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I remember quite distinctly that in Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, there was a section where he acknowledges the need for atheists to band into a cohesive movement. Such an undertaking could be likened to herding cats, he says, but at least, enough cats speaking out together should have a substantial effect. Exactly what we atheists hope to achieve as a group though, has always been a matter of debate, and the debate has been reinvigorated this past few weeks with the rise of Atheism Plus.
The question, as it has always been, is what should we atheists stand for? What causes should we adopt? There are causes that appeal to most atheists, of course. These would include the public understanding of atheism and anti-discrimination against atheists. The stance of secularism should also be common to us all. Once we get past this common ground though, what stance to include and not to include becomes a big question.
This was the question that seemed to have been posed to Jen McReight (pronounced “Mac-Right”) by the American atheist community. Her entrance to the atheist community was warm enough… at first. However, when she started blogging about feminist causes, she started getting violent reactions from her audience. Nasty labels and rape threats were a few things that she had to deal with, and it isn’t just her. Popular voices like Rebecca Watson and Greta Christina have been verbally attacked as well.
The Atheism Plus movement was started when McReight called for a movement within the atheist community where social justice issues (feminism, LGBT equality, racial equality, health care reform, etc.) can be put forth without fear of being harassed by other parts of the community. As she said in her call-to-action article:
“It’s time for a wave that cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime. We can criticize religion and irrational thinking just as unabashedly and just as publicly, but we need to stop exempting ourselves from that criticism.”
Plus and divide
As you can no doubt already see, the issue of Atheism Plus will be divisive to the atheist community. In fact, the proponents of the movement are aware of it, and welcome the division. However, who they want to be separated against must be clarified.
To me, the overarching issue is the conflict between three prominent sides. On one hand, there are atheists who are telling the atheist community that they should take up social justice causes because they believe that the proper application of reasoning that has led them to adopt atheism compels them to take action against these injustices. On the other hand, there are atheists that do not support one or more of these causes, and thus oppose the first group. On the third hand (because in this metaphor, you have three hands), you have people who strengthen the opposition by saying that the atheist community should just stick to its own issues (regardless of whether they personally support social justice causes or not).
Atheism Plus is the first side. However, as the author of Lousy Canuck in Freethoughtblogs, Jason Thibeault explains, they don’t want a divide between the two other sides. They don’t want to separate themselves from all atheists who don’t support social justice causes, or otherwise think that social justice causes shouldn’t be a stance of the atheist community. They want to draw the line against those who actively oppose social justice causes. In Thibeault’s words (paraphrased), Atheism Plus is a reaction to “scumbags, privilege defenders, misogynists, homophobes, bigots, people who hate social justice causes, and other miscreants”. They are more than welcome to coexist with the other atheists because those people are the ones they want to convince to join Atheism Plus.
Old ideas Plus new champions
It should be clarified of course that most of these social justice ideas have been intersecting with atheist writings for at least since the coming of the new atheist movement. The ideas aren’t new. Just as the religious circles seem to magnetize seemingly unrelated stances such as right to arms, pro-life (a misnomer, in my opinion), anti-contraception, and others, pro-social justice stances seem to thrive in the wake of the atheists’ spheres, as much as social justice-opposed atheists might not like it. What Atheism Plus does is it consolidates these social justice causes into one front, reaffirms them, and firmly separates itself from the opponents of these stances.
Viewed in this way, it seems to me that Atheism Plus is compatible with the actions of PATAS. I am given to understand that PATAS is already committed to take a stance against social issues where religion and superstition have had a negative impact on society. It has activities that support, among others, pro-LGBT rights and the RH Bill. PATAS, in theory, should only be a pro-atheism and agnosticism. In practice, however, it seems to pick up the standards of some social justice causes.
It also helps that PATAS is not the “old boy’s club” which Jessica McReight and female American atheists have to deal with. We might have probably less than 25% of our membership being female, but verbal sexual harassment and other serious offenses would be unthinkable in the PATAS environment (to my knowledge). We certainly don’t have “privileged, rich, straight, white men” running our org, as many of our leaders are members of the LGBT, are female, or short on cash (aren’t we all?).
A future in PATAS Plus?
Before we collectively adopt head-first the idea that PATAS is definitely pro-Atheism Plus and that we might as well call ourselves PATAS Plus, we must examine closer whether PATAS really does fit the bill of an Atheist Plus organization, because it seems to me that we aren’t prepared to take social justice causes all the way. In some issues, our lack of action is understandable. The Filipino people are, by and large, a racially homogenous population and so we don’t have to deal with racism that much (we resort to other forms of ethnic bigotry). In others though, we are simply not prepared as a group to make a concerted stance about a certain social issue. Nobody who has been to more than three meet-ups in PATAS Manila would imagine that we have a consensus support for feminism. The legalization of abortion is also something which we do not all agree upon. If we do not support these social justice causes, can we still call ourselves an Atheist Plus organization? Certainly it would be different from the Atheism Plus of McReight and company, who fully support feminism and are pro-choice in abortion.
Personally, I am all for the causes that Atheism Plus fights for. I support them. I am pro-choice, I support feminism and human rights causes. I am pro equality: for the LGBT, and racial and ethnic minorities. In the end though, I’m willing to let PATAS go at its own speed when it comes to social justice issues. I will call to have this issues supported, but I will not insist that the group take my stance. Why? I believe that Atheism Plus has the potential to be a big sub-movement of the new atheists, and that if it gains ground in the Philippines, then a new organization should be made to fill the niche. PATAS must first and foremost focus on atheist and agnostic issues, because if it narrows its goals, then it will no longer represent the interests of all atheists and agnostics. Somebody has to look out for the one redeeming quality of PATAS homophobes, misogynists, bigots, and douchebags: their rational view on the issue of the supernatural. God knows, there are enough of them already to need representation.