Can you hear me now?

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a big fan of Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist blog. While I may not necessarily agree with everything he says (although I do most of the time), I find him to be a great writer who somehow finds time to post regular high-quality content (this past couple of months have been testament to how difficult it is to post regularly). It was therefore a great pleasure to see him take some time for himself and have a vacation. During that time, he invited a number of members of the Secular Student Alliance to post on his blog, which I thought was a nice touch. Some of them were funny, some of them were very serious, and some of them weren’t that great.

Only one of them actually made me angry:

These are daunting numbers, particularly after taking into account statistically lower high school graduation and college enrollment rates among African-Americans. It is likely that the main reason college non-theist groups are having trouble recruiting black atheists is that there simply aren’t very many – and probably even fewer willing to admit it. That being said, we still have to face the original issue: after recognizing the immense social pressure black atheists face, what can we do to attract the ones that are on our campuses? I argue that the method for attracting black students is no different than the method for attracting members in general.

Before I delve into this too deeply, I want to make a couple of things clear. First, nothing I write here should be interpreted as an attack on Derek Miller (the post’s author). I’m sure he’s a well-meaning and passionate advocate who has, in all probability, done far more for the skeptic cause than I have. Second, I do not believe that Mr. Miller’s post was written out of malice or any kind of ill will towards people of colour (PoCs). There’s nothing at all in his piece to suggest anything like that, and I don’t want my response to be interpreted as me being spikey about someone else’s racism. I will call out racism when I see it – I don’t see it here.

Now that I’ve said that, can I begin tearing him a new asshole?

First of all, if your position is that there’s no point in putting any extra effort into inviting PoCs to the secular movement, why on EARTH would you title your blog post “Inviting Black Americans to the Secular Table”? This is exactly the opposite of your conclusion. It would be like me titling this post “Derek Miller has a really good point”. Mr. Miller refers to a session he attended at a secular student conference wherein the presenter discusses the fact that there are a large number of challenges that are unique to the black community, and that there may not be a surefire way of targeting recruitment to black students. There may be some truth to that (I don’t agree, but what do I know?), but the conclusion to that argument in either case is not ‘so we should stop trying’. It means not only that our recruitment efforts can stand to be refined, but also that the issues that we focus on need to change.

Speaking to that last issue for a second – the secular community’s focus has been largely focussed on issues of church/state separation, scientific education, and general skepticism. These are fantastic and crucially important topics. They are topics that I care deeply and passionately about. However, they are also rather esoteric and highfalutin topics of interest that don’t really track with the general public. As I try to do every day on the pages of this blog, I think we can apply the same principles of skepticism and secular humanism to topics like poverty, justice, employment, politics… things that are far more relevant to the average person, particularly the average black American. Throw in discussing racism as a priority for the secular movement and you’re probably far more likely to appeal to members of minority groups, for whom those are constantly relevant topics in a palpable sense. Make the mountain come to Mohammed, so to speak.

Third, Mr. Miller’s position completely neglects the success that the atheist/secular/skeptic/freethinker movement(s) has had in making inroads with women and LGBT folks. Now more than ever, embracing feminism and pro-gay humanism is part of the central identity of this movement. This didn’t happen by accident, or because we made secularism super-nice for all people equally, it’s because we buckled down and actively changed the way we talk about those issues. We stopped ignoring them, and instead grabbed them as banner issues to attract women and gays/lesbians/transpeople to the movement. It is due to purposeful and targeted effort on behalf of people within the secular movement that we see a very different demographic makeup today than we did 10 years ago. Mr. Miller would prefer, it seems, to throw his hands helplessly in the air and completely ignore that success.

Finally, and most importantly (hence the title of this post), it is clear from his response that Mr. Miller has not been listening at all to people who are talking about the challenges of attracting minority members to secularism. While we have not yet reached the prominence that feminists have (and even they are fighting and scrambling to establish their legitimacy, making huge successes as they do), we are out there and constantly advocating real, concrete methods of increasing diversity. Mr. Miller’s post completely fails to even pay lip service to any of those, including the person who runs the blog his post went up at. Nothing says “I’m not listening” quite like saying “there’s nothing we can do to solve this problem.”

It would have been an entirely different situation if Mr. Miller had said, for example, “there are issues within the black community that the secular community cannot fix”, or “I’m not sure how to attract minority members, so I’m going to focus my efforts on making it more attractive to everyone”. That is not at all what he said. What he said is “no effort is needed to attract members of minority groups, so that’s that”. He’s ignorant, he’s wrong, and he’s clearly not listening.

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  1. SassyPants says

    I never saw the do-nothing or no-point you said. I read:

    “I argue that the method for attracting black students is no different than the method for attracting members in general. First and foremost, seek to develop a strong sense of real fellowship. As atheists of any race or gender, we are actively discriminated against and ought to be able to find comfort in the new friendships we make. Embrace a wide spectrum of viewpoints and perspectives. It naturally follows that the groups events will remain fresh and relevant, and membership will increase. It’s all about community: if you build it, they will come.”

  2. says

    SassyPants, that paragraph is a “no need for special effort” response. It’s right there, when he says “the method […] is no different”; it means he’s saying he isn’t going to do anything to attract PoC, he’s just going to try to attract “members in general”; which has been the method used so far, and which resulted in a predominantly white movement. “members in general” seems to, inadvertently, mean “people who respond to the recruitment that white straight guys tend to respond to”. Which, tautologously, means white straight guys.

    AAAnyway, excellent commentary (now, I’m off to read the second part to this, posted over at Friendly Atheist)


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