No, *This* Is How We Get More Black People Involved in the Atheist Movement

This is a guest post by Ian Cromwell. Ian is an African-American atheist who blogs at The Crommunist Manifesto. He is also a member of CFI Vancouver.

Some background: After Derek Miller wrote a piece about “Inviting Black Americans to the Secular Table,” Cromwell posted a response on his site indicating his frustration with what Miller had written. I’ve asked Cromwell to expound on that piece here and lay out his own vision of how the secular community can get more ethnic minorities involved in our movement. — Hemant

***

To summarize as succinctly as possible, Derek Miller wrote that in order to attract more members of minority communities (particularly, in that case, African Americans — it will be to this group I refer for the remainder of this post, but there are similar barriers faced by members of other ethnic groups as well) to the secular/freethought movement, the only thing that could be done was to make the movement more friendly and welcoming in general. It’s a sort of Field of Dreams approach to attracting members of communities of color: If you build it, they’ll come.

I was a bit apoplectic because Mr. Miller has clearly not consulted with, or bothered to listen to, anyone who has been talking about this issue from the minority perspective. This kind of laissez faire approach to recruitment is doomed to fail for reasons I will explain. I’ll also offer some of my own suggestions as to what steps can be taken to more actively include people of color (PoCs) into the freethinking discussion.

Why don’t black people come to atheist meetings?

The freethinker community has been struggling with this question of late, as more and more speakers have become sufficiently emboldened to decry the lack of ethnic diversity at things like conferences, Meetup groups, and other atheist-friendly activities. Increasingly, demands have been going up for a simple answer to this question and have not been forthcoming. This was, I think, the general thrust of Mr. Miller’s post — there are no simple solutions to this problem. It does not follow, however, that there are no solutions to the problem at all, and we must simply wait for black and brown folks to get over their shyness and start showing up. There are a number of overlapping potential explanations, and until we can begin to see them as a larger context (instead of trying to tackle them one at a time), we’ll simply be spinning our wheels.

There are a few commonly-cited explanations for why black folks just don’t seem to show up:

  • Atheism as a ‘white people thing’
  • The typical face of atheism is, or at least has been, a white one. It’s intimidating for a member of any visible minority community to walk into a room and be the only dark face in the crowd. Whether or not people actually are staring at you (and yes, people do stare), it’s tough to get over the feeling that you don’t fit. Many black people, particularly those in the sciences, are used to being outnumbered and have figured out ways to deal with it. At the same time, if you’re iffy about showing up to the campus freethinker club or the Skeptics-in-the-Pub event or the atheist book club, knowing that you’re going to be an outlier is certainly not a point in favor of attendance.

  • Atheists being racist
  • If I can echo a statement made by Jen McCreight, it’s not necessarily the case that atheists are more racist than the general population (my suspicion is that we do a pretty good job, by and large), but that it’s more shocking to hear racist talking points from people who pride themselves on rationality and evidence-based decision making. When race comes up as a topic, I’m often mildly amused/horrified to hear the kind of 19th-century “scientific racist” slogans that come out of the mouths of my confreres. I personally have a thick skin about it, knowing that people are well-meaning but just not well-educated. My experience is perhaps a bit atypical, and it only takes a couple of bad experiences to sour the whole idea for you permanently.

  • The black church
  • Much has been made of the disproportionate influence that organized religious organizations have over black folks, which may explain, in part, their (our) reluctance to show up to atheist events. The black church goes beyond simple regular religious instruction — in many communities the church takes the place that the government does as a focal point of organization and a social safety net. It’s the linchpin in many black communities, and distancing one’s self from the church is essentially volunteering to go into exile. To the extent that this prevents many black people from coming out as atheist, this may explain some of the differential participation. However, there are lots of black atheists out there who have already left the church and yet still don’t show, so we can’t simply point at this as the biggest explanatory factor.

  • Poverty, education, and access
  • It is no secret that, as a population, black people (particularly in the USA) experience higher levels of poverty than the general population, and definitely a higher level than the white average. This is due to a whole host of factors that are probably outside the scope of the freethinking movement to solve in a timely manner. That being said, socioeconomic factors may have some explanatory power over why black people are less likely to participate. Not every black individual is going to experience more financial hardship than every white individual — to suggest this would be absurd. However, when we talk about this from the level of the population, there is more disincentive for PoCs than for non-PoCs.

Each of these on their own might dissuade individuals from making the decision to attend, but it’s not hard to see how the pressure against participation can accumulate for those who are doing their personal utilitarian calculus.

So how can we be more attractive?

Identifying the problems facing atheists of color with respect to joining the community is not the same as solving them. One might be tempted to say that these are intractable problems and all we can do is wait until they resolve themselves over time. That’s certainly how I interpreted Mr. Miller’s response (as well as many of the comments that followed it). It’s somewhat ironic to watch a group of people who are actively agitating for great separation of church and state and for greater mainstream acceptance of atheists to turn around and say, “just give it time and it’ll sort itself out.” That line of reasoning coming from an accommodationist theist would be met with derision, and deservedly so. Problems can be solved by committed people willing to take action; we wouldn’t be doing any of this otherwise.

