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Race, Gender, and Atheism, Part 2: What We Need To Do — And Why

Black scarlet letterSo what can atheists do about the race and gender imbalance in our movement?

And why should we care?

In yesterday’s post, I asked the question, “Why is the atheist movement so predominantly white and male?” I talked about how, even with the best of intentions, a largely white male community can become a self- fulfilling prophecy. I talked about unconscious bias, and the tendency of a group to focus on the concerns of the people who currently dominate that group. And I talked about how the longer a community stays imbalanced, the more this bias and focus get perpetuated… and how this turns into a self-perpetuating cycle, in which women and people of color don’t feel comfortable joining because the movement is already largely made up of white men.

Today, I want to talk about what — specifically — we can do about all this.

And I want to talk about why we should care.

*

Self fulfilling prophecyLet’s start with what we can do about it. And let’s start with the self- fulfilling prophecy bit. Self-fulfilling prophecies can seem beyond hope: just another of those stupid hard-wired human behaviors that can’t be fixed. But that’s just not the case here. There are specific, practical steps that the currently white male- dominated atheist movement could take to derail this cycle, or at least to mitigate it. And self-perpetuating cycles can be used for the power of good as well as evil.

Outreach handFor starters: Atheist organizations could make an effort to reach out to women and people of color, and to get the women and people of color they have now into positions of greater prominence and visibility. Atheist conference organizers could make an effort to get more women and people of color as speakers…. both speaking on issues of race/ gender, and just speaking about atheism generally. Atheist speakers’ bureaus could make an effort to recruit women and people of color. Atheist writers could make an effort to cite the contributions and ideas of female atheists and atheists of color, both from history and from the current movement. Atheist bloggers could make an effort to cite/ link to atheist blogs run by women and people of color, and to include them in their blogrolls. Atheist leaders — writers, speakers, organization leaders — could make an effort to address specific concerns of women and people of color in the atheist community. Atheists of any degree of involvement with the atheist community could speak out when they see racism and sexism in the movement. Etc.

(This is just the tip of the iceberg. Anyone who has other suggestions, please speak up in the comments.)

And as these efforts take hold and the movement becomes more inclusive, with more diversity in our leadership and our public figures, more women and people of color will feel comfortable and welcomed about joining.

Inclusivity can also be a self-perpetuating cycle.

Some organizations/ bloggers/ writers/etc. are already doing this. Good for them. More of us need to be doing it… and those of us who are doing it need to be doing it more.

Discovery-of-the-unconciousThe “unconscious bias” thing isn’t hopeless, either. It can also be addressed by taking positive steps to make our movement more inclusive. One of the great things about having a more diverse community is that your unconscious biases get called into question: partly just by seeing counterexamples on a regular basis, and partly because there’ll be more people around to call you on your shit. (People who feel more safe in calling you on your shit, since they’ll feel like they have backup.) And again, this can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy for good instead of evil. The more conscious a community gets of its biases and the more it works to overcome them, the more welcoming that community will be to a more diverse population.

FocusAnd ditto with focus. The more women and people of color we have in our movement — especially in positions of leadership and visibility — the more that the specific concerns of women and people of color will be heard and addressed. And the more those concerns are heard and addressed, the more inviting our community will be to a wider and more diverse population. Again, the power of the self-perpetuating cycle can be a force for good instead of evil.<br clear=all /.
EarI want to mention a couple of other specific things we can do about all this, before I move on to why I think we should. A very important one, and one that’s really hard for a lot of people, is this: When someone brings up the subject of racism or sexism in the atheist movement — listen. Pay attention. Don’t just get defensive and reflexively reject the idea out of hand. We don’t have to agree with the criticism — heck, I often see accusations of sexism that I think are bullshit — but we should think about it for more than ten seconds, and listen to what exactly people are saying about it, before we decide whether or not the criticism has merit.

As Cubik’s Rube so eloquently put it in his excellent piece, Isms, in my opinion, are not good: “Don’t let your first response to a potentially legitimate complaint — made in as calm and reasoned and generous a manner as you could ask for, lodged by a demographic that consists of half the population of the planet and who have a history of being beaten down by the other half — be to tell them to shut up because they’re wrong to feel the way they do. That should not be where you instinctively, immediately go to when someone’s not happy with the way things are.”

I mean — if our immediate, instinctive response to criticisms about racism or sexism is to say, “That’s ridiculous, how dare anyone suggest such a thing, this is just PC whining”? That’s a good clue that what’s going on isn’t really a thoughtful, considered response, but is instead a reflexive rationalization of something that isn’t right but that we don’t want to think about.

And one last strategy bit before I move on: Those of us who are already on board? Those of us who see how racial and gender imbalances can perpetuate themselves, even without anyone intending them to? Those of us who think this is important, and that it needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later?

Speech balloonsWe need to keep talking about it. And talking, and talking, and talking. We need to keep talking about specific instances of this phenomenon… and we need to keep talking about the phenomenon generally, and why it matters. Making this case within the atheist movement is like the atheist movement making our case for atheism outside it: it’s like water on rock. The ideas can take time to penetrate.

People with privilege will go to great lengths to (a) hang to to our privilege, and (b) deny that we have privilege so we can keep hanging on to it without feeling guilty. And people of all stripes will go to very great lengths indeed to avoid having to change our behavior. So we have to keep this issue — and the cognitive dissonance so many people seem to have about it — on everyone’s radar. We have to make it more of a pain in the ass to ignore ths stuff than it is to just deal with it already.

*

But why should we care? Why should it matter so much that the atheist movement is largely white and largely male, with so many white men in positions of leadership and power? Don’t we have other issues to worry about?

I’m going to answer as I so often do: with Greta’s unique blend of pie- eyed idealism and Machiavellian practicality.

IdealistThe idealistic reason? Because it’s the right thing to do. Because women atheists, and atheists of color, matter just as much as white male atheists. Because religion hurts women and people of color just as much as it does white men — more so, in many ways. Because women and people of color who are potential non-believers are just as important as white men who are potential non-believers, and it’s just as crucial to give them a safe place a place to land when they leave religion… as safe a place as we give to anybody else. Because fighting racism and sexism makes us all better people, and makes the world a better place. Because this conversation shouldn’t be about Us and Them: it should be about Us, all of us, all atheists and agnostics and skeptics and humanists and freethinkers and non-believers. Because we are all Us, all part of this movement, and we should all be treated as if we matter.

