Atheism is a social justice issue – race 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.

One of the most common critiques of discussing issues of race in atheist communities is that it is ‘divisive’. For a moment, I will hold my bile and grant the most generous interpretation of this kind of statement – since race is not a valid reason to divide groups of people, we should not treat people from different racial groups differently; discussing race divides the population into arbitrary groups, and that’s not fair. The reason that it is almost exclusively white people who make this statement is perfectly illustrative of the problem with it: race may not be a morally valid way of dividing the population, but racialized people are acutely aware of the fact that it does divide the population. Pretending that isn’t so does not somehow make the effect disappear.

At her new blog Freethoughtify, Bridget Gaudette tries to tackle this meme head-on:

Classification systems are not always a bad thing and in this case, as long as we as atheists agree that we’re all human, despite RACE, there shouldn’t be a problem. Putting people into racial categories can help us understand cultural norms, history, and the present. I won’t deny for one second that categorizing humans can be used for serious atrocities, but that is not always the case! Youmust keep that in mind. Categories can help us gain perspective. Atheists ask all the time why blacks are so religious. A great way to figure that out would be to study this group’s “cultural, ethnic, […] historical, linguistic, religious or social affiliations”!! Imagine that!

I have taken my own stab at answering this question, although my response is a bit more personal than Bridget’s handy general one. The general point is sounds though – there are things about being a black atheist that do not fall exclusively under the categories of ‘black’ and/or ‘atheist’. They are tied up in history, particularly the historical place that the black church has played in the social cohesion of the black community (in many cases because churches were the only places that black people could gather without being arrested or beaten by whites). They are tied up in sociology, particularly the fact that predominantly-white atheist gatherings can be supremely uncomfortable. They are tied up in culture, as religiosity and ‘blackness’ are often equated, and one could no more give up the former than the latter.

The failure of ‘mere’ black folks to understand the oppressive nature of religion makes them (us) produce stupid things like this:

On the most recent episode, Jil Cooper introduced her boyfriend Jack to her family. (Get it? Jack and Jil!) Just one problem: Jack is an atheist — something even Jil didn’t know about — and father Big Bill Cooper can’t deal with it.

(Neither can the show’s staff, apparently. A description of the episode reads: “Jill meets the perfect guy and invites him to dinner for an introduction to Bill and the family. His imperfection is revealed and Jill has to decide whether or not to continue dating him.”)

Being unable to critique religion puts the producers of the show in the position of repeatedly justifying and normalizing anti-atheist bigotry – bigotry of a kind that black people have often experienced themselves (ourselves). Rather than this being an illustration of the fact that there’s something desperately and hypocritically wrong with Jil and Bill’s morality, this story heaps on arbitrary and unjust attitudes about atheists in its assumption that religion is both valid and good.

However, the failure of ‘mere’ atheists to understand not only the subjective experience of being racialized, but the simple facts of history, leads them (us) to produce stupid things like this:

No group of people do I have a harder time understanding their Christianity than African-Americans/Canadians. Talk about a short memory and/or a lack of historical education. The fundamentalists opposing homosexuality are even more baffling. They know they sound like white Christian fundamentalists from 50 years ago, right?

Or this*:

The only time I have racially insensitive thoughts about black people is when the topic is religion. You stupid bastards, you were given this religion at the end of a whip. WTF is wrong with you all? You see Roots and then you still get down with Jesus? Yikes. “Your name is Toby.”

It’s worth noting that there is a parallel to this argument that centres on the fact that women are, in the aggregate, more religious than men. “Don’t they understand how sexist religion is?” these critics exasperatedly exclaim, all the while completely failing to understand the fact that churches were often the only places in which women could organize and exert political power, and failing to appreciate the fact that misogyny pushes women out of many spheres (atheism being among those, as we have seen).

To understand race is to understand the mechanics of oppression. To understand religion is to understand it as an oppressive force. But to fail to understand both, and to see how they work together is to fail to be able to respond in a way that isn’t clueless and inappropriate. To claim that we must not be allowed to discuss one or the other is to rob us, for no real reason, of the ability to respond sensibly and grow the atheist community. A demand that the atheist community must not discuss race or make allowances for race is a demand that movement atheism stay perpetually white, and be obsolete to a growing proportion of nonbelievers.

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*I am not sure that this commenter isn’t a black person hirself, but I’m having trouble imagining any black person being this blatant. It’s also worth noting that the only dissenting response to this comment is a tone troll, chiding the commenter for not “open(ing) black people’s minds to atheism” as though that isn’t an equally patronizing attitude.


  1. Pyra says

    I want to thank you for your blog. I need these articles to continue to challenge some notions I have heard used among people. The idea of the “short memory” thing has been recently attributed to Chris Rock, though I admit I haven’t researched it. I see it in a bigger scope now.

