Atheism's Race Problem and the Need For a Social Justice Agenda

Color Your life
Color Your life (Photo credit: Capture Queen ™)

I read Sikivu Hutchinson's article, Atheism has a big race problem that no one's talking about, in The Washington Post when it first appeared. I then took some time to do what I have been taught to do: I shut up and listened (or read, in this case) and checked my privilege. I decided that I probably shouldn't write about the subject because I've been hit over the head repeatedly by those insisting that people like me have nothing of value to contribute to such conversations. Were I to agree with some or all of Ms. Hutchinson's article, I'd likely be accused of some sort of liberal White guilt. And if I were to disagree with some or all of her article, I'd probably be accused of racism, misogyny, and who knows what else. Best to keep my thoughts to myself.

After some reflection about how holding back when it comes to controversial subjects makes it all but impossible for me to use this blog the way I want to, I re-read the article. It struck me this time around that Ms. Hutchinson seemed to be calling for a response. She says that we have a problem and that part of it is that nobody is talking about this issue. She also suggests that she'd like to see White atheists get involved in some areas in which she does not perceive us as typically involved. If people like me refuse to address her points, aren't we contributing to the very problem about which she is seeking to raise awareness? Isn't an important part of what she's saying here that our tendency to ignore the issue is part of the problem? Maybe it is okay to respond.

Atheism Is Not the Issue

I fear that some readers will have trouble getting past the title of Ms. Hutchinson's article. "Of course atheism doesn't have a race problem," they'll say, "atheism doesn't mean anything but the lack of god belief." I agree, but this is a silly reason to dismiss the entire article. Ms. Hutchinson is writing about the atheist/humanist/secular movement and their organizations. If it helps, substitute every appearance of "atheists" with "atheists engaged in activism around separation of church and state," "secular activists," "members of secular groups," or something similar. Atheism is not the issue here.

After highlighting some of the conditions Black people are disproportionally more likely to face in the U.S. (e.g., segregated neighborhoods, unemployment, over-representation of the prison population), Ms. Hutchinson notes that religious organizations are often visible in providing aid to the poor, fighting racial discrimination, and providing other resources.

These are essential issues, and atheists of color often find themselves allied in these missions.

This makes a great deal of sense to me, and I imagine it is at least a partial explanation for the continued influence of religion among Blacks in this country. At the same time, I think it is important that we recognize a couple of unpleasant realities. First, many Black people are not involved in activism around these issues either. The Black community has some amazing activists to be sure, but many members of that community suffer from the same scourge of apathy that afflicts every community today. Perhaps the lack of interest with which many people, regardless of their race or ethnicity, regard activism is at least as problematic as any Black-White difference.

Second, some Black atheists who are interested in activism on these issues have no problem working with multiple organizations to advance their goals. They do not seem to need to put an atheist banner on their social justice work; they might be involved in a secular group with a traditional secular agenda and another group with a different sort of agenda. I know Black atheists, for example, who are active members of local atheist groups that deal with church-state issues and groups that are not explicitly atheistic that focus on prison reform. They value both groups and see no reason to combine them. Many White atheists do this too. I guess I'm not sure why this is necessarily problematic.

White atheists have a markedly different agenda. They are, on average, more affluent than the general population. Their children don’t attend overcrowded “dropout mills” where they are criminalized, subjected to “drill and kill” curricula and shunted off to prison, subminimum-wage jobs or chronic unemployment. White organizations go to battle over church/state separation and creationism in schools.

Some White atheists do have a different agenda. Some Black atheists have different agendas too. And again, some people, regardless of race or ethnicity, do not seem to find a problem pursuing different parts of their agenda through different groups. In fact, this has always struck me as being advantageous because it allows groups to stick to a fairly limited focus and maximize their impact with limited resources.

There seems to be an implicit assumption being made here that most Black atheists share the particular social justice interests of Ms. Hutchinson. I'm not in the best position to evaluate whether this assumption is warranted, but I'm reminded of a recent interview with Spike Lee Salon.com posted in which the director said, "I understand that the black audience is not monolithic." I'd guess that the same is true about Black atheists. I'm inclined to think that there is just as much diversity among Black atheists as there is among White atheists or any other group of atheists. I'll have to leave a more thorough evaluation of this assumption to others, but I do believe it is worth noting.

Different Groups, Different Missions

I'm not sure what is meant by "White organizations" in the quote above from Ms. Hutchinson's article. Is American Atheists a White organization? Americans United for Separation of Church and State? How about the Center for Inquiry? I'm not sure how this works. Does any organization without a race-specific label in its name become a "White organization" for some reason? Is there a certain percentage of membership from persons of color that a national secular organization must report to stop itself from being labeled in this way? I'm not convinced that Ms. Hutchinson's objection to these organizations has much of anything to do with race; I think it has to do with their missions.

