Atheism Plus, Part Three: An Open Letter to the Haters

Posted on September 29, 2012

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A rough approximation of my argument in this post.

This is the second in a series of three posts about the development of a new wave of atheism, called Atheism Plus. In this post, I will address the arguments of those who have been most vocal in opposition to atheism plus. The first post, which examines the foundations of atheist ethics, can be found here.  The second post, which builds a philosophical case for the connection of social justice activism to secularism, can be found here. If you haven’t heard of Atheism Plus, you should look it up at Blag Hag. This post, including the comments, is a good place to start.

Dear haters,

I’ve spent more time than I’d care to admit during the last few weeks arguing with many of you on twitter, and I’m still fairly perplexed by your arguments. I have seen some valid criticisms of atheism plus, but most of them have come either from other social justice atheists or from completely outside the movement, none of them have employed the word “feminazi”. In the absence of good arguments, however, I have noticed some observable patterns in the fallacies that you have employed, and so I’m going to take a some time to address these here.

The most common criticism of atheism plus is that it amounts to some kind of religion. You have accused us of having dogma, you have predicted that we will somehow purge the unfaithful, and perhaps most hilariously, you have compared PZ Myers with the pope. The root of these claims seems to be the fact that atheism plus makes positive normative and factual claims, rather than the singular negative truth-claim (“There is no god”) of dictionary atheism. In making this argument, you have effectively equated any sort of positive belief with religious faith, arguing that atheism must absolutely not move beyond the non-existence of a supreme being.

Isn’t this just a little bit preposterous? If the only acceptable philosophical position for atheists to entertain is doubt, and any violation of this rule constitutes a form of religious faith, then we’ll have to purge all enthusiasm for science from atheist settings. Science makes positive truth-claims that go beyond mere doubt. “Human beings evolved from apes” is one example, as are “The earth orbits the sun”, and even “the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the two other sides”. You cannot have science unless you are prepared to move beyond mere doubt, and take the epistemic and metaphysical risks of associating something positive. Of course, few people complain that scientists such as PZ Myers and Neil Degrasse Tyson are injecting religion into atheist meetings; the propositions I have cited above have all been rigorously supported using logical and empirical arguments. Atheism plus wants to do the same thing with ethics-our positions are the result of observation and argument, not dogma. If you disagree with our conclusions, then you are welcome to ask us to show our work, and to point out errors in our logic. I, for one, welcome such criticism so long as it is phrased clearly and politely. But it’s just plain silly to automatically equate all positive belief with religious faith.

Now, I realize that “NO U” is a bit of a cliche on the internet, but it really does seem that the religiosity you accuse us of might be much better describe you. More than that, I would argue that the vitriolic opposition to atheism plus actually exemplifies the very worst of religion. If you are right about us, and we are actually basing our ethical system on something akin to religious faith, then as a religion, atheism plus is really quite innocuous. We would simply be living according to a religious world-view and using it to inform social justice activism. This is a form of religion that is entirely inoffensive and even respectable to many atheist activists. Only hard-liners like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris (not even the late Christopher Hitchens) have a desire to make all forms of private religion their enemy. I would argue, however, that the arguments and tactics you have deployed against atheism plus associate you with the very worst kind of religion-the bullying, uncompromising and violent forms of religion that the atheist movement is most concerned with.

The first characteristic you share with religious extremists is that you insist that others exercise their atheism only on your terms. You have made it abundantly clear that you believe atheism is ONLY the non-belief in god, and I really do mean it when I say that is fair enough. Nobody is requiring you to be involved with atheism plus, and you are well within your rights to voice opposition to our social and political conclusions both within and outside the movement. But that, apparently, is not enough for you. Opposition to atheism plus has coalesced not around opposition to its political conclusions, but around opposition to the very idea of a space within atheism to discuss social justice issues. Rather than accepting that there is a part of the atheist movement that you do not agree with, and honing your debating skills to contest their ethical positions, you have instead insisted that nobody should even talk about social justice in an atheist context.

This kind of narrow-mindedness is also known as dogma, and it is directly at odds with the basic idea of free thought. It is a position that seeks to limit the scope of discussion, and to silence opposing perspectives before they have even had a chance to make their point. You may defend this position on the grounds that the basic definition of atheism does not include any provision for social justice, but the simple fact is that most of us don’t really care about the basic definition of atheism. Words are human constructs, which should not be given any authority over how we live our lives. Your insistence that everybody should conform to your definition of atheism because that is what is found in the dictionary, merely turns the dictionary into a new authoritative holy book. And frankly, the bible, the Quran, and the Torah all have better storytelling and moral guidance to offer than the dictionary.

The second parallel between opposition to atheism plus and the worst forms of religion is far more serious than the first, because it concerns how this dogma is enforced. Centuries ago, the Catholic Church enforced its dogmas through acts of unspeakable violence intended to terrorize its enemies into silence. While you have not even approached cruelty of that magnitude, your strategy for dealing with your ideological enemies is the same as that of the Spanish Inquisition. Rather than engage in good faith with the ideas of atheism plus with the hope of proving them wrong, many of you have chosen instead to attack the movement’s members in the most personal and violent manner that can be managed over the internet. Rape threats, personal attacks on peoples’ appearance, and even harassment of the families of bloggers have all been used at one time or another. Jennifer McCreight, a prominent atheist who is far from thin-skinned, has been forced to stop blogging because of the daily harassment. Rather than raise valid criticisms of her ideas, you have attacked her personally until she was forced to withdraw. And then you celebrated. In adopting such vile strategies to silence those you disagree with rather than addressing their disagreement, you have associated yourself with some of the worst political and religious fundamentalists.

I am well aware that my criticisms here do not apply to every person who opposes atheism plus. There are some who are able to respectfully air non-dogmatic criticisms of the movement, and I hope we continue to hear from them. The people to whom this post is addressed, however, should know who they are. Far from defending the purity of atheism, scepticism and free-thought, you are making a mockery of all three by using vicious bullying tactics to silence those who do not conform to your narrow interpretation of what it means to be an atheist. In doing so, you mimic some of its most objectionable attributes of fundamentalist religion. It was your toxic influence that prompted the creation of atheism plus, and it is your reaction to its creation that confirms the need for it. We’re well rid of you.

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