The pragmatic reason?

BicepsBecause it will make our movement stronger.

Numbers will make us stronger — and making the movement more inclusive will bring more numbers. Thinking through our ideas will make us stronger — and making the movement more inclusive will challenge us all to think more clearly. And diversity itself will make us stronger. It brings new ideas to the table. It multiplies our abilities to make alliances with other progressive political movements. It brings a broader range of ideas and viewpoints to the public debate. It makes us not look like elitist douchebags in the public eye.

Now, some people will likely respond that this is unfair. To take just one example from all of these issues: Some people will likely argue that making a conscious effort to move women and people of color into positions of visibility and leadership is reverse discrimination, unfair to white men who have worked hard for their prominent positions.

I have two responses to that.

One: The self-perpetuating cycles I talked about yesterday? The ways that unconscious bias can keep a movement largely white and male, and the ways that a largely white male movement will be off-putting to women and people of color, and the ways that a movement that doesn’t make an effort to address everyone’s concerns will wind up focusing on the concerns of the ones who traditionally run the show? Those cycles aren’t going to be broken by everyone just saying, “Okay, we promise not to be racist and sexist.” Those can only be broken by recognizing that there’s a real problem — and taking positive action to address it.

Obama half breed muslinTwo: In this world we live in, you’re really going to complain about the horrible injustice of discrimination against white men?

Really?

I mean — really?

I’ve been restraining the impulse to unleash the snark in this piece. But I’m feeling extremely irritated at the fact that I have to even explain this, and I’m going to let the snark off the leash for a moment. People — this is basic. This is Political Organizing 101. This should not be controversial. The self-perpetuating reality of racism and sexism, and the necessity of taking action to counteract it? This is not rocket science. Every serious progressive political movement on the block knows about it, and is at least making a gesture towards pretending to care about it. If we want to be a serious progressive political movement, we need to take this seriously.

In fact, I’m going to get even harsher here for a moment. When we say things like, “The reason there aren’t more women/POC in the atheist movement is that women/POC have special reasons for staying in religion, or for not coming out as atheists”? When we say things like, “How dare you accuse me of even unconscious racism and sexism — I’m not the problem, the unique personality and culture of women and people of color is the problem”? When we say things like, “Sure, our movement is mostly white and male — but that’s not our problem, and we shouldn’t be expected to do anything about it”?

What we’re really saying is, “White male atheists are the real atheists. White male atheists are the ones who count. The reasons white men stay in religion, or have a hard time coming out as atheists — those are the real reasons, the ones we should be addressing. Women and POC — they’re special, extra, other. We shouldn’t have to change our behavior to include them in the movement. This should be a One Size Fits all movement — and that size should be the size it already is, a size that fits white men.”

And I hope I don’t have to explain why we shouldn’t be saying that.

Mistakes_were_madeOkay. Stepping back from Snarky Harshville now. The thing is, despite my visit to Snarky Harshville, I actually don’t think that this is about blame. I know that this is a difficult issue; I know that people get very defensive when it comes up; and I know that one of the reasons people are reluctant to act on it is that they don’t want to feel like it’s their fault. But this isn’t about blame. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be. As Cuttlefish so eloquently (and succinctly) put it in a comment on Part 1 of this piece:

“It is worth remembering that we can disagree honestly about the causes, but still agree that a problem exists, and most importantly, still work towards solutions to that problem. The solutions, after all, may even be independent of the causes (a headache is not caused by lack of aspirin), and a common agreement as to the problem, if not the causes, still allows us to evaluate our interventions to see if they alleviate that problem. And whether or not white males are a (or the) cause of the situation, it would be difficult to argue that they are not the ones in the position of having the most power to change that situation.”

And that’s a big part of my point. My point is that it doesn’t much matter whether this is happening on purpose. What matters is that it’s happening — and if we want it to not haunt us for the entire future of our movement, we need to learn to recognize it, and to take action on it, now. This is our responsibility… even if only in the most limited sense that we have power to do something about it.

Rainbow atheistLet me bring it back into practical terms, in a way I think everyone will get. The atheist movement has actually been quite good about being welcoming and inclusive of LGBTs. In fact, it’s very much taken the LGBT movement as its model (especially with the emphasis on coming out), paying close attention to the history of the LGBT movement and the lessons to be learned from its successes and failures.

So here’s a very important lesson the atheist movement can learn from the LGBT movement and our history:

We screwed this up.

Badly.

We still screw this up.

And we are still paying for it.

The early LGBT movement was very much dominated by gay white men. And the gay white male leaders of that movement had some seriously bad race and sex stuff going on: treating gay men of color as fetishistic Others, objects of sexual desire rather than members of the community… and treating lesbians as alien Others, inscrutable and trivial.

RainbowRacismAnd we are paying for it today. Relations between lesbians and gay men, between white queers and queers of color, are often strained at best. Conversations in our movement about race and gender take place in a decades-old context of rancor and bitterness, and they can be a minefield, in which nothing anybody says is right. We still have a decided tendency to treat gay men of color as fetish objects, and lesbians as sexless aliens. And we still, after decades, have a decided tendency to put gay white men front and center as the most visible, most iconic representatives of our community.

That makes it hard on everybody in the LGBT movement. It creates rifts that make our community weaker. And it has a seriously bad impact on our ability to make effective social change. We have, for instance, a profoundly impaired ability to shift homophobic attitudes in the black churches… since those churches can claim, entirely legitimately, that the gay community is racist and doesn’t care about black people. If we hadn’t ignored black churches for the last decade, if we had done any serious outreach and alliance building with the black communities for the last decade, we might not have lost Prop 8.

We screwed this up. We still screw this up. We are paying for our screwups.

Fork in road sign.phpAtheists have a chance to not do that.

We’re not going to single-handedly fix racism and sexism overnight. Even I’m not enough of a pie-eyed optimist to think that. But we have a chance in the atheist movement to learn from the mistakes of the LGBT movement, and the mistakes of every other progressive movement before ours. Our movement — at least, the current incarnation of our movement, the visible and vocal and activist incarnation of our movement — is still relatively new. We have a unique opportunity to handle this problem early: before these self-perpetuating cycles become entrenched, before decades of ugly history and bad feelings poison the well.

