So I wanted to write you about some of the things we’d been tweeting about in regards to the relationship between atheism and privilege and stuff, and found that a lot of things I was thinking were important to say were… well… things I felt were really important to say, and I started thinking it might be worth doing this as an open letter instead, for the sake of getting my thoughts out there into the larger discussion.
I would like to make it clear that the reason I’m writing this, and addressing it to you, is not because I regard you as any kind of adversary, or intellectually “inferior” to me, or in need of “conversion” to my beliefs, or anything nasty or hostile like that. It’s actually very much the opposite. I’m writing you because I respect you, and respect your intelligence, and very much enjoy having you as an e-friend, and am proud to have you as a brother and comrade in our trans-feminism movement. Honestly. Unlike people like Be Scofield or Amy Dentata, with whom my exchanges felt frustrating and pointless, and where debate didn’t seem to be in good faith, I feel like with you we can at least be open to listening to one another and doing our best to understand one another’s positions.
That said, I do feel like your characterization of atheism, and my atheism, and the message many of us are trying to get across has been unfair. I feel there are strong biases in play, causing a distorted interpretation of what atheists are doing and saying, and why, and what our goals are. I feel like you’ve set uniquely (and impossibly) high standards for atheists to live up to in order to be free to express their views on matters of religion and faith while holding religious believers to no such standards, and instead granting them special protection from their views being engaged critically.
This might make some sense in a social dynamic in which atheism was a powerful, almighty oppressor and religious believers a defenseless minority under constant attack and persecution. But the reality we live in is very different, and almost the inverse of that. There certainly is such a thing as privilege and persecution along lines of religion, but atheism is not the privileged party. We’re an embattled minority. Power falls primarily into the hands of the religious. There has never been an atheist President Of The United States. Atheists DO experience discrimination on the basis of their beliefs. They are fired, turned down for housing, mistreated, alienated, etc. They can often lose their families, and be rejected by their communities, if they come out as atheist and be open about their beliefs. Some atheists do this anyway, in the name of honesty and integrity, even when it means losing all their friends, family and loved ones. The parallels between queer experiences are NOT coincidental. And yet, when atheists come out, we don’t regard it as the immensely courageous act it is. We instead regard it as “arrogant” for them to be so horrible as to define beliefs for themselves, based on independent thought rather than inherited tradition or what they’re “supposed” to think, and not compromise their integrity by living a lie of presenting faith in something they do not really believe, and break from the monumental cultural pressures to remain in the fold.
The way that these kinds of acts are framed, almost uniquely in the context of atheism, as “arrogance”, “elitism”, “imperialism”, “thinking you know everything”, or “thinking you’re right about everything” is exactly the kind of thing that marks the biases that I believe play out in how the queer community reacts to atheism, and expressions of atheist views. The truth is that it is not in any way more “arrogant” for an atheist to assert their beliefs than it is for anyone else to do the same. Atheism simply does NOT think it “knows everything”. Atheism and science are inherently built on seeking to learn more, rather than assuming that all pertinent or relevant information is already contained within a given tradition or scripture, or can be intuited or felt through faith, meditation, spirit, etc. Consider the fact that between science and religion, religion is the one that claims it knows how the universe began, while science is the one continuing to work on its understanding of that beginning, that continues to explore our unanswered questions. Atheism is in fact defined by its humility, and this is one of its greatest appeals for me. It doesn’t think we know everything. It instead acknowledges the fallibility of human perceptions and interpretations, and therefore doesn’t just rely on what one feels to be true. It knows our feelings, our intuitions and our faiths can be wrong. It knows that there are things we don’t understand. So instead it expresses a reluctance to be convinced of things, and asks for evidence before tentatively accepting something as “true” (for now).
Consider the presence of the “error bar” in scientific publications. This is explicit acknowledgment of the margin for error in a given set of data. Have you ever seen an error bar in scripture? How often have you heard a priest inform hir congregation of the contradictory hypothesis, and set out to weigh the various possibilities against one another? Between scientists and religious leaders, who has the best track record of admitting mistakes? Science has corrected its dominant paradigms over and over and over again, each time progressively inching closer and closer to the probable truth of how our universe operates. But religion experiences intense fragmentation and fury every time even a detail of doctrine is to be changed or reinterpreted. It continues operating on the same premises founded by inaccurate tools, fallible observations and perceptions, and irrational (as always) human minds, centuries or millenia ago.
