I’ve been wanting to write about Atheism+ since Jen McCreight’s initial salvo, but how could I do the “Third Wave” justice while sitting in my car in the Caffe Tazza parking lot looking for an affordable rental in the overpriced tourist trap that Taos, NM has become? At last I’m sitting on an actual chair with a roof over my head, my son’s off to school, and I’m caught up on my homework. And, at last I have Internet (piggybacked Wifi, sure, but hey, it works).
At last I can catch a breath, and now I’ll use that breath to express all those mixed reactions and interrupted thoughts that have been piling up over the last few weeks.
My initial response to Atheism+ was, as I wrote in Jen’s comment pit, “Dig it.” I think I’ve been Atheism+ all along. After all, atheism is not a philosophy. By itself atheism is more of a cosmology kinda like deism, the “absentee landlord” theory of creation — only minus the landlord. For that reason atheism isn’t philosophically fulfilling. There is no ethos implied in the simple statement, “I don’t have any religious beliefs,” and yet I do have a moral sense. I’m vocally anti-sexist, anti-racist and anti-homophobic. I’m also anti-anti-Semitic and anti-Islamophobic. In short, my ethics are informed by modern progressive political considerations, and in real life these positions very often trump the (to me obvious, even banal) cosmological fact that there ain’t no gods.
Consider the following dilemma (true story). My sweetie Amanda and I are sitting down late to dinner with a few of my liberal Christian not-in-laws and their Methodist minister. They waited for a while, but finally gave up and said grace without us, which was the whole point of being late. Jeff, my uncle-not-in-law, is wearing a gigantic cross and my aunt-not-in-law Jill has a cross and religious message on her t-shirt. Jeff in particular likes to seem pious, and god gets plenty of lip-service from that side of the table. The minister seems embarrassed when he’s not distracted, and Amanda and I simply ignore Jeff’s blather, as usual, and talk to each other.
We dine for a while and then I notice Amanda’s glass is empty, and so is mine; so I grab our glasses and head toward the kitchen. In that “joking” redneck tone that has always raised my hackles, Jeff loudly proclaims, “Joseph you can’t keep doing things like that. My wife’s going to get ideas!”
My jaw hits the floor. Amanda looks nervous — no doubt wondering what I’ll say (I have a habit of publicly hurting bigot’s feelings). Meanwhile my mind’s a-whir: should I let this snidely sexist statement slide for the sake of social harmony? Or should I call this douche-bag out in front of the one person on earth he respects (his minister)? I’m just standing in the doorway to the kitchen, glasses in hand, staring at his great stupid jowls and jeering smirk. Poor Jill hangs her head, quite literally, in shame. Even the minister was shaking his head.
As I stood there, I parsed his jackass comment like this: first I noted that Jeff didn’t call Jill “Jill”. He called her “my wife,” and that’s one reason Amanda and I aren’t married. I don’t ever want to diminish her identity by referring to her as an object that belongs to me. I don’t want anyone else to mistake her for a person who fits the role of “wife”, and I don’t want people to assume that I fit the role of “husband.” We don’t. At all. We like it this way and fully expect that we’ll still be in this monogamous relationship when be both leave this mortal coil for dirt and worms because we love each other to death, not because a social contract binds us to “love and obey” or some other horseshit.
(Sidebar. There’s only a couple reasons we’d get married: (a) to celebrate the legalization of same-sex marriage, or (b) so Amanda can get citizenship if we move to Canada, where I have dual citizenship.)
Next, or maybe at the same time, I parsed out the implication that men shouldn’t serve women because women will get “ideas.” Really?!? What fucking century was I in, and in what fucking country? (In the back of my mind I answered, “21st century Missouri”.) Of course, Jeff’s tone said he was “joking,” but my rural upbringing on the Colorado-Wyoming border informed me that this was the exact same “joking” tone that racists use to dog-whistle. If I would risk a fist-fight calling out ‘real’ cowboys in the land that gave birth to Matthew Shepherd’s murderers, why wouldn’t I risk a family meltdown calling out this pathetic goat-roper?
All these thoughts ran through my mind in a fraction of a second, followed by a litany of what I imagined would be withering come-backs. I’m sure none of them were — when sideswiped by bigots, I don’t bother trying to be clever. I usually go for the jugular, crudely and dismissively. It takes less time and really really pisses bigots off.
But at that moment I looked at Amanda, uncertain and out of my element. This was her family, and they were all staring at me. Only Amanda knew the dilemma I was in. The pause turned awkward, Amanda gave me an imperceptible head-shake — and at last, weakly, I said, “I think Jill already has enough ideas for both of you,” and quickly turned to finish my errand. Jill laughed and Jeff emitted some sort of faked chuckle… no doubt at his own cleverness, not my lame response. Nobody else said a word and by the time I came back to the table, as if against my own will, the conversation had turned elsewhere.
Now to the point of this little tale.
All the god-talk and the minister and the crosses were easy for me to ignore. Nobody was implying that Amanda and I were hell-bound because we skipped grace. But Jeff did in fact imply that women should have a subordinate role to men in relationships. That pissed me off. That, I could not ignore. In any other situation, the douche would’ve gotten an earful of “never speak again” laced with profanities, but instead he got an ineffectual witticism. He won that round, and it still bugs me.
Later, after dinner, hiding in grandpa’s old shop out back of the farmhouse, Amanda and I talked about Jeff’s comment and his sexism in general. She was glad I didn’t ruin dinner to moralize, but shared the impulse. “He’s said a lot worse, before, when no men were around,” she told me. Apparently that was Jeff on his best behavior. Normally he’s a flat-out misogynist.
What Jeff is not is a hypocrite. His ethical system subordinates women to men as a matter of course and supernatural order — it’s all over in the Bible, OT and NT, alpha to omega. Ours does no such thing. Our ethos holds equality of the sexes as a central moral tenet that brooks no compromise.
How does this ethical norm relate to our respective atheism? We came to the conclusion that gods don’t exist by independent roads, and discuss it only rarely. Neither one of us likes theological discourse, so why would we navel-gaze about a-theology? The nonexistence of gods has very little to do with our respective moral sensibilities, whereas the belief that God exists and inculcates biblical moral values has everything to do with Jeff’s misogyny.
Amanda’s old boss on the other hand — an older liberal woman at a university library — was a hypocrite. Amanda had to threaten to quit in order to get the same raise her male coworkers didn’t even ask for. It wasn’t because she’s an atheist that she received less wages. It was because she’s a woman.
Here’s the crux of the matter (pun intended). Buried right here is why all the atheist detractors of Atheism+ haven’t got a leg to stand on. We expect true-believers to be bigots because their ethical system is bigoted. Progressives and self-identified secular humanists claim an ethical system that eschews such bigoted so-called ‘morals’, but too often it’s all lip-service. What Atheism+ does is say, “Secular humanism ain’t good enough, and liberals need to grow an ethical spine or be called out.” Atheism+ also acknowledges that we strong (and militant) atheists have got that spine. We’re forced to defend our cosmology using reason, and to do so with backbone.
We have the practice. We’re equipped to be defenders. Now can we please use our spines to stand up for issues that really matter? As atheists, god doesn’t matter one lick to Amanda and I. That’s the point of being an atheist. Equality of the sexes, equality of races — equality, justice, liberty for real people — these things matter. Bigotry hurts people, unlike gods. And unlike our godbelieving fellow progressives, we atheists are used to calling bullshit “bullshit.”
In short: if not us, then who? If not now, then when?