Just to briefly address the above 4 issues I raised as examples:

  • We can be more assertive about putting freethinkers of colour in highly-visible positions. I am not talking about bumping Jamal from the mail room to be king of atheism — the assumption that this movement lacks PoCs who are qualified in a variety of fields is 1) wrong and 2) racist.
  • We can get serious about talking about race and racism. I’ve long been advocating incorporating anti-racism as a skeptical approach — applying methodological skepticism to racial topics as well as those that are strictly scientific. Just as it took us a while to adopt feminist thought into our lexicon, so, too, does the effort need to be made to add new tools to our utility belt when it comes to talking about race. While it may not be very interesting from a biological standpoint, understanding race is like understanding theology: just because it’s not real doesn’t mean it doesn’t exert a great deal of influence.
  • We can, as Mr. Miller may have been suggesting, make the freethinker community a true community that performs the same function that churches do (minus the chants). Above and beyond simply knowing that we atheists exist, we can begin mobilizing our collective strength to look out for each other, much the same way we did for Damon Fowler. This will be particularly challenging because of how remote we are from each other — churches are physical entities that are at the center of both your social and physical community.
  • We can take steps to actively reach out to close some of the poverty gap. Major events like The Amazing Meeting or other large-scale events can offer a number of bursaries or scholarships for those who can’t afford to pay. Whether or not you make those tied to ethnic membership is really a decision to be made on a case-by-case basis — there are arguments to be made on both sides. My take on this is that you need to decide how important it is for your organization to have PoCs present, and whether or not you can tolerate doing something that might seem unfair.

Above and beyond these specific remedies, though, there is a larger issue that doesn’t get near enough press. Freethinkers and skeptics have our pet topics: alternative medicine, UFOs, creationism, church/state separation… you know the highlights. I am in no way trying to minimize these topics — they’re all deeply interesting and important. However, these are somewhat esoteric and fringe interests that don’t really speak to the passions of the general public. I know that I personally am more interested in applying skepticism to things like politics, poverty, race, and law. There are many people for whom those interests are part of their daily reality — failing to address those interests means that even those who are technically in your target audience are simply uninterested in debating whether or not chemtrails are more ridiculous than homeopathy.

Concerted effort can change minds.

How do we know that will work?

This is an excellent skeptical question, and I’m glad you asked it. The freethinker movement has, lately, faced two other major fights for increasing diversity. The first was/has been/continues to be the fight to include women. A few forthright women stood up and, despite the pressures against them doing so, spoke out about the lack of female voices in the skeptic community. They challenged many of the assumptions and traditions of the society from which freethought had sprung about the role and abilities of women. We continue to grapple with this issue today, and the fight is far from over, but it’s a lot better than it was, say, 20 years ago.

The second major fight was for recognition of issues facing LGBT persons. Freethought is a natural ally in the fight for gay/lesbian/transperson rights, and while, initially, there was not a lot of enthusiasm for topics that didn’t really fall under the classic “skeptical” umbrella, we eventually (thanks to the hard work of vocal, dare I say ‘strident’, people) made LGBT issues one of the central poles holding up our tent, if you’ll forgive the entendre. To be a freethinker is, now, to be assumed to be queer-friendly. This didn’t happen by accident or by passively making the freethought movement simply a friendlier place; it took effort and active recruitment.

In the same way that we fought and won those battles, we have an opportunity to put in work and solve the problem of a lack of ethnic diversity.

We can learn to speak the language of anti-racism, and we can adopt causes that are friendly to those who might not otherwise feel at home in our midst. But above those, we can put actual programs into place designed to actively draw out those fence-sitters of color who need that little extra ‘nudge’ to get them in the room at the next event. Depending on how well those programs work, we can ask people who come from underrepresented communities what they would do to effect change. Of course, this will also require us to start listening (or, excuse me, get better at listening) when people tell us how we can make things better.

Again, all of these proposed solutions are contingent on the assumption that we, both as a community and as individuals, actually care about the lack of diversity within the movement and wish to see the situation improve.

If our approach is going to be one of passive indifference — wait for sufficient numbers of dark-skinned people to find their way into the room such that we can stop harping on this whole ‘diversity’ issue (what is that, anyway?) — then we can just continue to do little. If we don’t care, then we should just say so and be done with it.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent post. In some ways I see a lot of mirroring of the problems with race that I see with gender in the community. The members of the dominant group (male, or white) deciding that since they see nothing wrong, therefore there isn’t a problem (inevitable note: No of course I don’t mean everyone). You also get the exceptionally frustrating sequence “How do we get more of your kind here?” “Well X, Y and Z I think should be addressed” “Oh come on! That isn’t even a problem! No, give me real advice.”

    I think fear is a huge barrier on the grass-roots level. For instance, I can see all sorts of situations where well-meaning white people might avoid a chance to do some good out of a sheer terror of the topic. Maybe you’d like to team up and support a minority-led atheist group but you’re afraid you’ll be seen as condescending, or that the entry of your group will actually ruin the “safe space” of their own. At meet-ups you may really want to make black member welcome, but fear that by specifically talking to them, you will make them feel like tokens or further define them by their race and not their character. The fear makes people defensive and utterly shuts down discussions, which leads people do avoid this important subject entirely.

    We can get serious about talking about race and racism.

    So simple its embarrassing it has to be mentioned. We can all appreciate that the fact we don’t talk about “how we get more LGBT people in the community” at least partly has to do with how confident we are about being allies. Gay marriage and gay rights generally are a frequent topic in the skeptical community and hence the LGBT community knows that the skeptic community has their backs AND is interested in “their” issues. A gay atheist knows he or she can bring up a problem somewhere in the country and get an enthusiastic and sympathetic response in return.

    We’re not anywhere near that for race issues. In fact, the only time race is mentioned at all is “how do we get more minorities”, even in this minority-led blog. If we start discussing race as a subject of interest onto itself, maybe more people of color will come and stay.

  • NickDB

    Brilliant piece. As a South African I can testify that it takes a lot of Hard Hard work to deal with issues like race and diversity. It takes some serious soul (pardon the term) searching and questioning to deal with it, something rational and free thinking people should be good at, hard as it is.

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    The atheist community has recognized that there is a niche to fill for LGBT people not addressed within the larger religious community – that of acceptance (with full rights) of LGBT people.  Therefore, it was logical that atheist LGBT people should become part of the atheist community.

    I would ask what niche would the atheist community fill for atheist PoC (besides being an atheist) that the Black church isn’t already filling?  That might be the key.   Perhaps an opportunity for greater integration…

    • http://www.facebook.com/GooBallin Goo Ball

      Your reference to LGBT people brings up an interesting point. The atheist community is attractive to them because we espouse equality as a fundamental right, which is lacking in many other communities.

