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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Peter Hitchens on Twitter seemed barely human – then he came round for tea

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me.

But what about Peter Hitchens?” everyone is asking after my last encounter with him. He came round to the Hovel, you see, the day before the column, in which I said all sorts of nasty things about him, appeared. The reason why he came round is complicated and boring, but suffice it to say that books were exchanged, in a spirit of mutual diplomatic tension.

I offered him a choice of red wine, whisky, or tea. It was five o’clock. (He was punctual, which unsurprised me. He chose tea; he is not a fan of intoxication. Aha! I thought, he’ll love this: as a foe of modernity in many of its aspects, such as duvets and central heating, he will appreciate the fact that I do not use tea bags. Loose Assam leaves, put into a scalded teapot. “Conservative in everything except politics” was a formulation – originally, I think, applied to George Orwell – that Peter’s late brother was fond of, and I thought my old-fashionedness would soothe him.

Not exactly: he noticed I was pouring semi-skimmed milk into the mug. Of course you put the milk in last when you are using tea bags. When pouring from a pot, you put the milk in first. Milk poured in afterwards does not emulsify satisfactorily. If you are one of those people who say “but how do you know if you’ve put in the right amount of milk?” then I exhort you to start trusting your pouring arm.

Semi-skimmed milk, I learned quickly, is a no-no in the world of P Hitchens.

“But Orwell himself,” I replied urbanely, “said that milk that was too creamy made the tea taste unpleasant. Not, of course, that I believe everything Orwell said, but on tea-making he is sound.”

Mr Hitchens demurred, saying that Orwell was referring to the equivalent of what we know today as Gold Top. This allowed me to go off on a little rant, a positive, life-enhancing rant, about how good Gold Top is, how my children love it, etc. We moved into the living room. I noticed my shoes were more old-fashioned than his. Come to think of it, they may have been older than him. They’re almost certainly older than me.

There was a mood of civility in the air. Slightly strained, perhaps, like his tea, but unmistakably present. Part of the reason was that I had mentioned our forthcoming meeting on a social medium, and two of my friends, one a well-known novelist, the other a well-known columnist, both women, both left wing, had asked me, extremely sincerely, to pass on their best wishes. They knew him of old, had worked with him, were fond of him. These are two women whose opinions I take very seriously indeed. The Peter Hitchens I knew, of column and Question Time panel, was clearly not the whole picture. If these women say he’s Basically All Right, or All Right enough to ask me to pass on their best wishes, then that is pretty much good enough for me.

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me. I was becoming increasingly conscious that, the next day, in newsagents throughout the land, the latest edition of this magazine would appear, and in it, on page 82, would be a column by me, which contained several jokes at the expense of P Hitchens, Esq. And I knew that this column would not escape his vigilance. I massaged the bridge of my nose and launched into a pre-emptive apology. “I think I had better tell you...”

He seemed to take it fairly well, though I’d not given him the full nature of my assault. When we were tossing insults back and forth on Twitter, he seemed barely human; now, in my living room, he all too clearly was. I suppose this is how we all see our enemies on Twitter: as botched versions of the Turing Test, spouting opinions that are quite clearly wrong in spite of all our well-reasoned arguments. The only variable is how quickly the arguments de-evolve into base invective. I have my own theory about this. It involves Lacan, so I’ll spare you.

A couple of days later I received an email from him, courteously asking after me and my latest troubles, the ones I can’t write about due to their immensity. It also contained the precise quote from Orwell regarding milk in tea. (“Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.” You have to love that “ninthly”.) “Tempus mutatur,” I replied... but noted, too, that there was no mention of That Column. I was rather impressed. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear