The Reason Rally, and Why It’s Good to Keep Hammering On About Diversity

There’s no way I can do just one Reason Rally report. It was something of a life-changing event, it was almost certainly a history-changing event, and I’m probably going to keep bringing ideas I got from it into my writing for some time.

So here’s the Reason Rally Idea For Today.

Those of us who keep hammering on about diversity in the atheist movement?

We need to keep doing it.

Why?

IT’S WORKING.

There was wonderful diversity at the Reason Rally. It wasn’t ideal; it wasn’t a perfect or even close reflection of the demographics of America or the world. (I don’t think it was, anyway: I was kind of in a distracted, blissed-out haze all day, and I wasn’t out there with a clipboard ticking off demographic boxes.) But I saw lots of women there, and lots of people of color, and lots and lots and lots of young people. As if it were the most natural thing in the world. As if it were obvious that this would be the face of atheism.

This is significantly different from the demographics we were seeing at big atheist events, even a few years ago. It’s so different, I have to assume that our conscious efforts to make ourselves more diverse have been paying off. [Read more…]

Diversity and the Best Atheist Blogger Award – Please Don’t Vote for Me

So I noticed the other day that my blog was one of the nominees for the About.com Readers’s Choice Award for Best Atheist/Agnostic Blogger. “Neat!” I thought. I voted for myself. I started getting ready to post a little post announcing the thing. I noticed that Pharyngula was one of the other nominees, and gave up any hope of winning the damn thing.

Then I noticed something else: All the other nominees were white.

Hm, I thought.

Then I checked out the other Readers’s Choice Awards in the Atheist/ Agnostic categories. And as far as I can tell, all of the nominees in all the categories are white. All the books in the Favorite Atheist/ Agnostic Book category are by white people (white men, actually). None of the ads in the Favorite Atheist/ Agnostic Ad category feature people of color. I can’t tell for sure about Favorite Atheist/ Agnostic Podcast, or Favorite Atheist/ Agnostic to Follow on Twitter — but as far as I can tell, they’re all white people. (If I’m mistaken about that, please correct me.) And none of the groups nominated — Website, Facebook Page, Community — are people-of-color focused.

This is a problem.

We’ve been talking about this a lot lately, but we need to keep talking about it, so I’m going to say it again: We need to stop making the public face of atheism primarily white, and primarily male. If we don’t, we’re going to have a self-perpetuating cycle: people of color and women won’t see themselves represented in the atheist community, and won’t feel as welcomed in the community, and won’t participate in the community, and there won’t be as many strong women and people of color to become visible faces in the community… and around the circle we go. Consciously intervening in this cycle is the only way to stop it. And doing that now, relatively early in the development of our movement, is hugely important: before the self-perpetuating cycle gets set into a deep groove of habits and patterns that are hard to break out of, and before a history of resentment and rancor has time to really set in. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Other social change movements have been bitten on the ass by this issue, again and again, and if they had a time machine and could go back and deal with it in the earlier days of their movements, every one of them that I know of would. We have a unique chance to learn from their mistakes, and to get this right early. (Not early in the movement, period — atheism and atheist activism have been around for a while — but early in the seriously visible, vocal, powerful stage of the movement.) If we deal with it now, we won’t be spending nearly as much energy dealing with it in ten or twenty or fifty years.

For anyone who’s thinking, “Hey, this is just democracy in action, the top vote-getters got the top five nominations, there’s nothing racist about it,” I passionately urge you to read Greg Laden’s excellent piece, How To Make Diversity Happen, on how a selection process with no conscious attempt to be inclusive is almost always going to wind up perpetuating privilege. If you’re thinking that deliberately seeking diversity in a selection process will lower the quality of the candidates, I urge you to read Natalie Reed’s excellent piece, Thoughts from a Diversity Hire, on why diversity itself “is a qualification, a merit and a value.” (As well as on many of the other reasons why this accusation is baloney.) And for anyone who’s thinking that making a conscious effort to seek diversity is the same as advocating “tokenism,’ I urge you to read my own piece on that topics, Tokenism Is Not Inclusivity.

For the record: I’m not mad at Austin Cline, who runs the Agnosticism/ Atheism page at About.com. He’s handling this very well. He’s aware that this is a problem; he’s accepting the criticism about it with good grace and a sincere desire to fix it; he’s soliciting suggestions for how it can be fixed. That’s exactly what good people are supposed to do when something like this happens. (And on a purely practical, Macchiavellian level: That’s how you make something like this go away relatively quickly, instead of having it turn into a firestorm that eats the Internet for a week.)

