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

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The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

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"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.