Western Atheism’s Proving Grounds for White Supremacy: A Humanist’s Appeal for Cultural Reckoning

Western Atheism’s Proving Grounds for White Supremacy: A Humanist’s Appeal for Cultural Reckoning March 17, 2019

Let’s begin with a story. In the last few weeks I’ve posted a few essays circling around the theme of “white culture”–white culture as it manifests in touristic excess, white culture as it relates to histories of white supremacy, and tacitly, in my last, white culture as it relates to a particular brand of Western atheism that mocks persons of faith without class consciousness.

And I was, in part, leading up to this essay when I wrote those pieces.

But I didn’t expect that, in leading up to this essay, I would be leading up to writing so soon after a devastating manifestation of racism tethered to religious identity.

I suppose it couldn’t be helped, though. How does one avoid writing a “hot take” about white supremacy when there’s always another damned related incident in the news?

As of this posting, 50 human beings have died, and 50 more were injured (two still critically), from a massacre March 15 that took place in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The official list of names has not been released yet, but on a missing persons page dedicated to this event, you can see for yourself the range of nationalities represented among them. PM Jacinda Ardern, a self-described agnostic who excised all mention of a god from her swearing-in ceremony, has responded in an exemplary fashion–moving immediately for firearm reform, guaranteeing financial support for all affected families irrespective of citizenship status, and emphatically standing by the local Muslim community with a message of national unity.

What remains for the rest of us to do is reckon with the online silos that fostered this massacre, among so many others.

And that sadly includes the secular world. That sadly includes a way in which atheism has been weaponized, to the detriment of compassionate humanistic practice.

Islamic Caveat

Now, before I get to the atheist component, I should point out the obvious: I don’t talk much about the Qur’an here. This isn’t because I like it more than the other Abrahamic texts–I don’t; I find it filled with the same hodgepodge of decent verses and abominable grotesqueries. Moreover, I’ve met the sweetest Muslim students, in my experience as both fellow student and instructor in Canada, who also credulously believed that death is the correct punishment for apostasy, simply because that’s what their imam and the Qur’an taught them. Awful stuff. I also find repugnant the concept of religious “modesty” when it comes to female “virtue”, however it manifests in any religion’s attire.

But I don’t live in a culture guided by that text. As such, I tend to leave it out of my discourse on religion and humanism, and focus instead on the death-mongering and gender-policing narratives more common to the Western sphere (including the counternarrative that has people thinking they have the right to take off someone else’s clothes simply because the garb offends).

Maybe I shouldn’t leave it out, though. Maybe to do my part, as a humanist who advocates for participation across the religious/nonreligious spectrum, I should advance a nuanced understanding of this religion some 1.5 billion people strong.

For instance, have you ever heard an Ahmadiyyah Muslim sing from the Qur’an? It’s a lovely thing. This subset of Islam is one of the most overtly peace-oriented, believing that the arrival of a teacher of universal peace in the 19th century offers Muslims the clearest path for following Islam’s basic tenets to the betterment of all. (Many mainline Sunnis think them heretics for this.)

Then there are the Nizaris, the largest subset of Isma’ili Shi’ites, who follow a different lineage from Muhammad to their current leader, the Aga Khan, a prince and business magnate whose enterprises include significant investments in humanitarian aid.

And of course, there are others–the mystic Sufis, from both Sunni and Shi’ite heritage; the violently fundamentalist Wahhabis, known best for al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS; other Shi’ite divisions, including the more gender-egalitarian Alevi, and the Alawites (whose customs blend elements of Catholicism and Islam, and who are both persecutors and persecuted in Syria’s intricate political history); and other Sunni subsets, like the Salafis, who emerged as a reaction to European imperialism in the 19th century and range from politically withdrawn, to activist, to jihadist.

But even as I outline all these different groups, I’m reminded of my recent essay on gender–and in it, my observation that personal identity doesn’t matter one damned bit next to how others perceive you. Just as gender is constructed relationally, and often violently, in our world, so too is religious/nonreligious identity.

