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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What the tragic case of Charlie Gard tells us about the modern world

People now believe medical science can perform miracles, and many search for them online.

If Charlie Gard had been born 40 years ago, there would have been no doubt about what would, and should, happen. Doctors treating a baby with a rare genetic condition that causes the body’s organs to shut down would have told his parents “nothing more can be done for him”. Charlie – deaf, epileptic, his muscles wasted, his brain probably damaged – would have died peacefully and unremarked. If an experimental US treatment had given such children an estimated 10 per cent chance of survival, his parents would not have known about it. Even if they had, they would have sorrowfully deferred to British doctors.

Now people believe that medical science can perform miracles and, through the internet, search the world for them. Yet they do not trust the knowledge and judgement of the medical profession. They rally public support and engage lawyers to challenge the doctors, as Charlie’s parents unsuccessfully did in the hope of being allowed to take their child for experimental treatment in America, despite warnings that it would be ineffective and distressing for him. This is a strange situation, the result of medical progress, social media, globalisation and the decline of deference. It causes much heartache to everybody involved but, like Charlie’s death, it is probably unavoidable.

Mogg days

A few weeks ago, Jacob Rees-Mogg was a 50-1 outsider for the Tory leadership. Now, as I write, he is third or fourth favourite, quoted by the bookmakers at between 6-1 and 10-1. For a few days, he was the second favourite, ahead of both Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond and behind only David Davis, the clear front-runner. Perhaps Davis organised rich friends – of which I am sure he has a few – to flood the market with bets on Rees-Mogg to frighten Tory MPs into rallying behind him.

But do not write off the man dubbed “the honourable member for the early 20th century” – generously, in my view, since he looks and behaves as though he has stepped off an 18th-century country estate and he actually lives on a 17th-century one. Rees-Mogg, a hard Brexiteer, would be an appropriate leader if we left the EU with no deal. Having excused ourselves from the world’s largest and most cohesive trading bloc, our best prospect for earning our living would be as a giant 18th-century theme park. Who better than Rees-Mogg to front it?

The royal revenue stream

Princess Diana is the gift that keeps on giving. TV companies produce documentaries on the anniversaries of her death and marriage. New tapes, photos and letters are unearthed. Anyone who cut her hair, cleaned her windows or sold her a frock can make a bob or two from “my memories of Diana”. Most important, Diana guarantees the future of the royal family for at least another half-century. In an ITV documentary, Prince William spoke movingly and sincerely (as did his brother, Harry) about losing a mother. Even the most hard-hearted republicans must now hesitate to deprive him also of a throne.

Strictly newsreading

I am a BBC fan. I regard the requirement, imposed by the Tories, that the corporation publishes the names and salary bands of employees paid more than £150,000 a year as an attempt to exploit “the politics of envy” of which Labour is normally accused. But I wonder if the corporation could help itself by offering even more transparency than the government demands.

It could, for example, explain exactly why Gary Lineker (£1.75m-£1.79m), Jeremy Vine (£700,000-£749,999) and Huw Edwards (£550,000-£599,999) are so handsomely paid. Do they possess skills, esoteric knowledge or magnetic attraction to viewers and listeners unavailable to other mortals and particularly to their women colleagues who are apparently unworthy of such lavish remuneration? Were they wooed by rival broadcasters? If so, which rivals and how much did they offer? Have BBC women received lower offers or no offers at all? The BBC could go further. It could invite a dozen unknowns to try doing the jobs of top presenters and commentators, turn the results into a programme, and invite viewers or listeners to decide if the novices should replace established names and, if so, at what salaries. We elect the people who make our laws and the couples who go into the final stages of Strictly Come Dancing. Why shouldn’t we elect our newsreaders and, come to that, Strictly’s presenters?

Mail order

A tabloid newspaper, founded in 1896 and now with its headquarters in Kensington High Street, west London, obsessed with the Islamist terror threat, convinced that it speaks for Middle England. An editor, in the chair for a quarter-of-a-century, who makes such liberal use of the C-word that his editorial conferences are known as “the vagina monologues” and whose voice is comparable to that of “a maddened bull elephant”. Sound familiar?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Splash!, a newly published satirical novel about a tabloid newspaper from the long-serving Daily Mail columnist Stephen Glover. Now I have had early sight of The Beast, due out in September, also a satirical novel about a tabloid paper, written by Alexander Starritt who briefly worked on the Mail after leaving Oxford University. Like Glover, he pays homage to Evelyn Waugh’s classic Scoop, where the main characters worked for the Daily Beast, but there the similarities end. Glover has written what is essentially a defence of tabloid journalism. Starritt offers a fierce, blackly comic critique, though he cannot, in the end, quite avoid casting the editor Paul Dacre – sorry, Charles Brython – as a heroic, if monstrous, figure.

How many other journalists or ex-journalists are writing satirical novels about the Mail? And why the presumed public interest? Newspapers, with fewer readers than ever, are supposed to be dying. Fiction publishers seem to disagree. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue