Put down the cell phone! »« Mary’s Monday Metazoan: How ladylike!

A humanism relevant to humans

Sikivu Hutchinson has a new book, Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels, and she was recently interviewed about it.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

That humanism can be culturally relevant to communities of color. Traditional mainstream white-dominated freethought/atheist/humanist models don’t offer an adequate basis for social justice. They don’t address the intersection of women’s rights, civil rights, anti-racism, heterosexism, the racial wealth gap, and educational apartheid.

So while there are numerous grassroots atheist groups spearheading their own projects, the movement as a whole continues to be publicly defined by a handful of superstars and their limited vision. The absence of historical and sociological context for atheist politics, and its disconnection from social justice activism, will keep it in the lily-white one-percent column.

I have no patience for single-issue white male atheists who inveigh against the backwardness of organized religion as the fount of all evil and then have the luxury to retreat into their segregated ivory towers, insulated conferences, and highly-paid seminar bubbles. In Godless Americana I address the lived experiences of some of the most religious communities on the planet in one of the richest nations on the planet. I probe the sociological context for faith traditions and hyper-religiosity in American communities of color.

I have this grand, optimistic vision of humanity’s future, and escaping the dead-end lies of religion is part of it. But mostly what I see are people — all people — given the security and knowledge to live lives with true meaning, where they can grow and learn and engage in productive struggle, fighting to make the world a better place with every generation. I have my causes and my biases, but I don’t see how we can achieve that goal by having the causes and biases of a narrow subset imposed on the whole; rather, the few have to open themselves up to appreciate the experiences of the many. We must have the humility to change.

I am one of those white male atheists. I work in an ivory tower that is mostly white, I go to those conferences in beige, softly carpeted hotels, I sit contentedly in the seminar bubbles (but not highly paid — I have something better, a secure position that gives me the privilege to not have to ask for payment). But I am not a leader. I have no position in any hierarchy of any atheist/humanist organization. I just write and speak what I think, and that’s all I can do.

What I think is that for my vision to come true, no one can grasp at power, we have to surrender it. We have to sacrifice control by an elite for an expansion of opportunity for the base. We have to let go of the perspectives and interests of one gender, one race, one class and start thinking in terms of humanity.

You’d have a hard time finding someone more committed to the importance of freethought and science than myself — those are the ways to build a better world. It can’t be a better world if it only includes me and people like me — it has to be a better world for all. We have to include that in our equations and our principles.

Comments

  1. says

    It can’t be a better world if it only includes me and people like me — it has to be a better world for me.

    I assume that was supposed to read “it has to be a better world for everyone“?

  2. maudell says

    What? But what will happen if we dare to criticize self-proclaimed atheist leaders?! This idea is simply totalitarian.
    /sarcasm

  3. Mattir, Another One With Boltcutters says

    This irrelevance of the Official Humanist World(TM) to the lives of non-white, non-affluent and (often) non-male humans is why I felt like my Saturday was better spent working with a group of teenage boys (mostly, but not entirely, African American) doing an Eagle Scout project. I’d bought a ticket for WiS2, but then this project was rescheduled, and I had to miss Saturday’s presentations. Instead, I got to teach the kids a bit about carpentry even though I’m a fat 50 year old woman, and I had the chance to overhear some of them talking about how it was okay to tell sexist/rape jokes if they were in a group of friends because their friends weren’t rapists. At that point I gently explained about how rapists don’t come with a giant scancode on their foreheads, about the research on how many people will admit to rape as long as the behaviors are described and not called rape, and about how humor can provide support for rapists. Then I went over to the scoutmaster, who’d been listening, and offered to send him some articles on this issue so that he could reinforce the “only men can stop rape” message. He was very enthusiastic.

    I had a lot more in common with these guys than I do with Ron Lindsay and his soulmates, despite them being mostly African American baptists rather than white atheists. Ironically, they did not once scold me for shushing their speech so I could be heard. I know I would have had a different take on WiS2 if I’d been able to stay for Saturday’s presentations, and I’ll watch them as soon as the videos are up. But as it is, the Official White Male scolding was most of what stayed with me. (Well, that and a plan to read Rebecca Goldstein forthwith.)

  4. kevinalexander says

    I think you need to fix the economic system before you can work on anything else. People have been driven down by the American Dream Nightmare so they turn to the solace of religion.

  5. says

    This is really uplifting.

    I was talking in another thread about creating rigorous philosophical arguments to convince secular organizations to expand their focus. Hutchinson’s words make me feel my own myopia. Why try to drag them grumbling and nit-picking into a broader focus? Arguments about why feminism and social justice are essential will never be good enough. They’ll always find reasons to object to leaving their zones of comfort and control.

    So let them wither. Let more energetic and positive organizations arise that actually speak to the secular concerns of a diverse range of people.

  6. says

    What I think is that for my vision to come true, no one can grasp at power, we have to surrender it. We have to sacrifice control by an elite for an expansion of opportunity for the base. We have to let go of the perspectives and interests of one gender, one race, one class and start thinking in terms of humanity.

    Yeah, that sounds nice, but at some point, someone (not necessarily a white guy, mind you) really does have to “grasp at power” and LEAD people to constructive, coherent action. One of the biggest problems the atheist/humanist/skeptic movement has right now (along with the liberal/progressive movement in general) is lack of leadership, which is what allows the most immature and irresponsible people to drag the rest of us down into endless paralyzing hate, while self-serving fools like Dawkins and Harris just sell books, pander to the tabloid set, and get away with calling themselves “leaders” because it’s all the leadership the “movement” currently has.

    I’m all in favor of being open to the perspectives of others not like us — that’s a crucial part of leadership. But let’s not forget that leadership has other crucial parts, and we need those parts too.

  7. says

    @kevinalexande in #4r:

    I think you need to fix the economic system before you can work on anything else. People have been driven down by the American Dream Nightmare so they turn to the solace of religion.

    Yes, prosperity and economic security are great ways to prevent all sorts of social ills, and will likely reduce the influence of religion considerably. A functioning social safety net means people no longer have to depend on the church, and no longer need to follow the church’s rules to keep access to a safety net. It’s why the religious right fears and demonizes Europe-style socialism: not because they believe it won’t work, but because they know it will.

    But I disagree that you should fix the economic system before you can work on anything else, because if that were true, nothing would ever get done. First of all, before you can fix the economic system, you need to fix the political system . But in order to do that, you’ll need to first fix the public opinion. Which means you need to fix the media. And to fix the media… you get the idea. You can always find something that should be done first. However, you can’t wait until all of them get fixed, or we’d all end up waiting forever. What should be done instead is a constant process of small, incremental changes, on as many fronts as you can.

  8. kevinalexander says

    Deen, you are right, it’s like lifting a house. You have to pick up all the corners at the same time.
    I think what makes changing the political system so difficult is in dealing with human nature. It’s not just greed. The rich don’t not care about the poor. They care very much. It fills a sick animal need to look down on others suffering.
    I heard a fellow on talk radio say something like –’The only thing you need to know about American politics is that there ain’t no cracker so shit pore that he won’t take the food from his own child’s mouth and throw it to some bankers dog if you can just plant in his head the idea that a ni**er will get some if he don’t’
    And that’s why you can’t have socialism in America.

  9. says

    You are most certainly a leader, PZ, and your insistence on not being one is a bit disingenuous. You’re quite clearly a thought leader, you have a platform, and people listen to you, even if they don’t always agree. Without your input and use of your platform I firmly believe a lot of the positive change and discussions we have wouldn’t be happening. That’s leadership. No, you can’t fire anyone, you’re not the head of an organization and you’re not a New York Times best-selling author (yet). However, that’s an extremely narrow definition of leader.

  10. consciousness razor says

    One of the biggest problems the atheist/humanist/skeptic movement has right now (along with the liberal/progressive movement in general) is lack of leadership, which is what allows the most immature and irresponsible people to drag the rest of us down into endless paralyzing hate, while self-serving fools like Dawkins and Harris just sell books, pander to the tabloid set, and get away with calling themselves “leaders” because it’s all the leadership the “movement” currently has.

    The Republican party has leaders and tons of organizational structure, yet it still has all sorts of clowns who drag the leadership and the rest of the party around. That is one thing “leaders” cannot do much to prevent.

  11. Vicki says

    Yeah, that sounds nice, but at some point, someone (not necessarily a white guy, mind you) really does have to “grasp at power” and LEAD people to constructive, coherent action.

    There’s a difference between “someone has to lead this project” and “someone has to be a leader who will make decisions on all sorts of things. You can organize, or be part of a small group that organizes, a conference this year without having to organize it next year and the year after, and take on umpteen other projects as well.

  12. Eristae says

    I feel like writing something like this to CFI and other orgs/people who are on board with what Lindsay did:

    Dear [whoever],

    Alright, I give up. You win. I’m finished. I bow out. I understand now that, as a woman, there isn’t a place within the secular movement, not really. I understand that the only place I’ll ever have is one where only parts of me fit and the rest of me must be left out in the cold.