Let’s take that opportunity.

Let’s take action on this now.

Comments

  1. Bruce Gorton says

    I am going to add another thing here: Criticise.
    Seriously, what has built the atheist community in the white population has been a willingness to criticise majority ideas, well if we want to get other people into the movement we need to be willing to criticise minority ones too.
    That means that you should learn about liberation theology and why it is wrong. Branch out from Abrahamic religion every now and then and demonstrate what utter bullshit Hindu belief can be.
    Because all of that about the Bible being crap? Isn’t much of an issue for a Hindu.
    And learn some of the history of what it means to be atheist.
    Learn about the Indian atheist movement (And India’s first PM), learn about atheists who marched against segregation.
    There is a long, proud and multiracial and non-sexist history to atheism, and that needs to be brought out.
    We can go a long way in any community by talking to the community. That doesn’t mean just being nice and charitable, it means learning the jokes.
    And it means destroying some of your own misconceptions of what is and isn’t the community you are interacting with.
    You don’t have to devalue other people’s struggles to talk about your own, and they don’t have to devalue yours so learn to say “Me too” as a term of support, rather than one-upmanship.

  2. says

    Arrgh! Just lost my comment, take 2.
    A very important post since self-criticism of the community has the benefit of the people who need to hear the argument actually being in front of it.
    Brian Dunning from Skeptoid did a recent podcast on why he thinks women are under-represented in skeptical/atheist conferences. He thinks the people who go to these are of above average dedication to it which is correlated with general obsessive netgeekiness, which in turn is a culture where women are still under-represented whether within atheism or outside it. For instance he said at TAM there was a HUGE number of people with a computer science background most of which are men (so this issue is generally entangled with the problem of underrepresentation in topics considered male).
    Not sure if it’s right but sounds like he’s on the right track. And if true it leads to a very concrete form of action (same one as you advocated in part 1): branch out, reach out across more platforms and media; online, offline, silly and serious, country and western etc.
    PS. Yes, I’m a white male from a comp sci background :)

  3. Beebs. says

    There’s a lot of posts already on the issue (more to do with skeptical issues, which is where the first post started with) at Podblack’s blog, spanning a year or so now. That’s worth checking out.

  4. WScott says

    Great post, Greta. Just a couple thoughts:

    Atheist conference organizers could make an effort to get more women and people of color as speakers…. both speaking on issues of race/ gender, and just speaking about atheism generally.

    I think having women/POC speak on general atheism topics is particularly crucial, at least initially. If the only time us Old White Guys ever see women speak is on gender issues, it tends to reinforce the idea that they are Others who don’t share our concerns. But if we see women speakers addressing the same issues that matter to us, it’s easier to think of them as part of Us. Ditto for race issues. I’m not saying those issues shouldn’t be addressed – obviously, they need to be. But if conference organizers only invite women/POC to speak on sexism/racism issues, that’ll just reinforce the (mostly subconscious) stereotypes a lot of people have.
    In my experience, for most people who hold racist views (to include much of my extended family) it’s not really about skin color; it’s really more cultural. “Those Other People just aren’t like us.” Same is true, in varying degrees, for sexism and homophobia. I’m not saying that excuses it, but it changes how you address the problem. The gay right movement is a great example of this – the more people regard gays as The People Next Door, the less likely they are to hold homophobic beliefs.

    It makes us not look like elitist douchebags in the public eye.

    And I hate to say it, but that’s exactly how the movement is perceived by a lot of people.

    The solutions, after all, may even be independent of the causes (a headache is not caused by lack of aspirin), and a common agreement as to the problem, if not the causes, still allows us to evaluate our interventions to see if they alleviate that problem.

    Fair point. But it’s also important to look for causes, to make sure we’re not just treating the symptoms. For example, let’s say the people who think women/POC are somehow predisposed against skepticism turn out to be right. (I’m not saying I think they are right…) The methods you’d use to address that might be very different than if it’s “just” a question of women/POC want to join but just don’t feel welcome.

  5. says

    Thank you for bringing this up and discussing it so cogently. As a scientist and a writer, I interact with many “progressive” groups. The attitude you describe is prevalent in all of them: science fiction writers, space exploration/SETI enthusiasts and practitioners, transhumanists, futurists. The leaders are perpetually self-selected white (upper-)middle class Anglosaxon men. The participants also seem to have concluded that being progressive in one aspect of their thinking makes them progressive across the board.
    I wrote about this issue in two of my blog entries:
    Girl Cooties Menace the Singularity!
    Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape

  6. Fastthumbs says

    Great post Greata – you bring up some pertinent issues about sexism and racism that I need to think about. So when are you scheduled to be on some panels and talkshow circuits?
    As far as out reaching out to athiests from non-Abrahmic religions, I think some of the barriers for this is language – How many USA citizens are conversent in Hindi, Farsi, Japanese, Chinese and other languages that are not English (and to a lesser extent Spanish)?
    On most of the Atheistic blogs that I follow, the main focus is criticism of Christianity (and to a lesser extent Islam). I have almost never see any mention of Eastern religion criticism, except for some pieces on new age “Woo”. I imagine for many Atheists coming from non-Abrahamic backgrounds even if they have passable ESL, the new Atheism movement doesn’t really offer much of a landing pad. I really would like to see an “internationalization” of the new Athiesm movement (which should address some of the racism issues/pitfalls), but at this point I’m at a lost of how to get this going or who to write to other then posting this in blog comments.

