War on Everything »« He’s not really filling me with confidence

Sikivu tells it like it is

She tears into a phenomenon that bothers me, too: white evangelical ministers jumping ship for atheism, being embraced by atheists, and tainting atheism with the Christian culture. In particular, there’s this awful parasite, Ryan Bell, who’s only just trying out atheism for a year, which is simply ridiculous — it’s not a set of superficial practices, it’s a mindset. What’s he going to do at the end of the year, erase his brain?

A thriving brand of secular tourism can now be definitively filed under the category “stuff white people like”:  Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta has sponsored a crowd-funding campaign for a white male former pastor named Ryan Bell who—in a bit of brilliant PR stagecraft—“decided to…give atheism a try” for a year.  As a result of his “experiment” Bell was fired from two Christian schools.  Currently the campaign has far exceeded its $5,000 goal, generating over $16,000 from 700 plus donors in one day.  Bell joins a jam-packed, largely white, mostly Christian cottage industry of religious leaders who are capitalizing off of untapped reserves of atheist dollars, adulation and publicity by jumping onto the “maverick ex-pastor” bandwagon. 

But there’s more to it than that. American culture as a whole tends to be racist, and atheists are following the majority.

In studies conducted by Princeton University researchers, white job seekers with criminal records were slightly more likely to be called back for and/or offered entry-level jobs than African American job seekers with no criminal record. According to lead researcher Devah Pager, “Even whites with criminal records received more favorable treatment (17%) than blacks without criminal records (14%). The rank ordering of (these) groups…is painfully revealing of employer preferences: race continues to play a dominant role in shaping employment opportunities, equal to or greater than the impact of a criminal record.”

That’s the problem: that racism cuts people off at the level of denying them opportunities, so they don’t get a chance to demonstrate competence, providing a self-perpetuating basis for the myth that they’re less qualified. It’ll never end unless everyone consciously opens the doors and encourages more participation; unless we recognize the handicap that assumed white dominance places on all others who have slightly more melanin.

She also points out one egregious example of failure by atheist organizations:

For example, although many atheists profess a commitment to ‘science and reason’ there are still no atheist STEM initiatives that acknowledge the egregious lack of STEM K-12 and college access for students of color. In their zeal to brand predominantly religious communities as backward, unenlightened and unsophisticated in the exceptionalist ways of Western rationality, atheist organizations are MIA when it comes to discussions about STEM college pipelining, STEM literacy and culturally responsive recruitment and retention of STEM scholars and professionals of color in academia.” While white atheists give jobs, “atheist” pulpits and big bucks to American secular tourists numerous black churches support STEM tutoring, mentoring, college access and scholarship programs to confront the gaping educational divide between white and black America.

There are, unfortunately, a substantial number of atheists who declare that anything beyond simply stating there is no god is ‘mission creep’. They can cheer when a prominent scientist like Richard Dawkins endorses atheism, but recognizing that a commitment to science means a heck of a lot more than clapping really hard at a talk is too much for them. They like science, and isn’t atheism supposed to be just about affirming what they already like? Oh, and of course, affirming how stupid people are who don’t like the things we do.

But taking that next step and realizing that a commitment to science means investing and working towards expanding knowledge of science is hard. Exercising political will is hard. Demanding social change is hard. But that’s what atheists need to do if they are to be something more than an empty label.

I’ve been seeing first-hand what it takes to expand an idea, and atheism isn’t doing it. Science is. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to people at HHMI and NIH, and their focus is crystal clear. They prioritize getting science done, and they don’t give a damn whether it is a white hand or a brown one doing it.

The demographic trends are perfectly obvious: America is going to become a majority-minority country in the next few decades (states like California and Texas are already there), which means white people aren’t going to be the dominant default anymore. At the same time, when these grant agencies look at who is doing science, they’re mostly white and minority populations are largely excluded. They can do the math, they’re scientists. It means we can’t afford to discriminate against the largest subpopulation as a pool of potential scientists.

So there are programs in place at all the big science funding agencies to encourage an expansion of that pool, before the trends kill us. Even my little HHMI grant is designed with the goal of giving underserved populations a chance to do science at the undergraduate level.* These represent commitments of money and time to give those who are denied by default assumptions an opportunity to prove themselves. That’s what we need more of, not just lip service.

I know all the major atheist organizations either have a narrower goal, or are making major efforts to grow the atheist community. If your goal is to just grow your membership, it’s always tempting to just focus on the people you’ve already got, and just try to get more. But grabbing a greater share of a shrinking subpopulation is short-term thinking. Long term, you have to invest in recruiting from the faster-growing subset — and the atheist organizations that are still going to be here in the future need to make that commitment now.


*By the way, women are not considered an underserved population in undergraduate education any more. We have no problem getting women involved in entry-level science — the problems come later for women, when it’s time for promotion and moving on to professional status. That’s a ceiling minorities hit as well; these are problems that have to be addressed at multiple levels.

Comments

  1. doublereed says

    Well, generally I prefer STEAM to STEM (basically you just throw “Arts” into it as well, as arts and science tend to go hand-in-hand).

    But you know what? Problems like these are opportunities. The solution seems relatively simple once you recognize the problem.

  2. says

    The sad fact is that most people are willing to challenge privilege only when they are on the non-privileged side. We saw a lot of this in the A+ fracas a year and a half ago. What can the rank and file do, short of starting our own organizations and initiatives?

  3. says

    I’m really not seeing what’s racist about supporting this pastor in his experiment – we didn’t seek him out, or turn anyone else away. If I knew of a minority pastor trying the same experiment, I’d love to support them too. But Ryan is the only one I know of at the moment, and if he has a good experience with it, and publicizes that, then perhaps he’s made it a little easier and safer for others to do the same thing, including those who aren’t young white guys.

    On his blog he posted a video of Julia Sweeney, with her idea of trying on the “not believing in god glasses”, just for a little. Ryan Bell is trying that for a whole year. In Julia’s case, she wound up deconverting. I think this pastor may well be closer to deconverting than he is willing to admit to himself. We’ll see. But an effort that supports a preacher deciding to become an ex-preacher is probably worthwhile.

  4. says

    I think I’ll make any donations to the Women’s Leadership Project, which is aimed at benefiting more than one person. In memory of my mom, who dropped out of school for a while because of how the teachers treated her.

  5. McC2lhu doesn't want to know what you did there. says

    I would be leery of every clown who tries to bring some sort of evangelical background to a secular crowd. Televangelists suckered in credulous gits on the Xtian side for easy cash. We don’t need the secular side falling for the same side-show carny acts just so some blow-dried, Armani’d shit can get a free ride from society. Let him wallow and earn the experience points on his own. Don’t hand hold him or give him an opening to turn atheism into a ‘ministry’.

    As for the STEM/STEAM situation. It seems to be the age old embarrassment of the nation of the haves/have nots. My daughter began school at a STEM magnet school earlier this year. The costs are prohibitive. It was necessary as there is ZERO curriculum for science in the first 4-5 grades of public school in this county. A fucking travesty. Seeing as most non-white population in OC is still struggling under the racist financial policies of the country, there’s only perhaps a half-dozen black students in the 500 student school. The Hispanic student population is around 20%. The A+ community certainly does need to append its mission to make sure everyone is aware of financial disparity, especially as it pertains to minorities and their ability to get proper science education.

  6. robinjohnson says

    The trouble with “being an atheist for a year” is that that very concept betrays that you Just Don’t Get It. To be an atheist, you accept that some things are real and some are not, and you don’t get to choose which is which. If he truly accepted that, then he could no more choose to be an atheist than he could choose for God to not exist.

    That he’s been driven away from the church by its attitude to LGBT rights tells us that he’s already using his own judgement for moral issues. What he ought to be doing is simply extending that judgement to issues of fact too. If he does so, atheism will probably follow.

  7. Parse says

    Ubi Dubium @ 3:
    I don’t see it as actively racist, as in “let’s support this person because they’re white.” Rather, I think it’s passively racist – “let’s support this person because they’re in the news,” and the story only caught the public’s attention because the fellow’s a white man.
    Is it racist when the news runs a story about a missing white girl? By itself, no. But is it racist when practically every girl in a missing-girl news story is white?
    Hemant has a history of running fundraisers, which in and of itself is a good thing. The fact that each individual he raises funds for has been white? Not so good, but I don’t think that he’s doing it intentionally.

  8. says

    If I knew of a minority pastor trying the same experiment, I’d love to support them too.

    The fact that you don’t know about a minority pastor (nor I) trying the same experiment, is at least partly a result of racism. As Parse explained.

    Lack of personal acrimony towards people of color is not sufficient to combat racism. Those of us with white privilege are called on to go out of our way to ensure that “white” is not being treated as the default, that the burden is not always on people like Sikivu to bring our attention to POC.

  9. Jacob Schmidt says

    In particular, there’s this awful parasite, Ryan Bell, who’s only just trying out atheism for a year, which is simply ridiculous — it’s not a set of superficial practices, it’s a mindset. What’s he going to do at the end of the year, erase his brain?

    The good fellows over at The Atheist Experience respectfully disagree.

    While I take issue with the semantics of “trying out atheism”, Bell is openly professing and exploring his doubts. And, for what it’s worth, his last few posts could have been written, for the most part, by any atheist.

    They like science, and isn’t atheism supposed to be just about affirming what they already like? Oh, and of course, affirming how stupid people are who don’t like the things we do.

    I think apathy is a much greater enemy than malice here. The majority is mindlessly perpetuating a movement that only benefits them.

  10. haitied says

    I definitely agree in promoting minority outreach and support in the Atheist community to combat the pernicious effects of systemic racism. It really irks me to see lip service payed to these issues by prominent figures only to see that it is indeed just talk.

    About the Atheist for a year “experiment” . . Be honest, Could any of you just up and believe in the resurrection, Jesus, and all that shit tomorrow? I know damn well I couldn’t just flip a switch voluntarily and become a Christian or Muslim Or Hindu etc. .

    I can’t help but think this is just a publicity stunt, nothing more. He gets to turn around in a year and write a book about “Surviving his immoral Atheist life-hole”.

  11. robinjohnson says

    Haitied, #10

    Could any of you just up and believe in the resurrection, Jesus, and all that shit tomorrow? I know damn well I couldn’t just flip a switch voluntarily and become a Christian or Muslim Or Hindu etc. .

    I couldn’t, but religious people often do vaguely similar things, like change their church to get married – why? The nature of the universe hasn’t changed! What it comes down to is their attitude towards the idea of truth itself. For most religious people, it’s something easily malleable, at least when it applies to religious ideas. It’s the one way in which I kinda sorta have more respect for the fundies than I do for the wishy-washy mainstream: at least the fundies and I agree that what’s true for one person is true for everyone else.

  12. Thumper: Token Breeder says

    I’m really not seeing what’s racist about supporting this pastor in his experiment…

    What? I think you need to read the OP again.

  13. lumen says

    “That person raising money is doing so for an unworthy cause. Someone should raise money for this cause I think is much more important. Not me though. I’m too busy complaining about the work other people are doing that I don’t agree with.”

    Mehta is a pretty small fundraiser as things go. I don’t see anything he’s doing that isn’t doable by any other blogger. Of course that requires getting off your but and doing something positive. Most bloggers seem to think that sitting around and spewing criticism at people who actually DO things is much more effective than actually doing something themselves. Reminds me of congressional Republicans.

  14. Brandon says

    Haited, #10

    Be honest, Could any of you just up and believe in the resurrection, Jesus, and all that shit tomorrow?

    No, but I suppose I could do a little bit of Act As If, if I was actually invested in doing so. I wouldn’t really believe it, but I suppose I could behave like I imagine I would if I did and see if I like it or not. I don’t think it’s a very good way to answer questions about the universe, but doing that for a month might give me some other interesting insights about myself and others.

  15. says

    The Ryan Bell thing is so bizarre, that it’s hard for me to think of it as anything other than a one-off thing. I’m not seeing this “jam-packed cottage industry of religious leaders who are capitalizing off of untapped reserves of atheist dollars” at all.

  16. unclefrogy says

    the Ryan Bell thing is well it has some strange implications.
    OK he tries to live like he no longer believes there is a god then what? He goes back and tries to live as if he believes god does exist? Does he continue to act as if he does not think god exists while still believing god does exist?
    Or is he just trying to see what it would be like if he “came out” as an atheist? If he does not like the result would he go back to being a preacher while not believing in god? He is obviously not coming at this from a rational scientific point of view he is most likely coming at his disbelief from some moral psychological reasoning. There are many paths to truth.

    I myself came to admit my disbelief primarily through the rational scientific approach spurred on by my reaction to the moral contradiction between what religion says and what it does.
    I would and do support any and all efforts to increase science education and awareness as well as any outreach efforts that could be devised. While the human animal may survive in some form or other without science our modern civilization will not.
    uncle frogy

  17. anuran says

    Could be a number of things…
    He could be trying out that Scarlet “A” because he is questioning his faith but not quite ready to make the break.

