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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.

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.

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

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25 thoughts on “Secular Sectarians?: Atheism+ and the “Near Other”

  1. Peno Malaputo on said:

    My experience is that a lot of people who may not seem like bigots and internet trolls have been starting to act like bigots and trolls.

  2. What made them start acting like that, and are those actions, or at least your perception of those actions, an indication that these individuals are completely irredeemable? I think Atheism+, or at least the way it has currently been handled, suggests that all the “others” are irredeemable; not people you can ever sit around a table with or “play Mario Kart” with. People ought to consider such social distancing carefully in terms of religious sectarianism.

  3. Superb post. It’s strange because I keep seeing the goals of ‘Atheism+’ framed in different ways, often by the same people.

    Sometimes it’s exclusive – to get rid of those who they see as racist, sexist bigots, etc. Sometimes it’s inclusive – to ‘listen to the voices of minorities’ etc. Sometimes it’s a new movement in addition to ‘old’ atheism. Sometimes it’s an attempt to improve our existing movement. Sometimes…

    The trouble is, either they’ll all disagree about what it actually means (and thus it’ll remain pretty vague and contradictory) or they’ll have to appoint a leader(s) to officially state the positive beliefs that unify them, which is something I don’t think anyone wants.

    • Yes, it is a superb post in the sense that it brought information to me that I had not known about, struggling as we are here in Ireland with other forms of sectarianism. The same thought struck me about unifiying under an ahem, a church because if differentiation on strictly political beliefs is what is important then only a leadership capable of unifying them is necessary. Which is surely one of the defining characteristics of a church?

      And besides, one who believes that a loosely defined group like ‘Catholics’ or ‘Jews’ is homogeneous is as deluded as sitting down and playing Mario Kart with racist homophobes.

  4. Leadership is another issue that the secular/atheist/skeptical community has to negotiate more generally because there is a tension there between the human tendency to shape one’s identity around the ideas of certain intelligent and charismatic people and not wanting authority structures (like those in religious institutions). Leadership isn’t just something we ordain divinely, take by force or democratically select, its something that grows organically within communities. Jen and the other Free Thought bloggers are clearly leaders within a community, for instance, as other prominent atheists are within other communities. So there is a tension there that is difficult to resolve easily. A fair question would be, who decides when someone is an A+ or when they aren’t? Who sets the terms that such decisions can be based on? From where I’m sitting those terms are being worked out by the unofficial leaders of the community. That’s how it happens pretty much in any community….

  5. I’m not a fan of the A+ thing, but they’re not hurting anybody. Their focus on ideological purity is unsettling (and possibly unsustainable), but it’s nothing new for the originators of the movement. Their ideology isn’t new, either, they’re just organized now.

    At first I was offended by the smug import of their chosen name (ok, actually I still am a little). I wrote some over-the-top things in anger on some blogs that make me glad I’m not anybody with a reputation to maintain. After some reflection, I think atheism+ is a positive development (still with a crappy name). Now that they’re organized, and they’re not just a clique on a blog, they’re going to be accountable for the way they treat their fellow atheists. Everybody knows that the A+ folks come from a culture that insults first and asks questions later (and is proud of it). Now that they have a brand to maintain, though, it might actually moderate some their nastier impulses.

    It also indirectly helps those of us out in the non-academic world who mostly have to get along with religious people. It’s nice to have clear divisions, so if I run into someone who says, “all atheists are like A,” I can say, “no, actually, some of them are A+.” Atheists are a diverse and growing group, it makes sense that we will self-organize into factions, even sects. Sectarianism has its benefits.

    Oh my gosh. I was half-joking about most of that, but I think I’ve talked myself into this.

    • badrescher on said:

      I disagree with the claim that they aren’t hurting anybody.

      What I see forming here is a hate group. The shallowness and immaturity in tweets, cries of victimization (some warranted, but many clearly not), and vilifying of people (e.g., painting someone who doesn’t handle gender issues exactly the way that X blogger, a nonexpert, decides they want those issues handled as a sexist liar) are signs of narcissism and anti-intellectualism. But that pales in comparison to the amount of tribalist language and vitriol pervasive in the posts on the matter.

      What humanism and skepticism and even the general new-atheist movements have not offered these people is a role in leadership that they have not earned. What their new “movement” offers is an opportunity to belong to an exclusive club (a brilliant psychological marketing ploy, actually), but in exchange you must check your own thoughts and critical thinking skills at the door or risk expulsion.

      • Sounds about right.

      • I’d say that’s one nail squarely on the head.

      • I agree with a lot of that. I’m certainly not in favor of A+ (gahhh I really hate typing that name) ideology. The way I’m looking at right now: it’s like when a parent catches their kid smoking, and they make them smoke a whole pack of cigarettes in the closet in an hour. For most kids, that’s going to be enough to make them never want to smoke again. The A+ ideology is that extreme, that unsustainable, that I know most people are going to realize it’s not worth it over time. I also think the small amount of people involved so far are probably the ones who won’t learn any other way. Basically, I think it’s a necessary evil.

        Are they a hate group? That’s a lot tougher for me to agree with. I think a lot of them are very sincere, very loving, very easily misguided people. I’d hate to see us criticize atheism+ (grrrr… seriously, come up with a better name) so much that its adherents don’t feel comfortable returning to the fold of sanity.

        I don’t know, though. I know there are real and serious divisions in the community right now, and they have to be dealt with one way or another. As difficult as it may seem, this may be the best way to get over our differences.

      • badrescher on said:

        I agree that it’s unsustainable, but there are dangerous elements of it with both immediate and lasting effects. For one thing, it can damage the progress secularists make if it is noticed by the broader media.

