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.