      All this discussion about being more attractive to minority groups is a little concerning to me. We’re supposed to be a community that’s focused on thoughts and ideas, and yet we’re bickering about skin colour and gender. There may not be as many Women or people of a minority as we would like, but we would be sacrificing our integrity to actively make steps to draw in more of these people.

      Every time I hear atheists getting excited about what we can do to recruit new people, it makes me cringe. Let’s remain a community that focuses on truth, skepticism, and science, and leave the social activism to others. Although I really don’t see that happening. I’ve long suspected that many in the community are simply activists who happen to be atheists, looking for something to rally for.

      • http://a-million-gods.blogspot.com/ Avicenna

        It’s less about recruiting and more about giving those demographies a voice. 

        I come from a HEAVILY unrepresented atheist group. Nirmukhta is the only representative of Hindus that are active and they mainly represent “indians” rather than other groups. Their problems simply “don’t interest me”. I don’t have an issue with the rise of Hindu Fanatics in India since it doesn’t affect me personally. I am more interested in the caste system still being bandied around in hindu communities in the UK and USA and the support for woo and right wing hindu theories.  

        I am ethnically indian, culturally british and my old religion is hinduism. There is simply very little in common between me and the Hindus of India since we face different issues. I have more in common with Dawkins and Hitchens culturally than them. 

        You do have to represent people and give them some voices because at the moment we simply don’t know what they have had to go through and what we have to do to help them. 

        • http://www.facebook.com/GooBallin Goo Ball

          If a speaker gives a talk about social discrimination in Saudi Arabia, would his/her points become less valid if he/she were a Caucasian Canadian? Would they be more valid if he/she were Saudi?

          • http://a-million-gods.blogspot.com/ Avicenna

            No. But sadly fewer saudi arabians would listen to him (and especially if it were a her!). It wouldn’t also mesh that well with other problems that they face that are simply not discussed. 

            How do Saudi Arabians who often live in the modern world indulge in their pleasures in such a backwards rule system? How does globalisation affect their brand of Islam? How does their position as the source of Wahabbism while being an ally of the west work out in the population’s mindset? What are their thoughts on it?

            See there are a lot more issues. I am familiar with some of them since I spent a while in the region. Each society has different issues that pertain to it. 

            For instance, I wouldn’t know the value the church played in black american lives. So I wouldn’t be able to see the idea of “Christian Atheist” that they bring to the table where they are atheist but they still go through the motions just to belong to something. To me it’s a non issue but to them it’s a big one. 

            And ultimately we are shallow as a species. We do tend to look at things like colour and race and gender even in a positive way such as this. We aren’t saying that PoC aren’t impressed by white atheists, we are saying “why aren’t there more of us?” 

            Remember not everyone is from a judeo-christian background too. Considering the third biggest religion in the world is hinduism, there are fewer Hindu atheists represented and famous than well… Jains. ;) Can you name a famous Hindu atheist in the US Atheist movement? The muslim ones are only now coming out of the woodwork. But there are no end of christian and jewish ones not because of some mystical thing but because the christian and jewish ones spoke out and we didn’t. 

            • http://www.facebook.com/GooBallin Goo Ball

              “adly fewer saudi arabians would listen to him (and especially if it were a her!)”

              Then they’ve missed the point entirely

              • http://a-million-gods.blogspot.com/ Avicenna

                Indeed they have but you cannot expect cultural bias to change in a single generation. It has taken us nearly a 100 years to give women the rights they have today and they still aren’t equals…

                They are just further behind the curve than us.

        • http://www.facebook.com/GooBallin Goo Ball

          If a speaker gives a talk about social discrimination in Saudi Arabia, would his/her points become less valid if he/she were a Caucasian Canadian? Would they be more valid if he/she were Saudi?

      • Anonymous

        Are you saying that science has nothing to say about social issues? That falsehoods aren’t being promoted in order to preserve the existing social order?

        • http://www.facebook.com/GooBallin Goo Ball

          Of course there can be scientific commentary on social issues, but that’s not what we see at atheist conventions. How many social psychologists can you think of who’ve spoken at one? They’re the ones who should be looked at for better understanding of these issues. Instead, we get a bunch of unqualified bloggers who keep saying “we need more black people, so let’s get more black speakers”.

          • http://twitter.com/Crommunist Crommunist

            If that’s all that you got from reading the article, then you might be beyond help.

            • http://www.facebook.com/GooBallin Goo Ball

              You’re so witty. Thanks for posting such a well thought out comment. It added layers of depth to the discussion.

              • http://crommunist.wordpress.com/ Crommunist

                Um… I already wrote 2200 words above. If those weren’t enough, I’m not sure what more I can say without repeating myself. If you didn’t even bother to read the article, I really don’t see what more I can say that will get through.

          • Anonymous

            This is an appeal to authority (or lack thereof). What do qualifications have to do with the points someone makes?

            And don’t take my word for it, but if you were to ask a social psychologist how to get more black people involved in atheism, the first thing they would tell you is to ask some black people.

            • http://www.facebook.com/GooBallin Goo Ball

              Psychologists are trained to take into consideration as many variables they can. It isn’t about appealing to authority, but rather looking towards the people who’ve gone through years of education and training in order to give a proper argument on the subject.

              We wouldn’t tolerate non-physicists trying to solve issues in physics, so why tolerate random bloggers who try to argue their opinion of social issues?

              I say again: This community is mostly just activists who happen to be atheists. Most of them just like hearing people say things that they agree with. They’re not rationalists. They’re the ones who complain about first-world problems.

              • Anonymous

                I say again: Engage the points being made, not the letters after the author’s name.

                If you’re looking for some guidance in studying social issues, then by all means, head to the faculty page of your local university rather than searching google for a random blog. That’s a good assumption to follow in that circumstance. However, if you disregard someone’s arguments just because they haven’t declared their academic lineage before speaking, you are the one who is not being a rationalist.

                What is wrong with the points that he is making? How do his statements conflict with or neglect current research in social psychology?

      • Anonymous

         “Every time I hear atheists getting excited about what we can do to
        recruit new people, it makes me cringe. Let’s remain a community that
        focuses on truth, skepticism, and science, and leave the social activism
        to others. Although I really don’t see that happening. I’ve long
        suspected that many in the community are simply activists who happen to
        be atheists, looking for something to rally for.”

        To be honest, this confuses the hell out of me. The atheist movement has always struck me as being strongly related to social activism. Generic skepticism (of homeopathy and bigfoot and so on) has usually been more socially/politically hands-off, except towards the con artists it exposes. Atheists who are interested in philosophy or science but not in activism have been around for a long time, but they are usually not known as part of a larger atheist movement.

        We can’t “remain” a community purely about epistemology if that’s not what we ever were in the first place. Support of others in the community and political activism (albeit without widespread agreement) have been a part of the mix for hundreds of years and will continue to be part of the mix indefinitely. What else would it mean to “espouse equality as a fundamental right”?

        As for:

        “There may not be as many Women or people of a minority as we would like,
        but we would be sacrificing our integrity to actively make steps to
        draw in more of these people.”

        Why? What principle do we stand for that would be “sacrificed” if we acted in this way? To me, the goal seems to be to make atheism accessible to people who would otherwise find it difficult or unappealing to get involved with the community. It does seem more political, but from a practical perspective, it’s not a different kind of question from asking whether atheists books should be translated into other languages, or what steps atheist conferences should make to be more accessible to the blind and deaf. Admittedly the obstacles facing women are probably not as intense as a language barrier could be, but the potential audience facing those obstacles is huge (more than half of the human race), so from a practical perspective the question is well worth addressing.

      • http://twitter.com/aynsavoy Anne Sauer

        Actually, I think we would be sacrificing our integrity by not taking steps to recognize the things we are consciously or unconsciously doing to make some people feel unwelcome in our movement and community, and then doing something about it.

        Also, I think it’s less about “recruiting” people to atheism, and more about about welcoming people who are ALREADY atheists but are isolated or stay in faith communities because they don’t know that there is an alternative.

    • Anonymous

      I don’t know that the atheist community “fills a niche” for LGBT folks. There are plenty of affirming LGBT denominations and even when LGBT people leave their church community, they usually just fill it with the LGBT community itself.

      What is true is that LGBT people who identify as atheist have found themselves welcome with open arms within atheist community. Atheists are largely militantly pro-gay and often have a keen interest in the promotion of equal rights that is obviously sincere and not contrived to get numbers. This makes our community a comfortable place to be LGBT, since they can be assured they are understood and accepted, that any undue attack on them will be quashed in a hurry and they don’t have to step outside the atheist community when talking about gay rights.

      Issues of race simply aren’t that present in our community and are almost only ever discussed when lamenting the lack of PoC therin. So there may be black atheists, who would like a community outside the black church, but in the atheist community see a large group of almost all white people who care a lot about gay people (my hypothetical black person is straight, in this case) but seem uninterested in issues pertaining to black people. Some may still join, but it’s a steeper climb.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dj-Nash/100000103380335 D.j. Nash

    I’m gonna throw this out there, but perhaps I’m way off base, and I know I’ll likely be viewed as negative for it. As atheists, we’re all minorities. I don’t attend any meetups or whatnots because as far as I know there aren’t any without going into the city, and then what would be the point? Now, maybe I’m entirely too critical a person, this is certainly possible. But I never can see the point in regular attendance in anything that goes nowhere. The atheist and freethinker societies to me are nothing other than far distant campaigns to put signs on buses. I’m not knocking that, and I kick in my measly few bucks when I can and nothing else is grabbing its attention, but there are many far worthier causes and many far more urgent and demanding needs. The Atheist political party is a whole other issue I don’t even want to bring up. Come on, give me something I can use. What’s the point? It’s nice to know that there are other freethinkers out there, but really, practically speaking, that’s all it is. Nice to know. Someone wake me up when we’re finished with the It’s okay to be an atheist movement. I understand the continuing need for it, and yeah way back then it was such a relief to just know there were others out there like me. But that was years and years ago now. Now I just kind of see the atheist movement the same way I do the democratic party. I’m waiting to see when they’re gonna do something. No doubt someone will point out that I should do something on my own. No doubt. Me and my atheist cats are gonna gather up items to take down to the womens shelter. I’ma tell them my garbage bag full is from the local atheists group. They’ll probably burn it. I was thinking too of counteracting the county tradition of handing out gideon’s bibles to the school kids by going down there and handing out atheist literature, but that will no doubt get all three of my kids marked and pariahed. I don’t bother with the organized atheist groups because they have nothing to do with my real life. I send them the money, they put the ads on buses in far away cities, and I hope one day all that branding trickles back down to yerfucked, GA so that my kids don’t have to live all alone in the world the way I do. Again, I’m not a minority, officially speaking, I don’t know what I’m talking about, I went off on a tangent, and I have no sympathy for the “we need blacks” rallying cry. I don’t even know, I am not following the issue, this article is all I even know of the issue, but it’s the same damn thing that annoys the heck out of me with my local dem party group. They’re going through the same phase here in yerfucked, GA. The “It’s okay to be a democrat in GA” phase. And they’ve decided they need some blacks too, to make them look more diverse, and you know, just to get that vote. And what do the blacks get in exchange? They get to vote for whom they are told to vote, and hope one day it all trickles back down. I think it’s pretty obvious. You don’t get people involved in your group, you get your group involved with the people. But it’s a standard group paradox. There’s a human need for a group. But as soon as it is begun, the dynamic changes to a group need for humans. And then it just loses all meaning. I sympathize with the writer of the article, and I can feel his frustration. I think the atheist movement will be just fine on its own, since after all, there’s nothing really to it. It will come and it will spread and it will go away again. And the blacks will still be living in poverty and I’ll still be talking to my cats. But it’s nice to know they’re there. 

