Where’s the solidarity?

Atheists are publicly chastised by Naima Washington.


It is a sad fact that people of color, particularly African American nonbelievers, are alienated within the secular community. Among the ‘faith’ communities, even those with the most racist and sexist doctrines, continue to do whatever it takes (and make no apologies) as they aggressively recruit and make space in their communities for people of color. Based on their disinterest in any recruiting efforts, the leadership of the secular community is apparently very proud of the fact that they, on the other hand, have few people of African descent in leadership positions as well as very few members. While there is no genuine intent or concerted plan to change this situation, many attempt to explain this phenomena by claiming that black folk are just too addicted to religion; otherwise, those of us who aren’t addicted to religion are either nominal or closet atheists, and therefore, need not be taken seriously. During the past 25 years, I belonged to many secular organizations; it was indeed a challenge to remain in them.

There is some effort to incorporate black Americans into atheist organizations; it’s not an active antipathy, but more an oblivious neglect. To make atheism relevant to black Americans will take, I think, structural changes: we need to openly recognize that issues of importance to the black community cannot be set aside as non-atheist issues.

It’s that nagging gate-keeping problem again. We need to realize that atheism and skepticism are universal ideals, not narrow ways to address a particular subset of questions. And it really is all about the questions: too many atheists think atheism is simply the answer, without doing the hard work of negotiating the human problems…and they get defensive when anyone tries to tell them that there are many concerns out there — social justice, feminism, black civil liberties, to name a few — that belong on the godless table. The current infighting that some people are moaning about is actually an example of the resentment of those holding the status quo: how dare we suggest that atheism has implications beyond just disbelieving in god and religion? How dare we try to expand the scope of atheism when we haven’t eradicated religion yet? How dare we suggest that the way to expand our base is to also consider the more pressing concerns of other people beyond our traditional white middle class conventionalities?

And so we watch the opportunities pass by, because our current constituencies simply don’t comprehend that women or black Americans or any other second-class group might be interested in something other than talking about how stupid the Bible is. Sometimes silence is as self-defeating as hostility.

When African American atheists attempt to expand their visibility and participation in the secular community by organizing with other nonbelievers—especially those who have been historically ignored by the leadership of the secular community—to publicly celebrate their freedom from religious dogma; when we ask everyone in the secular community to celebrate along with us, and we set aside one day out of the entire year to do so, there’s a problem! Last year, some very intelligent and insightful atheists declared efforts to organize a Day of Solidarity for Black Non-believers as segregation! Those same people are otherwise dead silent about the segregation, hostility, and alienation directed towards black atheists within the secular community year-round.

I didn’t see anything local to Morris happening on the Day of Solidarity (this Sunday, the 24th). I checked Minnesota Atheists to see if they had plans to honor the day this weekend, and no, they have nothing. Again, it’s not because their is an antipathy to black issues: it’s more of an absence of awareness. And hell no, the problem isn’t the black community, it’s the existing atheist community that seems unwilling to reach out.

Can we fix this? I don’t know. We might all start by looking locally to see if there are any Day of Solidarity events going on around you, and join in.


  1. Anthony K says

    It’s who wants to stand up and talk about it, go on shows about it, go to…who’s intellectually active about it, you know, it’s more of a white thing.

  2. redmann says

    Our local group, Tidewater Atheists Group, seems to be well represented with blacks, mostly young though. The old folks, like me, are mostly white.

  3. vaiyt says

    I think it’s a question of priorities. By keeping the atheist movement “apolitical” (which actually means averse to challenging the status quo), it avoids alienating the rabidly conservative, the bigoted and the privilege defenders. They’d rather be welcoming of these people than blacks.

    The amusing part is to see the atheist luminaries come around and cinically say that atheism is “just more of a (white) guy thing”.

  4. says

    How dare we try to expand the scope of atheism when we haven’t eradicated religion yet?

    Which isn’t going to happen, especially when the movement is full of atheists who don’t want to provide an alternative to the sense of community many people teetering on the edge of belief get from church.

  5. Matt Penfold says

    (I do wonder what Shermer’s response would be. Would he have *another* set of blinders on?)

    Maybe one of his apologists will turn up and explain his position to us! Wouldn’t we be the lucky one!

  6. Antares42 says

    Again, it’s not because their is an antipathy to black issues: it’s more of an absence of awareness.

    My impression is that there’s a philosophy that “touching race subjects is itself racist, mentioning ‘black’ is racist, outreach is offensive because it implies that the others inferior, and equality is best achieved by not talking about race”.

    Not sure how to deal with that other than growing the fuck up.

  7. Greta Christina says

    “We might all start by looking locally to see if there are any Day of Solidarity events going on around you, and join in.”

    Another way to start would be to spread the word about the Day of Solidarity, through social media/ etc., so people find out about it and can organize events in their area. Get thee to Twitter and Facebook!

  8. maudell says

    PZ, you’re missing some important fact in your post.

