What’s in a Name? (a.k.a. on Atheism+)

Christian? Muslim? Pastafarian? Agnostic? Humanist? What does it mean to be one of these things? Most simply, to call yourself any of this indicates that you wish to be associated with those groups. It means you want to identify yourself with the beliefs associated with those groups. Perhaps just as importantly, it means you wish not to be associated with opposing groups.

What, for example, is a “Christian?” Is a Mormon a Christian? There are indeed some who say that Mormons are not Christians (I have addressed this fallacy previously)—this is, of course, absurd; Mormons affirm the divinity of Jesus, and this alone qualifies them to be considered “Christians.” They further believe the Bible is the word of Yahweh, even if they do add a third chapter to that book. How is it that some Christians feel justified in excluding Mormons from the circle of Christianity? To such a person, that distinction is, for whatever reason, important to their self-image. Regardless of whether the supposed difference is true, that person sees value in asserting “I am X, and they are not.” In the case of Mormonism, this separation is entirely without merit,* but there are certainly cases where such divisions are not only beneficial but necessary. Being a Christian means that a person cannot be a Muslim or a Buddhist, for these are contradictory belief systems.

What does it mean to be an atheist, though? Atheism is rife with ambiguity, so additional differentiation is necessary. The “dictionary definition” of an atheist is someone who does not hold a belief in god(s). As such, this leaves an almost infinite list of other things that atheism does not address. Atheism alone says nothing about a person’s morality, political affiliation, height, preference for chocolate, gardening ability, or almost anything else. Is a person, by nature of being an atheist, guaranteed to be more or less moral than anyone else? Not according to the dictionary. So if atheism does not contribute to the strength of a person’s moral character, can an atheist be a good person? Obviously, yes. The only problem is that one cannot say “atheists are predominantly good people as a consequence of their atheism.” How can this puzzle be solved?

The traditional  answer to this would likely have been humanism—a person who adheres to humanist principles would almost certainly qualify as a good person. At its core, Secular Humanism is about being good without reference to any sort of supernatural mumbo-jumbo as a motivating factor, and that’s great. Wearing this label has never been the only way to be both an atheist and a decent human being, of course, but donning the badge of humanism has been a convenient way of advertising one’s status as a non-douchebag. It’s not the only label that one can identify with if one wants to advertise one’s decent-human-being-ness, and it’s certainly not a requirement, but it has been one of the most convenient ways of doing so for some time.

One of the problems I’ve had with calling myself a humanist, however, is the non-confrontational nature of it. Religion is an actively harmful entity in the world at large. Christopher Hitchens got it right when he said it poisons everything. When we nonbelievers hide from the atheist label, it becomes easier for religious people to pretend we don’t exist; it also becomes harder for us to identify and support each other. (Incidentally, this is the same criticism I have of nonbelievers who insist on self-identifying with only the agnostic label.) That** is why I am excited about the idea of this new Atheism+ thing. It’s about a week old now, but it’s hitting the scene pretty hard, and I have it seen best summarized as “New Atheism plus Humanism,” two things I endorse separately, each made better through combination with the other.

A lot of really smart people have written some really insightful things about Atheism+. This is a sentiment that’s been boiling beneath the surface for at least a year, and it’s hard to imagine that I could express it any better than people like Jen McCreightAshley Miller, Greta ChristinaRichard CarrierRussell Glasser, and so many others.*** (Not to mention Jason Thibeault‘s helpful graphics!) Like everything on the internet, there’s even a reddit page for it now.

Given that this is a blog thus far dedicated largely to issues of morality (specifically, advocating secular morality), I couldn’t be happier to come back from vacation with a post wholeheartedly supporting the Atheism+ movement. I agree that discrimination has no place in a movement that advertises itself as primarily rational. Prejudices based on race, sex, sexuality, and other such states that have absolutely nothing to do with a person’s moral character (yes, even religion) simply have no room in a movement aiming for social justice. The only reasonable approach is to judge people based on their behavior, and those who refuse to accept others as equals based on these otherwise irrelevant factors should not be welcomed or accepted in this kind of movement. A group cannot be inclusive if that group welcomes bigots, and anyone who advocates discriminating against someone over these states is practicing bigotry. Thus, this new anti-douchebag atheist movement is just what we need to combat the rising tide of increasingly vocal irrationality that has infiltrated what should, by all rights, be the one of the most inclusive movements in recent history. As a badge, “atheism” is not a shield against unjustifiable aggression, but Atheism+ can be. Atheism+ can include positive goals that dictionary atheism cannot. Atheism+ can be the inclusive movement atheism cannot be. This is a step in the right direction.

