The Privilege Paralysis

Zach SadI’ve never felt as small as on that day. Six pairs of eyes stared, angrily fixed on my pale face. I tried my best to maintain my composure and sense of calm as I furtively glanced back around the room, but I couldn’t bring myself to look any of the Black pastors in the eye very long. I sat there for what seemed like an eternity, unmoving, unsure of what to do next.

One thing was clear: I’d screwed up.

As a kid, I never could have guessed that I’d be in the center of such a racially-charged situation. My parents were both the products of a culture that affirmed the superiority of White Americans, but they took great pains to expose me and my brothers to diverse perspectives. Before I ever entered a classroom, I took daily lessons from Gordon, Maria, Susan, and Luis; with Fred Rogers, I enjoyed getting to meet Wynton Marsalis and Yo-Yo Ma; I learned to love reading with LeVar Burton. My father, a public school teacher, felt strongly about the negative impact of White Flight, and enrolled me in a predominantly Black school with an excellent magnet program. One of my first serious crushes there was a cute interracial girl who kissed me back during a movie that was being shown on a substitute day. And when our class gave reports on Black history, I jumped at the chance for extra credit by dressing up (no makeup) as Harriet Tubman to celebrate one of my heroes.

But, of course there was also an overwhelming Whiteness to my experience. In high school, we moved out from the city into a rural town that was so overwhelmingly monochromatic that the handful of Black people in the community were less token than they were sheer novelty. When I returned to the city for university, though the campus was surrounded by people of color, I was steeped in an academic culture that was also overwhelmingly White.

So when I found myself years later at the end of a process of apostasy, and entered the secular community, its Whiteness was not immediately distressing. It was comfortable, and it was forgettable, in the sense that you can lose awareness of the weird fact that you’re swimming in a ocean of (mostly) nitrogen gas. But there were reminders. When I tried to share a quote from Aaron MacGruder’s “The Boondocks,” I got no looks of recognition. When I pointed out that the panel of influential freethinkers on our wall was devoid of diversity, I got little sympathy. And when a young Black woman visited our community to ask if we knew any Black atheist men, I felt convicted.

Because I didn’t.

Several years later, we were interested in advertising our community with a new campaign. We felt strongly that atheist faces should be seen in the public sphere, and the organizers came up with a brilliant design that incorporated several dozen portraits of local members (myself included). Our community had slowly become more diverse in the intervening time, and we also wanted to showcase that, so we made sure to include as many faces of color as possible. We had previously run an advertising campaign using a highway billboard, and now wanted to try something different. One of the organizers suggested advertising on the public buses, where he had seen several religious organizations promote themselves in the past. We ran into some administrative hesitation (almost always the case with advertising atheist messages), but eventually a contract was signed and the campaign was launched.

The response from the Black community was almost immediate, and it took us completely by surprise. A coalition of Black pastors organized themselves from the earliest announcement of the campaign, and used their traditional tools of social justice activism to fight against us. As the media picked up the story, it became apparent that this criticism had a racial component; none of the White pastors who were invited to comment on the story had similar criticisms of our campaign. I was sure that there had to be some misunderstanding, and I was also sure that it wasn’t on our part.

So I called the lead protesting pastor, and asked to meet with him.

I was not expecting to meet his entire coalition, however, which is why I found myself seemingly six inches tall, sitting in his office and surrounded by furious Black faces, myself flustered and paralyzed. I knew in that moment that I had misjudged their response to our campaign, in large part because my privilege had disconnected me from their experience. It simply had not occurred to me (nor to any of the other White organizers) that the bus system primarily serves non-privileged communities, which meant here (as it does in most places) the Black community. And rather than console them, the inclusion of Black faces in our campaign only further antagonized them, and suggested that we were pushing our message specifically at the Black community. And this was not simply a philosophical disagreement: the function of the Black Church is as a supplementary social safety net, and for many the only safety net. Thus, we privileged White atheists who didn’t need the Church to survive, were being seen as using the token Blacks among us to launch a campaign with the goal of stripping a crucial resource away from a community that already lacked social privilege.