    It could be an attempt to see how atheists are treated by Christians in which case boy-oh-howdy did he find out

    It could be a gedanken experiment.

    It could be for publicity.

    Or it could be for a bunch of reasons we haven’t thought of.

  18. says

    Did I miss a memo somewhere? Is there a large number of African-American evangelicals leaving their faith that atheists aren’t supporting?

    My reading on the fundraising that Hemet is doing is because the guy was fired from his job.

    If you are worried like me about the “taint” of Christianity from those former ministers then don’t go into a UU church where they’ve been taking in former Christians for decades and their services show it.

  19. Pierce R. Butler says

    … no atheist STEM initiatives that acknowledge the egregious lack of STEM K-12 and college access for students of color.

    What do we have in the way of serious “atheist STEM initiatives” of any kind?

  20. stripeycat says

    cadfile @19

    Did I miss a memo somewhere? Is there a large number of African-American evangelicals leaving their faith that atheists aren’t supporting?

    That’s the whole point. Sikivu is saying that we’re not appealing to scientifically minded PoC, and that the churches are. We’re ignoring a potential membership (and a whole group of people who could benefit) that is growing long-term, in favour of the existing, shrinking target demographic.

  21. andrsib says

    I donated to that pastor. Guilty as charged. Next time I’ll think twice before donating to an “atheist” cause, because I find all this noise about “you donated to the wrong guy” rather offensive.

  22. says

    andrsib:

    Next time I’ll think twice before donating to an “atheist” cause, because I find all this noise about “you donated to the wrong guy” rather offensive.

    What is it you find offensive?

  23. andrsib says

    Tony! The Queer Shoop!:

    “You donated to the wrong guy” line, especially implying some “impure” motives.

  24. rorschach says

    @23,

    I donated to that pastor. Guilty as charged. Next time I’ll think twice before donating to an “atheist” cause, because I find all this noise about “you donated to the wrong guy” rather offensive.

    Try reading for comprehension sometime. What people here and at the linked post have been saying is that a white pastor being dumped from a predominantly white people’s Christian church for playing some silly “let’s be an atheist for a year” game, is not an atheist cause, and plays into racist ideas. Personally I don’t give a damn about this guy being dumped by his bigoted church, and I’m fed up with Mehta for sponsoring this kind of shit.

    If you want to donate to atheist causes, don’t be turned off by this ill-conceived and rightly criticized event. A list of secular organisations can be found here.

  25. andrsib says

    @26

    don’t be turned off by this ill-conceived and rightly criticized event.

    Oh, thanks for the advise. Unfortunately, comments like this is what precisely can turn me off from donating to “causes”, secular or otherwise. No donations = no problems.

  26. Rey Fox says

    If you’re turned off from donating to causes because someone out there criticizes them, then I guess you’ll have a lot of money for yourself.

  27. says

    The idea of being atheist for a year seems like a silly idea, but if youread Bell’s original post on the topic, it is obvious that there is a lot more to it. Bell genuinely seems to be in the process of reevaluating his beliefs, but has chosen an awkward way to go about it.

    Even so, fears of a slick televangelist coming in and fleecing the atheist rubes–or whatever it is you’re afraid of–are almost comical. And the racism thing? How is this a zero sum game, where if Ryan Bell does it, some nonwhite, nonmale can’t do it? If it was, say, T.D. Jakes, don’t you think it would attract as much or more interest?

  28. stevem says

    re

    I couldn’t, but religious people often do vaguely similar things, like change their church to get married – why?

    To overgeneralize: Most people treat religion as just a social club. So changing “religion” is just a new group of people. They don’t really care about the deetails of any religion, as long as it still has Jebus innit. That is why our logic of pointing out all the inconsistencies in the Babble fall on deaf ears. Without admitting it explicitly, it is just a book to them. Religion is people and getting together every Sunday to sing, and pray together. I think this “atheism for a year” gig is just a manifestation of this mindset. “I’ll just step out of this religion group for a year and see how I like living without any of them.” He is not claiming any change of thought process, just joining the religion of atheism for a year. [yada, yada, yada. Stopping now, before I get too offensive]

  29. Rey Fox says

    One of my mother’s friends switched to the Russian Orthodox church (from Roman Catholic), I think because she liked the music or something. Always struck me rather weird.