Is atheism a ‘white people thing’?

I suppose I have been remiss in not commenting on Alom Shaha’s Guardian article entitled The Accidental Exclusion of non-White Atheists:

These are issues that the white “leadership” of the atheist and sceptic (sic) movements have largely ignored because they are not issues that concern them. But these issues should concern all atheists – because if we are to be a “community”, if, as so many of us want, we are to be given the same standing in society as people who identify with a religious group, then we must ensure that black and Asian people are not just made to feel welcome but actively encouraged to join atheist and sceptic (sic) movements.

Part of my hesitation is from the fact that the article really doesn’t say very much aside from the obvious fact that the public face of atheism is largely a white one. The other part of my hesitation is that I don’t know how much meaningful commentary I have to contribute – I am not really a member of the “black community” as much as I am a member of the “atheist community”. The reason for the scare quote is, of course, that these terms don’t really describe anything other than a media impression. There is no monolithic black community or atheist community, except insofar as when things happen that are germane to all blacks or all atheists. As a result, I can only really describe my own experience.

I came to the atheist community very recently – only associating with other people as atheists qua atheism since the beginning of this year. There are others in my social circle who have been involved in the political and social machinations of the secular movement for years, some even for decades. There was no outreach for black atheists, I simply ponied up the courage to show up to an event, and then a pub night, and then another event, and so on. It wasn’t long before I was ingratiated as a “full member” of the Vancouver atheist scene, to the point where new members of our little band of merry men assumed I’d been there since the beginning. I was welcomed with essentially open arms, and have never felt that my race was a barrier (or a white-guilt-ridden over-reach) to my involvement or membership.

Of course, that’s not what this article is about. This is about the “accidental” exclusion of PoCs, making atheism a de facto ‘white people thing’. There are a number of factors at play, but I will again restrict my observations to my own personal experience.

I’m a guy who doesn’t mind going to stuff by himself. If I had been, for example, relying on friends (particularly friends that look like me) to go to an atheist event with me, that would have been one additional hurdle – especially if my friends were particularly religious.

I’m also a guy who is used to being surrounded by non-black people. If I had been the kind of person who is uncomfortable sticking out in a room full of strangers – strangers who are staring at me for being both new and different – that would have been another disincentive.

I speak fluent English. I enjoy talking about my race. I have a racially diverse group of close friends – there are a number of things that I have going for me that are not what I would imagine to be typical of the “average” experience of a PoC.

The things I have noted above (minus the accent thing, I guess) are also things that a non-PoC wouldn’t have to worry about, or would have to worry about much less. Just as I enjoy a certain amount of male privilege at atheist pub nights, not having to feel intimidated walking into a room of (mostly) men, not having to worry about being sexually harassed (and being able to defend myself against that if it did happen), there is a certain amount of white privilege at play when a non-PoC takes the initiative to attend an atheist gathering. All this means is that, at a population level, it is easier for non-PoCs to go to these kinds of things than it is for a PoC. It is not prohibitive, but that’s not how these things work. There is no sign outside the door that says “No blacks, no Jews”, but there doesn’t have to be – all that’s required is the general feeling that there are a certain “type” of people who are welcome.

Note that I haven’t said anything about my income, my level of education, my previous experience with lectures/debates, my interest in science – any number of factors that may be parallel racial/ethnic divides. Those variables most certainly exert influence and play an important role in why atheism is predominantly for non-PoCs but it is important to note the number of barriers that I personally didn’t have to jump through, but that a less-keen PoC would have. Even if we did have a level political playing field, I’d enjoy a head and shoulders advantage over the “average” person in my ethnic group for a number of reasons that have everything to do with race and nothing to do with anything else.

Based on the flood of comments after the Guardian article and the majority that follow Jen McCreight’s article on same, there’s still a long way to go before this becomes generally understood.

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  1. says

    Are you located in the southern states? Are you
    Afro-American? If so, it must really be tough to be recognized as an atheist in the south. Black folks are still trying to be accepted by the religious right here in the south, add coming out as atheist, here would be almost impossible.

  2. says

    No, I’m in Canada. Vancouver, to be more precise. The discrimination I face here is so much less than people in the USA, the south particularly.


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