Thursday, 23 August 2012

Update on Atheism Plus - I think I've identified the problem

Since my last post, I've had conversations with Greta Christina, Jen McCreight and a couple of others on the subject of Atheism Plus.  These conversations took me through even-more-confused-about-it territory, but I think I've now grasped it enough to form my opinion on it.

There are two main problems with A+ as I see it; one I can overlook and one I can't.

The problem I can get over is an issue with communication.  Richard Carrier's representation of A+ - linked in my last post - does seem to be genuinely a misrepresentation of the movement. What started as a move to more actively exclude sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and other nastinesses (which violates my value for free speech on the surface, but is necessary - as Greta points out - when the alternative is tacitly excluding the groups of people targeted by those nastinesses) seems to have been seized by Carrier as a pretext to exclude anyone he doesn't like. Worse, "people Carrier doesn't like" can apparently be defined as anyone not willing to gang up on and exclude non-A+ers even when they've done nothing objectionable.

It would be nice to see McCreight and others disavow Carrier's sentiments, because having seen the contrast between what he means by A+ and what everyone else seems to mean, they've got more reason to be furious with him than anyone else.  However, even if they won't do that it is possible that he could simply be left behind by a more reasonable A+ movement - if that happened, it would be possible to get on board with it even given its inauspicious beginning.

However, I said there was a problem I couldn't get around, and that hasn't been shifted.  After reading McCreight's clarification post (which can be found here: I tweeted her with what, to me, was the most important question: "Is it the label or the values that matter?"

The reply I received was "The values", which is in one way the better answer of the two options I offered. However, it did - finally! - help me to identify why I've been feeling so insulted by the whole A+ thing.

What it amounts to for me is this; I AM an A+, in values.  I AM opposed to sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and all that stuff (in principle, at least; I don't claim to know everything, so I'm sure I fall short of perfection at times).

I resent the requirement that's been imposed on me by some random atheists on the internet to effectively adopt a label that - from my POV - says nothing more significant than "not a dick", which really shouldn't need saying.  I resent the idea that these principles that I consider merely part of being "not a dick" are something novel, noteworthy, deserving of everybody's attention.  I resent the implication that I needed some random atheist bloggers to teach me how to be "not a dick".  And most of all, I resent the way I'm being emotionally blackmailed with it; according to the proponents of Atheism Plus, I can either identify myself as something that ought to go without saying OR be assumed to be a dick.  What the A+ movement has given me is a choice between allying myself with them and crediting them with my being "not a dick", or losing the right to be assumed to be "not a dick", a right I had enjoyed for free until now.

Gee, thanks guys. I can see why THIS idea's been a big hit so far.


  1. I had not thought of that aspect before. Like you I am not perfect, but these guys seem to think they are the moral arbiters of atheism. Also who decides what is and isn't racist or sexist etc. I have always found the FTBers to be all too quick with such labels as misogynist and homophobe, now anybody who doesn't follow suit is almost by default labeled as such.

    At first my inner skeptic thought this was just an egotistical clique. The FTBers wanting to start something they can call their own, and it has been reinforced. Carrier's 'with or against us' attitude reeked of it. Then the complete lack of response by the FTBers to denounce his actions (calling people retards and douchebags for not falling into line). Even in the latest post they mention that they can't control what everyone writes about atheism+, alluding to Carrier but refusing to mention him. So they are against intolerance, as long as it is not emitting from within themselves, then it is fine.

    1. it's worse, actually. this is the concept of original sin.

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  3. I mentioned you in this post, and basically agree with your earlier reservations, as well as your hopes that Carrier's sentiments are not going to be mainstream within A+.

    I disagree that a segment of atheism that is explicitly "not a dick" on social issues is superfluous. A+ has come about specifically because of all of the people within the broader atheist movement that have consistently been dicks to marginalized groups, and to the exclusionary forces that are created by that dickishness (now I'm just making up words.) A+ is explicitly a segment of atheism that supports those value, as distinct from atheism which includes both feminists and MRAs, Natalie Reed, and transphobes, etc. etc.

    I do think it's necessary, and good. Carrier's approach to this really urks me. I also agree with Peter's comments that there is excessive name calling in many corners of FTB (not all. Dan Fincke, Greta Christina, Ian Cromwell are some of my favorite bloggers.) I would also like to see more A+ supporters explicitly disavowing Carrier's attitude to this, or to see Carrier modifying or clarifying it to be acceptable.

  4. I have to say, I have enough problems with theist's (and other's) misunderstanding of the word atheism and what it means. I am not sure yet another label is going to help matters.

