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Be Scofield, Greta Christina, and New Atheist racism

By Frederick Sparks

Given that I may have talked to more atheists and religious people of color than even Be Scofield, I thought it appropriate to add my two cents.

I’ve observed a few the written exchanges between Scofield and Greta Christina and agree with the assessment that he is either sloppy or downright dishonest in his characterizations of what she says.  And Greta of all people least deserves to be a target of criticism on the issue of diversity and the “atheist movement.”

Scofield quotes from Sikivu Hutchinson’s critique of the New Atheists blind spot with respect to social justice issues, and the interplay between African American religiosity and these issues of social justice. Yet if he bothered to read the rest of the book besides the passages criticizing new atheism, he’d see that Hutchinson hardly argues for walling off god belief and African-American religious institutions from criticism. Her critique is aimed at presenting atheism/secularism to African-Americans in a way that makes it relevant because it addresses issues of racial and economic inequality. Specifically she states:

“Those seeking to forge the same kind of community resonance and interpersonal connections as faith-based institutions (without the element of fear, superstition, profiteering and exploitative charismatic leadership)have a long uphill but winnable battle….Humanist community based organizations can provide…social welfare resources that have traditionally been delivered with supernatural strings attached by faith-based organizations.”

In referring to Dr King and the civil rights movement, Scofield also falls into the trap of “the Civil Rights Movement, Brought To You By Black Church”…a bit of historical revisionism that ignores, as professor Anthony Pinn points out, the secular philosophical influences, and that King himself complained that most the black churches were not involved and were not supportive. When Scofield, in a follow-up comment says “Imagine if much of the passion and fire that characterizes much of the New Atheist community could be directed towards the racial, class and patriarchal oppression that believers experience rather than their beliefs about God or heaven”, he appears ignorant of the degree to which specific beliefs about God or heaven reinforce racial, class, heterosexist and patriarchal oppression. When he speaks approvingly of the work of the Metro Community Church with respect to AIDS, he misses the other side of the coin, in which the black church virtually ignored the AIDS crisis unfolding in its own choir pews.  African Americans are most likely to believe in literal interpretations of the Bible; this phenomenon buttresses homophobic and sexist dynamics within the black religious community.  The beliefs are therefore not separate from the social justice issues, they are part and parcel, and challenging them is most definitely relevant.
Yes African Americans have to some degree adapted religious institutions to positive purposes. At the same time,  the $65 million West Angeles Church of God in Christ monstrosity on Crenshaw Boulevard has hardly brought $65 million worth of improvement to the lives of the residents of South Los Angeles.  The presence of churches on every corner in black communities certainly hasn’t done much to cure the social ills. And this phenomenon, and the beliefs that undergird it, are most definitely appropriate targets of criticism.

When the Scofields and Karen Armstrongs of the world talk about how the new atheists just aren’t aware of the liberal, tolerant, sativa smoking, feminist, genderqueer god concept, my response is “I don’t believe in that motherfucker, either.” She’s just as poorly evidenced as the old fashioned patriarchal god. She’s also not the predominant god concept impacting the African American community.

I don’t see an either or proposition between advocating for rational thought, where beliefs are based on evidence, and confronting issues of social justice. The idea that black people should be left alone in their clinging to Jesus due to their history of oppression smacks of just as much paternalism as what Scofield accuses the white new atheists of here.

Comments

  1. SallyStrange (Bigger on the Inside), Spawn of Cthulhu says

    A lot of the criticism of Scofield’s piece dealt with the fact that he’s not capable of dealing with the epistemic critique of religion, which is irrelevant to whether it’s condescending and imperialist to level blunt critiques of religion at religion PoC. Not many of them mentioned that Scofield was dealing with an essentially incomplete picture of how religion affects and operates in communities of color. I’ll definitely be linking this around.

  2. F says

    Are you sure it’s not just that a bunch of old white dudes told you what you were allowed to think? Atheists didn’t destroy your culture because you didn’t have enough faith in your religion?

    No, really, thanks for that article. I appreciate hearing your thoughts on the matter.

  3. says

    Yessss.