Because what do all these religious divisions between Islamic groups matter in the face of white supremacy?

How much time does the person capable of raising a gun against humans in peaceful assembly really take to learn about another’s cultural traditions?

So today, let’s instead build off my last essay, in which I looked at how many marginalized populations turn to religion out of desperation.

Let’s look at how many angry white men find a home in Western atheism for their own sense of desperation.

How they employ much of its cultural rhetoric to justify white-supremacist discourse.

And how we in the secular world can refuse to allow them further platform to such ends.

The Erudite Atheist

I’m no stranger to the appeal of well-reasoned debate. Oh, the sedate thrill of listening to measured opinions shared calmly between like-minded, well-read persons! And for years, the Four Horsemen of early 21st-century atheistic discourse–Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett–fit that bill well for me. The roundtable discussions. The polite and orderly debates.

But this structure is, like any other, performative, and gradually I realized that the veneer of calm and reasoned debate often gives shelter to a host of discourse that is anything but civil, whatever tone or format one might apply to it. I remember easing away from those four especially after Harris posted an argument for racial profiling by airline security that, for all his insistence on being open to dissent, he refused to cede even before relevant experts. Now, I grant that he absolutely gave space to Bruce Schneier on his blog, but he then mischaracterized Schneier’s arguments in subsequent summaries (especially when claiming that Schneier was only arguing that racial profiling was too costly to implement, which completely overlooks Schneier’s discourse about how Harris’s us vs. them rhetoric is not value-neutral, but rather exacerbates the security threats that officials then have to confront when framing airport procedures).

Likewise, in his painful-to-read exchanges with Noam Chomsky, Harris tries to compel civil exchange on his terms, but those terms involve being permitted to mischaracterize Chomsky’s comments throughout–which, upon Chomsky’s refusal to permit the manoeuvre, leads to Harris begging out, claiming he’s being litigated to the point of tedium. Most critically, though, Harris asks Chomsky to clean up his remarks before the emails are posted on his blog. For me, this was another blatant reminder of the need, within this particular performance of atheism, for all discourse to seem mild-mannered and friendly, rationalist and calm.

Even if it sure as hell isn’t.

Even if the real-world stakes, as in the above conversation topics, are extremely high.

(A quick summary of that latter slog: Harris defended U.S. atrocities as more moral than other groups’ atrocities, including 9/11, by arguing that U.S. intentions were good when targeting a civilian pharmaceutical factory. In turn, Chomsky regarded as juvenile chauvinism Harris’s assumption that he knows the true intentions of a U.S. organization well enough to defend the morality of their decisions from that standpoint. Harris then claimed that Chomsky was ignoring intention–completely overlooking Chomsky’s point about the lack of evidence with which to make a determination of good intent in the first place. Chomsky also noted the myriad of other atrocities that such an approach to moral assessment would then sanction, but mostly he was contemptuous of Harris’s claim that he was ignoring intention, and continued to browbeat Harris for chauvinism while Harris went on about the importance of intent until writing

I’m sorry to say that I have now lost hope that we can communicate effectively in this medium. Rather than explore these issues with genuine interest and civility, you seem committed to litigating all points (both real and imagined) in the most plodding and accusatory way. And so, to my amazement, I find that the only conversation you and I are likely to ever have has grown too tedious to continue.

…And really, you get everything you need to know about the nature of this debate from that lament about hostility.)

Am I opposed to measured debate? No, of course not.

But am I opposed to pretending that everything should be treated as measured, civil, and calm debate?


Because here’s what it allows for.

Rationalism as a Cipher for White Supremacy

I was in a packed hallway after receiving my Master’s degree in English Literature, when a family member praised me on my achievement and told me that I could now use my skills to fight the good fight against the encroachment of “bad English”, like the English that had been used by the university VP leading that day’s convocation ceremony. The VP in question had a Trinidadian accent, and some syntactical phrasing to match. I was mortified by this family member’s proclamation in that packed space, and tried–not for the first or last time with this person–to outline the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism. A scholar of English literature, after all, should be a descriptivist; they should know that variations in the English language are precisely what allow for it to convey a multiplicity of human histories and cultures.