    As it stands, I seem to agree with most of the values that the Atheism+ movement stand for, however I'm not sure being told that these values necessarily go with being an atheist is a good thing.

    What other values are they going to police? Are they going to exclude someone because their economic values don't match, for instance?

    Also is it going to be a club of which one must become a member? Or is it just going to be another hash tag on twitter?

    I'm hoping some of these things are made clearer soon.

  5. The other thing about this that is relevant is that some of the bloggers writing for Freethought Blogs have a reputation for bullying those who disagree with them (much like Carrier did here). This context explains some of the negative reactions to atheism+.

  6. Here in Sweden we see a similar happening in the Pride-movement. The Pride parade in Stockholm was open for everybody, but when launching a parade in Uppsala (Old town N of Stockholm) very left wing radical feminist groups took ower and excluded Gay/Lesbian groups from the military, police, liberal party and some more, because they were linked to the government and the Afghan conflict (We have peace troops in that pot as well). As I understand the Pride-movement and the atheist movement are quite similar holding only one question, nice to be gay/no gods. All other political or ethical viewpoints are irrelevant, and should be. The problem with groups starting politisize the movement is they start to exclude people. Excluding the bad guys and work for good things sound good, but who is vile and who just disagree from another viewpoint? Who will judge from what standards. Carriers approach sure kills the baby in the craddle, but also other FTBers are quite harsh to disagreers. I can't se this bird getting wings and leaving the nest.

  7. Nice article.

    One thing I take issue with here is that when it come to Atheism Plus is the generic claim along the lines of
    "we're against sexism." Okay, look, we're all against sexism (aside from a few idiots who I have no problem saying I wouldn't want to associate with).

    When you actually read the FTBers on this, however, they are embracing a version of feminism that arises out of critical theory, and then attacking as sexist anyone else who doesn't embrace that particular version of feminism.

  8. Thanks for your comments guys. Like a lot of you, it seems, I have not the smallest problem with the values of A+ in general (although I think I may not even understand the kind of feminism I'm required to adopt) but object to the new label - and ever more so to the way that NOT taking the new label seems to be seen as an alternative label in itself.

    One other thought that occurred to me about this, on the subject of feminism since that seems to be central. I'm a woman and I've been blogging and tweeting and facebooking on the subject of atheism for years now. I get called all kinds of names by people affiliated with particular religious groups, that goes without saying - but I sincerely can't think of an occasion when I've been deliberately attacked by another ATHEIST because I'm a woman (there's been the odd thoughtless/inappropriate comment as you'd expect, but they're usually meant well. I think intentions count, and since we are ALL, inevitably, guilty of insensitivity at times it doesn't bother me too much). I've really never had occasion to call anyone out as a misogynist.

    I suspect I'm not hypersensitive (or sensitive enough depending on POV) to sexism, be it accidental or deliberate. I also suspect that's why I don't attract misogynists and abusers. Am I saying it's not OK to denounce something as sexist if it is? Well, no - but the fact that so many feminist bloggers have ended up dealing with little but deliberate abuse because they're women and feminists suggests to me that it might be sensible to pick ones battles. If I went mental at every male atheist who told me I'm good-looking or that I'm "one of the most intelligent women" they've encountered, maybe I'd be attracting lunatics and trolls too.

    What it amounts to is this; no one wants to think of themselves as a bad person. If you tell someone the attitude they've had for twenty or forty or sixty years makes them a bad person, their instinct - always - will be to defend that attitude because they don't want to think they've spent the last twenty or forty or sixty years being an arsehole. The vast majority of atheists, in my experience, are in favour of equality and progressiveness (why wouldn't they be?), and that's how THEY feel like good people. If they do say something a bit eeesh, I think the best way to deal with it is to appeal to their wish to be a good person and then explain - without judgment and vitriol - why they have fallen slightly short of their own high aspirations in this one specific instance. ACKNOWLEDGE THE LAUDABLE ASPIRATIONS, I can't emphasise that enough - otherwise, you get resistance and digging in, and a reputation for being hypersensitive and judgmental. Not one of us is successful enough in meeting our own criteria for what makes a good person that we can afford to do that.

    1. Thanks for this, I've been trying to basically argue the same point about how to talk to people of the more privileged groups and that there is clearly a communication breakdown. I mainly get two responses, 1) we already tried that, or 2) Stop trolling, or 3) read up on some 101 stuff then come back, LISTEN TO US MORE.

