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
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Jon Bartley
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Why I slept on the street outside Downing Street

The government is trying to stop taking child refugees. This means condemning them to the sub-zero night. 

It’s hard to sleep on concrete, with rain threatening and the winds of an approaching storm whipping around you. As the cold reaches your bones, rest evades you. Being so exposed, with no shelter or safety from the weather and the world, the idea of slipping into unconsciousness feels impossible.

This is what I learnt as I slept rough outside Downing Street last night.

In the centre of London, I bedded down on the pavement alongside 60 activists and volunteers who work with refugee children. Some had come in their onesies, others with guitars. As we sat resolute yet hopeful on cardboard boxes and under umbrellas, all were happy to share their stories.

I heard from those who have worked in the Calais and Dunkirk camps, and with children on the streets. They told of the stress and desperation of the children both inside and outside the resettlement centres in which they have been placed following the demolition of the Calais camp. The children have no faith left in our government and feel betrayed. They told me the children's stories - children who had come from conflict zones like Sudan and Afghanistan.

With us was one refugee who spent six months in the Calais camp. He told me of his reasons for fleeing Syria, how he was kidnapped and detained by the secret service because he stood up to the Assad regime. He is now using his skills as an actor, to raise awareness of what is going on with refugees here in the UK.

I didn’t get much sleep. But at least in the morning I could go home to a warm bed and a hot shower. Compare this to the youngsters sleeping rough on the edges of Calais and Dunkirk, in woods and under bridges, with only a donated sleeping bag to protect them from sub-zero temperatures. Next to that, my night outside Downing Street was five star.

For those young children and teenagers, spending the night alone, frightened, cold and wet in a country that is not their own, is a daily reality. By sleeping out last night, I got just a small taste of that reality, and it was enough to know it’s not something I would want my children to have to do. It’s not something I would want any children to have to do.

The big scandal here of course is that the bulldozed "Jungle" camp in Calais, awful as it was, sheltered many of these children. The UK government was implicit in the flattening of the huts and shelters where roughly 1,300 unaccompanied child refugees lived. It is thought at least 90,000 lone child refugees arrived in Europe in 2015. Under the Dubs Amendment to the Immigration Act, there was the expectation that the UK would step up and take 3,000 of the extremely vulnerable children. But now the government has scrapped it, with just a tenth of this number set to actually arrive.

Is it any wonder then that children with no hope of safe and legal crossing to the UK have started to return to the site of the demolished camp in Calais? The majority of the minors bussed to centres in France weren’t even considered for transfer to the UK, and this combined with the Dubs closure has left them with little alternative but to attempt to come to the UK by other, more dangerous, means. We have pushed these children into risking their lives climbing onto trucks and, in many cases, into the hands of people traffickers.

We didn’t have to end the Dubs scheme, and it is nothing short of a scandal that less than 50 miles from the coast of our country there are children sleeping rough on the streets because we are not doing the right thing. Had the government committed to giving local authorities the resources they need to welcome refugee children, we could have provided shelter to thousands. We are the fifth richest country in the world, and while I know budgets are under pressure, I also know the government could afford this if it wanted to.

In spending a night outside Downing Street with teams from Help Refugees, Hummingbird Project and Voices for Child Refugee, we aimed to raise awareness of what is facing refugee children in Europe, and to demonstrate that we will not allow them to be forgotten. But we also want to see real action, real change. This morning the campaigners went into 10 Downing Street to give Theresa May a petition calling on the Government to rethink the closure of the Dubs scheme – and to say "we must be so much better than this". The petition is just the start of the ongoing struggle to make the government listen – and we won’t stop until it does.

Jon Bartley is the co-leader of the Green Party.