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Jun 11 2009

“The cultural tethers of organized religion”: Interview with Black Atheist Sikivu Hutchinson

Scarlet letter black backgroundWhat is it like to be a black atheist?

Obviously, I wouldn’t know. But via Friendly Atheist, I recently read a piece by Sikivu Hutchinson for the L.A. Watts Times, titled ‘Out of the Closet’ — Black Atheists. (A must-read, by the way.) Her piece focused on one side of this question — being an atheist in the African American community. But I was curious about the other side: What is it like to be African American in the atheist community?

I don’t think this is something atheists talk about enough. We’re too willing to let our most prominent leaders and speakers mostly be white; we’re critical of the negative effect religion has on communities of color, but we don’t look very hard at why the atheist movement is so predominantly white, or what we could be doing to make our movement a safer place to land for people of color who are leaving religion.

So when I read Sikivu’s piece, I thought she’s be a good person to ask about this stuff. She was kind enough to give me an interview, and we spoke — well, okay, emailed — about privilege, the intersection of race and religion, the history of Christianity in African- American culture, what atheism has to contribute to society, and more. Here is that interview.

Greta Christina: In your piece for the L.A. Watts Times, you talked about being an atheist in the black community. Can you tell me a little about the flip side of that? What is it like to be a African- American in the atheist community? Have you encountered much racism? Have you found it to be pretty inclusive? Is it somewhere in between?

Atheism booksSikivu Hutchinson: As it is with many prominent issues of ideological/ social relevance the assumption that white male thinkers and writers are the definitive spokespeople on atheism is highly problematic. I would like to see more atheists of color rise to prominence as theorists and scholars of record on atheist discourse, rather than the continued privileging of the usual “authorial” white suspects (i.e., Dawkins, Hitchens, Sam Harris).

On that topic: There’s often an assumption in political movements (I’ve seen it in the LGBT movement) that being inclusive of people of color simply means not being overtly and grossly racist. (As a queer woman, I’ve seen something similar, where people or organizations make subtle or not- so- subtle assumptions of heterosexuality, but they think they’re not being homophobic because they’re not hurling epithets or turning us away at the door.) Can you talk a little about that? What is the difference between being actively inclusive and welcoming of people of color… and simply not being overtly racist? And how does that play out in the atheist community?

Black church in the post civil rights eraOftentimes white folk engage with the issue of people of color and religious observance in a very paternalistic way — musing about the “backwardness” of people of color, particularly African Americans, who subscribe to Christian and Muslim dogma despite their histories of colonialism, terrorism and slavery. Although religious observance among African Americans is paradoxical for these very reasons, the white critique of said world view is narrow and lacking in consciousness of the cultural context that informs black adoption of Judeo- Christian mores and values. Hence, the European- American atheist community can’t be truly inclusive unless there is some recognition of how privilege and positionality undergird the very articulation of atheism as an ideological space that empowers white folk to deconstruct the cultural tethers of organized religion, without having their authorial right to do so be questioned.

Getting away from race for a moment: Can you tell me a little about your own atheism? Were you raised as a non-believer, or did you have religion at one time and then deconvert… and if you deconverted, how did that happen? What effect did it have on your life and your relationship with family and friends at the time, and how has that changed over time?

I was fortunate to have grown up in a very secular household. My parents were highly literate politically conscious writer-teachers and placed a premium on independent thought. That said religion was still a part of my life because it was so integral to much of African American extended family and community. My grandparents were very religious and I frequently went to their Methodist church when I was growing up. I had some vague notion of and belief in the existence of God up until the first year of high school when I was totally galvanized into agnosticism by an utterly brain-dead Catholic School experience which signaled the end of my suspension of disbelief!

There’s a common assumption that the black community, and other communities of color in the U.S. such as the Hispanic community, are more deeply religious than white people. Do you think that’s true? If so, why do you think that is? And if not, where do you think that assumption comes from?

Black church beginningsAs I mentioned before religious observance is a powerful influence in communities of color. However, given the enormous political influence of white Christian fundamentalism in the U.S. it would be reductive to say that people of color are “more” religious than whites —- rather, religion, for better or for ill, has in many respects played a formative role in allowing people of color to navigate and survive institutional racism and domestic terrorism. This is the defining difference between white Christian fundamentalist observance and, say, African American spiritualism predicated on a notion of liberation theology that derives from a redemptive view of the moral universe. In this regard African Americans who have broken from these traditions have a more complex “meta-critical” relationship with organized religion than do white atheists who have rejected religion.

On that topic: When people criticize atheism and the newly vocal, “openly critical of religion” atheist movement, one of the tropes that I see a lot is that this openly critical atheism is disrespectful to marginalized communities like the black community. The argument goes that because religion is so deeply interwoven into black history and black culture, and because the comfort of religion is so important to a community that’s had such a hard time of it, criticizing religion is disrespectful and racist. As a black atheist, what are your thoughts on that?