      It is incredibly frustrating and just makes me want to have no part in any of it. I think there is clearly an issue with conveying the message that many of the A+'ers want to spread. I think you hit the nail on the head as to why it is received so negatively. I just wish they would listen than many of us disagree on approach/execution but that we mostly all have the same/similar goals. Rather than acknowledge that we are all fighting on the same side, they see some of us as an enemy. Is it really that surprising then when some people who are labeled an enemy actually become enemies. I think this is mainly the case with Thunderf00t.

      Anyhow, thanks for posting this.

    2. Since you brought that up: my brother (you could maybe say a socialist - anyway) was at a rally with his mate and a couple of teens started chanting something along the lines of cops being cunts. His mate got really mad at them and went out of her way to speak in a very harsh tone, but then a friend of theirs told her to let him handle it.

      What he did was approach them calmly and tell them in earnest that they understand what they meant, and neither did they like cops, but there are women in the rally who feel offended by all that, and they should perhaps consider what it meant to use "cunt" as an insult - what it implied.

      My brother relayed to me this event, because the kids took that approach very seriously and cut that out. They wouldn't do so if they were met with derision and vitriol. They would consider it to be an overreaction (which, technically, it is - however understandable, in the end).

  9. Until I read your article and hadn't heard of the A+ movement before but I it is a worrying development. For me the point of being an atheist is that everyone who is an atheist is on a level playing field, we are all the same with different points of view. By labelling yourself as A+ you imply you are better than someone else, this goes against the social equality that atheism is about for me. The other problem is that if you create one group with one set of ideals you will eventually create another atheist group with another set of ideals to fight against. In the end we then become no better than the religious groups that we sought to remove. Rather than trying to enlighten the world and bring the world together we will end up arguing over who's atheism is more "atheist". It reminds me of the South Park episode called Atheist Wars

    I also find it amusing since the forming of a group that says "I am a better at believing what we believe than you" is a very religious notion.

  10. Thanks for your comment, Mike - I agree completely. You CAN'T call yourself new and improved without calling everyone else old and inferior. I'm debating writing a follow-up post on the basic principles behind getting people to listen to you and/or align their opinions with yours; struggling to find a way that couldn't be interpreted as another version of "if you don't do it like me you're doing it wrong", which would of course be so ironic and hypocritical as to unmake reality.

    Just to clarify a point I think a few people are missing (not you, Mike); the A+ers have every right to apply what ever label they like to themselves, and I guess as a vociferous proponent of free expression they have the right to label you and me whatever they like,too. What they DON'T have the right to demand is our complicity in the labeling, or any respect for their position. We are not a sexists, racists, homophobes, transphobes or anything else for refusing to assume other people are.

    The whole thing is just epically confused.

    1. Thanks for the reply, a follow up article would be great.

      I noticedthat the article talks about the big headline social issues that for most are no brainers, e.g. freedom of sexuality, removal of racism, sexism, etc. However I wonder how this group will handle less black and white social issues such as a persons right to die, abortion, gun control, GM foods and welfare. I suspect within a year we will see a split to A+ and A++.

      If a group is created in this way then discussions with those of different views will stop. You end up socialising with people who act as a mirror and those who you wish to change won't interact with you.

  11. Labeling yourself is in itself an invitation to division. Atheist as a label, in my opinion, stands alone in its non-divisiveness. One does not learn to be atheist. We are all born atheist; some people's parents just cover that up with religious indoctrination. I saw a picture of a TV the other day that stated: If atheism is a belief system, then off is a television channel. It was perfect.

    Feminism and all other -isms that attempt to create "equality" come with the base assumption that equality isn't inherent in the equation. These assumptions may even be based on a valid history of inequality, but shielding yourself behind your -ism immediately puts it between yourself and all others, even if they agree 100% in your ideals. If equality is to be attained, divisions must be closed, not new ones opened. Yes, ostracize the idiots who fail to act like normal, decent human beings, but placing assumptions on those who don't label themselves the same as you is nothing but supreme hypocrisy.

    I'm glad to have found your blog this morning and look forward to reading more!

  12. First of all, I want to say that this blog is a breath of fresh virtual air. A space where people are intelligently discussing and debating without hurling insults or calling each other names. A nice contrast with FtB.

    I will not be jumping aboard the A+ bandwagon.

    On 22 Aug. I made the following comment on G. Christina's FT blog:

    "Greta I am a passionate advocate of the view that atheists ought to be extremely concerned about, and that they should work for, social justice. But I see a logical problem with the name 'A+'. As you rightly argued in Free Inquiry a while back,'being an atheist demands that we work for social justice.' Your case was necessarily brief and therefore (in a wide sense) inadequate, but nevertheless you were absolutely right. But if, as your FI argument implicitly said, atheism entails a commitment to social justice, then the '+' is superfluous. If we accept your earlier reasoning about atheism and social justice, and again I believe we should, then 'A+' is an unhelpful tautology. Or am I missing something?"