    And about “the trap of “the Civil Rights Movement, Brought To You By Black Church”” and what it leaves out, there’s also the fact that plenty of civil rights activists disliked the dominance of the church and wanted a more secular movement. That was part of the rivalry between the SCLC and SNCC. You’d never know that from reading Be Scofield.

  4. says

    When the Scofields and Karen Armstrongs of the world talk about how the new atheists just aren’t aware of the liberal, tolerant, sativa smoking, feminist, genderqueer god concept, my response is “I don’t believe in that motherfucker, either.” She’s just as poorly evidenced as the old fashioned patriarchal god. She’s also not the predominant god concept impacting the African American community.

    Beautiful.

  5. John Horstman says

    When Scofield, in a follow-up comment says “Imagine if much of the passion and fire that characterizes much of the New Atheist community could be directed towards the racial, class and patriarchal oppression that believers experience rather than their beliefs about God or heaven”, he appears ignorant of the degree to which specific beliefs about God or heaven reinforce racial, class, heterosexist and patriarchal oppression.

    He also appears ignorant of the fact that atheists engaging in activism opposing race, gender, sexuality, economic, and hegemonic oppression IS ALREADY SOMETHING THAT’S FUCKING HAPPENING. There is a LOT of crossover between feminist activism, anti-racist activism, socialist activism (really, social-justice activism generally), and secular activism for exactly the reasons Sparks states: extant systems of oppression are frequently justified in terms of and supported by hierarchical religious institutions. Sure, we have plenty of atheists running around with all sorts of unexamined privilege, and any number of assholes who actively support systems of privilege and marginalization (and we’re actively challenging them), but it’s also the case that the way churches frequently support these systems is a contributing factor to people leaving them and joining skeptic communities, and all of these people bring their other social justice concerns with them. Scofield needs to stop debating straw persons and actually engage with the real positions being put forward by the people in question.

    • Vicki says

      In response to that comment, I suggested to Scofield that he try imagining that all the energy he was and others spend attacking atheists be directed instead to fighting racial, class, and patriarchal oppression. (I got snarky and did as minimal a cut-and-replace on his own comment as possible, though I deleted “believers” because I don’t think the oppression of racial, sexist, or class oppression of believers is more important than the same oppression directed against nonbelievers.)

      He didn’t answer, or if so, it was days and scores of comments later.

      It’s annoying enough when someone says “stop criticizing X and help me fix Y.” It’s worse when they are telling me to stop criticizing X and go fix Y, when they’re too bust meta-criticizing to be fixing Y themselves. Criticizing New Atheists isn’t anti-racist, anti-sexist, or anti-classist work any more than watching a sporting event or doing needlepoint are. There’s nothing wrong with sports or needlepoint, but that doesn’t justify someone sitting there on the couch in front of the Super Bowl with their knitting needles and criticizing me because I’m not out marching while they watch television.

  6. Strider says

    “When the Scofields and Karen Armstrongs of the world talk about how the new atheists just aren’t aware of the liberal, tolerant, sativa smoking, feminist, genderqueer god concept, my response is “I don’t believe in that motherfucker, either.” She’s just as poorly evidenced as the old fashioned patriarchal god. She’s also not the predominant god concept impacting the African American community.”

    Excellent. Interesting parallel between the above and how biblical scholars criticize New Atheists for addressing a cartoonish version of god, and not their scholarly version, while not recognizing the majority of believers believe in the former.

    Still waiting on that podcast.

  7. says

    “I don’t see an either or proposition between advocating for rational thought, where beliefs are based on evidence, and confronting issues of social justice. The idea that black people should be left alone in their clinging to Jesus due to their history of oppression smacks of just as much paternalism as what Scofield accuses the white new atheists of here.”

    Here, here. Among secular Latinos we have to deal with similar BS but in cultural terms. Catholicism (or if you want to be ecumenical, Christianity) is part of our identity…nevermind that it is an imposed one.

  8. Stan Brooks says

    Thanks so much for an insightful and well thought out response to the paternalism, and, I might add, racism, of Scofield’s attack on “new” atheists and Greta Christina in particular.