    Women have been openly under attack in the atheist community for a couple of years now. I told myself that it would be okay, that I could still find my own place within the secular movement. Why, Women in Secularism was even cited to me as an example of a safe space within the secular movement.

    Yet we stand here today because the CEO of CFI felt that even WIS needed to be about men somehow. The conference didn’t even get out of the gate before the audience was scolded for just not being fair to men. So now I sit at my computer, cringing as I glance at the tab in my browser which contains Ron Lindsay’s account of his speech, not wanting to figure out exactly how many more words in how many more paragraphs that Lindsay devoted to being unhappy with the concept of shutting up so as to listen to women than he did dealing with women being oppressed. I feel somewhat dizzy and more than a little disillusioned.

    Maybe you don’t understand, so I’d like you to consider a different situation. I’d like you to imagine for a moment that WIS was still a secular conference to address women’s issues, but that Lindsay was a Christian, and that he opened the conference by cautioning the audience that, by God, we’d better not silence the Christians. I want you to imagine that the CEO of CFI had felt the need to make it clear that there was no situation in which the concerns of Christians shouldn’t be at the forefront. I want you to imagine that he spent more time talking about how the secularists need to give an appropriate amount of talking space to Christians in all venues at all times than he did talking about secular issues. Do you think this would be appropriate? Would you nod and say that Lindsay’s comments were perfectly appropriate and that you stand behind those words? Or would you say, “What the . . . ?! This is a Women in Secularism conference.”

    Maybe you would think it was appropriate, although I don’t believe this is the case. I believe that you would understand that there needs to be places where the plight of Christians isn’t the main focus, or even a (singular) main focus. I believe you would understand that the purpose of the conference was not to address the concerns of Christians, but instead address secular issues.

    However, it seems that women are not allowed the same courtesy. It seems that even a conference meant to deal with women’s issues must also have the concerns of men at the forefront.

    For months I’ve been asking myself, “Is there a place for me within the secular movement?” Thanks to incidents like this, I understand that my status as a woman will be as much a stumbling block within the secular movement as it is anywhere else. So I’m done making the secular community something that is the forefront of my concerns. I understand that I will always be a woman first because its the defining trait that I have to drag behind me wherever I go, secular or not. I’ll have to be content with defining myself as a woman who has secular interests rather than a secular woman.

    I’ve watched as women who I admire and respect have bowed out of the secular community entirely because of the abuse that women are being subjected to. I’ve watched as organizations like CFI feel the need to constantly make sure that this abuse is glossed over in favor of freaking out at the idea that women might ever have a place where it is their issues that are important. I’ve watched as individuals such as Lindsay write speeches where their unhappiness with feminism take up more time and space than will ever be devoted to the oppression of women in any corner and I understand now, deep in my bones, that there was never a safe space within the secular community for those women or for me. Now I’m left with having to decide at what point the secular movement becomes so toxic that I can’t handle and drop out completely, as they did. When and if that point is reached, you won’t hear it from me because I’ll simply not be around to tell you anything. You’ll get to have conferences where yet another woman simply isn’t there.

  13. Rich Woods says

    @Ersitae #14:

    That is an absolutely brilliant response! Please, write that letter.

  14. says

    Yes I would love to solve all the problems in the world at once – but just because I can’t I don’t complain about the people trying to solve those problems. You can’t impose a cookie cutter on a movement and if it doesn’t conform to your expectations you think it is worthless.

    Single-issue white male atheists are needed just as much as people who work on women’s rights, civil rights, anti-racism, heterosexism, the racial wealth gap, and educational apartheid.

    The only people who aren’t adding to the movement are those who ONLY talk about it. I ask “what have you done to help?”

  15. says

    The Republican party has leaders and tons of organizational structure, yet it still has all sorts of clowns who drag the leadership and the rest of the party around. That is one thing “leaders” cannot do much to prevent.

    Actually, yes, a good leader — one who leads by communication and example as well as by the exercise of power — can indeed dramatically reduce the influence of immature or anti-social elements within a movement or organization. Failure to understand this is tantamount to giving up.

    And let’s also get past this idea that leading and listening to other people are mutually exclusive and incompatible actions. They’re not — competent leaders are perfectly capable of doing both, and both are necessary for the viability of a movement.

  16. consciousness razor says

    Actually, yes, a good leader — one who leads by communication and example as well as by the exercise of power — can indeed dramatically reduce the influence of immature or anti-social elements within a movement or organization.