    It’s because white people aren’t biased when it comes to racism, since they aren’t all emotional and stuff. Just like men are less biased about the place of women in society. That’s how science works.

    [Sarcasm alert! Sarcasm alert!]

  9. mythbri says

    I keep thinking back to that atheist billboard “Slaves, obey your masters.”

    The lack of awareness present in the U.S. atheist community regarding the struggles of the black community is a major contributing factor to the disparity in participation.

    And again, the conflict between priorities presents itself here: there are a lot of atheists of color who are going to be more concerned about racism than pushing secular ideals, unless those ideals include reducing and/or eliminating racism. We’ve had this discussion before with feminism – although of course those two struggles, while they can be related, are not the same thing at all.

    Even with Greta’s call for personal examples of racism experienced in the atheist/skeptic community, there was a backlash of the same kind of hyperskepticism that we’ve seen related to feminist issues.

  10. says

    I did email the campus Black Student Union, asking if they knew about it or had any events planned. They’re a relatively small group here — this is pure minnesota whitebread country — but if I hear anything, I’ll update this post.

  11. Stacy says

    @Tony the Queer Shoop

    (I do wonder what Shermer’s response would be. Would he have *another* set of blinders on?)

    Oh, yes. Ophelia wondered in her article if he’d have said the same sort of thing if the question had been about atheists of color rather than atheist women. He said that yes, he would’ve.

  12. says

    the only atheist/skeptic group around here are the Red River Freethinkers, I think. They don’t seem to be doing anything for the Day of Solidarity; but then, I haven’t seen them do much of anything recently, maybe they’re at a bit of an ebb right now? Not sure what’s up with them, not actually being a member.

  13. says

    I do agree with both PZ Meyers and Naima Washington on the important issue of inclusiveness. I think an important way to do so is to show how much religious institutions take advantage of and indoctrinate oppressed people, whether they be people of color, women, or impoverished people in third world countries. Religious institutions do this because people’s ignorance and oppression maintains larger oppressive power structures religious institutions are only a part of. Thoughts anyone?

  14. rrhain says

    “Again, it’s not because their is an antipathy to black issues”


    I know…I know…spelling flames…..

  15. says

    oh yeah; let’s talk about minorities instead of to them, and let’s just from the start assume they’re more religious because they’re just not that clever and therefore we need to explain to them the oppressions they experience.


  16. Portia, who will be okay. says

    Right, the problem isn’t us white people, it’s those white people! Great solution.

  17. llbguy says

    Keep the doors open and people will come.

    However, at the risk of overgeneralizing, I think there are many african american communities that just don’t connect with the rationalist undertones of the atheist movement — the european versus colonial conception of its provenance are coloured completely differently.

    European: Rationality – the liberation of humanity from despotic rule

    Colonial: Rationality – the capacity to crate a cold, oppressive mechanical world.

    I’ve been thinking more lately about cosmopolitanism, and how it logically extends from skepticism and cynicism (greek style cynicism). You can count me among those that say atheism is not ready to broaden its scope, when even the narrow claim of “disbelief” has not met with wide acknowlegment or appreciation. But in many ways it doesn’t have to be the rallying point. Cosmopolitan solidarity arrives at the same atheistic conclusions, as moral equality is otherwise impossible, one might assert, under the various theistic conceptions of favoured audiences.

  18. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    But but but but but that might mean more people talking about things that aren’t directly of interest to me, a white guy! That’s not right! You bullies! BULLIES!

  19. DLC says

    So, who says Un-Religion can’t follow the perfectly good example of say, Roman Catholicism and nominate something besides white men for high office ?
    Um. . . wait . . . How many black Popes have there been, again ?
    Seriously though, we can, and must, do better.

  20. says

    Being a middle aged white male, living in suburbia (mostly populated by people of European/Asian decent) working in the world of IT (my coworkers are people of European/Asian/Middle east decent) it seems that when race/religion comes up, there’s a scarcity of disadvantaged minorities (African/Hispanic) to converse about the issues of religion with.

    I agree as a movement, atheism is seen by the few disadvantaged minorities I’ve talked to over the last 20 years is a “white” thing and not of great interest. Perhaps being white, that is already offputting to what they want to talk about with me? I’ve had plenty of discussions about Atheism with other Whites/Asians, but I only remember one Black neighbor that we actually discussed the issue of Atheism/God/belief to any deep level.

    So what am I to do (maybe that’s a stupid question from one with priveldge in this society) to make atheism (specifically A+) a more accepting community to minorities?

  21. theoreticalgrrrl says

    The claim that women and blacks are more inclined to be religious due to being less intellectual or more credulous is bullshit. It’s gets thrown at us all the time as proof that we’re inferior. But you have to ignore centuries of oppression and dehumanization and the hope religion can give to people who rarely see justice:

    “Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress.

    “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.

    “It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.

    “The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.”

