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Atheism’s Growing Pains

As the atheist movement matures and becomes more politically engaged, deep divisions are emerging -- that's not necessarily a bad thing


In the last decade, atheism in America has risen from a tiny, demonized fringe to a  serious presence in the public and political arenas. The latest polls show that almost 20 percent of Americans now identify as non-religious, and the atheist movement — a loose coalition of skeptical, rationalist and humanist groups — is making inroads everywhere from high school campuses to the halls of Congress. Last March, as many as 20,000 American nonbelievers braved cold and rain to gather on the National Mall for an event called the Reason Rally, with a lineup of prominent speakers that ran the gamut from student activists to elected officials.

As the atheist movement gains numbers and prominence, it’s inevitably been forced to confront questions about what it ultimately seeks to accomplish. Some in the movement favor a narrowly defined set of goals: defending the separation of church and state, keeping creationism out of science classes, protecting atheists from job discrimination and prejudice. But other atheists, while not opposing these goals, see things more broadly.  They note that the religious-right lawmakers who promote creationism and state-church entanglements are also rabidly opposed to equality or legal protection for LGBT people; try to ban abortion and contraception, or throw obstacles in the path of women seeking them; sermonize that  global warming must be a hoax because God wouldn’t let the planet change that much; advocate a social-Darwinian worldview where the rich have unlimited power and the poor get nothing but societal neglect and harsh repression.

And then, there’s a growing recognition that we have problems within our own community — a realization that atheists, like every other group of people, include sexual predators, bigots and defenders of privilege, and that giving up religion doesn’t necessarily erase these harmful attitudes. For example, at the Women in Secularism conference in February, it emerged during a panel discussion that there’s an informal network of atheist women who warn each other about which prominent atheist men to avoid.

All these debates had been simmering in the atheist community for months, but they boiled over a few weeks ago in response to  a post by Jen McCreight, a graduate student, secular activist and blogger in Seattle. Until then, she had been best known for “Boobquake,” a tongue-in-cheek response to an Iranian cleric who fulminated that “immodestly” dressed women cause earthquakes. Treating this as a scientific hypothesis, she invited women around the world to join her in wearing racy clothing for one day to measure precisely how much of God’s wrath it unleashed. At first it seemed like lighthearted fun in support of a good point, but she wrote that it had encouraged some men in the atheist community to view her as a sex object, rather than a person with ideas worth taking seriously:

What I originally envisioned as an empowering event about supporting women’s freedoms and calling out dangerous superstitious thinking devolved into “Show us your tits!” I received sexual invitations from strangers around the country. When I appeared or spoke at atheist events, there was always a flood of comments about my chest and appearance. I’ve been repeatedly told I can never speak out against people objectifying or sexually harassing me because a joke about my boobs was eternal “consent.”

McCreight announced that she was sick and tired of this treatment, and called for a movement to advocate for an explicitly social justice-oriented flavor of atheism. This call immediately drew an enormous, enthusiastic response: The ensuing discussion ran to almost a thousand comments, the overwhelming majority of which were highly positive and supportive. In the discussion, one commenter suggested a name for this new movement which rocketed to prominence: “ Atheism+,” pronounced “Atheism Plus,” or just “A+” for short.

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