This absolutely horrified me. The clear implication, of course, was that I along with the other atheist organizers were acting out of some racist assumption, along the lines of “we White folks are so much better off than you poor Black folks that we don’t need the social support that religion provides, and now we’re going to take that away from you too.” It didn’t matter if we hadn’t intended the message to go over in that way, it was clear from the anger and hurt that was on the faces of the pastors surrounding me that this was the message they received.

I found myself unable to move, stuck between two unassailable convictions: on the one hand, that I was a life-long advocate of equality and opportunity who was disgusted by displays of racism whenever I saw them; on the other hand, that I was in some way, even if unintentionally, responsible for a racist message that had the effect of stigmatizing and offending a non-privileged community. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I was supposed to be one of the good White guys, someone that got it. But I didn’t get it, at least not until it was too late, and now here I was, the White oppressor once again trying to strip the Black community of its meager power, and more importantly, of its identity.

How dare you, their eyes said wordlessly. And they were right.

There is a ripe and necessary discussion that needs to happen in the Black community, that is happening in fact, about the relationship between race and religion and the relevance of the Black Church. There is a rich history of freethought and skepticism within the Black community that is too often overlooked and ignored to the benefit of the appointed clergy-heroes of American civil rights. There are incredibly important Black activists and organizations in the secular movement today who are doing vital work, each with a different story to tell and mission to advance.

But there are also lots of White atheists like me who, well-meaning though we think we’re being, end up on the wrong side of racism. Well-meaning perhaps, but also boneheaded enough to post pictures of shackled slaves on billboards, ignorant enough to publicly ask Black atheist activists why they’re not addressing “black-on-black” crime, and insensitive enough to make jokes about eating fried chicken and watermelon on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

We. Are. Not. Helping.

And our brothers and sisters in the Black secular community have taken notice. At one point there may have been grand designs about how the Big Tent of Atheism was going to be a massive polychromatic kumbaya, but that’s over now. Atheists of color are now finding supportive communities among groups like Black Nonbelievers, Black Skeptics, Black Freethinkers, Black Atheists, and many more. Whereas in the past, mainstream secular organizations could at least take comfort in the knowledge that Black members either had to work with them or not be active in the movement, now there’s real competition. Five years ago, I would hear White atheists ask, “how do we get more Black people to come?” and I would chuckle. Now, I hear them ask it, and I weep.

The sad fact is that the mainstream secular community is paralyzed by its own privilege. We know just enough to suspect that we may have done something racist, or at the very least are perpetuating a racist system. We glance quickly over the atheist conference speaker list, hoping there’s at least one Black face represented, and pat ourselves warmly on the back if there’s two. We listen to talks on molecular genetics, alternative medicine, and the idiocy of the god-concept and don’t notice that there’s no discussion of systemic poverty, educational imbalances, and the school-to-prison pipeline. We might pause to wonder why there are so few Black people in the audience, but then we see someone sporting a cool new T-shirt that says something really snarky about religion, and we hoof it back over to the vendor tables.

Hey, it’s easier that way. Right?

White atheists are not alone in this paralysis, to be sure. I’ve seen hip, young, White Christian pastors, currently building churches surrounded by trendy, gentrified, urban neighborhoods who are struggling with this as well. They’ve done a good job learning about privilege and power, about the diversity of experience, and about the intersectionality of race and religion. But they’re still limited by well-intentioned tokenism, bolstered by the earnest hope that Christ really can make everyone colorblind, even if he’s two millennia late in doing so. But perhaps they will break through before the mainstream secular community manages to do so, and make the connection with the Black community that we’re too scared, or lazy, or both, to make. Perhaps they’ll even partner with Black Nonbelievers or Black Skeptics on some critical project while the mainstream secular community sits, unmoving. Wouldn’t that be ironic?

