Atheism+: the new New Atheists

This new movement has an energy that makes it hard to ignore.

Let me introduce you to Atheism+, the nascent movement that might be the most exciting thing to hit the world of unbelief since Richard Dawkins teamed up with Christopher Hitchens to tell the world that God was a Delusion and, worse than that, Not Great.  

Less than a week old in its current form, Atheism+ is the brainchild of Jen McCreight, a Seattle-based biology postgrad and blogger at the secularist Freethought network. She has called for a "new wave" of atheism on that "cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime." 

On one level, this is just the logical culmination of the huge upsurge in interest prompted by the so-called "New Atheists" and the growth over the last few years of a recognisable community or movement based around ideas of atheism, scientific scepticism and a progressive political agenda. While atheism is, by definition, no more or less than a non-belief in God, in practice it clusters with a variety of other positions, from pro-choice to campaigns against homeopathy. People who espouse "liberal atheism" as it might be called, oppose religion for political as well as philosophical reasons, just as the forces of religion seem to line up - though of course not exclusively - behind seemingly unconnected issues such as opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage and, in the US, gun-control.  

Atheism+ is, at its most basic, an attempt wrap things together more formally, to create a movement that prioritises issues of equality  and does so from an explicitly non-religious perspective. Some would say that such a philosophy already exists in the form of humanism. Others prefer the label Skeptic. Atheism+, however, seeks to capitalise on the sense of identity that has grown up around the word "atheism" during the past few years. One supporter of the idea, Greta Christina, celebrates the term as "a slap in the face that wakes people up." 

In this early phase Atheism+ is fired by anger as much as by as idealism. And, at least initially, much of this anger is directed inward towards the world of atheism itself.

Any community, new or old, has its tensions, and in the past year the atheist/sceptical community has been rocked by a divisive and increasingly bad-tempered debate over sexism and, more generally, a sense that the dominant voices have tended to be white, male and middle-class.  On the one hand, there have been suggestions that atheism and scepticism are philosophies disproportionately attractive to men. Indeed, the stereotype of the atheist as white, intellectually overconfident male - as Richard Dawkins - has long been a favourite among religious apologists. More seriously, there are definite feelings of exclusion, especially on the part of younger women.  

A number of incidents have served to crystallise the sense that all is not right in the world of unbelief.  Most notoriously, there was "Elevatorgate", an late-night incident in a lift during an atheist conference in Dublin during which the blogger Rebecca Watson was propositioned. Her subsequent public complaint about the man's behaviour and sexual harassment within the Skeptic movement drew criticism from Richard Dawkins himself and fuelled an ugly flame war.  She received, and continues to receive, rape and death threats.  

McCreight (it rhymes with "right") has her own experience to draw on.  She first came to prominence as the creator of 2010's "Boobquake", a satirical response to claims by an Iranian ayatollah that women who dressed immodestly were responsible for earthquakes.  McCreight wondered if encouraging women to wear tight t-shirts on a certain day would lead to a noticeable increase in seismic activity worldwide.  It didn't, though it did produce a small earthquake in parts of the skeptical community, in the form of a debate about whether such a stunt was compatible with feminism.

For McCreight personally, the "experiment" had an ambiguous outcome:

I’ve always considered myself a feminist, but I used to be one of those teenagers who assumed the awesome ladies before me had solved everything. But Boobquake made me wake up. What I originally envisioned as an empowering event about supporting women’s freedoms and calling out dangerous superstitious thinking devolved into “Show us your tits!”

McCreight recalls receiving unsolicited sexual invitations and, when she appeared in public, gratuitous comments about her appearance. It all made her feel that atheism was a "boys' club". It might welcome "a young, not-hideous woman who ... I made them look diverse" but  "rescinds its invitation once they realize you’re a rabble-rousing feminist." A movement that claimed to be rationalistic and against prejudice was not simply replicating the sexism of wider society, she felt, but actually magnified it.  Whenever she wrote or spoke about feminism she received hundreds of insulting and hateful comments.  Atheism had become - perhaps it always was - a bolthole for misogyny.  Worse, she wrote, "I don’t feel safe as a woman in this community – and I feel less safe than I do as a woman in science, or a woman in gaming, or hell, as a woman walking down the fucking sidewalk."

