MANY PEOPLE WOULD RATHER DIE THAN THINK; IN FACT, MOST DO. — BERTRAND RUSSELL

On Atheism+ and humanism: part 2

At the expense of repeating myself, I’ll take some time here to explore some of the other components, criticisms and responses to Atheism+ that were not covered in this post. I have wanted to write a follow up post on this for quite a few days, but it has taken awhile to gather my thoughts.

Here I will show in fuller detail why Atheism+ is not only redundant but why it’s actually corrosive to the legacies of atheists and freethinkers who have done important social work under the old banners and who did so bravely and under conditions that were far from friendly or accepting.

First, Greta Christina (“Humanism Is Great — But It’s Not Atheism Plus“) and Ashley F. Miller (“The difference between “atheism+” and humanism“) have suggested with all the fervor they could muster that Atheism+ is not secular humanism. In Miller’s case, she appears to be on board with Atheism+ because she feels the old label, atheism, suffers from an irreparable stigma. As she describes it:

There is a difference between a self-defined humanist doing something good for mankind and a self-defined atheist doing it, simply because of the massive amount of stigma associated with atheism. Proving that atheists care about other people and making the world a better place is important.  I think that “atheism+” is a way to bring the philosophy of humanism more strongly to the fight for atheist equality, and vice versa.

Calling myself part of the atheist — +, humanist, or otherwise — movement is a meaningful political act, and one not worth dropping to join something incredibly similar, but different.

To make one point abundantly clear: atheism is not a movement, and it is emphatically not political. In the wake of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris and the like, one may easily come to think of atheism as a movement, and at one point, Hitchens even said he wrote his book as part of a “pushback” against religion, but it’s not as if the so-called new atheists met prior to writing their books and made some collaborative effort to produce a string of publications on the perils of a religion as a deliberate exercise. After Sam Harris published “The End of Faith” in 2004, these books and the subject matter just caught fire and the works began flying off the shelves. While the new atheism label may have been an unfortunate consequence of the new attention paid to atheism and freethought, “there is nothing new under the sun,” to borrow a line from Ecclesiastes.

Indeed, Tom Flynn traces the genesis of the “movement” that was never really a movement to begin with because, as I previously noted, atheism has hundreds of years, if not millennia, of thought and free inquiry behind it. Susan Jacoby’s excellent work, “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism,” explores some of the heroes of American freethought, including Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine, Robert Ingersoll, Elizabeth Stanton and many others.

Flynn said that after the release of Harris’ book, “something new was afoot:”

… but it was only this: for the first time, uncompromising atheist writing was coming from big-name publishers and hitting best-seller lists. You could buy it at the airport. In consequence, people who had never before experienced atheist rhetoric got their first exposure to arguments that had formerly been published only by movement presses. One of these newcomers was Wired’s Gary Wolf. Encountering sledgehammer assaults upon religion that he had never seen before, knowing nothing of freethought’s rich, enclaved history, he thought he was seeing something genuinely new. And the New Atheism was born—out of ignorance, ironically enough.

But it was nothing new.

Flynn’s conclusion is so important to my point that it deserves a full mention:

The triumph of Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens was to take arguments against religion that were long familiar to insiders, brilliantly repackage them, and expose them to millions who would never otherwise pick up an atheist book. That’s no small achievement. But too many commentators lacking the requisite historical background have treated them as though the horsemen invented atheism. Not so!

That’s why I think it is important to recognize that there is no New Atheism. There are no New Atheists. There is atheism, and there are atheists. A spectrum of national atheist, freethought, secular humanist, and religious humanist organizaztions already stands prepared to serve unbelievers of many inclinations, without the need for any New Atheist group to hang out its shingle. Atheism and its companion life stances can be proud of roots that extend far, far deeper than (snicker) 2004.