And for imperialism or proselytization… this is something I think warrants considerably more attention, given the precise nature of your critiques… but again, I’d encourage you to compare and contrast how atheism and science operate in this regard to how religion operates. Which has the stronger history of using the belief as a justification for empire and colonization? Which sends missionaries into distant tribes? Which makes its offers of charity conditional on acceptance of premises? Which attempts to convert through emotional manipulation like threats of damnation or bad karma and offers of eternal life or heaven or nirvana or release from suffering, and which simply engages in discourse, and presents evidence, with encouragement for individuals to draw their own free conclusions? No promises, no threats? Most tellingly, while many atheists make it a point to attempt to persuade others away from religion, it is not essential or inherent to atheism. Numerous religions, however, have evangelism and conversion as explicit mandates. And atheism, by its very nature, isn’t about trying to convince someone of a specific belief. Atheism is simply the absence of those beliefs into which people are indoctrinated and compelled to remain.
All infants are atheists.
This double standard wherein religion is protected from critique of the aforementioned highly problematic aspects of its nature by erroneously accusing atheism of the same is indicative of the enormous bias that affects how we interpret these things. Essentially, the message often ends up being “It’s wrong to say it’s wrong for religions to proselytize, because you’re proselytizing, and that’s wrong!”. Do you see what I mean? Or “You shouldn’t criticize the fact that religion is often bigoted because it’s bigoted to do so!”.
To illustrate directly what I mean about these double standards, I was criticized for, in my “God Does Not Love Trans People” post, allegedly “telling people what to think” (and, curiously, as my critique was deliberately removed from racial, ethnic and cultural specifics, but was rather speaking of religion in relation to the trans community, “speaking for people of colour” / “telling people of colour what to think”), but no such criticism was offered to one of the posts I was responding to: Lorax’s post about how trans people should know God loves them. She was a cis person specifically directing her message about the nature of God, and what He thinks of us, towards the trans community. “Telling us what to think” about not only His feelings, but furthermore His existence. I don’t really believe she WAS “telling us what to think”, but rather that she was simply expressing her views on the matter, but that’s the very same thing I was doing. I, however, was a trans woman speaking to and within the trans community, not a privileged party speaking to what beliefs would benefit a disadvantaged and vulnerable “Other”. So why is the criticism of imperialism directed towards me but not to her? I’m not saying she should receive any such critique, but I certainly AM saying that my capacity to respond by articulating how I, as a trans woman, feel about the issue being posed, is completely within my rights, and is not an act of The Privileged Mighty Atheist dominating people’s beliefs. And I’m trying to illustrate the double standard and biases in play. So long as claims about God, spirituality and faith are made, atheists absolutely have a right to respond. So long as cis theists make claims about what God ought mean to trans people, trans atheists absolutely have a right to respond. It is an act of silencing, and an act of oppression, to specifically target atheists as being uniquely “wrong” to voice their perspectives.
One could perhaps say that the difference was that her message of “God loves trans people” was a “positive” message while mine was “negative”, uncomfortable, mean. But that too is up for discussion. Truthfully, I don’t see atheism as being a negative, nasty, cynical, sad, hopeless belief system. Instead it frees us to see the wonders and breadth of our universe as it really is. When we become atheist, we gain access to the whole library, rather than just one (or a small set) of books, or interpreting the library through the one or few. Instead of being 6000 years old, the universe is suddenly 14 billion years old!!! Human beings are no longer the whole point of creation, instead we, as beautiful and wondrous as we are, are but a mote in a literally incomprehensibly vast, swirling, impossibly fantastic universe. Morality and ethics stop being a set of dusty laws that made sense to specific given tribes or cultural contexts long ago, but become something shifting and debatable, that we can change and adapt and progress (and base upon how the real world operates, and real world consequences, not how we interpret scriptures or the will of a deity!). And we stop saying things like “this is the way it is, because we know, because the book said so, and the book is always right, because the book said it’s always right, which is right because the book is always right”, and instead admit “I don’t know”… and then something beautiful happens after “I don’t know”. We decide to go out exploring, so we can find out!
And frankly, the idea that we, trans folks, don’t need to depend on the opinion of an invisible father-figure to find our validation, that we can instead simply love and accept ourselves, become the final judge of our own value, declare ourselves to be beautiful and worthwhile and deserving of love, and emancipate ourselves from that need to find the answer through an external concept that can never be understood with any certainty, or external systems (determined and controlled by cis people) at all… I find that a deeply more empowering message than “God loves you”.
Another example of the double standards, and evidence of bias and the fact that the issue isn’t quite being treated fairly, was the catch-22 I was presented in terms of being criticized for racism / ethnocentrism. Initially, the critique was that I was being ethnocentric because you (incorrectly) assumed I was basing my opinions on the misconception that all religion is Abrahamic religion, and functions like Abrahamic religion. I actually agree that that would be ethnocentric (IF that were what I was doing). There was also the implication of the hypocrisy, exoticization and othering inherent in challenging Abrahamic religion and then turning around and fetishizing Wicca or First Nations sprituality as “good religion”. I agree there, too. I think that kind of thing would be very appropriative, hypocritical, biased, and othering… IF that were what I was doing. But after specifying that my critique was based on the nature of faith itself, and how basing one’s beliefs about the universe and ethics and such on faith, intuitions, what feels true, etc. rather than evidence (the presence of this definition of faith, btw, being exactly what I think defines religion as religion) is dangerous in that it provides a universally applicable justification, discourages discussion and thought, and allows someone to find an excuse for potentially any horrible action or belief, the critique was shifted to suggesting I was racist because when criticizing religion itself (and therefore all religion) I was also critiquing religions other than those unique to my own cultural and ethnic context.