Frederick_DouglassClearly criticizing religion is not racist. One of the charges of atheistic discourse is foregrounding how there is nothing intrinsically superior about religious observance — its value for African Americans as a people derives from a specific cultural and historical context of institutional racism and oppression. The supposed basic moral precepts of Judeo- Christian theology — love for one’s neighbor, tolerance, doing unto others, non-judgment, etc. — are certainly not exclusive to religious doctrine, while the hierarchies, persecution and intolerance based on race, gender, sexuality and ideology that religious doctrine breeds effectively negate the moral preeminence that organized religion presumes. These contradictions open up a path for critical engagement by atheists of color with why organized religion has been so toxic vis-a-vis validating the rich diversity of communities of color. African American intellectuals and thinkers (see for example Frederick Douglass’ critique of “slaveholding” Christianity) have always challenged the role religious orthodoxy plays in African American communities. This historical complexity has just never been “officially” recognized by white scholars.

Again moving away from race for a moment: A lot of atheists are talking about how we need to not just criticize religion: we also need to present the positive aspects of atheism as a meaningful and satisfying way to live. What do you see as the meaningful and beneficial side of atheism? And how does your atheism shape the way you live your life?

Faith based initiatives bush administrationSure atheism could use a PR infusion that extols the virtues and sexiness of secular belief. However, much of the discourse around atheism necessarily involves upending the orthodoxies and hypocrisies of organized religion that enshrine it as a “natural” and “normal” way of life for many. I for one think that there has not been enough political exposure of the massive welfare state entitlements that have been conferred on organized religion in the form of so-called faith-based initiatives. Atheist “activists” have an important role to play in shifting the discourse to frame organized religion (and highlight the theocratic nature of the U.S. and the continued degradation of the separation between church and state) as just another corrupt welfare swilling special interest that reflects a particular narrow and sectarian belief system — why let Rove, Limbaugh and the Fox regime control the terms of debate?

With regard to your second question, atheism has value for the uninitiated both as a means of unpacking the social and cultural contradictions that inform so-called religious morality, and as a means of living life unfettered by the conventions and hierarchical dictates of supernaturalism. It’s an antidote to groupthink and blind acceptance, a dynamic that has always informed my outlook on and approach to life’s complexities.

And do you think there’s any chance of a political alliance between the atheist community and the black community? Or is the black community just too hostile to atheism for that to happen?

That question assumes that there is a monolithic “black community.” Certainly atheists of all walks of life and African American “freethinkers” of all walks of life can forge solidarity on certain issues, but a fundamental wariness will remain if white atheist communities continue to maintain a paternalistic stance toward both the dissemination of atheist discourse and the critique of African American belief systems.

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to add — on these topics, or any other?

Defend equality vote no on prop 8Ever since the debate on Prop 8 debate and same-sex marriage emerged it has been critical for me as an atheist and a black feminist to make my voice heard in opposing the presumed solidarity of African American communities in support of the initiative. Rather than allow white atheists to control the terms of debate, black atheists of conscience can play a critical role in these and other political firestorms which highlight the disproportionate influence of organized religion in general, and Christian fascism in particular, on public policy.

Sikivu hutchinsonSikivu Hutchinson is a writer and senior intergroup specialist for the L.A. County Human Relations Commission. She received a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from New York University and has taught women’s studies, cultural studies, urban studies and media literacy at UCLA, the California Institute of the Arts and Western Washington University. She is the author of Imagining Transit: Race, Gender, and Transportation Politics in Los Angeles (Lang, 2003) and has published fiction, essays and critical theory on gender and public space, women’s activism, culturally relevant education and African American social history in Social Text, California English, Women and Performance and local Los Angeles-based publications. She is a co-founder of the Women of Color Media Justice Initiative, the editor of BlackFemLens.org, and a commentator for KPFK 90.7 FM.

32 comments

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  1. 1
    Liz Highleyman

    I’m wondering how much of a role education and socioeconomic status might play in this dynamic?
    Many people first begin to question the faith of their upbringing in college, and a smaller percentage of African Americans and Latinos, as compared with whites and Asians, go on to higher education after high school.
    In addition, religion — especially regular worship and fundamentalist beliefs — are more common among lower-income people, both the U.S. and on a global basis, though I don’t pretend to know which is the chicken and which is the egg.
    Education and poverty go a long way toward explaining the greater religiosity of whites in the U.S south vs. northeast or west coast, and this may also be a major factor in differences between racial/ethnic groups.
    (Just to be clear, I’m not saying all or most African Americans are uneducated or poor, but strictly talking about comparative proprotions within groups.)

  2. 2
    Michael

    A very important post. A specific action point from this might be to think about blogs by African American atheists, skeptics and freethinkers so that these voices get more exposure in our online community.
    For instance I know that almost none of the blogs I read fall into that category but this is something I’d very much like to remedy. Does anyone have any recommendations?

