Atheismplus continues to be a problem for the atheist community (such as it is). It’s easy to pour scorn, there are many opportunities to do so, but serious problems deserve a more serious response as well. Given past experience with A+ and their ‘sort’ in other arenas (games and fiction) is is incredibly hard to keep my temper when discussing this subject – but I’ll try. Given that we’re often told one can be both emotional and rational at the same time by the Plussers that shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
New Atheism was a godsend (ha, ha). Open, loud, take-no-bullshit it united and created a whole new generation of vocal atheists and was led by some great minds with some real skill. Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens gave us a profile and vocal, intellectual presence we hadn’t really had since Sagan. We lost Hitchens but the rest continue to do good work (yes, even Dawkins). New Atheism united us and aggressively took on the status quo, not least of all with mockery and derision. While this may not directly win any deconverts it does have a positive effect, despite being ‘mean’, in that it pops the bubble of respect that religion – with its ridiculous ideas – commands.
What’s the problem: To be an atheist, even a new atheist, all you have to do is not believe in god and, perhaps, to believe in separation of church and state. To be an Atheism+ person you must be an atheist, a feminist (for a rather narrow and specific definition of feminism), must adhere to particular views, language and modes of expression when it comes to sexuality, gender and many social issues. It narrows it down and down and down to a particular orthodoxy many of the ideas of which aren’t particularly scientific. Many of these ideas might be accepted within ‘gender studies’ etc but they’re not well supported. Fail to sign up to any of this and you’re out of the club.
Confusing & Parochial
Any specialist area of study, including large parts of atheism and skepticism, develop specialist language that can get confusing. Acronyms, arguments etc can be impossible for outsiders to understand without explanation. Most people aren’t going to know (without googling) what terms like ‘interpolation’ or ‘burden of proof’ mean. The scientific meaning of theory is very specific and not the same as the colloquial meaning. If we start tossing around terms like ‘argumentum ad hominem’ when the apologists set in we may have to explain ourselves, not that the apologist is likely to believe us even when we do. Just look how often we have to explain what evolution actually means or that no, we didn’t come from modern monkeys. This stuff is hard and we take the time to teach others about it – and quite right too.
What’s the problem: The ‘plus’ part of A+ is, pretty much, made up of a rather parochial, insular subculture centred around an extreme form of ‘liberalism’ (in the American sense) that seems to meet the worst stereotypes of the equally loony extreme conservatives. The language of gender studies groups and ‘social justice’ (I use scare quotes because I don’t think it qualifies) is very specialised and just like a lot of atheist/skeptic/philosophy terms isn’t known to outsiders. Unlike atheism Vs theism where we explain and link at length there seems to be a steadfast and absolute refusal to explain the specialist terminology, ideas and principles found in the ideas that they adhere to. It’s ‘not their job to educate’ and any requirement for clarification or explanation – or any objection – is likely to get you a singularly unhelpful link to ‘derailing for dummies’ or ‘finally feminism’. The second of which is only a tiny amount more helpful than the first since it doesn’t really back up what it claims, just defines it. Further, they’re cutting themselves off from the cut and thrust of debate through over-moderated fora, BlockBot etc. Creating a dangerous echo chamber.
A Gift to our Enemies
There are all sorts of damaging claims made about atheists and they’re all complete bollocks. Attempts to conflate atheism with evolution (and confusion over what evolution is), or Nazism or Communism. Claims that all atheists are ‘libtards’ or socialists (I’m a left anarchist as it happens, but there’s plenty of us that aren’t). There are constant attempts to make atheism more than what it is; the simple rejection of the claim that god/s exist. Yes, it’s true that atheists tend to be from an educated middle class, tend to be left wing and so on, but that’s by no means the whole story.
What’s the problem?: Atheismplus meets the stereotype that our enemies use against us and creates a solid bloc of social and political orthodoxy that plays into the idea that atheists are all abortion happy hippies, homosexuals, lefties etc. There’s nothing wrong with any of this of course, but diversity gives us a much stronger message. The other part of this is that Atheismplus spends all its time attacking its own people – fellow atheists – trying to act as a ‘moral majority’ and tearing down those who should be their allies. They’re far more interested – it seems – in trying to police conventions, fling around flimsy accusations, shame their fellows in the broader atheism movement and find anything and everything to cause drama about, often to the expense of the sorts of issues that should have primacy to atheists.
A problem with the internet in general, other than vanishing down the rabbit hole of Youtube or Wikipedia, is that anything and everything you say can be cherrypicked and lives forever. Lose your temper? Misspell something? Poorly judge your words in a throwaway tweet? You’re fucked. It is incredibly easy to make you look bad or to come back months or years later, dig up one ill-timed or phrased comment and use it to fuck you over. Social media especially combines the immediacy of conversation with the permanency of writing. The practical upshot of all this is that it is very, very easy to make people look bad or take their comments the wrong way, deliberately or not.
What’s the Problem?: It is very, very, very easy to make spurious accusations online and they proliferate far faster than the truth. A reputation can be deep-sixed in hours and can’t be fully rebuilt – if at all – for years. The veracity of the accusations has nothing to do with it and Chinese whispers (or Telephone if you think of that as racially insensitive) can turn even a fairly innocuous slander into something far worse in short order. Atheismplus are rather free with their accusations and finger pointing. Accusations of rape and sexual misconduct directed at various prominent figures without anything to back them up are perhaps the most egregious example – especially lately – but accusations of ‘rape apologism’ are also common, thoroughly insulting and any defence or anger towards the claim is taken as support for it! Bonkers! No minds are being changed, people are just being pissed off and set against Atheismplus as a whole.
