Resisting the Power Grab: When Atheist Discourse Seeks Religion’s Social Power

Resisting the Power Grab: When Atheist Discourse Seeks Religion’s Social Power March 13, 2019

Johann Jaritz, CC3.0 Licensing, Wikicommons

Let’s begin with a story. It’s not mine. It belongs to Frantz Fanon, one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. French West Indian, a psychiatrist and revolutionary from one of France’s colonized spaces (Martinique), Fanon wrote on Marxism, revolutionary philosophy in general, and post-colonial identity.

In the introduction to Black Skin, White Masks (1952), he wrote a series of lines that sent shivers down my spine, because–like the best of literature–they spoke through a specific condition to touch on something far more universal. These are the lines:

In the course of this essay we shall observe the development of an effort to understand the black-white relation.
The white man is sealed in his whiteness.
The black man in his blackness.
We shall seek to ascertain the directions of this dual narcissism and the motivations that inspire it.
At the beginning of my speculations it seems inappropriate to elaborate the conclusions that the reader will find.
Concern with the elimination of a vicious circle has been the only guide-line for my efforts.
There is a fact: White men consider themselves superior to black men.
There is another fact: Black men want to prove to white men, at all costs, the richness of their thought, the equal value of their intellect.
How do we extricate ourselves?

Do you hear it, too? The universality of this appeal for escape from our labels, from the need to prove our legitimacy against structures more dominant than our own?

When I wrote about performative gender and performative activism in my last two essays, I was writing with a mindfulness of Fanon’s salient observation: that combative discourse sustains vicious circles. In mainstream media, how often do you see socialist discourse not tethered to reactions to capitalist excess and oppression? Or marginalized persons–indigenous, gender-based, racialized, ethnically separated–not positioned as in contest with more powerful groups and cultural hierarchies?

And in secular communities, how often do you see the fact of our atheism not positioned in a combative relationship with those of faith?

Seeking the Power of the Oppressor

I have a family member who frequently sends me memes making fun of religion, in part because I write for Patheos‘s nonreligious channel. I’m sure they think I’ll find them funny, too, even though my essays here should speak pretty plainly to the fact that I’m not interested in mockery; that I am, instead, far more interested in gathering together humans of every background to tackle the needs of 21st-century humanism.

But I find the memes themselves telling in relation to the state of our discourse–especially when joined with pieces on Patheos like one I used as an example a few weeks back, of the problem with knee-jerk reactions to religious provocation. (NB: Another family member disapproved of that essay, arguing that I shouldn’t “pick” on other writers, even ones with almost 10,000 shares on each of their posts. Rather, I should simply exemplify better practice on my own, and allude to without naming people whose writing I find counterproductive. I don’t entirely agree, but in the future, I will find a multitude of examples in one go, so that I’m not picking on any one person but rather demonstrating the whole of the trend.)

I mention that example now, though, because in light of such pieces, of course someone might think that an atheist on Patheos wants to make fun of the latest inane bullpucky coming out of religious circles. Because, to a general audience more familiar with that sort of article and nonreligious discourse, what else could they possibly imagine exists for an openly secular thinker to write about?

What I see when I read these anti-religious memes, though, is a power grab. It’s a desire to wrest from their dominant cultural position all religious communities… and to establish our own authorities in their stead. Why else would we feel the need to directly debate and challenge major players in religious spheres? (Is anyone actively taking on Paracelsus right now? Galen?)

And as I’ve written before, plenty of times, our fixation on being right, on being seen to be right, continues to mire us in power structures not of our own design. Can I quote Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez without dragging this essay into another “vicious circle”, that of U.S. political discourse? I hope so, because like Fanon, what she said a couple days ago about power also rises above its context. Specifically:

“It took so much effort in my community to get people to even vote because they have been burned so many times, and they’ve been burned by politicians that look like them,” Ocasio-Cortez explained. “And so, in the Bronx, there’s just this idea that it really doesn’t matter—and there’s all this cynicism that resulted from electing people that ethnically, match the community, but once they got into power, advanced the same agenda that was marginalizing the community to begin with.” …

One of the audience members asked AOC what advice she would give “young girls of color who want to get into politics.” The Bronx/Queens congresswoman responded, “The advice that I give is stop trying to navigate systems of power and start building your own power.”

Women of color, she elaborated, are bombarded with “subconscious signals” to “do an impression of power” and “try to act like white men.”

“Stop trying to navigate those systems, because they weren’t built for you,” Ocasio-Cortez emphasized. “We need to build our own systems.”

Do you hear it, too? The universality of this appeal?

Why is so much of atheist discourse fixated on doing combat with religious discourse?

…Because we’re all secretly theists?

Hah. No. Not because we’re all secretly suppressing a belief in a creator, as many religious people like to think.