    • Anonymous

      I’m having a bit of a hard time extracting the core ideas of your comment, so forgive (and please correct) me if I’m wrong, but they seem to be, broadly:

      - There is no point to an atheist community: I respectfully disagree. If you feel no need for a community that’s absolutely fine, but understand that the vast majority of humans do. One of the core human needs churches fufill is that need for community and if we are to weaken their influence and frankly make life better for ourselves (and more attractive to people on the fence) we need to develop a viable community that provides comfort, support and company.

      - When is the community going to “do something”: This would appear to contradict the apparent “there’s ni point to the community”, but I digress. I guess our definitions of “doing” are different. To me, reaching out to fearful and isolated atheists and telling them they’re not crazy and they’re not alone is “doing something”. To me rallying to the side
       of a teenager abused by his community and family for his disbelief is “doing something”. To me defending the separation of church and state is “doing something”.

      - There is nothing wrong if the community is disproportionately white: Again, I would respectfully disagree. Atheism is not a position that should be inherently more attractive to white people than black people.  Insofar as our community does not have a representative sample of the community at large, it means we are not addressing issues relevant to that community or that aspects of the behavior of ours are a turn-off. This is not theoretical: atheists of color go to great pains to point out these issues and I frankly think that if a certain sector of the community is consistently made to feel like their issues and interests are less important, that is an urgent problem.

      Again, if you don’t see these issues as important, fine. If you don’t think a strong atheist community should be a priority, that’s also fine. You’ll excuse the rest of us for caring, I hope? We won’t force you to sing kumbaya, I promise ;-)

    • Anonymous

      I’m having a bit of a hard time extracting the core ideas of your comment, so forgive (and please correct) me if I’m wrong, but they seem to be, broadly:

      - There is no point to an atheist community: I respectfully disagree. If you feel no need for a community that’s absolutely fine, but understand that the vast majority of humans do. One of the core human needs churches fufill is that need for community and if we are to weaken their influence and frankly make life better for ourselves (and more attractive to people on the fence) we need to develop a viable community that provides comfort, support and company.

      - When is the community going to “do something”: This would appear to contradict the apparent “there’s ni point to the community”, but I digress. I guess our definitions of “doing” are different. To me, reaching out to fearful and isolated atheists and telling them they’re not crazy and they’re not alone is “doing something”. To me rallying to the side
       of a teenager abused by his community and family for his disbelief is “doing something”. To me defending the separation of church and state is “doing something”.

      - There is nothing wrong if the community is disproportionately white: Again, I would respectfully disagree. Atheism is not a position that should be inherently more attractive to white people than black people.  Insofar as our community does not have a representative sample of the community at large, it means we are not addressing issues relevant to that community or that aspects of the behavior of ours are a turn-off. This is not theoretical: atheists of color go to great pains to point out these issues and I frankly think that if a certain sector of the community is consistently made to feel like their issues and interests are less important, that is an urgent problem.

      Again, if you don’t see these issues as important, fine. If you don’t think a strong atheist community should be a priority, that’s also fine. You’ll excuse the rest of us for caring, I hope? We won’t force you to sing kumbaya, I promise ;-)

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dj-Nash/100000103380335 D.j. Nash

        Yes. You totally misunderstood everything I said. Thank you.

        • Anonymous

          My apologies then. Can you briefly elaborate on what you actually meant?

        • Pato

          Try paragraphs.

  • Anonymous

    I’m pretty sick of the homeopathy vs. chemtrails debate too, and I’m just a white girl.

  • Axbxcbv

    We need black atheists like we need a hole in the head.  “Yo yo yo, we is atheisss an’ sheeeit, negro.  Sheeeeeeit.  Yo, where de foty?”

    • http://crommunist.wordpress.com/ Crommunist

      I don’t get it. Is that supposed to be a joke?

      • http://a-million-gods.blogspot.com/ Avicenna

        I have run into astoundingly stupid racism from atheists. The past few days involved talking to someone who treated all muslims as insane terrorists and any attempt by them to actually be part of normal society rather than introverted and secretive was portrayed as an attempt to spread sharia law. 

        I mean there are muslim liberals and ex-muslim atheists and doubters of faith. That attitude simply alienates them. It’s the same for every person of colour/faith that isn’t represented.

        It sometimes is hard to get along with others simply for the hate and ignorance that all people are capable of. 

    • Anon

      I hope that was meant as a joke, albeit a bad one. I’m not a PoC but find that extremely offensive anyway!

    • Anonymous

      Obvious troll is obvious. I thank you for the chance to test whether the little flag button next to the time stamp works.

  • Anonymous

    This is a great piece.  Thank you.  It’s good, solid advice.  My only question is about the 1st bullet point in the addressed issues.  “We can be more assertive about putting freethinkers of colour in highly-visible positions.”

    I see a sort of “chicken and the egg problem”.  I would disagree with your idea that it’s an assumption that qualified PoCs don’t exist.  I would expect most groups and individuals in the community to assume they do.  The problem is that, with a seeming lack of them within the community, people simple don’t know of them.  I have met only a few who have actually come to a meetup, and none who do so regularly (qualified ot not).

    Diversity is an important goal, but diversity merely for diversity’s sake doesn’t solve the issue. When seeking a qualified person for a task/position/project, adding a “minority” qualification doesn’t really seem less racist to me. You run the risk of making the person the token women or token PoC or token LGBT.  The “Field of Dreams” position at least has the advantage of being honestly defensible as non-biased, despite still failing.  Even reaching out to attempt to include more minorities feels like an attempt to satisfy some sort of “diversity cred” and just doesn’t feel like an honest, non-biased activity.