Even if you don’t feel called to identify with the Atheism+ label yourself, the movement’s goals thus far are unquestionably good, and it deserves recognition for that. Not being part of this movement doesn’t make someone a bad person—this has not been suggested by any right-minded individual. Rather, the label serves as a helpful tool for illustrating an atheist’s preference for equality and social justice. In the same way that “vegetarian” is helpful shorthand for “doesn’t eat meat” without also necessarily communicating “people who eat meat are evil,” Atheism+ communicates “how we treat people matters.” And it does matter.

In sum, I support Atheism+, and unless you’re an ignorant asshole, you should too. Asshattery shall not be tolerated.


Addendum:  My thoughts on the subject of Atheism+ continue here.

*Christianity is not “a” religion but rather an umbrella term for a number of differing religions sharing belief in Jesus as a core tenet. Thus, Mormons surely aren’t Southern Baptists, but both groups are clearly Christian.
**… in addition to the “deep rifts” caused by misogynists, racists, and the like …
***Daniel Fincke prefers a diplomatic approach, expressing similar thoughts quite eloquently. I had originally included this link alongside the others, but it doesn’t really fit there because he doesn’t speak directly about Atheism+. I should probably avoid clicking “publish” late at night.

8 responses to “What’s in a Name? (a.k.a. on Atheism+)

  1. I think it is specious to suggest that one is an asshole for not joining in on the A+ thing. Good on them for doing good, however I have never been a fan the ‘us vs. them’ mentality coming out of certain corners of the A+ fledgling movement.

  2. Who is making that claim?

    Not being part of this movement doesn’t make someone a bad person

    Generally speaking, I’m inclined to agree with you about that mentality being a bad thing. When it comes to sexism, racism, and so on, however, I understand the desire. Either someone supports equality (and is thus part of the “us”), or they oppose equality (“them”). Sure, it’s technically possible to have no opinion about equality, and such a person wouldn’t be part of the “them” category unless they used that indecision as an excuse not to pursue equality.

  3. It’s all good! I’ll stick with my Secular Humanism and keep getting things done. Good luck in your ventures.

  4. ‘Mormons affirm the divinity of Jesus, and this alone qualifies them to be considered “Christians.”’

    I’m not sure about that. There are other issues – the belief in one God and beliefs about his nature for instance. Monotheism is a bedrock in Judeo-Christian thought and Mormonism’s doctrine of God is – to put it mildly – seriously, seriously different. I think there can and always will be disagreements among members of any group, but just like you can’t believe certain things and still actually be a democrat, you can only go so far from orthodoxy before you have a completely different religion.

    Why would belief in Christ’s divinity necessarily make one a Christian? Hell, how does one define ‘Christian’ anyway?

  5. Christians will have to love A+ too, since it has the cross in it.
    It is a cute idea, but another label, really? We already have a “label” for the “mission” to take action, which is antitheism. Whatever the dictionary defn of the word, atitheism has become the “activist wing” of the atheism/agnostic/humanist/ect movement.
    Labels cause division. Historically, leaders knew that strength comes from unity. I understand that part of the label making is b/c once this becomes a type of mass movement, everyone discovers it for themselves and explores these ideas and comes up with his or her own little brand of ideas, which is fine. But we need to get behind a common shield, stop parsing words, and start to take action. THAT is the trick. We’re trying to do it with labels and definitions, and I can see the appeal to this to an intellectual (I’m a mathematician, so I understand the importance of definitions about as well as anyone), but I’m not sure it is the solution.

  6. Christians will have to love A+ too, since it has the cross in it.

    Ah yes, just like they all love math. Because crosses.

    We already have a “label” for the “mission” to take action, which is antitheism.

    I assure you these labels describe different things. Antitheism is no more than a philosophical position.

    Labels cause division.

    Labels can cause division (see: Rwanda), but this is by no means a necessary consequence. In this case, the label describes a division that already exists. Not using a label to describe the reality that already exists wouldn’t magically heal “deep rifts.”

    But we need to get behind a common shield

    Nonsense. People are not all the same, so one label cannot possibly meet every individual’s needs. Maybe the “common shield” approach works for you, but it doesn’t work for everyone. We should respect each other’s individuality. Let many voices ring out for common causes. Don’t try to homogenize a diverse population.

    …I’m not sure it is the solution.

    I can’t agree with framing this in terms of “the” solution. There are many problems, not just one, and each problem surely has multiple viable solutions.

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