Saturday, September 08, 2012

Atheism+

I initially greeted the concept of Atheism+ with superficial indifference. I'm not at all a joiner, so identifying with Atheism+ didn't really interest me. But it didn't annoy or irritate me either. If a bunch of atheists want to get together to promote some specific topics or ideas — general humanism, feminism, anti-pseudoscience, or model trains — well, good for them. And even if a bunch of atheists want to get together to promote ideas I really dislike, such as atheist Libertarians, then I might criticize those ideas, but the notion that organizing to promote their ideas doesn't disturb me in the least. People organizing by shared interests is completely prosaic.

No one can be exhaustive, but I keep an eye on both atheist blogs (mostly through Planet Atheism) as well as blogs that mention atheism. I've been seeing some atheist bloggers pushing back hard against Atheism+, and these bloggers seems to be associating Atheism+ with FreethoughBlogs (cf. Jeremy's recent post). As best I can tell, a lot of the hostility to FtB started when they expelled Thunderf00t for what the FtB organizers characterized as extreme assholiness. All of this hostility seems extraordinarily stupid; indeed, this post rose to the level of burning stupidity. The rest has not quite achieved burning stupidity, but it's stupid enough that it's not worth bothering rebutting in detail. The stupidity is high enough that it's impossible to decide if the critics of A+ and FtB are just incompetent or if they've intentionally abandoned intellectual good will. Either way, direct engagement is a waste of time.

I'm not here to defend FtB; Although I read some blogs that happen to be on FtB, I don't follow the group as a group, and I'm far too minor to ever be invited to join them. I'm not here to defend Atheism+; as I said, I don't identify specifically with any group; all the labels I self-identify with (atheist, communist, humanist) are descriptive, not inclusive. But there are some more abstract philosophical concepts in play, concepts I think I can shed some light on.

As noted above, that creating groups based on shared ideas, circumstances, interests, and value is the most numbingly prosaic human activities. It's so common that it's (part of) one of the four primary categories* of cultural anthropological descriptive theory, only one step above the economic foundation. When I see someone complaining, "Holy Shit! Those folks over there are forming a group! Something must be done!" my bullshit detector hits the red. Yes, and they also have jobs! They use money! They express political positions!! (In a democracy, no less!) Some of them even vote! Stop the presses! This must not stand! The thesis that it's wrong to form a group is entirely nonsensical.

*Economics, "Kinship" (Group Formation), Politics, Religion

Of course, we can have opinions and judgements, good and bad, about particular groups. I'm not a big fan, for example, of the Catholic church. I do not in any sense object that people with similar religious beliefs have organized themselves into a group; instead, I object to many of the specific beliefs and the actual ways the clergy manages and administers the church. I don't object that they share many religious beliefs; instead, I object to the coercive and fraudulent ways they maintain conformity of opinion. I do not object that they try to influence secular policy in democratic countries; I object to the specific policies they promote and the arguments they use to promote them. Criticizing how a group actually behaves is not criticizing that they exist as a group.

All of the polemics against FtB and Atheism+ seem to be outrage that they are a group, or baseless and evidence-free (or even false-to-fact) assertions that the group has behaved badly. I don't really want to examine these positions in detail, but I suppose I must.

Let's take Jeremy, whose recent post, Free Thought Bloggers: where they stand on Atheism+, impelled this article. That post is a completely pointless exercise demonstrating that the Earth orbits the Sun a few dozen people who have gotten together because they agree on certain points happen to agree on certain points. But Jeremy's objections to Atheism+ go back a little farther.

Jeremy starts off with On Atheism+ and humanism. The majority of this post has nothing to do with either humanism and Atheism+; Jeremy mostly criticizes Jen McCreight and her "boobquake" project; he then opines that sexism is not a particular problem within the atheist community. I think Jeremy is not only mistaken but obtuse, but whatever; that's just the give and take of differing opinions. About two thirds into the post, he gets into his objections to Atheism+. According to Jeremy, Atheism+ is objectionable because its members "expect all atheists to be good people." The founders of Atheism+ will not achieve equality by "by proclaiming that you have invented a new movement and requesting that these offensive atheists play nice." They "want a perfect society, or even a movement, free of offensive people," which is a delusional fantasy. I am completely unable to comprehend these charges. Jeremy offers no evidence whatsoever that for any of his charges, and they do not in any sense follow from the information he's presented in his article.