Sitting in that room, surrounded by angry Black eyes, I did have a moment of clarity. I recognized my privilege, overcame my paralysis, and apologized profusely to the pastors gathered around me. I acknowledged their perspective, attempted to explain our misguided intentions, and admitted that it was still a mistake to choose this method of advertising without thinking through how it could be seen by others with different experiences. Instantly the mood lifted. We were still at odds philosophically and theologically, but by looking at the situation through their experience I gained some credibility, maybe not as an ally, but at least not as an enemy.

I think the mainstream secular community can do better than I did that day. I think we still have the potential to be allies to our Black brothers and sisters, but it’s going to take work. We can’t just pretend to be colorblind and call it a day. We first have to acknowledge that race plays a critical role in forming different experiences for people, and that these experiences lead to different missions and goals. We also have to give our Black friends the freedom to create the safe spaces for themselves that we, to put it frankly, have not done a great job of cultivating for them. And while they’re doing that important work, let’s listen to them whenever possible, let’s give them a platform (or three) to share their views with us, and let’s look for any opportunity to align our goals with theirs.

Maybe in the end we can’t have a Big Tent after all, but that doesn’t mean we have to be strangers in each others’ homes.

[EDIT: Alix Jules has written a counterpoint to this article, here.]

Room for the Universal

“If others go to Hell, I will go too. But I do not believe that; on the contrary, I believe that all will be saved, myself with them—something which arouses my deepest amazement.”

–Søren Kierkegård

My theological and exegetical training afford me myriad tools with which to address the question of Universal Salvation. The expectation amongst many of my friends is that I will put forth clear, black-and-white interpretations of the Bible, replete with conservatism-friendly apologetical strategies that play properly into our agreed upon dialectic.

A recent gathering of some Houston and Dallas friends for a short summit on the topic of Universal Salvation all but destroyed such a strategy from my plan, and here’s why: we all realized that anyone can play that game. The appropriation of this or that text to suit my theological needs is not going to settle the matter for me or anyone else, because we don’t make theological decisions that way. Certainly, we want to treat the Bible fairly, giving it enough of its own voice as we can, working hard to ensure that our philosophical and theological desires don’t interfere with our interpretations; but how successful are we at doing this?

What highlights this problem very well is asking the question itself: Is Universal Salvation a live option for Christians? The most accommodating response I received thus far has been a smirk, with a head toss, followed by a “I don’t know, man…that’s a tough one.” Other responses range from “Does it really matter? Just follow Jesus.” to “There’s no way, and here are all the reasons John Piper knows that can’t possibly be what God would ever do.” It wasn’t until I visited my summit friends that I heard more than one person admit the possibility. One thing on which we all agreed: you can read nearly any salvation text in a Universalist way, giving a perfectly reasonable interpretation, and being justified in doing so. The summit was set up so that I defended the Universalist view, while a good friend argued against it. He had made up his mind beforehand, but even he admitted that things were not as cut-and-dry as he previously thought. Questions were raised that stumped all of us, and we could not give a good reason why Universalism should not be a live option for any and all Christians.

Indeed, I have yet to hear a good reason why not. Every person who has had a ready-made answer thought they said something novel, made an objection no one had thought of before, and had an emotional reaction to the very idea. But why? What is so objectionable? The problem with deciding beforehand is difficult enough to swallow, but to have such a strong reaction against the idea raises another very troubling issue: why do we seem so opposed to Universal Salvation? It’s one thing to say, “You know, I wish it were true that everyone went to heaven when they died, I just don’t see it in the text; but I’m willing to change my mind in light of better evidence” and another to say, “No way. There’s no way. That’s heresy, and it’s not biblical, and it’s spitting in Jesus’ face.”

So, before we even consider the texts, the philosophical arguments, the theological discursive strategies, we need to decide if we’re willing to have our minds changed. If not, then there’s no point moving forward. If not, I’d really love to hear a good reason why not. What are we so afraid of? What do we really lose if we change our minds? Can we imagine that there might be more to gain than to lose?

