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
Helena Smith
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Can religion trump the climate change deniers? Meet the inter-faith environmentalists

The role of faith in fighting intolerance, protecting the planet, and trumping Trump.

"I need my brothers here with me - Canon Giles and Rabbi Natan," said Dr Husna Ahmad, motioning for the two men to join her at the pulpit. Taking their hands and raising them above her head, she continued:

“[I need them] to be my voice, to fight for my right to practice my religion, for my right to wear the hijab and to care for my sons and daughters and granddaughters - as they would care for their own”.

Why do I ask for this at an evening about climate change? she asked, her voice now shaking with emotion. “Because only when we think as one humanity can we save this planet.”

The meeting at St John’s church, Waterloo, saw Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders come together for the first-ever "Faith for the Climate" event. Their message echoed the wider Interfaith movement's statement on climate change: that caring for the earth is our shared responsibility. 

As so often with environmental subjects, the effort felt at risk of being shadowed by the more tangible needs of the soup-kitchen operating in the dusk outside. Yet at a time of rising Islamophobia and anti-Semitism building cross-community connections and tackling prejudice matter more than ever.

Not least since the fledgling consensus on climate change is also under threat. In the US, one of the world's great polluters, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is a climate change denier. 

During last night's televised debate Hillary Clinton took the businessman to task for saying that climate change was "a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese". Trump denied the accusation: "I did not, I did not, I do not say that," he responded. Yet his tweet history suggests otherwise - revealing how a toxic mix of xenophobia and climate scepticism play their part in his wider message.

Prepped with tea and pitta bread, attendees bore witness to a talk by Sir David King - the Foreign secretary's special representative on climate change. By 2035 the world needs to be at net zero emissions, King explained.

Unbearable heat waves, extreme flooding and biblical-levels of crop-destruction wait on the other side of this deadline.

Last week’s UN conference in New York has seen over 30 new nations, including the UK, officially commit to the Paris climate treaty.  Yet against such optimism must be set the looming prospect of a Trump Presidency in America. 

Not only has Trump said he would “cancel” America’s commitment to the Paris agreement. He has also promised to end the “war on coal”, scrap the Environment Protection Agency, and appoint an oil executive to be the Interior secretary. Without America’s support for global action on climate change, the 1.5 degrees target would be impossible to reach.

So how can religion help? On a direct level, many faith-based bodies are already utilising their vast networks to help tackle the challenge.

Since 2004, Operation Noah, a UK-based Christian charity, has called on the church to divest from fossil fuels.

Sir King also described the Pope's 2015 environmental encyclical as an important part of the "crescendo" that set the stage for the successful negotiations on the global climate deal. On the back of such international progress, groups such as Christian Aid, Islamic Relief and the Big Church Switch are strengthening their interventions. Just last week, Christian Aid announced a new $53m fund to improve energy efficiency in developing countries. 

But there is perhaps also another, less direct, way that religion is helping. Christian evangelicals in the US have been more likely to be climate sceptics. Yet in inter-religious contexts, the multiplicity of interpretations can also be an invitation to a deeper interrogation - of the very way we form assumptions about the world. 

Just look at how many takes there have been on the Noah story within Christianity alone. Mike Hulme at Kings College London points to an American Christian evangelical coalition which supports fossil fuels for their ability to provide cheap energy for the poor. Others have claimed that God’s promise to Noah not to drastically alter the earth again means that the impact of climate change will be softened. In contrast, others read floods as a punishment for human sin. According to the Bishop of Carlisle, the 2007 floods were “the consequences of our moral degradation, as well as the environmental damage that we have caused.”

While it may be tempting to pack unpalatable viewpoints off in a "basket of deplorables", or wipe them out with an apocalyptic flood, the takeaway from events like last Wednesday's seems to be a message of expanded community and common ground.

For Canon Giles, simply watching members of different faiths united in prayer had transformative power. "In that moment, we were no longer a gathering of different faiths and dogmas," he said. "We were simply members of the muddled human species, pooling our hopes and prayers."

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.