Tuesday, September 8, 2009

This Far By Faith? Race Traitors, Gender Apostates & the Atheism Question

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Martin Luther King, Jr. once dubbed Sunday at 11:00 a.m. the most segregated hour in America, a microcosm of the titanic divide that specifically separates black and white America. Yet racial divisions are not the only prominent schism in the Sunday churchgoing ritual that encompasses much of the social and cultural life experience of one of the most God-obsessed nations on the planet. Despite all the “liberal” revisions to biblical language and claims to progressivism among some Christian denominations, mainstream Protestantism is still, of course, a Jim Crow throwback and a man’s man’s world. As Mark Galli, editor of the Evangelical magazine Christianity Today once remarked, “It’s a cliché now to call institutional religion 'oppressive, patriarchal, out of date and out of touch.' So what else is new? I feel sorry for those people who don't think there's anything greater than themselves…It leaves out the communal dimension of faith.”

From the Deep South to South Los Angeles, this “communal dimension of faith” is one of the most compelling and problematic aspects of women’s investment in organized religion. When it comes to accounting for the disproportionate male to female ratio for self-identified atheists, there has been much wrongheaded conjecture about the supposed emotionalism of women versus the rationality of men. Bloggers muse about women’s intuitive sensitivity to the warm and fuzzy “verities” of religious dogma. Women are portrayed as naturally timorous and thus less inclined to question or suspend belief about the inconsistencies of organized religion. For the most part, there has been no serious evaluation of the perceived gendered social benefits of religious observance versus the social costs of espousing such a gender non-conforming “individualist” ideology as atheism, particularly with respect to American born women of color. Indeed, in many communities of color the very structure of organized religion offers a foundation for the articulation of female gendered identity that has been a source of agency and an antidote to marginalization. On the other hand, patriarchy entitles men to reject organized religion with few implications for their gender-defined roles as family breadwinners or purveyors of cultural values to children. Men simply have greater cultural license to come out as atheists or agnostics because of the gender hierarchies that ascribe rationalism, individualism, intellectualism and secular or scientific inquiry to masculinity. So women in traditionally religious communities who come out in real time (as opposed to online) risk greater ostracism because women don’t have the cultural and authorial privilege to publicly express their opposition to organized religion as men.

African American women provide an illustrative case in point. Imagery such as filmmaker Tyler Perry’s bible thumping malapropism spewing Madea, stereotypically heavyset black women in brightly colored choir robes belting out gospel music and sweat-drenched revelers cataleptic from getting the holy ghost are some of the most common mainstream representations of black femininity. These caricatures are buttressed by the unwavering financial and social support of the black church, which is predominantly Christian-based, by African American communities of all income brackets. According to blackdemographics.com African Americans remain the most solidly religious racial group in the United States, outstripping whites in their churchgoing fervor by a nearly 20% margin. Sunday in and Sunday out, between the hours of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., a familiar scene emerges in both working and middle class black communities across the nation. Black women shuttle dutifully to church in their sartorial best, backbone of a dubious institution that still accords them only second class citizen standing. The gender dynamics in the breakdown of regular churchgoers reflect an utterly predictable disparity in power and access. While more black women have been allowed to assume leadership roles in black churches in recent years, they remain a minority among deacons, pastors and senior pastors of most black congregations. So although black women are far more likely than men to attend church more than once a week, the officialdom of black religious establishments, and certainly the political face of the black church, is steadfastly male.

What is the relationship between these gendered religious hierarchies and cultural politics in African American communities? Christian religiosity pervades the slang of misogynist black hip hop artists and sports figures and worms its way into their Jesus touting boilerplate award acceptance speeches. Christian religiosity engorges multi-million dollar faith-based empires in poor urban black communities where “prime” real estate is often a triad of storefront churches, liquor stores and checking cashing places. Sex scandals and financial improprieties fester amongst the leadership of black churches yet sexist and homophobic rhetoric remain a mainstay. Blind faith speaks through bulging collection plates and special tithes to the latest charity, pastor’s pet cause or capital campaign, “blessing” donors with another chit to heaven and certitude that black apostates are also race traitors. If mainstream African American notions of black identity are defined by a certain degree of essentialism, then religious identity is certainly a key element. Alternative belief systems are viewed with suspicion because they are deemed to be inconsistent with authentic black identity.

Given this context it is unsurprising that comedian and self-appointed dating guru Steve Harvey’s diatribe against atheism this past spring went largely unchallenged by African American cultural critics. Doling out sage dating advice, Harvey warned black women to avoid atheist gentlemen callers at all costs because they simply have no morals. Harvey’s swaggeringly ignorant declaration was not only a repudiation of atheism but a thinly veiled warning to black women that they should tow the religious line with their personal choices. Failure to do so would have serious consequences for racial solidarity and their ability to be good (black) women, compromising their heterosexual marketability and legitimacy as marriage partners and mothers. It is this brand of essentialism that makes stereotypes associating black identity politics with an anti-secularist stance and religious superstition so irritatingly persistent.