Jeremy then asserts that it's "too soon" to create a new movement and that it is insufficiently distinct from humanism. These arguments are so inherently specious, especially when Jeremy quotes McCreight as saying that Atheism+ is more than happy to ally with other groups with similar agendas, that the discerning reader is astonished at the stupidity. The right time to form a group is when a people what want a group like that think it's the right time; they distinguish themselves from other groups if they they think that other groups do not adequately address their interests. The people who are part of Atheism+ think it's the right time, and they think that humanism does not adequately address their interests: these are the only opinions that matter. What could Jeremy possibly do if he thinks their interests do not align with his own? It's a mystery.

Jeremy continues his critique in On Atheism+ and humanism: part 2. According to Jeremy, "Atheism+ is not only redundant" but also "actually corrosive to the legacies of atheists and freethinkers." Jeremy's argument, however, consists mostly of non sequiturs, with a few other logical fallacies and outright contradictions for variety. First, Jeremy asserts that New Atheism is not a movement. I happen to disagree, but even if he were right, so what? Jeremy completely fails to connect the status of New Atheism to Atheism+. Second, Jeremy asserts that any change to atheism and humanism is disrespectful to atheists and humanists past and present who fight and have fought for the very things that those who identify as Atheist+ claim to fight for. It is an admission that atheists and humanists have already lost. "atheism needs no improvements or additions to make it better, and attempts to do so actually blacken the legacy of atheists who did work and are working to make the world a better place because of their love of humanity." This argument is a complete non sequitur. What disservice does creating a new name or organization for those advancing some goals do to those who also advance and have advanced those goals? There are so many dimensions to group formation — goals, methods, focus, interests, audience, media, membership, environment, etc. — and significant change to even one dimension is sufficient reason to make a new group. Seeing a new group as a complete repudiation of everything everyone else does or has ever done in older groups goes beyond obtusity into the realm of complete stupidity.

Jeremy then blatantly contradicts himself. He first charges that Greta "Christina never quite gets around the explaining the clear difference between Atheism+." However, he quotes several clear distinctions. First, Jeremy quotes Christina saying that, presumably unlike Atheism+, "Humanism is . . . more engaged with creating secular replacements for the rituals and structures of religious communities." Furthermore, "[M]any humanists are actively hostile to the word 'atheist.' It’s not just that they don’t choose to use the word themselves. They don’t want anyone else to use it, either." Jeremy also quotes Christina objecting to the prevalence of soft sexism* among humanists; Atheism+, presumably, would exclude soft sexism. Jeremy does not object to the idea of soft sexism; instead he claims that Christina has made a hasty generalization, that soft sexism is aberrant within humanism: Christina is "relying on anecdotal evidence ('total douchebags about feminism') to describe what is wrong with the humanists she has met." Even if Jeremy disagrees with their importance and relevance, Christina does draw clear and definite distinctions. It is of course ironic, perhaps even self-parody, that Jeremy himself is an advocate of soft sexism — he does not consider feminism to be an especially important priority — the very distinction Christina draws between humanism and Atheism+.

*Soft sexism is the idea that feminism per se is unimportant, as opposed to hard sexism, the active disparagement, marginalization, and subordination of women.

Jeremy makes one argument that is not complete nonsense: he asserts, "If a humanist is not concerned and committed to stamping out hate, racism, bigotry, misogyny, anti-gay sentiment and other social ills, he or she is not a humanist. Plain and simple." Perhaps so. Still, humanism has institutional structures. If those structures are not adequately implementing Jeremy's definition, or if some group wants to implement these goals in different ways, it is a completely legitimate response to create a new group with new structures rather than trying to reform or replace the existing structures.

