Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Atheism Plus and Humanism

Given that this blog was conceived of as an "atheism plus" site (Atheism plus morality) broadly defined seven years ago (not six, as I had said last week), I find myself compelled to look at the arguments concerning its newer and much more popular iteration.

One of the issues in that debate centers around the proposition, "We already have a group concerned with moral issues: Humanism. Instead of promoting this new splinter group, join us in promoting Humanism."

In response, consider this analogy. A group of citizens in Sometown, Colorado get together to argue for a stop light at the corner of Elm and Fifth Street. Children routinely cross the street on their way to school, and there has been some serious accidents there. But somebody protests, "Don't create this separate group. Join the International Society of Traffic Management instead."

The problem us, the International Society of Traffic Management is far removed from their concerns.

This does not imply that the Internaional Society of Traffic Management is a poor organization or that it is defective in some way. Saying that a knife is a poor tool to use if one wants to pound in a nail is not to say that it is a bad knife. It only means that it makes a poor hammer.

Similarly, Humanism is designed as an umbrella organization that aims to include a number of secular organizations and philosophies. As such, it is a poorly designed tool to use when somebody has a specific concern that one wants to address.

In this case, the online atheist community is a community. Its founders, Atheism Plus are some if its leading citizens. Their concern - or one of their concerns - is with the betterment of their community. They want the town they live in to be one that is friendlier, more accepting, and less frightening and threatening, to themselves and others. In order to clean up their community they have created a community organization that will focus on those concerns. The community is "atheism". The concerns are "social justice".

The truth is that Atheism Plus is concerned with social justice outside of its community as well. In objecting to the mistreatment of particular types of people within the community, they are not saying that this behavior is permissible so long as it happens "someplace else". This type of behavior is to be condemned in all communities. However, the first and principle target is misbehavior within the atheist community.

Humanist organizations should be looking at this local effort and saying, "Here is yet another local organization interested in what we are seeking to promote. We should seek out its leaders and ask what kind of support we can give." An International Society of Traffic Management, if such a group existed, would offer itself as a resource to local groups wishing to petition for changes in local traffic management. They would not see the Sometown School Traffic Safety Committee as a hostile splinter group. They would see it as a subgroup potentially worthy of membership with a legitimate concern - and its first step should be to offer help in realizing that concern.

In the seven years that I have been writing this blog, I have looked at Humanism a number of times to determine if there is something there about which I can base a few posts. Do I agree with what it has to say? Or can I offer some criticisms?

What I found each time I looked at it is that it does not actually say very much. I find a lot of use of vague terms such as "rights" and "human flourishing" or "human values" that could mean just about anything to anybody. In fact, it is clear that this vagueness is a defining feature of Humanism. If it were ever to try to get specific on any of these issues, the immediate effect will be to alienate a subgroup that does not share those opinions or concerns.

Instead of writing about Humanism, I end up writing about one or more of the views under its umbrella that makes actual, specific, and substantive claims about right and wrong.

It is . . . odd . . . to hear Humanists complain about divisiveness when Humanism itself is divisive by definition. It's list of "included" people and organizations is everybody with a secular moral or political philosophy, while everybody with a sectarian moral or political philosophy is excluded. It takes one group of people and says, "You are fit for membership," and tells another group, "You are not." Yet, some of its members write as if dividing the world up into those it finds acceptable and those it does not is a crime against nature and humanity.

Furthermore, every other group that Humanism has brought under its umbrella is divisive in some sense or another. Every group is defined by who it lets in and who it keeps out. While there is reason to debate who deserves to be included and who to be excluded, the objection that excluding or including is wrong in itself seems to lack any kind of coherence.

For example, both Ayn Rand Objectivism and Marxism can call themselves "Humanist." They both are entirely secular moral and political ideologies - and that is all one needs to be Humanist. They both speak of respecting human rights, of promoting a flourishing human society in which people can find meaning and purpose. If Humanism had any substance to it, it could not accommodate both of these philosophies. It accommodates both of them by making no substantive claims itself.

That lack of substance makes it an excellent tool for collecting all secular moral and political philosophies under one roof.

However, it makes Humanism a very poor tool to use by any local group that has a specific interest or goal. Telling the founders of Atheism Plus that they should abandon their organization and advance their goals under the Humanism banner is like telling somebody to use a bread knife to pound in nails. It may be the best bread knife in the world, but it does a poor job of pounding in nails. To do that, you need a hammer.


