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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The NHS's sustainability is under threat if more isn't done to look after its staff

More work is needed to develop the health service's most precious resource.

As the NHS nears its 70th anniversary, the time is ripe for a workforce rescue plan. Staffing worries, even more than funding pressures, are the biggest cause of concern for NHS trust leaders. There are not enough trained health workers in the UK to meet today’s needs, let alone those of the future.

Demands on hospitals, mental health and community trusts, and ambulance services are growing. More patients need treatment. Increasingly, they require complex care, with specialist expertise. This is not just about numbers. We need a clinical workforce that is skilled and equipped to work in new ways to deal with the changing needs of the population it serves. 

That means improving the supply of people coming to work for the NHS, and doing more to develop and motivate them so they want to stay. These problems are not new but the scale of the challenge has reached a tipping point which threatens the future sustainability of the NHS.

Ministers rightly point out that the NHS in England has more clinical staff than ever before, but numbers have not kept pace with rising demand. The official "shortfall rate" for nurses and midwives across England is close to 10 per cent, and in some places significantly higher. Part of this is down to the recognition, after the events at troubled health trust Mid Staffordshire, of the importance of safe staffing levels. Yet for successive years during the coalition government, the number of nurse training recruits fell.

Far from being a problem just for hospitals, there are major nursing shortages in mental health and community trusts. Between 2009 and 2016 the number of district nurses employed by the NHS in England fell by more than 40 per cent. Just as the health service tries to accelerate plans for more treatment closer to home, in key parts of the workforce the necessary resources are shrinking.

There are also worrying gaps in the supply of doctors. Even as the NHS gears up for what may prove to be its toughest winter yet, we see worrying shortfalls in A&E consultants. The health service is rightly committed to putting mental health on an equal footing with physical health. But many trusts are struggling to fill psychiatry posts. And we do not have enough GPs.

A key part of the problem is retention. Since 2010/11 there has been a worrying rise in “leaver rates” among nurses, midwives, ambulance staff and scientific technical staff. Many blame the pressures of workload, low staffing levels and disillusionment with the quality of care. Seventy per cent of NHS staff stay on for extra hours. Well over a third say they have felt unwell in the past year because of work-related stress.

Add in cuts to real basic pay, year after year, and it is hardly surprising that some are looking to other opportunities and careers outside the public sector. We need a strategy to end pay restraint in the NHS.

There is also a worrying demographic challenge. Almost one in three qualified nurses, midwives and health visitors is aged 50 or older. One in five GPs is at least 55. We have to give them reasons to stay.

NHS trusts have made important strides in engaging with their workforce. Staff ratings on being able to report concerns, feeling trusted to do their jobs, and being able to suggest improvements are encouraging. But there are still cultural problems – for example around discrimination and bullying – which must be addressed locally and nationally.

The NHS can no longer be sure that overseas recruits will step in to fill workforce gaps. In the early 2000s many trusts looked beyond Europe to meet nursing shortages. More recently, as tougher immigration and language rules took hold, a growing proportion came from the EU – though not enough to plug the gap.

Now we have all the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. We need urgent clarity on the status of current EU nationals working in the health and care systems. And we must recognise that for the foreseeable future, NHS trusts will need support to recruit and retain staff from overseas. The government says it will improve the home-grown supply, but that will clearly take time.

These problems have developed in plain sight. But leadership on this has been muddled or trumped by worries over funding. Responsibility for NHS workforce strategy is disjointed. We need a co-ordinated, realistic, long-term strategy to ensure that frontline organisations have the right number of staff with the right skills in the right place to deliver high quality care.

We must act now. This year's long-delayed workforce plan – to be published soon by Health Education England – could be a good place to start. But what we need is a more fundamental approach – with a clear vision of how the NHS must develop its workforce to meet these challenges, and a commitment to make it happen. 

Saffron Cordery is the director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers