Atheism is a social justice issue – colonialism edition

This is part of a series of articles intended to illustrate the usefulness of treating atheism as a social justice issue, rather than trying to wall atheist discourse off from social justice discussions. Read the introductory post here. Read the second post here. Read the third post here.

One of the social justice issues that I have become increasingly aware of, as a direct consequence of aboriginal activist groups in North America and Africa, is the issue of colonialism. The fact is that, with only a handful of exceptions, our current geopolitical system carries with it a legacy of colonization by various European powers as they attempted to expand their domain and their powers. Indeed, even our very idea of what a nation is has been essentially cribbed wholesale from the colonial powers. Because we exist in a history and an existential philosophy that was created by the colonizers, identifying colonialism is often quite difficult. Its effects, however, are easy to observe (if not to properly attribute).

Even the most cursory examination of the history of colonialism will stand testament to the fact that religion is a major and intrinsic component of colonialism. During the physical colonization of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, religion provided not only a major source of the justification for the domination of the people aboriginal to that region (i.e., the need to ‘Christianize’ and ‘save’ those people), but informed the mechanism of action (e.g., foreign missionaries, residential schools, destruction/adaptation of local religions/customs). It is not possible to understand religion without understanding colonialism, and vice versa.

Which is why this ‘contribution’ from atheist standard-bearer Dr. Richard Dawkins was so ill-conceived:

Open mouth, insert British flag

“Like Alexandria, like Bamiyan, Timbuktu’s priceless manuscript heritage destroyed by Islamic barbarians”

Once again, granting the most gentle and generous interpretation to Dr. Dawkins, I’m sure what he intended to note is that the act of destroying documents that are hundreds and thousands of years old is an act of barbarism. The people who destroyed these manuscripts were, in fact, Muslims, who destroyed the documents for reasons that were justified under their interpretation of the tenets of Islam. These two true facts are combined to form the term “Islamic barbarians”.

The problem arises when we consider the term “Islamic barbarian” and the tradition of decrying other (i.e., non-Christian, non-European) cultures as “barbaric”, and those people as “barbarians”. The very concept of “civilized” – the opposite of “barbaric” – is run through with colonialism (which is, in turn, run through with religion). The term “barbarians”, like “heathens” or “savages” has been used to justify the wholesale destruction of cultures and human rights. This is not untrue within ‘Islamic countries’ as well – both historically during and after the Crusades, and contemporarily with issues borne of patriarchy and socioeconomic access being simply filed away under “Islam’s fault”.

Had Dr. Dawkins been more aware of the intersection between religion and colonialism, his critique may have leaned far less on the apparatus of colonialist language to make what is ultimately a sound point. In so doing, he may have been able to pick apart his own assumptions about “barbarism” and “civilization” and how those terms have historical antecedents that are rooted in the same religious hegemony that he seeks to criticize.

Or maybe he wouldn’t have cared.

Leaving aside this example for a moment, I want to approach the intersection of colonialism and religion from ‘the other side’:

Mark MacDonald: These are all good thoughts. I would add one or two: The relationship with the land is God-given and necessary for a good life. To grow in the good life, in morality and spirituality, is to grow in the beneficial relationship with God and creation. This is demonstrated by the way we call male elders Akiwensi – meaning that they care for the Earth.

This means that the relationship with creation, with the land, is a moral absolute. It cannot be eclipsed by other considerations. The way in which economics has become morally absolute is dangerous to all human beings and all creatures. It seems to me that Idle No More is helping to remind us of this vital fact of existence.

The above is part of an exchange over the religious underpinnings of the Idle No More movement. From my own (horrendously flawed) understanding of aboriginal spirituality, there is no meaningful philosophical separation between the people and the land. The people are on the land and of the land, which has led to the conflict between colonial ideas about land and its use and the philosophies of the original people. That being said, much of this philosophy is inherently tied up in non-scientific beliefs* about the relationship between the people, the land, and a Creator or a ‘spirit world’ that does not exist except (under a very generous interpretation) metaphorically.

