Myths and Truths About Atheism+

Myths and Truths About Atheism+

Last week, Jen McCreight announced that she was fed up with sexism in the atheist movement and called for a new wave of atheist activism, one explicitly concerned with social justice, which quickly acquired the name "atheism+".

These posts landed like a cannon shell, generating a huge wave of excitement and feedback - the vast majority of which, to my surprise, was positive and enthusiastic. Clearly, they've tapped into a powerful vein of pro-equality sentiment in the atheist movement, crystallizing the frustrations that those of us who care about this have been feeling for the last year or two. This is an idea whose time has come, and all it needed were some excellent posts like Jen's to kickstart it.

But since then, even though atheism+ doesn't officially consist of anything yet other than a few blog posts, it's come under attack by people who are certain they know what it stands for and don't like it at all. However, most of the counterarguments I've seen are based on misunderstandings or false frames, some more egregious than others. As someone who strongly identifies with the goals of this new movement, I want to address some of the more common misconceptions and offer my perspective on what atheism+ means and why we should all get behind it.

Myth: Atheism+ will create "deep rifts" within the community by provoking unnecessary infighting and needlessly driving away people who are on the same side.

Reality: There are already deep rifts within the atheist community, but atheism+ didn't create them; they've been in existence for a long time. They were created by organizations that reflexively filled every leadership position with old white men, and by communities where women were targeted for sexual harassment and hateful bullying and minorities were treated as curiosities or stereotypes. When these things happen - which they almost always do unless we make specific efforts to address and avoid them - the result is that women and minorities are less likely to feel welcome in the atheist community, less likely to publicly identify and speak out as atheists, and more likely to stay in religious communities where they at least have a known and established place. This leads to a self-perpetuating cycle of atheism being dominated by white men and everyone else being left out.

Atheism+ is an effort to fix these deep rifts by making the atheist community a friendly and welcoming place for everyone, regardless of their background. We want to send the message, "Whoever you are, wherever you come from, here you'll be accepted, listened to and treated with respect." If this simple idea creates new rifts, if this drives people away, then I'd venture to say that they're the right rifts, and that the people we'd be driving away are the ones we don't want anyway.

Myth: Atheism+ is a pointless and duplicative label because it's the same thing as secular humanism.

Reality: Although I agree that there's significant overlap between atheism+ and secular humanism, I'd argue that the new label serves some important purposes. For one thing, it puts the big red A-word front and center: it makes it completely clear that we are atheists. This fearless self-identification thus serves the purpose of destigmatizing atheism, bringing it out of the closet and into the daylight as a familiar and accepted alternative to religion.

It's also, I think, an inherently interesting phrase: "atheism plus" inevitably leads to the question "Atheism plus what?" This gives us a perfect opportunity to talk about our positive values, our moral philosophy, our commitment to social justice. For all its virtues, "secular humanism" is a mouthful of a phrase and isn't likely to inspire the same curiosity.

That said, I'm not arguing that everyone must adopt the label of atheism+ for themselves. Our movement's intellectual diversity has always been one of its strengths. If you'd rather call yourself a secular humanist, that's fine. If you'd rather just call yourself a plain old atheist who cares about social justice, that's fine too! The most important thing is bringing about these badly needed changes, not the banner we do it under.

Myth: Atheism+ is about imposing loyalty tests or demanding 100% agreement.

Reality: Whatever flaws atheists may have, a tendency to march in lockstep isn't one of them, and atheism+ isn't going to change that. Just like every other secular group, atheism+ is certain to be a diverse, lively and fractious movement: not a church with a top-down hierarchy and a rigidly defined creed, but a coalition of individuals loosely united around a central core of ideas. If nothing else, even people who advocate social justice don't agree with each other 100% of the time!

That said, here's one point I won't waver on: We may debate as to how they can best be implemented, but the core principles we're advocating are so basic, so obvious, they ought to already be part of the moral vocabulary of everyone who wants to build a genuine secular community. If you object to the idea of treating minorities with respect, or not sexually harassing women, or making our conventions accessible to people from all backgrounds - if you think these ideas are arbitrary and objectionable "loyalty tests" - then, again, you're probably the kind of person we don't want around anyway.

Myth: Atheism+ is committing a No True Scotsman fallacy by declaring that some people aren't "real" atheists.

Reality: If you don't believe in gods, then whatever other beliefs you may hold, you're a real atheist. However, this broadly defined "dictionary atheism" includes people who hold ugly and regressive beliefs on other subjects, and who will hurt and weaken our community as long as they're part of it.

We're not trying to take away anyone's Atheism Card, even if there was such a thing and even if we could. What we're saying is that we don't want bigots to be welcome in the organized atheist community. Just as Larry Darby was shunned by atheists when he revealed his racist, Holocaust-denying beliefs, we want anyone who holds prejudiced views to be similarly rejected by people of good will and conscience and declared persona non grata at our gatherings and in our movement.

Myth: Atheism+ will distract and weaken us by taking the focus away from atheist activism and putting it on unrelated political issues.

Reality: As Greta Christina expresses so well, social justice isn't something you do instead of atheist activism, it's something that informs how you do atheist activism. It's a guide to how we conduct our internal affairs, how we reach out to outsiders, how we build alliances with the like-minded, how we choose people to be our representatives and our public face, and more. It doesn't mean we have to change our goals; it's an effective way to achieve those goals by widening our community and increasing its appeal.

Besides which, as I've argued in the past, it's irrational to confine "atheist issues" to a narrow range of church-state legal disputes. 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.

Image credit: One Thousand Needles

Study: Unattractive people far overestimate their looks

The finding is remarkably similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes how incompetent people tend to overestimate their own competency.

Sex & Relationships
  • Recent studies asked participants to rate the attractiveness of themselves and other participants, who were strangers.
  • The studies kept yielding the same finding: unattractive people overestimate their attractiveness, while attractive people underrate their looks.
  • Why this happens is unclear, but it doesn't seem to be due to a general inability to judge attractiveness.
Keep reading Show less

Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

Protecting space stations from deadly space debris

Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.

  • NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
  • To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.

Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel:

Personal Growth

Meet the worm with a jaw of metal

Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.