Thursday, August 23, 2012

Is Atheism+ a Movement or an Approach?

Not to be contrary, but I remain unconvinced that Atheism+ is philosophically distinct from Humanism in a fundamental way. To my mind, every response seems to bring up new questions. Let me just say that I don't want to dampen anyone's enthusiasm. I support people creating meaningful identities for themselves. I also support Atheism+ in spirit. My reservations are of a sort that haven't been addressed. As an antitheistic Humanist, I appreciate the stridency of asserting my atheist identity. I'm all for reclaiming it. A new movement, however, has to distinguish itself as truly revolutionary if it is ever to gain significance.

As a linguist, I understand that language encodes thought. New words emerge organically to describe new phenomena. When language is contrived to shape thought, it can lose the intuitive transparency that comes with organic linguistic innovation. The shock value power of calling myself an atheist is not lost on me. Humanism most certainly lacks that power, but Atheism+ suggests something cobbled together. There's no parallel. Feminism didn't rebrand itself as feminism+ to express inclusion of women of color. If I want the brashness of calling myself an atheist and I want to qualify it, however, I'd rather call myself a progressive atheist.

Atheism+ proposes to cooperate with Interfaith groups by defining boundaries unambiguously. This promises to be tremendously valuable. As such, Atheism+ has the potential to resolve the conflict many of us may sometimes feel over working with religious progressives. Humanism, admittedly, hasn't negotiated those boundaries. Instead, Humanism has taken a big-tent approach, allowing accommodationists and antitheists to flourish within its ranks. Humanism can't be characterized as either accommodationist or antitheistic exclusively. If Atheism+ negotiates the boundaries that Humanism has left to individuals, it may very well distinguish itself in a fundamental way. On this particular front, however, the distinction would represent little more than a fine-tuning of Humanism.

I'm volunteering for United Church of Christ minister Gene Dyslewski, candidate for RI Senate in District 26. Gene supports reproductive freedom, marriage equality, and Separation of Church and State. His opponent in the Democratic primary, Frank Lombardi, opposes all three and was a vocal defender of the now infamous Cranston West Prayer Banner. I raised an objection to a fairly explicit suggestion by a volunteer that Gene could exploit his moral authority as a pastor as a campaign tool. I spoke as a Humanist, but my objection was also very much in line with what is now known as Atheism+. Like many who have spoken out to wholeheartedly support Atheism+, I would say that I was Atheist+ before it was cool. I would also say that I'm still cool with Humanism.

I have also followed Steve Alhquist's posts on his experience with the Humanist institute. I find it difficult to imagine myself participating in religious services as part of the learning experience. I know Steve and identify with his expression of how alien the experience was to him. When I imagine an Atheist+ Institute that doesn't include such experiences in its curriculum, I can see how Atheism+ might be a distinct movement. My aversion to such experiences are consistent with my Atheist+ sensibilities, but also with the antitheistic edge that is alive and well in Humanism. Based on my reactions to Steve's posts, I would say again that I was Atheist+ before it was cool. I would also say, again, that I'm cool with Humanism.

What I wonder about Atheism+ is what it aspires to be? What is its scope? Is it a movement or an approach? If it is a movement, it needs to differentiate itself meaningfully to be remembered by those who will write the history of the movement. There were antitheists before the word existed. Nomenclature has a way of catching up to true genius. Truly great, novel ideas can be seen as prophetic only in retrospect. If we declare Atheism+ a new movement over the objections of Humanists who argue that the differences are superficial, we risk being remembered as self-aggrandizing or flailing about for a vision.  

The philosophical differences between Humanism and Atheism + strike me as superficial and not likely to be remembered as a significant innovation. Ad hominem arguments don't distinguish Humanism from Atheism+ in a fundamental way. The presence of stodgy Humanists with "churchy" practices doesn't make the case that Atheism+ is philosophically distinct from Humanism, even if those Humanists happen to be asshats. Nobody likes an asshat. That's universal. Keeping a clean house does not distinguish a philosophy as novel. Atheism may not imply progressive values, but Humanism always has. Humanism is open to accommodationists not because it has neglected to tend its boundaries with faith communities but because it continues to work with religious progressives. Atheism+ will likely find itself in the same position if it supports cooperation with Interfaith groups.

What bothers me about some of the rhetoric in defense of Atheism+ is the determination to forge ahead over any objections. It strikes me as absolutist to dismiss the reasonable concerns of allies who just want to give the matter due consideration. I also find the argument that the label only has to be meaningful to the people who adopt to be intellectually unsatisfying. What happens if Atheism+ becomes a new hegemony? If you call yourself an Atheist, will people assume you're apolitical or misogynistic? Does it become redundant to call yourself a dictionary atheist because of the way Atheism+ has contrasted itself with atheism? If you identify as a Humanist, will people assume you're an accommodationist because of the way Atheism+ has contrasted itself with Humanism?

An approach can transcend movements. If Atheism+ aspires to be an approach, rather than a movement, the question of hegemony is obviated along with the the need for consensus. As an approach, it can also take the lead in shaping the curriculum for safezone training and certification. I would proudly sport an A+ logo on my office door right next to my queer safezone logo. I would also be among the first to volunteer for shaping the safezone curriculum. Understood as an approach, Atheism+ has the potential of being a primary label, a secondary label or a credential. 

I embrace Atheism+ in spirit, I'm just not convinced it's novel enough to ever be historically significant. Also, if the spirit of Atheism+ is more important than the label, I'd prefer to call it progressive atheism. If we understand it as an approach and not a new orthodoxy, on the other hand, I don't see why it matters what you call it. A lot of people are saying they were Atheist+ before it was cool. I am with you. It seems to me, however, that understating the similarities with Humanism denies my claim that I too have always been Atheist+ in spirit.

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