Addendum: This is the second post I’ve made on this subject. The first can be found here. If you don’t care about atheist community stuff, feel free to skip both.
It must be obvious to anyone who’s read anything I’ve written that I have a bit of a confrontationalist streak. When someone says or does something glaringly stupid but fails to realize the stupidity of that thing, I find it difficult to be diplomatic. “Perhaps you’d like to reconsider that point because of X, Y, and Z?” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so easily as “Are you fucking shitting me right now?” I even have a “that was the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard” face that I reflexively make when I hear something from way out in left field. Sadly (okay, let’s be honest here—thankfully), that face does not translate well into text; one might even say that it is lost entirely.
Smart people who say dumb things need to be called out on those dumb things. This is the only way to avoid forming a cult of personality. No person is without error, but we all want to be, in spite of the impossibility of this goal. In the (ultimately futile) attempt to become paragons of rightness, we engage in a cumulative process of becoming less wrong. The sad paradox is that the further along this path we’ve come, the harder it is to see where we’re still wrong; it’s not easy to accept criticism from someone so far behind you on the path to perfection, you see. Naturally, this approach is fallacious, but the flawed nature of the thought doesn’t stop it from being our natural reflex—we instinctively doubt things said by people we view as—How can I put this diplomatically?—misguided. In a contest between your Average Joe and yourself, most people will default their support to themselves.* It is far to easy to take offense at the little people when they (mistakenly, of course!) believe that something we’ve said is a dumb thing. To someone who is interested in continuing the process of becoming less wrong, it is necessary to consider the merits of their arguments, which may necessitate an attempt to understand their perspective. (Trying to refute something you don’t understand, after all, is often an exercise in hay-punting.) I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask someone to listen to your point of view instead of dismissing it outright.
* * *
It would be wrong to suggest that one should never feel annoyed, exasperated, or upset. Offense can sometimes be justified, even if it typically isn’t. Anger is an entirely normal reaction to a frustrating situation. If you’re trying to communicate with someone who is obstinately determined to misunderstand or deny your views, this is frustrating. Anyone whose conversational enthusiasm does not waver when confronted with someone who seems keen on misunderstanding them is several standard deviations above average in terms of patience. (If the word “saint” had any meaning, such people could be considered saintly.)
The real problem comes not during the first such encounter, but somewhere down the road as you meet increasingly more people with these views, each determined to plug their ears and shoo away your position at merely a cursory glance. When you’ve already
walked down this road stumbled through this dark tunnel with one person and another one appears bearing the same arguments, it’s easy to forget that this is a brand new conversation. It feels like you’re being dragged down into the same pit you’ve only just escaped, just to be faced with the same tired arguments from yesteryear. Your frustration is understandably heightened at the banality of it.
But the second person doesn’t know you’ve already had this conversation before, and neither does the hundredth. Yet we know that we’ve already said these things countless times, and our animalistic heritage shines through as the desire to scream, “I’ve already said this a hundred fucking times! Why don’t you get it? How could you be this stupid‽” The fact that you’ve never had this conversation with this person isn’t always as easy to remember as one might be inclined to think. Matters are only made worse by the tendency to forget that not everyone we meet has swum in the same pool of knowledge. Thus, we creep ever further into the territory of misplaced hostility—and when we are ourselves met with this undue hostility, though this also is fallacious, it is far too easy to ascribe that attitude to members of the entire group.
Hostility is not always unwarranted, of course, but there remains a question of how much is appropriate in any given circumstance. Anger is an inherent part of the human condition, and it is unrealistic to expect even the most seasoned thinker never to show anger. We dismiss an argument for “sounding angry” only at our own peril, as it is not incompatible with valid criticism. Sure, we might try not to give in to our baser instincts ourselves, but we cannot expect to unflaggingly succeed. We can no less expect pure stoicism (or pure reason) from our personal heroes or our immediate rivals—these ideals are but mirages. Indeed, expecting this perfection is not only unrealistic but also actively counterproductive for its unattainability. Further, anger is sometimes necessary because it communicates something that a calm, neutral intonation cannot. Language extends beyond mere words—relevant information is conveyed through speed, intonation, facial expression, body language, and so on. Much of this paralinguistic information (such as my “you’re an idiot” face) is lost in the medium of text, and this missing information can impede communication. (Who hasn’t had an attempt at text-based sarcasm go awry?) Using “angry” words is thus a method of reintroducing some of this lost information. It is important, if one wishes to maintain open and honest communication, not to overdo the hostility—going to rhetorical war with a would-be ally is unwise when it’s avoidable (hint: it’s typically avoidable). My confrontationalist streak may lead me to be slower to condemn emotionally charged language (indeed, it is occasionally difficult to remember that others may be more prone to offense-taking than I am), but even I know there are limits.
