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atheism plus comes to town, perhaps

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The other day I attended my first local atheist meetup here in Adelaide for quite some time. Not that I was particularly avoiding them, they’ve just been clashing with other commitments, but it turned out to be an interesting time to return, because it was posted that we might like to have a semi-formal discussion on the ‘atheism plus’ push which is causing a bit of a stir on Free Thought Blogs and elsewhere, and if and how we want to incorporate it.

Controversy! Flying Sparks! Noses out of joint! Death threats! Trolls! Witches! Indifference!

In other words I wasn’t at all sure what to expect. What I did find pleasantly surprising was that the topic got a reasonably good airing and the group came to a more or less loose consensus about behaviour at meet-ups, in order to maintain the sorts of standards that might be expected at club meetings, gabfests and the like. That’s to say, no blatant sexism, racism, intimidation or offensive behaviour, with the convenor, presumably after consultation with the respective parties, or having witnessed the abuse, making an executive decision about behaviour having crossed the line sufficiently far as to require intervention, such as politely but firmly asking the offender to desist, or to leave, or even imposing a ban. Doubtless none of this is particularly binding or enforceable, but it’s only a pub meet-up group after all, Amazing tho’ our Meetings might be.

All of this is certainly Good Progressive Stuff, and it might open up an avenue of complaint for some who have avoided meetings because of one or two blowhards who’ve behaved offensively in the past, but does it put as all in the Atheism+ camp? In other words, is Atheism+ anything more than a movement to encourage or impose civility?

This issue was discussed at the meeting, as were the origins of this movement, or proto-movement; the experiences of Jen McCreight, the elevator affair [not so much a storm in an elevator as a storm outside one], the Dawkins response, and harrassment in general, with a variety of views expressed and criticised. Also discussed was the general issue of the way men treat women, and vice versa. I detected plenty of underlying tensions between some males and some females [for the record, though I can’t recall all the conversation, I can say with some certainty that seven males and two females spoke up on this issue, which is almost more revealing than what was said], with the ‘males don’t have an easy time of it either’ line featuring heavily.

We’d just about reached a positive conclusion on the matter, despite the slightly grumbling note of one or two men, when a late male arrival was asked his opinion of the whole A+ thing. He announced to us all that he considered feminism ‘a travesty’, a remark obviously intended to create a splash. A moment later, he added ‘I mean academic feminism’. Needless to say, academic feminism, and whatever reaction one might have to it, was not at issue at the meeting. What was at issue was civility, particularly between men and women, and the creation of an atmosphere that would make everyone, but particularly women, comfortable and enthusiastic and willing to go on attending and contributing – especially given that the group, like most atheist meet-up groups – was dominated by males. To arrive late to a meetup in which he knew that Atheism+ was to be discussed [the same individual had earlier posted a response to the convenor’s announcement about the topic, which clearly mocked the whole thing], thus indicating his lack of interest, and then to state, as his first contribution to the meetup, that feminism is a travesty, was clearly a deliberate provocation, and it had the obviously desired effect of upsetting at least one of the female minority attending, who was passionately concerned to raise the issues around A+, civility and inclusiveness, precisely because she’d been avoiding meetups in which these kinds of arrogant and bombastic statements were being aired.

There are a few lessons to be drawn from this. First, that it only takes one or two insensitive males, or one or two insensitive comments, to spoil a whole evening, or even a whole movement, for those who feel targeted by them. We should all be aware of this, as we all remember the nasty comments directed at us more clearly than a thousand compliments. Second, it’s very important not to let those comments go unchallenged, as silence will feel like assent to those who feel offended by them.

And to describe feminism as a travesty is offensive. I felt personally affronted, and I’m only a male, but a male who grew up in the seventies, at the height of second-wave feminism, with its vital historical perspective on patriarchy’s distortion of female value. It profoundly influenced my intellectual development, and still does. Of course I didn’t agree with all feminist discourse, just as I disagreed with some of the discourse on black power that was prevalent at that time, but I fully agreed with the prime thrust of both these movements, equality. Equality of opportunity, equality of treatment, equality of power. How could anyone object to that?

It seems to me that a job of empowerment, in gender terms, still needs to be done within the atheist community, if we’re to call ourselves a community. That might need more than just civility, but it’s a damn good place to start.

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Written by stewart henderson

September 7, 2012 at 10:05 pm

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