But I’m just not comfortable being part of this. So please don’t vote for me. If I’m nominated again next year, and if the nominating process gets repaired in a way that makes it more inclusive, then knock yourself out. I will be happily trounced by Pharyngula at that time. But not this year. I’m pulling a Dillahunty. I’ve been nominated, but I will not run: if elected, I will not serve.

Frederick Sparks at Black Skeptics on Be Scofield, Greta Christina, and New Atheist Racism

There have been a lot of discussions about Be Scofield’s piece in Tikkun, chiding the so-called “New Atheists” for being racist and culturally imperialist because we think religion is mistaken and try to persuade people out of it.

I’m more than usually swamped for time right now, and don’t have time to get more deeply into the conversation. But I wanted to point out an excellent piece by Frederick Sparks at the Black Skeptics blog — Be Scofield, Greta Christina, and New Atheist racism — which dismantles Scofield’s piece with surgical precision, and hands it back to Scofield in neat little bloody pieces on a platter.

I especially liked how Sparks eviscerated Scofield’s out-of-context quoting of Sikivu Hutchinson’s Moral Combat, revealing that Scofield either didn’t read the rest of the book or didn’t digest its conclusions — since its conclusions are exactly the opposite of the one Scofield comes to.

If I started quoting the best bits, I’d just quote the whole damn thing. But I do want to mention this:

I don’t see an either or proposition between advocating for rational thought, where beliefs are based on evidence, and confronting issues of social justice. The idea that black people should be left alone in their clinging to Jesus due to their history of oppression smacks of just as much paternalism as what Scofield accuses the white new atheists of here.

Go read the rest of the piece. It rocks.

Atheist Arguments = Racist Cultural Imperialism?

Hey, did you know that when I try to persuade people that religion is probably mistaken and atheism is probably correct, I’m “reproducing cultural imperialism against Native Americans”?

No, really.

I don’t have time today to do a line-by-line fisking of Be Scofield’s latest screed in Tikkun against the so-called “New Atheists.” Which is irritating, since the piece targets me by name and at some length. (Or rather, it tries to target me and misses by a significant margin, since most of what it says about my opinions is wildly off-base.) Ophelia Benson has already ripped it about sixteen different new assholes, especially on the whole “New atheism = racist cultural oppression” front, so I’m mostly going to direct you to her.

But there are a few things here that leaped out of the screen and lodged into my brain like a grain of sand, and I won’t be able to rest until I can coat them with the pearls of my wit and wisdom, and get them the frack out of my system.

Okay. First of all.

When Greta Christina says that religious people should be actively converted to atheism or Dawkins likens religion to a virus that infects the mind they are effectively saying “we know what’s best for you.”

No.

I am not saying that I know what’s best for you.

I am saying that, on this particular question, I think I’m correct, and you’re mistaken. [Read more…]

Tokenism Is Not Inclusivity

When a list of Top Five atheists doesn’t include any women, you’ve got a problem.

When a list of Top Five atheists doesn’t include any women — and the creator of the list says it’s because he didn’t want to include any “tokens” — you’ve got a bigger problem.

You may have seen the Atheist of the Year contest at the Examiner, created by Staks Rosch of Dangerous Talk. There’s been a fair amount of discussion about it, largely because — in a year when discussions and debates and controversies about sexism have dominated the atheist community — there was not one woman on the list. Rosch has been widely criticized for this… but instead of simply acknowledging that this was a problem and promising to do better in the future, he’s decided to double down. He’s defending his decision: saying that he considered some women for inclusion in the list, but he didn’t deem any of them worthy, and he didn’t want to include one just to have a “token.”

A token.

His word. Used eight times, in a 677-word post. Ten, if you count the title, “Tokens or No Tokens.”

Are you fucking kidding me?

Ophelia Benson has issued a masterful takedown of this whole “token” idea, and exactly why it is so grotesquely insulting. Awesome pull quotes:

Doesn’t everybody know by now that it’s a tad insulting to attach the words “a token” to the words “black” and “female” automatically like that, as if it were simply obvious and universally acknowledged that a black and a woman couldn’t possibly be qualified?

Or to put it another way…what a rude dismissive contemptuous entitled thing to say. Newsflash: it is not the case that there are no black atheists or female atheists or black female atheists who are good enough to be nominated as Atheist of the Year. It is not the case that any black or woman so nominated would be a worthless talented zero who was nominated solely as a “token” of good will. It is the case that implying otherwise is deliberately insulting.

What infuriates me even more about this whole thing is that Rosch is citing me as a supporter of “tokenism.” I shit you not. Quote, from his recent post defending his decision:

In the comments section [at Blag Hag], Greta Christina made a case for the token nominee and that is something I will have to consider next year.

Shame on you, Staks.

At no point did I advocate making a “token nominee.” What I advocated for was taking gender into account when considering your nominees. That is absolutely not the same as making a “token nominee.” “Token” implies that the nominee is not actually qualified, but is being included solely for their gender (or race, sexual orientation, etc.). Here, exactly, is how the Blag Hag exchange you’re referring to took place:

You:

My question I guess to the female community, is would you rather I had taken gender more into account or remained gender neutral and let the chips fall where they may? I seriously would like to know.

Me:

DangerousTalk: Take gender into account. Because — among many other reasons — there is virtually no way that you can genuinely be gender neutral. We are all influenced, even if unconsciously, by sexism, including the tendency to see what men do as more serious and important than what women do. And as a result, women don’t get promoted as serious participants in society… and as a result of that, we don’t see what women do as serious… If we don’t make a conscious effort to be more inclusive of women, this vicious circle will continue forever. So please, yes, in the future, make an effort to be inclusive of women and to promote their work.

(Ditto people of color, LGBT people, etc.)

Tokenism is not inclusivity. Inclusivity means (okay, gross oversimplification here) being aware of your own biases (conscious and unconscious), and being aware of the biases of the culture you live in (conscious and unconscious), and being aware of how these biases become self-fulfilling prophecies, and making a conscious, pro-active effort to overcome them. Tokenism means patronizingly including one member of the marginalized group in question, without regard to qualifications, and without any real attempt to make deep-rooted change either in yourself or in society.

Shame on you for equating them.

Atheists of Color – A List

Sikivu HutchinsonHemant MehtaDebbie Goddard

Ayaan Hirsi AliHector AvalosAnthony Pinn

Jamila BeySalman RushdieArundhati Roy

David SuzukiMaggie ArdienteSimon Singh

Charone PagettDan Barker Taslima Nasreen

Donald WrightMina AhadiSanal_Edamaruku

So here it is, as promised — a list of prominent atheists of color.

And, since it seemed relevant — here, also, is a list of organizations of atheists of color, and atheist organizations predominantly focused on/ participated in by people of color.

If you’re helping to organize an atheist conference, and you want your conference to be more diverse and more reflective of the makeup of the atheist community? If you’re an atheist writer or activist, and you want your quotations/ citations/ blogroll/ etc. to be more diverse and more reflective of the makeup of the atheist community? If you’re simply part of the atheist community/ movement, and you want to be more familiar with the work of a wider range of atheists, a range that’s more diverse and more reflective of the makeup of the atheist community? Hopefully, this list will help.

(Note: In case you’re not already aware of it, here, in a similar vein, is a large list of awesome female atheists, compiled by Jen McCreight at BlagHag.)

A couple of quick notes before the list itself. First, and very importantly: This is a work in progress, and I’ll be updating it regularly. So please feel free to make suggestions. If there are people who aren’t on this list who you think should be, or people who are on the list but you think shouldn’t be (because they’re not self-acknowledged atheists, for instance) — or if there’s information on the list that’s inaccurate or incomplete — please let me know, either in the comments, or by emailing me at greta (at) gretachristina (dot) com. And if you yourself are on this list and want me to either remove you or correct/ update your information, please let me know.

(Important note: If you make suggestions of people who should be included in this list, please don’t just tell me their name! I need their name, the URL for their blog/ website if they have one, and a SHORT list of credentials: books, blogs, publications they write for, achievements, etc. If you only give me their name, I have to do a bunch of Googling and editing, and it’ll take longer to get them in.)

Second: This is not intended to be a list of famous atheists of color throughout history. That would certainly be a useful project — but it’s not this project. This is meant to be a list af atheists of color who are alive and active now.

