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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The polls appear positive for Remain but below the surface the picture is less rosy

If you take out the effect of the drift towards phone polling, the last month has seen an improvement in the Remain vote of just 1 per cent. 

The last couple of weeks have looked very good for the Remain campaign – the polls have moved in their direction, the media focus has been on their home-ground issue of the economy, and Leave have had to concede the trade argument and move on to something else.

But, beneath the surface, the picture is less bright. Each of those strengths is somewhat illusory.

While the polls appear to have become more positive, most of the change is a result of shifts in what pollsters are doing, not what the people they poll are thinking.

Analysis by Professor John Curtice shows that early in the campaign just 1 in 7 polls was conducted by phone. Now it is up to 1 in 3.

This makes a big difference to how the race appears because phone polls consistently show much bigger Remain leads. If you take out the effect of this drift towards phone polling, the last month has seen an improvement in the Remain vote of just 1 per cent.  Internet polls are still showing a tied race, compared to a 10 point lead for Remain back in February 2015. All the advantages of incumbency and cross-party support are not shifting the numbers.

Remain’s dominance of the media agenda is also more a function of circumstance that it may appear.

Part of it comes through the use of the civil service machine to generate stories, something every incumbent has the right to do. That advantage ends today as election rules kick in which legally prohibit the government from producing pro-Remain news. The civil servants who did everything from crank out Treasury analysis to plug in Barack Obama’s microphone will have to twiddle their thumbs till the end of June.

The other reason Remain was able to keep the focus on the economy was that Leave wanted the spotlight there too. The defining feature of the official leave campaign was its desire to neutralize Remain’s lead on the economy so that people can afford to vote on issues like immigration and sovereignty.

Leave have clearly failed in that aim. Their pro-trade arguments ran aground when President Obama said a post-Brexit Britain would be ‘at the back of the queue’ for such deals, and they have not found a way back. Remain have restored their dominance of the economy, which for a time looked shaky. Just as importantly, the proportion who say the economy is key to their decision is up 17 points since February, and it now outranks immigration in Comres’ data.

The question is whether that increased salience of the economy will persist or not.

The next few weeks will not see the same convergence of agenda. Leave were always going to focus on immigration at the end of the campaign. They hoped to do that from a position of strength but they will be doing it out of weakness - either way, the effect is the same.

The palate of issues is about to broaden. Broadcasters will no longer be able to run a single story saying “today Remain said leaving was bad for the economy, while Leave said it wasn’t”. Instead the news will have to balance a range of issues including immigration – and so the terrain will shift to help Leave.

Remain have done nothing to try and close down Leave’s strongest issues, and now it is too late. Their plan from here on in has to be to try and make risk, and in particular economic risk, the only thing at the front of voters’ minds.

The next few weeks will be the real test for both campaigns. If Remain can keep the focus on the economy, they should glide home comfortably, and their media team will deserve enormous praise. But if Leave can shift the agenda, perhaps aided by incidents that inflame the tabloids and force broadcasters to pay attention to the issue in the same way voters do, then things could still move towards Brexit.

James Morris is a partner at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and worked as a pollster for Ed Miliband during his time as Labour leader.