Encouraging Diversity in Atheism

Encouraging Diversity in Atheism January 10, 2011

I wrote last month about the importance of making non-white atheists feel welcome. I intend to continue banging that drum, and now I again have occasion to do so, thanks to this article from Religion News Service, “Atheists’ Diversity Woes Have No Black-and-White Answers“.

This article complements the last one I discussed. Alom Shaha’s essay was about being a person of color and an atheist, looking at the community from the inside. This one is more about looking in from the outside, how the atheist movement appears to the wider world when viewed through the lens of racial diversity. It also chronicles the struggles of some minority atheists to find a face like their own in a sea of white males:

“Anytime you go to an atheist meeting, it tends to be predominantly male and white. We know that,” said Blair Scott, national affiliate director for American Atheists, which has 131 affiliate groups. “We go out of our way to encourage participation by females and minorities. The problem is getting those people out (of the closet as atheists) in the first place.”

…But diversity remains elusive. As of late December, American Atheist magazine hadn’t been able to find enough black atheist writers to fill a special Black History Month edition for February. In another telling sign, the Council for Secular Humanism tried in vain to present a diverse array of speakers at its four-day October conference in Los Angeles. Most of the 300 attendees were white men, as were 23 of the 26 speakers.

It’s important to emphasize that this is not solely an atheist problem. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that Sunday at 11 A.M. was “the most segregated hour in this nation“, and the evidence suggests that little has changed. According to research, only 5% of American churches are racially integrated, and half of those are in the process of becoming all-black or all-white. Still, that doesn’t mean that we as atheists have no responsibility to address this issue – and at least most religious denominations have substantial black memberships, even if they don’t often mingle with white churchgoers.

Why is the atheist movement so racially homogeneous? The article mentions the theory I find most plausible: that the power of religion in minority communities is a cultural legacy of racism. In the past, racial and ethnic groups that faced hatred and hostility from a deeply prejudiced larger society turned to religion to encourage social coherence as a means of protection – an attempt to evoke sympathy and fellow-feeling from those who’d otherwise be biased against them. Even today, when minorities have greater legal protection, this attitude persists and leads to intense suspicion and exclusion of anyone who doesn’t conform to the community norms. (Writers such as Sikivu Hutchinson have suggested a similar explanation.)

There are two lessons that I think should be drawn here, and one is that we don’t have unlimited time to get this right. Stereotypes like this have a nasty habit of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies; after all, if “everyone knows” that all atheists are white people, that’s likely to discourage blacks, Latinos, and members of other minority groups from wanting to join us. (And if that conclusion doesn’t occur to them on their own, religious apologists will be happy to suggest it.) Atheism as a movement is still in its early stages, which makes it even more important that we take the effort and pay attention to diversifying now. It’s an effort that’ll bear fruit in the long run.

The other is that this isn’t a problem white atheists can solve on our own. We can and should do everything possible to present an inclusive and welcoming environment to atheists who are minorities, and ensure that they don’t feel out of place; and when they do speak up, we should do everything in our power to support them. There’s more progress to be made on all those fronts. However, the only way that religion’s power in minority communities will ultimately be broken will be if people who are members of those communities come out as atheists and push back against social pressure to conform.

Fortunately, there are signs that this situation is changing. These efforts are still in their beginning steps, but existing atheist and humanist groups are realizing the value of championing diversity, and people of color are organizing themselves as well:

A new group, Black Atheists of America, drew about 25 attendees at its first national meeting in October. Also last year, the Institute for Humanist Studies was born in Washington, D.C. with a goal of helping atheism become more diverse.

…some activists like [Alix] Jules are holding to a vision of integration. He chairs a newly formed diversity council for the Dallas Coalition for Reason, which includes the area’s 15 atheist groups. Last year, the coalition started targeted outreach campaigns to minority groups… Dallas’ Fellowship of Free Thought used to be almost exclusively white, Jules said, but now the group counts members with black, Hispanic and Middle Eastern backgrounds, including former Muslims.

If we keep at it, these efforts will naturally blend together, leading to an atheist movement that looks more like society in general and that incorporates a broader range of backgrounds and viewpoints. And that, in turn, means we’ll be able to more persuasively appeal to a larger number of people, speaking to them in the cultural language they’re most familiar with and phrasing our message in a way that more strongly resonates with their own concerns. In short, encouraging diversity in atheism isn’t just something we should do for the sake of political correctness, but a wise investment that will pay dividends down the line.

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