The so-called Four Horsemen deserve admiration for exposing millions of contemporary readers to refutations of traditional religion that our movement has been burnishing for decades, sometimes centuries. We need to do a better job of sharing the rich literary and organizational history out of which these ideas sprang. At the same time, secular humanists need to do all they can to encourage people newly drawn to atheism to make the added journey to the fully rounded, exuberant lifestance we call secular humanism. (italics mine)

So, while the new atheist label was bestowed on Dawkins and Co., unwittingly, and while they, perhaps, adopted it to some degree, nothing new has actually occurred between 2004 and now. Atheism is just atheism, a disbelief in the existence of a god. It has no new definition and entails no new set of morals or principles, and indeed, no set of principles at all. For that, we need humanism, but more on that later.

The second point inherent in Miller’s argument is that “atheism” has become such a stigmatic and disgraced word in modern society (Or, maybe just in America; it’s not quite clear) that its image needs to somehow be repaired. Again, I don’t sense much of a grasp of history here. Atheists and freethinkers have been marginalized, persecuted, and in some extreme cases, killed for hundreds of years, and so long as religion persists, they will continue to be treated with a certain level of contempt and as subhuman in some circles, when, in reality, unbelievers are more alive than the most pious among us. They and we see the world without blinders and without walls. They and we see the world as it is and as it should be: no heaven and certainly no hell at the end of the tunnel; we see a marvelously wide and interconnected universe. We have no lights to guide our path but our own mind, our own consciences, our own sense of empathy for others and our human solidarity. No light; just life.

If others can’t accept that for what it is, it’s their loss. But for nonbelievers to now suggest that we need to change, or perhaps, evolve atheism into a “third wave” called Atheism+ that will address such things like feminism, ableism, racism,  misogyny, etc., and “prove” that atheists “care about making the world a better place” not only does a disservice to the past freethinkers, like Ingersoll and Stanton, who did indeed prove it with the testimony of their lives that atheists can stand up for important causes and move society forward under the banner of humanism, it also kowtows to critics. Essentially, it is the pitiable admission that the very words “atheism” and “humanism” have become so defiled by dissent that there is no choice but to start again by making atheism seem more positive and socially acceptable to the layperson. This is an admission, in other worse, that we have lost.

This is also the part about Atheism+ that, I think, rubs many nonbelievers the wrong way. It seems to suggest that this very small group of people (Free Thought Blogs and their supporters) are preparing to carry the banner of social justice for the rest of us, and for a group of people that inherently eschew cliques and in-groups and chafe at being told how they should think or act, this is contemptible.

As for Christina, she attempts in her post to answer the question:

 Isn’t ‘Atheism plus social justice’ just another term for humanism?”

She then explains:

Humanism is also more engaged with creating secular replacements for the rituals and structures of religious communities… and while many atheists are cool with this idea and are even engaged with it themselves, there are many other atheists who are profoundly turned off by it. And many humanists are actively hostile to the word “atheist.” It’s not just that they don’t choose to use the word themselves. They don’t want anyone else to use it, either. So that puts another damper on the whole “Atheism Plus is just humanism re-branded” thing.

She goes on to say that, in effect, atheism is a more “in your face” brand of nonbelief, while humanism is more subtle and that many people don’t even know what the term means. Later in the post, she discusses the necessity of keeping the word “atheism” alongside the “plus:”

We see value in it (atheism), and we don’t want to abandon it. We want to form a subset of it that makes it better: a subset that is specifically devoted to making atheism more welcoming to women, people of color, poor people, working class people, trans people, and other marginalized groups, and that is specifically devoted to doing work in the places where atheism and other social justice issues intersect.

Again, atheism needs no improvements or additions to make it better, and attempts to do so actually blacken the legacy of atheists who did work and are working to make the world a better place because of their love of humanity. A disbelief in a god does not include a moral or social stance whatsoever. Atheists are free to be kind and loving toward their brothers or they are free to be assholes and suffer the legal and social disadvantages of ridicule, isolation and chastisement. They are free to be Democrats or Republicans, prolife or prochoice, misogynistic or not, as long as they are willing to live with the consequences of their choices.

In all this, Christina never quite gets around the explaining the clear difference between Atheism+ and humanism. The best she can apparently do is this conclusion:

… And I can’t tell you how many humanists I’ve talked with who have been total douchebags about feminism: insisting that humanism is superior to and more important than feminism, that feminism is exclusionary and anti-male, that they “don’t see gender” and anyone who does is the real sexist, and that the best way to make sexism disappear is to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist.

