Norm Allen on Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars


Excerpted From QBR, Quarterly Black Book Review:

By Norm R. Allen Jr.

Sikivu Hutchinson’s superbly written and well-researched book stands out like a sore thumb among the books of “New Atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.  Hutchinson puts forth a bold analysis of the political and religious culture wars raging across the U.S.  She examines the Religious Right, scientism amongst white secular humanists, the need for social and economic justice, the ethical imperative to defend the rights of LGBTQ people, etc.  She does all of this from the perspective of a progressive African American feminist.

Today many White Christians are insisting that America is a Christian nation.  Indeed, Mitt Romney is meeting a great deal of resistance to his presidential campaign from conservative Christians that do not believe Mormonism is part of the Christian faith…However, Hutchinson maintains that race and Christianity have become inextricably linked among many White conservatives in the U.S.  She maintains that the contention that America is a Christian nation is tied to a belief in White supremacy and fear of the “Other.”  This analysis helps explain how the Tea Party used the notion of a Christian nation to foster the “birther idea,” and to maintain that Obama is a Muslim in Christian clothing.

Hutchinson does not simply critique conservative White Christians.  She also has strong words for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the atheist and Somali-born darling of the Religious Right.  Ali has been a strong critic of Islam.  However, she has been warmly embraced by the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute, she has a Eurocentric world view, and she romanticizes the West.  Perhaps worst of all, she greatly downplays sexism and homophobia in the Western world.  Hutchinson eloquently takes her to task for her shortsightedness.

Hutchinson does not shy away from critiquing womanist icons such as bell hooks.  She notes that many Black women such as hooks point to the book Corinthians as a major source of spiritual strength and empowerment.  However, Corinthians also contains passages defending patriarchy…thus the Bible presents women with a crippling paradox, when they would be better off rejecting dogma altogether.

The author discusses the effects that storefront churches have on the collective psyche and identity of African Americans.  She writes: For example, in North Lawndale Chicago’s ‘community of 1000 churches’ there has been much debate about whether the proliferation of storefront churches is harmful or helpful to the local economy…A 2009 Chicago Tribune article documented community dissatisfaction with which church congregations utilize tax exempt status to open churches in areas where there is little sustainable commercial development…This concern is added to the concern over whether these churches are destroying the tax base of these neighborhoods and preventing job development that might otherwise be attained by developing commercial enterprises.  Indeed, Hutchinson refers to an article in which the writer maintains that some storefront churches provide opposition to business development in their neighborhood because it could lead to increases in their rent…

Just as many White conservatives assert that America is a (White) Christian nation, others go farther and link God to small-town (White) America.  This is set up in opposition to urban (Black and Brown) America…During the 2008 presidential campaign, Sarah Palin frequently harped on the difference between the values of real Americans living in small towns and the bankrupt inauthentic values of urban Americans.

These code words have been crucial in mobilizing White conservatives to oppose Black candidates and stigmatize Black and Brown people.  Moreover, they have been used to identify liberals as ungodly and unlikely to look out for the interests of “real” Americans.

Moral Combat discusses much of the little-known story of Black atheists inside and outside organized atheism in the U.S. and deserves a place on the bookshelves of all atheists and readers interested in the past, present and future of Black people in the U.S.

Norm Allen is the editor of the groundbreaking book African American Humanism and The Black Humanist Experience: An Alternative to Religion.  He is currently writing a book entitled Secular, Successful and Black: 25 Profiles.  He is also the editor of the journal The Human Prospect published by the Institute for Science and Human Values.

Comments

  1. Sethra says

    Moral Combat is on my list of books to purchase. Hutchinson is amazing and I look forward to reading more of her work.

    • blackskeptics says

      Yeah, wonder why she isn’t a household name. Shocking. Most of this will be an education for them

  2. Lokleo says

    I just went straight to Amazon (in complete shame for not knowing bell hooks was a person).

    In case any of you are on the fence about buying it, this book is inexpensive for a non-fiction book, even cheaper for the Kindle version, and free to borrow from the Prime Lending library.

    Thanks for the intriguing review!