Is aboriginal spirituality better than Christianity? Insofar as both of them require the suspension of the use of empirical evidence in favour of ‘revelation’ and other non-falsifiable forms of ‘knowledge’, they are both wrong (and potentially dangerous). Insofar as one is humanity-affirming while the other is humanity-vilifying, they are not equally harmful. Can we arrive at an understanding of custodianship and affinity to/oneness with the land without relying on supernatural narratives? I would suggest not only that we can, but that this is a better way to understand our place in the world – without the need for gods and those who would attempt to convince us that they uniquely understand the wishes of those gods.

Without the awareness of colonialism and the way in which religion suffuses it, we run the risk of making what I will charitably call ‘blunders’ of the kind that Dr. Dawkins made in his tweet. Without understanding the dangers of adhering religion to our governing political principles, anti-colonial groups run the risk of committing similar errors to those whose systems they (righly) criticize. In either case, the lack of facility with understanding religion as a social justice axis will result in communities making statements and following beliefs that are strongly at odds with reality, thus dooming them to irrelevance.

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*I am wading into my own morass of colonialist language here, since ‘science’ is a colonial way of understanding the world as well. The difference between science and Christianity (or any faith) is that science is demonstrably true and useful.


  1. mythbri says

    Do you have any advice for how someone of privilege can negotiate the line between avoiding a colonialist mindset and accommodating cultural relativism? By cultural relativism, I mean respecting a practice or belief simply because it is a cultural thing, even though it is harmful – somewhat akin to how religious people think their religious beliefs should be respected, because they are religious beliefs, which is a form of circular reasoning.

  2. says

    I would say that the fastest way is to familiarize yourself with the work of anti-colonial activists and writers. They will be able to point out what it is, and how it works. This is true of most social justice topics.

  3. says

    Dawkins, meh. I love his science writing, and much (though by no means all) of his atheism writing, but once he gets past that he tends to plant his feet firmly and deeply in his mouth. Yeah, I can imagine myself saying things that stupid too, except I *realize* there’s a metric shitton of stuff out there I don’t understand properly and usually tell myself to STFU in time.

  4. says

    I struggle with Dr. Dawkins. I think he becomes a lightning rod for controversy every time he says anything. I don’t think he’s worse than average (if anything, I’d say he’s better because he regularly at least pays lip service to issues of inequality), but his words have an outsized impact. As a result, he becomes the avatar of ultimate good or ultimate evil in some minds, and criticism (or defence) of his blunders becomes heresy.

    Your comment of “I can imagine myself saying that too” is significant. I don’t want these to come across as heavy-handed scolding; as though I have it figured out and everyone else needs to catch up. My understanding of colonialism is really recent, and I’m sure that if I went back through my own writing on just this blog, I’d find lots of examples of things where I said something that reflects colonialist attitudes. One of the purposes of this blog is for me to measure my intellectual growth like pencil marks on a door frame.

  5. mythbri says


    if anything, I’d say he’s better because he regularly at least pays lip service to issues of inequality

    Is that really better, though?

    “FGM is a horrible and harmful practice that ruins the lives of many women! Pay no attention to the sexism behind the curtain!”

    That’s part of what makes it so crushing and frustrating for minority voices within the atheist/skeptic community. It’s easy to recognize racism or sexism or homophobia in the thing you’re fighting against. But the minute you’re asked to re-examine some deeply-ingrained assumptions, it’s suddenly completely different from what those silly – “barbaric” – religious people do.

    Richard Dawkins might be good at pointing out the elephants of religion, but somehow he fails to see the pygmy pachyderm that’s following him around everywhere.

  6. says

    If the question is whether or not it is better to raise awareness about inequalities than to perpetuate ignorance about them, then the answer is ‘yes’. That’s not a hard question for me to answer.

    The point is that we all have these blind spots, and they lead us all to drag around elephants of our own. Richard Dawkins may have his issues, but his problem is one of scale, not of type.