But that’s not really what this is about. This is ultimately about the difference between wanting to differentiate yourself from someone and wanting to have nothing to do with them. Let me disclaim that this is also not about telling people who can or cannot call themselves an atheist—anyone who does not maintain religious beliefs can safely do this. Similarly, the Atheism+ thing is not about who can or cannot be part of “the atheist movement.” Atheism+, just like every other group identity label, gives people a banner to unite under in order to demonstrate their shared values. Even the most hateful, sexist, racist mouth-breather can be an atheist. Yes, most other atheists will vehemently condemn such a person, and we will not blame any other atheist for that douchebag’s fringe beliefs. If one is reasoning properly, one does not judge a group as a whole based on a non-representative sample. As atheists, we know that we are overwhelmingly good people,** but to an outsider, there is no way of knowing beforehand whether a given atheist will be a decent person or a bigot. This is because there is no quality control on the “atheist” brand; both Pat-the-Prick and Casey-the-Caring can be atheists. Identifying with Atheism+ avoids this ambiguity—just like identifying as a secular humanist does. A follower of even the most beneficent philosophy can still be an asshole; the most ardent outspoken supporter of equality for all can still accidentally act against the interests of a minority. The point is that their attempted adherence to these causes makes their asshattery inherently less likely.
Libertarian-style, laissez-faire atheists (aka “dictionary definition atheists”) often reject organization into a social movement because atheism is merely a lack of belief in gods; they defend their isolationism by noting that atheism, as the lack of theistic belief, does not entail any other position. In a sense, they’re right—atheists can be socially progressive or conservative, atheists can be friendly or hostile, atheists can be brilliant or astoundingly irrational. In another sense, they’re wrong—a multitude of attitudes are rooted primarily in religion, and lacking that foundation removes the justification for holding these attitudes, so having no religious belief should entail a lack of these attitudes. You can hold these attitudes as an atheist, but the reasons for doing so are either weak or nonexistent.
I identify as a humanist to convey information about my worldview: the human condition is something we all share equally, and people matter—the way we treat each other matters. We should not be abusive toward one another because of the foundational principle of human dignity. Some have suggested, “If Atheism+ is just the same thing as humanism, it has no point at all.” But the two ideas aren’t the same; theists can be secularists, and theists can be humanists. Atheism+ conveys almost precisely the same information as Secular Humanism, but the fact that they’re not quite equivalent is all the justification we need to dismiss this criticism. Should panentheism not exist as a label because of its deep similarity to pantheism? Should apatheism not exist for the sake of agnosticism? Should deists be forced to instead identify as something like non-religious theists? I see nothing wrong with the conceptualization of Atheism+ as functionally equivalent to [Secular Humanism with added confrontationalism]. The overt association with atheism gives A+ that extra boost—someone ignorant of the principles of Secular Humanism may not immediately understand its connection with atheism, but no such uncertainty exists with Atheism+. This extra information makes the label useful, regardless of one’s personal beliefs about the merits of being confrontational.
With all of this in mind, at what point does an attempt to differentiate ourselves reach the point of bridge burning? Ideally, never. Does calling yourself a secular humanist imply that religious humanists are inherently immoral? Does calling yourself a secular humanist imply that “just” atheists are possessed of inferior sensibilities? Clearly not. Why, then, would calling yourself an atheist+ be a slight against other atheists? Mere differentiation establishes neither an unwillingness to cooperate nor distaste for the other’s goals, and I would question the motivations of anyone who expressed an idea along the lines of, “You must adopt my label, or you are my enemy.” Such a claim would be condemnable. (This seems to be the major criticism of Richard Carrier’s writing on the subject, even though he has specifically addressed the issue, noting that he has not made and continues not to make this claim. It is thus a misperception.) This kind of “with us or against us” rhetoric certainly can be divisive, but it can also be misunderstood. A humanist may say, “You are with me or against me on the issue of valuing the human experience.” A humanist does not say, “You are against me if you do not call yourself a humanist.” The former statement is defensible, for there is good reason to contrast people who differ in their support for a given value statement; the latter statement is not defensible, and I trust that my saying so requires no further justification at this point. The distinction between these two sentiments is very important, and the person who says “wear my label or be my enemy” is just as wrong as the person who misinterprets “I support X” as a statement of “you do not support X.”