  3. 3
    Tommy

    My first thought was “I would be wise to add blackfemlens.org to my feedreader.”
    My second thought was “Why don’t they have an RSS feed?”

  4. 4
    Barbara_K

    Michael-
    I can’t remember where I initially saw a link to this page, it might even have been here, but I do enjoy Wrath James White’s posts:
    http://theblackatheist.blogspot.com/
    I thought this recently posted speech he gave at a church in Indiana was good:
    http://godlessandblack.blogspot.com/2009/05/atheism-sermon.html

  5. 5
    Greta Christina

    Alas, The Black Atheist seems to have dropped off the face of the earth. He hasn’t posted since February.
    I can recommend Black Woman Thinks, though. And I didn’t know about the Godless and Black blog. I’ll put that in my blogroll.
    Does anyone know about Neil deGrasse Tyson? His Wikipedia entry says he “non-religious,” but that’s not very specific, and in any case I don’t know how much of a public deal he makes of it. He’d be a great spokesperson for atheism — he’s like a science nerd rock star — but I don’t know if he wants to go there.

  6. 6
    John Moeller

    It admittedly took me some time to figure out this statement:
    “Hence, the European- American atheist community can’t be truly inclusive unless there is some recognition of how privilege and positionality undergird the very articulation of atheism as an ideological space that empowers white folk to deconstruct the cultural tethers of organized religion, without having their authorial right to do so be questioned.”
    After thinking about it for some time, I’ve now realized that this is the precise reason why it makes me uncomfortable when European-American atheists are quick to substitute “jew” or “homosexual” for “atheist” in a piece that is prejudicial to atheists. We come from a privileged position on the matter, and we don’t risk the same things that other minorities generally do.

  7. 7
    Barbara_K

    Whoops, yes, I meant that Black Atheist link to be the link to the Godless and Black home page, not the one to the Black Atheist. Got my links confused.
    Thanks for the link for Black Woman Thinks, I’ve added it to my RSS feed.
    I love Neil deGrasse Tyson, he is such a cheerful nerd. He was on The Daily Show a little while back and apparently wouldn’t leave the green room after filming until he had solved a Rubik’s cube that was left on the table.
    I suspect he’s an atheist but he’s not really interested in, as you say, going there. He seems very focused on promoting science, and does a good job of it. With the current back and forth between Jerry Coyne, and Chris Mooney and Barbara Forrest, regarding the necessity of going out of the way to promote the idea of a compatibility between science and belief in the hopes that it will have a net positive effect on public perception of science, deGrasse Tyson stands as a pretty good and valuable example of how to promote science without struggling to make concessions to the religious.

  8. 8
    Patrick

    Does this post strike anyone else as stereotypical California-liberal style guilt-mongering? It’s somehow my fault there aren’t more prominent atheists from whatever group? Must we have this fight?

  9. 9
    Morteng

    “As it is with many prominent issues of ideological/ social relevance the assumption that white male thinkers and writers are the definitive spokespeople on atheism is highly problematic”
    I invariably see this sentiment expressed when some group or other is mentioned by some minority or other. Is this a plea for people to pay more attention to minority actors simply because they belong to a minority? That’s what it sounds like to me. There may be movements where certain minorities are ignored by default (according to Greta, this seems to be the case for atheists in LGBT), but surely the ethnic properties of a person is irrelevant to the audience, for a movement that (so far) occurs almost exclusively in written media (books/web). In the atheist movement people are prominent because they wrote something interesting, founded a charity, made a documentary or the like. Not because they get constant prime time exposure on tv (with the possible exception of Dawkins). The sentiment expressed in the quote is only relevant, if the minority in question has additional obstacles to become prominent and that just doesn’t seem to be the case here. I realise this is not a trivial issue in all cases, but I remind you that american christians also think they’re marginalised and unpriveleged, so clearly, saying it doesn’t make it so.

  10. 10
    Underscore

    “The sentiment expressed in the quote is only relevant, if the minority in question has additional obstacles to become prominent and that just doesn’t seem to be the case here.”
    I think that’s exactly the case. I think it’s practically the definition of ‘minority’ that they have to overcome more obstacles to become prominent. It might not always be that way, but in my experience it is overwhelmingly the case.
    Maybe I’ve been watching too much news about Gingrich calling Sotomayor a racist, but this whole idea about race not being a factor, about racism and racial oppression being eradicated (why, because we voted for one black president?) just seems so insane to me.
    It reminds of Colbert insisting he’s color-blind (to race). It’s painful to watch because it’s such a satire of the way most Americans think about the issue: Race? What race? We’re all equal, end of discussion.