Third: I do not want to get into an argument here about why we need this list, or how we should just be color blind and ignore race altogether. In a perfect world, maybe we wouldn’t need it. We don’t live in a perfect world. Among other things, well- meaning people can unconsciously perpetuate racial bias without intending to… and we need to take conscious action to counter this unconscious tendency. If you think the atheist movement doesn’t need to make a conscious effort to be more inclusive, then please read these pieces:

Getting It Right Early: Why Atheists Need to Act Now on Gender and Race
Race, Gender, and Atheism, Part 2: What We Need To Do — And Why

And if, after reading those pieces — not skimming them or reading the titles, but actually reading them — you still think we don’t need to make a conscious effort to be more inclusive of people of color, then please make your arguments ON THOSE POSTS. Not here. Comments here arguing that we don’t need this list will be disemvoweled or deleted. This post is for people who will find this list useful and informative, and/or who want to make suggestions about keeping it accurate and up to date.

Finally: Yes, I’m aware of the ironies and potential pitfalls of a white person compiling and publishing this list. Most obviously and most seriously, I know that it’s problematic for a white person to be the “gatekeeper” of a list like this. Any time a list like this gets compiled, decisions have to be made about who to include and who not to include… and I get that it’s problematic for a white person to be the one making those decisions. If a list like this already existed, compiled by a person of color, I’d just link to it and publicize the hell out it. But I asked a whole bunch of people of all races if they knew of such a list, and nobody did… and the general response was, “Yeah, that’d be useful, someone should really do that, HINT HINT.” The general sentiment seemed to be that it would be really, really good for a list like this to exist on the ‘Net, and that I should just go ahead and do it already.

So I’m dealing with this potentiall pitfall in two ways. One: When in doubt, I’m erring on the side of inclusion. I did decide against some people whose names had been suggested (mostly bloggers who haven’t updated in months, plus some people who don’t seem to self-identify as atheist). But for the most part, if I was on the fence about including someone, I went ahead and included them.

Two, and much more importantly: For this post and this post only, I am relinquishing copyright. If you want to copy this list and re-publish it on your own blog or forum or website or whatever — and you want to add to/ subtract from/ make changes to it as you see fit — please do so. I’m not only okay with this: I actively encourage it. In fact, if you do so, please tell me about it, and I’ll link to your list here.

(Other lists, from people who have taken me up on this offer:
Lists of Atheist/Agnostic Contacts You May Not Have Considered, at The Word Of Me…)

So here it is, as promised — a list of prominent atheists of color.