    On a side note I’m happy to discover yet another articulate writer in the atheist blogoshpere.

  9. KG says

    I went to Scofield’s piece to add a comment referring people here, but I see Rieux has already done so.

    This is a fine piece of writing, I should add!

  10. says

    Nice one.

    I’ve not commented here before, but let me say it’s not just this article. I’ve enjoyed reading this blog since it came to FtB. The perspective is very unusual to me (white middle-aged middle-class Australian), so I’ve been learning a lot.

    By the way, thelatinone refers to the dominance of Catholicism for their culture, and in Europe there’s a strong tendency to ‘cultural catholicism’ – basically, keeping the traditions without the superstitions. A lot of Australians also treat religion as for special occasions only – hatches, matches and dispatches. And holidays, of course. We like our holidays. Is there any movement towards that kind of thing in the US black community?

  11. catnip67 says

    Given how religion is often used as a tool for maintaining oppression, I wonder how much the “black churches” contribute to the continued oppression of their own constituents. If it is so, then the fight to remove the influence of those churches may well be akin to fighting the oppression directly. May even be more effective, “teach a (person) to fish…”
    May even be necessary.

    • fredericksparks says

      “I wonder how much the “black churches” contribute to the continued oppression of their own constituents. ” I definitely suggest reading Sikivu Hutchinson’s ENTIRE book for an answer to that question.

  12. truthspeaker says

    The presence of churches on every corner in black communities certainly hasn’t done much to cure the social ills. And this phenomenon, and the beliefs that undergird it, are most definitely appropriate targets of criticism.

    That’s because most churches don’t treat social ills, they thrive on them. They’re like a crooked chiropractor who makes your back feel better just long enough for you to want to come back next week.

    I don’t see an either or proposition between advocating for rational thought, where beliefs are based on evidence, and confronting issues of social justice. The idea that black people should be left alone in their clinging to Jesus due to their history of oppression smacks of just as much paternalism as what Scofield accuses the white new atheists of here.

    I thought so too, and I’m glad someone else read it that way.

  13. Brownian says

    Well said, Frederick.

    In the conversation on Ophelia Benson’s blog, Be tried to pull a fast one by quote-mining (title-mining, actually) a piece by Greta Christina. I see he tried to do the same with Sikivu Hutchinson.

    I’m not sure at this point whether he’s a dilettante or malicious. My bet is on the latter, and that he cares so little for us Gnus that he has no problem lying to our faces when he knows the truth is a Google search away.

  14. says

    Outstanding!

    Scofield is a dirtbag, and to me is almost flirting with racism with this sort of attack. Scofield went over to B&W, but ignored the point being made that religion justified and fueled slavery and racism among white people, and acted as social control for the victims of slavery and racism. It is like someone beating you up and then selling you aspirin: religion is the cause of suffering, and then claims to provide relief from the suffering that it causes.

  15. piero says

    First, congratulations on the article. A first-class piece.

    Second, I was less than impressed by this:

    “Imagine if much of the passion and fire that characterizes much of the New Atheist community could be directed towards the racial, class and patriarchal oppression that believers experience rather than their beliefs about God or heaven”

    We could also direct our energies to healthcare, for that matter, and I’m sure some of us do. But as atheists, we are concerned primarily with exposing the myths of religion, and the curtailment of freedom it entails. It does not mean we are indifferent to everything else, just that we cannot pick every fight simultaneously. Keeping up with the threats posed by Christian and Muslim fanatics is already a full-time job.

    • says

      If you want the atheist/skeptic movement to represent more than white middle-class straight cis men, Piero, you have an interest in making it more welcoming to people who are not white middle-class straight cis men.

      Or, you know, you can keep on whining about how all of that is just a “side issue,” and then whine about how all those superstitious and irrational women, PoC, etc. won’t listen to you.

      • Konradius says

        First of all, please see that the text piero was criticizing was from BS*, not from Frederick. This text is a standard ‘shut up’ tactic and it’s wrong no matter who tries to shut up whom with what.
        Piero’s counter was valid, although the last line is unfortunate. Atheism is not a full-time job. Not only can it be combined with other types of activism, I think such combinations improve the activism and atheism both.