Because of the power. Because–good grief, look at how much unearned entitlement religion bestows upon its institutions and practitioners. Don’t want to serve a member of your community the same as any other, but there are pesky laws of the land saying you have to? Simple! Declare that “it goes against your beliefs”… and look! Look look look! Why, there’s another law of the land that says your beliefs need to be respected! Hah! Game, set, match.

Religious people aren’t actually escaping the laws of the land when they make that ridiculous appeal to personal belief. (If they were, they wouldn’t be pushing for the laws of the land to defer; they’d allow themselves to be fully martyred and exiled for their beliefs, as were the saints and holy figures glorified in their collective histories.) No, instead, they’re simply aware of the power their belief gives them within those laws of the land, and they use it to gain advantage therein.

So of course atheists of most every stripe are going to find that infuriating!

And then if we add in tax-exempt institutions preying upon the weak and the young and the sick… and being extolled for it! Extolled for celebrating suffering and socioeconomic disparity as gifts from the divine, instead of more aggressively seeking broader social reformation to lessen suffering in the first place!

Listen–I myself pace my apartment furiously after reading the latest news to such ends. I completely understand the arguments others launch online about them, because boy howdy you should hear my brilliant oration in the shower sometime!

(Not to mention that, oof, does it ever make for lucrative click-bait… even if that definitely goes both ways!)

But, flawed as I am, wobbly as many of my percolating ideas here are, I still try to write essays here expressly appealing for a different way to live in the secular sphere; to avoid the pitfalls of thinking atheism intrinsically superior; to be a secular humanist who seeks to join with other humanists to find new approaches to our major societal problems; and to create new narrative that will tacitly make so many of the old ones outmoded.

It’s ambitious and it can be frustrating–because the work of directly tackling religious inanity and injustice is so much more visible. It’s exciting! It’s easy to share on Facebook and Twitter with your friends, and to watch spread like wildfire online!

Conversely, the path I suggest can be tedious, and boring, and without clear results.

It requires looking inward and reflecting on the social contracts we’ve bought into without explicitly realizing what we were doing–and especially the social contracts that exist, for some atheists, even after sloughing off childhoods of faith.

For instance, did you live in a household with a domineering angry male god? When you cast of your god-belief, did you also cast off the belief in deference to domineering male authorities? Or do you still seek out and find shelter in the idea of having the biggest, most commanding presence–politically, discursively–on your side? It happens. Religion is a shell, and it contains a great deal of tribalist baggage, native to the human condition, that we might have to spend our whole lives resisting.

The work I’m interested in also requires second-guessing ourselves, and our knee-jerk resistance to any ideas that go against our gut instincts. For instance, there’s a recent study suggesting socioeconomic positives to populism, and I’m having a tough time chewing over that one in light of all that I know about populism’s negatives! But we need to challenge ourselves like this. We have to think outside our echo chambers and speak to more than members of our own “choir”–as safe and easy as certain tribalist short-hand can become within those like-minded circles.

And do you expect others in your circles to have read the same books and articles as you in order to discuss certain topics with you? Well, that’s damned elitist of you. Can you maybe consider the allegory of Plato’s cave, and remember that a critical component of your path to community leadership is not simply having walked in the “light” of higher education… but then returning to the cave, and learning how to live alongside, converse with, and improve the lives of those who might not have the same?

My path to a better practice of humanism also requires listening for the emotion in our supposedly perfectly rational reactions to various policies and philosophies, and taking the time to parse what underlying fears of vulnerability and change and loss of social status might be guiding our behaviour. Only in knowing ourselves can we better understand the fears of vulnerability and change and loss of social status that make others, too, resistant to new approaches to old problems.

But most of all–for me, as a writer; as a writer of speculative fictions especially–my path to a better practice of humanism involves remembering that all we’re doing (the wondrous, life-consuming “all” that we humans are doing!) is telling stories.

All of us.

So when we get caught up in trying to dismantle the supposed truth of another person’s story, we have to be careful.

Because, yes, some untruths are horrifically dangerous. Anti-vax discourse. Anti-legalized abortion discourse. Xenophobic discourse.

But if we lock ourselves into, as Fanon termed it, the “vicious circle” of discursive combat with the weakest, meanest, most oppressive facets of our society, we never fully escape them.

“How do we extricate ourselves?” Fanon asked.

“We need to build our own systems,” Ocasio-Cortez (among many, many others) most recently answered.

And that, dear fellow humanists of every stripe, is all I’m asking us to take the time to do.

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  • “But most of all–for me, as a writer; as a writer of speculative fictions especially–my path to a better practice of humanism involves emembering that all we’re doing (the wondrous, life-consuming “all” that we humans are doing!) is telling stories.”

    The older I get, the more anecdotes I have 🙂

  • rationalobservations?

    This is another understandable view from the North American continent and American atheist’s perspective.