  11. 11
    Morteng

    “I think it’s practically the definition of ‘minority’ that they have to overcome more obstacles to become prominent”
    Well, yes. If you define minority to mean people with bigger obstacles to success, my comment is obviously wrong. But to my knowledge, that’s not a common definition. The subset of people that are a minority, based on some property that is uncommon in the community at large, often overlaps the subset of people with greater obstacles to success (eg. women in the military), but that doesn’t mean the two terms are interchangable (eg. male nurses). My point is, that in cases where it’s not immediately obvious that the two overlap, it needs to pointed out why we should consider it to be so. The fact that there are no prominent blacks/hispanics/women in a community, doesn’t neccesarily point to foul play. In a community were it’s a non-issue, you would expect the ethnicity of the prominent members to reflect the ethnicity of the community at large. In this piece, it’s pointed out that there are few blacks in the atheist community, leading me to expect few prominent black members, so Sikivus statement that it’s unfair (for lack of a better word) isn’t obviously justified, since entrance to this particular community isn’t mostly by invitation.

  12. 12
    Bruce Gorton

    The perception of prominent atheists as being white males:
    Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
    She got listed as one of Times’ 100 most influential people in 2005.

  13. 13
    MAK

    Thanks Greta for a great post! I’ve never read any atheist critiques of religion that have addressed liberation theology in any depth – will definitely follow up with the links here.

  14. 14
    Bruce Gorton

    “Hence, the European- American atheist community can’t be truly inclusive unless there is some recognition of how privilege and positionality undergird the very articulation of atheism as an ideological space that empowers white folk to deconstruct the cultural tethers of organized religion, without having their authorial right to do so be questioned.”
    This, bothered me for a while, and I couldn’t put my finger quite on why. Then it struck me.
    I am a white male atheist who gets his authoritarial right to deconstruct the cultural tethers of religion questioned fairly regularly.
    Dawkins, a more popular very white atheist ended up with Oklahoma talking about investigating his right to free speech.
    There is no end of articles calling on atheists of any colour to shut the hell up.
    Of all the things to claim as being somehow a mark of priveledge, that white atheists get to speak up without having their right to do so questioned, is the least fair because it is the least true.

  15. 15
    Amy M Cools

    You brought up the same points that struck me too, Bruce.
    I’m a big fan of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and consider her one of the most important and influential thinkers of the growing atheist movement. I identify in some small way with her story, as a woman brought up in a Abrahamic faith, questioning anf then rejecting religion largely because of the way that faith denigrates and marginalizes women.

  16. 16
    Greta Christina

    Does this post strike anyone else as stereotypical California-liberal style guilt-mongering? It’s somehow my fault there aren’t more prominent atheists from whatever group? Must we have this fight?

    Well, first, Patrick: I don’t see this as being a fight. I see it as being a conversation. What about this interview and comment thread makes you see it as a fight?
    Second: In my experience with/ observation of other social change movements, if the movement and the visible leadership of that movement is disproportionately white, then it usually means that movement isn’t doing enough to be inclusive of people of color. (Ditto if it’s disproportionately straight, or disproportionately male.) It doesn’t always (or even usually) mean the movement is being overtly racist; but it does often mean that the movement isn’t addressing the particular issues and needs of people of color, or is being unintentionally clueless in some way. And while I wouldn’t say that that’s our fault, exactly, I would say that it’s our responsibility.

  17. 17
    Lynet

    Thank you, both to Greta and to Sikivu! There are really useful hints here about how to approach the question of black atheists. I was particularly impressed with the statement:
    “[T]here is nothing intrinsically superior about religious observance — its value for African Americans as a people derives from a specific cultural and historical context of institutional racism and oppression.”
    That’s a lovely way to frame it that could only have been articulated by an insider who understands the cultural and hitorical worth that religion has in the black community.
    Regarding Patrick’s question about “Is this liberal California guilt-mongering?” — It’s certainly very “liberal California!” However, I don’t see this piece as asking me to feel guilty. Given the fact that atheism is white-dominated, it’s perfectly sensible and polite to ask representatives of minorities whether there are, firstly, reasons for this that we might change, and, secondly, important points about black (or minority) religion/atheism that white atheists routinely miss. Let go of the guilt and consider this as an opportunity to learn, just in case, if there are improvements that need to be made.

  18. 18
    Greta Christina

    Is this a plea for people to pay more attention to minority actors simply because they belong to a minority? That’s what it sounds like to me.

    Yes. (It is from me, anyway; I’m not going to speak for Sikivu.) Here’s why.
    1: People of color often have special experiences and issues and needs when coming out of religion and into atheism, different in many ways from those that white people tend to have. If we want our movement to be a safe place to land for everybody, not just for white atheists, we need to be making sure those needs and issues get listened to and addressed.
    2: There’s often a feedback loop/ vicious circle thing that happens in communities and movements. If it starts out, for whatever reason, as being predominantly white, then people of color don’t feel as comfortable joining; then, because people of color aren’t joining, the movement continues to be mostly white. (Or straight, or male, or what have you.) If we’re going to nip that cycle in the bud early on our movement, we have to make an effort to be inclusive — and that means more than just not being overtly racist.
    Example: The atheist movement doesn’t just say they’re welcoming of queers: they take on queer issues (like same-sex marriage) with fervor and passion, even if they’re not queer. It’s one of the reasons I feel so welcome in the atheist movement. We should be doing that with people of color as well.