Finally, according to Jeremy, Atheism+
seems to suggest that this very small group of people (Free Thought Blogs and their supporters) are preparing to carry the banner of social justice for the rest of us, and for a group of people that inherently eschew cliques and in-groups and chafe at being told how they should think or act, this is contemptible.
Why should we think the proponents are doing anything for anyone but themselves? Why should we regard them as a "clique"? Most importantly, why should we think they are telling us how to think and act in some objectionable way? I have to add the last qualifier because everyone is always telling others how to think and act. Jeremy is telling us to think that sexism is not a problem in atheism and humanism; he is telling us not to form a new group and, presumably, to work within existing structures. The "clique" charge reveals Jeremy's fundamental Junior High attitude: your group sucks and you're meanies for not letting me in.

We have to draw a careful distinction here. It is one thing to argue that the views, opinions, ideas, interests, and positions of one group are mistaken or morally reprehensible. If Jeremy does not think sexism and misogyny are particular problems in the atheist community, it's certainly legitimate to argue those views. Even if he were mistaken or obtuse, it's important that we protect the right to be wrong. But to attack the existence of the group itself is to say that they must not argue what they see as their own interests. Jeremy does not want to argue any position. He objects to being criticized, and wants to shut down the criticism. Happily, he cannot do so; he can only appear increasingly petty and stupid.

12 comments:

  1. This type of behavior reminds me of the conflicts which arise when a group of people in a church or such break off to form their own sect. Those who stay in the old group object vociferously, I'd guess because they think they are being told they are wrong.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Larry wrote:

    "The right time to form a group is when a people what want a group like that think it's the right time; they distinguish themselves from other groups if they they think that other groups do not adequately address their interests."

    There is another possibility that may be open to such people---rather than forming a new group, they can instead reform the existing group.

    Splintering off to form a new group can sometimes, I believe, be reasonably objected to for political/financial/social reasons. (Note that I am not agreeing with Jeremy's reasons, just stating my own). No 2 people on the earth are going to hold the exact same positions on every issue and hold the exact same beliefs and values, so whenever multiple people do join together to form a group, they do so while simultaneously minimizing any disagreements that they do have with each other on matters that still might be of relevance to all of them. Ignoring their differences allows them to be political more powerful when fighting for the beliefs they do hold in common. As an example, 2 leaders of a group might have different preferred strategies about how much or little money to spend to advertise their group. If they feel their disagreement on it is fairly insignificant compared to their overall shared goals, then they will likely find some sort of compromise which involves both of them sacrificing their most ideal preferences somewhat so that they can remain together, because they believe they are more effective together than if they were separate. If their disagreement about the advertising budget was more pronounced, then that stands a better chance of separating them into different groups entirely.

    " What disservice does creating a new name or organization for those advancing some goals do to those who also advance and have advanced those goals? There are so many dimensions to group formation — goals, methods, focus, interests, audience, media, membership, environment, etc. — and significant change to even one dimension is sufficient reason to make a new group."

    In answer to that first question, a disservice can be done because the movement might be better off having 1 more powerful organization than 2 lesser organizations, in terms of many of those items you list in your second sentence. If a person thinks that others in a group should not splinter off and form a separate group, it is because he may think it will hurt the overall movement by doing so. The "splinterers" may want to go in a different direction than the large organization is currently going, but maybe they should instead try to reform that organization by persuading the leaders of it to go in that direction, rather than weakening that organization by separating from it and starting up a new one that also will be weaker.

    Note that I am not certainly not saying one approach is always right or always wrong. Whichever approach (reforming versus splintering) is best depends on the specific circumstances, and I have not followed the debate about Atheism+ and have not read Jeremy's post (just Larry's references to it here) to know which is best here. It just seems plausible to me that in a world of limited resources, splintering to form new groups can sometimes do more harm than good to the overall movement supported by all those groups.

    Brian

    ReplyDelete
  3. Splintering off to form a new group can sometimes, I believe, be reasonably objected to for political/financial/social reasons.

    I disagree. I don't think it's even sometimes reasonable to objecting to other people forming a new group, at least in a political social context.* It is, of course, a decision each individual must consider reasonably; I should, I think, consider whether there are good reasons why I myself would stay or split. And I think other people can contribute insight, if they know me well enough. But group formation is fundamentally about interests; only the individual can determine if some group is adequately fulfilling their interests.

