What’s in a name? There are a slew of labels for nonbelievers, most of them not quite synonyms of each other with differing connotations and baggage attached. Some are driven primarily by the perceived need to avoid the word atheist, which is my preferred term and one that is rapidly gaining in popularity; for some reason people think “nontheist” is less objectionable, for example, and there was a notoriously abortive attempt to spread the label Brights as an alternative to atheists (actually that one’s not quite dead yet, but it’s very ill and liable to croak long before the corpse collector comes back next week).
There are freethinkers who primarily have a philosophical rejection of supernatural claims from authority, skeptics who insist on verifiable evidence, secular humanists who are primarily philanthropists but wish to be clear they’re not religiously motivated, apatheists who don’t believe but also don’t really care about any of the issues surrounding religion, and your classic dictionary atheist who just doesn’t believe in gods and that’s-it-thank-you-this-discussion-is-over. There’s a lot of overlap.
Pretty much all the component communities of this mélange (with the exception of the Brights) have been around since long before I was born, and are probably going to be around in their own right after I’m dead. There has also, however, been something of a sea change in the culture of atheism over the past couple of decades, called New Atheism (a term almost universally somewhat disliked by the people it refers to, but not strongly enough to cause decisive rejection of it).
New Atheism makes no apologies for itself, shows religion no undue respect (which given the long history of undue respect causes theists to reach for either smelling salts and fainting couches, or torches and pitchforks), and is extremely outspoken. For this reason, while all the names are welcome under the banner, the core constituency prefers to proudly reclaim the name ATHEIST (with, more often than not, a silent or not so silent “What about it?” on the end) rather than donning the less controversial terms.
I’m decidedly one of those New Atheists, often called ‘militant’ atheists (militant Muslims blow up marketplaces, militant Christians assassinate abortion providers, militant atheists say religious beliefs are nonsense right out loud). I’m proud to be an atheist, and I consider that reasonable since I got that way honestly by thinking things through rather than accept what I was told. I’ve been glad to see and help the New Atheism rise to a place where we can’t be ignored any longer by the religious majority.
Of course a community like that has to have values beyond simple dictionary atheism. One major issue that all but the apatheists agree is crucial to any atheist community is that of the separation of church and state. There are also secular theists of course, some of them very dedicated to that cause (the head of Americans United For Separation Of Church And State is a Christian, for example) but we atheists are essentially forced to it, as we know full well we won’t be tolerated in any theocracy.
There is a large contingent among the New Atheists, libertarians mostly, who stop right there; keep the government secular and that’s all they want politically. There is a larger set which wants that, certainly, but also wants the workings of government to be based on rational, pragmatic, results-based, scientific methodologies. Atheists generally, and certainly the New Atheists, tend to be very much fans of science and logic, and we almost universally detest the inefficiencies and harms wrought by dogma and blind custom.
There is another large component though, one I identify with, which share other values as well; these are primarily to do with equality, fairness, and autonomy for their own sakes. We see sexism, racism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, and similar prejudices as mortal enemies of rationality and empathy alike. We see them as actively harmful, ugly, and counterproductive to the goals of the kind of society we want to live in and raise our children in. We dislike unnecessary interference in our personal lives (but unlike the typical libertarian we are willing to give a little for the sake of our larger communities).
Now none of these have anything even remotely to do with atheism per se, or even the social movement New Atheism. You can be a sexist, racist, ageist, ableist, homophobic, douchebag and still be an atheist. Being a New Atheist only requires that you be militantly outspoken about your atheism, not that you apply skepticism and logic to social issues. A concern for rational public policy and for social justice is not required… but a *lot* of us want those things too.
Those are the people who like this idea of a fresh new wave, which we are calling A+ or atheism-plus, arising from New Atheism but not the same as it. Nor is it the same as secular humanism – secular humanists aren’t even necessarily atheist, neither “secular” nor “humanism” is specifically atheist. The plus is important, but so is the atheism.
All this is very much in the early stages – the term isn’t even a week old! Commenter Pteryxx coined it in Jen McCreight’s Blag Hag post How I Unwittingly Infiltrated the Boy’s Club & Why It’s Time for a New Wave of Atheism. However, there’s a palpable excitement in the discussions going on, especially (but not only by any means) in the redoubtable bastions of Freethoughtblogs, which makes sense since that’s been a center of controversy over whether this kind of inclusiveness should be a part of the atheist movement.
That disagreement has indeed been divisive, with people inside and outside atheism intoning about Deeeeep Riiiiiftsss in the atheist world. Most of the conversation has been about trying to paper over those rifts – they can’t be closed, not really. A+ is different, it is acceptance of those deep rifts, if they separate those of us who want this from those who bitterly oppose it. We can still work together on the parts we do agree on, as always, but now there’s a flag (or, as we’re talking about atheists here, a loose category of flags) for those of us who do want to both be militantly atheist and strongly involved in issues of social justice.
Count me on the A+ side of the rifts!