“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” – Audre Lorde (lesbian writer, poet, womanist, civil rights activist)
Society relies heavily on narratives. From the most common among of us to those who declare themselves to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, themes regarding others and the world around us influences our perspectives. The problem is, this pervasive phenomenon is established and curated by majority rule—a tradition that grants primacy to the interests and agenda of the largest social groups.
This is why, in the US, atheists and many others who don’t identify as Christian continue to combat propagandized messages and legislation that disproportionately favors the values and beliefs of Christians.
The existence of majoritarianism is why atheist and secular humanist groups and organizations place such great emphasis on separation of church and state.
It’s why atheists are continually tasked with defining what atheism is and isn’t and why books like Greta Christina’s “Why Are You Atheists So Angry” were conceived.
It’s why the “New Atheism” movement even exists—to counter bogus stereotypes and push for social change in a nation where Christian hegemony pervades every facet of our culture. To be sure, secular activism—even the mainstream campaigns that strictly challenge religiosity—is a species of social justice engagement.
If atheists didn’t wage this culture war then, as Lorde aptly stated, our image and stories would be perverted and misrepresented by the uncharitable assessment of those who merely exist on the periphery.
Recently, the American Humanist Association (AHA) fortified their support for groups often erased from routine focus and consideration. Like secular activists contra religious tyranny, the creation of the Black Humanist Alliance and the relaunch of the Feminist Humanist Alliance and LGBTQ Humanist Alliance seeks to redress normalized social practices that pervert and misrepresent the character, identity, and experiences of non-men, queer, and Black communities.
AHA’s push for progress has been characterized as backsliding and “reverse-discrimination” (somehow) by some. Unsurprisingly, many atheists and self-christened humanists who rally behind initiatives to thwart the domineering status of religious exceptionalism habitually fail to consider other forms of dominant cultural themes that are just as cruel and unjust.
To better illustrate my points about why AHA’s social justice programs are needed, I’ll simply refer to a mere fraction of the short-sighted remarks that reflect a widespread porous comprehension of cultural, historical, and social dynamics.
Pontificating humanism is supposed to be all-embracing is one thing, but characterizing programs that place emphasis on issues not presently being appropriately tackled as an act of self-imposed apartheid is just intellectual malpractice.
Our nation has always enforced complex systems of segregation that marginalizes groups of people based on class, gender, race, sex, and sexual orientation (among other means of stratification). Comprehensive discrimination continues to target women, Blacks, and LGBTQ people in a way that cannot be logically reconciled with fantasies of a “just world.”
But this is only news to those who have the luxury of not having to exist within such a harrowing domestic environment.
Much like the “We are all Africans” mantra, just because you profess to stand in unity with respects to an idea doesn’t magically abolish underlying biases that inform widely accepted views that give rise to such shallow, self-congratulatory platitudes. Nor does bellowing (usually as a kneejerk response) things like “We’re all in this together!” translate into actual concern for governing oneself as an agent for social reform.
Leave it to village atheists and their devotion to single variable politics to interpret any perceived deviation from their preoccupation with criticizing religion as being tantamount to breaking up the band.
Meanwhile, not a single individual denigrating these shifts to become more engaged in social justice affairs provides any worthwhile proposals or salient actions to counter anti-blackness, queer-antagonism, and patriarchal beliefs, much less even spark valuable, sustained discussions about the cultural context of these matters.
Rather, these salt throwers are still at the infancy stage of decrying any mention of patriarchal systems that privilege men, denying the systemic pathology of racism, and declaring LGBTQ communities no longer have it that bad. Because marriage equality.
This is why the objections of naysayers ring as unintelligible as the whimpers of a teething newborn.
What exactly are statements like this supposed to convince people of? Are we supposed to respond, “Congratulations on your obliviousness?”
I’ve observed and interacted with far too many people to doubt there’s a considerable chunk of the population completely unaware of the divisions within our society. That, of course, doesn’t mean initiatives meant to operate at the intersection of secular activism and social justice addressing specific injustices are the cause of said divisions. The rule of cause and effect doesn’t work in reverse.
The ripple effect of wanting to broaden normative beliefs has apparently been felt across the pond. There are two problems with this assessment that is shared by many.
First, as it’s been said on numerous occasions, two of these three initiatives are a rebranding of programs that already exist. The Feminist Humanist Alliance was first established in 1977; the LGBTQ Humanist Alliance in 2008. Much of this gnashing of teeth is years, and even decades, in arrears. This fact exposes the unthinking and uninvestigated resolve of many who imagine themselves to be skeptics.
Two, this appeal to divisiveness is an act of hasty, lexical misrepresentation.
The AHA’s dedication to critical inquiry and social concern leads them to be more proactive in their application of humanist values to real-world imbalances. In doing so, these social justice platforms act as a way to more intensely scrutinize differences already present in daily life. It’s an act of social responsibility, not divisiveness.
