The atheistic internets are all aflutter over Jen McCreight’s excellent post on Infiltrating the Boys’ Club, which gave way to the A+ initiative, what at first seemed to be a new “wave” of atheists and now more specifically seems to be an actual organization that Jen is setting up, focused on issues of social justice like misogyny and racism. I’ve been commenting a lot behind the scenes, but I realized I haven’t commented much in front of the scenes. Or on the scenes, or whatever the equivalent metaphor may be. So!
I agreed with pretty much everything in Jen’s initial “Boy’s Club” post, although the word “agreed” may not really be strong enough to convey how hard I was nodding my head while reading. Her experience was very close to mine, in thinking she had found a safe space in skeptical and atheistic groups, and then realizing that they weren’t once she had the audacity to suggest people stop talking about her breasts.
I also love the idea of a third wave of atheists. It’s no secret that I think the second wave of mostly rich old white men was great in its way but has pretty much served its purpose.
And I love the idea of getting progressive atheists riled up and ready to make some change, whether or not that involves collecting under a new name.
My criticisms of what’s now happening are so minor and ill-formed they should probably be ignored completely, but I want to mention them if only because I find my ideas and opinions only become fully fleshed out when I start writing about them.
My first pause was when Jen described the first wave of atheists as such: “It’s time for a new wave of atheism, just like there were different waves of feminism. I’d argue that it’s already happened before. The “first wave” of atheism were the traditional philosophers, freethinkers, and academics.”
Through my admittedly limited study, the freethinkers who emerged during the 18th and 19th centuries were exactly the type of people who would happily join Jen’s idea of 3rd wave atheism. People like Robert Green Ingersoll, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Emma Goldman, Frederick Douglass, Margaret Sanger, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Susan B. Anthony didn’t just bloviate about how the Bible was obviously wrong and Christians are idiots – they fought religious intolerance because they saw how it affected the basic human rights of themselves and others. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of a single famous freethinker who wasn’t actively engaged in real social justice activism – not just writing essays and books, but actually attempting to enact legislation and provide protection for marginalized groups.
To call them “traditional” and lump the general term “freethinkers” in with “philosophers” and “academics,” I think, does their legacy a disservice. They were radicals who changed the world. They helped get black men the right to vote, and then they helped get all women the right to vote. They got women the right to own property. They dismantled the religious arguments that gave support to oppressors. They fought viciously for the oppressed.
That’s not to say they were without their faults. Many early women’s rights activists like Stanton, for instance, balked at the idea of black men and “idiots” getting to vote before women, with no real thought or consideration for black women. Ingersoll was a teetotaler, heaven forbid (he was okay with wine, though, and probably still a bit of fun at parties). But ultimately, they were concerned with the same things that progressive atheists today are concerned with, and anyone joining a new wave of atheism focused on social justice should become familiar with those early freethinkers and their often successful tactics.
So again, it’s really a minor point to pick on one sentence in a long blog post I agree with, but I wanted to put that out there.
My one other concern, ever since the “A+” branding has caught on, is for humanism. You see, personally, I’m happy to leave atheism to the misogynists and the racists, and continue to define it as a simple lack of religion. I’ve long seen atheism as a broad and somewhat boring label, and I’m content to continue seeing it that way. And I’ve long seen secular humanism as the natural path for those atheists who are ready to move beyond the conclusion that there’s no such thing as a god: “Sure there’s no god, but what are you going to do about it?”
“Well, there being no god means that this is the only life we have. And that means that we should try to make it a good life for as many people as possible. And I have the ability to work towards that goal, so I will.”
Bam: secular humanism.
As I was writing all this, Jen posted this on Facebook:
Dear smug humanists: You realize my critique of the atheist movement included you too, right? I’ve spoken at many humanist meetings, and they are consistently overwhelmingly old, white men who tell me I should be a “humanist” instead of a “feminist” because we’ve already achieved equality and feminism is about man-hating. You have a huge diversity problem too. Stop acting like you’re already perfect.
And she’s absolutely right. I’ve had many people ask why I’m a feminist instead of a humanist, as though the two things are mutually exclusive. I’ve also looked at the profile pages of people who send me rape threats on Twitter and YouTube, and many times I’ve found the word “humanist” in the description.
This fits in with what my ideal scenario would be: leave atheism alone and work on fixing humanism, because it’s actually already in pretty good shape. Unlike atheism, it already has many organizations working on social justice issues, like the British Humanist Association and African Americans for Humanism. And unlike atheism, that social justice goal is already built into the accepted definition and scope of humanism. So it would be nice, I think, if we could work on kicking the assholes out of humanism and helping the humanists march forward on all these issues we find important.
But hey, if wishes and buts were clusters of nuts, we’d all have a bowl of granola. Atheism currently has a bigger audience than the humanists, and A+ is catchy and fun and has people excited. There’s a lot of momentum, and Jen is going to do something great and positive with it. Humanism won’t die out, and A+ could become a handy bridge for atheists to cross over and start doing something positive with their philosophical outlook. What more could I ask for?
Featured image from our line of feminist freethinker buttons on Skeptical Robot!