Addressing the Class Question

The views expressed here belong to Walker alone, and are not necessarily shared by Chris or the other NPS panelists. 

There’s something that plagues American society, and the atheist movement isn’t immune.

An indication of this problem came recently, relevant to this blog: the blowback to the excerpt of Faitheist Chris published on Salon about a month back. In the tedious picking apart of his first chapter, the meme of having “holes in his socks” became a new weapon in the anti-Stedman arsenal. It was cited time and time again in blog posts and across comment threads as somehow an instance of Chris’s narcissism or of Chris painting a picture of exceptionalism for himself. Accusations of self-interestedness: a tool of discrediting often used whenever anyone who feels like an outsider challenges a group’s homogeneity.

This leads us to an uncomfortable question: what exactly is so uniquely painful about the dichotomy Chris drew with this image and his wider description of the event—that in his first experience in the atheist movement, while the people at this conference were supremely well-dressed and exhibited a particularly high-standing and comfortable manner, the grad student from the outside, living off student loans, stood out. That while those in this pristine skyscraping apartment discussed having “the superior perspective”, the impression given to the young new outsider was that he did not, in fact, belong. Did not belong, particularly in a room of people who pride themselves on being open to discussion and debate—it seems, unless that debate challenges their satisfaction as members of the elite.

It is of course unfair to take this particular anecdote as indicative of a movement-wide problem of classism. But we live in an American society marred by class inequality, where a particular set of elites enjoy a vastly disproportionate share of wealth and influence. This inequality manifests even in our society’s microcosms: our educational institutions favor those who have enjoyed far more resources for development than their peers, dividing the children of socially stable parents and those of the struggling. Wall Street bankers use their influence on Capitol Hill to protect themselves from the judicial arm in the wake of the financial collapse. Indeed, in the Catholic church, an elite set of priests are able to absolve themselves of responsibility from exploiting—raping—the vulnerable children of their parish, in large part because they enjoy the privilege of a predetermined hierarchical structure. In a climate rife with this sort of division, those of us who care about equality and social justice should assume a priori that our movement may be separated along similar lines of class, and always be seeking to overcome that division.

Often cited as one of the most important contributions made to date of the #Occupy movement, the issue of income inequality in American society is finally illuminated brightly—how our judicial system disproportionally protects corrupt bankers, how we put faith in this meritocratic education system based in a myth of equal opportunity and rigged towards the fortunate, how we talk as if issues of race and gender and ability and income are unrelated. Presidential prospectors finally addressed class in debates. We now see clearly the value of reinvesting in social programs, and in addressing oppression as interconnected.

These victories can be achieved within the atheist movement as well. But it definitely hurts to challenge your identity, to begin to realize that you’ve been taking for granted privilege you may not have even been aware you had, and in doing so damning others who aren’t so lucky. But the crux of the atheist movement’s failure here is in its goals: our orientation has for a long time now been towards challenging the spirituality of and winning over the minds of those lucky enough to have the freedom to be dynamic in their thought. We’re using tactics that would only be effective in conversations with those who enjoy the social standing and educational background to understand why philosophy is an important tool for reasoning. We otherwise dismiss those below that class as lost causes, or we approach them in entirely counterproductive ways—bus ads, twitter hashtags, tokenism. We, in our thirst for debate, only really appeal to those who aren’t wrought with an overwhelming amount of pressure to maintain their given theology, and who would clearly benefit in the short term from releasing themselves of religious ideology.

Many of the goals and practices of the atheist movement have been tainted by an elitism that is holding us back from truly understanding the world in its complexities, and from building one freer from suffering. Promoting capital-R Reason takes the fore of our efforts, as if it that strategy can be applied equally effectively to improving the well-being of everyone in every situation. But we live in an convoluted, unequal world, where everyone’s motivations and values cannot be easily whittled down to their religious perspectives—we have to consider what factors are truly inhibiting critical, independent thought and humanistic values in a community. Is it perhaps the case that extreme poverty and limited access to already disregarded educational systems are more to blame for constraining the thought of the underclass?

Inciting change in the atheist movement in how it approaches the class question begins, of course, with being honest about our shortcomings, but immediately following that it means reforming our tactics. Was the “Islam is Barbaric” twitter campaign not executed with not only an ignorance of how authoritarianism is far more accurately seen as a result of poverty than of Islam, but even on the most obvious surface level employing the inherently classist term “barbaric”? Would our time not be better spent then fighting this poverty, instead of publically patting ourselves on the back for our freedom from dogma?

Or throwing up a billboard near an urban neighborhood in Pennsylvania with a quote from Colossians, “Slaves, obey your masters”. Sikivu Hutchinson explained the campaign’s failures brilliantly: “Did AA even deign to consult with local interfaith and secular, humanist or atheist people of color about the cultural and psychological impact of the legacy of slavery in a nation where black bodies are still the primary targets of violent police suppression, racist criminal sentencing and capital punishment?  Of course not.” Race and income are, tragically, wedded in America, as are income and religiosity—and as Hutchinson explains, it is the offensive ignorance of this interconnectedness that is our downfall. “AA’s ahistorical paternalistic approach to “secular” public service messaging is one of the main reasons why New Atheism is still racially segregated and lily white.” Perhaps devoting resources to improving education and affordable housing in impoverished neighborhoods would truly inspire critical thinking and the opportunities to employ that thought necessary to relieve dogmatism and supernaturalism—rather than throwing up a few billboards nearby.

Recently (and big thanks to Kate Donovan for directing me to this) David Hoelscher wrote what I’d consider to be a tremendously valuable piece challenging the atheist movement to address the class problem in its mirror. He sums it up:

The relative paucity of class themes in atheist discourse, the barrenness of atheist literature in terms of discussions about economic injustice, are the product of, as Wikipedia aptly defines classism “individual attitudes and behaviors, systems of policies and practices that are set up to benefit the upper classes at the expense of the lower classes.”

It’s time for a larger discussion on the issue of class at our doorstep, and how this movement will evolve to meet the transforming concerns of the 21st century—where we can work towards achieving income equality alongside equality of gender, of sexual orientation, of race, wherein all demand tremendous attention. How safe our world is for the nonreligious, and for the underclass of all stripes, is dependent on our consideration of all forms of oppression. And it demands honesty about where we’ve be inattentive leading up to now.

Walker Bristol woke up this morning and realized, to his dismay, that he is the President of the Tufts Freethought Society and the Director of Communications for Foundation Beyond Belief. This is especially peculiar considering he grew up as a high school wrestler-pianist in North Carolina and intended to become Luke Skywalker for an undisclosed period of his life, eventually settling for a Star Wars tattoo. The Tufts Political Science and Religion departments suffer his enrollment. He writes about social activism and art in the Tufts Daily. His diet consists of hummus. He tweets nonsense on all these fronts @GodlessWalker.

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