Much has been said in recent weeks following the unveiling of Atheism+, a form of social idealism enshrined in the philosophical precept of Atheism with its claws firmly wrapped around political philosophy. It is this uneasy marriage of the philosophy of Atheism with the apparent political philosophy of Atheism that has so far been met with appreciation but also bemusement and perplexity by both fellow Atheists and those engaged in mainstream politics.
Firstly I completely condone the fundamental principles behind Atheism+ but this is not a surprise as most people believe that equality is a good thing. The problem is that not everyone has the same notion of equality in mind. However the question of whether we require the philosophical perspective of Atheism to be converted into a political philosophy is only pipped by the question of what this would entail?
On the surface one may be tempted to think that Atheism+, or Political Atheism as I would like to call it, is about advancing the philosophical argument in the mainstream political domain that there is no God. Although political parties with a monolithic message rarely become successful (Even the NRA in the U.S. has the good sense to stick with lobbying and not form a political party) this seems reasonable enough and people have the liberty and will to pursue such philosophical views in the political, social and economic domain.
Indeed the very essence of political debate is about people presenting ideological remedies whilst others present counter arguments and offer alternatives. For example some would like to see Government expenditure reduced in the economy, others would like the age of sexual consent increased or decreased and so on; and then after the PR soaking and the somewhat perverted marketing forms of message manipulation we let the masses decide.
Yet as a European Atheist I argue that the political message of "There is no God" has no salient or determining argument in the political realm. "There is no God" so what? What impact does this have on rational and pragmatic political debate? Murder, rape and theft is still illegal, I can use contraception, women can have abortions, I don't have to swear on the bible or go to confession but more importantly if you want to then that is also fine. It would be tempting and easy to identify that this is what Atheism+ is and then highlight its pointless aim in the political world.
What is more problematic is that the above does not appear to be the central message of Atheism+. Atheism+ seeks to challenge and assert social equality, in terms of race and sex. However these are already in the political domain and require no attention from additional political movements, in this case Atheism+.
Equality and Liberty is the goal of all parties whether Conservative, Liberal or Socialist. The profound difference is that not all parties mean the same conceptual element when they talk about "equality" and "equality of opportunity". Thus I welcome any movement including Atheism + that advocates these principles.
However I'm afraid that without a clear and concise definitive use of the terms proposed Atheism+ runs the severe risk of clouding the issues instead of clarifying them - and perhaps in this sense it truly is a political movement! Nonetheless with good intentions, Atheism+ has pushed itself into a strange corner. Why would feminism, racial, social and sexual equality be synonymous with Atheism? And if this is the case what do proponents of Atheism+ think Feminists and left wing political movements have been advocating all this time?
The current Democratic Party in the U.S engrosses an inclusive and progressive political programme that includes the poor and minorities yet the party is still full of Theists. The former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is also an openly religious man. Under Blair, the British Labour Party made significant changes to welfare distribution and social inclusiveness.
Therefore on the other end of the scale it is easily arguable that equality, in terms of class, race and gender is still very much achievable under a Theistic framework. It is often overlooked that Modern political rights enjoyed by contemporary Democratic citizens come from religious Philosophers such as John Locke who established the equal natural rights of every human under God. Today we propose that all humans possess basic rights we've just removed the specified condition regarding God. It is hopefully clear to all that we do not require an Atheist movement to obtain equality.
However Atheism+ then faces problems at the other end of the political scale; namely that Atheistic considerations should be on the Political agenda. Political Philosophy, in its most crude and basic form, is about the role of the State, the rights of the citizens and whether we require distributive financial and tax programs at a certain level. In modern Democratic societies one is free to pursue a life that is applicable to the law of the land. The most fundamental restrictions encapsulate murder, rape and theft. Ironically, it should not be missed by Atheists that they are free to endorse a belief system that explicitly rejects Theism in the first place. To propose that we need an Atheistic or Theistic political movement is to miss the point of Modern political debate. The advocating of Theism or Atheism should not be in the political agenda. In Europe it very rarely is.
This is no more apparent than when Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair's media spin doctor, once famously responded to a reporter when asked about Blair's religious views saying "Sorry, we don't do God". It seems that we Brits are even prudish when it comes to discussing God. In the UK and Europe the humanist and Skeptic movement does not launch it's polices into the political domain because it is not required. Europe appears to have a highly sought after form of Humanism that is independent of both Theism and Atheism.