    Or is this just that “white guilt” I’ve heard about, and I’m making too big a deal of it?

    • http://twitter.com/Crommunist Crommunist

      I disagree with your assertion that most people assume there are qualified PoC in the atheist community. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard someone say “Why should Richard Dawkins get bumped because you want to have more black people on the panel? That’s reverse racism!.”

      If you’re actually interested in an answer to the question of why diversity is important, I’ve written about it here, as well as here.

      • Anonymous

        This is very interesting!  Thank you! those article really gave me that sort or epiphany about this subject that I (in hindsight) had been missing.

        In relation to my comment here, what I’m taking away from those articles is that “perspective” IS an important qualification to be considered

        But doesn’t this run the risk of making said person the “womens view” or the “minorities view”, rather than just someone who is qualified on the subject at hand?

        I think I understand the importance, but I’m still concerned that it’s a hard to defend approach.  It’s an idea that appears to fly in the face of “being equals” and meritocracy.

        I’m much more interested in this subject now.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

    I’ve long been advocating incorporating anti-racism as a skeptical approach
    — applying methodological skepticism to racial topics as well as those
    that are strictly scientific.

    Couldn’t agree more. Besides, sociology is a science too.

    Just as it took us a while to adopt
    feminist thought into our lexicon…

    Except that there is a big push-back against including topics like feminism and other liberal topics coming from certain parts of the skeptical community right now. Skepticism might become unwelcoming to conservatives, or something.

  • AwesomeCloud’s mom

    I thought that I’d have a cynical reaction to this post, just like I have a cynical reaction to all the feminist/antifeminist discussion.  I already belong to a community that sexualizes me, a woman, and treats my son, a POC, like a novelty. I don’t need another.  Therefore, all the noise about how the atheist movement needs women, needs POCs, has kept me at arm’s length.  I’ll read the blogs and watch the YouTube videos, but I won’t show up at the events.

     However, if the atheist community showed genuine concern in the well-being of women and minorities, then I might be interested.  African-Americans are still largely struggling to have their basic needs met – at a level that middle-class white people cannot understand.  Education, job security, basic social discrimination, and keeping their children safe are still looming issues for them, like nothing today’s generations of white people have ever personally experienced.  We’re more worried about our children’s self-esteem than their safety (aside from pedophile-paranoid moms, but that’s a different story), etc. and so on.

    Even in the middle class, black people have extra burdens that their white peers cannot understand.  They are middle-class black people, not just middle-class people, and that can be really hard for middle-class white people to understand.

    I try to do a little better, myself.  It’s not that hard to listen and pay attention to what African-Americans are really experiencing, and not to brush it off because we think our society should be treating them better by now.  We SHOULD be treating them better. Absolutely! But you can’t just say, “I’m not part of the problem” and then jump right to “where are all the people of color?”  There’s an in-between step in there. You have to actually be interested in them.

    FWIW, my son is not African-American – he’s Asian-American, which is not an extraordinary thing for a skeptic to be. However, he’ll get to experience far too many aspects of white-male-dominated society already, and if I crave diversity for him and for myself, maybe it’s because white-male-dominated society isn’t all that great.  Not for us it isn’t.  Make it appealing by telling us what we’ll gain from it – and anti-racism is an EASY one.  So many of the factors of our society’s continued racism are easily dispelled with a critical eye and some skepticism.

    And if that feminism issue gets worked out, maybe I’ll come to something someday.

  • Kurt

    > understanding race is like understanding theology: just because it’s not
    real doesn’t mean it doesn’t exert a great deal of influence

    Great point!  I assume by “not real” you’re referring to the scientific fact that as humans we’ve mixed-and-matched so much over the course of human history, and even in the short history of the USA, that what we classify as different “races” are almost indistinguishable at the genetic level?  That social divisions based on minor things like skin pigmentation are meaningless from a rational, scientific perspective (and will get more meaningless over time now that worldwide travel and immigration are easy)?  I think that’s a great reason for skeptics and scientific types to be breaking down racial divisions.

    • http://twitter.com/Crommunist Crommunist

      Yes. And even beyond that, our definition of ‘race’ even as a sociological phenomenon really doesn’t hold up to any kind of scrutiny. The number of exceptions to the arbitrary rules we throw out for what distinguishes this group from that group is monumental.

      Christopher DiCarlo talks a bit about that in his “We Are All African” campaign. Worthwhile watching if you haven’t seen him speak already.

  • Cass Morrison

    Thanks for not only pointing out problems but offering solutions. It’s the discussion of solutions that leads to change. Seems to me that the root of the problem is that the much of the formal skeptical community excludes discrimination from the realm of critical thinking. There is no problems  with the status quo of being inclusive of interests dictated by mostly white guys. 

    People don’t want to change but a movement can change. CFI is working on diversity through focused events, I think I read about a racial diversity as well as a women’s event being planned for the next year. By appealing to a different crowd  we should see a change through growth. 

  • Anonymous

    In some ways, I am kinda
    in agreement with D.J. Nash. Maybe for different reasons.

    There needs to be a
    balance of, “Come on, you are welcome here” and, most importantly, “You gotta
    do this yourself”.

    I went (drove 1 ½ hrs)
    to the Tulsa Free Thought convention, by myself, for myself.

     

    The belief (ha ha)
    of “atheism” rather hinges on people being able to think about god/gods
    rationally. I’m stressing “able to think”.

    Going against the,
    largely, religious PoC community, for the sake of “being diverse and welcoming
    all”, misses the point.

    The religious PoC
    community, from my perspective, hasn’t had the time (environment/ability/culture)
    to be able to allow for this “free thinking”.

    In a horribly
    offensive analogy, because I can’t think of any other, it would be like opening
    up calculus to 5 yr-olds and trying to make it appealing to them. They “haven’t
    grown up” yet and they are

    (No, I don’t mean it
    in an immature way, at least not in the young-and-stupid way.)

