Stuff White People Like: Secular Tourists

By Sikivu Hutchinson 

A thriving brand of secular tourism can now be definitively filed under the category “stuff white people like”:  Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta has sponsored a crowd-funding campaign for a white male former pastor named Ryan Bell who—in a bit of brilliant PR stagecraft—“decided to…give atheism a try” for a year.  As a result of his “experiment” Bell was fired from two Christian schools.  Currently the campaign has far exceeded its $5,000 goal, generating over $16,000 from 700 plus donors in one day.  Bell joins a jam-packed, largely white, mostly Christian cottage industry of religious leaders who are capitalizing off of untapped reserves of atheist dollars, adulation and publicity by jumping onto the “maverick ex-pastor” bandwagon. 

But the campaign for Bell is just one of the more egregious examples of the backward race/gender/ableist politics of organized atheism. The meteoric rise and fall of ex-pastor Teresa MacBain—who, touting false credentials, scored a high profile job with the Harvard Humanist Center—was another example of privileged white atheist overzealousness and affirmative action.  It is highly doubtful that MacBain would have been considered much less hired for this elite post without a thorough vetting of her credentials if she’d been a woman of color.  In addition to the automatic privilege and preferential treatment accorded white women (of all class and professional backgrounds), MacBain benefited from the kind of white atheist cronyism that keeps the leadership and management structures of the major non-believer organizations (i.e., American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Richard Dawkins Foundation, etc.) predominantly white. Time and again, when it comes to hiring and promotion in the elite fields of academia and corporate America in particular, African American job-seekers typically must have more education and experience than white applicants. In studiesconducted by Princeton University researchers, white job seekers with criminal records were slightly more likely to be called back for and/or offered entry-level jobs than African American job seekers with no criminal record. According to lead researcher Devah Pager, “Even whites with criminal records received more favorable treatment (17%) than blacks without criminal records (14%). The rank ordering of (these) groups…is painfully revealing of employer preferences: race continues to play a dominant role in shaping employment opportunities, equal to or greater than the impact of a criminal record.” 

As people of color with the highest unemployment, foreclosure and criminalization rates in the nation, we should all be so “blessed” to have atheist fairy god-people swooping in to save us from insolvency, ostracism and career marginalization. As I noted last year in my article “The Trouble With Those Atheists”, “For white folk, centuries of racial apartheid, de facto segregation, and white supremacy in education, housing, employment and the criminal justice system are a source of “invisible” power, privilege, advantage and identity. Nonetheless, many white atheists believe non-believers of color should just be able to roll in any environment, regardless of whether the local research university employs more black service workers than it enrolls black students or whether white families have fled public schools for elite charters and private academies…For example, although many atheists profess a commitment to ‘science and reason’ there are still no atheist STEM initiatives that acknowledge the egregious lack of STEM K-12 and college access for students of color.  In their zeal to brand predominantly religious communities as backward, unenlightened and unsophisticated in the exceptionalist ways of Western rationality, atheist organizations are MIA when it comes to discussions about STEM college pipelining, STEM literacy and culturally responsive recruitment and retention of STEM scholars and professionals of color in academia.”  While white atheists give jobs, “atheist” pulpits and big bucks to American secular tourists numerous black churches support STEM tutoring, mentoring, college access and scholarship programs to confront the gaping educational divide between white and black America.  And because many progressive black and Latino churches and faith organizations work actively to redress the impact of structural racism and segregation closeted atheist pastors of color can’t afford to publicly waltz off from their communities to “experiment” with atheism for a year. Nor can non-believers of color rely on atheist organizations (as Heina Dadabhoy trenchantly observes in her latest piece, citing my efforts for the Women’s Leadership Project) to fully fund/support humanist social justice initiatives developed for working class communities of color outside the segregated neighborhoods that most white atheists—like their white Christian counterparts—live, work and congregate in.  By lionizing high profile white “defectors” organized atheism has become a sideshow that is just as demographically and politically clueless as the Tea Party in a multicultural nation with the greatest wealth gap between whites and people of color.