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On A+, with a comment about Richard Carrier’s intemperance

by Massimo Pigliucci Story Source August 29, 2012

The buzz is on: the third wave of atheism is on the march. It’s called A+, and it has a nice logo to go with it. A+ is the brainchild of Jen McCreight, a liberal blogger and “perverted feminist” (her words) who writes for Freethought Blogs, and rose to fame initially for her very funny “boobquake” stunt a couple of years ago.

Jen is concerned about issues that have worried me for some time too, particularly the fact that the atheist community seems to me to be rife with misogyny and very little concern for social issues (not even when it comes to the freedom of speech of other atheists, see the abysmally embarrassing failure of the petition on behalf of Alexander Aan).

As a reaction, Jen has proposed a new type of atheism, a third wave after the “intellectual and academic” beginnings and the confrontational “New Atheism.” She proposes an atheism concerned with social issues, where the light of reason and critical scrutiny is directed not just at debunking creationists but also to illuminating questions of injustice about gender, ethnicity and the like.

Here is Jen’s summary of the programmatic points for A+, in a follow up to her original post (see also endorsements by Greta Christina and Nelson Jones):

We are…

Atheists plus we care about social justice,

Atheists plus we support women’s rights,

Atheists plus we protest racism,

Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,

Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.

Perfect, I’m on board. But (you knew this was coming, yes?) I do have a couple of observations (before I get to Richard Carrier, as the title promises). One is historical in nature, the other philosophical.

Historically, what Jen, Greta and others are looking for already exists. It’s called secular humanism, and it has had (and continues to have) a huge impact on precisely the issues listed above. How huge? Well, just to cite an example, the UN Declaration of Human Rights is a quintessential humanist document, which has influenced international relations since its adoption in 1948.

Secular humanism has a long history, depending on how exactly one defines the concept, and it includes a series of Humanist Manifestos (the first one of which was published in 1933, the last one in 2003) that address precisely the sort of issues that A+ is concerned with, and then some.

So, my first point isn’t a critique of A+ as much as a reminder that, well, some of us (secular humanists) have been doing that sort of thing for almost a century (not I personally, I’m not that old...).

My second point is more philosophical in nature: I am skeptical that something like A+ can get off the ground — as much as I support its aims — for the simple reason that atheism is not a philosophy, and we should stop pretending that it is.

When atheists are concerned that their position is perceived as being only negative, without any positive message, they shouldn’t really be worried, but should rather bite the bullet: a-theism simply means that one lacks a belief in god(s), and for excellent reasons. It is akin to a-unicornism, the lack of a belief in unicorns. That lack of belief doesn’t come with any positive position because none is logically connected to it.

It is a similar situation for skeptics, who also often suffer being labeled as nay sayers without a positive message. If you are skeptical of, say, homeopathy, you don’t need a positive message qua skeptic: your job is to debunk the irrational and explain why that particular notion doesn’t make any sense (and may cost money and lives). End of story.

Now, skepticism does have a positive counterpart: it’s called science. If you wish to redirect former believers in homeopathy onto a better path to health you send them to a medical doctor who uses science-based medicine. This, however, does not require the skeptic herself to be a medical doctor (nor to play one on tv), it just requires that the skeptic be aware of the relevant literature and community of expertise.

So, what is the equivalent positive counterpart to atheism? Philosophy, obviously. But things get a bit more complicated than in the case of the skepticism-science relationship because different atheists may endorse different positive philosophies. Those like Jen and myself adopt a progressive liberal approach to social issues, i.e. we become secular humanists. But other atheists choose libertarianism, or Objectivism (yeah, don’t ask me why). And let’s not forget that — as much as we usually don’t acknowledge it — there are likely plenty of straightforward conservatives who are also atheists. This variety shouldn’t at all be puzzling, because atheism is not a social or political philosophy in its own right, it is a simple metaphysical or epistemic statement about the non existence of a particular type of postulated entity.

Despite my reservations, I wish Jen and the others the best of luck with A+. As Jen put it, “I want to improve the atheist movement, not create a splinter faction or something. But it’s fabulous marketing-wise and as a way to identify yourself as a progressive atheist.” Count me in, I am a progressive atheist; otherwise known as a secular humanist.

And now to Richard Carrier. He too immediately endorsed A+ over at Freethought Blogs, but his language was so unnecessarily harsh that I almost called up my priest to ask him for some lessons on Catholic tolerance throughout the centuries (ok, that’s not actually true). I have had occasional epistolary encounters with Carrier, and they have left a seriously bad taste in my mouth. His intemperance with people who happen to disagree — even marginally — with his position is nauseating (just ask the editor of Skeptical Inquirer, who occasionally receives and promptly refuses to publish Richard’s letters about my columns).

Here are some excerpts from Carrier’s post about A+, just to give you a taste:

“There is a new atheism brewing, and it’s the rift we need, to cut free the dead weight so we can kick the C.H.U.D.’s back into the sewers and finally disown them, once and for all.”

“Anyone who makes a fallacious argument and, when shown that they have, does not admit it, is not one of us, and is to be marginalized and kicked out, as not part of our movement, and not anyone we any longer wish to deal with.”

“I do not think it is in our interests any longer to cooperate in silence with irrational people, when it is irrationality that is the fundamental root cause of all human evil. Anyone who disagrees with that is simply not someone we can work with.”

“We cannot hold our tongue and not continue to denounce their irrationality in any other sphere, because to do so would be to become a traitor to our own values.”

“This does not mean we can’t be angry or mean or harsh, when it is for the overall good (as when we mock or vilify the town neonazi); ridiculing the ridiculous is often in fact a moral obligation, and insults are appropriate when they are genuinely appropriate.”

“And if you are complicit in that, or don’t even see what’s wrong with it, or worse, plan to engage in Christian-style apologetics for it, defending it with the same bullshit fallacies and tactics the Christians use to defend their own immorality or that of their fictional god, then I don’t want anything to do with you. You are despicable. You are an awful person. You disgust me. You are not my people.”

It keeps going like this for quite a bit, but I think you get the point (if you don’t, uhm, we may have a problem, but I will not tell you that you are fucking evil, nor will I throw you out of my club — particularly because I don’t have one).

And here is the kicker: shortly after Carrier posted his rant, Jen McCreight herself tweeted the following:

“Finally had time 2 read Richard Carrier's #atheismplus piece. His language was unnecessarily harsh, divisive & ableist. Doesn't represent A+.”

I guess the new movement has already excommunicated someone, and that happens to be its most viciously vocal supporter so far.

p.s. Ron Lindsey of CFI just published a commentary on A+ where he its most of my points, albeit phrased differently.