    If you think that’s the case, then give me one example of a “good leader” who coincides with a society (not just some isolated, selective “organization”) that does not contain significant influence from “immature or anti-social elements.” Then show how it’s not just a coincidence, but how it is that this leader is “good,” by virtue of having reduced that influence. Then show how this isn’t just one quasi-miraculous set of circumstance due to the powers of (at least) one type of rare quasi-mythical individual, but that the lessons from it can be generalized well enough to have some application to the case at hand (i.e., the atheist, skeptic, humanist, progressive movements).

  17. Mattir, Another One With Boltcutters says

    @ cadfile #16

    The thing is, a lot of those single issue white male atheists are very big on scolding everyone who is an atheist and wants to work on sexism or racial injustice or economic disparaties or whatever that they DO NOT BELONG in organized atheism and should shut up and stop talking about stuff (and by the way, are Nazi sniper evildoer gendered explitives). And should make sure to leave plenty of silence for white men to speak in any space where they gather to talk about issues of interest to them. And really, why even HAVE such spaces or gatherings anyway, since it would be better not to mention specific issues like sexism or racism or economic disparity and simply call those issues part of the condition of humanity because to point out sex or race or economic status is DIVISIVE.

    This message gets old in a big hurry for those of us who would like to identify as atheists and participate in the social justice movement as atheists.

  18. says

    @ Eristae #14

    That reads like a letter that must be sent.

    For what it’s worth, you have the unreserved support of this random guy from the interwebz.

    May I initiate a *slow clap*?

  19. vaiyt says

    @cadfile:

    Yeah, single-issue white male atheists belong in the “movement” just as much as everyone else, and that’s why they must be the ones to set all the priorities and fuck everyone else. Fucking rolled my eyes so hard they hit the back of my skull. Go away and take your strawmen with you.

  20. says

    One of the biggest problems the atheist/humanist/skeptic movement has right now (along with the liberal/progressive movement in general) is lack of leadership

    yeah no. There’s no shortage of hierarchy and boss-figures in the atheist/humanist/skeptic movement. They are the ones often doing their damnedest to make sure their interests are the ones everyone focuses on, and scolding anyone who dares differ.

    We need less “leadership” and more grassroots organizing. But that’s a very American (tho I don’t know if exclusively American; I doubt it) problem: all programs that purport to teach you how to engage and become part of a civic society are “leadership seminars”. We don’t need leadership seminars, especially not leadership seminars for middle-class white college kids. We need organizer training, and training for how to become someone else’s megaphone; not training in how to tell other people what to do. Americans are already entirely too skilled at that :-/

  21. says

    more signs that the over-emphasis on “leadership” in social justice “training” and activism in general is poisoning people’s ideas about how a healthy and active civil society should look like, right from this thread:

    I’m all in favor of being open to the perspectives of others not like us — that’s a crucial part of leadership

    or… we could have those “others” be the ones who say what needs to be done on the issues that affect them, instead of just letting them talk, and then telling them how we are going to fix their problems.

    You are most certainly a leader, PZ, and your insistence on not being one is a bit disingenuous. You’re quite clearly a thought leader, you have a platform, and people listen to you, even if they don’t always agree. Without your input and use of your platform I firmly believe a lot of the positive change and discussions we have wouldn’t be happening. That’s leadership.

    no, that’s civic engagement. But the over-reliance on “leadership” language seems to make it impossible for people to think in terms other than “leader” and “followers”. And that is BAD

    Actually, yes, a good leader — one who leads by communication and example as well as by the exercise of power — can indeed dramatically reduce the influence of immature or anti-social elements within a movement or organization.

    this is another example of confusion about what a leader, even a good leader, is. A good leader is someone who manages to make a fuckload of people follow them, regardless of direction (Also, while I’m at it, let me godwin this conversation. Guess what “leader” translates to in German.)
    Like I said, the movements already have plenty of leaders; they’re the elements keeping us from moving away from the direction they’ve chosen. That’s how leadership is supposed to work by its very definition: leadership can only work if it gets a shitload of people to go in the direction the leader has chosen, and no other. That’s a problem, not a good thing.

  22. consciousness razor says

    We need less “leadership” and more grassroots organizing. But that’s a very American (tho I don’t know if exclusively American; I doubt it) problem: all programs that purport to teach you how to engage and become part of a civic society are “leadership seminars”.

    no, that’s civic engagement. But the over-reliance on “leadership” language seems to make it impossible for people to think in terms other than “leader” and “followers”. And that is BAD

    I’m reminded of all of the “leadership” I heard so much about (and was ostensibly trained for) in Boy Scouts as a kid. There was some inkling of the “civic engagement” notion now and then, as what anyone can and should do; but it often came back to some claim of leadership anyway or having that as its goal. Maybe it was building up self-esteem so we had the the confidence to do what we should, maybe it was stroking our egos, maybe both. We were (so it seemed) a paramilitary force of children who were going to lead the world someplace better someday, because not everyone has this valuable “leadership” stuff we were getting you know, so we’re going to do it for them. The idea that girls weren’t allowed in this little club, nor were gays, atheists, or other rabble-rousers — nope, just good, law-abiding, nationalistic little boys, thank you…. Well, that obviously isn’t new for the BSA, and it’s left a bad taste in my mouth ever since, even though I enjoyed some of the people, having a chance to experience nature, the learning experiences, etc.

