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
Steven Millar
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Labour MP for Midlothian Danielle Rowley: "I get my politics from my mum as well as my dad"

The daughter of Scottish Labour deputy leader Alex Rowley on being the youngest Labour MP.  

Danielle Rowley, the new Labour MP for Midlothian, wants to get one thing straight. “A lot of people automatically assume all of my politics comes from my dad,” the daughter of Scottish Labour’s deputy leader, Alex Rowley, says. “While I am influenced and inspired by him, I grew up with my mum and her parents. I have politics in all sides of my family.”

Both Rowley’s grandfathers were miners and Labour party activists. Her mother was a trade unionist and a case worker for the last Midlothian Labour MP, David Hamilton. “She was a very strong woman, a single parent, a hard worker,” Rowley says. At 27, she is upholding the family tradition by becoming Labour’s youngest MP.

When we meet in Portcullis House, in Westminster, she is dressed soberly in a navy suit jacket and blue print dress. She hopes to inspire young women in her constituency. “I grew up on a council estate,” she says. “I hope it shows them they can do any job they want to.”

Even so, Rowley’s election was a surprise. In 2015, Hamilton resigned and Midlothian went to the Scottish National Party’s Owen Thompson with a 23.4 per cent swing. Rowley, a campaigns officer for the housing charity Shelter, kept her expectations modest. After a nail-biting night, she won with a majority of 885. 

“Obviously I had the aim of winning, but I was not getting my hopes up too much,” Rowley recalls. “I was thinking I could really reduce the SNP majority, that was all. But every day on the doorstep I got more and more hopeful.”

Rowley’s father Alex is a firm supporter of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale backed Owen Smith in the 2016 leadership contest), and is seen as being softer on independence than the official party line.

But Rowley says her anti-independence views come from her constituents: “People were fed up of the idea of another referendum.”

In 2014, the independence movement caught the imagination of much of Scotland’s youth – the majority of young voters opted for Yes. So why did Rowley buck the trend? “I am very strong willed,” she says. She spent the referendum working for Gordon Brown, and was there in Kirkcaldy when Yes supporters egged the Labour MP Jim Murphy. “I got a bit of egg on me that day. You can see me [in the photos] in a red raincoat ducking out of the way.”

She believes the same hope which pushed young voters towards independence may now be blowing in the sails of Labour. “I have got a lot of friends who were part of the Yes movement,” she says. “I think there is an assumption they would support the SNP, but actually most of them voted Labour.”

The Corbyn surge, then, is real. “People were fed up, but they needed to be given something to give them hope,” she says. “I think Labour gave them something to offer.

“Whenever we had younger voters on the doorstep, they were excited about the manifesto. Even some of my friends who hadn’t voted were excited about it.”

As for the suggestion – floated by the Labour MSP Neil Findlay – that it should have spent more time talking about Corbyn and less about independence, Rowley demurs. “You couldn’t have just opposing independence, you couldn’t just have the manifesto,” she says. “You had to have both.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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