But I am no stranger, either, to why prescriptivism still reigns among many.

There are, after all, many economically precarious persons who do not come from marginalized ethnic backgrounds.

White people, that is, who grew up in a culture of supposed entitlement that they did not personally see themselves as benefitting from. Who thus perceived that other groups were receiving unfair advantages through affirmative action, while they were still struggling to achieve or maintain the middle-class ideal. Who seethed at being told that they were the bad guys when life was no cake-walk for them, either.

For such people, the acquisition of distinct learning is aspirational and racialized–a critical but important way to differentiate oneself from the heaving mass of other economically disadvantaged actors, and to stake a claim for being only temporarily removed from the class status they feel should be their birthright as European settler stock. Never mind, either, that people of tremendous financial comfort are often markedly uneducated, having been born into rather than earning their wealth! When you perceive yourself to be at the bottom of the food chain, what matters is the Dickensian hope that your “true” class status will reveal itself if only you can show your intellectual and “moral” superiority.

It’s not much of a surprise, then, that many young white men take pride in their outsider status to mainstream positions, whether it be dissenting views on feminism, immigration, or the rise of more socialist and egalitarian government policies. An outside position, to many persons, is intrinsically the more elite position–because clearly it’s the position that all the “sheep” are too stupid to take up themselves.

Is it any surprise, then, that atheism is so often wound up in this outsider-pride, too?

The Radicalized Politics of Many Online Atheists

Last year Chris Stedman at Vice wrote about this issue in “Too Many Atheists Are Veering Dangerously Towards the Alt-Right“. In this article, he observed that

Like the alt-right, American atheists—a growing segment of the US—are more likely to be male, white, and younger than the general population. Atheists are also one of America’s most negatively viewed groups and can face social isolation or family rejection. While religious people have churches, mosques, and synagogues staffed with care providers to help them connect with others, reflect on their lives, and find support in times of need, nonreligious people generally don’t have access to these kinds of resources. The alt-right intentionally targets and preys on people—young white men in particular—who feel disconnected, marginalized, and misunderstood, seeking to give them a sense of identity, belonging, and purpose. It’s not surprising then that atheists, who are often marginalized in America, may be prime targets.

By neglecting to address its darker currents, online atheism has perhaps unknowingly planted the seeds for the alt-right’s harvest. Three years ago Reddit’s atheism subforum, perhaps the largest community of atheists on the internet, was found to be the website’s third most bigoted—meaning not just tolerant of overt displays of bigotry, but actively supportive of them. Last year, the Daily Beast revealed that the study’s most bigoted Reddit subforum, the Red Pill, was founded by Robert Fisher, a Republican state lawmaker who is also an atheist.

In my second-last essay, I posed a question about how far we really go when we slough off certain bodies of belief. Do we manage to rid ourselves of the underlying behaviours, too–or does a child raised in a household believing in a domineering god simply find new domineering role models in the secular sphere? They may well be without god-belief, but are they without the hunger to take up a new, extreme doctrine in its stead?

The veneer of rationalism embedded in New Atheism’s approach to discourse serves the white-supremacist agenda especially well, because by figuring atheism in this way–as the intelligent choice, the choice from higher reasoning–it creates strong associations between Western culture/heritage (the forebear of those discursive models) and the production of the most evolved minds.

Persons struggling socioeconomically, and seething at being positioned as “the problem” on account of their whiteness, employ whatever behaviours they can to show that they don’t really belong in their current socioeconomic state. They might police others’ grammar to extol their own supposed (prescriptivist) education. They might affect certain consumption models that reflect the class strata they’re hoping to return to. And they might reach for the figures who seem to represent the height of intellect… or at least post inane memes mocking others for the relative stupidity of their religious views.