    There may be movements where certain minorities are ignored by default (according to Greta, this seems to be the case for atheists in LGBT), but surely the ethnic properties of a person is irrelevant to the audience, for a movement that (so far) occurs almost exclusively in written media (books/web).

    I’m sorry, but it’s not irrelevant. Like I said before: People of color often have different experiences of religion and atheism than white people. Those experiences should not be irrelevant to us. I repeat everything I said above, about needing to address the needs and experiences of all atheists and needing to nip the “not feeling comfortable in the movement because the movement is mostly white” cycle. But I would also add:
    We should be interested in the experience of atheists of color because we’re interested in the experiences of all atheists. We shouldn’t be treating the experience of white atheists as the default, and hoping other people come along for the ride. We should be making our movement welcoming to all atheists… and that means listening to atheists of color, and paying attention to how those experiences are similar to and different from those of white atheists.
    Your comment that color is irrelevant because the movement is largely a written and not a visual one implies that atheists of color wouldn’t have anything different to say… and I absolutely do not think that’s true.

  19. 19
    Greta Christina

    The fact that there are no prominent blacks/hispanics/women in a community, doesn’t neccesarily point to foul play.

    No. It doesn’t. But that’s exactly what I’m talking about when I say that a movement doesn’t have to be overtly and grossly racist to still be not inclusive. There doesn’t have to be foul play for this to be a problem: there just has to be unconscious, unintended racism; and a lack of understanding of the experiences of people of color; and a discomfort with talking about these issues; and the assumption that white is the default… and a lack of interest in doing anything about any of it.
    There doesn’t have to be foul play for people of color (or queers, or women, or what have you) to not be welcomed. There just has to be apathy.

    In a community were it’s a non-issue, you would expect the ethnicity of the prominent members to reflect the ethnicity of the community at large. In this piece, it’s pointed out that there are few blacks in the atheist community, leading me to expect few prominent black members…

    I find it very interesting that you’re arguing, “There aren’t many blacks in the atheist movement, so it’s understandable that there aren’t many in visible positions of leadership”… rather than asking, “Why are there so few blacks in the atheist movement?”
    I understand that that’s not entirely, or maybe even mainly, because of racism in the atheist movement. A lot of it has to do with how tightly religion is woven into black culture, and how hostile that culture generally is to atheism. But our movement’s response to that should not be, “Hey, that’s not our fault, what do you expect us to do about it?” Our response should be, “What can we do to help?”

    …so Sikivus statement that it’s unfair (for lack of a better word) isn’t obviously justified, since entrance to this particular community isn’t mostly by invitation.

    And yet again: If a movement wants to be inclusive of marginalized groups, it’s not enough to just leave the door open and hope they walk in. There is a vast gap between overt racism and actual inclusivity. There’s a lot of unconscious racism in people (especially the tendency to treat white experiences as default), even when we don’t intend to be racist; and if we want our movement to be genuinely welcoming, we need to take active steps to counteract that.

  20. 20
    Morteng

    Ah, but I specifically adressed the too-few-prominent-members issue, because I saw no problems with the argument that the general demographics are probably skewed towards white. Something should probably be done about this, but artificially raising minority members to prominence (which appeared to be what Sikivu asked for) seems dishonest.

  21. 21
    Greta Christina

    I don’t think “artificially” (if by that you mean “consciously”) raising people of color in our movement to prominence is dishonest. I think it’s an excellent way to accomplish two important goals. (A) It helps to stop the vicious cycle of people of color not feeling welcomed or recognized in our movement, and therefore not joining, and therefore having the movement still be mostly white, and therefore people of color continuing to not feeling welcome. And (b) it helps make sure the specific issues, needs, and experiences of atheists of color are being widely heard, and that “white” isn’t our movement’s default assumption. (And, for that matter, our movement’s default appearance in the public eye.)
    If you agree that these goals are important, how else would you propose reaching them? And if you don’t agree that these goals are important and aren’t worth taking conscious steps to reach… then I don’t think I have anything further to say to you.

  22. 22
    davemyers

    This sounds very similar to the argument that I hear from white people who are against affirmative – action … when you are coming from a privileged position , as whites are , relatively speaking , with – out the empirical understandings of oppression / racism , there is a severe disconnect … This is where , we in the black community need to step – up and step – out – and TEACH … (yes , and be patient)

  23. 23
    supercheetah

    To preface: I am not a white atheist. To be more precise, I am a Filipino-American atheist, although I’ve lived so far from that culture that in personality, not so much, especially with a midwestern accent.

    Hence, the European- American atheist community can’t be truly inclusive unless there is some recognition of how privilege and positionality undergird the very articulation of atheism as an ideological space that empowers white folk to deconstruct the cultural tethers of organized religion, without having their authorial right to do so be questioned.

