Atheism as a term doesn’t mean anything more than a position of nonbelief toward god concepts. By definition, atheism implies certain social attitudes toward morality as much as heliocentricism does — none at all. And in practice, atheists are a fairly diverse bunch with a wide variety of stances on many moral issues. There are pro-life atheists, pro-choice atheists, pro-gay atheists, anti-gay atheists, republican atheists, libertarian atheists, diehard progressive liberal atheists, etc…
However, “atheism” has personally had very dramatic personal implications for me beyond the mere nonbelief definition and broad swath of logically consistent atheist political positions. Because if atheism is true, justice is not automatic. With no benevolent god to take care of us, justice is something we have to work for. We can’t just go to the afterlife and expect everything to be okay; that the most perfect entity possible thinks this is the best state of affairs and we can do no better.
If I want the world to be a better place, I need to take it into my hands to do so. And this leap is perfectly summarized by blogger Jen McCreight’s call for Atheism+:
It illustrates that we’re more than just “dictionary” atheists who happen to not believe in gods and that we want to be a positive force in the world. Commenter dcortesi suggested how this gets atheists out of the “negativity trap” that we so often find ourselves in, when people ask stuff like “What do you atheists do, besides sitting around not-praying, eh?”
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.
It speaks to those of us who see atheism as more than just a lack of belief in god.
Why go beyond Atheism?
I’ve been getting bored with just arguing over and over again why I think it’s exceedingly unlikely (or perhaps logically impossible) that the God Concept of the DayTM exists.
I’ve long wanted to take the secular worldview as my starting point and branch out into other areas. Critical thinking and skepticism are not just to be applied to religion to derive atheism. Instead, we can start with socially progressive values (or, in my case, explicitly utilitarian values) and work toward using skepticism and critical thinking to make the world a better place.
Atheism as a definition might be nonbelief and nothing more, but as an identity movement, it can entail so much more.
What should we focus on?
I’d take the end goal of “make the world a better place” and spend all our focus on getting from here to there. We’ll need to get better at philosophy to work on understanding what a better place entails, and much better at a lot of relevant sciences to figure out how to create that better place from what we’ve got now.
In “Atheism+: It’s Time to Walk the Walk”, the opening gambit is being discussed, but I think the battle lines of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, ageism, neurotypicalism, animal welfare, environmental issues, and political issues (health care, crime, drug laws, etc.) are a great starting group. I’m glad to see animal welfare in the bunch, and I’d chime in to also add the welfare of people in the developing world (disease, extreme poverty, extreme hunger, etc.).
Are we actually going to be able to tackle these problems?
Perhaps its a bit unduly idealistic, but I think it’s still a goal worth aiming for. In some cases, we need concentrated strategizing, in which case group conversations and discussions can help. In many cases, the problem persists among those already on board with Atheism+, so its just a matter of recognizing our own harmful behavior and stopping it and recognizing other activities we can do to help and doing those. Overall, I don’t have any expectations that Atheism+ will singlehandedly usher in an universal utopia, but I do think every little bit helps.
But not all atheists want to focus on these causes, or believe the same solutions as you!
I agree with Greta Christina in thinking we can’t actually continue to maintain a “big tent” of conflicting values. We just simply cannot have a movement of gay people and homophobes, woman and sexists, racial minorities and racists, etc. Of course, by lacking belief in gods, one will always fit the dictionary definition of “atheism”. But by lacking progressive values, one simply does not fit in Atheism+. And if they don’t want to be in Atheism+, so much the worse for them.
Isn’t this just Secular Humanism?
In a word, yes. These values and aims of fighting sexism, racism, classism, or even speciesism are definitely not new. The understanding that one has to fight for justice because there are no omnipotent beings to do it for you has been long acknowledged. All of this is secular humanism.
But on the flipside, the term “secular humanism” doesn’t connotatively capture exactly what Atheism+ seeks to accomplish — it doesn’t demonstrate the extension of atheism, the need for a clean break from the anti-progressive atheists, the need to consider not just humanity but also other species.
Terminology is important beyond that of the mere definition of the word, and Atheism+ instead of Secular Humanism can accomplish this. Though, if one insists on “humanism” over “Atheism+”, I don’t care as long as the values and motivations are the same. (See also: “The Difference Between Atheism+ And Humanism” and “Why Atheism+ And Not Humanism?”)
Isn’t this just atheists finding another way to be morally superior to Big, Bad Religion?
Probably for some atheists, but not for me. I personally think that while religion has been the motivation for a lot of anti-progressivism and harm, it’s still that case that religion itself is not intrinsically evil, that religion has many good aspects, and that many religious people are great people.
Indeed, many religious people will feel compelled to the same progressivism as us, with similar secular solutions to the same issues, despite coming from a different motivation. So I don’t see Atheism+ as an attempt to beat up religion, but rather an attempt to work with it where we can find agreement and fight it where we can’t. Indeed, I actually see Atheism+ as moving away from fighting only religion to fighting problems wherever they may be, religious or secular.
Ok, so I’m down with Atheism+. Now what? What’s the first step?
That’s the thing. I don’t quite know yet. I wanted to have something to offer you, but I really don’t. But the cool thing is that we get to work on this together. There’s discussion to be had. Also between GivingWhatWeCan, Givewell, LessWrong, and 80000 Hours, there already are a handful of organizations and communities focusing on making the world a better place using critical thought, careful research, empiricism, and skepticism. Perhaps we could learn some from them?
I now blog at EverydayUtilitarian.com. I hope you'll join me at my new blog! This page has been left as an archive.