I find the most compelling arguments are those that cause me to think, that move me beyond ‘my usual’, and beg for further dialogue. Moral Combat: Black Atheists, gender Politics, and the Values Wars by Sikivu Hutchinson does just that; it took me to a place of agreement, discovery, connection, and debate. It is refreshing to have a writer and scholar affirm, as I too believe, that social justice and morality is not solely the domain of religious institutions. Hutchinson makes no pretense of ‘holding your hand’ in her discussion of the state of religiosity and secular options. What she does is clearly, astutely and sharply presents her arguments. In this exercise of bringing the black feminist atheist humanist experience to the fore, she draws on extensive data which includes interviews, surveys, classic and contemporary literature, and personal experience to address black secularism.
Normally shuttled to the back of the American consciousness, Hutchinson locates secularism within the rich legacy of African American secular theorists and social justice activism from the antebellum period to the present. She speaks of and to her communities about her fieldwork and daily walk and work in these communities to present an alternative to the dominant religious belief system. Hutchinson reflexively presents her myriad identities and adds flesh to them, locating them among a growing community of black, feminist, secular humanist atheist, social justice activists’. She also shows the interconnectedness of this community with her other selves that of a native Angeleno and life resident of South Los Angeles, mother and wife, public school advocate and educator.
Underscoring black feminist atheist humanism as a viable alternative to existing religious institutions, Hutchinson holds to task the history of Universalist thought, both religious and secular, which dominates an American landscape in need of real social, economic and moral reform, especially in urban black centers in desperate need of moral social justice thought and action. Hutchinson traces institutionalized religious belief structures and the crisis of social equity for African Americans and people of color within existing beliefs of morality in the Universalist and Eurocentric traditions. Specifically, the complex histories of a liberating yet limited moral force in the black community, black organized religion. Though I find myself wanting to deliberate the historic and contemporary relevance of the religious experience for many Americans, thus not reducing the religious experience to an antiquated, supernatural irrelevance, Hutchinson’s charge that dominant religious systems not be the sole model of morality and that secular thought broaden the spectrum of ‘how to be’ in life is spot on. The Universalist thread is broached again in her revealing discussion of the relative invisibility of black humanists, atheists and women within the Secular Atheist and Humanist movements. White privilege couched in ethically challenged scientific reasoning also known as “scientism” and the Universalist assertion—placing New Atheism beyond race and class analyses—frames the social justice platform of many black humanists and atheists that considers poor and communities of color as unnecessary rhetoric.
Integrating theory and practice, Hutchinson’s alternative to this crisis of humanity, especially for people of color and women, is the implementation of a secular humanist social justice agenda to address the economic and social invisibility prevalent in poor and communities of color across America.
Here’s to complicating American communities and their stories.
Kamela Heyward-Rotimi is an anthropologist engaged in work that bridges academia and community advocacy. A Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, her research looks at issues around race, political advocacy, science, and information technology. She is currently conducting research on the 419 advance fee fraud culture in Nigeria.