But if it would be racist / imperialist / ethnocentric for me to criticize religion based on specific atrocities or problems (for example, how Abrahamic faiths have enabled the systematic persecution, and often murder, of queer people for centuries), and also racist / imperialist / ethnocentric for me to criticize religion by talking about its defining characteristics (for example, the problems of faith itself, like how trying to appeal to a loving God as a reason to tolerate queer people can end up justifying an individual’s belief in a God who does not tolerate us, with neither party having any way of saying their interpretation is the correct one), then under what circumstances would expression of my views on religion NOT be criticized as such? Is the basic issue here simply that atheism itself is regarded as an inherently “racist” system of thought, regardless of how it actually plays out? Why is atheism singled out as such rather than the many, many, many religions which have racism, misogyny, and heterosexism / cissexism directly and explicitly coded into their doctrine? So is atheism then to be silenced entirely? And if atheism is to be silenced, who is left to speak against these issues with religion without ending up in the “my interpretation is as good as yours” problem?
Amy Dentata seemed to suggest that since critiquing religion necessarily means critiquing the religions of other cultures, and people of colour, then perhaps the work of vocalizing atheism should be left entirely to people of colour themselves. I agree that when speaking of racially specific issues within religion, it’s best to give space for atheist PoC to speak for themselves. But there are issues within religion that aren’t racially loaded. And what happens when the issue in question is one of a different minority? Such as, for instance, the question of “God loves trans people”? Are people of colour necessarily specifically best positioned to speak to that issue? Or trans people of colour? And if speaking of religion in a general sense is racially problematic because some of the religions covered will be the beliefs of PoC, is speaking of religion in a general sense problematic in relation to gender variance since it necessarily encompasses the questions of religion that relate to trans people specifically? So wouldn’t it be problematic for any cis person to speak about religion in general? If we continue this line of reasoning, that discussing religion itself becomes problematic in terms of privilege because minorities have religious beliefs, we’d end up in a position where the ONLY people who would be able to unproblematically speak about religious issues would be those who are at the intersection of ALL axes of oppression. Which is actually impossible.
I was not writing as a white person speaking of religion for people of colour, or on their behalf, or about their issues. I was a trans person speaking about religious issues that pertain to the trans community. I was engaging in exactly the form of atheist discourse that is supposedly acceptable: minorities speaking for themselves on the issue, making their own voice heard, working through their own discourse on the relative merits and dangers of religion and faith within the context of their own sociocultural position.
Much of what Amy’s post engaged in was a sort of guilt-by-association, citing a history of privilege and heavily problematic actions and issues and trends within the atheist community and movement. I actually wholly agree that a bunch of what Amy cited is really fucked up, and I wholly agree that the atheist movement and community has some serious problems with privilege and diversity (though we’re slowly getting better). I agree the American Atheists’ “Obey Your Masters” billboard was incredibly racially insensitive and stupid, and they should have done a much better job of apologizing and walking it back. I agree that the dominant figures in our movement are overwhelmingly white, straight, cisgender men, and that this is a problem. But that does not mean every individual atheist is a privilege-blinded, insensitive idiot. That’s like saying that because so many Christian leaders are blatantly and outwardly hateful bigots and sexists that all Christians must therefore be the same, and Christianity is an inherently bigoted system. Or that because there are Islamic terrorist factions that therefore all Muslims are violent zealots, and Islam is a “violent religion”. And just as awful and prejudicial.