     

    If the root of the atheism
    is “lacking a belief in god/gods” it should stand on its own. Reason and rationality should be the reason for the season, not because “it sure would be nice”.

    I don’t think
    atheism was the catalyst for the LGBT movement, as all denominations of
    everything and anything can see the unfairness of that; nothing to do with the
    rational conclusion that there are no gods.

     

    Most religions
    appeal to the people who need it and are seeking comfort, with a
    pull-the-tab-and-you-are-a-winner-about-the-truth approach.

    If the atheist
    community and mindset trying to bring in more people along the same lines, we
    are no better of than the religious.

     

    I found my way here,
    because I challenged myself. I wanted to and needed to. If I found my way here
    another way, it would be under a false pretense and would leave me with a very
    shaky foundation.

     

    Just my 2 cents.

    • http://twitter.com/Crommunist Crommunist

      When you drove down to the Tulsa freethought convention, did you spend the whole 90 minutes worried about being the only white person in the room? Did you worry about the likelihood that someone would make a “joke” attacking you for your skin colour or heritage? Did you have to sneak out and lie to your friends and family because they’d condemn you if they knew you were going to a Satanist convention?

      I swear, it’s like people don’t even read before offering their opinions. And considering that black people have been part of the freethought movement since its inception, and that there are lots of black freethinkers already out in the world that don’t attend meetings, your unbelievably ridiculous calculus analogy doesn’t apply at all.

      • Anonymous

        No, I spent the time thinking about the guest speakers.
        No, because I’d either ignore their ignorant comment or tell them to f’off if they made some remark about my skin color or heritage.
        No, I told my friend who is a “dedicated” Christian and invited him. I told my Christian-lite friend. And I told my atheist friend in Cali.

        It wasn’t an opinion on “what to do”, just an opinion on how I see it. Not sure why that upsets you so…

        I guess you didn’t read how I said that a heavy majority are religious, not “there weren’t no black people who done thought there isn’t a god, prior to me finding the religion of  atheism”.

        But if you didn’t read what I said, I can see how you wouldn’t get the analogy.

        • http://twitter.com/Crommunist Crommunist

          I spent about 750 or so words explaining a few reasons why black atheists may be less likely to participate. You came back with “Well I did it, so they should just do it!” By your own admission, you don’t have the same pressures on you that they do, and yet you’ve decided that the lack of participation is their fault. If you can’t see the problem with your logic, then feel free to e-mail me and I will explain it to you.

          The problem with your calculus analogy is that it presumes that communities of colour are simply not advanced enough to embrace freethinking. Your contention is false, and goes far beyond simple claims that religion plays a larger role. Besides, it still completely fails to explain why the large number of black atheists currently out there in the world aren’t participating.

          • Anonymous

            I emailed you, in regards to your logical errors and assumptions.

    • Anonymous

      The religious PoC community, from my perspective, hasn’t had the time (environment/ability/culture) to be able to allow for this “free thinking”.

      I had sincerely hoped we’d make it through the thread without this happening….

      So, from your perspective the fact that there are proportionately fewer PoC in the atheist community is their own fault, because there are fewer of them that are “able to think”.

      Gee, I can’t imagine why some black people might feel unwelcome in the community.

      Look, I know your intentions are probably good, but your comment was offensive. You aknowledge the offensive analogy as such and that’s good, but it should have been followed by you refraining to use it. You are affirming that the lack of minority representation is not something that needs addressing and that people need to come to the community “on their own”.  I’ve seen multiple PoC affirm that there are specific problems that they see within the community that make it seem less welcoming. There reasoning is usually quite sound and importantly I’ve yet to see a significant number of atheists of color make the argument that there isn’t a problem. The people making that argument are, oddly enough, almost universally white. I think I’ll defer to the group more likely to understand the issue, in this case.

      • Anonymous

        Never said it’s their own fault. Not sure where you got that from…

        I said environment, ability and culture.

        The PoC community, seems to be *heavily* rooted in religion. I think it takes some time to slowly “de-convert” a cultural and environmental mindset.

        As someone previously stated, being an atheist is a minority. I didn’t have a support group or welcome mat, I just did it. 

        And be damned my comfort level. 

        I’m not going to just ignore my new found mental freedom and I don’t care who is or is not there.

        It’s that kinda thinking that got me where I am now.

        I’ll give you another horrible analogy:

        It’s like going to a traditional religious tribal group and saying, “Hey! I’ve got this idea and it basically requires you to give up everything that has been ingrained in your culture, for decades. Who’s game? By the way, here’s a t-shirt and a cookie to go along with my smile.”

        It’s going to take a little bit more time to allow the progression of atheism to make it’s way gradually into a heavily religious group of people.

        (P.S. I detest those who make it unwelcoming. These are my views on the idea, in general, and does equate to me treating one group of people any different than any other.)

  • Fred Edwords

    There’s that old canard, “Atheism as a ‘white people thing’.” I’m glad it was addressed in the essay. But there’s more to the story. Because, in case you haven’t heard, there IS a freethinking tradition in the black community. Going back decades before a secular humanist by the name of A. Philip Randolph organized the March on Washington at which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, there was a strong secular wing to the civil rights movement. It had been advanced by numerous of the movement’s leading lights as early as the 1920s. But we have allowed it to become a forgotten part of our collective saga. Moreover, while much is made about what African Americans do on Sundays, everybody seems to forget what they do the rest of the week. Well, it isn’t Gospel my friends. It’s Blues. And the Blues is often secular, earthy, anti-clerical, and all things body as opposed to spirit. When editor of the Humanist magazine I ran a cover story on this long-overlooked form of a people’s humanism.  You can read it still at http://www.thehumanist.org/humanist/articles/Asma.html . So, do you want more people of color in the freethought movement? Then encourage freethinkers in the black community to organize groups at home.  Don’t expect them to hop a bus or train to take a ride across town into the white suburbs to meet with unfamiliar people to discuss topics irrelevant to their daily concerns. Freethought needs to be built where it is!