  7. JL says

    Thanks for this, Greta.
    As a multiracial female atheist (though, following from Michael’s comment, I AM a geek from a computer science background, so I don’t entirely break stereotypes :)), I have a couple more thoughts on race, and how atheists can not fuck it up. I bet this is going to sound harsh and snarky, though I don’t really mean for it to be:
    – Don’t make derisive statements about groups of color on the grounds that they are, or are stereotyped to be, more religious than white people. Don’t even try to tell me that atheists don’t do this. Being easily able to pass as white, and usually assumed to be white, means that people say things in front of you that they wouldn’t say in front of someone they knew was a person of color.
    – Don’t assume, explicitly or implicitly, that everyone deconverted from Christianity. This is a simple one, but I’ve seen a lot of people make this assumption without even really intending to. Similarly, don’t make assumptions about what faith an atheist of color deconverted from. Not all the Middle Eastern atheists out there deconverted from Islam, not all the Latino atheists deconverted from Catholicism, not all the South Asian atheists deconverted from Hinduism.
    – Don’t be patronizing and voyeuristic. If you meet a black atheist, or an Arab-American deconvert from Islam, or an atheist from any group that is perceived as being more hostile to atheism, don’t immediately assume that they suffered horrible abuse within their community or former faith, that their family has disowned them, that their father threatened to kill them, whatever, and start asking nosy questions because you want to hear an inspiring story. If they DID have a traumatic experience, they’ll tell you about it if they want you to know. If they didn’t, they may not appreciate your slur on their families and communities.
    – Don’t whale on a minority because it’s politically expedient. And think about your own unexamined biases when you single particular religions out for criticism, or cross the line from criticism of religious dogma to bashing the people associated with that religion. I’ll use Islam as an example here:
    In this country, Islam is largely associated with people of color, and Islamophobia is very connected with racism. Yes, you should criticize the logical problems with Islam, and yes, you should decry human rights abuses in the name of religion. But I have seen WAY too many Islamophobic atheists, atheists who totally buy the New Orientalist line (or worse), atheists who are more than happy to join in with US Christians who demonize Islam because they think it’s make atheists more accepted (the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and all that). And yes, you can find deconverts from Islam who are more than happy to endorse this – you can find deconverts from any religion who are happy to whale on it. But what do you think this looks like to *potential* deconverts from Islam. Or to deconverts who are on good terms with their still-Islamic families and don’t appreciate their being singled out for attack? What do you think a typical Middle Eastern atheist or potential deconvert thinks when they hear some of the crap that comes out of Hitch’s mouth? Do you really think that you, living in a society that fears the racial/ethnic groups associated with Islam, have no unexamined biases in that area that influence your emphases?
    Oh, a different example of this: I have actually (though fortunately, only rarely) heard atheists take right-wing positions on immigration on the grounds that Latinos are more religious and superstitious, so it is politically inexpedient for atheists to have the US get more Hispanic. This is problematic on many levels.

  8. WScott says

    @JL:

    But what do you think this looks like to *potential* deconverts from Islam. Or to deconverts who are on good terms with their still-Islamic families and don’t appreciate their being singled out for attack?

    That’s a great point, and one that cuts far wider than race & gender issues. IMO the atheist community seems to spend an awful lot of time either agreeing with ourselves, or arguing with fundamentalists (most of whom will never deconvert, no matter how rational our arguments). Maybe we should try putting a little more effort into polite persuation, and a little less into shouting at the un-persuadable?

  9. John the Drunkard says

    Not a comp-sci geek!
    In America, Blacks and women have the most to gain by escaping from the miasma of fundamentalist Xianity and generic woo-woo.
    As a teacher, librarian, musician and sober drunk; I run up against the problem of overlapping ‘difference’ all the time. No matter how LGBTQ-minority-female friendly I can be, I still bring only myself to the exchange.
    Veiled women don’t ask reference questions. When a newcomer finds themselves the only X or Y at their first meeting, I can be as as welcoming as all get-out but I can’t be the simple, visible demonstration of inclusion that would be the best help.
    I speak up for a god-free worldview whenever the matter comes up. Since Prop. 8, I wear my little ‘A’ pin everywhere, but it goes unrecognized except by Nathaniel Hawthorn fans.
    Two fine sources for inclusive atmosphere setting:
    1. http://www.positiveatheism.org has a quote page that includes a goodly number of women and non-Northern Europeans.
    2. Susan Jacoby’s book: ‘Women Without Superstition’ is a terrific collection of bios and extracts from historical figures. I think that any woman who feels isolated by her athiesm in her social environment and by her femaleness among ‘out’ athiests can find a great lift by reading this.

  10. says

    I’ve been nodding and agreeing throughout your post, Greta, but now I’ll actually do something.
    This seems like a good time to point out the excellent atheist blogging of Ex-Fundamentalist, Lorena. Her writing has been getting better and better over the last few months as she recovers from Christianity. All her writing is personal and original and much of it is very insightful.
    I look forward to seeing her writing over the next year! Do take a moment to check out her blog.

  11. says

    Note that American Atheists and FFRF were both founded by and run by women. FFRF in particular has a strong history of supporting women in freethought. The AHA has a fairly good record of female leadership and support of feminism, as well.
    Looks like there will be four female speakers at the Atheist Alliance International Convention in October (including black feminist Sikivu Hutchinson), two at the FFRF conference in November.
    There will also be at least one ex-Muslim speaker at the AAI convention.

  12. says

    Looks like there will be four female speakers at the Atheist Alliance International Convention in October…

    Yes.
    Out of 27 speakers.
    And by my count (which admittedly could be off, since there aren’t pictures available for all speakers), there are two people of color. Again, out of 27 speakers.
    In other words: Out of 27 speakers, 22 are white men.
    (Plus they scheduled Sikivu Hutchinson against one of the conference’s biggest draws: PZ Myers. Which is pissing me off, partly because I think it showed poor sensitivity to these issues, and partly because I really want to see both of them.)
    And yes, before you ask: I’ve written to them about this. They haven’t yet gotten back to me, though.

  13. says

    If any group ought to be able to deal with critical examination, it’s atheists.
    When you’re in the traditionally privileged group, you can be blind to casual discrimination – for the obvious example, we’ve all seen it with the sort of blindness many theists have toward discrimination against atheists and built-in privilege for theists.
    — They’re not mean, they just can’t *see* it.
    We (in this case, us males, us whites, etc) need to recognize that the same thing can happen with us – and that if it can, it probably does, so if someone is telling us it is happening, we should as a starting point assume that they’re right, even if we can’t see it.
    Come on, why would anyone think we can’t stand a little criticism and self-examination?
    I want atheism to feel open to anyone, not like a club at all. I want to hear different perspectives on atheism.
    Goodness, I might *learn* something!
    Thanks, Greta. Please, please, never hold back on this stuff.