A Universalist Prolegomena

Intellectual honesty offers little comfort when faced with the possibility of estrangement from the vast majority of people one knows. To consider the marginal theologies of Christian history viable means to challenge the popular opinion, the “traditional” view, the “biblical” or “orthodox” position. One’s church options shrink, particularly in the Bible Belt where conservative perspectives rule, and the last comment on “liberal theologies” is laughter—the marginal is also the joke. If one has been trained at an evangelical seminary, the move into adopting a different theology relegates one to the number of graduates who have either abandoned the faith or, at least doctrinally speaking, “gone astray”.

The climate continues to change, of course. Many I know are sympathetic to various theological niches, and most have lightheartedly entertained my willingness to bend, flex, and change. My move from angry Arminianism to compassionate Calvinism proved moderately difficult. Then came a more drastic change: abandoning the traditional view of eternal conscious torment for the Conditionalist/Annihilationist view, which states that, after allowing for some period of conscious punishment, those who do not belong to Christ will be completely destroyed—the utter elimination of opposition to God’s redemptive, restorative purposes. This view draws a fair amount of criticism, with some even considering the view heretical. Our family’s movement away from an Anabaptist understanding of baptism to a Presbyterian (paedobaptist) one raised a few eyebrows, but did not cause much of a stir otherwise.

My most recent exploration is quite different. Evangelical Universalism is the doctrine that all will eventually be saved, will enter into God’s kingdom because Christ paid the price for all people, every individual. Not to be confused with religious pluralism (any and all religious paths lead to God), in Evangelical Universalism there is still no salvation apart from Christ—He took on the sins of the world by dying on a cross, and was raised to life three days later, which conquered death in our place and secured the salvation of the entire world. The major difference between this and traditional belief is that Hell is a place where punishment still takes place, but for the Universalist it is restorative, corrective, purposeful; not ultimate and final. Hell still exists, but those who go there eventually see the full impact of their sin and are able to repent, praising Christ, and rejecting opposition to Him.

The doctrine of Hell is what makes this brand of Universalism evangelical: there is still reason to preach repentance here and now because Hell is not a place anyone wants to go. The objection that Universalism removes the urgency to preach the Gospel is false: if my wife is using a chainsaw in such a way that, though she won’t kill herself with it, she will cut off an arm, I would still warn her and help her use the chainsaw correctly. Just because Hell will not last forever does not mean we should cannonball into the Lake of Fire. The punishment is not the ultimate point anyway. Christ is. If our humanity functions at its best when it properly worships and obeys its Creator, then that is our task and our song regardless of whether or not punishment will result from disobedience. This objections runs the risk of making avoidance of Hell, instead of the beauty of Christ, the reason why someone should repent—the very reason why Jonathan Edwards threw away his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” after only a few preachings. He was no Universalist, but he knew the dangers of emphasizing Hell in quickening sermons instead of emphasizing Christ.

This exploration of mine has several movements that I will develop in the posts to come. Feel free to interact and ask questions as much as you wish. I have not finished this exploration, and much is at stake, but I am looking forward to the rest of the journey.

The Spectrum of Atheism

prism-and-refraction-of-light-into-rainbow-AJHDThere’s a story we tell ourselves as atheists. It goes a little something like this: “I used to believe silly things, but now I’m different. I’m smarter than what I was, than what the people that I was like still are, and I don’t fall for the things that they still do. All I need is a good set of books, some friends to discuss ideas with, and I can solve any problem.”

This story is a lie.

The truth is that we’ve given up our previous beliefs for any number of reasons. The truth is that we’re not all that different from people who still believe. And the truth is that we can’t just rely on ourselves to think our way out of every problem.

We have made great strides in little more than a decade. Long the domain of esoteric philosophers and apologists, the intellectual force of atheism is stronger now than ever, and a cultural tide is already building underneath the waves. We have much to be proud of, many successes, many victories. But in many neighborhoods, those triumphs ring hollow. Because although we have done reasonably well welcoming women and sexual minorities into our movement, when it comes to engaging with and connecting to other communities, we have failed.