INDIVIDUALS

Robert Affinis, founder of the freethought apparel line Affinis Apparel, creator of the “Revolution in Photography” project
Mina Ahadi, founder of the Central Council of Ex-Muslims (Zentralrat der Ex-Muslime) and the International Committee against Stoning
Jim Al-Khalili, professor of theoretical physics, science broadcaster, President of the British Humanist Association
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of Infidel and Nomad, activist, politician, founder of the AHA Foundation
Tariq Ali, historian, novelist, journalist, filmmaker, public intellectual, political campaigner, activist, commentator
Norm Allen, author of African American Humanism and Black Secular Humanist Thought, editor-in-chief of Human Prospect: A Neo-Humanist Perspective, secretary of Paul Kurtz’s Institute for Science and Human Values, former head of African Americans for Humanism, blogger at Black Skeptics
Anti-Intellect, blogger at Black Skeptics, Twitter personality (@Anti_Intellect), gay activist
Maggie Ardiente, director of development and communications, American Humanist Association; editor of Humanist Network News (AHA’s weekly e-zine)
Diane Arellano, blogger, Black Skeptics
Homa Arjomand, coordinator of the International Campaign Against Shari’a Court in Canada
Hector Avalos, Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Iowa State University, speaker/ debater, author of The End of Biblical Studies, Strangers in Our Own Land: Religion in U.S. Latina/o Literature, Se puede saber si Dios existe? [Can One Know if God Exists?], and more
Siana Bangura, blogger, The Heresy Club
Donald Barbera, author of Black But Not Baptist: Nonbelief and Freethought in the Black Community
Dan Barker, co-president of Freedom From Religion Foundation, author of several books, including Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists and The Good Atheist: Living a Purpose-Filled Life Without God
Jamila Bey, atheist comedian and journalist
Reginald Bien-Aime, founder, Haitian FREE Thinkers, blogger at Haitian Atheist
Peach Braxton, videoblogger, The Peach
Naima Cabelle, atheist activist and member of Washington Area Secular Humanists
Ed Cara, blogger at The Heresy Club, comedian, actor
Ian Cromwell, musician and blogger, The Crommunist Manifesto
Bree Crutch, founder, Minority Atheists of Michigan (@MinorityAtheist)
Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, founder, Maharashta Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samitee (Superstition Eradication Committee)
Heina Dadabhoy, blogger at Skepchick, speaker
Sanal Edamaruku, author and paranormal investigator, founder-president of Rationalist International, president of the Indian Rationalist Association, creator of The Great Tantra Challenge
Afshin Ellian, columnist for Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad and Elsevier; blogger; poet; law professor at University of Leiden
Mike Estes, Atheist Coalition of San Diego; public speaker
Reginald Finley, founder of Infidel Guy radio show
Walter O. Garcia-Meza, board of directors, Hispanic American Freethinkers
Bridget Gaudette, director of development for Foundation Beyond Belief, blogger at Freethoughtify, co-founder of Secular Woman, speaker (@BridgetGaudette & @freethoughtify)
Hemley Gonzalez, founder, Responsible Charity
MercedesDiane Griffin, blogger/ activist, founder /president of the Mercedes Parra Foundation for Women and Girls
Debbie Goddard, director of outreach at the Center for Inquiry, speaker, head of African Americans for Humanism
Jacques L. Hamel, Scientific Affairs Officer with United Nations, international science and technology policy expert
Mark Hatcher, founder of Secular Students at Howard University
Heather Henderson, podcaster at Ardent Atheist podcast, podcaster at Skeptically Yours podcast, lead female singer in Penn Jillette’s NoGodBand
Sundas Hoorain, blogger, The Heresy Club, political activist, human rights lawyer
Stanley Huang, Taiwanese-American singer, known for the song/ album “Atheist Like Me”
Sabri Husibi, speaker, Tulsa Atheist Group
Sikivu Hutchinson, writer and editor, author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America, editor of BlackFemLens.org, Senior Fellow for the Institute for Humanist Studies, blogger at Black Skeptics
Leo Igwe, International Humanist and Ethical Union, Nigeria
David Ince, a.k.a. Caribatheist, blogger, No Religion Know Reason
Sam Jackson, Assistant Campus Organizer and Group Starting Specialist, Secular Student Alliance
A.J. Johnson, writer, speaker (@HappiestAtheist)
McKinley Jones, president, Black American Free Thought Association (BAF/TA)
S.T. Joshi, literary critic, novelist; author of God’s Defenders: What They Believe and Why They Are Wrong and more; editor of Atheism: A Reader and more
Alix Jules, chair of diversity committee on the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition for Reason
Avicenna Last, blogger, A Million Gods
Naomi Love, Secretary, Black Nonbelievers
Kenan Malik, writer, lecturer, blogger, and BBC Radio broadcaster, author of Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy, Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate, and more
Hemant Mehta, blogger at Friendly Atheist, author of I Sold My Soul on eBay
Ian Andreas Miller, blogger, Diaphanitas
Jeffrey “Atheist Walking” Mitchell, atheist street philosopher and member of Black Skeptics
Maryam Namazie, rights activist, commentator and broadcaster on Iran, rights, cultural relativism, secularism, religion, political Islam and other related topics; spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain; blogger
Meera Nanda, writer, historian and philosopher of science
Taslima Nasreen, author and activist; blogger at No Country for Women
Ramendra Nath, professor and author; head of Department of Philosophy, Patna College, Patna University; author of Why I Am Not a Hindu, Is God Dead?, The Myth of Unity of All Religions, and more
First Nation, blogger, Native Skeptic
Kwadwo Obeng, author, We Are All Africans
Adebowale Ojuro, author of Crisis of Religion
James Onen, radio broadcaster, blogger at Freethought Kampala
Charone Paget, producer/host of LAMBDA Radio Report, WRFG, Atlanta; on leadership team of Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta; founder of Queer and Atheist of Atlanta
Ernest Parker, leader of African Americans for Humanism DC
Anthony Pinn, author of numerous books on humanism, head of Institute for Humanist Studies, Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University
Robin Quivers, radio personality
Robert Reece, blogger, Still Furious and Still Brave: Who’s Afraid of Persistent Blackness? (@PhuzzieSlippers)
Lorena Rios, board of directors, Hispanic American Freethinkers
Bwambale Robert, founder, Kasese Humanist Primary School, Kasese United Humanist Association
Sid Rodrigues, scientist, researcher, organizer of Skeptics in the Pub
Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things and more, activist
Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, Midnight’s Children, Luka and the Fire of Life, Grimus, and more
Amartya Sen, Nobel-prize winning economist
Alom Shaha, science teacher, film-maker, and writer; author of The Young Atheist’s Handbook
Ariane Sherine, creator of the Atheist Bus Campaign
Labi Siffre, poet and songwriter
Simon Singh, author, journalist, TV producer, libel reform activist
Mano Singham, theoretical physicist, blogger
Darrel ‘Reasonheimer’ Smith, author/editor, You Are Not Alone: “BlackNones”
Felicia Smith, Vice-President, Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta
Frederick Sparks, blogger, Black Skeptics
Greydon Square, atheist rapper and spoken word artist
Wafa Sultan, author and critic of Islam and Islamic theocracy
David Suzuki, scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster; co-founder of the environmentalist David Suzuki Foundation
David Tamayo, board of directors, Hispanic American Freethinkers
Red Tani, Filipino Freethinkers
Nicome Taylor, blogger, Black Skeptics
Mandisa Lateefah Thomas, co-founder and President, Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta
Harriet Thugman, a.k.a. Donnie McTwerkin, Twitter personality (@HarrietThugman)
Andrew Ti, Tumblr blogger at Yo, Is This Racist?, comedian
Xavier Trapp, blogger at The Rev Speaks, co-host of the SERIOUSLY?! podcast (@Rev_Xavier)
Kim Veal, Blog Talk Radio, Black Freethinkers
Maria Walters, a.k.a. Masala Skeptic, blogger, Skepchick
Naima Washington, blogger, Black Skeptics
Ayanna Watson, founder of Black Atheists of America
Wrath James White, author, blogger at Godless and Black
Clarence Williams, author of Truth
Donald Wright, author of The Only Prayer I’ll Ever Pray: Let My People Go, blogger at Black Skeptics
Lauren Anderson Youngblood, Communications Manager, Secular Coalition for America
Zhiyah, writer/blogger, The Affirmative Atheist
Indra Zuno, stage/ film/ television actress, Mexico and USA, appeared in “The Virgin of Juarez” and “The Violent Kind”