Claiming that because atheism has these issues with privilege that atheism is inherently a privileged “white thing” or “straight thing” or whatever is to direct a huge insult, and do a huge disservice, to us atheists who are not privileged, straight, white, cisgender men. It’s to erase our identities, as trans atheists, queer atheists, female atheists, black atheists, disabled atheists, economically disadvantaged atheists, etc. and even more insultingly, to erase and dismiss the great struggle we’ve gone through to address these issues. Both Be Scofield and Amy Dentata, in a very strange choice of targets, presented Greta Christina and myself as examples of “privileged” atheists, despite both of us being queer women. I promise you, queer women do NOT have an easy time finding a voice and presence within this community. Even more strangely, they cited a quote-mined Sikivu Hutchinson against us, who is in fact our immediate colleague, and those words of hers that were used against Greta and I were not originally written in service of challenging atheism itself, but were written in her role as an ally with Greta and I in the struggle to improve atheism, to address these issues of privilege and diversity. Greta, Sikivu and I are fighting (tirelessly, and at great personal expense) on the same side: towards a more diverse, more aware atheism. An atheism that represents the full range of humanity and ideas. An atheism that understands that women, PoC, LGBTQ people, PwD, etc. all have voices, and important, meaningful contributions to make to this movement. That we can offer unique insights and perspectives. That is able to reach atheists who aren’t just middle-class educated guys with internet access. That isn’t a “one size fits all” movement, expecting any non-privileged members to contort themselves into the structures that perfectly accommodate the privileged but demand everyone else to make sacrifices. That doesn’t, for example, blame women for the lack of women at atheist conferences. That has voices not coming only from Christian eurocentric backgrounds, but other religions too (like Maryam Namazie, Heina Dadabhoy and Taslima Nasreen). That can create a cross-cultural change, affecting every corner of our society, encouraging more discussion, critical thought, doubt, evidence-based decision-making, science and education, and fighting against the unfairly privileged position of religious beliefs as above any critique, against their undue influence on policy, against charlatans and quacks and snake oil salesman exploiting human vulnerabilities, against “I have a right to my beliefs” being used as a defense of discrimination, violence and worse (in terms of privilege and bigotry, remember it isn’t atheists who demand special exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, like “it’s against the law to bully queer youth… unless you’re doing it because of religion”).
We’re fighting for a better atheism, not tacitly condoning its problems. And atheism CAN be made better, because none of those problems with privilege and diversity are essential to it. The only privilege that is near-universal in atheism is the privilege of education. And we only wish to share it with others, not squander or exploit it.
Atheism, like everything else, is not above critique and challenge. And atheists, like all humans, make mistakes and have flaws. We can be arrogant, condescending, rude, imperialistic, sexist, transphobic, stubborn, and so many other things. But so what? None of that has anything to do with atheism itself, and everything to do with humanity. All of those things occur in religion too (but with the added danger of justifying it with one’s faith). Whatsoever occurs in both religious AND secular contexts is pointless to bring up in debates of atheism vs. religion. Tyranny, art, prejudice, charity, genocide, ritual, activism, communal bonding, dogma, empire and poetry are ALL things that occur in both religion and secularism. So they don’t matter to the discussion. You can say “Pol Pot was an atheist!” but you can also say “Osama Bin Laden was a muslim!”.
So when you single out atheism (or religion) as bad or awful or imperialist because it “tells other people what to think”, or expresses a generalized view on religious matters, or that some of its members do some awful condescending or racist or homophobic things sometimes, WITHOUT acknowledging the presence of these same issues in the antithetical stance, you’re creating double standards. You’re biasing your argument. You’re not giving it a fair chance.
What the discussion deserves to be centered on are those things that are inherent and unique to atheism and religion respectively. Such as the intellectual humility, embrace of doubt, pursuit questions, and seeking of evidence in atheism, or the basing of beliefs on faith, intuitons, or what feels true within religion. That’s where the discourse lies.
And to try to use the double standards as a way of silencing atheist’s participation in that discourse? To render the critique of faith as “off-limits”? To use accusations of evangelism or imperialism or racial insensitivity (much more prevalent in major religions), and to use racial minorities as a cudgel with which to advance one’s own specific stance on the matter of faith? That’s something I simply can’t support. It shuts down ideas. It shuts down discourse. It silences the voice of a minority. It protects and insulates a specific class of oppressor and form of oppression.
It does not challenge privilege and fight against oppression, it enables them.
P.S. Sorry for the typos, I’m up late.
P.P.S. Seriously, I mean it when I say the reason I’ve addressed this to you is because I respect and care about you. And not in the patronizing evangelical sense of “I care about you so I want to change your views!”, but in the friendly peer-to-peer sense of “there’s few people I’d rather have this debate with, and I know you’ll address it honestly and in good faith”.
Here’s an important response from Frederick Sparks (who writes, alongside Sikivu Hutchinson, for Black Skeptics) to when Be Scofield attacked Greta for more or less the same reasons he (and Amy Dentata) later attacked me.
This post is also important in terms of this issue.
Also, I realized there was at least one important point I forgot to mention:
Discussing these kinds of things, the relationship between religion, privilege and oppression, such as how petitioning people to believe in a trans-friendly God may in fact help validate the systems that are used to maintain cis-supremacy, is often very, very uncomfortable. Especially for people who are members of discriminated minorities AND religious believers, and especially especially when religious systems have served as a comfort, means of assistance, means of community, and means of resistance. But just because something is uncomfortable to talk about doesn’t mean it should be silenced. Just because something makes one feel angry doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Sometimes what most needs to be said is the thing that’s hardest to say.