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Why Atheism+ Should Lead to Interfaith Dialogue

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A line has been drawn within the New Atheist movement. Frustrated with the historically white, male and elite atheist "Boys Club," a passionate collective of voices has rallied behind a new group calling themselves Atheism+. Feminist and atheist blogger Jen McCreight initiated this project with a post that detailed the rampant sexism in the atheist movement. She called for a "third wave" of atheism that takes seriously issues of race, class and gender, not unlike what happened in the feminist movement.

Not surprisingly, Atheism+ is causing quite a stir in the blogosphere. Supporters have turned the aggressive rhetoric usually reserved for religion against atheists who are resistant to this social justice emphasis. Others are raising critical questions about this new group. Will this split the atheist movement for good? Is this just a distraction from the real fight against religion? Who get's to decide what is and isn't Atheism+?

As a long time social justice advocate myself, I welcome this new development. I applaud all of those who have already laid out their visions and ideas about where this movement can go. There is, however one important question that has yet to be addressed. The answer to it could have profound ramifications for the future of atheism in all of its expressions. How will Atheism+ affect atheists' relationship to religion?

Putting Justice at the Center

Sikivu Hutchinson, atheist and author of "Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars," describes her work in creating dialogue between secularists and members of the Black Church as interfaith engagement. She also decries the privilege of simply being able to dismiss any need for secular/religious dialogue. In some communities interfaith communication must occur if justice issues are to be advanced. Hutchinson places this need for dialogue in context:

...analysis of 21st century black religiosity should be situated within the context of deepening social, political, and economic crisis. Faced with double digit unemployment and skyrocketing rates of homelessness, the American dream is even more of a brutal sham for African Americans. In the wake of Obama's election it is no accident that reactionary forces seek to dismantle what little remains of the American social welfare safety net. Indeed, the decades' long Religious Right backlash against civil rights, women's rights, and gay liberation is exemplified by the ascent of Tea Party-style white nationalism. Consequently, to paraphrase panelist Carol Pierce, the Black Church is still something of a "refuge" in a hyper-segregated nation.

Religious institutions at large are still prominent forces for transformation, healing, recovery and social justice. Of course, like any other system, whether academic, legal, political or otherwise they are also deeply flawed. However, there is no doubt that in most any religion there are long traditions of thinkers, leaders and theologians whom advocate for social justice. Many religious institutions provide "refuges" for solidarity and resistance amidst a racist and capitalist society. Also, some of the strongest voices against both religious and secular oppressions have come from religious thinkers themselves. Womanists, Mujeristas, feminists, post-colonial, black and liberation theologians and anti-racist theorists have written insightful critiques, analyses, interpretations and commentaries on social justice issues from religious perspectives. Anyone interested in advancing social justice cannot afford to dismiss these voices.

This fact may be a difficult one to swallow for the more hard-lined atheists in this new movement. One of their cherished traditions is dismissing religion at large with crude, simplistic and antagonistic language. Furthermore, many are staunchly opposed to any form of interfaith engagement.

Jen McCreight, the author of the blog post that led to the creation of the Atheism+ movement, held a sign at the Reason Rally that said, "Obama isn't trying to destroy religion....I am." PZ Myers is stridently against any sort of "interfaith nonsense" and thinks it could be profoundly problematic to the atheist movement. He ridicules Chris Stedman, an atheist on the forefront bridging these divides, as a "sappy interfaith wanker." In writing about his support for Atheism+ Adam Lee also echoes his critical views of religion: "we care about creating a world that's more just, more peaceful, more enlightened, and we see organized religion as standing in the way of this goal." Ophelia Benson warns that atheist engagement in interfaith groups makes faith "central," amounts to an endorsement and valorization of faith and gives the false impression that organizing with these groups is a useful, worthwhile strategy.

The tension between Hutchinson's open-minded and thoughtful approach to interfaith engagement and someone like PZ Myers' or McCreights' disdain for all things religion should be apparent. It's problematic for the most vocal proponents of Atheism+ and its social justice agenda to also be the quickest to either want to destroy or refuse to take seriously the "refuge" that religion can play. Yet, Hutchinson is one of the few prominent voices in the atheist community that has seriously been addressing social justice, which is now the central issue of the Atheism+ community. Can McCreight, Myers, Benson and others learn from this more reasoned approach to religion and interfaith engagement?

New Possibilities

In the name of social justice, those in the Atheism+ movement are willing to draw strong distinctions between themselves and atheists who aren't interested in supporting the cause. They have no problem in telling other atheists to take a hike. Will these same people be willing, in the name of social justice, to form new alliances, coalitions and networks with progressive religious organizations and people who are interested? Engage in interfaith dialogue? Explore the rich justice based traditions found within most any religious group? Soften the antagonistic rhetoric to advance the common good? Learn about the liberation based and prophetic teachings in religion and why they matter to people resisting injustice?

In conclusion, I'm not suggesting that those in the Atheism+ movement join a Church. Nor am I suggesting that every atheist in the movement silence all critique or become an expert in post-colonial feminist liberation theology. I'm merely pointing out that the growing Atheism+ movement has much more in common with the liberal, progressive and prophetic religious traditions that it'd like to admit (perhaps now even more in common than with regular atheists). If dismantling racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and other oppressions is the central organizing principle of this new movement they could certainly benefit from hearing how religion has played a positive role in peoples ability to resist them. Toning down their dismissive anti-religious rhetoric would certainly be a prerequisite for this new understanding.

Atheism+ is an exciting movement. I'm looking forward to seeing it grow and evolve. We can use this opportunity to bridge divided worlds, build interfaith coalitions and make social justice campaigns stronger. Imagine the Atheism+ movement and progressive religious groups united in solidarity against the real enemies: oppression, injustice and indifference!