3 Keys to Progress the Secular Community Needs in 2016

3 Keys to Progress the Secular Community Needs in 2016 December 31, 2015

As 2015 draws to a close, social media is once again showered with New Year resolutions and the internet’s flooded with articles sharing resolution ideas or how-to guides on achieving “new year, new me” goals.

In my tiny pocket of the blogosphere, I figured I’d put this tradition to good use and offer up advice on ways the secular community could catalyze an atmosphere for genuine social progress.

Please note I’m using “secular community” to refer to atheist and secular humanist groups, non-profit organizations, associated activists and public figures. Though we’re a subculture that share certain beliefs and desires contrary to widely accepted views, we don’t exist in a vacuum. Nonbelievers are greatly influenced by cultural attitudes and behaviors that make up the national ethos. Because of this, we retain intellectual vices that uphold social stigmas and prejudices.

We comply with or actively participate in the continuation of social inequalities even when we don’t notice it. That’s how the mighty and insidious dynamic of privilege works.

As a child, I loved playing games like Super Mario Brothers, Gyromite, and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. I used to imagine myself as a character in these very basic, simulated worlds. However, because these virtual spaces were limited, so too was the extent of my imagination. Similarly, when we allow ourselves to be restricted by narrow or partial ideas in the real world, it drags down the way we think and feel about human activity from the fourth dimension to more simplistic, two dimensional ideation.

Humans are complex creatures, full of nuance and layered with multiple identities. In her groundbreaking work titled Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde said “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

Any group assembled around single-issue agendas are doomed to be exclusionary. I get that there are some missions and establishments meant to be niche, only focusing on select issues. But when the collective mimics the routine of centering on very similar subjects, we get what’s known as the mainstream. And when the established feedback loop normalizes discussions driven by the concerns of majority group representation (straight white men), there are those of us from *othered communities that are left wanting.

We can’t continue saying we’re about human progress when we regularly neglect issues that adversely affect human rights and social parity on an everyday basis.

Social inequality is ubiquitous and has always been a part of human recorded history. That doesn’t mean we just accept it. That doesn’t mean we can’t do anything about it. Yes, religious hegemony plays a role in human suffering and stagnancy. The thing is, even if all the religious beliefs that cause such grief and conflict in the world were to cease existing, we’d still be left with multiple streams of adversity that significantly affect the quality of daily life.

So then, to counter popular attitudes and activities that lack inclusivity and broader scope, I’ve composed three suggestions that may help us grow as a community in 2016.

1. Kindle Compassion

We’re all familiar with the golden rule. It’s a life philosophy built around compassion. Think of what has, would, or does give you emotional, psychological, or physical pain, then refuse to inflict that evil on others. Or, as Confucius said, “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

Our idea and practice of compassion ought to mimic the Chinese philosopher Mozi’s injunction of jian’ai, which means “impartial concern.” This concern for the welfare of others makes no distinction between self and other, or associate and stranger. It’s also described as “universal love.” The conscious decision to allow compassion to reign allows you to dethrone yourself from the center of your world and place another there. When we speak of compassion, this is what it should mean for those truly concerned with the welfare of others.

The problem is this non-restrictive idea of compassion isn’t what we generally see. Our imagination of compassion is hollowed and often bends to cultural status quoism. This renders our conception of compassion tainted by selfishness and warped by the way privilege engenders detachment from discrimination and oppression not directly experienced.

We must strive for a four-dimensional species of compassion that compensates for socialized biases we take for granted.

Humans tend to be unconsciously tribalistic and self-interested. Atheists are no different. The key to bypassing this aspect of our nature is self-awareness. Appreciate the fact that your views are compromised and our environment nurtures an imbalanced social hierarchy.

For those that want to do and be more, acknowledging these things leads to a heightened level of curiosity and concern for the struggle of others. And from there we must grow and develop this consideration for others. Compassion must be built up like a muscle or we risk its significance being blunted by apathy and prejudicial, tribal preferences.

2. Immersion

Compassion leads to immersion. Earlier this year I wrote an article for The Humanist titled “Humanism and the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.” The three tips prescribed for ally accountability can be condensed to the principle of “immersion” and widened in scope to include all forms of allyship.

Like the word immersion suggests, what’s needed to effectively oppose social disparities is complete involvement. This requires observing constancy: repeatedly discussing issues related to contempt for and violence against trans people, the hyper-criminalization of blackness, cultural numbness and misinformation regarding sexual violence, and so on.

We all have family, friends, and others within our social bubble with whom we discuss a wide range of topics. Let these topics seep into regular rotation. Habitually engaging in these conversations builds awareness, works to destabilize misconceptions, and better facilitates progress.

However, being informed is important. This is why granting a platform and perspective-taking are crucial for insight. It’s all about decentering privileged perceptions. If you are not part of the out-group, it’s preferable to grant a platform to those who are subject to specific ostracism and stigmatization.

Immersing yourself in the shared perspective of out-group members regarding the real-lived texture of marginalized life may deepen your level of empathy and perspective. When people fail to seek this kind of enlightenment, they’re inclined to possess uninformed and patronizing views about matters they’re only tenuously familiar with through hearsay or disinformation presented by in-group peers, media sources, or token figures.