A note about Neil DeGrasse Tyson: When I was solicitiing suggestions for this list, Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s name was brought up several times, by several different people. However, as I understand it, while Tyson calls himself an agnostic and a skeptic, he does not identify as an atheist, and does not want to be associated with the atheist movement. If anyone has current information showing that he does, in fact, identify as an atheist — and can provide a citation — I’ll happily put him on the list. Until then, I’ll respect his right to self-identify as he chooses. (Ditto with Ibn Warraq, who identifies as an agnostic but not an atheist.)

GROUPS/ ORGANIZATIONS/ GROUP BLOGS

African Americans for Humanism
African Americans for Humanism DC
Atheist Association of Uganda
Black American Free Thought Association (BAF/TA)
Black Atheists of America
Black Freethinkers Yahoo Group
Black FreeThinkers social network
Black Freethought discussion group, Atheist Nexus
Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta
Black Skeptics
Buddhiwadi Foundation/ Bihar Buddhiwadi Samaj (Bihar Rationalist Society)
Central Council of Ex-Muslims (Zentralrat der Ex-Muslime)
Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain
Filipino Freethinkers
Freethought Kampala
The Grenada Free-thought Community
Harlem Community Center for Inquiry
Hispanic American Freethinkers
Hispanic Atheists of all Ethnic Groups
Indian Rationalist Association
Kasese United Humanist Association
Maharashta Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samitee (Superstition Eradication Committee)
Maharashtra Blind faith Eradication Committee, a.k.a. AntiSuperstition.org
Malaysian Atheists
Nirmukta
Secular Students at Howard University
South African Skeptics
Tarksheel Society (India)
Uganda Humanist Association

I hope people find this helpful. Again, if you have any suggestions for additions or corrections, please let me know: either in the comments, or by emailing me at greta (at) gretachristina (dot) com.

Atheists of Color?

I want to compile a list of prominent atheists of color. Not in history (I might do that sometime later), but people who are alive and active now. Can you help me?

I’m getting a bit tired of atheist conference organizers saying, “We’d like to be more diverse and have more speakers of color, but we just don’t know of any!” Ditto atheist writers/ bloggers, and the people they cite/ link to/ put in their blogrolls. I do not want anyone to be able to say, ever again, “I’d like to be more diverse and not so white-centric, but I just don’t know of that many atheists of color!” In the future, whenever anyone says this, I want to be able to point them to a list. And I want other atheists to be able to do the same.

Jen McCreight has already done this with her large list of awesome female atheists. We need one for awesome atheists of color.

