White atheists, it’s past time we get real.
And with this first sentence I’m already foreseeing the push-back. For those who have already written me off for playing in “identity politics”, or who think I’m just a self-loathing man trying to spread white guilt, I suppose it may be a lost cause to try and reach you. For the rest of you still reading and who aren’t yet on board, allow me a chance to appeal to your morals and ideals in our mutual quest to make a better world.
Yes, atheism doesn’t lead to any moral conclusions; anything without deities is technically compatible with an atheist’s worldview.
Yes, merely being white also doesn’t require you to behave in a moral way, and being white doesn’t mean you have done anything wrong. Furthermore, your race or any privilege that comes along with it shouldn’t be sources of guilt.
I’m neither appealing to your atheism nor your whiteness, I’m appealing to your morals and sense of duty to your fellow humans. I am doing so within the context of secular and humanist activism, and where society places us based on these identities. I’m recognizing our differences and encouraging your use of privilege. I am appealing to your morality within the context of how atheist activism is currently structured. And right now, we have a lot to work on.
By now, you’ve already heard much of the news of the Charlottesville march filled with neo-nazi and KKK marchers. Were you aware that an expert in the alt-right describes this population as more secular than the general population? This includes Neo-Nazi and famous punch recipient Richard Spencer, who is a self-described atheist.
The more prominent and famous figures haven’t exactly done much to disavow or even separate their activity from this movement. Their behavior can appear ostensibly benign, such as Sam Harris’ platforming of “race realist” Charles Murray, which ultimately ends up endorsing prejudice under the guise of scientific inquiry. This promotion of white supremacy blatant revisionism and whitewashing, like when Dave Rubin promotes a woman seeking a “final solution” for Muslims and elevates far-right xenophobic voices such as Tommy Robinson and Lauren Southern, throwing softball questions at them with only the smallest hint of pushback possible.
By contrast, what is happening in our own communities to combat alt-right behavior, or to push back against scare tactics? There are a good handful of secular organizations that have explicitly condemned the march (American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Freedom From Religion Foundation, and more), which is good. Are we doing more than trying to distance ourselves from the problem?
Black atheism certainly has a presence in the movement. Black Nonbelievers has been around for around six years, and has other affiliated groups specifically to build communities and address concerns specific to the experiences of black atheists. In 2016, the American Humanist Association developed alliances based on doing more social justice based activism, including the Black Humanist Alliance. However, the AHA received plenty of pushback for having the audacity to bring humanist efforts to these specific focuses. When racial justice activists spoke at the recent American Humanist Association conference, they received walkouts on their talks and pushback that other white presenters didn’t receive, as speaker Trav Mamone documents. Speakers like Alix Jules and Mandisa Thomas have both had a history of being treated differently than other speakers at atheist conventions, simply due to being atheists of color.
But somewhat equally importantly, whenever issues such as police brutality and racism are brought up within atheist circles we are met with knee-jerk pushback. We are met with cries of “identity politics” and pandering to the “regressive left”. We get Pepes in our Twitter mentions, coming from the same alt-right news sources and communities that fuel the aforementioned white supremacist marchers. Meanwhile, the ostensibly “non-racist” liberal atheists who profess to hold progressive values do little to combat blatant bigotry, and are likely to dismiss any problems simply because being an atheist has nothing to do with race (as if the entirety of our values and behavior must stem merely from our nonbelief).
We atheists often pride ourselves on being free of religious dogma that reinforces hatred and bigotry to our fellow humans. We often claim the moral high ground on issues such as gender and sexuality (often rightfully so), since we no longer have the chains of gender roles prescribed to us arbitrarily. But how can we as humanists claim moral superiority on race issues if we not only don’t take any action to combat racism, but we are actively tolerant of those who spread harmful race-based beliefs?
The day after the Charlottesville White Supremacist march, I went to Denver and attended a resistance-focused march in solidarity with Charlottesville, where thousands of other people showed up to send a strong message against White Supremacy. Speaking at the march were at least three religious leaders, all encouraging their fellow marchers to take action in their communities. I don’t share their supernatural belief and felt excluded to some extent by the prayer given that day, but at the same time I recognized their capacity for mobilizing their faith communities towards positive action.