  14. says

    I’ve got another one, though it may not be sound great to everyone: raise the profile of the movement’s non-science elements. While science is good, many of the most prominent public atheists are scientists, which tends to contribute to an “atheism = scientific” idea (which conferences full of computer science people seems likely to support). And lots of people aren’t very sciency.
    Which doesn’t mean they belive unscientific things. Plenty of people accept that science is generally right without being overly excited about it. I’d consider myself an agnostic who’s got a lot of sympathy with the atheist cause, but like many people I sucked at science at school, and this was because my brain simply finds the subject dry and abstruse. Admire the scientific method, am grateful for the presence of scientists, but am really, really not one myself.
    And if someone feels like replying, ‘That’s just because you haven’t studied it right, study it some more and you’ll love it’ or ‘You can’t have atheism without science’ – well, you can see why non-scientists might think twice before running to an atheist event.
    I regularly lurk but seldom comment, but one of the reasons I love Greta’s blog is that she ranges over subjects like politics, culture and sexuality, subjects that as a non-scientist I find interesting and can see the atheist side of. Then there are the arts – there have got to be atheist artists, writers, musicians – and pop culture, and history, and all sorts of other things. I know all these things are part of the atheist movement, but they’re not the famous parts – not the parts someone who doesn’t already follow the movement will be aware of.
    This is not to say that diversity will inevitably bloom if people lay off the sciences. But, the thing is, the sciences are fairly heavily occupied by white men, so if atheists focuses too exclusively on science, white men are who they’ll interest. Come the revolution science will be diverse in all countries, but till that day, it’s good to cast the interest net as wide as possible.
    Outreach and criticism are right and necessary, and I agree with what everyone is saying – indeed, their points are more important than mine. But I think you can often tempt people into the room with intellectual or cultural candy. If the only candy people hear about is barley sugar, the chocolate-lovers will stay away even if there’s chocolate on the inside. The chocolate and liquorice and marshmallows and toffees need a bigger profile. Diverse people have diverse tastes.

  15. Bruce Gorton says

    Posted by: Jim Lippard | September 10, 2009 at 02:08 PM
    Not enough – and not varied enough.
    And they are suffering for it.
    Not just from a gender/race bias point of view, but also from an interest point of view.
    A lot of the point to these conferences is it gives a chance for atheists from different walks of life, and with different experiences to come together and learn from each other.
    That means that what is interesting is not so much “Hey these are big stars” but “What is your story?”
    And about 22 speakers in that conference are going to be telling a story from a background, which while not the same, is going to have a common theme in white male priviledge.
    A more interesting lineup would include more stories, with more themes.

  16. says

    Michael, above, paraphrasing Brian Dunning: He thinks the people who go to these are of above average dedication to it which is correlated with general obsessive netgeekiness, which in turn is a culture where women are still under-represented whether within atheism or outside it.
    Been to any fanfiction writers’ conventions lately?
    Women can be plenty obsessively nutgeeky, in large numbers. Just sayin’.
    Er, my point here being that whatever it is that’s keeping women in the minority in the new-atheist movement, I suspect that it’s not our lack of obsessive nutgeekiness.

  17. Jolanta Benal says

    Funny, I toddled off to RichardDawkins.net to buy a scarlet A T-shirt, because how could I resist? Except the T-shirts are “unisex.” Unisex is bullshit. Unisex fits men. It’s amazing how easy it is to casually exclude people without the least thought behind it.

  18. Lara says

    one more idea on how the atheist movement can make sure it includes women and people of colour…
    have you ever noticed that in a public setting where people speak, that men dominate the speaking out of proportion to their numbers in that setting? I was at a public meeting yesterday (I was taking your advice Greta and involving myself in local politics – thank you). The people attending were roughly half men and half women, mostly white. The people speaking were overwhelmingly men.
    If you are male, next time you are in mixed company, take a note of who dominates the speaking. Take a note also of who interrupts who. You will probably find it is overwhelmingly men interrupting women, and overwhelmingly men speaking. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for women, if we are dominated and interrupted we are less likely to bother speaking up in future.
    I don’t think any of the men (and probably almost all of the women) consciously realised the men were dominating that meeting yesterday. I did, mostly because I’m a woman.
    If those in the atheist movement are fully aware of this tendency, I think this will go a very long way towards being more inclusive.

  19. Jeremy says

    After reading this I came across the podcast from “The Infidel Guy Show.” He (Reginald Finley) might be considered for exposure for your points.

  20. says

    i just wanted to chime in as a black, female atheist and say, yes. we do exist. i even have a degree from Divinity school! heh. i have lots of nonwhite atheist friends, too.
    GC: i adore you, but brevity can be your friend. i’m going to go try to read the whole of this post, but as people used to tell me when i was a serious blogger- Less can be More.

  21. says

    how to “grow” the atheist movement to include people of color and women, more often? it’s simple:
    money.
    i’m not saying wealth is the only path to atheism, but gosh. it helps. the better question is: why do so many POC and women turn to superstition and “faith” as an answer to their challenges in life? well, mostly because they can’t afford anything else.
    education costs money. science costs money. traveling a wider world costs money. being self sufficient costs money. without money, helplessness and fear can cause one to turn to the very predators who exist for the express purpose of herding the poor and desperate into their churches, making promises of relief that the desperate must believe, as they have little else.
    religion is the opiate of those too poor to afford good drugs/sex/escape from their problems. you want to increase atheism? help poor people, brown people, all people, out of the confines of being slaves to whatever economic reality they are forced to endure. really, i think it’s that simple.
    there will always be those who want to play the game of superstition. it’s easier on the unthinking and lazy, than to exist the in the world of reality. but for most, who just want a fair deal and a consistent response from society to who they are, atheism is a great choice when they can afford it to be.

  22. says

    GC: i adore you, but brevity can be your friend.

    So I’ve been told. In fact, I have a funny story about that. Actually, it’s not so much funny as it is long…
    Seriously, though: Believe it or not, this is the edited-down version. I do my best to make complicated ideas simple, but sometimes there’s a limit to how much I can do that without making things simplistic. Especially when it comes to ideas that people are resistant to. I thought about breaking this into three parts instead of two, so each part would be shorter… but I feared that people wouldn’t stick with it. It is something I’m working on, though.