    — Karl Marx

    People only repeat the ‘opium of the people’ part, which completely changes what Marx was trying to say. The first time I heard the full quote was it brought me to tears, literally. I am a former Christian and the idea of a loving God who protects you and understands you is something you cling to in the face of so much violence and hate. It’s something the white men who pride themselves on their supposed intellectual superiority will never understand.

  22. says

    However, at the risk of overgeneralizing, I think there are many african american communities that just don’t connect with the rationalist undertones of the atheist movement — the european versus colonial conception of its provenance are coloured completely differently.

    So, you say that because non-western people had their countries invaded and plundered, their people murdered, their resources stolen and a million horrible atrocities justified in the name of science, progress, civilisation and rationality they are less inclined to join a pretty white movement that tells them they have to live their lives by the rational values those new white people tell them again?
    Sounds pretty rational to me…

  23. says

    We’re going to have to do better in welcoming black atheists and a lot of that is going to have to come at the expense of cannon-tossing the racists among us. Black atheists need to have a space where they can criticize aspects of both black and white churches without a bunch of d-bags immediately jumping on it as a reason to try and discredit black liberation. We need spaces where black faces are not rare and treated as secondary. And most of all, we need to turn the heavy eye of skepticism and rationality on the many and varied ways racism is wielded in society.

    Because a lot of our systems are designed with little rationality other than “it hurts black people more, so let’s do it” and while we white people can go through our days ignoring that with our white privilege, it’s not something that blacks can ignore. And until racial minorities of all stripes start seeing us atheists actually acknowledging and criticizing those racist systems of control and dominance, we will continue to be a white thing of little use to most.

  24. Esteleth, Ficus Putsch Knits says

    So…the observed lack (as compared to their proportion in society) of a historically-marginalized set of people within atheism and secularism can be ascribed to the tone being set by straightcisrichablebodiedwhitemen?

    *gif of Jon Stewart saying “Go oooooooon”*

  25. drbunsen, le savant fous says

    Prediction: this thread will not reach 1,000+ comments, unless someone mentions feminism.

    … oh shoot, I’ve done it now.

  26. says

    drbunsen @28-

    It actually bothers me a little that threads like these won’t blow up. I mean, I don’t really enjoy the sexist backlash on the feminism posts or the giant “are women people” “schisms” forming in the community, but at least those actions suggest that people care one way or another. Right now the bigots (on race) in the atheist movement just don’t feel worried like they do about the inclusion of women and a lot of that has to do with the very low amount of atheists of color to push back and share their experiences and feel safe demanding a place to have their voices heard on the same level as women atheists or even queer atheists.

    And it bothers me even more that the “soft” bigotry of the movement as a whole will just hand-wave that fact as some quality of racial minorities being “too owned by religion” or suggestions that they are too stupid or lazy to belong to movements of intended rationalism.

    We need color in this movement in a bad way. We can’t survive as 50 shades of white.

  27. says

    It actually bothers me a little that threads like these won’t blow up.

    agree. especially given that I’ve seen “yeah but no one complained about a black skeptics/atheist conference” as a reaction to the hating on WIS. when the reality is that we’ve simply not hear about it, because 1)they were so thoroughly ignored by the larger movement, even plenty of bigots didn’t hear about them; and 2)there was so little movement-wide pushback against the very same comments being made against PoC conferences as against women’s conferences, that few people heard about it even after some bigots found out about these conferences.

  28. theoreticalgrrrl says

    It’s actually excruciating to witness threads about feminism blow up. For me at least. Because I don’t think it’s that people care about the issue as much as it being a nasty backlash from antifeminists and women responding and trying to reason with them and getting nowhere. Maybe it’s a good sign that threads on race don’t blow up in that sense, or maybe it just means racists send private emails to white atheist dudes asking them to do something about the uppity black women and men. I think that’s happened before…?

  29. tonyhouston says

    It may be unrealistic to try to make atheism about something beyond advocacy for non-believers. I’m sure there are atheists who think atheism is the answer. Maybe that accounts for their lack of concern for other marginalized groups. But surely there are also those who just accept that semantics determines the meanings of words. We fall into the trap of straw-manning if we conflate the two. Consider the fact that the religious make the outrageous claim that faith is the source of their virtue. We all know that the best thing you can say about religion is that sometimes it stays out of the way and let’s people access their own moral intuitions. Atheists have a similar blind spot. Some of us think that our sense of social justice emanates from our atheism because the two are compatible–to us. If that were true, we wouldn’t be talking about this. I think we’ll get further if we take a coalition approach. Instead of trying to establish an atheist orthodoxy, we could just lend our support as individuals to the causes that are important to us. Personally, I would like to see us challenge the power that churches have among vulnerable populations. It will serve our cause, but–more to the point–we can serve those populations without the spiritual blackmail. Humanism has a more organic, intuitive association with social justice issues, but we need work too. Every movement has trolls. We can support Day of Solidarity events over their objections. They will draw out the people who have common ground without taking on the overwhelming power of semantics and trying to refine atheism.