My local Boulder and Denver areas have little excuse, as they both have secular organizations that meet regularly. It’s possible that some members of these organizations attended, but if so they weren’t as visible as the multiple churches that attended with large signs. Furthermore, neither group made any public show of support on social media.
If we white atheists supposedly care about combating racism and want to fight for justice, what’s the point if we aren’t showing up? I understand that our time and energy is limited and many of us want to focus on specific causes to make our efforts as individuals more effective. However, you would think that there would be some secular representation in issues of justice. This is barely the case, especially from white secularists, and as it currently stands humanists of color tend to be rebuffed whenever they want to create change from an evidence-based humanist perspective. What ends up happening is that many religious folks show up, and the atheists don’t.
To be clear, religious culture is largely responsible for racism and xenophobia in the world. We cannot pretend that Christianity has clean hands in the issue, and it’s certainly one of the largest factors in far-right terror. After all, religious symbolism and scripture ties deeply into Nazi and KKK ideology. But at the very least, we can say there are religious communities that are actively working to reverse that behavior (particularly in black churches).
We could sit in the theoretical abstract and recognize that being an atheist doesn’t directly tie to caring about racial justice, but why does this excuse not matter when there are atheist organizations helping the homeless, doing community service, helping disaster recovery, and performing international service? None of these tie to being an atheist either, yet all of these are active areas of humanism. Why is the race an issue that is so hard for us atheists to overcome? It should be obvious.
Finally, it’s worth saying that if we try to create a “big tent” inviting anyone in merely by being atheist, we are actively breeding the alt-right culture that is already fairly nonreligious. Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance tells us that by being tolerant of any and all persons involved in our communities, then that gives license to accept anyone’s intolerant behavior within the community.
It is no longer good enough for white atheists to be “not racist” (to whatever degree we can be non-racist). By making space for racism and bigotry in atheist and humanist circles, we are actively breeding the culture that was alive in Charlottesville and threatens to spread across the world. We are complicit in incubating the same nihilistic anti-humanistic attitudes that we see on 4Chan and r/atheism, ones that lead to hatred and intolerance. If we white atheists truly care about diversity and humanism, we can no longer be content with simple non-bigotry, we have to take steps to combat it. It may be the case that we can’t prevent these attitudes from spreading in other areas, but we should feel morally obligated to do what we can in areas we do have control over.
In the words of Angela Davis, “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist – we must be antiracist.” Let’s apply that to our own communities, and take the log out of our own eye.
The fact that many of us speaking about this now only after Charlottesville speaks to our privilege and complacency with the world as it currently exists, and I include myself in that criticism. Racial justice activists and atheists of color have been speaking about this for years. If you read many of their works or listen to their talks, there is little surprise that Charlottesville was little more than a logical conclusion of our current societal structure at work. Let’s correct that mistake and actively listen. If we are truly critical thinkers and skeptics, we should undergo this collective endeavor towards truth and justice by hearing voices from all perspectives and life experiences. While the truth is independent of who says it, we will get the fuller picture from those who have those life experiences rather than those who can merely describe it.
For starters, I recommend this year’s “When Colorblindness Isn’t the Answer: Humanism and the Challenge of Race” by Anthony Pinn, which paints a thorough picture why humanists need to care about racial justice. Continue to listen to humanists of color. I recommend Sincere Kirabo and Ashton P. Woods, as well as Alix Jules. If you like podcasts, listen to Angry Black Rant, with my friend Ishmael Brown.
In addition to that, start taking action. Even if you take little steps, it’s an improvement towards positive change. Call out racism in your family and communities (including your atheist and freethought groups). If you have a platform, elevate voices of color. Look for black businesses to support. Call and write your congresspeople in your local community regarding laws and policies that target people of color. Follow racial justice organizations for events you can volunteer and contribute to. SURJ is a fantastic organization where we white folks can become educated and learn where to take steps towards progress.
Hopefully we white atheists can learn these lessons and turn them into positive change. Let’s get over the fact that atheism doesn’t dictate what actions we should take. Atheism in itself doesn’t dictate that we create nonreligious communities and fight for separation of church and state, yet we do it anyway. We already take action beyond just being “merely atheist”. Let’s take action to prevent the spread of white supremacy.