Perspective-taking is interrelated with granting a platform. Cognitive science research suggests perspective-taking increases one’s willingness to engage in contact with negatively-stereotyped out-group members. This is achieved mainly by creating social bonds—increased contact—with stereotyped people.

This involves removing yourself from your comfort zones. Displace yourself within circles you don’t normally frequent. Read and intermingle with queer, disabled, black and brown voices who share their thoughts, observations, experiences, and their grasp on the cultural context of their social relegation and erasure.

Books like God Is Not Great, The End of Faith, and The God Delusion are well-known, widely read, and often cited among nonbelievers. But how many have perused Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels, The Ebony Exodus Project, or Writing God’s Obituary? What about books not geared towards atheism like What Does It Mean To Be White?, Sister Outsider, or Between The World and Me? How many frequent the blogs or social media of transmen or transwomen who openly discuss their lived experiences or ex-Muslims not associated with “the establishment” that tenaciously tackle many manifestations of social inequalities like Kiran Opal and Heina Dadabhoy?

We live in a white-oriented, male-centered, heteronormative culture. Make it a habit to remove yourself from the typical whitewashed, insular narratives you’ve grown accustomed to and immerse yourself in the plight and outlook of others foreign to your background and worldview.

3. Mobilize Around Diversity

Once compassion and a willingness to immerse oneself in diversity is cultivated, we can then mobilize around diversity.

In an interview with Feminism and Religion, Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson was asked what she thought would help atheist groups better address racism and sexism. She replied:

“Progressive atheist, humanist and secular organizations need to proactively and visibly mobilize around issues that go far beyond the usual church/state separation and ‘science and reason’ agenda.”

Occasionally spotlighting minority representation as if we’re a refreshing but brief departure from the “normal” state of affairs isn’t good enough. Lip service won’t do. Relying on rare appearances or a single representative of a given group is tokenism, not actual diversity. If we’re to be about change, then we must be more than words and superficial allegiance.

That doesn’t mean don’t have guest speakers. But if your group depends on these kinds of special presentations for an infrequent shot in the arm concerning matters you won’t think about or discuss in earnest until the next special presentation later on down the line, you may want to assess your commitment to those issues.

Dr. Hutchinson recommends nonbelievers who organize around intersectional issues should be tapped for leadership positions in national humanist and atheist organizations. That makes sense. If we’re to be the change we want to see in the world, allowing the focus of individuals and groups to be upgraded through the vision and effort of those in the trenches is a good start.

Last August, Dr. Anthony Pinn wrote a piece for Chris Stedman’s Faitheist blog titled “Ferguson: Why atheists should care – and what they can do.” In it, he provides suggestions for ways the secular community could improve.

While Dr. Pinn’s article focuses on racial injustice, what he proposes is applicable to other kinds of isms. This is similar to when Shirley Chisholm (politician, educator, activist) said “Racism is so universal in this country, so widespread, and deep-seated, that it is invisible because it is so normal.” Replace “racism” with “sexism,” “ableism,” or “cissexism” and the statement still holds true. Not only are systems of oppression interconnected, their affect and stealthy, systemic programming resemble one another.

Echoing Dr. Hutchinson’s sentiments, Dr. Pinn states: “Make diversity a component of each atheist and humanist organization’s mission statement, and work to have this commitment reflected in the leadership of these organizations.”

Another point he made that coincides with more comprehensive change:

“Ask some of the white folks to speak on race and racism, and in this way expand ownership of this issue beyond the ‘usual suspects’ invited to address race—and not much else—during humanist conference and meetings.”

When true compassion and immersion take place, integrating these kinds of adjustments are a natural consequence of realizing the importance of owning privilege and proper representation. Like Dr. Pinn said, “We must do more—or stop talking about fostering a more reasonable society.”

This may be a challenge for many, but I’m confident we can evolve and be more inclusive. Being ignorant of oppression, passively or actively isolating marginalized groups, or an outright refusal to incorporate sufficient allyship when possible is a colossal mark against any person, collective, or movement declaring to be activists for human progress.

Of course issues like separation of church and state must be redressed, but dedication to confronting religious hegemony doesn’t have to be at the expense of disregarding social, economic, and political deprivations that immensely affect minority communities. The Secular Social Justice Conference is less than a month away and acts as an example of bridging scrutiny for the ways our society disenfranchises atheists as well as women, LGBTQIA people, and people of color. It’s possible to attend to and implement ideas for all these concerns through a secular lens.


Any “progressive” movement that overlooks the significance of intersectional issues is incomplete. Organized efforts by “freethinkers” adhering to mainstream orthodoxy while neglecting the dehumanization of marginalized people is like trying to retrieve water from a well after the bottom’s fallen out of the bucket.

It’s impact that matters, not professed intentions. Issues like transantagonism, anti-Muslim bigotry, misogyny, and white supremacy won’t fade by themselves. As atheists, we know magical thinking doesn’t work. We understand that if we want change we must do something about it ourselves.

It isn’t a matter of whether we can or can’t do better, the question is: Are you willing to take the steps necessary to achieve these goals?

*Othering is a process that identifies those that are thought to be different from oneself or the mainstream, and it can reinforce and reproduce positions of domination and subordination.

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