The first item on the Atheism+ agenda, then, is a cleansing one. McCreight herself says: "We need to recognize that there’s still room for self-improvement and to address the root of why we’ve been having these problems in atheism and skepticism." Greta Christina has gone so far as to devise a checklist of goals to which atheist organisations should aspire, including anti-harassment policies and ensuring diversity among both members and invited speakers. "To remember that not all atheists look like Richard Dawkins."

That sounds like, at least party, a negative programme - "getting rid of the garbage". Yet the name - or at least the symbol - is pleasingly double-edged. "Atheism plus", the natural reading, implies incompleteness: that other, associated principles need to be added to the core idea to produce a rounded philosophy. But it can also be read as "Atheism positive", going beyond the mere negation of belief. Time will tell whether McCreight's initiative leads to permanent changes in the atheist and sceptical movement, or to the formation of a new and distinct nexus of atheism and progressive politics, or is soon forgotten. But I'd bet against the latter. Whether or not the name sticks, there is an energy behind this new wave that makes it hard to ignore.

Atheism+ is a reaction against the "New Atheism" of Richard Dawkins. Photograph: Getty Images
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A To-Do List for the next Labour leader

Whoever wins in September faces an uphill task. IpsosMori's Gideon Skinner lays it out. 

While all the media attention is focused on the prospect of a victory for Jeremy Corbyn on September 12, it shouldn’t be forgotten that whoever takes up the leadership mantle, there’s an uphill battle ahead to turn around the party’s fortunes in time for 2020.

Ipsos MORI recently spoke to a panel of former Labour voters in Nuneaton and Croydon Central for BBC Newsnight. These are both the kind of seats that the party really must take back if it is to stand a chance of electoral success in 2020 – and so we asked them what they want from the next Labour leader. 

Here’s the big themes that came during our discussions with Labour’s lost voters:

1.Style matters

Ed Miliband may have tried to reframe the debate around his personal leadership qualities by explicitly admitting that "If you want the politician from central casting, it's not me, it's the other guy. If you want a politician who thinks that a good photo is the most important thing, then don't vote for me." But style and personal image still matter[1], and to win back former voters the next leader needs to recognise that coming across well is an important part of the job. That Ed Miliband couldn’t connect with people was highlighted as a real problem; for most people, the television is the only way in which they have contact with politicians so their media appearances need to count. 

2.But so does talking about the issues that bother people

Immigration reached a record high in our regular Issues Index this month, with half (50 per cent) of the public listing it as one of the most important issues facing the country.  Concern about immigration is real (especially in many marginals - UKIP increased its share of the vote by 14.4 per cent in Nuneaton and 7.1 per cent in Croydon), and is seen as being at the root of many social issues affecting people. People want their concern to be acknowledged (and more than just slogans on mugs) and an action plan set out.

“They need to focus on the things that matter and immigration is a big one with a knock-on effect on housing, education, the NHS….it’s a real big one for them to tackle”

3.Big ideas and ideological commitments mean little if they don’t resonate

You want to renationalise the railways? Scrap Trident? Introduce universal free childcare? Fine – but these aren’t necessarily the policies that are going to win back Labour’s lost voters. After years of being told that there is no money left in the country’s coffers, any big policy statement is met with two immediate questions; 1) how much is this going to cost and 2) where is the money going to come from? Without answering both of these points, any policy is quickly discredited.   While participants valued backbenchers with strong principles and ideologies who can hold the executive to account, they judge potential Prime Ministers differently. 

“If Labour got back in they would just spend, spend, spend again and we would be paying that money back for years- and we already are but it would be far worse under a Labour government”

What’s more, these aren’t the issues that matter to people. Over and above immigration they want to know what the next Labour leader plans to do to help people like them – how they will be helped onto the housing ladder, how they can be sure their children will be sent to a good school in their local catchment area, and how the NHS will be reformed so they can get a GPs appointment when it suits them.