In an ideal world, especially with us all being atheists and skeptics, each and every claim should be taken independently and assessed on its evidence. This is one of the few areas where historical methodology differs from scientific methodology in that in history you are always mindful of considering the source. While this does come in with today’s atmosphere of corporate sponsored studies with predetermined findings it’s much more of a social and historical issues. Still, things aren’t ideal or perfect and people’s individual and group reputations do come into it.
What’s the Problem?: ‘Elevatorgate’ was the incident that kicked everything off, that led to Atheismplus and everything else that’s happened. This is amazing given that it was an ‘incident’ in which absolutely nothing meaningful or concerning happened. Things haven’t really improved much since then. The insult a certain fragment of the community took at the arched eyebrows and ‘Really?’ comments from the larger body of atheism seems to have fed on itself more and more and the idea that Elevatorgate was a problem has been added to with any number of other ‘incidents’ that are considered equally inconsequential by the larger group. Atheismplus and its allies have cried wolf about minor issues so often that it has become incredibly difficult to take any of their drama seriously or even to believe many of their claims. The accusations against Shermer would – in normal circumstances – deserve to be taken seriously (and taken through the proper authorities). In the climate Atheismplus has created there is an established reason to be skeptical.
There’s a line (or rather, a section) in Diamond Age about how hypocrisy isn’t the big sin it’s made out to be. For a person to be a hypocrite they must be at least trying to do the right thing, it’s just that they’ve failed in some way. Nonetheless, if hypocritical behaviour becomes common enough I think it is valid to point out the hypocrisy.
What’s the Problem?: For a group whose (vaguely) stated goals include tolerance, safety and inclusion of women and minorities in atheism Atheismplus is a total failure. Attempts to interfere with harassment policies and promoting the (unevidenced) idea that atheist meetings are hotbeds of sexual exploitation have slashed female attendance at events like TAM which were practically on 50/50 parity. Rather than trying to invest in the future of the movement or seek the best and most effective speakers there’s an insistence on the basis of gender rather than expertise. Not that there aren’t good speakers of all genders but when you pass over expert male speakers to include sub-par ones with axes to grind rather than progress to make that’s an issue. There’s also something peculiar in claiming to be atheists and skeptics while suspending skepticism when it comes to certain claims – like the highly questionable 1-in-4 rape statistic or broader concepts like patriarchy and rape culture. Skepticism or demands for evidence in these arenas is treated as hostility. Base hypocrisy.
The Issue With BlockBot
On the face of it something like the BlockBot on Twitter seems like a good idea. A combined list of trolls and abusers that you can sign up to to autoblock them. This should work like Adblock or anti-spam software and should make Twitter a better experience for everyone. Unfortunately, it’s under the control of Atheismplus and, thus, takes a role that is much more like an electronic commissar than a tool to improve your internet experience.
What’s the problem?: There seems to be some confusion on Atheismplus’ part as to why BlockBot pisses people off so much or is attacked as a constriction on free speech. The more advanced levels, the abusers, spammers, doxxers (though that’s a bit subjective these days) aren’t the problem. It’s the lower level. Having your unsubstantiated beliefs challenged or mocked can be annoying, but it’s no less valid for that. It’s this level that turns BlockBot from a potentially useful internet tool to an ideological enforcer, shielding Atheismplus ideologiues from criticism. Even worse, those who sign up to it are never going to have the opportunity to make up their own minds about it. An additional problem was (may still be) the spam reporting aspect, which would feed into an algorithm to suspend accounts, which absolutely and unquestionably was/is an attempt to constrict free expression and one that obnoxious theists (Sacerdotus for example) have engaged in. It also has the eternal problem that bedevils any attempt to enforce rules on the internet, at least some of the moderators are fucking arseholes who shouldn’t be trusted to boil water, let alone run this.
Is there Room for Discussion?
The best thing for all considered may be for Atheismplus to just bugger off, go its own way and to stop messing around with the broader atheist community. Get their own conventions, have their own areas, be left completely alone and leave everyone else alone. This seems unlikely to happen though and does run the risk of leaving Atheismplus to become an even deeper and more extreme echo chamber than it already is. Something we all, as atheists, should be very alert and aware to – the danger of cults and the kind of extremism that emerges in echo chambers.
For a group so dead set against abuse, Atheismplus is remarkably abusive, dropping accusations of rape apologism and some form of sexism, racism or other – even to the point of tiptoeing around criticising Islam or at least giving Dawkins an earful over criticising it. They are willing to dish it out but can’t take even the mildest form of criticism. So long as this continues and so long as more reasoned critics – including myself (on a good day) have no capability to argue and discuss with them there’ll be no progress and no middle ground.
I suspect, sadly, there is no middle ground for Atheismplus and that’s the problem, they’re extremists and they’re extremists on issues that aren’t – yet – resolved via science. Attempts to reach out and find some sort of discussion, to make reasoned critique just get rebuffed. So why try?
Orthodoxy seems more important to them than truth, or progress, or skepticism, or atheism.