Atheist Schism?

Atheism has taken its lumps lately. Here on RD, in the wake of the murder of six Sikhs in Wisconsin, humanist chaplain Chris Stedman critiqued atheist bigotry and silence in the face of violence directed at religious minorities. Meanwhile, at least since last summer’s “elevatorgate”, outspoken atheist feminists describe continued, aggressive harassment from men in the atheist community.

In response some atheists have broken off and created “Atheism Plus” which aims to make space for women, people of color, and other marginalized groups within an atheist movement that’s historically white and male.

The idea crystallized as most atheist organizing does—over the Internet. Feminist blogger Jen McCreight had already been brainstorming with other activists about a new secular social justice group. But it was McCreight’s personal frustration with online harassment that led her to write a blog post demanding a ‘third wave’ of atheism.

We throw up billboards claiming we’re Good Without God, but how are we proving that as a movement? Litter clean-ups and blood drives can only say so much when you’re simultaneously threatening your fellow activists with rape and death.

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. One commenter suggested “A+,” others ran with it, and McCreight bought the domain name. The designation stuck and there are now over 1500 members.

“Atheism Plus has been burbling up from the grassroots for a very long time in the atheist community,” says blogger Greta Christina, author of Why Are You Atheists So Angry: 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and among those compiling online activist resources for the website. “When you look at the history of other social change movements, that haven’t dealt with racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, xenophobia, and so on, early on in their activist phase… they all wish that they had gone back in time and dealt with it early on.”

Atheism does have a problem with xenophobia and anti-Islam rhetoric, she says, and “it’s appropriate and right for other atheists to criticize [that rhetoric]. And many of us have done so… and will continue to do so.” As an example she points to popular blogger and biology professor PZ Myers‘ continued criticism of Sam Harris, adding: “To be horribly angry at the leaders of the Islamic theocracies in the Middle East is very different from being angry at the guy who’s sitting next to you on the bus. We treat moderate and progressive Christians differently from how we treat hardcore, homophobic, misogynist fundamentalist Christians. I think we need to do the same thing with Islam.”

Myers, who’s supportive but not directly involved, has few qualms about leaving behind those “who consider the social justice issue that Atheism Plus is prioritizing to be unimportant.” And if it causes a schism, well, he’s fine with that: “I think that’s wonderful. Yes, let’s divide.”

Since the initial burst of infighting and corresponding media attention, buzz around A+ has quieted down, though folks are still investing energy behind the scenes. Whether A+ becomes a well-recognized subset of atheism remains to be seen, but one question remains: A+ sees itself as an anti-oppression movement, yet it still writes generalizations about the harmful effects of certain cultural beliefs and practices (namely, religion) into its very premise. Will that affect its success—or even impede its ability to be taken seriously?

katie.toth@gmail.com'

RD editorial assistant Katie Toth is a Canadian journalist and disability activist. She became involved in the struggle for accessible reproductive health care in Atlantic Canada when she began her undergraduate degree at the University of King's College, Halifax.