The majority of European constitutions and the United States of America deliberately specify the separation between Church and State; that is that religious world views should not be taken into political account when forming legislation. It is why in European Catholic countries contraception and abortion is legal and we do not criminally punish adulterers. In fact this mindset is so apparently clear and casual in Europe that Ed Miliband, the current Labour Party Leader, openly claims to be an Atheist and that furthermore this should not affect public policy and opinions about him in a diverse society. I find it very hard to believe that the current squabble regarding Fiscal deficit in the United Kingdom could somehow be impeached by one's religious views. Pragmatism should outweigh Meta philosophical theory. Unfortunately this is not always the case.
In the United States the debate regarding the Government debt ceiling is rarely penetrated by religious talk so what is that made certain American Atheists propose the need for Atheism+. Why is it that we find a desperate necessity to endorse a politically branded type of Atheism in the mainstream political arena within the context of American Politics? There are two reasons. Primarily, branches of the Republican Party do advocate religious views in the political arena, often giving precedence to Christian Orthodoxy over scientific argument. We see this in terms of the religious grounding of political and social arguments that encompass stem cell research, same sex relationships, abortion and even distributive welfare programmes.
Moreover because of the conjoining of Religion with politics, certain aspects of American Political Philosophy then attempts to unite Religious values with political ideals such as Justice, equality, happiness and morality. Unfortunately it is because of the latter that I believe Atheism+ has sprung to life because in America some still believe that an individual or a conglomerate society cannot be moral without God. For these two reasons it is not surprising that Atheism+ has arisen in America and nowhere else thus far. One of its purposes is to combat the charge of Religious doctrines littering American political discourse and take the Philosophy of Atheism itself into a social and political format that incorporates morality and equality, illustrating that to achieve the latter one does not need to be a Theist. Consequently a driving factor behind the appearance of this Atheistic political programme is the presence and visibility of Theism in the public political debate.
From this perspective alone Atheism+ is both understandable and justified within the context of American politics. However turning the philosophical movement of Atheism into the political movement of Atheism+ has two problems in it which can land branches of the Atheist+ movement in an exquisite tub of Hot water. Firstly with good and justified intentions behind Atheism+, its proponents at this stage can unfortunately be perceived as obnoxious and arrogant because they run the risk of sending out the political message that somehow without Atheism+ sexism, racism and inequality are doomed to continue.
This is massively insulting to both the political center and the left who perceive themselves as progressive and moderate; and are already dealing with the said issues in hand. Furthermore in this context Atheism+ is liable to become an obnoxious mirror equivalent of the Religious movement who state that morality is not possible without God. Unfortunately Atheism+ may be seen to argue that racial and gender equality is not possible unless it is proposed as an Atheistic and non religious format. The second problem that arises threatens divisions among fellow Atheists.
This is because it may be perceived as saying that under traditional Atheism there is no social equality or that political morality is not a current concern when Authors such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens have made explicit arguments regarding Atheism and social morality in the past. By producing an argumentative framework stating that Atheism needs to become socially, racially and sexually inclusive, and further endorse these features, implies that somehow at the moment it is not.
Along with this the Atheist+ movement faces complex social issues that can be contradictory inert to the Atheistic movement - thus potentially lacking wide social appeal; or issues that are broader than Atheism and thus potentially negating the need for the movement to have anything "Atheistic" about it). For example by seeking to overcome the white, male, middle class entrenchment of current Atheism is in itself a desired goal that makes Atheism, as either a political or philosophical movement, more inclusive and representative of society as a whole.
However the problem that is the prominence of white middle class men is hardly a problem unique to Atheism. Look around, white middle class men rule the world! So much so that often the only way some of the disenfranchised can explain this phenomena to themselves and their peers is by proposing conspiratorial secret societies when the real cause is a warped concoction of historical, economic, racial and sexual bias that is in the extremely early stages of being filtered out by society.
Social change tends to be incremental not radical and if the Atheist+ movement wants to tackle the problem of race, class and gender equality they run the double edged sword of focusing on an issue that goes beyond Atheism itself (a widespread global issue) thus neglecting the need for social and racial equality to have anything associated with Atheism; or conversely that they are only focused on equality in the Atheist movement. The latter runs the risk of being construed as a sectarian interest - that the Atheist+ movement are only interested in equality within their own movement and not across society. The problem of the hypocrite counterpoised with the self interested sectarian is not a comfortable philosophical or political position to be in. Therefore when considering the question of whether we require a politicised form of Atheism we must primarily note if and how Atheism+ is different from current Atheism and what it can offer society that no other political philosophy can. For these reasons I believe that at this stage it is more fruitful for Atheism to stay as a Philosophical movement rather than embark on a large scale political movement but it will be the unstable American political Landscape that will have the last say.
Follow Tony Sobrado on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TonySobrado