Let’s move on to the alleged Atheism+ bridge burning, then, where I shall begin by analogy. If you are a person of color (POC), it is not in your best interests to associate with a white supremacist group. In this case, you have a clear disagreement over the value statement “skin color is an irrelevant consideration for judging a person’s character.” A POC is fully justified in lending no support to and refusing to associate with a white supremacist group. Only the most delusional mind would regard a declaration of this separation as ill-conceived. If, following the denouncement of that hate group, a POC joins a social group whose aims include promoting equality and cultural diversity, this does not make every non-member of that group a racist—it does not follow that failure to join this new group makes anyone a racist, and joining that group does not constitute an implicit accusation that everyone else is racist. (Again, only the most delusional mind would draw a conclusion like these.) Similarly, joining a group devoted to gender egalitarianism does not make everyone outside the group a sexist. (This observation could easily lead into a discussion of feminism and the men’s rights movement, but that will have to wait for another day, as this post is already quite substantial.) Similarly, joining a secular humanist group does not communicate a person’s hidden belief that all non-followers of Secular Humanism are secretly serial killers. Consequently, lending one’s support for Atheism+ does not revoke one’s support for other institutions with similar goals. Due to their shared goals, it is hard to think of Secular Humanism and Atheism+ as anything but siblings in the family tree of progressive thought.
So where does bridge burning fit into the equation? It really shouldn’t at all, but if it is to be found, it is among those who say, “If you wear this label (or refuse to wear that label), you are my enemy.” We do not condemn someone for calling themselves a white supremacist; we condemn them for holding racist beliefs. Just like a theist can call themselves an atheist, someone who wholeheartedly believes in racial equality can call themselves a racist. Similarly, someone who believes that only white people are “real” people can claim to be a supporter of equality. Ultimately, it is not a label that communicates a person’s moral character but their individual beliefs, attitudes, and actions. If labels matter at all, it is only to the extent that a person’s actions line up with the stated goals of the group described by that label.
Atheists, individually, have always been “for” issues of social justice. Atheists, collectively, are too disparate a group to pin down in this fashion. Even now, the majority would surely lend support to ideas of equality, but most do not actively advocate for these issues, and this simply cannot be a litmus test for atheism. Trying to unify atheists, collectively, has been likened to herding cats, and for good reason—an “atheist” is just someone who does not believe in gods. What Atheism+ is to me is another way for people who care about social justice issues to identify themselves—not the only way, not necessarily the best way, just a different way. Whatever (insert famous person’s name here) thinks about Atheism+ is irrelevant in that context, and much of the argumentation against the idea seems to be deeply fallacious.
I have offered my support, symbolic though it may be, to the fledgling Atheism+ movement. Does this mean I oppose the efforts of those who seek social justice through other avenues? Absolutely not. If announcing this causes any bridges to be burnt, the one doing the burning is not me. If my own bridges experience even the faintest lick from the flames of division, it will be only from arson—I bear no torch. Equality is my goal, and if someone out there in the world will now refuse to work with me to achieve that goal, then I am not the source of that “us versus them” mentality. Anyone who would condemn me for my choice of labels, rather than my choice of actions, is not someone who holds equality as their primary goal. If we cannot work together to further our mutual goal, it will not be for lack of want on my part. And if equality isn’t our mutual goal? Then our values are in direct opposition, and I say good riddance. (Though if you’re willing to stop being an asshole, let me know, and I’ll happily tell you why you’ve been wrong up til now.) How’s that for “deep rifts?”
Because atheism is such a big tent, those who share it may hold countless combinations of potential worldviews. There are a myriad of complementary and contradictory values shared by an equally varied atheist population. If you were to attempt to impose any single value on the lot of them (beyond “there probably is no god”), you would inadvertently violate the principles of someone. The solution, rather than to take the ball away from everyone in some twisted Scotsman drive for “True Atheist Purity™,” is simply to buy a new ball. Rather than seeking to rebrand a movement that so far has had a single explicit focus (“spread awareness of atheism”), Atheism+ is a new ball. There are some who erroneously infer that this makes them “atheists minus” and take offense. This strikes me as a very strange response—why would someone interpret “I want to start a club” as “you hate my principles?” I have my guesses but no satisfactory answer. This brings us back to the obstinate misunderstanding I spoke of before—this article is my first foray into the issue; I don’t know that I’ll re-engage it through this medium, but if the initial offense-taking at this metaphorical purchasing of a new ball doesn’t blow over, I will surely tire of it quickly. At the least, it’s good to have a list of resources handy in the event that one is pressed for time.
Atheism+ is young, but it reflects a genuine desire to make things better. I find that admirable. If its skeptics are right and it blows over having achieved little, then we are certainly no worse for the attempt. In an atmosphere that thrives on sensationalism, the addition of Atheism+ to the fire has, if nothing else, reinvigorated a portion of the atheist community, and this is no small achievement. If it stagnates and vanishes as a movement, atheist naysayers are cautioned not to celebrate too raucously, for they will be extolling the death of an ally. Atheism+ brings a renewed energy that can be spent fighting against the enemy of religiously motivated injustice, and we should not endeavor to waste that energy on putting out bridge fires. In either case, I will continue to be mildly confrontational, but I’d prefer to direct that anger at the people who are egregiously working to spread theocracy.