  2. mythbri says

    To claim that we must not be allowed to discuss one or the other is to rob us, for no real reason, of the ability to respond sensibly and grow the atheist community. A demand that the atheist community must not discuss race or make allowances for race is a demand that movement atheism stay perpetually white, and be obsolete to a growing proportion of nonbelievers.

    And this brings to mind some ill-fated attempts to “reach” members of the African-American community, like what Sikivu Hutchinson criticized in this post:

    Some particularly choice quotes:

    AA’s ahistorical paternalistic approach to “secular” public service messaging is one of the main reasons why New Atheism is still racially segregated and lily white. Clearly AA doesn’t give a damn about the reality of urban communities of color in the U.S. vis-à-vis the institutional role of organized religion in a white supremacist capitalist context.

    So is AA on the frontlines of providing prisoner re-entry resources—the real regime of 21st century “enslavement” for millions of African Americans—to families and communities that are permanently locked out of the so-called American dream due to the legal disenfranchisement of former convicted felons in employment, housing, and voting? Did AA even deign to consult with local interfaith and secular, humanist or atheist people of color about the cultural and psychological impact of the legacy of slavery in a nation where black bodies are still the primary targets of violent police suppression, racist criminal sentencing and capital punishment?

    It’s cartoonishly pro forma when white folk, ignorant of these historical traditions, swaggeringly insist that atheist discourse is implicitly anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-heterosexist because one, we white people say so, and, two, hierarchy is something only those knuckle-dragging supernaturalists do. It’s paint-by-the-numbers entitlement time when the so-called new atheist “movement” is resistant to the charge that racial and gender politics just might inform who achieves visibility and which issues are privileged in the broader context of skeptical discourse. It’s not PC to point out that traditions of scientific racism, secularism, and Judeo Christian religiosity went gleefully hand in hand for much of the West’s enlightened history.

    Hutchinson is right – what a condescending, paternalistic and insensitive approach! The majority-white atheist community wields their ignorance of race like both a cudgel and a shield. It’s simultaneously a way for them to prop themselves up as “better” or “smarter” and also a way for them to defend themselves against criticism of racial insensitivity. Color-blindness assumes a post-racial country/continent/world, and that is a hell of an assumption.

  3. John Horstman says

    I, too, am enjoying the series, even though your examples often depress me (I generally avoid the more privilege-defending or hateful areas of the atheosphere). Nice connection, mythbri.

  4. says

    Those examples are from Hemant Mehata’s comment section, which isn’t exactly the arse end of the atheosphere.

    I’m glad you’re enjoying the series. I think it’s time for a shift in the conversation, and all I’ve done here is make explicit a theme that has been running through our conversations for a while.

  5. smrnda says

    I think that religion isn’t really experienced the same by all groups. The notion of religion as a set of beliefs you have, where you join a sect if they espouse the beliefs, leave if you disagree or start your own brand, seems to be (for lack of a better way of thinking about it) a very white, Protestant view of religion.

    Perhaps an example that stands out to me as different is Judaism – it’s more an ethnic or cultural label and tradition. Being Jewish isn’t about a list of things that if you believe in them you are IN or if you don’t you’re OUT. I’d imagine that, outside of religious organizations, there often weren’t any other specifically Black-led organizations out there for much of history, so the organizations might be doing double-duty as a belief system but also as a social service agency. I tend to find that ‘social service’ is something that most white Evangelical denominations just do as occasional outreach or a tax dodge or a pat on the back.

    So when white atheists critique Black religious ‘belief’ I’m not totally sure if the word ‘belief’ is really the same thing. Not that I’m suggesting that Black or Jewish religious belief is good and harmless, but just that it’s different.

  6. jesse says

    Late to this, but I want to let you know that one of the big differences between Judaism and the other monotheisms in the West (and Islamic world, for that matter) is that it is in some ways a much older view of what religion is. I’d argue it has more in common with some indigenous traditions in that respect.

    That is, you are a Jewish person, you aren’t a member of a Jewish church. It’s who you are, bound up with a set of beliefs but not defined by them. This was the way most animistic and polytheistic religions worked at the time. One of the core bits of being a Carian Greek, or a Hittite, was what gods you followed, but it wasn’t like you weren’t a Hittite anymore if you followed another. You see this in the fact that Jews had a temple with animal sacrifice and such, pretty common in the region at the time, and that the Torah says pretty explicitly that belief, per se, isn’t required. Now this wasn’t out of any humanist commitment, it was because the idea was that God would simply smite you and turn you into salsa if you didn’t toe the line.

