A Response to "The White Stuff"

Earlier this week, I posted a piece by Sikivu Hutchinson, “The White Stuff“, about the legacy of racism in science and to what extent issues of race affect the atheist movement. Today, I want to write a response to that piece and venture some of my own thoughts on the subject.

To begin, I want to echo one of the more common objections raised in the comments: this piece was long on criticisms, short on suggested solutions. Granted, it’s not the responsibility of every woman or member of a minority to educate white males on the explicit and implicit prejudices that still exist in our society (just as it’s not the responsibility of every atheist to educate believers on the privileges afforded to religion). But if you’re going to take the time to write about this at all, why not offer at least some suggestions as to what we can do about it?

However, that said, I still appreciate Hutchinson’s bringing up this topic. Even if we don’t know the solutions, this is something we should be talking about. As atheists, we should appreciate the value of consciousness-raising, of enlightening people to prejudices they may not even have realized they were holding. And as a political movement, we should recognize the value of including people of all types, including women and minorities – if for no other reason, then because it will make our criticisms more consistent and effective when we point out the examples of explicit racism that still exist in many religions – but more importantly, because I believe we have the most to offer to groups that have historically suffered the most from religious oppression.

For that reason, I strongly disagree with sentiments like this one from the comments:

I never thought I would see racial politics being brought into atheist discourse… It saddens me that, once again, skin colour and gender have taken center stage in an arena in which they do not belong.

I reject the suggestion that issues of race and gender “do not belong” in atheist discourse. Again, I agree with Hutchinson that not having to think about these issues is a privilege reserved almost exclusively for white males, whereas most women and minorities are confronted with them on a daily basis. That makes it all the more important that we do think about and discuss them, even those of us who don’t have to.

Refusal to consider the possibility of unconscious bias is a sure way to perpetuate such bias, and to perpetuate the hostility that – like it or not – some women and people of color have felt from our movement and that’s dissuaded them from joining us. Whether you think these criticisms are valid or not, the fact that they’re being made clearly proves that some people feel snubbed. As good skeptics, we should make every effort to find out why that is, and to bend over backwards looking for anything we might have done wrong rather than dismiss the possibility out of hand. After all, we’re asking religious people to reevaluate their entire worldview – the least we can do in the name of honesty is to subject our own to that same scrutiny.

I do want to take issue with a few of Hutchinson’s specific points. For instance:

Surveys that suggest that atheist affiliation actually reflects race/gender demographics similar to say a John Birch Society confab are dismissed as being just the way it is because white boys naturally dominate science and are better writers anyway.

I don’t agree that atheists’ race and gender demographics are as distorted relative to the general population as Hutchinson suggests here. Although it is true that our movement has a decided (though not overwhelming) imbalance of males, according to the 2008 ARIS results, our racial breakdown in terms of black, white and Hispanic is virtually identical to the general population. Granted, she might be calling attention to the lack of visible, well-known atheist spokespeople who are women or people of color; in that case I would be more inclined to agree, though again there are notable exceptions.

However, more importantly, I think the accusation leveled in this paragraph is false. I know of no prominent atheist who has suggested that white males “naturally” dominate science, or that we are better writers than members of other race and gender groups. (If any counterexamples are given, I’d be glad to join in condemning them.) I know that such sentiments have been expressed by certain people, but I’m not aware of any well-known atheists who’ve done so.

If there’s anything that does concern me, it’s the attitude I’ve observed in many atheists when this topic is brought up – the casual, automatic dismissiveness that claims this can’t possibly be a problem, that only whiners and malcontents say otherwise, and therefore there’s no need for us to engage in any self-examination or consider whether we’re inadvertently perpetuating any prejudice. We should know better than to say this because, as atheists, we ourselves have been on the receiving end of that patronizing message so often.

It’s not PC to suggest in the science-besotted circle jerk of atheist-supernaturalist smackdowns that Hottentot-obsessed traditions of scientific racism and fire and brimstone Judeo-Christian religiosity went gleefully hand in hand for much of the West’s enlightened history.

Again, I know no one who is expressing this sentiment. Most atheists do recognize that science has been used to serve awful ends, from Sarah Baartman to the Tuskegee experiments. Science is a tool for gaining knowledge about the world, and like any tool, it can be misused. But the actions of ignorant and hateful men do not impugn the tool itself. Nor do they prove that science is an intrinsically white, male, or “Western” enterprise, or that it does not produce objective truth about the world, and I unequivocally reject any suggestion to the contrary.

And it flies in the face of the myth of meritocracy to suggest that eminent white philosophers and scientists don’t “focus” on race and gender because their identities are based on not seeing it.

I also do not agree that prominent white male atheists have neglected issues of race and gender. For instance, in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins devotes an entire chapter (chapter 7) to these issues in the context of how our society’s moral attitudes have changed over the decades. He quotes prominent thinkers of the past, including Thomas Henry Huxley, Abraham Lincoln and H.G. Wells, to illustrate how even people who were progressive social reformers by the standards of their day held attitudes which we would describe as intolerable racism. Christopher Hitchens writes in God Is Not Great about Martin Luther King Jr. and the “filthy injustice” of racism. Daniel Dennett writes in Breaking the Spell about how racism is recognized as a great social evil and how this affects the legitimate scientific study of racial differences (for example, how people of different ethnicities may respond to certain drugs). One could argue that the New Atheists don’t pay enough attention to these issues or don’t treat them in sufficient depth, but to argue that they neglect them entirely is a charge that is simply not true.

Our movement is about atheism, not about racism or sexism, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t have to give up our chosen cause altogether to address a different injustice. (Individuals, of course, can belong to more than one cause at once.) But, at the very least, these are issues we should be aware of – what they consist of, how they impact our movement (because they do), and how we can avoid obvious blunders. This is the right thing to do morally, will make the atheist movement more open and welcoming to people of all kinds, and will help us avoid repeating the mistakes that so many societies have made in the past.

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