    As I've written before, I am typically suspicious of those who complain I am hurting the movement. There is no the movement; there are eight skitty zillion movements. I may be hurting your movement, but so what? You may be hurting my movement. Complaints that I'm hurting the movement are, I think, nothing but an assertion of privilege: I should subordinate my interests to your own.

    *It might be reasonable to object to new group formation in a bureaucratic, scientific, or technical context. I think it's a reasonable argument that we should not, for example, form another C++ standards group, competing with the existing standards committee.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am, of course, using "you" in the rhetorical sense; I'm not addressing Brian63 directly.

      Delete
  4. The criticisms are two or three main reasons.

    1. Many of us have worked very hard to disassociate the words atheist and atheism from any ideology. How many times have the proponents of this Atheism+ ego trip derided religious people for thinking that being atheist means x, y or z. I personally wouldn’t care a fig about these hyper-feminist, ultra-pc tools if they would just call their movement something else. It smacks of being an attempt to direct the atheist community at large, a charge borne out I think by the originator of the idea calling for a “third wave of feminism atheism”. Then there was Carrier’s absolutely hilarious post where he firmly declared “with us or against us”. This is an attempt by a group of people, some of whom earn their living by being professional atheist/feminist bloggers/speakers to make themselves the centre of attention. The post you linked which you describe as burningly stupid is actually a pretty good summation of the zeitgeist on the free thought blogs. If you don’t read them, maybe you shouldn’t be so quick to shoot down the critical post of someone who did.

    2. Atheism+ is essentially just feminism being promoted under an atheist flag. I’m sure they care about the other social justice issues but this is the one that started the whole debacle that led to Atheism+ and is the primary focus of most of the core people behind it. It is also a fairly extreme form of feminism where even an invitation to have coffee is seen as a sign of privilege and misogyny. Dawkins called out the foolishness of elevatorgate and suddenly he was an old white male with too much privilege. They laughed at people who talked about men’s rights by suggesting that by comparison to the injustices faced by other groups men have it easy and should stop being whiny babies. Dawkins suggested that by comparison to women in the Muslim world maybe making a fuss about a politely offered come-on in a lift was probably being a bit whiny and was castigated for it. They didn’t even notice the hypocrisy. I have no issue with feminism that wants to see women treated equally under the law. I do not want to be associated with a bunch of nut jobs doing amateur psychology.

    3. The people who are driving it. PZ is become less rational by the day. Carrier is a raging egotist with delusions of grandeur. McCreight/Benson/Christina are professional victims who don’t understand the concept of trolling and that any outspoken person on the internet is going to be pummelled with threats and abuse.
    I did love PZ’s post on McCreight doing a runner. He can handle the abuse and the threats (presumably because he an older white male) but poor little Jen’s delicate feeling got hurt so it’s understandable that she ran away. Women once again not being held to the same standard as men by these kinds of feminists.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Larry, you mentioned:

    "But group formation is fundamentally about interests; only the individual can determine if some group is adequately fulfilling their interests."

    Since it is not possible for (or at least reasonable to expect) a group of people to be 100% in tune with all the political/social goals and strategy preferences of any single individual, it seems that under that statement you make, it makes no sense for any person to ever join any other group. Everybody would just have their own organization they create (if that), but nobody would ever join up with another person's group. Am I misunderstanding your position, and these being the implications of it?

    That would seem to lead to effectively destroying so many political and social movements, including environmental, pro-choice, gay rights, women's rights, and atheist rights movements. Under the scenario you are espousing, would you agree that there would be no Sierra Club, no ACLU, no Lambda Legal (for gay rights), no NARAL, etc.? If you agree with the general goals of those organizations, even if not all the specifics and details of them, it still benefits you some to have those kinds of organizations exist, at least to fight against the organizations that have opposing views, which would be various right-wing, corporate, and religious groups in these cases. They would hold incredible power over law and policy, if we did not organize together to oppose them.

