Atheists Stand Against Racism

Atheists Stand Against Racism June 10, 2020

After more than two hundred fifty years of racist oppression and suffering, America is boiling over. There’s a change in the air, but how big a change is it?

To measure shifting attitudes, political scientists track an attitude called “racial resentment”. This is the atomistic, Objectivist-style belief that privilege and systemic prejudice don’t exist and that individual effort is all that matters (so if women and minorities don’t achieve as much as white men, it’s their fault for not wanting to succeed). It’s the white sheet that’s often thrown over more explicitly bigoted opinions.

One survey that measures racial resentment is the annual Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a 50,000+ person national poll. Among other questions, the 2018 CCES asked participants if they agreed with statements like, “If black people would only try harder, they would be just as well off as whites.”

As political scientist (and Baptist pastor) Ryan Burge points out, the results display a striking pattern:

The obvious finding of this chart is that white evangelicals are the most racially resentful demographic in America. Considering that they’re joined at the hip to a white supremacist, that’s not surprising. In fact, white evangelicals who attend church most often are the most racially resentful, even more so than their brethren:

But if you look closer at that chart, a potentially bigger and more surprising finding jumps out: atheists are the least racially resentful group in America. And agnostics are the second least!

This is especially impressive because – again, as Burge highlights – atheists are and remain mostly white. Lack of diversity has been a persistent problem in the secular community. Even so, it hasn’t prevented nonbelievers from coming to hold tolerant attitudes:

If this surprises you, that’s understandable. I’ve often mentioned the paradox that, even though atheists as a whole are strongly liberal, many white male atheist “leaders” are known for intolerant views. They’re hostile to the concept of diversity; they cloak bigoted beliefs under the cover of “free speech”; they deny that racism or sexism still exist. But, yet again, the atheist community proves to be more morally enlightened than the retrograde figures we’ve chosen as our figureheads.

The 2017 CCES offers additional support for both of these hypotheses, showing that non-religious white people are sharply more supportive of diversity than white churchgoers. Again, evangelicals are especial outliers:

There’s also this article from 2017, summing up the results of another massive 40,000-person survey, the American Values Atlas. According to Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute, which conducted the survey, it reveals a stark divide: “between white Christian groups — and everybody else”.

On average, the study found that 63 percent of Americans acknowledged “a lot” of discrimination against immigrants, 57 percent against black people, and 58 percent against gay and lesbian people. Overall, about two-thirds of Americans see discrimination against at least one minority group as an issue, with 42 percent identifying discrimination as an issue among all three groups.

But among white Christians, those figures dropped significantly: Only 36 percent of white evangelicals, 50 percent of white mainline Protestants, and 47 percent of white Catholics reported perceiving discrimination against black people (the survey did not ask about other races). For contrast, 86 percent of black Protestants reported perceiving “a lot” of discrimination against black people in America, as did 67 percent of the religiously unaffiliated.

About two-thirds of Americans in general, and two-thirds of the nonreligious, report noticing discrimination or perceiving it as a problem. But only one-third of white evangelicals say the same. Instead, white evangelicals overwhelmingly perceive discrimination against themselves (because they’re not allowed to force other people to live by their rules).

Black Christians have felt this contradiction firsthand. Their faith tells them they’re part of a community of believers who are all equal, but that butts up against the painful reality that their white brethren are indifferent to the suffering and discrimination they’ve endured.

Such is the story of Christopher House, a black Pentecostal pastor who worked at Liberty University. He announced last week that he was resigning in protest of a bizarre publicity stunt by Jerry Falwell Jr., who flaunted racist imagery in an attempt to prove that Democrats Are The Real Racists:

Last week I resigned from Liberty University online after the university’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., announced on Twitter that he had designed a face mask decorated with a photo of someone wearing blackface standing next to another individual wearing a KKK robe.

…Falwell used anti-Black images in a public spat with the governor of Virginia, at the expense of Black people. For Falwell, the images were a Halloween costume he would simply remove when he was done with his political fight. He would never stop to consider the enduring, often violent consequences of the photos.

Here’s the bright side. Too often in American history, it was right-wing Christians who were in the mainstream and liberal atheists who were a lonely minority. But not anymore. The country’s attitudes are undergoing a seismic shift, and atheists and liberals are on the leading edge.

A new ABC News/Ipsos poll finds that 74% of Americans believe the country has a problem with racial injustice. That’s a huge jump from the answers to the same question in 2014:

Nearly three-fourths of Americans view the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer as a sign of an underlying racial injustice problem, a new ABC News/Ipsos poll finds, a significant shift from a similar question asked just six years ago.

This poll shows a more than 30-point increase in the belief that recent events reflect a broader issue over racial injustice from an ABC News/Washington Post poll from December 2014…

Another poll from Monmouth concurs. A 57% majority says that the police are more likely to use excessive force against black people, compared to just 33% who believe the police treat all races the same. As recently as July 2016, those numbers were 34% and 52%. In other words, public opinion has almost completely reversed in just four years.

If these poll numbers are reliable, and if they translate into political reality, then America is on the cusp of a sea change. The activists who’ve long called for dismantling the carceral state and channeling the savings into housing, job training, and other safety-net programs that actually reduce crime – rather than punishing it after the fact – may get their wish. The racist power structures that have poisoned this country since its inception could be demolished once and for all.

And if it does happen, we must remember that white Christianity not only didn’t help bring about the transformation, most white churches actively fought against it. The sects that claim to be bastions of morality will stand revealed as mere defenders of privilege and the status quo. And atheists will be at the forefront of this massive and centuries-overdue moral shift, just as we’ve been at the forefront of other successful movements for social change.

Image credit: Johnny Silvercloud, released under CC BY-SA 2.0 license


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