“We want to hear them give a sermon on housing for our young people, the NHS, education, terrorism – stuff about nuclear isn’t in the here and now, it isn’t on our doorstep”.

4.But being passionate about what you believe in gets you a long way

Despite that, just as much as what is being said, it matters how it is being said. Passion and conviction is taken as shorthand to mean politicians will do what they say and can be trusted. Tony Blair was highlighted as a good example here; participants stated that even though you might not like what he did, he spoke from the heart and followed through on his beliefs (Nigel Farage is another who gets this “everyman” image right). Furthermore, conviction can only come if politicians have empathy with the people they’re representing and understand the trials they face – something not thought to be possible for those who have led a life of privilege. As one participant said: “If they lived our lives, normal job, normal schooling, you could see it….they’re not real though. If they lived for two or three months on the money we had to live on they might understand”.

“A leader should be someone that is representative of more of the people of the country, not just the top 2 per cent of the country – just ordinary”

5.So does saying sorry

While participants understood that the financial crisis of 2008 was about more than just Labour spending, they still feel that their policies had a part to play in the resultant austerity that followed. Indeed, they’re considered culpable enough to warrant giving an apology some seven years later – particularly those contenders for the leadership who were key figures in the last Labour government. Because of this, participants felt more disposed to those candidates who acknowledged that Labour had made financial mistakes and learnt the lessons – particularly as they assumed that deficit reduction would have to continue and were keen to hear how the next Labour leader would go about this.

6.Identify a point of difference

With all parties eager to speak up for hardworking people, what sets the Labour party apart? Participants weren’t able to think of much – and without this difference, there’s nothing to for them to rally behind and, what’s more, it encouraged a sense that all politicians are the same. With this in mind, few felt inclined to engage with what is on offer, and what the actual choice is.

7.And unite the party behind you

Regardless of who the next Labour leader is, one thing is for sure; without a united party behind them, they simply won’t be seen as a credible leader. Participants expressed distaste for the ‘constant bickering’ that was thought to characterise UK politics – they certainly did not want to see party in-fighting on top of this. As one participant put it: “as a party, they need to be united…if you’re party aren’t behind you, why should we?”

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An impossible wish-list that no one could ever meet? Well, while the next Labour leader will certainly face an uphill struggle to win back voters who have lost confidence, the Conservative government was not talked about in glowing terms either – rather, they were routinely described as being ‘the best of a bad bunch’.

“We need to be given a credible alternative to be able to vote for Labour, someone with clear direct policies that are believable and that we understand….clear messages that enable us to vote for them”.

Nevertheless, while there still may not be lots of affection for the Conservatives, the onus will be on the next Labour leader to win back lost voters, whoever he or she is.  As participants bluntly acknowledged “they’ve lost our confidence” – something they traced back to 2008 and the financial crisis. And, in the absence of a credible Labour leader who can revitalise the party and engage with the voters on the issues of importance to them, then sticking with what they know will be the preferred option.  As one participant said:

“I’ve got a mortgage and two young kids and I feel secure right now…if Labour come in would they rock the boat?”

  • Ipsos MORI conducted two discussion groups on behalf of BBC Newsnight. One was conducted in Nuneaton on Thursday 20th August and the other in Croydon on Wednesday 26th August. Participants were all former Labour voters, who had voted for a different party (either the Conservatives, UKIP or the Liberal Democrats) in 2015. All were aged between 30 – 50 and were social grade C1C2.  Each discussion lasted around 90 minutes and was structured by a discussion guide. The full focus group will be broadcast on Newsnight tonight on BBC Two at 10:30pm.
 

[1] See for example Milazzo, C. and Mattes, K. Pretty faces, marginal races. Predicting Election Outcomes using Trait Assessments of British Parliamentary Candidate. This paper is also covered in Cowley, P. and Ford, R. (2014) Sex, Lies and the Ballot box – 50 things you need to know about British General Elections.

Gideon Skinner is Head of Political Research at IpsosMori. He tweets as @GideonSkinner.