Atheism +: a chance to widen the scope of american atheism

The recent months (or should I say years) have seen a bitter feud developing among atheists — American atheists first and foremost. As far as I understand, the divide lies between those who think that atheism should limit itself to the critic of religions and those who assert that a coherent atheist movement is bound to concern itself with social justice, feminism and gender issues. In short, “atheism +” ambitions to be more than a philosophical movement: it wants to be a social one.
I do think this is a good thing: atheism seems to me to be a pretty narrow subject. In fact, born and raised in France, I always associated scepticism and atheism with the Left, and I always thought that an atheist discourse without any political consideration on social justice was missing something. Dawkins wrote in “The God Delusion” that instead of looking for explanations in a deity, people should marvel at what life is and enjoy the fact of being alive (I won’t bother to browse it, if you want to find the exact quote, read it). I read this book in 2007 and since then this type of affirmation always annoyed me: I find it quite hard for the vast majority of the population of the planet to “enjoy life”. This sentence struck me as typical from someone quite remote from everyday struggle. And indeed it is: as an Oxford professor, Dawkins certainly cannot complain about his life. He certainly has little to worry about and enjoys  it. Good for him.
His point, though, is moot for most of the people on the planet: for them, life is anything but enjoyable. This is certainly true of the Afghan population, stuck between the Taliban hammer and the NATO anvil, but there is no need to go that far: Brixton and Stockwell show all too well that life isn’t necessarily a day at the beach in the UK either. While Dawkins’ argument is rational, it is not really audible for this reason. In fact, even for me, who cannot really complain about life, it seemed weird, a bit like the word of a bearded hermit in its ivory tower. This is what “pure atheists” don’t seem to understand: the evil influence of religions in society isn’t that obvious for most of the people. In fact, given the actions of some charities, a lot of people, even unbelievers, do actually think that religions hold a moral high ground. Nevermind the child molesters or murderous fanatics. Most of the people don’t actually see that the principal supporters of social conservatism — which help to maintain them in poverty or a kind of submissive state — are religions. Therefore, holding an atheist discourse without defending social justice won’t help atheism to spread, quite the contrary: it will limit it to close, sectarian circles which will end up like an army retirement house: all old, all white, all male. This is all the more true when a part of this movement works hard to dismiss the concerns of some of its members on harassment or the way they feel at conferences.
The aspiration of social justice and religions always clashed because social justice threatens the privileged churches and their members. I’m surprised that some atheists don’t see that. Then again, religion isn’t the only undercurrent of society, sexism is another. And while atheists are supposed to be devoid of religion, the account of Rebecca Watson clearly shows that some of them can count themselves among the worst bigots when it comes to feminism. The set-up of anti-harassment policies at conferences seems to have sparked another wave of unabated douchery. Now, on harassment, there is one take I find particularly interesting: that of Dawkins. Here’s what he had to write when Rebecca Watson decided to tell guys to behave at conferences:

Dear Muslima
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .
And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.

What strikes me here is the common way of thinking we can find whenever we read critics of social movements: people shouldn’t complain about spending cuts, frozen wages and the like because “it is worse in Africa” (or everywhere you might find it convenient to point out). Well… That’s just the kind of stuff a person in a dominating position would say, no? This goes along the lines of: “Be happy with what you’ve got, because it’s worse, much worse, somewhere else; don’t you dare complain about your situation”.
That’s nothing else than a way to try to silence people who point out that there may be some problems with an underlying sexism at skeptics conferences (an underlying sexism no doubt imported from the wider society). If you do so, you’re just admitting that to you this isn’t much of a problem, or not a problem at all. Maybe because you’re a man, maybe because you’ve been brainwashed into justifying the bullying of women as a way to help them “grow up” (ironically the author doesn’t seem to see that an appeal to men to help women to “grow up” is sexist: this means that men are — by default — “grown-ups” but women aren’t). Or maybe you’re just a flaming misogynist moron who thinks women should submit to whatever “project” a man has for them, as harassment, or rape and deaths threats to some feminists in the atheist movement made clear. Jen McGreith isn’t the only one who  had to put up which such a despicable attitude: Rebecca Watson, Surly Amy, Greta Christina and a 15 year old girl had to undergo the “jokes” or the ire of scumbags for being women. And women, mind you, who dare to think and speak for themselves.
Sexism has been infused in the western societies for a very long time, indeed, in Europe or in North-America, it used to be justified by the Bible, much like the Qu’ran or the Torah justify it elsewhere. It is a direct product of religiosity. Yet, some atheists refuse to see that as a problem. To such an extend that anti-harassment policies sparked a controversy in the American atheist movement (here is a timeline). Given the links above, I came to the conclusion that most of those who oppose these anti-harassment policies are indeed misogynists who seek to exploit women by any means necessary. No need to deny it folks: your actions speak for themselves. A civilised debate about how best to put anti-harassment policies in place would have been acceptable, but as soon as you threaten women to rape them, kill them or try to trigger a rape survivor (an account here, mild compared to the full thing), that’s it, you’re a sexist moron. No need to deny it.
Now, most of the controversy, especially the one on the creation of the ‘Atheism +’ network happened on the other side of the pond, I read one opinion piece here branding Atheism + as “divisive”. An opinion piece that is flaming with hypocrisy, in my opinion: while citing Jen McGreith reasons to call for a third wave of atheism, the author omits to explain why there is a passion about that among A+ members: the abuse that some feminists underwent when they wanted to voice their concerns. This was the reason to found A+ in the first place. Refusing to acknowledge that, forgetting the reasons why A+ has been founded; and, mostly denouncing atheism+ members as “rude” without examining the behaviour that caused some atheists to look for a place where people would have more in common than just atheism is just hypocrite. At best. There is another interpretation, less indulgent to this author, but I’m not really financially able to sustain a libel suit in the U.K. Well… You get the gist, anyway.
People might say — in fact some did — that they’re “just about atheism” and call for atheists just to concern themselves with it, and forget all the rest. To be clear, while an atheist myself, I do not feel closer to an atheist who would be homophobic, sexist, racist and conservative than to a liberal theist. My atheism isn’t the cause of my social views but a consequence of them. Being a proud leftist led me to reflect on power as means to maintain the working class under the thumb. And while the courts, the army and the police are certainly one edge of the sword (together with a more sophisticated domination system encompassing the media, the property market, etc…), religion is definitely another. In every country where the state and the churches have not been separated, there has been suppression of gay and women rights. More broadly, churches allied themselves with right-wing dictatorships almost systematically. This has been the case in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Chile, to name but a few… Some libertarian atheists might even recognise that, while they won’t buy in religion, it might be a good tool to maintain the population under the leash.
I don’t really get the problem with the creation of ‘Atheism +’. Atheists have already plenty of organisations across the U.S., one more won’t change much about that. Besides, there is kind of a freedom of association principle here, and I do get that Jen McGreith or Rebecca Watson do not want to be in the same room (however big) or on the same network than people calling them names or, worse, threatening to rape and kill them.

About ravingscientist01

Trained as a molecular geneticist, I did a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology. I am interested in science, its communication, the impact it can have on policies as well as the impact of various policies related to science may have on the latter.
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