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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Low turnout may not be enough to save Zac Goldsmith

Demographic patterns in mayoral elections do not replicate those at general elections. 

It is a truism in politics to say that older people vote. Almost exactly a year ago - the day before the general election - ComRes published a briefing note for our clients pointing out that with large leads particularly amongst older people, as well as among the affluent and those who owned their home, the Conservatives were in the dominant position as the country headed to the polls.           

Turnout is one of the most difficult parts of polling to get right, but history was unequivocal in suggesting that these groups were overwhelmingly the most likely to vote in a general election. This gave David Cameron the advantage, whatever the headline numbers in the polls were saying, and Labour would need a change in behaviour of historic proportions in order to make it to Downing Street.           

It is in the same spirit that a number of commentators have written articles raising the prospects of an upset in the election for Mayor of London. Different arguments have been used, but the central thrust has tended to be that, despite Sadiq Khan’s lead overall, there are turnout advantages not picked up in polling which benefit the Conservatives and which could produce a shock result.          

This is the first point made by Asa Bennett when advising “Don't write Zac Goldsmith off as London Mayor – he can still win this thing”, while Adam Bienkov has suggested that a low turnout “will inevitably help the Tories, whose voters tend to be older, wealthier and more likely to turn up to the polls.”           

While these arguments make intuitive sense, they make one fatal assumption: that demographic patterns in mayoral elections replicate those at general elections.           

Firstly, it is important to point out that there are no exact numbers on who actually votes at elections. The paper copies of marked electoral registers are kept separately by local authorities and contain no demographic information anyway.            

Instead, we know who votes in general elections because in places where the population is older, turnout tends to be higher than in places where it is younger. Communities with more middle class and affluent constituents have higher turnouts than more deprived areas.      

The graphs below show the relationship between the socio-economic make up of a constituency’s population, with the proportion of people who turned out to vote at the last general election. As can be seen, the higher the proportion of constituents who come from the most affluent AB social grades, the higher the turnout was in the constituency. On the other hand, turnout was lower the higher the proportion of a constituency’s population came from the least affluent DE social grades.

Now this all fits with expectation. But the rub comes when we run a similar exercise on the last mayoral election in 2012. If we look at the age profile of individual electoral wards, we would expect to see those with a higher proportion of older people have a higher level of turnout at the election. “Older people vote” after all.

But if we look at the data, a different picture emerges. The graph below shows all the wards in London, and the relationship between the proportion of people aged 55 and over in that ward, and the proportion of people who turned out to vote. And the picture is surprising but clear: there was almost no relationship between age and likelihood to vote at the last mayoral election. 

As the graph shows, there is a very slight incline upwards in the trend-line as the proportion of 55+ constituents increases, but the fit is very loose. The individual data points are scattered all over the place, far from the line and indicating an extremely weak relationship – if any at all (this wouldn’t pass a statistical test for the presence of a correlation).

The case is similar if we use with proportion of 18-34 years – or for that matter, the proportion of a ward’s population which owns their home. Despite some commentators suggesting homeowners are more likely to vote, the data suggest this is not the case at mayoral elections.

Another common trope is that “the doughnut may yet do it” for the Conservatives, with turnout being lower in inner London, where Labour does better, and higher turnout in the leafy suburbs therefore delivering victory for Zac Goldsmith. Again though, this claim does not really stand up to reality. If we look at average turnout in inner and outer London boroughs, it has not been noticeably higher in the outer ring of the doughnut since 2004. In fact, at the last mayoral election, average turnout was slightly higher in inner London boroughs than it was in outer London boroughs.

There is one final possibility, which has become a higher profile issue in the current contest than in the past: that there is a racial element in Londoners’ likelihood to vote. This is important because Zac currently leads Sadiq Khan by seven points among London’s white population, but is 31 points behind among BAME Londoners. If white Londoners were much more likely to vote therefore, there is an outside possibility that Zac Goldsmith could sneak a result.

Once again though, the data suggest this is not the case – there was very little relationship between a ward’s ethnic profile and its level of turnout at the last mayoral election. The predominantly white wards on the left hand side of the chart below include the wards with the highest turnout – but also most of the lowest. There is little to suggest that the predominantly BAME wards necessarily have a lower level of turnout than the London-wide average.

Overall then, there is little relationship between turnout at mayoral elections and age, home ownership, suburbia or ethnicity. It is within this context that much of Zac Goldsmith’s campaign, which has raised controversy in some areas, should be seen. Seeking to link Sadiq Khan to Islamic radicalism is not necessarily about trying to get people to change how they will vote, but more to provide an incentive for older voters in outer London to go out to the polling station and to drive up turnout among Conservative-leaning groups.

In turn, the hope is also to reduce the motivation to vote among Labour-leaning voters by creating an element of doubt in the back of the mind and to dampen enthusiasm (“Meh – I’m not sure I want him to be elected anyway”). The leaflets targeting Hindu and Sikh households are perhaps also similar examples of this - if not converting your opponent’s voters, at least reducing their affinity to him (or her).

Of course, it could also have the opposite effect. Rather than making Labour-leaning voters less likely to vote, Goldsmith’s campaign may have provided them with more of a reason to make the trip to the polling station, in order to stop a campaign they see as racially-charged and a threat to London’s status as a beacon of successful multiculturalism.  

Either way, if such tactics are to work, the Conservatives will need to overturn the turnout trends seen in 2012 to a very large extent. 

London is famously a city where relative wealth and deprivation sit closely alongside each other. Mews housing Georgian terraces meander into streets containing chicken shops, homeless refuges or council estates; Londoners of all backgrounds subscribe themselves to the same crush of the Tube at rush hour. For whatever reason, London also has not the stark variations in propensity to vote between different social groups seen in national elections. Turnout may hold the key for Goldsmith, but it would represent a rupture of historical trend, rather than an expression of it.