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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Why Zac Goldsmith's defeat matters

Today's Morning Call. 

The Liberal Democrats have won a remarkable victory in Richmond Park. The numbers that matter:

Sarah Olney (Liberal Democrat) 20,510 (49 per cent)

Zac Goldsmith (Nominally independent but let’s face it Tory) 18,638 (45 per cent)

Christian Wolmar (Labour) 1,515 (4 per cent)

It’s a 23 per cent swing to the Liberal Democrats and a 30 per cent increase in their vote. It’s a shot in the arm for Tim Farron’s team, and a hammer blow to Theresa May. Yes, Goldsmith may have worn a different rosette for this one, but he had the covert support of the Conservatives nationally and their overt support locally.

What does it all mean? The Richmond result means that Tory backbenchers now know that Brexit is putting jobs at risk: theirs. We now know for certain, that the pattern we witnessed in the Witney by-election and in local results, that the Liberal Democrats are doing well in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote in June, is not a fluke. It is a trend. 

What matters though is perhaps not whether the Liberal Democrats can cohere the 22 per cent of voters who believe the referendum should be overturned behind their flag. What matters is that Brexit appears to have cleansed the Liberal Democrats of the sins of coalition, at least as far as Labour voters are concerned. That party’s vote share, which went up in most Conservative-Liberal battlegrounds in 2015, was well down in Richmond Park last night, with Wolmar losing his deposit. 

And that really should spook Conservative MPs. Because while seats that voted Remain in a landslide are rare, Conservative seats which the Liberal Democrats held in 2010 where the Labour vote in third place is bigger than the Tory majority…aren’t.

FLAN-BYE
French President Francois Hollande has announced that he will not be a candidate in next year’s French presidential election and will not contest the Socialist Party’s primary. In practice, it may mean less than we think for next year’s election. Arnaud Montebourg, the former minister from the party’s left,  looked likely to beat Hollande in the primary any way and starts as the favourite against Manuel Valls, the sitting Prime Minister, and great hope of the party’s right flank. Anne-Sylvaine Chassany has a potted history of Hollande’s rise and fall.

PAY TO PLAY

David Davis has admitted that the government is considering continuing to pay into the EU’s budget after Brexit in order to secure access to the single market, as Morning Call readers first read way back in September.  “Davis backs soft Brexit in blow to hardliners” is the Times’ splash.

IDS’ LAST HORCRUX

David Freud, the Conservative peer and architect of the Universal Credit, has retired from the government. I’m told that Freud’s retirement is genuinely the result of his personal preferences, not a commentary on the troubled UC programme. I explain what its future might be in greater detail here.

ALREADY INTEGRATING, ACTUALLY

93 per cent of British Muslims feel a “fairly” or “very strong” attachment to Britain and, just as with the rest of the population, identify the NHS, unemployment and immigration as the biggest issues facing the country. More than half want to “fully integrate”. The findings are part of a ICM survey commissioned by Policy Exchange, the centre-right think tank. The full Policy Exchange report can be read here.

TONY BLAIR’S INSTITUTE FOR ENDANGERED SPECIES

Tony Blair has launched a new institute to “inform and support the practising politician”, aiming to boost support for the pro-globalisation centre. Julia has the details.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

Tom interviews Zadie Smith about multiculturalism, cultural appropriation and her new novel Swing Time.

MUST READS

George on why Richmond Park will scare Tory MPs

Paul Nuttall plans to destroy Labour. Helen asks if he can succeed

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Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.