    This statement feels empty to me. I’m not sure what some of the more prominent atheists such as Dawkins or Dennet could say to this, or how articulation could even help. I know what they could do, and that’s to use their fame to bring to the fore various minority atheists such as Sikivu herself. Dawkins has his show in the UK, and I think that simply bringing more minority atheists on camera will do a lot more than just talking about it.
    Even if they do address it, who would even listen to them on that matter?
    No, I think it would be better if they simply prop up minority atheists that are talking about it.
    I keep looking for the tl;dr for the comments. Damn it. Internet culture has infected my brain in the worst ways.
    With that in mind:
    tl;dr: Prop up minority atheists, don’t just talk about them.

  24. 24
    Morteng

    I didn’t mean artificially == consciously. I was thinking more along the lines of textbooks on the history of science that include biographies of minority contributors, when their contributions don’t merit it, instead of just admitting that there are none, because they were actively ignored and kept out of institutions of learning. I don’t think I had a clear idea how this would translate to the subject under discussion, though.
    If by ‘consciously’, you mean eg; before posting an article on some aspect of ‘atheist culture’, you make an effort to find an article, by a person of color, discussing some of the same issues that you can link to/summarize, then yes, that could be valuable. It would have all the effects of any other referral, meaning it’s dependant on the quality of the other authors writing to retain the new audience. There’s nothing artificial about this.
    When it comes to the demographics in general, I concede that I have no better ideas. It’s my impression that ‘visible’ atheists already speak out against discrimination in it’s various forms, though I’m hard pressed to remember an instance where this included race. Perhaps it would be helpful to point out, when addressing a particular implementation of discrimination, eg. gay marriage, that all kinds of discrimination have your eternal enmity, though this easily comes off sounding like a disclaimer. The problem here, is that it’s difficult (but not impossible) to be passionate about something that has little effect on you, yet people who have been discriminated against for a particular reason, expects that particular reason to be addressed, not just discrimination in general.
    tl;dr: Statements of intent without a clear mechanism confuse and frighten me.

  25. 25
    Sebatinsky

    I don’t think there’s a problem with representation of non-whites in the atheist leadership – I think there’s a problem with inclusion of non-whites in the atheist community at large.
    One of the atheist leaders I follow is rapper Greydon Square, who is not white. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not white. However, in this country (and many, many others) white folks are disproportionately represented in the higher socioeconomic classes. In a society in which religion is the default, leisure time is usually required to “deconstruct the cultural tethers of organized religion.”
    We would therefore expect atheistic communities to be disproportionately white as well.
    What I’m trying to say is, it is a problem that whites are disproportionately represented in the current atheist community, but it is not a problem caused by the atheist community. Instead, it’s a pervasive problem. The causes of race proportions among atheists are the same factors behind the race proportions among folks with masters’ degrees.
    So, yes, we need to work on this issue as a community, but we must also acknowledge that we are not going to singlehandedly dismantle the cultural roadblocks for minorities. Still, it is our responsibility to push for progress against institutionalized racism just as it is our responsibility to push for equal rights for gay folks.

  26. 26
    Greta Christina

    What I’m trying to say is, it is a problem that whites are disproportionately represented in the current atheist community, but it is not a problem caused by the atheist community. Instead, it’s a pervasive problem.

    I agree that it’s not a problem that’s caused entirely by the atheist community. Maybe not even mostly. (I’m not sure how you would measure that…) I agree that even if the atheist movement were perfect on this issue, it might well still be harder, for an assortment of cultural reasons, for people of color to leave religion, and for atheists of color to come out of the closet.
    However, I still think that:
    (a) The atheist community needs to pay attention to the ways that this problem is caused, or contributed to, by us, and take steps to do something about it;
    and (b) Even if, hypothetically, we didn’t cause this problem in even the tiniest amount (which I don’t think is true, but hypothetically) — we still have a responsibility to pay attention to the special experiences and issues of atheists of color, and make ourselves a safer place to land for atheists of color who are leaving religion. We have to make our community welcoming to all atheists — not just the white ones. If we don’t do that, then this problem will have been caused by us. (And, in fact, I would argue that we haven’t been doing this, or haven’t been doing it very much — and therefore, it has already been caused by us, at least to some extent.)
    I think there’s a tendency to conflate the words “fault” and “responsibility.” I think that when people hear somebody say, “We have a responsibility for this problem,” we have a tendency to get defensive and say, “It’s not my fault! I didn’t do it!” (And then, counter-productively, to keep doing the things we’ve been doing, just to convince ourselves that it was okay.) I do think that we need to be grownups and, when something is our fault, to acknowledge it and try to fix it. But I also think that we don’t have to wallow in “It’s all our fault” guilt in order to say, “We have a responsibility to do something about this.”

