In the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Humanist movement has received a battery of well-deserved criticism. Sarah Jones writes that while “communities are organizing themselves to effectively fight for change… Atheist communities tend to be absent.” Anthony Pinn insists, “It’s time for humanists to stop being so lazy regarding issues of race violence.” Sikivu Hutchinson laments that “when it comes to anti-racist social justice, even the ‘kinder, gentler’ Humanist community often nods its head in well-intentioned sympathy, issues a press release, then shuffles into oblivion.”
I agree with the critique Jones, Pinn, and Hutchinson are offering. I believe they strike at the core of a fundamental problem with today’s organized atheist movement: a limited focus on a narrow slice of issues at the expense of a broader perspective committed to fighting injustice whatever its form. I’m with Pinn when he argues that “all too often, humanists… are simply content to tackle issues of science education, separation of church and state, and a variety of similarly arranged policy issues,” while taking a pass on anti-racism work. I cheer when I read that “Race and the consequences of our racist society must become a priority within the humanist movement.” It must. I’ve struggled within my own movement — my own congregation — to convey the urgency of acting now to end racial injustice. I could be doing more, the Ethical Society could be doing more, and the Humanist movement could be doing more.
Yet these excellent articles do not tell the whole story: they miss the work that is being and has been done by humanists to combat racial injustice and to further equality and dignity for all. If they give the impression that there are no organized Humanist groups, and no individuals motivated by Humanist values, working to end racial injustice, then they do Humanism a disservice. That narrative is not just wrong — it’s damaging, because it reinforces the popular idea that the only way to achieve lasting change and to find ethical improvement is through traditional religion.
That isn’t true. I know it’s not true because in the months since the killing of Michael Brown I have seen numerous examples of moral courage and commitment to change from people who have no traditional religion, and who are members or friends of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, where I work. As far as I am aware, we — a non-theistic congregation dedicated to Humanist values — are the only organization that might plausibly be referred to as an “atheist community” in the Ferguson area, and, far from being absent, we have been engaged — as an organization and through the efforts of individual members and friends — at multiple levels, from on-the-street civil disobedience to behind-the-scenes legal support.
Yes, the Society issued a statement on the shooting (the first public statement we’ve made on any issue in quite some time), which is hosted on the website of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, our region’s biggest newspaper: just for this we were denigrated as “race apologists.” But we did not then “shuffle off into oblivion,” as Sikivu Hutchinson fears we might.