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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Brawl MP Eric Joyce: Don’t blame me for Brexit just because I headbutted a Tory

The former Labour politician described Corbyn's politics as "quite literally bonkers".

Disgraced former MP Eric Joyce has insisted he’s not to blame for, well, everything that’s happened in British politics since he started a brawl in a House of Commons bar.

The butterfly effect theory runs that if Joyce had not kicked off in Stranger’s Bar one night in 2012, then the nation would look very different indeed.

The fracas, in which Joyce headbutted Tory Stuart Andrew and lamped his own party whip Phil Wilson, led to him giving up his Falkirk seat and quitting the Labour party.

That led to the infamous Falkirk selection fight which saw accusations that the contest was rigged by the unions and the Labour left.

As a result Ed Miliband drew up new rules for Labour membership, which included the option of paying just a few pounds to join and vote in leadership elections.

That allowed thousands to get involved in the 2015 leadership election and make Jeremy Corbyn leader. Corbyn’s ineffective campaigning and failure to deliver the Labour vote at the Brexit referendum is blamed by some for the Leave victory. And as a result of that Nicola Sturgeon is champing at the bit for another independence referendum and this week Theresa May called an early general election to essentially set up a five-year Brexit parliament.

“It’s quite a nice theory,” admits Joyce. “And on one level it’s factually true. But much as I like to self-aggrandise myself, if it hadn’t been Falkirk it would have been somewhere else.

“People were saying to me that the left were making a big push in Paisley to get rid of Douglas Alexander, then my thing came along and they made their stand in Falkirk rather than Paisley.

“Until that point I’d had running battles with the left, but I battered them down every year.”

After Joyce left Labour, Karie Murphy, now a key figure in Corbyn’s office and inner circle and close to Unite boss Len McCluskey, tried to win the nomination to replace him. But questions were raised about the role of Unite in the process and it was claimed that locals had been signed up to the party without their consent. As the scandal grew, then-Labour leader Miliband announced his fateful reforms to party membership in an effort to draw a line under it. (Labour later cleared Unite of any wrongdoing). 

Joyce told me: “Ed was very weak with the left and he had this terrible gullibility. If it hadn’t had been Falkirk the same issues would have surfaced somewhere else.”

He has largely kept his head down since stepping down from Parliament two years ago, other than the occasional blog on the state of the Labour party or the issue of Scottish independence – which he now supports. He’s canned plans for an autobiography but claims he’s adapted some episodes from his life for a thriller instead.

However, in this rare intervention he’s scathing about Corbyn and also about the moderate Labour MPs who oppose him.

He said: “Jeremy Corbyn’s politics are quite literally bonkers.

“When I was an MP I took a lot of interest in Africa. I used to do quite a lot of stuff with Jeremy, he was really engaged and he just stayed behind the scenes focusing on his constituency and his issues. Then occasionally he’d make these bonkers speeches and I’d stay away.”

But he claims the current crop of MPs don’t have the skills to deal with the Corbynista tide.

The former soldier explained: “When I got selected I treated it like a campaign, I located in the constituency, contacted everyone, eventually I got selected, and when the left put their head above the parapet I knocked them down.

“A lot of current MPs got where they are by patronage, they’ve not had to fight battles, they’ve been special advisers. And when it came to Corbyn they weren’t able to carry their local party.

“Politics is all about numbers and organising. And while the Blairite bits of Labour write articles for Progress and tweet, the left just go and get the numbers.”

No longer a member, but describing himself as a Labour supporter, Joyce, an MP for 15 years from 2000, is gloomy about his former party’s prospects.

“It’s hard to see Labour in power before 2025, if ever," he said. "There was no coup, Labour had a nervous breakdown.”

James Millar is a political journalist and founder of the Political Yeti's Politics Podcast.

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