FTB’s own Sikivu Hutchinson is interviewed in Psychology Today about secularism and social justice and what she has to say, as always, is fascinating and important. The first question was about a statement she had made about how women of color are drawn to religion despite its constant attempts to oppress them.
Historically African American women did not have the luxury to be freethinkers because they were constructed as the racialized hypersexual amoral other. White women were the gold standard for universal ideals of feminine beauty, morality, chastity and “civilization.” Black women’s bodies were the backdrop to European American Enlightenment-based notions of individual liberty, humanity, and natural rights. And their labor was the raw material for European-American intellectualism.
Small wonder then, that the spaces that were available to black women became wellsprings for expressions of Godliness, both subversive and conforming. That the vast majority of black women were only afforded access to the worlds of work, the family, and church meant that their “genius” would by necessity be a reflection of those worlds. In the turbulence and terrorism of antebellum America “God” became ordinary black women’s medium for expressing genius, creativity, artistry, mastery, and invention. Hence, secularism was a potentially dangerous and untenable position because of the way black dehumanization was institutionalized. Where, for example, would black women go to be affirmed as persons? The courts, where their rights were not recognized? The Constitution, where their bodies were vessels? The education system, where their culture was demeaned as savage, primitive, and un-Christian? Government, where their bodies were deep profit for some of the nation’s most esteemed legislators and moral philosophers? White churches, where they were debased as Jezebels and amoral “Children of Ham”?
Under Jim Crow segregation Black churches were the epicenter of African-American solidarity, civil rights organizing, and civic engagement. Black women activists drew from their church networks to mobilize grassroots campaigns, fundraising drives, and political advocacy against sexual violence, lynching, job discrimination, and disenfranchisement. The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott—which, contrary to popular belief, was initiated by unsung black women activists like Jo Ann Robinson and Ella Baker and not Martin Luther King—utilized the social capital of local churches for public meetings, strategy and informational sessions. In many respects, black faith organizations remain vital to African American communities precisely because of the legacies of Jim Crow. The deep racial wealth gap, coupled with institutional racism and sexism in housing, employment, education, and health care has had a devastating impact on women of color.
For Latinas coming from Catholic traditions, the ubiquitous image of the pure as the driven snow self-sacrificing Virgin Mary is the traditional model for femininity. But the Virgin’s white purity is only validated by the fallen dark whore – the black, Asian, Latina or Native American woman whose body, in the words of bell hooks, is “the sign of sexual experience.” This is the cultural backdrop against which women of color struggle with religious and secular belief systems. Even as the moral weight of their communities—reinforced by the dominant culture’s sexist/heterosexist norms—is placed on them, many continue to seek refuge in faith and faith traditions because they provide a sense of purpose, direction, and meaning.
Certainly if you look back at the activism of radical left public intellectuals like Hubert Henry Harrison and A. Philip Randolph there was a sharp emphasis on religious skepticism. But religious skepticism alone will simply not increase the number of people of color who actively and openly identify as secular humanists if there is no corresponding agenda for social enfranchisement. In Godless Americana and Moral Combat I draw heavily from the example of Randolph, who was raised in the African Methodist tradition, published a forerunning journal that was extremely critical of Christian orthodoxy and identified as a secular humanist for most of his life. However Randolph, astute organizer that he was, knew that the discourse of skepticism without a social justice compass was a dead end for African Americans because of the liberatory cultural, political and historical appeal of the Christian social gospel.
But there is another reason that we should maintain a focus on social justice: It’s the right thing to do. That it may help make our movement more diverse is a very good thing, of course, but even if it didn’t, or doesn’t, it’s still the right thing to do. If we are serious about combating the negative influence of religion in our society, that must include addressing the many ways traditional Christianity, in particular, has created structures that continue to oppress women, racial minorities and the LGBT community (not to mention structures that maintain and justify poverty).
Does that mean that every person in atheism should make social justice their first priority? Of course not. Those who focus on counter-apologetics, on religion and science, on fighting against Christian historical revisionism and many other important issues should continue to do what they do. It’s necessary and important. I do some of those things myself and will certainly continue to do so. But what animates me and ignites my passion are struggles for freedom, equality and justice, which are at least as necessary and important.
And I am happy to work with religious people who agree with me on those issues when I can. And not only do I not consider this a negative for the atheist movement, I think it’s an indispensable part of moving it forward. Some of the impetus for breaking down those racist, sexist and homophobic societal norms is coming from religious liberals. And if they can help us achieve those goals, I’m very glad to have them on my team. The end result will be a more secular, free and just society.