Oh, and the fact that atheists are trusted less than pretty much every other group in North America? That’s a huge bonus for angry white men frustrated by the identity politics that seem to leave everyone else with a label to leverage for a leg up in our collectively precarious socioeconomic system.

So what does this lead to, ultimately?

It leads to a body of people whose atheism extends beyond a simple lack of god-belief, into an affirmation of their perceived persecution. A sign of their intellectual worthiness for a different class and social standing. An entrance into a community of like-minded, also confused and hurting and angry human beings.

And an appeal that something must be done (now that the elect have found each other through their performance of rationalistic discourse or religious mockery online) about the encroachment of others upon a cultural inheritance that is their right alone.

Action Plans: The Road to a Renewed Secular Sphere

When I wrote in my last essay about a world that wouldn’t need a faith of desperation, I was also writing about a world that wouldn’t leave these angry young men out of the equation, either. A world that would not leave anyone socioeconomically precarious, and turning upon each other in response to that perception of lost status. It’s not a zero-sum game, the compassionate humanism I’m calling for. The political actions that stand to elevate some from hunger and disease and the inability to choose meaningful work will also, intrinsically, change the cultural narrative to the advantage, too, of those whose histories of white entitlement have left them unable to see their situations as anything but societal degradation in the name of equality.

What an exhausting thing it must be to see the world in that light.

What a wasteful thing it must be to spend one’s brief passage as a sentient being in the cosmos on the hatred of others.

What a diminishing thing to regard one’s own value as only sustainable through the suppression… and the murder… of others.

There is often a “mental health” discussion that goes alongside acts of white terrorism. But that’s a very special subset of sickness, and there are others that far better explain the rampant acts of violence we inflict upon one another in the 21st century.

We in the secular world, freshly arisen from New Atheism’s moment in the 21st-Century sun, have this sickness to contend with when we choose to pursue a more globally minded, compassionate humanism instead.

And so we must make some rather concerted efforts to change our storytelling.

Here are four suggestions for today, with a strong invitation to add more in the comments–because just as tomorrow might well yield another atrocity, so too will there always, always be more humanist work to come.

4 Actionable Items

  1. Reflect on your own relationship with education. How have you valued different bodies of knowledge, and employed them in your daily lives? Do you use your learning to raise up others in your community, or to exclude, to identify your “tribe”, and to mock others for their lack of similar education?
  2. Reflect on your social-media and local-community spheres. How often do you support others’ use of education in the above negative manners? How often do you see a meme a friend has posted, that perhaps mocks another’s lack of knowledge, and chosen to broach the subject with them? To permit a little personal discomfort so as to lessen any discomfort they might inflict on others?
  3. Reflect on your atheism or your faith. How do you assert it? Through funny memes? Through supposedly calm, mild-mannered, rationalistic debate with deeply uncomfortable discursive partners? How often do you assert your beliefs in contrast with other people’s beliefs? And yes, atheism is especially difficult on this accord, because it is fundamentally a negative attribute… but then, why are you using the term solo, if you still are? Why are you not springboarding (if you aren’t already) to labels that more positively define what you do believe in?
  4. Reflect on the ways people around you assert their own beliefs. How often do they define themselves in contrast with others, and particularly through the derision of others? If it’s safe to do so, can you ask them about their more negative and combative approach? Can you risk a little personal discomfort so as to perhaps ease them out of an approach to outsider-pride that, at best, supports a culture in which others might take their perceived elitism to more violent extremes?

I want to end with a video I replay every time there’s a major atrocity in the world. It has a truly wonderful father comforting his frightened son in a way that makes the son lift his face, reassured, in wonder and in love.

There are… so many ways to be a role model to others. To inspire the best in each other, and together to make the most of our fleeting time in this cosmos. I sorely hope that we who have not yet been mown down by others’ misery will still have the opportunity to find and rise up from our own. All best wishes to you all.

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