  7. mythbri says


    That’s true – we all have our own elephants. I probably should have used a different animal for the analogy, since I actually like elephants.

    So, different-sized elephants, but they’re all elephants. And, of course, Dawkins’ insistence that some elephants are worse than others, and really those aren’t really elephants at all – they’re “zero elephants”.

  8. says

    So if we’re talking about Dawkins’ propensity to deny his own privilege, then yes he is pretty bad. I don’t know whether or not he is worse than average, but he is consistently awful at doing that. He is certainly not unique in that, but that wasn’t your claim.

  9. jesse says

    I’d say at some point you kind of have to just cop to the fact that being from an indigenous or oppressed identity doesn’t make you right. And when it comes to science — well, it may be invented by colonialists, but that doesn’t make it wrong, either.

    My huge honking difference with the postmoderns of the 80s and some social justice folks now is that at a certain point there are iron facts of the universe that don’t care what we think. Don’t like the fact that you can’t fly like Superman? tough luck.

    I’m not as upset about various kinds of spirituality as some in the Atheist-osphere, though. Dawkins’ comment is emblematic of the very thing that bugs me: too often I see people treating atheism the way they did in high school when they thought it was all edgy to listen to Depeche Mode’s “Blasphemous Rumors.” Dawkins doesn’t seem to have moved beyond that honestly. And he has zero capacity for self-examination, as far as I can tell.

  10. says

    I’d say at some point you kind of have to just cop to the fact that being from an indigenous or oppressed identity doesn’t make you right.

    I’d respond by saying that almost nobody makes that claim, at least not universally. What it does mean, however, is that you are far more likely to be right about your oppression, which is the point. Being black doesn’t make me more knowledgeable about physics (and it certainly doesn’t grant me the power of flight), but it does give me an appreciation for the dynamics of race that a non-racialized person is unlikely to have without a significant amount of study.

  11. mythbri says


    That’s true. It is always better to raise awareness about problems and inequalities than to say nothing or even perpetuate the myth that those problems and inequalities don’t exist. I agree with you there.

    But to do that without recognizing similar problems in your own community or background is to use those inequalities as weapons to fight with, more than fighting to eradicate them. And in doing so, the people with privilege control the conversation, as they so often do. That’s why I questioned whether occasional lip-service was better than nothing at all.

  12. mythbri says

    Suddenly I’m thinking of the Mumakil from The Lord of the RIngs.

    Weaponized oliphaunts.

  13. Hazalric says

    Great article! Though I’m not sure I understand your sentence about science being a “colonial way of understanding the world”?

  14. says

    The edifice of science was developed within a cultural and historical context that also informed the attitudes of colonial powers. It’s really tricky to separate the axioms of the scientific method from colonial attitudes. We’re way better at doing it now, but often fall down when we try to apply ‘just science’ to our policies. When we try to interpret the results of science, the colonial attitudes creep back in, and then we get problems.

  15. Adam says

    As someone relatively new to this area, I’m curious: Is it possible/permissible, in the kind of dialogue we are trying to foster, to discuss the “relative size/scale of our elephants?”

    In some ways I am reminded of issues regarding the discussion of religion and Sam Harris’ suggestion that most atheist organizations feel the need to treat all religions equally regarding their relative dangers. With respect to the risk of violent deaths on a large scale Islam is worse than most forms of evangelical Christianity.

    However, would pointing this out be taken to be dismissing the problems that Evangelical groups pose?

    If someone wanted to make such a point would they need to make a “disclaimer” e.g.

    “Today I’d like to talk about violent religious terrorism, and though I appreciate the serious threat of Christian groups target planned parenthood and groups that foster extreme levels of hatred towards women, homosexuals and other, I think our major concern stems from Islam.”

    “Though I see and resent the vile current of misogyny present in the atheism/skeptic community I’d like to talk about the profound abuse and oppressive attitudes toward women being taught in our local Baptist churches.”

    Or perhaps I am misreading this and there is no real comparison.

