Secular Sectarians?: Atheism+ and the “Near Other”
“Someone who resembles us in so many ways and differs from us in but one characteristic threatens us much more than the totally other or alien.” – Rethinking Pluralism
The online atheist community is abuzz over a new sub-movement being pushed from some corners called Atheism+ Here is the genesis of the idea, its initial elaboration and it’s call to arms from the Blag Hag blog. Jen McCreight, the author of Blag Hag, summed the new movement up succinctly as follows:
Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.
In other words Atheism+ wants atheists go beyond mere unbelief to proactively engage a variety of ethical issues. Some commentators were quick to suggest that this sounded an awful lot like secular humanism, and if one focuses on the five points above that would certainly appear to be the case. While Jen accepts that there is a great deal of overlap, she emphatically rejects the idea that Atheism+ is a repackaged humanism. As she puts it: “Not all humanists are atheists or skeptical, not all skeptics are atheists or humanists, not all atheists are humanists or skeptics…but I want to bring it all together.” In other words the boundaries around Atheism+ are much more narrowly conceived than those around mere humanism, which could include non-skeptics, and perhaps most troubling to her and other supporters of the new movement, theists. But there is more to it than that.
Jen goes on to complain that humanists aren’t feminist enough for Atheism+ either. Just after discussing their lack of restrictions around skepticism and atheism, she writes: “And hell, not all humanists are progressive – you don’t know how many times I’ve had humanists yell at me for calling myself a ‘feminist’ instead of a ‘humanist’ because what feminism really means is hating men.” In fact this appears to be a significant symbolic sticking point for her differentiating exercise. Here’s a tweet she also made around that time.
Dear smug humanists: My critique of the atheist movement included you. Your groups are infamous for being mostly old, white, men—
Jennifer McCreight (@jennifurret) August 21, 2012
There is of course a significant back-story to Atheism+ involving the blog network Jen writes for, Free Thought Blogs, and an internal fight in the atheist community over feminism and sexual harassment. I do not have time to recount it, but here’s a good place to start. The long and the short of it is that feminism matters to Atheism+ and it matters therefore to how they define themselves against plain old atheism and against plain old humanism. The reason I included the tweet, however, was because of its tone more than it’s content. It is a loud, pointed distancing from the humanist movement. It’s the way you draw any line in the sand worth drawing, visibly.
When the idea was brewing, in the pre-Atheism+ post linked above, Jen wrote equally vividly about lines in the sand and who should be on what side of those lines.
I want Deep Rifts…I want the misogynists, racists, homophobes, transphobes, and downright trolls out of the movement for the same reason I wouldn’t invite them over for dinner or to play Mario Kart: because they’re not good people.
This might not sound particularly crazy. After all what liberal minded person wants bigots and internet trolls rolled up into their social identity? But the fact is that a lot of people who may not seem like bigots and internet trolls have disagreed vehemently with the Atheism+ crowd and have been rolled up into that category. And as we’ve seen even mainstream humanists, are being “othered,” on the basis that they don’t embody all that the new movement stands for. In other words even humanists find themselves with the so called bigots and the internet trolls, on the other side of the “Deep Rift.”
Yet while Atheism+ supporters seem intent on making feminism a core principle defining their movement other feminist atheists who are a bit critical, like Libby Ann feel that the main difference between Atheism+ and Humanism, revolves around unbelief. As Jen herself put it, “[n]ot all humanists are atheists.” While secular humanists may feel that religion can be the cause of problems and that not believing in a deity is a good thing, they do not consider atheism to be the core defining who they are, and they are rarely anti-religious. Why? Because human equality and social justice is their primary, and not secondary concern. As Libby Ann writes: “The way I see it, it doesn’t take atheism to eliminate sexism and homophobia, and it doesn’t take religion either. It takes people.”
So what then of these differences and of the active work being done by Atheism+ to use difference to draw lines in the sand between themselves and those who they otherwise share so much with? Robert Weller and Adam Seligman have some interesting insights on this type of activity, via Sigmund Freud:*
Someone who resembles us in so many ways and differs from us in but one characteristic threatens us much more than the totally other or alien. That distant other’s strangeness may pose a physical danger, but no threat to self-conceptions and cognitive worlds. The very difference of the ‘near other,’ however, poses a continual question to our own sense of self in the familiarity and sameness of our shared traits.
Is that what is happening in this instance? And if it is what does it say about sectarianism more generally? Before anyone jumps down my throat for using a term that is usually applied to religious groups, consider that this activity is by definition sectarian. It seeks to splinter atheism into two groups, one of which is defined more precisely in a manner that excludes the other. That it does so while championing modern values like “diversity” doesn’t change those facts either. Jen’s original post on Atheism+ is quite telling in this regard because it shows a narrowing, not a widening of her new community. You have to fit all three criteria (atheism+humanism+skepticism) to be included, and not just any one of them. Of course what counts as fitting the criteria is itself another narrowing, and so on. Coming back to Seligman and Weller’s point then, is this human struggle with self-definition which looks to drawing lines between oneself and the near other directly related to sectarianism? Is sectarianism partly the result of a discomfort with the kind of difference that forces us to question our own identities because it exists in a space we otherwise call home? These are interesting questions to ponder generally, but also more specifically in terms of what happens with Atheism+ and future secular splinter movements, because as the sheer numbers of self-professed “secular” individuals grow we’re bound to see more of them.
*Seligman, Adam and Weller, Robert. 2012. Rethinking Pluralism: Ritual Experience and Ambiguity. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 23-24