Unofficial Atheism Plus Proto-FAQ
Edit: After writing this FAQ I offered it to atheismplus.com with full editorial rights. It was then tentatively adopted as the official FAQ and put up for community review. If you would like to participate in revising the FAQ, please see this thread.
What is Atheism Plus?
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. The idea for the name came from a comment on a blog entry by Jen McCreight wherein she discussed the need for a new wave of atheism. Jen introduced a number of logos for the project shortly thereafter. Although it was only recently given a name, Atheism Plus has been percolating for a while.
Does A+ represent the official atheist position on social justice?
No. Not all atheists are interested in advocating for social justice. Many atheists choose instead to focus on other worthy endeavors such as science education, skepticism in medicine, or the separation of church and state. Many atheists do not consider their atheism particularly important, nor do they necessarily connect their atheism to any other positions they do or do not hold. And even among those atheists who are interested in promoting social justice, not all agree that the issues focused on by Atheism Plus are the most important ones or that the supporters of Atheism Plus are addressing these issues the right way. There are as many perspectives on social justice, its meaning, its import, the current state of its various aspects, and how best to promote it (if at all) as there are people. All are welcome to start, support, oppose, or ignore groups like Atheism Plus. However, supporters of Atheism Plus are not obligated to provide a forum for their opposition.
What if I don’t want to participate?
Those who choose not to use the Atheism Plus designation are not automatically considered supporters of bigotry. An “us and them” understanding is implicit whenever a group of any kind forms, but the “them” in this case is not monolithic. It is composed of individuals and groups who range from the supportive but uninvolved, to the neutral, to those opposed on principle, to the unabashedly bigoted, hateful, and discriminatory. The “us” in this case are the individuals and groups who are interested in seeing what an association of atheists working against bigotry, hatred, and discrimination can accomplish when given their own spaces in which to develop ideas. This position should be understood as distinct from the “with us or against us” position endorsed by some early proponents of Atheism Plus–a position which has been rejected by general consensus. (Anyone who decides to do so may attempt to speak for Atheism Plus, but whether their ideas find any support with the rest of the group is a different matter.)
What if I think this is a bad idea?
Those who oppose the existence of Atheism Plus are welcome to their opinion, but a substantial number of atheists have already opted in. A forum for discussion has been set up, an #AtheismPlus tag on Twitter has come into use, a Facebook group has been created, a subreddit has been started, and a number of respected atheist writers and speakers such as Greta Christina, Matt Dillahunty, and Adam Lee have already come out in full support of the venture. Others such as Massimo Pigliucci, Ronald A. Lindsay, and Hemant Mehta have offered helpful critiques and words of encouragement from the sidelines. Still others such as Michael Nugent have taken up similar undertakings themselves: ones which like Atheism Plus and unlike Humanism or Brights feature the critical word “atheism” prominently in their titles. Whatever the name–whether Ethical Atheism, Moral Atheism, or Atheism Plus–the desire by modern atheists to investigate this territory seems unlikely to go away.
Those who oppose the goals of Atheism Plus (eliminating misogyny, racism, homo/bi/transphobia, ableism and other such bigotry inside and outside of the atheist community) are also welcome to their opinions, but repeated interactions with them on blogs, forums, and social media has shown that they tend to derail the conversation. Threats, insults, empty mockery, time-wasting demands for reiterative explanations, uninformed reactionary rhetoric, charges of Nazism, and castigation for not giving equal time to unrelated or opposing viewpoints are too-common responses by atheists who don’t want these subjects discussed. It is up to the individuals who control the various venues associated with Atheism Plus to decide for themselves how to identify and deal with voices that are unhelpful, disrespectful, disingenuous, or unreasonable.
Isn’t this an attempt to redefine atheism?
Atheism Plus does not attempt to conflate atheism with feminism or any other ideology. It does not call for the incorporation of liberal values into the definition of atheism. The “Plus” should be understood as meaning “in addition to” the dictionary definition of atheism, which is still respected as being no more or less than a conclusion on the matter of the existence of gods. It is up to each individual to determine which values they wish to connect to their atheism if any. It just so happens that there is a sizable contingent of atheists who agree that a desire for social justice connects to their atheism in a meaningful way.
Why tack ideologies on to atheism?
