30 August 2012

Some thoughts on Atheism+

Well, it didn’t take long for certain prominent members of the community of reason to weigh in on the freshly minted Atheism Plus, or A+, movement. There’s an A+ outline and response to its critics by PZ Myers, and two observations/criticisms by Ronald Lindsay and Massimo Pigliucci respectively. While I agree with Myers that disbelief in gods and religious doctrines would entail “significant consequences for how we should structure our society” and therefore atheism is not just “an abstraction floating in the academic ether”, I also agree with Lindsay’s and Pigliucci’s argument that secular humanism already addresses the same issues and champions the same causes as A+, making the new movement almost redundant.

To me, A+ is largely a branding exercise. One of the movement’s founders, Jen McCreight, has stated as much, saying that the ‘Atheism Plus’ concept is “fabulous marketing-wise and as a way to identify yourself as a progressive atheist.” Proponents of A+ are trying to imbue the word ‘atheism’ with connotations in addition to its mere dictionary definition. Some like Myers actually disdain the idea of a ‘dictionary atheist’, since they see it as a narrow, limited conception of what atheism should mean.

From a linguistic perspective, this attempt by the A+ crowd to shoehorn additional meanings into the word ‘atheism’ seems silly; it would be like trying to make the word ‘teetotaler’ also mean ‘a person who upholds values like temperance, self-discipline and sobriety’. Sure, these things can be associated with the word ‘teetotaler’, just as additional values outside of disbelief in gods can be associated with the word ‘atheist’. But these extraneous meanings are not, strictly speaking, implicit in both words. A teetotaler is someone who abstains from alcohol (for whatever reasons), and an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in gods (for whatever reasons), period.

So that’s the linguistic perspective. However, from a sociopolitical perspective, A+ proponents have a valid reason for wanting to ‘inflate’ the meaning of the word ‘atheism’ beyond its dictionary definition. Greta Christina has touched on this reason, which is to destigmatise the words ‘atheism’ and ‘atheist’ by impressing the progressive values that A+ stands for upon the minds of the general public, and in a sense teach the public to associate the word ‘atheism/atheist’ with those ethical values. So while pedants may complain, the practical effect is the gradual reduction of the negativity currently attached to atheism, at least in highly religious societies.

Furthermore, from a strategic viewpoint, it makes sense for A+ folks to use the word ‘atheism’ rather than ‘humanism’, even though A+ and secular humanism share similar values and goals: ‘atheism’ is punchier (aka controversial), and the emotional response it elicits from both proponents and opponents makes it a ‘sticky’ word. And as any marketing professional can attest, a good brand is a sticky brand.

As if there isn’t already a glut of atheist/humanist movements, we also have Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland writing up a manifesto for what he calls ‘Ethical Atheism’. Nugent’s preamble below makes the same argument as PZ Myers did in his blog post: that atheism necessarily entails social and political consequences.

In real life, atheism means more than mere disbelief in gods, or belief that there are no gods. If you disbelieve in gods, it necessarily follows that you also disbelieve that we get our ideas of truth and morality from gods. This is a significant approach to two central questions about life, in a world where most people believe the opposite.
This is a draft manifesto for ethical atheists who care about both truth and morality, and who want to promote reason, critical thinking and science; atheism over supernaturalism; natural compassion and ethics; inclusive, caring atheist groups; fair and just societies; secular government; and local, national and global solidarity.
Ethical atheism is more useful than dictionary atheism, because it applies the consequences of our atheism to real life. Ethical atheism is more precise than secular humanism, because religious people can be both secular and humanist, and because ethics affects all sentient beings and not just humans.

Despite the different labels being tossed around, one thing that Michael Nugent, PZ Myers, Ronald Lindsay, Massimo Pigliucci, Jen McCreight, Greta Christina and other atheists agree on is that regardless of which label we choose to affiliate with, what matters is our ethical, godless commitment to make this world a better place for everyone. Let’s keep this in mind whenever we are tempted to denigrate our allies.


No comments:

Post a Comment