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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

#AtheismSoWhite: Atheists of Color Rock Social Justice

SSJcon 2016 beyond #atheismsowhite

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Back in the day, supergroups ruled rock’s largely white, largely male landscape.  Megaliths like my boys Cream, Led Zeppelin, Blind Faith and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young bestrode the earth in all their swaggering testosterone-oozing alpha glory.  They dominated the music charts and arenas with power chord chestnuts which legitimized the careers of gatekeeping white music critics and fueled a multi-billion dollar recording industry fattened by the unsung influence of black rock trailblazers like Rosetta Tharpe, Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix.  Outmoded, the supergroups of the 60s and 70s eventually crashed and burned, victim to the ravages of time, drugs, egos, corporate bloat, and the encroachments of Disco and punk.

The recent merger of the secular organization Center for Inquiry (CFI) and the Richard Dawkins Foundation (RDF) has been dubbed atheism’s supergroup moment.  Acknowledging the two organizations’ outsized presence in the atheist world, Religion News Service acidly declared it a “royal wedding”.   The partnership, which gives Richard Dawkins a seat on the CFI board, smacks of a vindication of Dawkins’ toxic brand of damn-all-them-culturally-backward-Western-values-hating- Muslims New Atheism.  As one of the most prominent global secular organizations, CFI’s all-white board looks right at home with RDF’s lily white board and staff.

Meanwhile, atheists and humanists of color have been going against the white grain to address issues that much of organized atheism and humanism are resistant if not outright hostile to.  Last week, the Black Non-Believers organization, the largest network of African American atheists in the country, celebrated its five-year anniversary in Atlanta, Georgia.  Founded by activist Mandisa Thomas, the network is an antidote to the ostracism black atheists in the Bible Belt and beyond experience, especially in the absence of supportive secular institutions. 

The intersection of racial segregation, economic inequality and cultural identity is the reason why religious traditions predominate in black communities.  When African Americans across the economic spectrum look to social welfare, educational and civic organizations they are more often than not tapping into those either provided by or connected to faith-based institutions.  For example, at a recent Drew University conference (named after pioneering African American physician and scientist Charles Drew) I attended on resiliency and African American men, faith was often cited as key to motivating young black men to pursue community leadership and academics.  High school students spoke of getting mentoring and college readiness resources from their congregations.  In South Los Angeles, reentry programs that provide jobs for formerly incarcerated black workers meet in and partner with churches.  In the absence of community, job and recreation centers, churches offer stable physical space which simply doesn’t exist elsewhere in most poor and working class communities of color. Simply put, churches—for good or ill—are a political and social platform for people of color in the absence of the kind of secular institutions that provide white people with political leverage, visibility, and validation.  Atheists who bash religion but aren’t about the business of building social justice institutions that provide alternatives to religious ones are just making noise.
The need for secular reentry initiatives is one issue that will be taken up at this week’s Secular Social Justice conference at Rice University in Houston, Texas.  Featuring atheist and humanist activists, educators and writers of color, the event is the only secular conference to focus exclusively on racial, gender and economic justice in communities of color without apology or accommodation to white folks’ let’s-ghettoize-this-into-a-diversity-panel reflex. From the cultural relevance of feminism, to the impact of mass incarceration, the intersectional activism of queer atheists of color and the neoliberal re-segregation of public schools, progressive folk of color who also identify as atheist and/or humanist are broadening the scope of atheist activism beyond merely challenging religious prejudice.

LGBTQ queer Black atheists on Social Justice


But, typically, mainstream media can’t seem to see atheists or atheist “activism” unless it’s Dawkins or Sam Harris going on yet another Islamophobic atheist rock star rant. Last year’s CNN show featuring the white atheist elite—the most privileged among an already economically and racially privileged class—reinforced the reductive anti-religious focus of mainstream atheism.  Having the ability to claim the space of atheism unabashedly, while being viewed as a secular authority, has everything to do with race, gender, class, and sexual privilege.  It is precisely because Dawkins and company are not criminalized, protected from the brunt of state violence due to their inhabitance of white male cis bodies, that they’ve gained global credence as atheist paragons of science and reason.  Of course, mainstream media will never be ready for the intersectional atheist organizing represented by non-believers of color who’ve pushed the movement to go beyond the safe platitudes of church state separation.  That would involve confronting the “revelation” that a humanistic atheism demands more than simply non-belief, but a radical dismantling of the same old social norms that center whiteness, maleness, straightness and private enterprise as “secular” God substitutes.