  23. says

    Thanks Greta for foregrounding these issues yet again on your blog. Needless to say I’ve also continued to get some reactionary blowback on my race/gender critiques of the so-called new atheism mvmt in my own writings on the subject

  24. J says

    Why should we try and do anything? The iron law of PC-ery is that “Nothing done to rectify supposed injustices will EVER be accepted as ‘right’ or ‘enough’.”

  25. J says

    *This is not to say that diversity will inevitably bloom if people lay off the sciences. But, the thing is, the sciences are fairly heavily occupied by white men, so if atheists focuses too exclusively on science, white men are who they’ll interest.*
    Completely backwards. I went to two college graduations the a few weekends ago. One was for the undergrads at Rennselaer Polytechnic–as science-heavy a place as you’ll find. The other was for graduates from two different humanities grad programs. The RPI graduation: A variegated rainbow of races and nationalities with headscarves and skullcaps and African-American honor society stoles aplenty.
    The humanities graduation: White people, front to back, back to front.

  26. says

    Why should we try and do anything? The iron law of PC-ery is that “Nothing done to rectify supposed injustices will EVER be accepted as ‘right’ or ‘enough’.”

    So you’re arguing that, because race and gender are complicated minefields in which the struggle is probably going to last the rest of our lives and beyond… therefore we should give up, and not take action at all?
    Or are you arguing that, when it comes to race and gender, the only reason people do the right thing is to get praised for it, and if we don’t get sufficient praise for our efforts (and sometimes get criticized for missteps), we don’t have any reason to bother at all?
    Hm. Those aren’t very convincing arguments.
    And are you really trying to argue that injustices against women and people of color are “supposed”?
    Really?
    I mean, really???

  27. Serenegoose says

    I’ve noticed that many progressive movements are dominated by academics. I’ve attended a few meetings (I travel across the country to be the token T at LGBT meetings) and by and large, academics take -no effort- to include those who are poor, or who have not spent X years at university studying this kind of thing. Academics also tend to be white, because academics tend to need to be funded, which given class/race distribution, presents you with a skewed demographic. It’s no surprise to me therefore that the majority of visible people in this movement are white and male. As far as why less women goes, I have no idea on that one. Could it be that the reason there are less minorities/oppressed groups are involved in the new atheism movement, is because the activists are already invested in their own individual causes? Campaigning feminists don’t have the time to be campaigning atheists too, and so on? I’m sorry if this has already been covered, it’s 4am. >>

  28. Bruce Gorton says

    Why should we try and do anything? The iron law of PC-ery is that “Nothing done to rectify supposed injustices will EVER be accepted as ‘right’ or ‘enough’.”
    Posted by: J | September 18, 2009 at 09:55 AM

    So what?
    Progress relies not on the belief that things will ever be perfect, but in the belief that things can be better.
    So really, who cares that nothing we ever do will be “enough”? The point is to at least try and make a start.

  29. says

    “In this world we live in, you’re really going to complain about the horrible injustice of discrimination against white men?”

    (Emphasis added.) Ouch! I stand corrected! I used to think we could just start being “perfect” and lead by example, but the facts of this world are the ones we need to deal with.
    That means swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction, and that means white men take their turn in the barrel (if that’s how they want to see it). Sure, those individuals may not have discriminated, but I didn’t run up the national debt and I still have to pay for it. This is starting to sound more and more like taking one for the team, and less like the vicious real discrimination that it’s a reaction against.
    Thanks for convincing me of a better way!

  30. says

    So here’s a very important lesson the atheist movement can learn from the LGBT movement and our history:
    We screwed this up.
    Badly.
    We still screw this up.
    And we are still paying for it.
    The early LGBT movement was very much dominated by gay white men. And the gay white male leaders of that movement had some seriously bad race and sex stuff going on: treating gay men of color as fetishistic Others, objects of sexual desire rather than members of the community… and treating lesbians as alien Others, inscrutable and trivial.

    Yes. I made this point on a forum and got chewed out about black people being too religious and just as bad as white racists when it comes to the civil rights of gays. No matter how many times I said yes, denying the civil rights of anyone is wrong, the person I was discussing it with wouldn’t except that without community outreach, you can’t expect any kind of solidarity. That it’s nice to say everyone should support everyone else’s civil rights, but the reality is, until people stop viewing other people as simply Other . . . nothing meaningful can be accomplished.
    In the real world, outreach and glad-handing can go a long, long way. Effort counts for more than most people think. If the LGBT movement, and to a greater extent the atheist movement put more effort into reaching minorities in the ways you suggested, or even doing what the religious did in regards to Prop 8, going door to door, church to church . . . I seriously think we could change the country. Maybe the world, since we’d be leading by example.
    Thank you for another great article :)

  31. says

    Dr. F. Grogan: Please either take down this petition, or take the quotation of my writing out of it. I do not endorse this poll — I think it trivializes the issues I’m raising, and furthermore I think it trivializes and mocks transgenderism and sex change operations — and I do not want my writing used in an apparent endorsement of it.
    If you want to run this petition, you are completely in your rights to do so. But I do not endorse it, and I do not want anyone reading it to think that I had anything to do with it. Please remove any and all of my writing form it. Thank you.

  32. says

    Someone (I can’t remember who now) recently pointed out that the “no atheists in foxholes” argument, [is] actually a strong argument [...] for God as a sign of desperation in desperate times.

    I had a post on ths subject in the Carnival of the Godless last year. Is it possible you were thinking of that?
    Because that would be cool. And since I yearn for Greta’s recognition, it must automatically be true :-)

  33. obeymydog says

    I found a great deal of clear, pragmatic thinking in this post and the one that preceded it and, having not explicitly considered the issue before in terms of atheism as a movement, will happily attempt to formulate broader, more inclusive plans for meetings, organizational layout, etc. that are specifically conducive to making women, people of colour, and our LGBT comrades more welcome and heard in those contexts. Sadly, like D, I couldn’t help but notice that Greta couldn’t quite resist the kick-in-the-balls-for-comic-relief commentary about how the unique and distinct experiences of white males could never include meaningful discrimination. Amusingly, she disproves her implicit contention quite neatly in just one sentence: “In this world we live in, you’re really going to complain about the horrible injustice of discrimination against white men?”. Come. the fuck. on. Discrimination is always horrible and by definition unjust. If we have achieved any degree of personal openness and commitment to improving the state of our species (or planet?!) then it should be painfully, unavoidably obvious that all sexism is worth watching for and rooting out in our organizations, not just that which occurs against women; same with racism and all the other discriminatory -isms. Of course when one group gets the brunt of the bigotry the majority of our focus should be there, but that’s no excuse to indulge in counter-bigotry and demean others for their genetically assigned makeup. At the very best it’s childish but I worry that this thinking on a larger scale makes atheists seem petty and vindictive in a world where sharing alternatives to (and freedom from) religion is already perceived as aggressive and heartless.