        * yes I’m using that abbreviation because it’s not just for Be Scofield.

  16. Matt says

    Y’all don’t criticize Be too much… Just read his article and it is not great (as I am an atheist) But he is my cousin, so be respectful to him

  17. No One says

    “I don’t believe in that motherfucker, either.”

    Underline “that”… then I want the T shirt, the cap, and the side of the bus. And a coffee mug. I wouldda loved to hear Hitchens quote that one during a debate.

  18. Tezcatlipoca says

    I’m glad I got a chance to read this post. It would be nice if people read beyond the first four words in, “I have a dream.” Letters From A Birmingham Jail is a good place to start.

  19. says

    To me, Scofield’s take seems extremely warped. Imagine for a moment, the following scenario:

    A young child* is kidnapped and brought to the house of a rich man and forced into domestic labour. The work is hard, the man pitiless, and there are countless injuries done to the child both physically and emotionally. Now, the man has a wife who sometimes looks after the child, and sometimes cheers the man on. They’ve acted in concert, but because her intermittent care is the only positive attention the child ever receives, xe becomes attached to her, rarely considers that she is as much a party to the kidnapping and slavery that xe endures as the man is. She makes the captivity slightly more bearable than it otherwise would be and that’s sufficient to engender a bond. Then one day the man dies and the child, who is now an adult, can finally be free. But instead, xe stays with the woman, supports her and lauds her and finds hir identity in the woman. There is no longer any overt, visible torture, but is that enough? There’s still enough emotional torture and intellectual suppression to go around.

    Scofield’s argument is that the once-child should be left alone in the house of oppression and that to critcise the woman and to try to get her away not just from this person, but from everyone, is racist and unjust? How twisted.

    Now, it may be privileged, but that’s one good that can come from privilege: using it to fight against injustice and oppression. Freedom from abuse is a human value, not a white value.


    *in my analogy, I use a child only to serve as a reference to the relative power balance

    • F says

      Ah. Because the woman is needed to support the once-child’s identity. That’s a good reason we shouldn’t examine too deeply, right? No, don’t think about it, that woman is part of hir identity now. Don’t mess with that, it’s cruel to the once-child, and now your doing what the man once did.

      I think you have a decent analogy there.

  20. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden Molly Ivins says

    This.

    So. Much. This.

    I get so tired of people telling us that we need to love god because the MCC or the NBC or reform Judaism or the Nation of Islam (as if!) helped me/us out the jam created because poor, gay, black, or, y’know, poorgayblack.

    I’m not saying that these organizations didn’t help me or people I love (though NoI: I’m still dubious of you), but I can love a room full of people who actually did the work without losing all critical thinking or forgetting that the concept of god helped create that very same jam.

    Anyway, loved this. Keep it coming.

  21. says

    Thanks very much for writing this. I made a related point in the thread at Butterflies and Wheels about how Be Scofield’s argument (and the argument from the comfort of religion in general) ignore the harm done by religion and the people who were hurt and instead focus only on the people with experiences of being helped by religion.

    It is important to point out and address the topic of discrimination within secular groups (as well as in society in general) but Scofield’s article did so in the wrong way. I thought it was insulting towards anyone who’s a part of a minority group and has been hurt by religion, telling them/us that we should only be upset about discrimination we face due to other factors and feel we’ve been helped by religion, even if religion was used as part of supporting that discrimination, similar to what you said.

    I really have to read Hutchinson’s book soon. I’ve heard good things about it.

  22. says

    The charge of “racism” and “disrespect for ‘those people’s’ cultural norms” is a standard reactionary response to just about ANY criticism of an unjust status quo. The Catholic Church embarked on a concerted campaign to portray contraception as “racist.” Really?! Giving people the ability to control whether they get pregnant or not is “racist?” So says the great German protector of traditional indigenous culture from the superior vantage point of Rome.

    I’ve even heard the same critique from Southern nationalists: waging war to abolish slavery was bad because it totally destroyed Negro culture and forced the descendants of freed slaves into Yankee ghettoes.

