This is part of a series of articles intended to illustrate the usefulness of treating atheism as a social justice issue, rather than trying to wall atheist discourse off from social justice discussions. Read the introductory post here. Read the second post here.
One of the most common critiques of discussing issues of race in atheist communities is that it is ‘divisive’. For a moment, I will hold my bile and grant the most generous interpretation of this kind of statement – since race is not a valid reason to divide groups of people, we should not treat people from different racial groups differently; discussing race divides the population into arbitrary groups, and that’s not fair. The reason that it is almost exclusively white people who make this statement is perfectly illustrative of the problem with it: race may not be a morally valid way of dividing the population, but racialized people are acutely aware of the fact that it does divide the population. Pretending that isn’t so does not somehow make the effect disappear.
At her new blog Freethoughtify, Bridget Gaudette tries to tackle this meme head-on:
Classification systems are not always a bad thing and in this case, as long as we as atheists agree that we’re all human, despite RACE, there shouldn’t be a problem. Putting people into racial categories can help us understand cultural norms, history, and the present. I won’t deny for one second that categorizing humans can be used for serious atrocities, but that is not always the case! Youmust keep that in mind. Categories can help us gain perspective. Atheists ask all the time why blacks are so religious. A great way to figure that out would be to study this group’s “cultural, ethnic, [...] historical, linguistic, religious or social affiliations”!! Imagine that!
I have taken my own stab at answering this question, although my response is a bit more personal than Bridget’s handy general one. The general point is sounds though – there are things about being a black atheist that do not fall exclusively under the categories of ‘black’ and/or ‘atheist’. They are tied up in history, particularly the historical place that the black church has played in the social cohesion of the black community (in many cases because churches were the only places that black people could gather without being arrested or beaten by whites). They are tied up in sociology, particularly the fact that predominantly-white atheist gatherings can be supremely uncomfortable. They are tied up in culture, as religiosity and ‘blackness’ are often equated, and one could no more give up the former than the latter.
The failure of ‘mere’ black folks to understand the oppressive nature of religion makes them (us) produce stupid things like this:
On the most recent episode, Jil Cooper introduced her boyfriend Jack to her family. (Get it? Jack and Jil!) Just one problem: Jack is an atheist — something even Jil didn’t know about — and father Big Bill Cooper can’t deal with it.
(Neither can the show’s staff, apparently. A description of the episode reads: “Jill meets the perfect guy and invites him to dinner for an introduction to Bill and the family. His imperfection is revealed and Jill has to decide whether or not to continue dating him.”)
Being unable to critique religion puts the producers of the show in the position of repeatedly justifying and normalizing anti-atheist bigotry – bigotry of a kind that black people have often experienced themselves (ourselves). Rather than this being an illustration of the fact that there’s something desperately and hypocritically wrong with Jil and Bill’s morality, this story heaps on arbitrary and unjust attitudes about atheists in its assumption that religion is both valid and good.
However, the failure of ‘mere’ atheists to understand not only the subjective experience of being racialized, but the simple facts of history, leads them (us) to produce stupid things like this:
No group of people do I have a harder time understanding their Christianity than African-Americans/Canadians. Talk about a short memory and/or a lack of historical education. The fundamentalists opposing homosexuality are even more baffling. They know they sound like white Christian fundamentalists from 50 years ago, right?
The only time I have racially insensitive thoughts about black people is when the topic is religion. You stupid bastards, you were given this religion at the end of a whip. WTF is wrong with you all? You see Roots and then you still get down with Jesus? Yikes. “Your name is Toby.”
It’s worth noting that there is a parallel to this argument that centres on the fact that women are, in the aggregate, more religious than men. “Don’t they understand how sexist religion is?” these critics exasperatedly exclaim, all the while completely failing to understand the fact that churches were often the only places in which women could organize and exert political power, and failing to appreciate the fact that misogyny pushes women out of many spheres (atheism being among those, as we have seen).
To understand race is to understand the mechanics of oppression. To understand religion is to understand it as an oppressive force. But to fail to understand both, and to see how they work together is to fail to be able to respond in a way that isn’t clueless and inappropriate. To claim that we must not be allowed to discuss one or the other is to rob us, for no real reason, of the ability to respond sensibly and grow the atheist community. A demand that the atheist community must not discuss race or make allowances for race is a demand that movement atheism stay perpetually white, and be obsolete to a growing proportion of nonbelievers.
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*I am not sure that this commenter isn’t a black person hirself, but I’m having trouble imagining any black person being this blatant. It’s also worth noting that the only dissenting response to this comment is a tone troll, chiding the commenter for not “open(ing) black people’s minds to atheism” as though that isn’t an equally patronizing attitude.