        For another, it’s a huge distraction. I have a convention to prepare for, but I’ve barely gotten any work done in three days (of course, the trade-off is that it’s helping me with a talk about narcissism).

        Also, when people attribute failures and mistakes to outside influences, they don’t learn from them.

        Finally, and most importantly, I meant what I said about seeing a hate group forming…

      • badrescher on said:

        If you read Richard Carrier’s post, read most of what Greta Christina and Stephanie Zvan have written in the past few months, or listened to PZ in this video:, and you still think that “I think a lot of them are very sincere, very loving, very easily misguided people”, then nothing I say will change your mind about that.

      • B. A. Drescher, thank you for linking that video. It’s interesting to see P.Z.’s approach in direct conversation, or argument perhaps, with Chris Stedman’s. Radically different ways of living the atheist life. I do want to quibble with one point. Can one really say that P.Z. or any supporters of Atheism+ are not sincere? I’m not sure if they are nice/not nice people, if they are clear headed/confused, if they are right/wrong, but to me they seem extremely sincere if nothing else. In fact that sincerity most probably sits at the heart of their desire to split off from the wider movement. I have only read 30 pages of the book I quoted from, but I’m overly familiar with an earlier work of these two authors (Ritual and its Consequences), and that work suggest a connection between sectarianism and sincerity. It’s worth a read…

  6. For me this is over-complication. I think there’s been more than enough evidence that in the Atheist house there are subgroups who warranted their own space within it, but who for various reason, were given boatloads of grief (that grief being a main reason they needed the space in the first place). In the end, in the case of Jen, and in my judgement, they didn’t get that space, the changes that would have made that space unnecessary did not happen, and the efforts to make their own space in the house didn’t get enough respect (Not no respect, but not enough, not anywhere near it). So now there’s an idea of moving out and getting their own place. After watching the grief they got play out, I think it’s a damn good idea. At a freaking minimum they can get away from the damn shouting. I think we should help them out. Heck, I might ask to come along, or go for a long visit soon, if they don’t mind. They’re beautiful people.

    I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t think it matters beyond academic interest whether this is a rift, or just a moving out. I don’t think it matters whether its due to the near-other phenomena, or a simple desire to choose their particular course. My hope is that they land well, and thrive. My suspicion is that they won’t move that far away, and eventually we’ll see a lot of each other. Maybe not at first, but that’s the way these things go. (Unless we’re dicks of course, and we could always turn out to be dicks. No special immunity to that exists.)

  7. It’s nothing but repackaged, renamed Gnu Atheism, complete with confrontationalism and triumphalism that, in a tar baby way, reflects the Christian fundamentalism that Gnus substitute, in many cases, for religion in general. And, like fundys, they refuse to accept the adage about flies, honey and vinegar, and why I and many others don’t like to use the word “atheist” about ourselves any more. More thoughts here:

  8. I’m thinking of starting the A- movement, for all the old, white men who are excluded from the A+ movement for being old, white men.

  9. A further thought: I just got banned from Greta Christiana’s site for insinuating nasty things about her latest A+ post. I hate using this abb., but LOL. We’re atheists. Agnostics. Freethinkers. Philosophers. I’ve never met one of us that didn’t enjoy a little hair-tugging. A little ideological wrestling. I’ve never met one of us that said, “no, hold back a little, I don’t want to get hurt.”

    Anyway, I apologize to anyone I offend with my posts. I think I’m just having fun, having an interesting conversation that may even change my mind, but apparently I offended some people… and I don’t want to do that.

    I want to get along with everybody, even the people I think are insanely wrong (Greta). I just don’t want to pretend I think they’re being reasonable. To you, Greta, if you read this: I have nothing against you except my opinion, and I won’t express same in anything less than the most forceful terms because I think I’d be insulting you if I held back. You can take that or not, thanks.

  10. “I’ve never met one of us that didn’t enjoy a little hair-tugging. A little ideological wrestling.”

    Thing is, they like a lot more than that! A lot of the FTBs are really in love with vicious angry commentary, cutting smackdowns, and unforgiving critiques.

    That’s fine as long as you all agree. And it went well, as long as they only attacked religious people.

    Trouble occurred when they turned their guns on each other. It turns out that what was good for the goose wasn’t good for the gander.
    They believed that they were simply “telling it like it is” and “calling a spade a spade” and that they weren’t being “dicks”, people who said “don’t be a dick” were the dicks.
    They then discovered that the way they treated others really upset them when it was turned on each other.

    Some of them decided that their behavior was fine, people just needed thicker skins.
    Others decided that their behavior was fine, but the same could never be directed at minority groups (or women) nor use any of the insults they previously dismissed as “just words” and “you don’t have the right to never be offended” if they are related to said groups.
    Some people decided not to be dicks any more.

    • gouchout on said:

      No, apparently women are a minority as well. There are posts by A+ people that state clearly that even if there are more women than men, they’re still a minority. I think they meant to use a different word. Only USians use “minority” in that way. (and what on earth is the definition of a douchebag – we don’t have them in the UK?)

  11. Jason R on said:

    Early in the comments on Richard Carrier’s blog demonstrating his support for Atheism+. Either you agree to align yourself with the platform AND their approach toward addressing social issues or you are a misogynist troll. This attitude toward fellow skeptics and atheists (and Richard is not alone here) is why I surmise this ‘movement’ is likely to cause more harm than good.

    Tom says:
    August 20, 2012 at 4:04 pm
    I’ll stick with the original atheism, thanks.

    Richard Carrier says:
    August 21, 2012 at 9:46 am
    So, one vote for douchery. Got it.

  12. Pingback: Atheism+, Sectarianism and the Venn Diagram « irritually

  13. Pingback: Αθεΐα+ (⅝ x) 28 ημέρες μετά « On the way to Ithaca

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