  16. Simon says

    Question: Is it OK to say something like “end this barbaric practice” in such a context?

  17. Bruce Gorton says

    I would add something else to this – colonialism isn’t something just the European powers did and it hasn’t really stopped happening.

    Al Qaeda in Timbuktu for example is essentially acting as a colonialist force from Algeria, whose funding could be traced to parties in a lot of the Asian Islamic world.

  18. says

    Until you have an objective way of measuring elephant size (spoilers: one doesn’t exist), it’s probably safest to acknowledge the existence of elephants, rather than trying to weigh them. And then recognize that sometimes you’re talking about the same elephant, just different ends of it.

  19. says

    It is interesting to trace the history of the word “barbarian” back to its roots in the ancient Greek city-states. Originally, as I’m sure many people here know, it simply referred to anyone who spoke anything other than Greek–since all other languages supposedly sounded like ‘bar bar barbarbar’ to delicate Hellenistic ears. Later, once the Roman Empire took over the Balkans, its connotation shifted somewhat, and it started referring to people who lived beyond the purview of the City. (That’s where we get our notions of ‘citizen’, ‘civilization’, ‘the Just City’, etc. from as well.) Since these peoples’ menfolk often had beards, whereas Romans were more clean-cut, “barbarian” also became associated with beards (which gives us the words ‘barber’ in English and ‘debarbouillette’ in French, amongst others).

    The term began taking on more of a modern interpretation during the decline and fall of the West Roman Empire, when vast hordes of barbarians began migrating for various reasons. At this point the phrase ‘Barbarians at the gates’ might have been more descriptive of the sacking of a Roman city. Note that up to this point, most ‘barbarians’ were disempowered European tribal entities, such as the Goths and Vandals and Gauls, who were themselves Christianized and ‘civilized’ by Roman missionaries even as they dismantled the architecture of the Roman state.

    I believe it is that history which informed the use of “Barbarian” as a descriptor of the pre-European inhabitants of the Americas, and I do not think the term was a universal negative. At least subconsciously, the European powers might have felt a kind of affinity with the peoples of the Americas. Usage of the term could have reflected a recognition of their own tribal, pre-Christian past, similar to the notion of the ‘Noble Savage’ which gained currency at the time. The Christian reaction to the new ‘barbarians’ was mixed as well–the famous debate between Las Casas and Sepulveda shows that serious Christian scholars wrestled with the ethical implications of religious and cultural colonialism.

    The ‘civlizing’ and power-hungry aspects of the discourse did come to dominate, and so the negative connotations of ‘barbarian’ and ‘savage’ have remained embedded in our popular recollection of events. But the actual history which shaped the modern usage of these terms was more complicated than we like to admit.

    Also, I think it’s likely that our notion of ‘Native spirituality’ is itself largely the product of the colonialism which gathered dozens of different tribal structures together under a single sociopolitical rubric. The truth is, we don’t know a whole hell of a lot about what the pre-European Americans thought and believed, since they were almost completely oral cultures and the Europeans were mightily good at killing off the living witnesses to those people’s belief structures. But I’m deeply suspicious that Ian’s characterization of what the pre-European Americans believe(d) finds its roots in the European ideal of the “Noble Savage” who strove for “balance with Nature”. What evidence we do have suggests that the various tribes across the Americas were well acquainted with warfare, agriculture, and environmental manipulation. Hell, two of the most famous pre-European American civilizations were devoted to human sacrifice to propitiate their notions of the gods.

    Which is, again, to say that the reality is much more complex than we can imagine. In some ways this can make modern critiques of colonialism less effective, since it’s difficult to distance ourselves from the colonialist mindset even as we try and criticize it.

  20. km says

    I remember the first time I realized that my ancestors (Scots and Germans) were considered “barbarians” by the Roman empire. Threw me for a loop and gave me some perspective on how we define “barbarian” and my own current privilege. Sometimes I think learning more history is (at least a partial) antidote for issues of social justice.

    On a somewhat unrelated tangent–I love the civilization games..but damn, the barbarian civilization makes me intensely uncomfortable.