Theistic religions tend to convince people there exists a supernatural caretaker: one who listens to, considers, and sometimes responds to psychically transmitted pleas for justice. The same religions also tend to posit an eternally persisting supernatural realm accessible after death wherein this god will dish out punishments for sins and rewards for good deeds. But if there is no supernatural caretaker and no post-death justice, conscious beings concerned with the plight of other conscious beings must take the initiative to promote justice, equality, fairness, empathy, compassion, and understanding in the here-and-now. From a psychological standpoint, an increased desire for social justice in the here-and-now can be credited to the conclusion of atheism for some people. Atheism Plus honors that connection.
Additionally, many believe there is a problem with bigotry and a lack of diversity within the atheist community. By creating a designation for a subset of atheists dedicated to taking action against bigotry it is hoped that more atheists will take such a stand themselves. One of the main problems is that people often don’t understand how they might be unconsciously acting in a manner that is hostile or inconsiderate to others such as women, people of color, the disabled, LGBT individuals, the poor, and so on. By clearing spaces for communication, it is hoped that discussions about privilege will help bring to light such hidden attitudes. It is also hoped that the spaces cleared for Atheism Plus will be more attractive to those people who are most often the victims of such bigotry. In drawing from their unique experiences, marginalized people can offer insights into privilege that mere philosophizing might never have revealed. An atheist community of increased diversity will also benefit from insights by the same marginalized people regarding all other topics traditionally important to atheists.
Doesn’t Humanism cover this stuff?
Atheism Plus embraces humanism. One of the formulations of Atheism Plus is “Atheism + Humanism + Skepticism”. However, to quote an article from the American Humanist Association website, “the humanist movement has never considered atheism (construed as a rejection of all concepts of God) as a necessary part of the humanist outlook.” Such a rejection is a necessary part of the atheistic outlook. Humanism has a rich tradition of promoting ethical living, but many people interested in changing minds find that it does not adequately stress the reality that there are almost certainly no gods and that this is almost certainly the only world in which we will ever exist.
A great number of people sincerely believe in the existence of godly justice in the here-and-now and heavenly justice in the future. Such people just don’t have much reason to listen to humanists on ethical matters because they think their god has it all taken care of. Atheists represent a much more direct challenge to this worldview. Even the word “atheists” has on occasion been deemed too controversial for the general public. If the word “atheism” can open minds to the possibility that there are other, drastically different ways of thinking, and if the addendum “plus” can succinctly indicate the connection many atheists experience between their atheistic worldview and their passion for social justice, the term has the potential to incite curiosity among the actively and passively religious, perhaps ultimately driving more people away from religion and toward the methods of secular humanism.
Isn’t this making a religion out of atheism?
Atheism Plus is a collection of like-minded people using safe spaces to hash out ideas. There is no dogma, just a general consensus among participants that the particular social justice issues it focuses on are important to them. There is no hierarchy, just a number of people whose words have proven helpful in clarifying the need for such a movement, and whose consistently enlightening contributions have engendered a certain level of trust. There are no membership requirements beyond a commitment to taking seriously the need to have and maintain spaces where social justice issues can be discussed by atheists without interference from those opposed to the whole endeavor.
I can’t help but wonder though, why not call it Feminism+ or Gay Rights+. Is atheism really so much more important than social justice that it gets top billing?
Great question! I think the reason it’s not being called Feminism Plus or Gay Rights Plus is due to the circumstances leading up to its inception. This is a movement of people who identify as atheists and who want to have spaces where they can discuss multiple issues of social justice with other atheists, from an atheistic perspective, without having to constantly provide justification for doing so. Atheists have long had their own discussion spaces where it is fine to speak about any number of topics, but for some reason when women’s rights or gay rights come up, we often get the response “What does this have to do with atheism?” followed by an argument on the dictionary definition of atheism. (An argument that Matt Dillahunty points out does not tend to plague discussions about the separation of church and state, despite the fact that, strictly speaking, an anti-theocratic position does not necessarily follow from atheism any more than a pro-social justice position does.) Additionally, it seems easier to create one designation as an umbrella for all the social justice issues than to create a whole bunch of “[social justice issue] Plus Atheism” designations.
Is atheism more important than social justice? I think that is a question each individual must answer for themselves. Each individual can choose to apportion their time and energy in accordance with their own conclusion. Luckily, Atheism Plus is not the only way to “do” either atheism or social justice, nor does it demand exclusive participation, so it does not have the power to impose a value system on anyone. I don’t think placing atheism before social justice in the name of the movement necessarily means those people using the designation value atheism more than social justice. I see the name more as a way of identifying a subset. The set is atheists, and the subset is atheists who are pro-humanism, pro-skepticism, pro-women’s rights, pro-racial equality, and so on.