We have FAILED.

We have failed the young Black woman who showed up years ago at an atheist group I attended, who had one simple question that none of us could answer: “Do you know any other Black atheists?”

We have failed when hundreds queue for hours for the chance to get an autograph from an old white guy at a national atheist convention, yet only one person appears at the hour-long signing scheduled for the only Black woman who spoke at the event.

We have failed the two young Black guys who traveled to a skeptic convention to learn and sharpen their debating skills, but returned back home without a community to benefit from their knowledge, and without an audience to encourage them.

We have failed as long as our conventions and grassroots organizations’ speakers and attendees consistently under-represent background demographics. Many, many of us have thought long and hard about how to solve this problem. And yet still we gather together, a sea of white faces barely peppered with color, unable to transform our movement into the inclusive, diverse tapestry that we hope (I hope!) for.

These failures pass silently by White suburbia; they aren’t felt in the Apple Store. They cross into other neighborhoods where they fester in the sun, slowly eating away at communities that friendly, open-minded, White folks like me never see except on the evening news. These failures are easy to ignore when we’re surrounded by schools that are well-funded, our public spaces are immaculately landscaped, and we eat cheap fried food as a sinful indulgence, not as economic necessity.

The stench of failure is hard to bear, and no less so for me. My parents went to great lengths to teach me to love and respect people of all colors – taught by showing, and by doing. I was transferred to a predominantly Black school that had a tremendous yet unsung academic reputation. There, for the first time I was in an environment where Black was the norm, where most of my teachers and friends didn’t look like me. And so I didn’t hesitate when I crushed hard on the cute girl who wore blue ribbons to hold back her kinky black hair, who was the only other person in class to beat me in multiplication drills, and who kissed me in gratitude after I beat up the boy calling her names on the playground one day.

But look, I’m no Freedom Rider. I was just a kid relating naturally to the people around me, doing the best I could. Years later, I was asked to help organize an aging atheist group in North Texas. The people were intelligent, interesting, and in severe demographic deficiency. So overwhelmingly monochromatic was its collection of old White men, that it heightened my own label-awareness even more than being a token White kid in a Black grade school. I don’t like thinking about myself that way, even though Louis C.K. is right, it is pretty awesome to be what I am. To have the labels I have. The opportunities I’ve been given. But there’s a darker side as well.

How much of who I am comes from me, and how much comes from the advantages I had, the privileges I enjoy? Did my parents and my teachers, even my Black teachers, encourage me more than other students because even subconsciously they thought the little White boy should be smarter than the rest? Did I get considered for jobs over other candidates because someone thought, “now there’s a White guy I can trust?” Why is it I’ve never seen a single store security officer watching me? Never been stopped ‘randomly’ by the police? Petty anxieties, I know, but what’s most troubling is this: do I really know what’s going through the head of someone of a different color, someone who is treated so differently by our culture than me?

The answer, I think, is NO.

For me to feel the queasiness of demographic insignificance, I have to work especially hard. I have to cross those railroad tracks, I have to walk into a Black Baptist church, I have to wrench my assumptions free of the White Supremacist culture that nestles and comforts primarily those who look like me. But for some among us, the weight of ethnic identity begins to crush as soon as they walk out their front doors. And no matter how hard I try, no matter how rational I try to be, no matter how successful I am at looking past my significant cultural privilege, I just can’t share that experience. And neither can any of my White brothers and sisters in the atheist movement. The moment a new person of color walks in the door of our Freethinking and Humanist organizations, no matter how inclusive and understanding we want to be, there is a cultural divide that we simply cannot fathom.

And the only way to cross that divide is to acknowledge, first and foremost, that we can’t navigate it ourselves. That we can’t think our way past this problem. That we are not qualified to be ambassadors to members of a population that has been systematically beaten down by the same culture which raises us up. Don’t get me wrong, being nice White folks is necessary. Being open to conversations about diversity and cultural privilege is necessary. Being willing to cross those tracks and feel uncomfortable and experience minority is necessary.

