"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Friday, 11 January 2013

Feminism and the new atheist schism

One of the problems with self-defining as an atheist is that it is at root a very narrow definition of what a person actually stands for. It really tells the world nothing about you other than you do not believe in the existence of any gods and leaves all the other cultural and political questions hanging.
As a contrast if somebody identifies themselves as an Evangelical Christian it is a fair to assume of them certain attitudes about e.g. abortion, LGBT rights, gender equality etc. and to have grounds to probe their assumptions about evolution, climate change and political allegiances frequently associated with that religion. In other words the kind of religion you follow come with an amount of stereotypical baggage that atheism lacks.
On the face of it that is a good thing. After all, atheists by rejecting all religions are rejecting all the associated dogmas and, in theory at least, building a worldview from first principles. But, since this does not happen in a cultural vacuum and everyone’s life experiences are different the spectrum of political beliefs found amongst atheists is extremely broad.
When I first went in search of an online atheist community some five years ago, the main topics of conversation were around debunking religious apologetics, along with science, cosmology, evolution and a-biogenesis as they cropped up in arguments with (mainly) Christians in the comment sections. These are all “safe spaces” for atheists that give everyone a chance to debate and bait the theists for sport, while generally getting on with each other. But inevitably as the community and the conversation matured the blog posts and discussions moved into more contentious areas, specifically the abortion debate, feminism, racism and other social justice issues which, given the diversity of opinion in atheism was bound to stretch the consensus more than somewhat.
It became clear to regular atheist bloggers, commenters and their readers that atheists are as able to be conservative, sexist, racist, and climate change denialist as they are liberal, inclusive and green and although the prevailing zeitgeist was the latter a sizeable and vocal minority were not
So what happens when the atheist movement starts to debate its own credentials as an inclusive, non-sexist, non-racist movement? How does it react to those of its own who either do not see social justice issues as pertinent to the atheist agenda or who are antagonistic to the assumptions behind those issues?
Ever since the Elevatorgate scandal hit the atheist community back in 2011 a number of prominent atheists have been calling for conferences and events to have a clear and enforceable anti-harassment policy in place so that women and minorities can feel safe and participate on an equal footing with the predominantly white male crowd that these events attract. Personally, I see this as uncontroversial but it has flushed out a number of people who believe that being asked to behave respectfully and reasonably to others in a public forum is some kind of infringement on their rights to free speech. Their response has been to abuse bloggers like Jen McCreight Rebecca Watson and Ophelia Benson among others and accuse them of poisoning atheism with feminism.
What seems to have outraged these people is the suggestion that they may be unaware of their own privilege and possibly be just a little bit sexist themselves. Well I have news for them, they are and probably, so am I. In the same way that everyone’s a little bit racist everyone can be a little bit sexist too and we shouldn’t feel affronted when someone on the receiving end points it out to us.
Anyway, as a consequence of all this it has become almost impossible for those atheists who want to discuss diversity and inclusivity in the movement to do so on open forums due to the constant trolling and ad hominem invective from a particularly loud and obnoxious cabal of commenters and so was founded Atheism+ a forum for atheists who want to align their activism with other causes and marginalized groups. This seems to me to be perfectly reasonable because it leaves the ‘big tent’ of atheism open to all those who would speak out for Church / State separation and the superiority of science, reason and evidence over religion, superstition and dogma, while creating a sub space for those also concerned about the religious attacks on women’s and LGBTQ equality. Anyone not aligned with that agenda need not apply, (which is not being exclusive nor is it an invitation to ‘groupthink’ as we can still find plenty to disagree on about how to meet the social justice goals we aspire to). Besides, those against atheism+ now have their own “Slymepit” to play in.
But does this really represent a schism in the new atheist movement? Actually probably not because unlike religions atheism has no dogmas, not even feminism or LGBTQ rights or racial equality, because none of those things are an aspect of atheism per se albeit they are prevalent attitudes among atheists generally. Social justice is a society wide and global issue and is being addressed by many liberal theists as well as by atheists and all the while the atheist/secular movement is successfully working to counter religious extremism and its influence in governments worldwide the social justice agenda will advance whether all of us agree on the necessity or not.

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