“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
A couple of days ago I wrote about how the emerging Atheism+ movement appears to be trying to dissociate itself from the “near other,” and suggested that this particular form of othering sits at the heart of sectarianism. Since then the online atheist community has generated a lot of discussion over what Atheism+ actually is and how productive/unproductive the methods employed by it’s promoters/objectors have been. When I suggested that Atheism+ is a sectarian movement I came to that conclusion largely because of the practices employed by its promoters. In the linked post I wrote:
[Atheism+] 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.
I should note that I mixed up Jen’s original post in the above observation with her explanation of why Atheism+ isn’t the same as humanism. Regardless, I describe her process correctly as a narrowing process, one of honing in on Atheism+ by excluding other parts of the Atheist movement, of humanism, and of skepticism. In practice, Richard Carrier’s post on Atheism+ appeared to employ even more aggressive tactics to further draw firm lines in the sand between what the movement includes and excludes. In a response to a comment on my blog I wrote about Carrier’s post:
It is emblematic (much more so than Jen’s post in fact) of the process undertaken to splinter the movement and to draw very firm boundaries around Atheism+. The example you point to is one of many in the post and in Richard’s comments that all do the same thing – they perform difference, they “other.”
While it seems that some in the movement are disavowing themselves from Richard’s tactics, none of the movement’s supporters appear to have a problem with their effects, perhaps because as I’ve argued already, splintering, separating, narrowing, distancing, “othering” etc. is what the movement actively seeks to do. In my initial post I didn’t get into much depth about what the process of narrowing suggests about Atheism+, but because of the recent and fortuitous creation of a visual explanation of the movement by Free Thought Blogger Jason Thibeault I’ve been given an excellent opportunity to do so. Jason’s Venn diagrams offer a clear depiction of “narrowing,” and more specifically of defining oneself as not only different, but also more pure than the “near other.” This is what sectarian movements usually do by the way. I’ll skip through the various stages of explanation Jason covers (but you can read them on his blog). Here’s the Venn diagram that covers what we need to know:
You have to look carefully to make out that the most primary level of separation is between “Atheists” and the “Religious.” In other words those circles do not overlap. Oddly, Jason recognizes that the logical opposition is actually between atheists and “theists” and says: “Presume that this does not include religious buddhists for the time being — let’s say ‘religious’ is shorthand for ‘theists’.” A lot more than nontheistic Buddhism is elided by this move, yet inexactness isn’t what makes it interesting. It is notable because by framing the opposition as one against “religion” in totality Jason places himself in the anti-theist, anti-religious discourses of the New Atheism and related contemporary movements. This is important to keep in mind because (secular) Humanism does not tend to be anti-religious in this manner, and in fact following the lead of related movements like Ethical Culture, (secular) Humanism at first conceived of itself as a non-theistic “religion” (in 1933, in the Humanist Manifesto I). It is important to note that (secular) Humanism no longer uses that terminology, but that it remains a descendent of this legacy is certain.
While not overlapping with each other atheists and the religious each overlap with humanism and social justice advocacy. One can be either an atheist or a religious social justice advocate and/or humanist in other words. OK, other than quibbling with Jason’s understanding of Humanism and religion that sounds about right. Of course if you are an atheist, humanist or a religious person you can also be a “scumbag, privilege defender, misogynist, antifeminist, anti-gay, bigot,” person “who hates social justice causes,” or otherwise a “miscreant.” In other words there are bad people who are atheists, humanists or religious. No argument with that either, because there most likely are such people in all communities. But this is where one ought to pause for a second, because you apparently cannot be a bad person if you are also a social justice advocate (notice how the big, bad red circles don’t overlap with social justice advocacy). Does this mean that advocating for social justice is always a sincere act? It certainly seems that way. (Secular) Humanism, as defined by the three manifestos, clearly aligns itself with the aims of social justice, so in order to be this type of bad person and a (secular) Humanist one would have to be insincere, a hypocrite or otherwise someone who claims an identity they do not uphold in action. Jason’s chart is emphatic about the possibility that such a person might exist.
So why then can’t someone promote social justice and be insincere, a hypocrite or otherwise someone who claims an identity they do not uphold in action? The only answer I can fathom has to do with where Atheism plus finds itself on the chart. Have a look, because Atheism+ also escapes the evils of bad personhood in entirety as a result of the fact that social justice advocates do. You cannot be an A+ and a bad person. This is how A+ differentiates itself from Humanism most clearly, according to the proponents of A+. Remember Jen’s tweet about how she’s also critical of “smug humanists?” It’s because (secular) Humanists may often be decent people, but they are not infallible. Atheism plussers though? Jason adds another set of circles to the Venn diagram to include loudmouths (not depicted above see his post). Atheim plussers can be loudmouths, so we know they aren’t completely infallible, but does being a loudmouth make you a bad person? It doesn’t seem that way, and as we know Atheism plussers cannot suffer from the deep kind of human stain that the other groups can. They cannot be bigots, misogynists, etc. So in the end that’s where the narrowing exercise goes. According to proponents like Jen and Jason, Atheism plussers are different from all the other groups of people they are related to by being more authentic and pure in their goodness. They not only talk the talk, or identify with traditions of justice, they are completely sincere in doing so.
So where does that leave us in our analysis? The drive to not only differentiate oneself from others, but to do so around a claim of greater purity to the ideal that is shared by those others is also a hallmark of sectarianism. It is no coincidence perhaps that, Robert Weller and Adam Seligman, our two authors from the last post, also link religious fundamentalist movements to sincerity as an overarching principle of differentiation in a previous book called, Ritual and its Consequences. Now I’m not saying that A+ is, or is largely like, a fundamentalist movement. Such a comparison would be unfair and inaccurate on many levels. Yet what A+ shares with these movements is the sectarian impulse to define themselves out of the larger tradition based on purity and authenticity, or so it still seems at least in the words (and drawings) of their spokesmen and women.
These Venn diagrams were intended to clarify the picture of where A+ was located in the larger social world. What they have clarified instead, perhaps, is how A+ defines the social world, and their own supposedly unique place within it. I also think there are differences between A+ and Humanism, but they most prominently go back to the anti-theism, anti-religion attitudes I mentioned earlier and not “justice purity.” Atheism plussers tend to be more anti-religious than Humanist do. The distinction also, of course comes down to the quest for purity itself. It’s not like Humanism has never wrestled with the movement’s soul over the years, but in its current manifestation I certainly cannot make out this type of sectarian impulse.