I have received a couple of complaints about Sikivu Hutchinson, complaints that were also cc’ed to a number of big names in the atheist movement, which is weird. Why complain to me? Apparently my correspondent wants me to write a rebuttal to some remarks she made in the May issue of International Humanist News. Here are the offensive comments:
Engaging in science fetishism without a social justice lens merely reproduces the white supremacist logic of the New Atheist Movement.
If much of the New Atheist fervor springs from the endless culture war over evolution and church/state separation, contemporary black humanist ideology emerges from a social justice lens.
Oh, man, I can top those. In Hutchinson’s book, Moral Combat (you should read it), she has a chapter titled “The White Stuff: New Atheism and Its Discontents” in which she really opens up.
Being marginalized is not a revelation for most African American, Latino, Asian, and Native American folk accustomed to invisibility in all white institutions. For example, despite conservative claims of a left wing academic “mafia,” buttressed by preferential treatment toward so-called minorities, American academia remains a largely white preserve powered by cronyism, favoritism, and affirmative action for white elites. The majority of tenured faculty, permanent administrators, presidents, and chancellors at American universities are white. The struggle that academics of color frequently face getting hired and getting tenure has negative consequences (particularly in predominantly white fields like science and engineering) for recruitment and retention of students of color. Tenure, publication, conference presentations, and participation in committees determine status, visibility, and career longevity in the academic community. All are key factors in the dissemination of scholarship. So it is no coincidence that many of the major figures and spokespersons in the humanist atheist movements come from academia (such as Oxford, Tufts, Stanford, and the University of Minnesota), where they have benefited from the ivory tower politics of faculty recruitment, hiring, and tenure. Yet for some reason many white atheist humanists believe that just being an atheist magically exempts them from the institutionally racist belief systems and practices of the dominant culture.
Who could she be talking about at the University of Minnesota? Ouch.
She also makes the argument in that book that the black community’s affiliation with religion has been an advantage for them — it’s been a “bulwark against white supremacy and institutional racism.” What kind of atheist is this?
Unfortunately, I can’t write a rebuttal…because she’s right, damnit.
The universities really are bastions of paleness, and the sciences in particular are uniform; we try and are trying to correct that, give us some credit, but I have to acknowledge that I am the recipient of vast amounts of privilege, and a black or Native American applicant would have had to work much harder than I did to land my position. That’s reality. I have to recognize it, I’m a scientist!
I agree with her completely that the New Atheist movement has largely been about science and politics: and that’s OK, those are real issues, and we need to deal with them. But problems arise when we assume that those are the only issues, and that a utopia will follow if only we teach science and math in the elementary schools and get around to enforcing the separation of church and state. That’s what she means by “white supremacist logic”, the idea that white men’s priorities are the only priorities that matter. She summarizes those with only a little exaggeration here:
New Atheist discourse purports to be “beyond” all that meddlesome stuff [that is, race, culture, history]. After all, science has been cleaned up to redress the atrocities of the past. The “bad” racist eugenicist science and scientists of back in the day have been purged. Religionists of all stripes are merely obstacles to achieving greater enlightenment in the generic name of science and reason. Race and gender hierarchies within the scientific establishment are immaterial when it comes to determining the overall thrust and urgency of the New Atheism. Non- believers who argue for a more nuanced approach to or progressive understanding of the political, social, and cultural appeal of religion are toady apologists. Religious bigotry and discrimination are deemed the greatest threat to “civilized” Western societies. As delineated by many white non-believers the New Atheism preserves and reproduces the status quo of white supremacy in its arrogant insularity. In this universe, oppressed minorities are more imperiled by their own investment in organized religion than white supremacy. Liberation is not a matter of fighting against white racism, sexism, and classism but of throwing off the shackles of superstition.
I will openly confess that I do look at the world through a white male scientist’s eyes — and I make no apologies, that’s who I am, that shapes what I think is important. I see nothing in Hutchinson’s work that says that perspective is wrong, only that it is not the only lens with which to see the world, and that we members of the dominant subgroup do harm when we ignore other views — we reinforce only our specific domain, and neglect the greater human condition. Hutchinson also explains that cogently:
If there is no reckoning with the role economic injustice and capitalist exploitation play in shaping hyper-religiosity among people of color then black humanist atheist critiques risk irrelevancy. Engaging in science fetishism without a social justice lens merely reproduces the white supremacist logic of the movement. As Greta Christina notes, “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.
We’re blinkered by our own history and context, everyone is. Our goal should be to open our eyes wider and see that there are many valid reasons to embrace atheism — science is one, but social justice is another. And that if we want to expand the movement, we won’t achieve that by telling women and people of color that they need to adopt our priorities to fit in; we need to recognize that social justice, equality, and fighting economic disparities must also be a significant part of our purpose. Using our white male position of power to tell others that they must adapt to us to fit in actually is an example of the logic of white supremacy, offensive as that sounds…even if we mean well, intent does not override the fact of what we do.
As a further example of this kind of unthinking logic, the email asking me to address this topic was sent to a collection of other white male ‘leaders’ of the atheist movement. Doesn’t that alone alert you to a problem? Why not write to Sikivu Hutchinson and have a dialog about it? Why not include, say, Ayanna Watson or Anthony Pinn to engage a more diverse set of minds?
I don’t think my correspondent was a bad person; he was clearly upset at being accused of racism. But there’s more to racism than putting on a white sheet and burning crosses on a lawn; most racism is going to be oblivious, thoughtless acceptance of the status quo…a racist, patriarchal status quo.
And the beginning of wisdom is to wake up and notice.
The second step is to try and change it.
And then it’s a long, long march afterwards.