And no, I don’t want to get into an argument about why we need this list, or how we should just be color blind and ignore race altogether. In a perfect world, maybe we wouldn’t need it. We don’t live in a perfect world. Among other things, well- meaning people can unconsciously perpetuate racial bias without intending to… and we need to take conscious action to counter this unconscious tendency. If you think the atheist movement doesn’t need to make a conscious effort to be more inclusive, then please read these pieces:

Getting It Right Early: Why Atheists Need to Act Now on Gender and Race
Race, Gender, and Atheism, Part 2: What We Need To Do — And Why

And if, after reading those pieces — not skimming them or reading the titles, but actually reading them — you still think we don’t need to make a conscious effort to be more inclusive of people of color, then please make your arguments ON THOSE POSTS. Not here. Comments here arguing that we don’t need this list will be disemvoweled or deleted. This post is for people who want to help compile the list. Period.

And yes, I’m aware of the irony/ pitfalls of a white person compiling this list. If a list like this already existed, compiled by a person of color, I’d just link to it and publicize the hell out it. But I asked a whole bunch of people of all races if they knew of such a list, and nobody did, and the general response was, “Yeah, that’d be useful, someone should really do that, HINT HINT.” So fuck it. I’m just going to do it.

Help, please? Let me know about any out atheists of color you know of and whose work you admire. They should be reasonably prominent, and they should be open about their atheism. I need name, URL for blog/ website if they have one, and a SHORT list of credentials: books, blogs, publications they write for, achievements, etc. Thanks!

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.

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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.

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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.

Getting It Right Early: Why Atheists Need to Act Now on Gender and Race

I want to talk about race and sex in the atheist movement.

Rebecca watsonI’m writing this because of the recent kerfuffle in the skeptical community, in which Carrie Iwan and Rebecca Watson of the Skepchick blog did a podcast interview about sexism at The Amazing Meeting (and about sexist remarks made at that meeting by “The Big Bang Theory” creator Bill Prady)… and were met with a barrage of hostile comments over the suggestion that the skeptical community might not always be the most welcoming place for women, and that maybe skeptics should be doing something about it. (Comments arguing, among other things, that women who complain about sexism in the skeptical movement are just being whiny, unreasonable, and politically correct.)

Sikivu hutchinsonAnd I’m writing this because of the interview I ran here in this blog with Sikivu Hutchinson, on being an African-American in the atheist movement… in which a surprising number of commenters reacted very strongly, and very negatively, to the idea that maybe there was a problem with the fact that the atheist movement is so predominantly and visibly made up of white men, and that maybe the movement should be doing something about it.

I want to talk about the fact that the atheist movement is so predominantly, and so visibly, made up of white men.

I want to talk about why this is a problem.

I want to talk about how this problem plays out, and how it perpetuates itself.

And I want to talk about why we need to do something about it.

Now, I don’t want to get deeply into overt racism and sexism in the atheist movement. (Not today, anyway. I may get into that in some later post.) For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that, when it comes to gender and race, everyone in the atheist movement is completely well- meaning, and has every conscious intention to not be sexist or racist. (I don’t actually believe that… but for the purposes of this post, I think it will be a useful assumption.)

Black scarlet letterInstead, I want to talk about why it’s important for the atheist movement to start paying attention — now — to race and gender. I want to talk about why it’s important for the atheist movement to start paying attention — now — to the fact that it is largely a white male movement… and to how that’s likely to affect the future of the movement, for everyone in it. I want to talk about into how, exactly, a movement that starts out being mostly white and mostly male, with mostly white men in positions of visibility and leadership, has a tendency to stay that way… even with the best intentions of everyone in that movement. And I want to talk about why this matters: why it’s a serious problem, why it’s going to matter more and more as our movement grows… and why it’s important to nip the problem in the bud, early, while our movement is still relatively young.

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First, let’s talk about how this happens. Let’s talk about three distinct ways that racial and gender imbalances in a movement can perpetuate themselves… even if there is absolutely zero conscious intention to discriminate. (BTW, these apply to other marginalized groups as well; but race and gender are what’s on the table right now, so that’s what I’m focusing on. And yes, I know there are more than just these three ways. These are just the big, obvious ones that I’m familiar with. Comments about others are very much welcomed.)

Discovery-of-the-unconcious1: Unconscious bias. Even with the best of conscious intentions, people tend to be more comfortable, and more trusting, with people who are more like them. This has been well and thoroughly documented. It’s one of the most important reasons behind affirmative action: people in charge of hiring decisions will automatically gravitate towards people who are more like them. So if the people doing the hiring are white men, they’re more likely to hire white men… and then as the people they hire rise to positions of power, they in turn will be more likely to hire white men… and so on, and so on, and so on. If there is no conscious, deliberate attempt to seek out qualified women, people of color, etc., this process will perpetuate itself indefinitely.