You know what’s divisive? Classifying missions to rectify marginalization as gratuitous or the facilitator of dissonance. Critical thinking is a mode of reasoning that isn’t limited to examining religious faith and supernaturalism. As AHA has shown, critical appraisal can and ought to be extended to racism, sexism, homophobia, transantagonism, and other harmful prejudices that impede progress.
Rather than lending credibility to his insular stance, Bell’s self-satisfied admission of being affiliated with a humanist organization only makes for a more noticeable example of how ubiquitous and deeply-rooted these deficiencies in understanding are regardless of one’s ostensible life stance.
I have a growing suspicion that silly things like inclusivity, empathy, justice, and equality aren’t what some self-avowed humanists (hereafter referred to as faux humanists) have in mind when it comes to their ideal version of humanism.
When describing “mainstream,” I’m referring to the tendency of the collective to reproduce narratives centering on very similar subjects to the exclusion of other matters. When the established feedback loop normalizes discussions driven by the concerns of majority group representation, there are those of us from communities relegated to the fringes that are left wanting.
The default modus operandi of this country is to distill every aspect of our culture through the white gaze—a whitewashed interpretation of the world told by white people for white people. Because this viewpoint is universalized, social mores embedded into our nation’s zeitgeist are calibrated to this custom of whiteness.
Thus, whenever a subject, matter, or mechanism of social engagement departs from or otherwise dethrones whiteness, the result is disgruntlement and white fragility. These same exact points can be said of the cishet male gaze and cishet male fragility. We see these traits in children spoiled rotten, so accustomed to getting their way that failure to satiate their egocentric expectations is met with entitled hissy fits.
For those benefiting from a certain social system, any considerable departure from homogenized beliefs and practices catering to their identity is met with bewilderment, distress, contempt, and antagonism.
Our worldviews are influenced by our social positions within society. These positions allow us to recognize and appreciate some social dynamics (privilege, prejudice, oppression) while obscuring our emotional and intellectual connection to other social realities either partially or entirely.
In other words, we all see the world through lenses—Filters.
So when folks put stock in the falsehood of reverse oppression or spout a host of equally reactive, uneducated responses, please understand you’re merely broadcasting the level to which various modes of inequality and oppression do and don’t affect you personally. As well, your attitude reflects your vantage point and subsequent level of awareness (or lack thereof) about the complex state of reality.
Ever wonder why this official non-apology is appearing here instead of being featured at AHA’s The Humanist, where I frequently write? It’s because AHA is unconcerned with the bluster of dudebro blowhards and idle malcontents.
Further, the only reason why I’m wasting time saying any of this is to dispense thoughts I previously had about recent observations and experiences. The torrent of mainly white male tears in relation to AHA’s announcement gave occasion to flesh those thoughts out.
The American Humanist Association campaigns against injustice. The thing is, injustice comes in many forms. AHA knows this, which is why they’re adapting to better oppose prejudices baked into the social DNA of our culture. Just because certain inequalities don’t directly or imminently impact your life doesn’t mean those matters shouldn’t be examined specifically.
Whether or not this sits well with you is inconsequential.
Mainstream humanism is a wellspring of white-oriented, male-centered ideas often tainted by classism and heteronormativity. This rendering of humanism franchises exclusionary values reckoned to be the loftiest of pursuits. Because of this, I haven’t a morsel of regret about my involvement in expanding the conversation and analysis of humanist thought.
However, it must be remembered that these spaces weren’t fashioned simply for “diversity’s sake.” Beyond achieving greater visibility of disenfranchised groups within the subculture of secular communities, AHA’s aim with these social justice groups is to challenge assumptions held within dominant groups, increase cultural competency, and gain a broader right to self-determination.
Stripped of academic vernacular and highbrow cogitation, humanism is about people placing people before dogma and god beliefs. It’s about working towards a just world based on human reason and ethics divorced from supernatural claims.
That said, the quest for etching out a world where everyone’s granted equal value and opportunity within social canon and by law can’t begin until more people readily open their hearts and minds to the perspectives of the socially dispossessed.
How can you be about equality and social liberation when you don’t even realize your position—your culmination of identities—in proximity to power derived from systems of cultural hegemony? We must better understand our social position vis-à-vis dominant-to-subordinate and margin-to-center cultural patterns that empower some and deprive others.
I expect a lot out of the secular community. I will not lower my expectations. Sifting through the density of village atheists and faux humanists occupying entirely too much space, I still see potential. I have met and interacted with countless atheists and humanists from various backgrounds. I know how warm and amazing the *godless can be. We can and must do better. The American Humanist Association is heading in the right direction—my hope is more people can be about the change they so often romanticize from the sidelines.
To the wet blankets: If you get nothing else out of this article, at least realize one thing when it comes to your grievances…
To those within the secular community who are down for a departure from traditional frames of mind that attempt to throttle discussions and potential for intellectual growth and social development: Speak up. Act. Use your sphere of influence to confront such repulsive and regressive behavior.
* Technically we’re all godless