Inspired by the always-inspiring Greta Christina and her two recent posts on the subject, I want to offer some thoughts on a topic I’ve rarely discussed on this blog: the intersection of atheism with issues of race and gender.
I haven’t discussed this subject much because I don’t feel I have any real qualifications to do so. As a white male, I haven’t often had to confront issues of racism or sexism, and I’m reluctant to speak about things which I don’t have much experience with. But it’s also true that silence can be taken as support for the current state of affairs, and that’s not necessarily an impression I want to give, so I’ll take the chance of speaking up. If I make any serious mistakes, I’m sure that my readership will correct me.
The first thing I’ll say is that, from my perspective at least, I’ve seen very little explicit racism or sexism in the atheist community, and when it does appear, it’s usually swiftly slapped down. Consider Larry Darby, the anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying atheist who ran in a primary for attorney general of Alabama a few years back – he complained that atheists, whom he had hoped would support his campaign, instead almost unanimously rejected him when he made his racist beliefs clear. Darby lost the race by a large margin, and subsequently announced his conversion to Christianity.
But while the atheist community doesn’t tolerate explicit bigotry, there are more subtle kinds of prejudice that are more difficult to notice and correct. It does give me a faint feeling of disquiet to realize that the four most visible and prominent atheists – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett – are all white men. And this trend tends to be repeated at skeptical conferences and gatherings: white males are overrepresented in the atheist community in general (at least in America), relative to their share of the population at large. As Greta Christina says, when a situation like this arises, it’s rarely an accident.
This isn’t to say that the atheist community is all white men; much the contrary. We have brilliant historians like Susan Jacoby and Jennifer Michael Hecht, who’ve written superb books (Freethinkers and Doubt: A History, respectively) highlighting the contributions of nonbelievers from all cultures throughout history. There are journalists and authors like Ann Druyan, Michelle Goldberg and Nica Lalli. There’s Julia Sweeney, whose “beautiful loss of faith” story is told movingly and poignantly. There’s the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which was created by atheist and feminist advocate Anne Nicol Gaylor and is still co-presidented by her daughter, Annie Laurie Gaylor, along with Dan Barker. There are people of color like Neil de Grasse Tyson, Reginald Finley (the Infidel Guy), Hemant Mehta, Taslima Nasrin, Irshad Manji, Salman Rushdie, and Ibn Warraq. And especially, there’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is both a woman and a person of color, and whose book Infidel I still consider to be the single most powerful, eloquent, and inspiring book on atheism that I’ve ever read.
Nor do we lack for diversity historically. Many pioneering feminists were uncompromising atheists, and freethought was a strong and lively element of cultural movements like the Harlem Renaissance. In my series on the contributions of freethinkers, I’ve done my best to feature women and people of color to show that atheism and religious skepticism have a far broader and deeper history than most people are aware of.
So, clearly, the problem isn’t that atheism is exclusively for whites or for men. Our message has the potential to appeal to people of all kinds. And why should that be a surprise? The positive values that atheism has to offer aren’t specific to any race or gender; they are human values that all people can share in and rejoice in. We offer liberation and freedom – freedom from the clinging cobwebs of religious dogma, freedom from the suffocating fear of hellfire, freedom from the locks and bars of archaic edicts and irrational laws, and in place of all this, an ethic of equality, a philosophy of happiness, and a morality based on empathy and human rights. This is a message that women and minorities, who know all too well how easily religion can be used to oppress, should be eager to embrace.
I’m not saying that white male atheists are doing anything wrong by speaking up. We need them too! Everyone who’s willing to come out as an atheist has a part to play in our movement, whatever your gender or race. Nor do I think that anyone, white or black, male or female, should be raised to a prominence that they haven’t merited by their own efforts. But I do think that white male atheists should be making more of an effort to learn about the specific concerns of women and minorities, to speak in language that addresses those concerns, and to extend a hand of welcome to members of these groups and invite them to join in our movement. It’s an effort that’s not only worthwhile for its own sake, but that will pay dividends down the line.