While the greater religiosity of women of color in comparison to men is no mystery, why is it that this peculiarly gendered regime gone relatively unquestioned? The gravity of the social and economic issues confronting black communities—and the tremendous cultural capital and social authority that organized religion exercises within them— compels further analysis. Just as women are socialized to identify with and internalize misogynistic and sexist paradigms, religious paradigms that emphasize domestication and obeisance to men are integral to mainstream American notions of femininity. For many observant women questioning or rejecting religion outright would be just as counterintuitive as rejecting their connection to their lived experiences. In this regard religious observance is as much a performance and reproduction of gender identity as it is an exercise of personal “morality.” Many of the rituals of black churchgoing forge this sense of gendered identity as community. Whether it be maintaining ties with peers within the context of a church meeting, ensuring impressionable children have some “moral” mooring by sending them to Sunday School or even invoking sage bits of scripture to chasten malcontents, enlighten casual acquaintances or infuse one’s quotidian doings with purpose—all carefully delineate enactments of kin and community that have been compulsorily drilled into women as the proper fulfillment of a gendered social contract. And if this gendered social contract were violated en masse patriarchy and heterosexism would have less of a firmament.

What, then, are the lessons for promoting secular humanist, agnostic or atheist belief systems? First, that there must be more clearly defined alternatives to supernaturalism which speak to the cultural context of diverse populations of women and people of color. Second, that moral secular values should provide the basis for robust critique of the serious cultural and socioeconomic problems that have been allowed to thrive in communities of color under the regime of organized religion. Finally, in an intellectual universe where rock star white men with publishing contracts are the most prominent atheists and atheism is perceived in some quarters as a “white” thing, it is also critical that acceptance and embrace of non-supernatural belief systems be modeled in communities of color “on the ground.” Only then can secularism defang the seductions of the communal dimension of faith that defines our most segregated hour.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and a presenter at the Atheist Alliance International Conference in October. This article is an excerpt from her book Scarlet Letters an essay collection on race/gender politics, atheism and secular belief.


Anonymous said...

Excellent piece. The strong African American women who tirelessly support vacuous supernaturalism in almost segregated churches should just say no to it. They would make an enormous contribution to secular humanism and the redirection of church resources to real human problems.

(The author of this piece obviously meant to write "toe the line" rather than "tow.")

Gunnar Örn Stefánsson said...

"[P]atriarchy entitles men to reject organized religion with few implications for their gender-defined roles as family breadwinners or purveyors of cultural values to children."

They are entitled to reject religion because of their role as "purveyors of cultural values to children"? I would think that this type of role would not entitle anyone to reject prevailing religious values.

kingDaddy said...

This is a wonderful analysis. Thank you.

Gunnar, you eliminate patriarchy from your response and add religious values, it's no wonder you come to a different conclusion.

CS said...

Good article!
I was always under the impression that the general appearance of higher religiousity in women is primarily due to the community and support structure such institutions offer; therefore women, being generally more (for example economically) disadvantaged than men, tend to depend on these institutions more - double that, if you also factor in racial disadvantage! To try to reduce it to biology/psychology misses a larger societal picture, opens the door to naturalistic fallacies and is potentially demeaning (as you pointed out: "fuzzy" women vs. "rational" men).

I'm always interested in the perspective of people of backgrounds different from my own (male european atheist); I can see how atheism can sometimes be perceived as a "thing of/for/by the white/male/privilged" and it's important to overcome that appearance. Looking back at the history and rise of secularism in my own country, I can connect to some points (among: the support structure of religious communities in absence of state support, the societal pressures on women to conform, the coupling of religion to "ethnic" or "national" identity, etc..) and draw conclusions from how we moved these factors. Generally speaking, people got less religious when economic security and opportunities increased (thus lessening the need to depend on religious support structues); so it all points to Social Justice.


Gunnar Örn Stefánsson said...

kingDaddy, it was merely a nitpick.

I agree with the conclusion, and provisionally accept the premise, although I certainly don't have more than a casual idea of what the "patriarchy" means, and am in fact uncertain whether the role of "purveyor of cultural values to children" is obviously masculine. As religious leaders, certainly, but is this a role that fathers, in general, assume more than mothers?

It is merely the reasoning I am questioning (and not advocating any opposing view). I'll clarify, to address our points:

In religious societies, religion is a part of culture, and cultural values are shaped, often largely, by religious values. Thus, if you purvey cultural values in such a society, you almost certainly are purveying religious values as well.

I think my answer reads pretty much the same when I overtly signify the role as being part of the patriarchy, so:

The patriarchy entitles men to reject religion because of their role as "purveyors of cultural values to children"? I would think that this type of role would not entitle anyone to reject prevailing religious values.


Stokesy said...

