set of people than humanism’s more mannered approach.”
yellowsubmarine: “At a point in time, in America anyway, where the prevailing belief is that if you are an atheist, you can’t be moral, it is INCREDIBLY important to me that I identify myself as an atheist as well as a humanist.”
In short: humanism and Atheism+ are communities with very similar values, but with different (although often overlapping) methods and styles of activism.
And both communities will be stronger working together than either will be working alone, or at odds with each other. That’s been true of every social change movement in history, and it’s true of ours: we’re stronger when the confrontationalists and the diplomats work together, instead of each arguing that their method is always better for everyone. And most people in Atheism+ don’t give a crap what you call yourself, as long as you share the values. If you care about social justice—if you’re working with us on a petition or a picket line, a fundraiser or a publicity campaign—we don’t care whether you call yourself an atheist+, a secular humanist, a moral secularist, an ethical atheist, or George the Green Gopher. We’re happy to work with you.
Really, though, the best way to find out about Atheism+ is to visit the site. Check out the forums and the library. You’ll probably find out more from looking at the actual thing than you will from opinionated people like me gassing on about it. Atheismplus.com. Come by and say hello!