    “Modern” religions, such as Christianity or Islam, by contrast, focus a lot more on belief and faith as sin qua non of being in the religion. For Protestants especially and some branches of Islam a statement of belief is a core principle; you aren’t a Christian (in their view) unless you state that you take Jesus into your life or believe in Him. Baptism is a big chunk of that. It separates the religion from the people in a way that was (in the 1st century) pretty darned innovative.

    Not to say that echoes of the old way don’t exist today. After all many people out there are nominal Christians and it is tough to imagine Irish people without Catholicism as a core part of their identity. But, that said, we are deeply influenced by a very Protestant tradition that sees religion as a matter of individual conscience.

  7. says

    That is, you are a Jewish person, you aren’t a member of a Jewish church

    This is true for some Jews, and it is wildly not true for others. American Judaism tends to be, on average, more ecumenical and ‘moderate’ than sects of, for example, Israeli Judaism where arch conservative control big sections of the Knesset. Minority religions have to be moderate though, because they are under permanent threat from the majority and need to be seen as less threatening. The NoI was a form of Islam that was decidedly not the folks in Dearborne, and the FBI wasn’t happy about that at all.

    Modern” religions, such as Christianity or Islam, by contrast, focus a lot more on belief and faith as sin qua non of being in the religion

    Generally true, but only in the same respect as the previous pullquote was true (which is to say, not very). Evangelical Protestantism is that way, for sure. However, the majority of Americans likely fall into the “nominal” category, because there’s veeeery little in general society that forces them to change their belief. They live their lives as secular humanists, but fill in “Christian” on a census form.

    I would say that you are describing not a difference due principally to the disparate philosophies of different religions, but the disparate political realities of different religions.

  8. jesse says

    Well, yes and no. What I as getting at was that for most Jews I can think of, you can’t not be a Jew. That is, you could be a wild-eyed Evangelical snake handler but if your mother is Jewish, there it is. I can’t think of many Jewish sects for which that isn’t the case. I am sure there are a few, but walk up to any Jew anywhere and ask if they could ever stop being Jewish. There’s no membership list, or anything like it.

    What I was getting at was that the concept of a church, as commonly seen in say, Catholicism or Orthodox Christianity, even, or the Protestant sects we all know and love, is simply not applicable to large swaths of Judaism and to understanding it.

    And it was a very big difference in philosophical approach as well, though that gets a bit deeper into the weeds. But to put it in the tl;dr version: Paul and Peter say that the various “rules” in Torah don’t matter as much as personal belief. That blew the whole thing open and it was pretty damned radical in 30 AD.

    And that’s part of the point I was making about “nominal” categories. How religion is woven into various cultures differs a lot. That is, it’s easy to imagine a British guy who isn’t a CofE member, it’s harder to imagine the same thing in Ireland. And yes that’s somewhat part of political reality. But I was thinking of something rather different. Yeah I know, there’s a bit of a different way of going about things in Israel, where Jews are a majority and religious nuts are getting elected to office. But lt me put this another way: I ask you to find a Jew who says they suddenly stop being one when they become an atheist. There is such a thing as a Jewish people; there really isn’t an equivalent “Protestant” people or “Christian” people or “Islamic” people (though there is a bit of it in the ummah concept). Which again is one reason why I say the Jewish conception is rather older.

    And the whole concept of personal conscience and God (as related to each other) I would argue really dates from Luther. That’s pretty new though there are echoes of it in the Gospels. That philosophical difference — making religion not tied to where you were born and to whom — was what enabled Christianity (and Buddhism, I’d wager) to spread the way they did. Islam, too. Absent separating those things Christianity would have remained a small subset of Jews and all of Europe would be, I dunno, worshipping Odin and local gods I suppose. Or maybe Buddhists.

  9. says

    Okay, so you’re getting at the whole ‘Jewish as a race’ meets ‘Jewish as a culture’ meets ‘Jewish as a religion’ thing. Yes, that’s unusual when compared to evangelical “conversion-based” religions like Christianity and Islam. From what I’ve heard described, Hinduism can be like that in many ways as well. Sikhism is very much a ‘live-in’ cultural religion as well, and I am almost positive they don’t do the evangelism thing. There are definitely ex-Sikhs though, or at least people whose families are Sikh and who do not identify themselves that way.

  10. jesse says

    Exactly, and it’s no accident that Hinduism is old relative to Christianity and other religions that convert people — it points to how much of an innovation that was. Why was it such? If I were to come up with a hypothesis, it would be that when folks needed a way to organize that wasn’t based on family ties (there’s an upper limit to how big a community like that can be before it gets dicey) then conversion to a given religion was a dandy way to build the kind of necessary loyalty. I’ll bet you money that even an ex-Sikh is going to be very concerned with the rights of that group, even though they don’t formally ID as such.

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