    While religionists still make noises way above their actual numbers in the rest of the educated, free, predominantly secular democracies of the developed world – they represent a small and shrinking minority who are humored and recognised as quaint eccentric throwbacks too a more ignorant and superstitious time.

    While participation in religion is down below 6% of the population of Europe, and is almost off the scale in some European countries – it is also worth noting that according to the “American Churchleaders” organisation (*) fewer than 18% of Americans can be found within any church or other place of indoctrination on any average weekend.

    The third largest and fastest growing human demographic have discovered the antidote to religion to be education and free, secular democracy and that boon to humanity is spreading and aspired to even among the millennials in lands still dominated and terrorised by religion. The time for the non-religious to assert their democratic (and moral) superiority and another more successful “Arab Spring” may not be too long in arriving while the millennials of the west are the least religious cohort in history and will take over as the religionists age and die out.


  • For instance, did you live in a household with a domineering angry male god? When you cast off your god-belief, did you also cast off the belief in deference to domineering male authorities? Or do you still seek out and find shelter in the idea of having the biggest, most commanding presence–politically, discursively–on your side?

    You’re right to point out the difference between the postcolonialist activists that Fanon inspired, who struggled to assert their humanity in the face of systemic oppression and brutality, and the atheist ideologues whose first, middle, and last resort is to force people to think and act the way the ideologues find acceptable. The postcolonialists were outraged at the West’s arrogance and brutality; movement atheists seem more outraged that they can’t impose conformity of opinion on people they consider their moral and socioeconomic inferiors.

  • Susan Calhoun

    This I found very encouraging. There is a lot I find wonderful here. You seem to give permission to a person to find their own way, even if they haven’t really figured out what that is. To me, is suggests life as a creation, born of love, creativity, feelings, trust, sadness, just-right-nowness. And that feels good. Thanks.

  • towercam

    Much too long. Didn’t read.
    Could your copy have been more convoluted and disjointed?
    Next time, pick a specific point and stick to it.
    You’re no good with landscapes.

  • Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  • Thanks for writing, rationalobservations, though I do wonder if physical presence in places of worship matters as much as a measure of indoctrination in the digital realm. Haven’t read any recent studies about those digital-participation figures, but there is this piece on the recent rise of religion, particularly among the young, to balance against your suggestion that there is intrinsically a massive turning point upon us. As with most things in life, there seems to be a complex give-and-take for research on this accord.

  • Oof, I discussed a part of that in today’s essay. Pointed and relevant comment, but hopefully countered by the rise of a different generation of humanist-first secular folk. Thanks for reading and writing!

  • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Susan! This was a post to find my bearings by looking through quite a few of the essays I’ve written here to date, and set for myself a direction forward. I am deeply thankful to hear that it moved others to explore the same. All best wishes!

  • I bet you have some grand ones, Lerk! 🙂

  • J Quasar D

    A bit long, but well worth the read.

    Thanks for taking the time to detail it out, step by logical step.

    Yes, it’s very critical to keep ‘looking inward and reflecting on the social contracts we’ve bought into without explicitly realizing what we were doing’, and through ‘knowing ourselves … better understand the fears of vulnerability and change and loss of social status that make others, too, resistant to new approaches to old problems’.

    Not sure how to ‘build our own systems’ in the face of entrenched systems of greater longevity, power and persistence, but I guess the way would be the same as ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ (one bite at a time).

    What I like best about your approach is the calmness, the focus on commonalities rather than confrontation, and the deep belief that things can and will change.


    (It’s very rare that I comment on anything on patheos; you’ve pulled me out).

  • Hi J Quasar D,

    Thanks for taking the time to read, let alone to comment. I made a conscious choice to go for “slow reads” rather than the more decisive rhetoric of shorter, punchier posts–and I know this choice will throw a great many readers out (especially since I’m still learning as I go, too), but I’ve been quite thankful for the readers it calls in.

    Any time I’m reminded how many people share in this desire for more constructive world-building, my “deep belief that things can and will change” is thoroughly fortified. As such, it’s a genuine pleasure to have met another voice on a similar journey. All best to you in yours.

  • rationalobservations?

    From the incidence of religious extremism, it appears that online indoctrination is quite rare.
    If you investigate the claims of an increase in religiosity, it is always confined to uneducated folk in lands blighted by religious fundamentalists who would rather teach the ignorant and the gullible how to pray (and starve) than teach them how to farm and fish. There are also fad cults that are attractive to the emotionally needy, ignorant and the gullible.

    Overall the evidence of falling church attendance and the rapidly growing number of redundant churches along with the negative personal responses of the millennial generation when asked about their religious convictions may indicate that the trend away from religion is in direct ratio to the advance of education and peaceful, free, secular democracy.

    It is worth noting that another brand of religion in America has become bankrupt and gone out of business altogether already this year.