Don't these organizations fight for certain issues because they were designed to have that focus? We don't typically accuse Amnesty International of failing to devote sufficient attention to working to correct the conditions that lead to poverty in the inner cities, do we? We seem to understand that this is outside their mission. We don't usually demand that the Humane Society devote more attention to combating problems with poor access to healthcare in rural areas, do we? Again, I think we recognize that this isn't a part of their mission. So why does it make any more sense to go after groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation or National Center for Science Education for pursuing what has always been their missions?

If my use of the phrase "go after" seems overly harsh, consider that Ms. Hutchinson says about the groups she refers to as "White organizations."

They largely ignore the fact that black nonbelievers face a racial and gender divide precipitated by rollbacks on affirmative action, voting rights, affordable housing, reproductive rights, education and job opportunities.

This almost makes these organizations sound racist or at least ignorant and contributing to oppressive structures, doesn't it? But are these groups ignoring these issues because they do not care about them, as Ms. Hutchinson suggests, or because they are not part of their missions? Are there not already groups, groups that include racially and ethically diverse members, working on these issues? Why must every national atheist/humanist/secular organization expand their mission to include these issues?

If I decide that protecting traditional Native American tribal lands is extremely important to me, I can seek out organizations devoted to that cause and join them. Why would I suggest that groups with missions focused elsewhere take up this issue simply because it resonates with me?

If someone is concerned about issues like juvenile incarceration, there are groups that focus on that issue. The Freedom From Religion Foundation probably isn't going to be one of them. Why is that a problem? We all have many issues that are important to us, and that is why many of us are involved in multiple organizations.

We could certainly argue, as Ms. Hutchinson seems to be doing, that all atheist/humanist/secular groups should expand their missions to include a host of other issues. But why? If her argument is that doing so will make these groups much more appealing to Black atheists, she needs to make that case in a more direct and convincing manner than she does here. There are already groups working on improving access to education, serving the poor, and the like. Why is it necessary for every secular group to do this?

And why stop at issues likely, in Ms. Hutchinson's assessment, to be of relevance to Black atheists? I'd bet that there are many other groups of people, all of whom happen to be atheists, but who have a variety of interests that are not currently reflected in the national atheist/humanist/secular organizations. If we were to expand these groups' missions to include every such interest, we'd end up with something that would have a hard time functioning.

Ms. Hutchinson interprets the fact that many atheist/humanist/secular groups do not work on the issues she considers important to be evidence of "a staggering lack of interest." Again, this strikes me as unfair. Why would do we expect a group to invest resources in something that falls outside its mission? Not every group can or should focus on every issue. This is why we have so many different groups, each with a somewhat different mission.

Social Justice Is the Issue

Based on the title, I thought that the article would focus on the disproportionately small numbers of persons of color in the atheist/humanist/secular movement and provide some ideas for how we might increase their numbers. There was some of that, but it seems to rest on the assumption that persons of color are avoiding "White organizations" because they perceive them as being largely irrelevant to their interests in the social justice issues Ms. Hutchinson identifies. This assumption may be justified, but the case made for it here was insufficient. I'm reluctant to assume that Black atheists are necessarily going to share Ms. Hutchinson's social justice agenda simply because of their race.

I was happy to see Ms. Hutchinson provide some examples of what she would like to see:

  1. Atheist organizations should address the race and class disparities found in the STEM professions.
  2. Atheist organizations should fund scholarships for disadvantaged youth to attend college.
  3. Atheist organizations should participate in conferences organized by Black atheist groups.

There are some good ideas here. Based on these examples, it seems clear that she's calling on atheist/humanist/secular groups to expand their missions to include a social justice focus. Isn't this - and not race - the central thrust of the article?

I think it is great that there are so many atheists interested in doing social justice work. I am still not sure why it is so important that they do that under the banner of one group instead of being involved in several. I'm not interested in seeing groups with specific missions (e.g., separation of church and state, science education) expand their missions to include social justice activism, but this does not mean that I am uninterested in social justice activism. I would far prefer to belong to multiple groups devoted to different issues I consider important. Groups with a limited and clearly defined mission strike me as being better able to attract members and accomplish their goals. And fortunately, I have found no shortage of groups that serve as wonderful outlets for social justice activism.

One of the many important questions facing the atheist/humanist/secular communities today is how (or if) our organizations should accommodate those who want to make social justice activism part of what these groups do. I think this is a great question and one that deserves some attention. I'm less convinced that trying to discuss it in the context of race is going to be advantageous, especially if doing so makes it sound like persons of a particular race are more monolithic than may actually be the case.