    You mention "There is no the movement; there are eight skitty zillion movements." I understand your sentiment there but think you are taking it to an extreme that ignores the practical reality of our situation. If by "movement" you are referring to the entire bundle of beliefs that *you* hold, then it is true that you are the only member of that particular movement. For practical purposes though, we need to have a word in our language that will refer to some smaller bundle of goals and values that it is possible for multiple people to have in common, such as staking certain positions on environmental issues, atheist rights, and others like those listed above. "Movement" seems like a very practical word to use for that purpose.

    When you say then that "Complaints that I'm hurting the movement are, I think, nothing but an assertion of privilege: I should subordinate my interests to your own." that is an incomplete and unintentionally misleading assessment of the situation. *Every* individual should, for the benefit of the group and movement as a whole, subordinate some of their own interests to the group and movement, and that in turn would come back to benefit everybody (or mostly everybody in the group) by advancing the effectiveness of the group as a whole.

    Brian

    ReplyDelete
  6. A tangential matter here as well, but I am just a bit curious. You mentioned:

    "Although I read some blogs that happen to be on FtB..."

    Which ones do you tend to read? Because you like their viewpoints or you dislike them, or other?

    Thanks,

    Brian

    ReplyDelete
  7. Anonymous: If you want me to answer your comments, per the comment policy, please pick a handle or some way I can address you.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Brian:

    I understand that no two individuals will have exactly the same interests, and that no group will exactly match any individual's interests and preferences. My point is that no one but the individual him- or herself can make the decision between whether to put up with the differences with a group, try to reform it, or create a new group. The issue is not that we have to compromise and make tradeoffs, but who gets to decide what compromises and tradeoffs to make.

    The case of Atheism+ is similar to the accommodationist/confrontationalist debate. The accommodationists say that the atheists are hurting their own cause of reconciling religion with evolution. Well, of course we are: we have decided that we do not support that cause.

    Similarly, some Dictionary Atheists (e.g. the anonymous commenter above) say that Atheism+ hurts the cause of divorcing atheism from ideology. Well, of course we are: we have decided that we do not want to divorce atheism from ideology. Also, we can presume that because the Atheism+ proponents have formed a new group, that they as individuals have decided that neither the straight atheist community nor humanism adequately addresses their interests, notably in feminism and race relations.

    In his posts, Jeremy arrogantly demands that the proponents of Atheism+ simply subordinate their own interests to his because they are getting in the way of what he himself wants to do.

    ReplyDelete
  9. "I understand that no two individuals will have exactly the same interests, and that no group will exactly match any individual's interests and preferences. My point is that no one but the individual him- or herself can make the decision between whether to put up with the differences with a group, try to reform it, or create a new group. The issue is not that we have to compromise and make tradeoffs, but who gets to decide what compromises and tradeoffs to make."

    Ah, understood. Looking back I think I just misread/misinterpreted this earlier statement you had made:

    "I don't think it's even sometimes reasonable to objecting to other people forming a new group, at least in a political social context"

    Sorry for the mixup, but thank you for the good conversation still!

    Brian

    ReplyDelete
  10. No worries, mate. Shit happens, rama rama. :-) Your perspective is always valuable.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Oh, and I read Myers and Maryam Namazie (sp?) regularly. I read most blogs over an RSS feed, so I might be reading a couple of others, and I don't know what's on Planet Atheism.

    ReplyDelete

Please pick a handle or moniker for your comment. It's much easier to address someone by a name or pseudonym than simply "hey you". I have the option of requiring a "hard" identity, but I don't want to turn that on... yet.

With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to anonymous comments, and I may delete them. I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of your comment to repost with something vaguely resembling an identity, email me.

No spam, pr0n, commercial advertising, insanity, lies, repetition or off-topic comments. Creationists, Global Warming deniers, anti-vaxers, Randians, and Libertarians are automatically presumed to be idiots; Christians and Muslims might get the benefit of the doubt, if I'm in a good mood.

See the Debate Flowchart for some basic rules.

Sourced factual corrections are always published and acknowledged.

I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.

I have jqMath enabled for the blog. If you have a dollar sign (\$) in your comment, put a \\ in front of it: \\\$, unless you want to include a formula in your comment.