This isn’t just true in hiring. It’s true in any community, and any movement. If a movement starts out being mostly made up of and led by white men, and there is no conscious, pro-active attempt to seek out and welcome women and people of color, then that movement will have a very strong tendency to continue being dominated by white men.

What’s more, people can have racist or sexist attitudes without being conscious of them. You don’t need to be a torch- wielding member of the KKK or Operation Rescue to say and think dumb things about race or gender. (As someone who has said and thought plenty of dumb things… believe me, I speak from experience.) A lot of racism and sexism isn’t grossly overt: it’s subtle, and it’s woven so deeply into the fabric of our culture that we often aren’t aware of it until it’s called to our attention. But you can be damn well sure that the people on the receiving end of those attitudes are aware of it… and it can put them off from participating in a community that they might otherwise be drawn to.

Focus2: Focus. People have a natural tendency to focus on the issues that concern them most directly. And if a movement — however unintentionally — is being dominated by white men, then that movement will tend to focus its energies on issues that concern white men… at the expense of issues that concern women and people of color.

You want an example? Sure. As just one specific example, I’ll cite the tendency of the atheist movement to provide an Internet community more than in- the- flesh communities… a tendency that ignores the powerful social bond that churches provide in the African-American communities, and that neglects the alienation and isolation that many African-American atheists feel when they leave their churches, and that fails to offer a replacement.

Self fulfilling prophecy3: Self-fulfilling prophecies. Let’s pretend, just for a moment, that #1 and #2 aren’t happening at all. Let’s pretend that there is no tendency, not even an unconscious one, for the leaders and organizers of the atheist movement to default to white men in citations and event organization and so on. Let’s pretend that there are no racist or sexist attitudes in the atheist movement — not even subtle or unconscious ones. And let’s pretend that there is no tendency in the atheist movement, not even an unconscious one, to focus on issues that largely concern white men, at the expense of issues that largely concern women and people of color.

Let’s pretend that none of that is happening. Let’s pretend that the atheist movement is largely and most visibly white and male, either because most women and people of color just naturally aren’t that interested in atheism, or because of pure dumb random luck.

Even if that were so? The tendency of the atheist movement to be dominated by white men would still tend to perpetuate itself.

Remember what we talked about before. People are more comfortable with other people who are like them. And that isn’t just true for white men. It’s true for women and people of color, too. If a movement is largely made up of white men, and if the leaders and most visible representatives of a movement are mostly white men… women and people of color just aren’t as likely to join up. They — we — are more likely to feel like fish out of water. We’re less likely to see the movement as having to do with us.

Mad-men-2And maybe more to the point: If a community is mostly white and male, a lot of women and people of color are going to assume that #1 and #2 are probably going on. I know that I’m less comfortable going to an event that’s mostly male… since the chances of having my femaleness be inappropriately sexualized are a lot greater. Women and people of color are naturally, and not unreasonably, going to be cautious about joining up with a movement that’s mostly white and male. We’re going to wonder why that is.

So even if the predominant whiteness and maleness of the atheist movement had somehow happened purely by accident, with no sins of either omission or commission on the part of white male atheists… the predominant whiteness and maleness of the movement would still tend towards a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if those hypothetical winds of fate that innocently led the movement to be largely white and largely male were no longer blowing in that direction, even if women and people of color suddenly sprouted an interest in atheism that they’d somehow never had before… this self- perpetuating tendency of largely white male movements to stay largely white and male would still tend to, well, perpetuate itself.

Plus, of course, all this is assuming that there is no overt racism or sexism in the atheist movement. An assumption that, obviously, isn’t warranted.

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Circle of two arrowsSo that’s some of the ways that largely white, largely male movements stay largely white and male… even if nobody intended it to happen that way. But here’s the good news:

A lot of this is fixable.

Or at least, it’s addressable.

And it’s much, much easier to address in the early stages of a movement than it is down the line, after patterns have been established, and bad feelings have had time to fester.

So how do we fix it?

And why should we care?

That’s Part 2.

(The second half of this piece will appear tomorrow. I’m not going to turn off comments, but if you can hold off on commenting until Part 2 appears, I’d be much obliged.)

“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.