  21. says

    I’m late to the party here, and have been steeped in a whole lot of activity involving the local indigenous communities and the greater nationwide indigenous community, but I have been ACHING to express myself on this very Dawkins Tweet.

    It’s not even just one, it’s several of them, in which he defends the use of this heavily racialized, colonialist language, and then starts going off on a diatribe that makes it seem like the entire issue is just banal and trivial, before finally pretending that the manner in which “barbarian” is racialized is at the expense of white men.

    Dawkins really just needs to STFU about this kind of shit and just stick to those passions of his that don’t reveal to the entire world what a raging bigot he apparently aspires to be.

    Maybe in another month, I’ll actually be able to share more about Aboriginal world views, because it seems like this is poorly understood and yet, doesn’t have to be. It’s exceptionally useful insight for challenging colonialist horse shit like what Dawkins fills his Twitter feed with.

    And honestly, I struggle between not-swearing and being apologetic for swearing and standing by saying exactly what I feel, because major public figures like him could mobilize a huge force of people for social justice, but not as long as he spends his time spewing this kind of hatred.

  22. NoAssume says

    On the comparing size of elephants, I’m a little more worried about what is to keep some MRA or somebody from turning our language back on us, saying, ‘OHHHHH, we are just as oppressed, and you are unable to see our oppression, and don’t know our experience’. So far most assholes like that haven’t come up with that idea, but a few have.

    Second, I I’m not really convinced that modern science (outside of things like anthrpo and maybe psych and whatever) is really all that connected to colonialism. I mean, colonialism and science were both huge things, but how do we know that they still affect each other all that much? (Or, reaching a bit further, is it possible that some of the stuff called ‘colonialism’ was important in the whole imperialism thing but wasn’t actually bad? Some people cry colonialism whenever white people contradict colonized groups in any way, or claim that all European culture is about imperialism and nothing else?)

  23. says

    NoAssume, there are still people alive today who were born when the Tuskeegee Experiment was in full swing. Hell, there are still people alive who were experimented on by the Nazis. Do you want to tell them that “science isn’t affected by colonialism/racism anymore”? Seriously?

  24. says

    Oral contraceptives were initially created as a means to prevent ethnic women from reproducing faster than white women. Science is very much influenced by colonialism. It’s not a context-free space.

  25. km says

    Um…citation please? Safe, effective contraception is a pretty-near universal female want.

  26. smrnda says

    Colonialism and racism has often influenced science, and usually not for the better. Look up Charles Drew, a Black doctor and scientist who showed that there was *NO POINT* in segregating ‘Black’ blood from ‘white’ blood in blood banks. However, people in the field were slow to accept this, mostly for irrational, racist reasons, and they weren’t required to switch policy based on this new scientific discovery because, in a society that segregated Black people for any number of manufactured reasons, segregating Black blood is just another part of the same system.

    Now, imagine putting yourself back in that time period. Imagine that a white person received a blood transfusion where the blood came from a Black donor, and something went wrong. I doubt a thorough investigation would have been made since, intuitively, it ‘proves’ that you don’t put ‘Black blood’ in white people, which fits in with the unfounded notion of there being some biological essence of ‘race’. In this case, part of the scientific method – actually testing your hypothesis and trying to think up alternative explanations – would probably be short-cut owing to racist attitudes.

    Science shouldn’t be racist – it should be as objective as possible, and the scientific method is an approach that is meant to take into account the fact that people are biased, but people are biased anyway.

  27. ibrahim jamal divine allah muhammad abdulrakeem jackson III says

    dawkins calls these muslims fascists, who chop off hands, kill musicians and terrorise civilians “barbarians” – what a WACIST!

    because of course, the arab-islamic conquest of north africa, arabia, the levant and central and east asia was not a colonial, imperialistic project. you tie yourself in so many knots with your wishy washy, well-meaning but ill-informed and poorly thought out PoMo PC leftard garbage, it’s a parodist’s playground.

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