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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Relax – there’s new evidence that mindfulness actually works

The relaxation therapy could prevent relapses in sufferers of depression, according to a new study.

If there’s one thing that can be said of buzzwords, it’s that they almost always fall by the wayside in the end. Yet in the field of mental health, one buzzword has survived the best efforts of critics and naysayers – “mindfulness”.

First coined by Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the term mindfulness was initially characterised as a state of mind that would enable someone to pay “attention on purpose” to the present moment. Modern secular society seems to have embraced it as a form of meditation. Everything from exercise to breathing now has an associated mindfulness manual attached.

However, not everyone is convinced. For example, the recent phenomenon of adult colouring books – devised to promote mindfulness and serve as a form of therapeutic escapism – has been criticised by therapists as over-hyped and not necessarily helpful.

Meanwhile, sceptics have pointed out an alleged bias in the publishing of positive findings from trials using mindfulness as a form of mental health therapy. Researchers at McGill University in Canada “found that scientists reported positive findings 60 per cent more often than is statistically likely” after analysing 124 different published trials involving mindfulness as a form of mental health therapy. In some cases, the practice has even had a reverse effect, inducing anxiety, pain or panic.

However, a new study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry seems to demonstrate that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) can be a potent treatment in preventing and managing relapse into major depression. Led by the University of Oxford, the study’s researchers conducted the largest meta-analysis (an analysis of various different studies) to date on the therapy’s impact on recurrent depression.

The particular form of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy that was used aimed to equip patients with the skills required to successfully recognise and repel the thoughts and feelings they most commonly associated with the state of depression, in order to prevent any future relapse.

According to the study, “the MBCT course consists of guided mindfulness practices, group discussion and other cognitive behavioural exercises. Participants receiving MBCT typically attended eight 2-2.5 hour group sessions alongside daily home practice.”

Using anonymous patient data from nine randomised trials involving 1,258 participants, researchers found that 38 per cent of those who received mindfulness-based therapy experienced a depressive relapse, in comparison to 49 per cent of patients who didn’t receive treatment. The patient data covered age, sex and level of education – key inclusions, as the meta-analysis was able to show no significant influence by these factors on the therapy’s performance.

The most prominent form of remedy currently available for mental health patients is anti-depressant medication. Four of the nine randomised trials comparatively assessed the impact of therapy alongside medication, to deduce if a combination of therapy with varying doses of medication was more beneficial than medication alone. The patients from the study who received mindfulness therapy along with continued, reduced or discontinued medication were less likely to fall back into depression than patients on maintenance anti-depressants alone. This helps legitimise mindfulness as an option in combating depression’s debilitating effects and reinforces its efficacy, whether it is taken up with or without anti-depressants.

Willem Kuyken, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and lead author of the study, called the results “very heartening”. “While MBCT is not a panacea, it does clearly offer those with a substantial history of depression a new approach to learning skills to stay well in the long-term.

“It offers people a safe and empowering treatment choice alongside other mainstay approaches such as cognitive-behavioural therapy and maintenance antidepressants. We need to do more research, however, to get recovery rates closer to 100 per cent and to help prevent the first onset of depression, earlier in life. These are programmes of work we are pursuing at the University of Oxford and with our collaborators around the world."

Though the findings will certainly reinvigorate confidence in mindfulness, Richard Byng from the University of Plymouth and one of the co-authors said, “clinicians need to be cautiously optimistic when tapering off antidepressant medication, and treat each patient as an individual who may or may not benefit from both MBCT and other effective treatments."