  • http://www.frommormontoatheist.blogspot.com Leia

    I am all for trying to bring in greater diversity in atheist circles. I would love to see more women and PoC’s in the fore front of the atheist ‘movement’.  Which can come across as offensive to some folks, but I do agree that this issue is multifaceted. People want to see ‘leaders’ that they can relate to.

    I am a white, married mother of two (full disclosure).

    Not to say all PoC’s come from large, tight knit families, or from cultures that view the family as the first priority… but sometimes they may.  And that is something I feel is overlooked in the atheist community.

    I am not saying all PoC’s fit the above generalization, but I think that maybe offering meet-ups that are more welcoming
    to families may attract a more diverse group.  If you want people to
    show up, you have to offer something they may not find anywhere else, or
    have a difficult time finding elsewhere. An open, non-judgmental group
    that is focused on equality, reason and justice. As long as they are finding more support in their church group, or family, they may not find a reason to venture into an atheist group, even if they relate more to it.

    I don’t get to go to many meet-ups because, not only are they kinda far (down in the big city), but because they are usually aimed at singles. They meet in places like coffee houses and bars, and although those are wonderful places to meet, they are not family friendly.  So instead of being able to surround myself with people I have something in common with, my choices are usually a Christian mother’s group, or nothing.  I always choose the latter.

    If your atheist group doesn’t actively say that children are welcome, or that the event is open for all ages, you may be unintentionally not inviting people who would have come otherwise.

    Sometimes it seems that atheist groups are aimed at college attending single young folks.  So people (all colors) who couldn’t afford to go college, or who got married young, or have children, don’t feel welcome. Just sayin’.

    This is just one aspect of the issue, but I feel that it should be brought up as well.

    • Anonymous

      I’m glad that you brought this up. I know that there are several atheist meet-ups in my area that are specific to parents/families, but I hadn’t thought about the question before. As I think about it, one of the meetups I attend is probably also skewed due to the time it takes place. There are only so many people who can attend a lunch meeting during the week, and so it ends up largely composed of people who are retired or set their own hours (not surprisingly, these are usually also the people who have been with that group the longest and have had the most involvement). There are other meetings at various times (Tuesday and Friday nights, Sundays), but these are generally less regular. It might be worth seeing if we could hold them more frequently. Particularly from the perspective of getting families involved and also having a tighter integration with local student groups.

  • http://twitter.com/thesexyatheist KTSA

    Awesome post. I agree that skeptic ‘nautrally’ includes GLBT and feminist issues and we need to incorporate Peeps of color into that equation. As a Filipino American I’d love to see more of my peeps (and Asians in general) in the skeptical and atheist communities. Awesome sauce.

    Kriss

  • Edward Clint

    Hello Mr. Cromwell. I am President of ISSA and Derek Miller is one of my officers. I appreciate your thoughts on this matter. You give 4 suggestions on what we might do. The forth is outside of my purview (but a terrific idea). 

    The third, that we be what the churches are minus chanting, I adamantly will not do. Churches succeed in community largely thanks to unsavory emotional indoctrination, ritual and group-think. I want no part of that, though we can create a welcoming community for the nonreligious without such tawdry tricks and if that is what you mean, so be it. 

    Your first suggestion, put people of color in high-visibility, is a terrific one and we’ve striven to do so (ISSA had 3 nonwhite officers last year) and hope to do even better this year.Your second idea, talking about racism from a skeptical point of view, has the most untapped potential, at least in my area. I will see that we spend some time developing this.

  • Sailor

    Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of my heroes. It is a shame so many people, including many of those the movement wants to attract have no idea he exists. When I hear radio programs extolling black role models, I never hear his name uttered.

    • Ron Sly

      I was wondering when someone would bring up Tyson!  He can be the Nichelle Nichols of reason and rationality! And what do you know, he is going to be the face of the new Cosmos! http://goo.gl/Xxwrp

  • http://www.facebook.com/blackfreethinkers Black FreeThinkers

    This an excellent post.

  • Christina Cope

    I was quite interested when I saw this through Racialicious and I am glad to see that people are interested in having more PoC involved in becoming mainstream atheist…serving as a role model to invigorate those who would be considered closeted to speak out as well. However as a PoC Atheist female It is an issue of our heritage that comes into play. I know this is more true of my partner whose parents are Christian and Jewish Latinos. It becomes a disappointment to our kin that we leave the fold…so to speak. Many of my friends who I have interacted with in my lifetime hold the title of their religious belief but are non-believers. The stigma associated with being an Atheist is quite negative especially with the black community. I would not even dare bring up my beliefs in my fathers household because it is dismissed, growing up poor in Jamaica religion is a source of education (Catholic schools) and provides a path of freedom. This is something that is engrained in the folds of our society and in turns out weights many of the points you brought up. I truly do not mean to be rude but thinking of ways to bring more minorities into the spotlight will be helpful…however the ignorance that i saw mentioned throughout the comments will have to be pushed past and sometimes…people just don’t want to deal with all that hate that is so deeply rooted in pure ignorance and filth. To end with a positive however, I do feel that I can find a similar voice in many of the monumental speakers who voice their beliefs and I know that I will continue to enjoy hearing them orate their beliefs.

  • Kalamazoo63

    Very good post. A welcome mat works much better than a howitzer blasting holes in religious dogma and the article makes that clear. For years the black church has been the defacto standard for direction in the community even though many of its top leaders borrowed ideas from such diverse areas as philosophy, science and free thought,especially during the Harlem Rennaisance. Invitations to relevant discussion regarding today’s issues are draws for all. Beating up on religion is easy. What is difficult is demonstrating how free thought offers better solutions without a need for subjugation, pretense or blind faith.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X