  3. Darryl Pickett says

    I met Sikivu Hutchinson at the CFI conference in Orlando, FL, and based on her talk, I immediately bought this book. It has been an eye-opener, and a much needed first step in helping me expand my understanding about issues I have no clue about. (And it’s true. I didn’t know who bell hooks is. Now I do, and I’ve got leads on SO many important people I need to find out more about.)

  4. fredericksparks says

    Yes, and whenever I get the reductionist question “why are black women so religious?” (from the black atheist set no less) I refer the questioner to this book.

  5. Matthew Justin says

    That review was great. I still haven’t purchased your book, Sikivu. It’s been on my list forever. (embarrassed face)

    I don’t care for FtB, although there are a few writers here like you whose posts I appreciate. The fact that a few of the commenters admitted to not knowing who bell hooks is, was disappointing, though also refreshing – given the honesty and humility in admitting ignorance of a topic (a trait I don’t come across frequently amongst atheists). To me, this speaks highly of the company you keep, or perhaps more so, for the quality of work you do which attracts people seriously open-minded and interested in social justice.

    I haven’t talked to Norm Allen in a couple years. The last interaction I had with him was sending him a message on Facebook referencing an article positing a possible explanation for the belief in conspiracy theories frequently found among black Americans:

    “The conspiracy theory is something Mos Def should know plenty about, for they abound in his realm of hip hop. Listen to a few rap albums and it won’t be long before you find an ‘interesting’ interpretation of history: the Jews’ role in black oppression, the CIA flooding the ‘hood’ with heroin, giving black people HIV, killing Tupac & Biggie, or George W. Bush being responsible for 9/11. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this wealth of crank theories happens to originate from people who’ve lived in some of the most isolated & impoverished communities in America.

    There are many different explanations for why conspiracy theories form and how they spread, but I think the most important cultural/political aspect is how they’re often reactions from peoples or communities who feel distanced from & distrustful of the establishment. If you reduced that amount of alienation, you’d probably reduce the number and the power of these strange alternate histories. In the end, if you feel so powerless, the government must seem a hell of a lot more powerful than it actually is.”
    http://bleedingheartshow.wordpress.com/2009/07/12/hitchens-mos-def-hip-hops-strange-histories/

    The context of this analysis was the debate that took place a couple years back when Mos Def appeared on “Real Time with Bill Maher” and found himself at the opposing side of a discussion with Maher, Chrisopher Hitchens, and Salman Rushdie,

    Please bare with me, as I find this relevant to the thread…

    “Hitchens vs Mos Def”
    http://youtu.be/-Ew9CngVeFA

    While Mos Def bumbled along providing multiple cringe-worthy statements and questions, there was a break from the talk of Al Queda and the Taliban where he mentioned Assata Shakur, to which both Maher and Hitchens flippantly interrogated “Who?” For me, that was actually the moment of exposed ignorance most deserving of indictment.

    I could understand Maher’s ignorance, as to him, black women seem to simply be more exotic bodies that he uses his fame and money to have sex with and comment and brag about. However, Hitchens’s repetition of this insincere inquiry (for he didn’t even seem to care who Assata Shakur is once Def answered, preferring more to just return to the topic that he was more knowledgeable about and mock Def’s ignorance), left me wondering if he was feigning his ignorance. I’m going to cut this comment off and not go into my guesses, but I will say that just like with bell hooks, I know perhaps only 2 other white non-theists who have ever heard of Assata, and of all those I’ve encountered who have never heard of her, they are still extremely well-read…

    • blackskeptics says

      Hitchens et al., could give an emaciated rat’s ass about hooks, Shakur or anyone else who has been at the forefront of feminist black liberation struggle. As you have already correctly noted about Maher; most of these swaggering first world celebrity WM atheists are all about naked paternalism/imperialism, i.e., you people are fucked up bone in the nose savages who wouldn’t know how to put a coherent sentence together without the benefit of Western modernism (with no other civilization or culture on the planet being modern, enlightened or science-based). All of the raging debate about “why Black women are so religious” essentially boils down to willful blindness to the global implications of white supremacy and the legacy of racial apartheid in the post-industrial West.

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