You have to know where you are

No doubt most of you are aware of the head-shaking and puzzlement and alarm, and sometimes just plain anger, about Jamila Bey’s address to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) as a representative of American Atheists last week. Debbie Goddard has thoughts and questions about it at Skepchick. Rai Rhoades is unpleased at Rhoades to RealityJames Croft has big doubts at Temple of the Future.

Quoting James:

American Atheists’ overtures to CPAC and to the Republican Party make me uneasy. I can’t help the sense that this is less about promoting atheist visibility and acceptance, and more about cozying up to powerful people  under the cover of a completely unrealistic image of “conservatism”. It’s as if not only do they want conservatives to be OK with atheists, but they want atheists to be OK with conservatives – and they’re willing to overlook the very troubling record of contemporary conservatism to make their case.

As if to prove my point, at one moment in her speech Bey looked out into the crowd and said: “I see people who love this country and believe in the equality of all people.”

No you don’t. You really don’t, Jamila! You see a subset of the most conservative activists in the country, people whose job it is to oppose LGBTQ equality, women’s equality, and the equality of people of color. People who quite literally lead the charge against equality in America! It’s one thing to play to your audience, but quite another to flatly reject reality. This is pandering, and it makes me wonder about motives. I’m all for humanizing atheists in the eyes of conservatives, but lying about conservatism to do so is dishonest.

That. The thing is, there are ways atheists can be humanized, to conservatives and to anyone, that are not open to conservatives. (No doubt the reverse is also true, but I’ll leave the specifics of that to conservatives who want to underline the inhumanity of atheists.) It’s fine to say conservatives put their jeans on one leg at a time; it’s not fine to say that conservatives believe in the equality of all people – not in the USofA it’s not. It’s as James said: conservatives and especially CPAC are programatically and officially opposed to the equality of people. Conservatives like and trust hierarchy; in many ways hierarchy is the whole point for conservatives. In many ways love and trust of hierarchy and dislike and distrust of “leveling” is and always has been the core of conservatism. It’s no good trying to pretend that away. It’s no good denying it. It’s no good pretending it’s not true because you want it to be not true.

Hierarchy versus equality has always been the border between right and left. It’s not “small government” – that’s far more tangential.

This is political GPS.


  1. iknklast says

    I think it’s not just political pandering (though that might be part of it). Dave Silverman has some conservative views; so does Jamila Bey. I have heard others suggest that they feel outnumbered and alone as conservatives in the atheist movement. I suspect to some extent they want others in the movement who will validate their political worldview.

    But they forget one thing: these people don’t just disagree with liberals, they actually HATE them. I don’t think Dave or Jamila actively hate liberals, so they probably don’t understand. But which makes more sense? To keep the 70 – 80% of atheists who are liberal? Or to draw in the 20%, while losing a large chunk of the rest? I don’t want to be part of any group that is associated with CPAC, because CPAC doesn’t even believe I am a legitimate American. I am the other, and to them, the other is definitely less than human.

  2. paulabryder says

    Thanks for this because I’ve read her comments about why she wanted to be there, and it still makes no sense to me. These are people who will co-opt one of us, rather than give us a genuine reason to consider their ideas anything except vile, hateful & dangerous. As much as I’ve admired her, I am disheartened to the same extent.

  3. johnthedrunkard says

    Being atheist is a negatively defined position. NOT believing in god(s) does not guarantee freedom from other beliefs that may be as destructive as anything religion has come up with.

    Communism and Rand-roid-ism come to mind quickly. When weird inconsistencies turn up in Atheist groups, it is worth asking what OTHER ideological/political factors are involved.

    Jamila Bey’s name was only vaguely familiar to me even last week. Does anyone know from what springs her credulity, and/or, complicity with reactionaries derives?

  4. Lucette Smoes says

    I like Jamila Bey, but I was surprised to see and hear her at CPAC.
    The only understandable motivation is that she has a VERY gifted child who will not benefit from equality for all. Jamila may have experienced equality for all as bad for her son I think she alludes to this in her speech at. CPAC.
    Equality for all is socialism and it might not reward Jamila’s son as well as pure meritocracy.
    It is sad that Jamila Bey feels constrained to make this choice. I still like her.
    Ayn Rand strikes again?

  5. L. A. Julian says

    @Lucette Smoes

    No amount of “giftedness” will stop a bigoted police officer’s bullet.

    Or prevent race-based discrimination by employers.

    If Jamila truly thinks that her son can overcome all societal obstacles by pure willpower, and the innate virtue passed on by her perfect genes, she is as delusional as any anti-vaxxer who thinks they can protect their child from disease by feeding them organic wholemeal and herbal supplements.

    The “I’m all right, Jack” mentality embodied in that attitude — so long as me and mine are ahead of everyone else, it doesn’t matter who drowns — is no less reprehensible and unworthy of admiration. Those who say conservativism is at its roots a way of legitimizing the absence of empathy — would be the “mean” part of “mean / stupid” — would be validated, if your description of her motivation is correct.

  6. Dunc says

    Being “gifted” is not “merit”, it’s luck. Merit is earned.

    And when you say “[e]quality for all is socialism” (which is a staggeringly poor definition of socialism, but we’ll let that pass for now), do you mean equality of opportunity or equality of outcome? Or something else?

  7. Iain Walker says

    sumdum (#6):

    But equality for all does not mean trampling on the gifted? That makes no sense.

    No. Without equality, only a proportion of those who are genuinely gifted will be able to flourish – i.e., those with the social privileges that facilitate the realisation of those gifts (e.g., being white, male, having rich parents etc. etc.). It’s inequality, more often than not, that “tramples on the gifted”.

    Lucette Smoes (#4):

    Equality for all is socialism and it might not reward Jamila’s son as well as pure meritocracy.

    Aside from your curious assumptions about socialism, one would have to be very naive to think of CPAC as being a bastion of meritocracy. It’s not equality that holds back merit – it’s conservative defenders of hierarchy and privilege.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    Bey’s own account of her four minutes of speaking at CPAC fails to address the criticisms made here, at Pharyngula, or in the comments following her post. I can only hope she’s preparing an adequate rejoinder – though I have no idea how she could possibly do so without diving into the science-fiction/fantasy genre (see Rand, A.).

    I don’t follow online “conservatism” very much – has anybody noticed if Real Christian Patriotic White American Men™ have given the organizers of CPAC the hell they clearly deserve for letting a black woman Atheist!!1! pollute their sanctorum at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, MD for a whole 1/15th of an hour?

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