    Neither she nor any of her readers ever responded. That strikes me as quite odd, because a logical problem is always a serious matter for any claim or concept.

    Having had a couple more weeks to think about it, I realize their is another serious problem, which is actually related to the first one. By implying that progressive social justice values are something separate from atheism, the plussers play right into the hands of the many people who would deny that atheism naturally entails such values. If atheism and enlightened humane values are wholly distinct things, I can imagine them saying, then one can just accept the former and not bother with the latter.

    Of course, the soundness of what I've just said hinges on whether the claim that atheism, properly understood, really does in fact logically entail progressive values. Would the claim stand up to philosophical scrutiny? I believe it would.

    Unfortunately, a philosophical analysis of this problem would constitute a rather large project. Hopefully, someday I or someone else will have the time, leisure, and energy to undertake that task.

    Note to SoggyMog and blogger/commentators: I'm interested in starting a non-profit atheist blog site for about a dozen or so writers, including myself. I envision it as an alternative to FtB, where the site would be far more attractive than theirs (aesthetics are important for a number of reasons, no?) and where insults and name calling would be strictly verboten. If there's any interest I'll write again and give my email address, if that's allowable.

    Dave H.

    1. Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your comment, and thank you even more for highlighting an aspect I'd sort of been dimly aware of but not actually articulated - that we're playing into the hands of the "atheists are amoral" mob. I sort of tried to say a similar thing with my bit about how we should have the right to be assumed not to be a dick, but didn't make the leap to connect it with how atheists are perceived by non-atheists. Thank you, that's a valid point and just one more reason I'm firmly against A+.

      I'd be very interested to hear more about the website you propose; I do have a real life including a full-time job, so my contributions would be far from unlimited, but if you think you could use me I'd be delighted to help as I can. (Can I advise when you construct your site that you NOT steal your logo from a charitable organisation set up by one of the out-group you're going to use the site to slam? That made my day when someone pointed it out to me.)

      Please do let me have your direct contact details and we can speak more about this.

      Luce. xxx

    2. Dave,

      "By implying that progressive social justice values are something separate from atheism."

      You seem to subscribe to the idea that "The same values that inform Atheism *should* also lead atheists to social activism."

      With that in mind, the reality of our world is that not all Atheists work for social justice. Atheism+ acknowledges that fact by leaving the common usage of "Atheism" as non-belief in gods alone. The purpose of the label is to identify those who ascribe to your philosophy that atheism and skepticism should lead toward social-justice activism.

    3. Luce,

      Thank you for your response.

      "we're playing into the hands of the 'atheists are amoral' mob."

      I was thinking primarily about the many other atheists who want to maintain an unwarranted distinction between atheism and social justice concerns, but you're quite right: the A+ label does play into the hands of the "'atheists are amoral' mob."

      Maybe not always though. I suppose one could say that, to the extent that it points toward the doing of good deeds, the A+ label may cause some of the mobsters to change their view that atheists are inherently bad. On the other hand, and I'm thinking out loud, as it were, and so may see the matter differently later, I wonder whether, because the "+" has the character of an add-on, many people will be suspicious as in "oh look, they're trying to clean up their image; I wonder if that's how they really are."

      My email is

      Dave H.

  13. meant to say "there is another serious problem"

  14. @ Proxer

    I get what you're saying, and I think the motivations of many of the folks supporting "A+" are admirable. I have no doubt that in many cases the motives and goals are in fact highly admirable.

    And I'm not even against a label per se. I suppose it's possible someone can come up with an attractive, unproblematic label for your subset of the atheist movement.

    However, for the reasons I stated, I don't think A+ is that label.

    Dave H.

    1. dhoelscher,

      "I have no doubt that in many cases the motives and goals are in fact highly admirable."

      I think you should have doubt. Doubt is a good thing.

      Good motives lead to good behavior. And I haven't seen evidence of that good behavior. I've seen a lot of name calling and narrow-mindedness.

    2. Kevin

      I can't imagine why you think it a good idea to be patronizing.

      Yes, doubt is a good thing. If I didn't think so I would never have studied philosophy in grad school nor taught the subject for years in various colleges.

      Nor would I have become an atheist.

      From the fact that, rightly or wrongly, I have no doubts about a given point, it does not follow that I lack a proper appreciation of the necessity of dubiousness.

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