But it is NOT sufficient.

We have been exceptionally fortunate. The atheist community has been lucky enough to attract a first wave of Black activists who have been willing to step into a community that privileges intellectualism and academia over the real-world concerns of their communities of origin. They have crossed our thresholds sometimes leaving one foot outside, waiting for that sinking-stomach feeling of ethnic isolation yet again, and perhaps only staying because their biological family is on the other side of a smoking bridge, or because their kids need friends to play with, or because they lucked into a personal connection. We have been wise enough to recognize some few of them as pioneers, invite them to our gatherings, and offer them our podiums. But we have not listened to them. We have not listened to the criticisms of the atheist community as a function of the overarching White culture, we have not listened to stories of personal struggle that are fundamentally different from our own, and we have not listened to the urgent pleas that ask our movement to increase its focus on social justice and diversity outreach. We have been presented with clear directions, clear guidance, and clear leaders, but we do not take them seriously.

That is why it has become necessary to create a new paradigm to serve our atheist brothers and sisters of color. Not because we don’t want to be inclusive (of course we do), not because we have given up on promoting diversity (though we can still do much better), and not because Black and Latino atheists are just sick of waiting for us to get our collective act together (though they could hardly be faulted for feeling that way). It’s because, despite our best intentions and efforts, the atheist community as it exists today, as an overwhelmingly White culture, simply cannot provide a home that is welcoming enough, nor supportive enough, for people whose experiences so profoundly transcend our own that we cannot even properly empathize with them.

But we CAN help.

We can help by refracting our communities. The general atheist and skeptic community at large is not going away, and it will remain overwhelmingly White for years to come. But we can adjust the optics if we set at least one room aside, specifically for our Black brothers and sisters to come together to be able to share their experiences with each other and empathize with their own unique struggles. We can dedicate a percentage of our resources every day, not just once a year, to advancing an agenda on behalf of minority populations who otherwise would not have a sufficiently loud voice in our forum. We can do this, and we should do this, for our brothers and sisters in the Black community, the Latino community, all our atheist sisters and people of non-privileged sexual identities. We should create these areas of specialization, these safe ports of entry, and then purposely and considerately support them within the context of the general secular community. Doing so will not diminish our goal of inclusiveness, but it will maximize the impact of our full spectrum.

There are many ways this can be done. Outreach projects can be spearheaded by those who have ties within the culture they serve, but be promoted and supported by the wider community at large. Social connections can be forged first at the level of shared experience, serving a special minority population, and then integrated into the larger calendar of events for each community. Large gatherings are the perfect opportunity to bring those from several different populations and demographics together to learn and share with each other. Nothing we do should happen in a vacuum. Every major city in America now has a robust grassroots secular community, overwhelmingly White, heterosexual, and male – now is the time to refract them, to build specialized areas within those communities to reach out to and welcome atheists of color, women, those with marginalized sexual identities, and any other non-privileged groups that exist. This is a call for diversity, not homogenization. Diversity brings new flavors and new experiences to the forefront, but homogenization blends everything together into a milky mess. Diversity also breeds strength and flexibility – what the general secular community cannot do on it’s own, our Black brothers and sisters can find a way to achieve. Or the Black and Latino communities working together, or the Latino and Women’s communities, or the Women’s and GLBT communities, or any possible permutation of these, each with the weight of the general secular community behind them in support.

That is my vision for the future of the atheist community. We do not need color-blind atheists, we need our community to be color-aware. By celebrating our differences and respecting our boundaries, we have the potential to go beyond the best efforts of our religious friends and neighbors, to create a Humanist kaleidoscope view of the world which is able to understand, empathize, and work with any community of people anywhere in the world.

We have failed, yes. But the lessons our failures teach are usually the most important of all. We are now on the cusp of a new chapter in our community’s history. Will we continue to insist on viewing our world monochromatically, as we have always done? Or will we take the step that admits our limitations, acknowledges our privilege, and creates the brilliant rainbow that I think we’re all desperately searching for?