  34. Queenlyzard says

    *applauds* Thank you for these posts. I’m going to say that the “listening” one is going to be the toughest, because I’ve found (belonging to a number of atheist groups myself) that the atheist community seems to have a disproportionate number of know-it-all types with chips on their shoulder– or maybe just people who like arguing a bit too much. I can only hope that the same critical thinking which brought most of us to atheism will also bring us to understand the issues you mention here.

  35. painless says

    Thank you! These posts have put into words precisely why I’ve stopped hanging about at atheist and skeptic blogs and forums on the whole – if you dare to point out that something is problematic the “YOU ARE A PC ANTI-SCIENCE ZEALOT ZOMG!” response is pretty often instantaneous. As though practicing science or being an atheist inoculates you against holding unexamined prejudices. Apparently my choices are to shut up and suck it up, or leave. I chose to leave.

  36. says

    Painless: Please don’t leave. Please stay and fight. I know how much it sucks — but it won’t ever stop sucking if people who see the problem don’t stay and fight it.

  37. G.S. says

    Dear Greta:
    Self-identification (since so many others are doing it):
    -Atheist (from a Muslim family)
    -Female
    -Queer
    -American whose parents are from south Asia
    -Pharamacy major
    -Definitley a geek
    Thanks so much for writing this! I agree with you that some of the racism and sexism that goes on is probably not intentional but subconscious, and maybe that’s why people get upset if someone brings it up. They don’t want to be racist or sexist, because they realize it’s wrong. This is, at least, a good thing. Since they realize that racism and sexism is wrong, it provides a starting point to begin a conversation.
    I think JL makes some good points. It bothers me when some people (even atheists) target only some religious groups and overlook others. Sometimes, it makes sense. When someone uses one religion as an example but makes it clear that they have similar views on other religions or when someone writes an article addressing a very specific topic in a certain religion, that makes sense. However, when someone always criticizes only one religion and sees nothing wrong with any other (or when someone criticizes all religions except for the one that has a special place in their heart, maybe because they grew up in it) that bothers me.
    As a person from a Muslim family who doesn’t believe in Islam, I see many people who offer lots of valid criticism of Islam, but I also see those who use criticism of Islam to hide what is really racism underneath. (On the other side, I think some Muslims incorrectly accuse those who are offering real criticism of being racist, which annoys me.)
    One thing that bothers me is that, when a person from a minority group speaks up, they are assumed to be speaking only for their own group. I can read a book by a person who is a different race or gender and still learn a lot from it, and I wish more people would realize that books written and ideas expressed by people in various minority groups can apply to and inspire others outside the group as well.
    The comparison you made to the LGBT movement was great. I am very, very appreciative for all the LGBT movement has done, and continues to do. However, I’ve also noticed that the focus seems to be on white males. Also, while there seems to be a focus on convincing Christians to be more accepting of homosexuality, there doesn’t seem to be as much of an effort to convince people of other faiths, such as Islam. (I admit I am not an active participant in the movement, so please correct me if I’m wrong about this impression.) On a related note, I also really enjoyed your posts on being an atheist in the queer community. It shows how people who are being discriminated against can still turn around and discriminate against someone else.
    Lastly, I have to admit that I am one of the people who is too often silent and “in the closet” about various aspects of myself. Posts like yours give me hope and inspire me. I hope I’ll be able be express myself openly. Thanks so much!
    -G. S.

  38. says

    Greta, I think this has been mentioned before, the Global Atheist convention in Melbourne, Australia next year? http://www.atheistconvention.org.au/program/
    Saturday: Phillip Adams, Taslima Nasrin, PZ Myers and a panel of women chaired by Maggie Millar featuring Lyn Allison, Tanya Levin, Leslie Cannold and Jane Caro.
    Women in total number nine out of twenty-four, which includes the special panel presenters on women and atheism.

  39. says

    Ugh, you were doing so well until you went into Snarky Harshville.
    I see this in particular with the atheist community, but it’s true for every civil rights campaign on behalf of anyone: people dismissing opposing opinions because those who say them are “other”, are outside the movement.
    Please, not every white man criticizing affirmative action wants white men to remain on top of the heap. Not every man who questions a feminist statistic thinks that rape is okay. And not every theist who thinks the atheist movement is too harsh thinks that atheists should be harassed in the armed forces.
    To claim that raising dissenting points is an example of “inherent bias”* serves not to address those dissenting points, but to make them go away.
    Which is a horrible mistake.
    Because you are right when it comes to the atheist movement being largely filled with white men, and that this is a problem. Your ideas for moving past this are generally good ones.
    But you entered Snarky Harshville and dismissed criticism of your ideas by white men just because they are white men.
    Why is this a problem?
    Because no one who disagrees with you will be convinced your argument is right; they will just be insulted and alienated, and will probably leave the debate.
    And white men who agree with you hear this little voice in their heads saying, “We will only listen to you if you don’t express dissent”.
    Anger can motivate you to debate, but it should never motivate you to kill the debate.
    *It is also often true, but it says nothing about the validity of the criticisms themselves.
    P.S. Someone earlier made the point that women in the atheist movement shouldn’t only discuss women’s issues (ditto for non-whites), and I couldn’t agree more. When that happens, it serves as a way for white men not to have to confront those issues as well, and vice versa.

  40. says

    Just to elaborate on why dismissing views as inherent bias is a problem:
    The first white opponents of affirmative action were predominantly racist pricks, and were derided as such.
    Fair enough.
    But it became a habit. People got to associate opposition to affirmative action as racism. They ended up dismissing *all* white opposition to affirmative action as racist; affirmative action supporters did not address why the critiques of affirmative action were incorrect.
    It is now to the point where women who oppose affirmative action for women are themselves “anti-woman”, and blacks who oppose affirmative action for African Americans have “turned white”.
    The result?
    Those who support affirmative action never hear the criticism.
    Those who oppose affirmative action never hear why their criticism is wrong.
    How, exactly, is this a good outcome?