Gunnar Örn Stefánsson and some of the guys from RichardDawkins.com, I'm afraid you just didn't get some of this. Whether this is from wilful ignorance or just not being presented with it before is debatable (most of you are white male middle class people, so you're in a privileged space at that forum. Nothing against you guys, but it would not hurt you to read more around racial and feminist litrature). By going against what the patricary sets out for you and also the cultural situation (race or religion) you're in, you can become a target for blame and lose status and security. On the other hand, white dudes are far less likely to be questioned due to the space they have in society. It's not just that simple, but that's a start.

Great analysis, thank you!

phauna said...

I would just like to ask how people on a forum can be privileged by being middle-class white males, if no one knows they are, and in fact the forum doesn't exist in any one particular country, and therefore there is no particular racial ratio in evidence. I have no idea of the sex or race or nationality of 90% of people on the internet although I could guess vaguely as some have done.

Gunnar Örn Stefánsson said...

Stokesy, now that you've had a guess at my race, sex, class, reading skills, and prior reading you might want to respond to my argument. It's only one small point.

Ken said...

I'm a realist and so-called caucasion (race is only socio-political anyways)about to be divorced from a creationist so-called black woman. She talks the talk but doesn't walk it. She indoctrinates our children in her beliefs and gets upset when I teach them science especially evolution, history and logical problem solving skills. I need to counterweight all the Rote education they receive.

When we did attend the SDA church together years ago, I was amazed by the overwhelming black Caribbean female majority of the congregation. Some of these women may or may not have been Pastor selected to keep a watchful eye on us and ensure our regular church attendance. Has anyone else experienced the same?

SaintStephen said...

Luminous, penetrating expository writing. I simply couldn't agree more. I saw this posted on www.richarddawkins.net, and I thank you very kindly for educating me.

CS said...

Regarding the "purveyors of cultural values to children", I must say that I found that bit also slightly confusing, insofar as (gunnar already pointed out), if men are the "purveyors", wouldn't that make the religious institutions pressure THEM (men) more, to purvey the right values (religious, of course). Instead, I see the churches targeting the women more with that stick (be religious, make sure your kids are religious) and less importance is placed upon the fathers' role in raising the kids (which is a more tangible expression of patriarchy to rally against, as it has the effect of delegating women to the 'homely' sphere).

"On the other hand, white dudes are far less likely to be questioned due to the space they have in society. " (stokesy)

Questioned by whom, I would ask ? It's not exactly -white- christians that'll question a black atheist if he/she comes out; as the article pointed out, his/her concerns are much more immediate to their community. It's black christians that alloyed christianity so deeply into the 'black identity', it's them who'll ostracize you if you reject the supernatural parts of the community.
If "white dudes" are less likely to be questioned for their nonbelief (by white believers, i suppose?) it is probably because for most white people themselves christianity is less of an essential part of the 'white identity' than it seems to be among African-Americans ?
If it's about the "dudes" in general, of course patriarchy plays a role, as it gives men more leeway to not-conform, and puts more pressure on women to adhere to the norms it needs to perpetuate itself (not the least of which is to demurely stay home and "purvey those cultural values" to the next generation).

"I would just like to ask how people on a forum can be privileged by being middle-class white males," (phauna)

I guess it was more meant as "the white-middleclass-male background shapes their perspective and opinion", which is true as it is of everybody. Of course, that's why it's important to engage different people, to come to a more complete and informed understanding of the situation.


Rusty said...

A great article!

I grew up in a white, Southern Baptist environment, but my family was always welcome in the local black church. My dad would guest preach there on occasion.

Attending these services always filled me with a since of awe and wonder. Two groups with similar beliefs would express their faith in such vastly different ways.

As I've rejected much of the faith of my family, I've felt huge opposition from them. I can only imagine how difficult this would be for an African American female.

An uphill battle for sure.

Bruce said...

"[P]atriarchy entitles men to reject organized religion with few implications for their gender-defined roles as family breadwinners or purveyors of cultural values to children."

First of all, patriarchy has women as being the primary givers of cultural values to children - it is the point of having housewives. It is also why women tend to be more likely to win custody.

Second one of the most common arguments against atheism is the argument from morality "you can't be moral without God."

Third, Camp Quest in the UK was recently subject to a series of articles essentially accusing it of being Camp Dawkins and indoctrinating children.

Fourth: We have constant arguments about the "good old days" and how rising secularism is "eroding values".

The trouble with Hutchinson is there is a problem with who is getting coverage in the atheist movement - it is being seen as being largely white males with money - but Hutchinson has this uncanny knack for including stuff like this which is frankly stupid.

shutch said...

Thanks for the insightful comments. On the issue of men and their roles as purveyors of cultural values--the point of the article was to underscore that men don't have the strong familial, quotidian and often, community obligation to socialize children into conforming to religious dogma as women do, precisely because women are by default constructed as the primary caregivers and teachers. Certainly men do transmit cultural values to children (among them religious practices and beliefs, gender modalities, racial world views, etc.) but they are not a priori constructed as primary caregivers and nurturers and hence don't have the same gendered social pressures placed on them to do so as the defining feature of their paternal/masculine identities.