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    Sikivu Hutchinson

    Thanks to Greta C. for taking the initiative to create this forum. There are a few issues that need to be addressed. First, the notion that “the” atheist community is de facto colorblind because “race” is not foregrounded as an issue is akin to saying that the U.S. has been magically transformed into a post-racial society simply because rock star Barack Obama has been elected president (or because rock star Ayann Hirsi Ali got voted one of the Times’ most influential people). I emphasized the issue of paternalism and authorial privilege because the public arc and contemporary prominence of atheist discourse has been powered by elite white male academicians, scholars and journalists who have become globally recognized as spokespeople for and theoreticians of atheist discourse. This phenomenon parallels most knowledge production that is not explicitly predicated on issues of race and reflects an a priori assumption that white atheist experience, cultural context and world view is (as G.C. so trenchantly characterizes it) the “default” position in the framing of atheism as a cultural phenomenon. In essence, whiteness remains invisible as a culturally specific subject position. Similarly, in both mainstream and so-called liberal- progressive media (i.e., corporate media which commands billions of ad dollars and viewers) there is a paucity of commentators and theoreticians of color who have been “allowed” to serve as authorial voices on issues of global and domestic policy which are not somehow connected to “race.” Therefore, it is “dishonest” to assume that race and gender privilege do not inform the global publication, dissemination and “canonization” (vis-a-vis academia and academic scholarship) of critical theory on atheism.
    Secondly, this culture of privilege is exemplified by the rampant ignorance of many European American atheists about religious observance as it pertains to the trajectory of African Americans and the legacy of slavery. Presuming a white default position forecloses the possibility of viewing compulsory religious observance among people of color through more complex prisms. It forecloses a recognition of historical context vis-a-vis racism, colonialism and, most importantly — in terms of post- Emancipation— segregation. Moreover, it obscures the differences between white identity formation and African American identity formation. Put simply, in many mainstream black communities being black and being Christian are synonymous in ways that being white and being Christian are not. Dawkins may risk having his civil liberties compromised in some contexts if he speaks out on atheism but his identity as a white male, and his authority to do so, will not be called into question. Hence, it’s problematic when white atheists posture about the so-called backwardness of African American religious observance with no awareness of racial politics and knowledge production. And it is even more problematic from an ideological standpoint when white atheists who exalt the liberatory aspects of the scientific method vis-a-vis organized religion don’t acknowledge how Western Enlightenment — from which the scientific paradigms of positivism, rationalism and empiricism emerge– functioned as the basis for 19th century constructions of race and justifications for racial slavery.
    So the charge of “foul play” ascribes too much intentionality to something that is really just symptomatic of how race/racial politics and epistemology are inextricably linked. For those who are interested in further reading, check out white scholar Peggy McKintosh’s piece on white privilege cited below.
    Here are some more sites on black atheism:
    The Black Atheists of The Harlem Renaissance: (1917-1928), by John G. Jackson, on American Atheists
    Ralph Dumain’s Page, Atheist Nexus
    The Invisibility of The Black Atheist, by Wrath James White, on Words of Wrath
    Peggy McKintosh’s piece on invisible white privilege (PDF)
    Sikivu Hutchinson
    editor, blackfemlens.org
    (posted by Greta, since due to tech problems, Sikivu wasn’t able to post this herself)

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    skepticscott

    Greta you say that
    “The atheist community needs to pay attention to the ways that this problem is caused, or contributed to, by us, and take steps to do something about it;”
    What specifically are these ways? And what steps do you suggest?
    Throughout this thread there seems to be the unjustified characterization of the atheist “community” as far more monolithic and well-organized than it really is (not to mention the usual confusion of atheism and anti-theism). In addition to being far less than a well organized “movement”, atheism is, at its most fundamental, a passive state of mind, a state of being unconvinced of one particular thing. As a matter of pure empiricism, race IS excluded. By further extension, we do not distinguish white science, black science, Asian science, eastern science, western science or any other type. There is only science. Just so, there is only atheism.
    To the extent that there is organization (and the desire for political and social influence) among atheists, it may indeed be of benefit to bring as many voices under the same umbrella as possible, but how organized does a group of people with a particular thing in common have to be before moral responsibility for failure to actively recruit and include those voices attaches?

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    Greta Christina

    In addition to being far less than a well organized “movement”, atheism is, at its most fundamental, a passive state of mind, a state of being unconvinced of one particular thing.

    In the most abstract sense, this is true. But in a practical sense: There is an atheist community, and an atheist movement for social and political change. It’s a relatively new movement (at least in its current incarnation as an active, visible, vocal movement); it’s not yet very well organized; and not all atheists see themselves as part of it. And of course, like any community or movement, it’s not monolithic. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And like any other community or movement of real people in the real world, race is an issue. I cannot emphasize this enough: Race is an issue. You can pretend that our community is color- blind and that race is excluded from it all you want — but that doesn’t make it true.