Zachary Moore said...

"Atheism-Plus" is not conceived as a local organization. All indications are that it is becoming another umbrella group with no real ties to any local communities.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Zachary Moore

Well, by "community", I was speaking of the atheist community to which these people belong.

It is a community dominated by a certain set of individuals. It includes locations such as r/atheism at redit as well as people who regularly post in blog comments and discussion forums.

This is a set of people who interact regularly - both online and in person (particularly at conventions). If one looks at the speaker lists of several conventions one can see that it is usually another gathering of this community at a new location.

That is the community to which these people belong, and that is the community that they are seeking to make a better place for themselves and others like them.

Drew Hardies said...

The distinction between 'organization' and 'ideology' seems really important here.

And, it's not clear which of these A+ is intending to be.

If it's an organization, then critiques like, "Why not just join the American Humanist Association" are pretty easy to address using the arguments you put forward.

But, if it's an organization, then it's entirely fair to ask who is in charge and what the membership committee is going to look like.

If it's an ideology, then your comparisons to Humanism become fair. But I'm not sure how A+ actually answers any of the criticisms you've raised about specificity. The defining feature seems to be 'social justice'. But what philosophy sees itself as advocating for 'social injustice'?

My suspicion is that what's really meant is "Social justice, as interpreted by a list of people who are known now, but won't be published for some time."

And, if it's this, then we have less of an ideology and more of a term that can be used to condemn anyone who falls out of favor.

Emu Sam said...

Is it an organization, or an ideology, or a discussion, or a bunch of friends hanging out, or . . .

And what's wrong with condemning people you find to be morally deficient?

Emu Sam said...

I should probably answer my own question. What's wrong with condemning those you find morally deficient is when your findings are inaccurate or the condemnation creates punishments that are out of proportion to the moral action that actually took place.

Say you want to condemn Atheism Plus for being angry and expressing that anger. Great, fine, adds to the discussion. I might flinch away from the condemnation and wish I didn't have to hear it, but that's just evidence that condemnation is an effective tool. Say you express that condemnation in such a way that someone fears for their life. Now they might go to find a third party such as the police to see if their fear is justified, if the level of condemnation is out of proportion, and if maybe the police could keep a closer eye on that person.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Emu Sam

(The opinions expressed in this comment are not necessarily those of the author.)

Because it is divisive. Because it shrinks the size of the coalition of the willing. Because the enemy of my enemy is my friend. No matter how much I dislike him, the fact that he has agreed to work with me in fighting a common foe means that I must turn a blind eye to his transgressions.

Well, that's the argument.

My response is that somebody is making the wrong friends and forming the wrong alliances.

Though, ultimately, as you know . . . I certainly have nothing at all against using condemnation as a way of molding malleable desires.

AV said...

In your metaphor they are a local group who wants to put up a special traffic light. Not only in their town, but make everyone else to put up the same kind of light. If you don't agree they say "You want children to be run down!" If you say, trafic lights are good, but sometimes it's better with a roundabout, or a bridge or a viaduct, you are a "babykiller".

It's nothing wrong with care for social issues, but if you think your solutions are the best for everyone and brand those who disagree as scum, you are not helping society at all but the opposite.

Their inability to recognize others ideas are a turn down for me. Carriers idea of the movement was the fatal hit.

Emu Sam said...

I think the metaphor is getting confusing. Can you offer specifics of bridges, roundabouts, and viaducts that have been refused?

I'll go find Carrier's statements. I'm guessing it's the same post in which he apologized in the comments, agreeing that some of the criticism was accurate?

Anonymous said...

it's quite clear that atheism+ is divisive. they wish to be. it's also clear they are, at least in part, fueled by feminism. the problem is not really the former. it's the latter. there is a reason 'feminist' or 'gender' studies are not taken seriously by anyone outside of the devout--feminism is a discredited ideology--and it's discredited by its total lack of intellectual or academic rigor, and by it's blind subservience to 'patriarchy' and 'rape culture'--both of which are required of feminists, and both of which fail under the most cursory scrutiny

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Yes, it is quite clear that atheism plus is divisive. That's its purpose.