  41. Eclectic says

    Hortensio: You have a good point, but I don’t udnerstand how it applies to what Greta wrote. By calling it “Snarky Harshville”, she hung a lampshade on it and acknowledged that she sees the downside to that attitude.
    I see your point as “inherent bias is no reason to dismiss a speaker completely”, and her point is that inherent bias is real, and needs to be grappled with.
    I fail to see any significant conflict between those two points.
    So how exactly did her essay go off the rails?
    If you’re saying that there is no problem at all, then yes you disagree with her premise. But you don’t seem to be saying that. And I don’t see anything she wrote suggesting that white male atheists opinions are worthless.
    Just that they might be a bit blind to a particular point, and should look for it a bit harder.

  42. says

    Eclectic: I think we are largely in agreement, though I am sorry for being too general.
    I always kick myself when I realize that I’m treating someone differently for no better reason than an accident of birth – and if a Canadian, such as myself, raised in a liberal society, can have that problem, it’s definitely something white men must confront. As such, Greta’s thesis seems to hold up with me so far.
    My main objection is simply style. I don’t like it when people say, or imply, that what anyone has to say is unimportant, or even just plain wrong, because we can’t trust their motives.
    Greta appears to dismiss the idea that “the unique personality and culture of women and people of color is the problem” because she feels that it is used by white men to avoid their own biases; ditto for the other two remarks in quotes.
    Greta is correct in pointing out that white men often suggest these points in order to avoid confronting their own racism or sexism. However, she did not mention this and simply move on to whether their points were valid, partly valid, or rubbish.
    She instead said:
    * What we’re really saying is, “White male atheists are the real atheists. White male atheists are the ones who count….
    And I hope I don’t have to explain why we shouldn’t be saying that.” *
    That does not address any of the objections. It addresses that white men use them to avoid dealing with their own issues. But if the idea that women and non-whites feel uncomfortable because of their own cultures has *any* truth to it, then she has dismissed it unfairly, and possibly to the detriment of dealing with the issue of diversity in the atheist movement.
    While I hesitate to put words into Greta’s mouth, I think we are also in agreement that dismissing ideas because you distrust the motives of the speaker is, at best, silly. I don’t think she meant her rant the way I interpreted it, and I feel a bit silly myself at going on at such length over what was probably unintentional.
    Essentially I wanted to hear what Greta thinks about those three points in quotes, and felt cheated that she instead attacked the biases of the people suggesting them. I want to know what she thinks about the idea that women/POC have cultural biases that make it challenging for them to feel included. I want to know what she thinks about the idea that women/POC might have particular reasons to not come out as atheists.
    So I decided it might be a good time to mention the bane of all political discussions: dismissing ideas because you don’t like the motives of the speaker. I figure that even if I am horribly wrong in this instance*, it is still a useful point to bear in mind when discussing anything that people are passionate about.
    *I’m sorry if I am!
    P.S. Incidentally, Greta, in regards to the rest of your essay:
    Attaboy!
    I would be horribly unfair to say that this essay was awful in its entirety: on the whole, it is a wake up call for people to notice – and acknowledge – their own biases.

  43. says

    I am a vocal Black Atheist. Check my blog – especially the older posting “A Christian Dialogue – Part 1″ a rant explaining why I am fed-up with Christianity.
    apanage21.blogspot.com

  44. says

    Now, some people will likely respond that this is unfair. To take just one example from all of these issues: Some people will likely argue that making a conscious effort to move women and people of color into positions of visibility and leadership is reverse discrimination, unfair to white men who have worked hard for their prominent positions.
    I have two responses to that.

    I have an easy third: It is not a zero-sum proposition. It is not as if the white dudes we know and love have to be overthrown and replaced non-white, non-male human beings we know and love. Or those that we don’t know yet. Yet. Hearing the (desperately needed) thoughts of women and people of color, and raising their (Our!) level of visibility adds to the movement.
    I have to wonder what some doods are afraid of. Well, I hope their privilege is doomed, and if that’s what they are afraid of, too bad. Stop pouting and join the party.

  45. Janet says

    Hortensio,
    Your objection to the style of the writer is irrelevant to the content. But your criticism was not actually about style, was it.
    I am sorry you feel unable to discuss the problem without bringing up the mostly trivial criticisms men make and the minute amount of discrimination faced by men in comparison with the huge amount faced by women and people of color. You used affirmative action in recounting how white men were tarred as racists, and let’s be clear the vast majority making complaints were/are white men. Just as the vast majority of their complaints were/are racist and sexist.
    Most of the complaints by white men about this in the community, from the mountain of reading I’ve done, is being used to avoid their issues. The remaining tiny amount not employed in avoidance is frequently used by white men who are clueless to get women and minorities to waste there time educating them when they’ve made no effort on their own and haven’t read any material that may have been recommended.
    I don’t think women and people of color need to examine why their cultural biases do not fit in with white man’s culture. Women and POC who statistically face far more discrimination and oppression than white men are not obliged to examine or explain their reasons for not coming out. The reasons are so obvious that only someone looking from a position of privilege could miss them. Sadly this happens unconsciously and without intent.
    Instead of getting all defensive when problems are pointed out, in a largely courteous manner, maybe white men need to stop talking, listen, and observe with an open mind. Keep a sense of proportion, stay on topic and don’t have such thin skins!

  46. Kaveen Weerasinghe says

    Atheism is based on reason, rationality and scientific method of thinking. It is only the message of reason and rationality that matters not who says it. So i dont see any point in complaining that there arent enough women and colored people in its top level. If anyone is repelled from atheism because main people in the picture are white males i highly doubt whether they have the capacity to grasp the logical thought process behind atheism any way. I m asian but i ve never seen a better biology teacher than Dawkins

  47. says

    Is it just me, or do conversations like this sometimes come dangerously close to treating racial diversification as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself? Are we talking about what’s best for the atheist movement, or what’s best for minorities?

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