    What specifically are these ways? And what steps do you suggest?

    I apologize if my answer sounds snippy… but I feel like I’ve answered this question about four times now (and Sikivu answered much of it in her interview), and people still keep asking it.
    How are we causing or contributing to this problem? IMO, many of our sins are sins of omission. We don’t make an effort (or enough of an effort) to help put the atheists of color who are in our movement into positions of prominence. When we talk about our history and the fine old traditions of skepticism and non-belief through the ages, we almost always talk about white people, and ignore the history of godless and skeptical thought in non-white cultures. We don’t give atheist bloggers of color enough link love… and when we do, it tends to be about issues specific to race, rather than just about atheism. We don’t do enough to create a community — a physical, non-online community — to replace the tightly-bound religious communities that many people of color have. (I could go on, but I’m trying to limit this to comment length. Anyone else who wants to contribute to this list is more than welcome.)
    We also have sins of comission. As Sikivu said, the way we talk about religion in communities of color is often patronizing. We focus our energies on the experiences and needs of white atheists (and in particular, of white, middle-class, college-educated atheists), while neglecting the distinctive experiences and needs of people of color who are leaving or have left religion. We act as if trying to be color blind is the same as racial inclusivity. (Again, not meant to be a comprehensive list — just a start.)
    And when these problems are raised, we cover our eyes and ears and try to act as if none of this is a problem… or if it is, it isn’t our problem, or our responsibility. We act as if the fact that our movement is primarily white — and that the public face of our movement is overwhelmingly white — is just some sort of accident. (Trust me: I have participated in, and observed, many movements for social change… and when it winds up being primarily white with an overwhelmingly white public face, it is very rarely an accident. It may not be conscious or deliberate, but that doesn’t make it just a statistical fluke.) And we act as if the proposal that we make a conscious effort to be more racially inclusive is some horrible injustice or burden.
    What steps do I suggest? Um… Don’t do these things. Do the opposite. (I’m reluctant to speak for people of color about what they want; but I also have had it pressed upon me that white people have to talk about this, even if poorly, so I’m taking a stab.)

  30. 30
    skepticscott

    But wouldn’t you agree that, absent deliberate and conscious discrimination, the responsibility for creating a truly inclusive community goes both ways? It’s all very well to say that it isn’t enough for atheist groups to simply open the door and allow black atheists to walk through, but it is equally valid to say that black atheists can’t always wait for an invitation. How often do black atheists submit articles describing their unique point of view to a magazine like Free Inquiry? How often on atheist chat boards do you see black atheists describing the particular cultural issues they have to deal with? And if they don’t make such an effort, how are white atheists supposed to become aware?
    Perhaps you think that it’s not 100% fair that the unprivileged group has to make some of the effort to promote inclusivity, but the world is not always 100% fair. Sometimes you have to meet in the middle to start things moving.
    And examples, please, of how the atheist community speaks patronizingly about religious observance among minorities, to a greater degree than they do about religious observance among whites.

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  32. 32
    Vitamin R

    Amazing post and interview!
    I also wanted to say, regarding some of the comments on why more black atheists jumping into the spotlight . . . maybe it’s because they don’t want to be marginalized, patronized, condescended to. Or made to feel as if their POV and experiences, and opinions don’t count. That’s happened to me a few times on atheist and political forums, in regards to race issues, gender issues, sexuality issues, religious issues (I’m black, female, a lesbian, and an atheist). Once I mentioned that I’m part of whatever minority is under discussion, sometimes, perfectly reasonable discourse took on a condescending tone. Not as if I was stupid, but merely as if, being part of the minority under discussion, of course I’d be too biased to be reasonable on the subject.
    I’m not saying this is true of All Black Atheists Everywhere, and all the time. But speaking for myself, I sometimes feel as if the white, male, Judeo-Christian, heterosexual viewpoint is considered the default way of looking at the world. The desired way. The standard to which everything I say is held, and by which it’s judged. When I agree with that viewpoint, I’m of course more likely to get a pat on the back, or an open mind. When I disagree or challenge it . . . well, there’s not so much back-patting open-mindedness. I (not always, but sometimes) get “corrected” about how things really are for the minority group the corrector isn’t even a part of, and may not even interact with on a daily basis. I get accused of playing the minority “card” (being a minority, btw, isn’t a card to be played, it’s a fact of life), or of making excuses when all I’m offering is a possible reason for why whatever group may feel this or that way on certain issues.
    I know I’m not right all the time on every issues regarding all minorities. But that doesn’t mean I should be condescended to or dismissed, instead of reasoned with or argued with.
    It’s insulting, and hurtful, at least to me. I’m not saying this is the experience for all black atheists, all female atheists, all gay atheists, but . . . people of different races, genders, sexuality, classes, lifestyles, whatever, have different mindsets, and different ways of seeing the world. Paying lip service to tolerance isn’t the same as actually being tolerant, accepting or welcoming.

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