Condemnation of liars and thieves is also divisive. It says, "We are not going to accept these types of people in our community." The same applies to condemnation of child molesters, murderers, kidnappers and torturers. All of these social rules are divisive. They are supposed to be. They aim to separate good people from bad people.

The people who treat women and others in a denigrating and derogatory manner are going to be put on that list. The list was not invented just for them - the list has always existed. Others have been on the list. The proposal is that we add those who treat women in a denigrating and derogatory manner to the list.

It is not a valid objection to the proposal that there ought not to be a list, or that the list is divisive.

Another feature about every one of these wrongs is that we have no clear idea of where to draw the line - and different people have different ideas of where to draw them.

Take theft, for example. Some people say that taxation is theft - it involves taking another person's property by force. Others say that there is no such thing as theft - theft requires private property and private property ought not to exist. The fact that we have and will continue to have disagreements over where to draw the line is not, in itself, an argument against drawing the line.

So, moral claims are inherently divisive, and they are inherently prone to disputes over where to draw the line. These facts are not sufficient to argue that moral lines ought not to be drawn.

As for the problem with feminism and gender studies, that is a red herring. I have seen some of these comments. No amount of criticism of feminism or gender studies is going to yield the implication that these comments - and those who make them - do not deserve condemnation and contempt for their actions.

Please note that, here I am being disagreed with, while at the sme time I am NOT saying that those who disagree with me are scum. I do say that those who disagree with me are wrong - or, at least, I think they are wrong - unless they can give me reason to believe otherwise. Hopefully, that will not be interpreted as the same thing.

Emu Sam said...

Expression of praise for your comment.

. . . is actually good praise praiseworthy? Or rather, is poetically inept praise that clearly didn't make an effort worthy of condemnation?

Kircheis said...

I think the problem with your critique is that you haven't observed their behaviour very much.

I can help you,

Do read this:


and then this: http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2011/12/01/mencallmethings-pathetic-attention-seeker/

and after this:

and after this:

Don't forget the comment sections.

The behaviour that i hope you have observed by reading all of the above is almost everywhere in ftb & skepchick, that's the way they work.

When i read all of that i understood without a doubt that the core-group of ftb are simply not good people. That's why i don't want to joing their private "atheism+" club even if i agree with Jen's list.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I have looked through the postings that you have linked to.

I also noticed that you are talking about a different subject. While I am talking about principles - and the claim that it is perfectly legitimate for atheists to be interested in and to even focus on moral issues (as I do in this blog), you are interested in an evaluation of the people.

Thus, your conclusion, the core-group of ftb are simply not good people.

I have not had an opportunity to get to know them as people enough to confirm or dispute this statement. I do argue in favor of a presumption of innocence - but in this case I have not had either the time or, to be honest, the interest in testing that presumption.

I have offered criticism of some of their actions - but everybody is guilty of poor judgment from time to time. I have made a few mistakes - which tempers my ability to be too harsh on others when they make mistakes.

Yet, ultimately, I am in no position to judge these people. I am only in a position to judge the principles that have been put forward.

The principle that an atheist need not be concerned exclusively with atheism and should devote a certain amount of his time to moral concerns - to making the world a better place - is a principle that I am very much in favor of defending. Yes, I think that it is true. Yes, I think that criticism aimed at the proposition that an atheist should igore moral concerns for the purpose of "atheist unity" is to be rejected.

Kircheis said...

Hello Allonzo i apreciate your answer and i understand what you mean.

I judge people from their actions, and this case was just one example that showcased their overall typical behaviour about "people who dare to disagree with them". This behaviour is everywhere in ftb/skepchick, but it's not as easy to see as it is in that example that i showed you.

Also, if judging by what i had observed i thought that A+ was an idea based on the principles that they have put forward (like you say) i would agree with them, but i don't see it that way.

Kircheis said...

I see it as an extension of their "private club".

Explicit Atheist said...

My experience with Secular Humanists, which are a no- religion subset of humanists, is that they prefer to focus on contesting against the efforts of social conservatives to influence laws. Although many are atheists, some are not, and those that are atheists are often unwilling to criticize theism because they view liberal theists as their allies against social conservatives and possibly also because some consider theism to be good for society or they consider atheism to be outside the realm of what most people can properly understand.

The bottom line is that anyone who wants to criticize liberal theists or explain atheism or promote civic equality for atheists is going to have difficulties doing that under a humanism group banner.