    Be Scofield is just another reactionary accusing others of what he himself is guilty of.

    • says

      Raging Bee:

      The Catholic Church embarked on a concerted campaign to portray contraception as “racist.”

      This framing is nothing new. At least 20 years ago, I watched a talk-show discussion about reproductive rights that included Faye Wattleton and some right-wing douchebag… either Pat Buchanan or Bob Dornan, I forget which.

      The RWDB made noises about how, by making contraception more widely available in poor countries, we were “sticking our white faces where they don’t belong.” Wattleton got a round of applause from the audience when she said, “Well, Mr. [last name], my face isn’t white.”

  23. Irene Delse says

    As other said, great job, Frederick! And thanks for an enlightening take on this situation.

    I can’t fathom how Be Scofield could be oblivious enough to quote the black atheist Sikivu Hutchinson in a attempt to defend the oh-so-very-special link between religion and non-white minorities. It does take a special kind of chutzpah!

    • says

      You claim, in this piece, that you’ve “never stated or even suggested that African American religion or religion at large should be walled off or shielded from criticism.” This appears to be contradicted by the text of your original article, in a number of places. All quotes from that piece.

      “Given the widespread findings due to the varieties of religious expressions how would you summarize them into one neat conclusion? The simple answer is that you can’t.” Is this not suggesting that “religion at large should be walled off or shielded from criticism”?

      “The broad and sweeping attacks against “religion” by the New Atheists do little to advance any sort of helpful conversation about what communities or people really need.” Is this not stating that “religion at large” should be “shielded” from such “broad and sweeping attacks”? Is that not a suggestion that religion not be criticized in this way?

      “When I hear someone advocating the conversion of believers into atheism without any sort of qualifications or context it concerns me.” Apparently you “heard” this through some means other than reading the actual blog posts where Greta Christina made the statements you quote, since those posts do (as numerous people have pointed out) contain many “qualifications” and “context”. Is not this sort of deceitful and deceptive mis-reading (and lack of citation) a way to “wall off” or “shield” “religion at large” “from criticism”?

      (also posted at the reply on Tikkun)

  24. pf says

    I’m really happy to see some eloquent, well thought out posts by the people being talked ABOUT.

    There’s nothing more condescending than talking about any group of people, without first asking their own opinions, and including these people in your discussion. You need to START with that, if you want to have any hope of really understanding them, and not have them write you off as yet one more condescending asshole.

    Thanks a lot for being awesome, Frederick.

    Also, I want to second the suggestion of reading more words than “I have a dream” by MLK. He’s one of the best writers I’ve ever read, and an inspiration for anyone who gives a damn about equal rights.

  25. blackskeptics says

    “When he speaks approvingly of the work of the Metro Community Church with respect to AIDS, he misses the other side of the coin, in which the black church virtually ignored the AIDS crisis unfolding in its own choir pews. African Americans are most likely to believe in literal interpretations of the Bible; this phenomenon buttresses homophobic and sexist dynamics within the black religious community. The beliefs are therefore not separate from the social justice issues, they are part and parcel, and challenging them is most definitely relevant.”

    Well said. Hypermasculinist and hetero-normative traditions in AA communities have exacerbated the destructiveness of racist/classist health care policies that deny communities of color equitable access to preventive HIV/AIDS and STD education. STD contraction amongst young teenaged AA women has reached crisis proportions, yet these very same young people are steeped in a swaggeringly religious culture that tells them that racial liberation is all about propping up men and male dignity, facilitating black male access to patriarchal power and privilege, and keeping “homos” closeted.

  26. says

    When the Scofields and Karen Armstrongs of the world talk about how the new atheists just aren’t aware of the liberal, tolerant, sativa smoking, feminist, genderqueer god concept, my response is “I don’t believe in that motherfucker, either.”

    I DO believe in that motherfucker, and so do a lot of my friends; but most of us are still stuck with the harm done by very powerful religious institutions that don’t.

  27. ik says

    Not to mention that I’d like to see him tell an engineering school to stop forcing white concepts of physics and computer science on people.

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