This can only be an approximate classification, but ‘first wave’ atheism, or Atheism 1.0, would be the sort espoused by philosophers ranging from ancient Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Classical Greco-Roman thinkers through to 19th and 20th century intellectuals like Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell and E V Ramasami Naicker. Much of the main arguments against the existence of God(s) and criticisms of religion were first made by first wave atheists. Second wave atheism (Atheism 2.0, or New Atheism) arrived at the start of the 21st century in the form of the so-called ‘Four Horsemen’ – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, who were joined by other outspoken critics of religion like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, A C Grayling and Victor J Stenger. Second wave atheists often repeated the same arguments made by the first wave, but thanks to factors like religious fundamentalism, anti-secularism and the internet, Atheism 2.0 galvanised godless folks everywhere to take a stand against religion, and popularised its ideas as never before in history.
Now atheists like Jen McCreight are calling for a third wave, for Atheism 3.0.
McCreight and her supporters believe that the current atheist movement isn’t inclusive enough, that it suffers from rampant sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination, and that it doesn’t fully engage with issues concerning social justice, gender equality and human rights. McCreight writes (emphasis hers):
It’s time for a new wave of atheism, just like there were different waves of feminism. I’d argue that it’s already happened before. The “first wave” of atheism were the traditional philosophers, freethinkers, and academics. Then came the second wave of “New Atheists” like Dawkins and Hitchens, whose trademark was their unabashed public criticism of religion. Now it’s time for a third wave – a wave that isn’t just a bunch of “middle-class, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied men” patting themselves on the back for debunking homeopathy for the 983258th time or thinking up yet another great zinger to use against Young Earth Creationists. It’s time for a wave that cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime. We can criticize religion and irrational thinking just as unabashedly and just as publicly, but we need to stop exempting ourselves from that criticism.
A lot of what McCreight is proposing sounds to me like regular secular humanism. Consider the following statement from the International Humanist and Ethical Union outlining the humanist credo:
Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.
The IHEU’s statement doesn’t explicitly mention social justice or gender equality, but it’s implied in the phrase “building… a more humane society”. And unlike religious humanism, secular humanism rejects the idea of gods. But atheist writer and activist Greta Christina makes a compelling case for distinguishing Atheism Plus (or Atheism+) from secular humanism in her blog post ‘Humanism Is Great — But It’s Not Atheism Plus’. I’m still not entirely convinced that it’s a valid distinction, although Christina does make one cogent point: the fact that the term ‘atheist’ carries more negative, aggressive connotations than ‘humanist’ means that it becomes necessary to proudly ‘own’ the term ‘atheist’, and thereby destigmatise it. Christina writes:
As many others have pointed out, there is tremendous bigotry and discrimination against atheists. In many parts of the U.S. and the world, atheists are rejected, abused, and reviled — and coming out as atheist, proudly claiming the word, is a way to stand with these people, to make things easier for them, to help create a snowball effect and make it easier for other atheists to come out.
While I remain uncommitted to the Atheism+ label (just plain ‘humanism’ and ‘atheism’ will do for me), I do agree with and wholeheartedly support its worthy goals. Unfortunately there are many in the atheist community who are hostile to the very idea of expanding the scope and aspirations of atheism. You only have to skim through the comments (and boy are there a lot of comments) on various Atheism+ posts to see how so many commenters misrepresent the goals of Atheism+, or resort to slandering Jen McCreight (which only proves her point about the rot within the atheist movement). McCreight had to write a post refuting both the accusations thrown at her and the many kneejerk misconceptions held about Atheism+. Fellow atheist Adam Lee has also written a post debunking the falsehoods and inaccuracies surrounding the proposed third wave atheism.
Now, an outsider, or even a theist, may wonder what the fuss is all about. Why make so much noise over our non-belief in God? Adam Lee explains why:
If we truly care about supporting reason and fighting the pernicious influence of fundamentalism, then we should recognize that religion serves to prop up political ideologies that harm real people across a broad range of issues: gay rights (too obvious), reproductive choice (single-celled embryos have souls!), sex discrimination and gender essentialism (God made men the breadwinners and women the homemakers), environmental protection (it's OK to wreck the Earth if Jesus is coming back soon), international relations (prophecy says there will be war in the Middle East), economic equality (just think of how religion flourishes in poor, unequal countries and fades in secure, prosperous ones), and many more. By weakening religion's influence in any of these areas, we weaken it in all of these areas, and that's a goal that any politically engaged atheist ought to support.
Whether we call it Atheism+ or secular humanism, the label is simply a marker for a disparate group of godless individuals united in their commitment to do good for goodness sake. And that’s what really matters.
Image credit: One Thousand Needles