Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Atheism + is secular humanism by another name

This post originally appeared here and has been reproduced with permission of the author. 

One of the criticisms of New Atheism is that there is nothing particularly new about it, given that the major ideas advanced by atheism date back centuries. Now, the New Atheists have come up with a new idea: 

Jen McCreight, one of the bloggers at Freethought Blogs originated Atheism Plus, and summarises the reason for the latest phase in the New Atheist revolution: 
 It’s perfect. 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?” We are… 
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.
Unfortunately, Atheism Plus, just like New Atheism itself, isn’t new. It already exists under the guise of secular humanism. Massimo Pigliucci, a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York notes
Historically, what Jen, Greta and others are looking for already exists. It’s called secular humanism, and it has had (and continues to have) a huge impact on precisely the issues listed above. How huge? Well, just to cite an example, the UN Declaration of Human Rights is a quintessential humanist document, which has influenced international relations since its adoption in 1948. 
Secular humanism has a long history, depending on how exactly one defines the concept, and it includes a series of Humanist Manifestos (the first one of which was published in 1933, the last one in 2003) that address precisely the sort of issues that A+ is concerned with, and then some.
So, my first point isn’t a critique of A+ as much as a reminder that, well, some of us (secular humanists) have been doing that sort of thing for almost a century (not I personally, I’m not that old…). 
This ignorance of its own history makes it difficult to take the New Atheists seriously, as it implies they are likely uninformed of the theistic responses to those atheistic arguments which date back centuries. Pigliucci continues by expressing his belief that A+ is unlikely to get off the ground as it is not a philosophy: 
When atheists are concerned that their position is perceived as being only negative, without any positive message, they shouldn’t really be worried, but should rather bite the bullet: a-theism simply means that one lacks a belief in god(s), and for excellent reasons. It is akin to a-unicornism, the lack of a belief in unicorns. That lack of belief doesn’t come with any positive position because none is logically connected to it. 
It is a similar situation for skeptics, who also often suffer being labeled as nay sayers without a positive message. If you are skeptical of, say, homeopathy, you don’t need a positive message qua skeptic: your job is to debunk the irrational and explain why that particular notion doesn’t make any sense (and may cost money and lives). End of story. 
Now, skepticism does have a positive counterpart: it’s called science. If you wish to redirect former believers in homeopathy onto a better path to health you send them to a medical doctor who uses science-based medicine. This, however, does not require the skeptic herself to be a medical doctor (nor to play one on tv), it just requires that the skeptic be aware of the relevant literature and community of expertise. 

Pigliucci is surely correct it when he points out that there is no equivalent positive counterpart to atheism, as evidenced by the heterogeneous philosophical positions maintained by atheists: 
Those like Jen and myself adopt a progressive liberal approach to social issues, i.e. we become secular humanists. But other atheists choose libertarianism, or Objectivism (yeah, don’t ask me why). And let’s not forget that — as much as we usually don’t acknowledge it — there are likely plenty of straightforward conservatives who are also atheists. This variety shouldn’t at all be puzzling, because atheism is not a social or political philosophy in its own right, it is a simple metaphysical or epistemic statement about the non existence of a particular type of postulated entity. 
That of course raises the question as to why a progressive liberal approach to social issues is right, as opposed to libertarianism, conservatism or Objectivism (Pigliucci’s scorn is well-placed.) Christians would argue that much of the liberal approach to social issues derives from a religious base, with secular humanism being dependent on Christianity for those values. Irrespective of whether Christians are ultimately right to make that assertion, it’s not unreasonable for them to make it. The vitriol with which some atheists support New Atheism is also counterproductive. Pigliucci noted: 
Here are some excerpts from Carrier’s post about A+, just to give you a taste: 
“There is a new atheism brewing, and it’s the rift we need, to cut free the dead weight so we can kick the C.H.U.D.’s back into the sewers and finally disown them, once and for all.”  
“Anyone who makes a fallacious argument and, when shown that they have, does not admit it, is not one of us, and is to be marginalized and kicked out, as not part of our movement, and not anyone we any longer wish to deal with.”  
“I do not think it is in our interests any longer to cooperate in silence with irrational people, when it is irrationality that is the fundamental root cause of all human evil. Anyone who disagrees with that is simply not someone we can work with.” 
“We cannot hold our tongue and not continue to denounce their irrationality in any other sphere, because to do so would be to become a traitor to our own values.” 
“This does not mean we can’t be angry or mean or harsh, when it is for the overall good (as when we mock or vilify the town neonazi); ridiculing the ridiculous is often in fact a moral obligation, and insults are appropriate when they are genuinely appropriate.” 
“And if you are complicit in that, or don’t even see what’s wrong with it, or worse, plan to engage in Christian-style apologetics for it, defending it with the same bulls__t fallacies and tactics the Christians use to defend their own immorality or that of their fictional god, then I don’t want anything to do with you. You are despicable. You are an awful person. You disgust me. You are not my people.” 
The overwrought nature of this response was poorly received by McCreight: 
And here is the kicker: shortly after Carrier posted his rant, Jen McCreight herself tweeted the following: 
“Finally had time 2 read Richard Carrier’s #atheismplus piece. His language was unnecessarily harsh, divisive & ableist. Doesn’t represent A+.”  
I guess the new movement has already excommunicated someone, and that happens to be its most viciously vocal supporter so far. 

Ignorance of its own history and factionalism will not doom the New Atheism as mainstream Christianity produces enough disenchanted ex-Christians to maintain its numbers, but it is hard to avoid concluding that this represents something of an own-goal for the movement.