  23. unclefrogy says

    the leader does not determine what way to go he is just the one in front.
    It is very unlikely that a leader can make the “followers” go where they do not want to go.
    Which does not say how to get the “followers” to decide what way they want to go. Does not matter because the choices of direction are not determined by the leader “he” has only a limited number of choices he can make.

    If I may make another observation. This Atheist “movement” this Secular/Skeptical “movement” is made up of individuals who by declaration have made up there own minds about things and have made that a central part of their lives. They do not just take any ones word on anything. They use reason and evidence to decide what to do. That does not sound very much like a group that is looking for a leader nor does it sound like one that could be very easily lead.
    While I would agree that for groups to function as groups and projects to be completed the there needs to be some organization. It seems futile and may even be divisive to strive for that much organization as formal official leaders would indicate.
    What would be so bad about “leading by consensus” a more collectivist* model it has the advantage of being more possible given the state of things “on the ground”. If that is in fact what is happening then what we are experiencing now is a very difficult discussion and hard decision process with out the benefit of anyone imposing any general rules of decorum and debate, save for those made by the many separate venues and forums where it is taking place.

    You know I have some confidence that us people may actually make some improvements in the way we order our lives together in the process.

    * I like the expression because it has such problematic baggage

    uncle frogy

  24. Ichthyic says

    It is very unlikely that a leader can make the “followers” go where they do not want to go.

    you would have that perception if you score low on the RWA scale. There are many who do not however. around 20-30% of the population will score high on that scale, depending on where you are.


    “Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

  25. Ichthyic says

    I read Eristae at #14 and have now reconsidered whether it would have been appropriate to throw shoes at Lindsay while he was giving his opening lecture.

    I would be up front, throwing the first shoe.

    it would have been clearer to Lindsay perhaps, why he failed so miserably, and instead of trying to defend what he wrote by attacking the ideas of conference participants, he could just whinge that people threw shoes at him instead.

  26. says

    This Atheist “movement” this Secular/Skeptical “movement” is made up of individuals who by declaration have made up there own minds about things and have made that a central part of their lives. They do not just take any ones word on anything. They use reason and evidence to decide what to do. That does not sound very much like a group that is looking for a leader nor does it sound like one that could be very easily lead.

    that’s naive, at best.

    What would be so bad about “leading by consensus”

    other than that it would be an oxymoron?

    the benefit of anyone imposing any general rules of decorum and debate

    ew. so glad the civility pledges we’ve had floating around were not mandatory.

  27. Beatrice (looking for a happy thought) says

    I would just like to second everything Jadehawk wrote in this thread.

  28. says

    Alright, I give up. You win. I’m finished. I bow out. I understand now that, as a woman, there isn’t a place within the secular movement, not really. I understand that the only place I’ll ever have is one where only parts of me fit and the rest of me must be left out in the cold.

    It’s fine. We all know that leading and speaking is more of a guy thing. A leading skeptic told us so.

  29. vaiyt says

    This Atheist “movement” this Secular/Skeptical “movement” is made up of individuals who by declaration have made up there own minds about things and have made that a central part of their lives. They do not just take any ones word on anything. They use reason and evidence to decide what to do.

    Sorry, no. It’s a herd of cats, but they have demonstrated so far to not be particularly smart cats. It’s about reason and evidence only when it’s convenient.

  30. unclefrogy says

    sure cats good enough image they are not that easily lead.
    it is pretty obvious that there is very little unanimity of opinion
    any where I can see.
    I think that what ever the percent of people willing to be followers is in the general population as a whole it is probably much lower in the self identified atheist/skeptical “community.”
    uncle frogy.

  31. Eristae says

    @billygutter01 @Rich Woods

    Thanks! I’ve been thinking about sending it, but I don’t even know who I’d send it to. Maybe the board or something. It’s hard to get motivated because I feel like the answer would be a resounding, “We don’t care,” and I don’t want to deal with that.

    @rorschach
    *slaps the palm of her hand against her forehead*

    Ah, of course! How silly of me to have forgotten that. I retract everything I just said and release a corrected response of “bitches ain’t shit.”