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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It harms women more than men when dads doing parenting are seen as “babysitters”

In the grand scheme of things, being seen as a mere babysitter is less dehumanising than being seen as a mere woman.

“Dads don’t babysit (it’s called ‘parenting’).” So says the T-shirt created by Al Ferguson of The Dad Network, in response to the assumption that a father seen caring for his own offspring is simply playing the role of temporary childminder.

The t-shirt has prompted a great deal of debate, not to mention marketing opportunities (you can already buy a “my dad doesn’t babysit” onesie for your little one). It seems more and more fathers want to be recognised as equal carers, and who can blame them?

From a feminist perspective, it’s easy to see why describing fathers as “babysitting” their own children is a bad idea. It lowers the expectations placed on fathers, putting them on a level with people who have no emotional ties to their children and are merely providing a service.

It feeds into the myth that when it comes to wiping bottoms and drying tears, fathers are amateurs while mothers are naturals.

It suggests that childcare remains the sole responsibility of mothers, who should therefore be grateful should any man bother to “help them out”.

It’s rare to see mothers described as “babysitting” their own children. On the contrary, one is either “being a mother” – doing what mothers do, without receiving any particular recognition for it – or one is guilty of neglect.

To that extent, I’m with the dads. I don’t want them to be seen as mere babysitters any more than you do. And yet there’s something about the testimonies of some of the “babysitting” dads of reddit that I can’t help but find annoying. Sure, their parenting efforts aren’t always appreciated – but do they have to be quite so self-pitying about it?

Take this complaint appearing in the “Dads don’t babysit” thread, for instance:

“Watch comedy shows about families. Dad is always the bumbling but loveable fool, mom is the strict, way too good looking, poor woman who has to put up with all of this.”

Poor men. Poor, poor men. And lucky, lucky women for being the beneficiaries of gender stereotypes that would appear not to bear any resemblance whatsoever to real life.

Except that’s not quite true. While the number of stay-at-home fathers in the UK has risen, it remains relatively low at 16 per cent of all stay-at-home parents. In heterosexual couples where both parents are in paid employment, women continue to take on the majority of household tasks and childcare responsibilities. While carework is seen as the key reason why mothers earn less than childfree women, men with children earn more than men without.

Moreover, there is evidence that men tend to cherrypick when it comes to the type of childcare they are willing to perform. Kicking a ball about in the park is one thing; taking time off work to look after a sick child is quite another.

Of course, when I say “men” I mean #notallmen. But enough men to make it somewhat galling when “fathers being seen as mere babysitters” is presented as an injustice not just to women, but to men.

The trouble is, when it comes to how children are cared for, many fathers do behave more like babysitters. They get to do the fun tasks; they don’t end up out-of-pocket; they’re not expected to stick around to clear up afterwards. Not all men are like this, but is it really fair to pretend that current divisions of labour are more equitable than they really are?

This is a common dilemma for feminists when dealing with gender. Do we let language run ahead of reality on the basis that this in itself will change expectations of what should be, creating a virtuous circle of cause and effect?

Or do we assume, as I tend to, that any linguistic manoeuvre suggesting that equality has already been achieved will be used to suggest that women have nothing left to fight for?

After all, we’ve already been told, for years on end, that “perhaps the pendulum has swung too far”. Alas, it’s utter nonsense. The “pendulum” remains one massive swinging dick, swooping between boorish laddism on one side and performative new man-ism on the other. Women don’t even get a look-in.

It’s easier to be frustrated at gender stereotypes than it is to remember why they exist in the first place. Inequality between men and women is so deeply ingrained – and so pathetically mundane – that we forget beliefs about men and women’s “essential” selves have anything to do with it.

We treat the imposition of gender roles as equally unfair on both men and women, failing to register that it is through these assumed roles that men have acquired the vast majority of the world’s wealth and resources. When men suffer due to gender, it is a side-effect; when women suffer, that’s because it’s the whole sodding point.

Thus a woman trying to gain acceptance while performing what is traditionally seen as a “man’s” role is not in the same position as a man performing a “woman’s” role. The woman will eventually crash into the glass ceiling, while the man may well find himself on board the glass escalator instead.

From a male perspective, this particular privilege is experienced as a mixed blessing. To their credit, some commenters on the reddit thread note how the criteria for being a wonderful dad can end up the same as those for being a terrible mother:

“When my kids were little I’d take them to the playground and chase them around a little bit then settle in on a bench and look at my phone while they played. I can’t count the number of times people walked up to me while I was essentially just airing out my kids, and told me that I was a wonderful father. Meanwhile when my wife took them to the playground, when she sat on a bench and talked with her friends, people would tsk tsk her for not attending to our kids 100% of the time.”

The belief that men are not natural carers heightens the value of the caring work they do, whereas the belief that women are not natural, say, artists or politicians leads to them having to work several times as hard to be taken seriously. In the grand scheme of things, being seen as a mere babysitter is less dehumanising than being seen as a mere woman.

We all deserve to be recognised for the roles we perform. Nonetheless, there’s a difficult balance to be made between reflecting the ways things are and the way they should be. When it comes to shared parenting, I’d like to assume that we all want the same thing. But if that were the case, devoted dads, surely we’d already have it by now? And since we haven’t yet been there and done that, is it really time to be getting the t-shirt?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.