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 Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.