Humanism in theory is on board with social justice — but the practice can be very different indeed. If every atheist who’s sick of sexism and misogyny in the atheist movement picked up their stakes and moved to humanism, it wouldn’t make these problems magically disappear.

There is a great deal of overlap between humanism and Atheism Plus. They are very similar ideas, very similar visions. There is great value in both. I suspect that many people will call themselves both, and I look forward to the two movements working in alliance for many years to come. But I don’t think they’re the same. And I think it’s reasonable for some people to identify primarily as one, and some primarily as the other.

So here again, like Jen McCreight, we have a Free Thought Blogger relying on anecdotal evidence (“total douchebags about feminism”) to describe what is wrong with the humanists she has met and why Atheist+ is going to be so much different and better. She is, apparently, judge and jury.

If I have to point this out 10 more times for it to stick, I will happily do so. If a humanist is not concerned and committed to stamping out hate, racism, bigotry, misogyny, anti-gay sentiment and other social ills, he or she is not a humanist. Plain and simple. I consult the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s entry on humanism about active virtue:

The emphasis on virtuous action as the goal of learning was a founding principle of humanism and (though sometimes sharply challenged) continued to exert a strong influence throughout the course of the movement.

Here is Leon Battista Alberti from “Della famiglia:”

As I have said, happiness cannot be gained without good works and just and righteous deeds. . . . The best works are those that benefit many people. Those are most virtuous, perhaps, that cannot be pursued without strength and nobility. We must give ourselves to manly effort, then, and follow the noblest pursuits.

And Florentine humanist Matteo di Marco Palmieri:

… the true merit of virtue lies in effective action, and effective action is impossible without the faculties that are necessary for it. He who has nothing to give cannot be generous. And he who loves solitude can be neither just, nor strong, nor experienced in those things that are of importance in government and in the affairs of the majority.

And the last sentence from Britannica:

Endorsements of active virtue, as will be shown, would also characterize the work of English humanists from Sir Thomas Elyot to John Milton. They typify the sense of social responsibility—the instinctive association of learning with politics and morality—that stood at the heart of the movement. As Salutati put it, “One must stand in the line of battle, engage in close combat, struggle for justice, for truth, for honour.” (italics mine)

The idea of social justice, then, is built into the word humanism at the core. Regardless of who knows what humanism means or not is inconsequential. The word, the idea, the philosophy has existed for hundreds of years, and it contains within it everything, and in better and less provincial form, I might add, than what has been presented as Atheism+ thus far.

On a final note, I think it’s telling that nearly all of the Free Thought Bloggers, from Miller, Christina, McCreight to P.Z. Myers and others are all supporting each other, which to the rest of us, smacks of provincialism if nothing else and speaks to me personally that not one of them are capable of independent thought. McCreight, Watson and others have some bad experiences with some brutish individuals, so McCreight decides to invent a new “movement.” And no one had the balls to say, “You know what, guys? This sounds really similar, if not the same, as humanism. It seems too similar to justify any kind of  ‘new wave’ of atheism. Maybe we can work within the framework of humanism to discuss our concerns.” But no. That’s not what happened is it? After McCreight’s original post, every single one of them cooed in agreement and passively followed like lemmings off a cliff. That’s not the moral courage, and that’s not intellectual courage.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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About the Author

Jeremy Styron
Jeremy Styron
I am a newspaper editor, op-ed columnist and reporter working in the greater Knoxville area. This is a personal blog. Views expressed here are mine and mine alone.

2 Comments on "On Atheism+ and humanism: part 2"

  1. Giovanni Rilasciato | September 4, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Reply

    FYI, there are 36 bloggers at FtB, and most of them haven’t even commented on A+. There’ve been a few who have even written about why they do not support it, such as Al Stefanelli. It seems that there are about half a dozen there behind this.

  2. Hi Giovanni,
    Thanks for writing. Some fair points. I took a closer look here if you're interested: Free Thought Bloggers: where they stand on Atheism+

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