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?

On the Virtue of Disagreement

For most of my young life, I went with the flow. I was a good kid, following orders, obeying my parents, doing well in school. I can count on one hand the number of times I actually had any discipline issues with authority figures.

But midway through high school, I decided to become a contrarian. Clearly, intentionally, and without hesitation. Now, I know that this is in no way unique, but it was a watershed moment for my own development, and I still carry the tendency even today for my brain to start itching ever so slightly if I haven’t had a good dustup in a long while. I adopted the attitude of “if I haven’t pissed off someone today, I haven’t been doing my job.”

Things came to a head when a classmate of mine, a girl for whom I’d previously harbored a secret crush, discovered feminism. She began to test the volume of her roar, and I took that as a signal to respond. Crossing swords over our adolescence-addled understanding of gender theory in English class, in the instrument locker, and at the lunchtable couldn’t have been more ridiculous or less important, but it was FUN.

At least, it was up until the moment of desperate frustration when she said to me, “Where do you get the right to your opinion?”

Whatever that opinion may have been, it’s been lost to the mists of memory. But the question remains, stirring up subtle feelings of shock and anger even today. Where did I get the right to challenge her, to express an opinion that contradicted her, to tell her that she was wrong?

Years later, my opinions, such as they were, have changed dramatically. With regard to feminism, I find myself much more sympathetic to the point of view that she was attempting to articulate at the time, even if my philosophical presuppositions have shifted dramatically from where hers (and mine) used to be (and, I presume, hers still are). I was wrong to think that, as I maintained even through college, the role of women in society should be determined by the writings held sacred by a particular religious community.

Some years back, I went online and searched for a letter I wrote to the student newspaper of my college. Published in the “opinion” section, it was titled “Women are Gifts from God,” and established (so I thought) my utmost respect for a class of people that was so favored by the divine that boundaries had been erected for their own protection. My mother thought it was lovely and shared it with her friends, physical evidence of my upstanding religiosity and faithfulness. A fellow student published a contradictory letter the following day, titled “Women are More than Gifts,” which called out my pious chauvinism and deftly deflated my spiritual ego. Though at the time I was angry and offended, my apostasy has significantly changed that perspective. A few years ago, I found my opponent’s email address and sent her a decade-belated note of appreciation, noting that her criticism at the time had finally been recognized and valued.

As an apostate, being wrong is a part of my history, a part of my identity. The realization that I was truly, seriously, emphatically wrong on one of the most important questions of the human condition is always with me. And I think for many people, there is a significant tendency towards anxiety of error, which is why those in psychology spend time studying the strong effects of confirmation bias.

I can see why that would be the case. Being wrong doesn’t just mean “incorrect” or “untrue.” We use the same word to mean “unjust,” “dishonest,” and “immoral.” The latest billboard campaign by the Freedom From Religion Foundation makes use of this double-meaning to antagonize the Catholic Church.

An erstwhile Catholic, now apostate.

And I think that people in general tend to internalize that second meaning of the word, so much so that to be wrong about something, even sincerely wrong, is to be thought of as being a bad person in some way. But being trained as a scientist, I had to accept being wrong as a fact of professional life. Being wrong about any given hypothesis is, scientifically speaking, just as interesting as being right. And I think that can be true about life in general.

Which is why I’m so in favor of disagreement.

Having a different opinion than someone else, coming to different conclusions, applying a different interpretation – this is essential. Without this interplay, the crossing of rhetorical swords, there’s virtually no chance of change. Assumptions go unchallenged, presuppositions remain undisturbed, and our personal paradigms rest sleepily in our subconscious.

Don’t think that I don’t like to be right. Of course I do, just like we all do, but I don’t want to be right by personal fiat. I want to be right if and only if what I think corresponds with reality. And the best way to test my rightness is to see if I’m wrong. It’s my hope that championing disagreement not as a personal slight, but as an intellectual virtue, will lead to the edification of us all.

So please, let’s agree to disagree. OK?

The Trouble With Women

“The church is a terrible engine of oppression, especially as concerns women.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Last year, I had the opportunity to visit a local megachurch’s men’s conference, and report back about the goings-on there. One of the things that I noticed was the servile-and-separate role that was played by the women in the congregation, who cooked and cleaned and hand-delivered ice cream sandwiches to guys watching other guys punch each other in the mouth.

(Yes, this happened in a church. It’s also, not coincidentally, the same church where the pastor bedded his wife on the roof and tried to arrange a zoo for Easter this year. So, you know, it’s that kind of church.)

To me, the way that these gender roles were accepted and presumably defined by the organizers was icky at best, and downright insulting at worst. But more importantly, I was probably the only person out of the thousand-or-so attendees who thought so. And just over a decade ago, I would most likely not have noticed them at all. As a young Christian, I happily accepted the typical gender dynamics of the religious culture (Man as the “head,” Woman as the “helpmeet”), and was particularly proud of myself for writing an opinion piece for my college paper that lauded women as precious “gifts from God.”

After my apostasy those views changed dramatically, to say the least. My dating patterns changed as well, and I began to seek out women whose courage and strength mirrored and transcended my own. I even married the best of the bunch. As I became involved in the atheist community, two things were clear: there were similar women to be found, but few had a voice. One of the first things that I did was to take an organization led by two men, and create a directing board populated by equal numbers of men and women. When founding the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, the original board was overwhelmingly female. In fact, I was the only male director until the first official election, when a more equivalent balance resumed.

This was not something that was particularly orchestrated, or a long-running conspiracy to tinker with the gender balance of a local organization. Rather, it was an instinctive desire (shared by many in addition to myself) to make the local secular community welcoming to both sexes. And the easiest way to do that, in my own humble opinion, is to find female leaders, put them in charge, and get the fuck out of their way.

This strategy has paid massive dividends. Across the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason, the gender distribution is 60% male, 40% female. This remains consistent in both of the largest member organizations, the Metroplex Atheists and the aforementioned FoFDallas. Not coincidentally, both of those organizations also have leadership boards that are at least 40% female. (We’re still working on racial and ethnic diversity.)

That’s why it’s so disappointing to hear about sexism in the atheist community at large, which has been an unfortunately recurring theme over the past few years. Last year’s “Elevatorgate” incident boiled over the atheist blogosphere like nothing I’d ever seen before (although the FoFDallas did an excellent job analyzing and contextualizing the issues locally). This year, it appears to be another minor comment in the wake of the Women in Secularism conference (a landmark event which will hopefully not be overshadowed by the brewing controversy). Instead of the intrepid Rebecca Watson advising potential suitors to avoid late-night elevator propositions, this time around it’s Jen McCreight who let slip some inside baseball about icky male speakers.

Yes, it’s disappointing. But it’s important. And here’s why.

To my own great discredit, I’ve been privy to some of the same advice that Jen received (although couched in a different context), and it didn’t occur to me that this would be a concern to women. Not even once. Oh, sure, I thought “ew, gross” to myself a few times, and made a mental checklist of which speakers I did and did not want to associate with, but that’s as far as my concern went. I suppose that’s about what would be expected from someone with my level of societal privilege, but frankly that’s not good enough.

I should be held to a higher standard. We all should. And I offer my gratitude to Jen for (unknowingly) raising my consciousness about this issue. I’ll never look at it the same way again.

If organizations within the secular movement want to represent men and women equally, then they’ll need to stand as strongly on that principle as they do on any other issue. Don’t talk about advancing humanism if you can’t provide an environment where women feel safe. I suspect that conferences and conventions are more at risk than local organizations; people tend to act with less social restraint when they’re on the road, I’ve observed. So if it’s the case that you know what I know and Jen knows (and presumably other insiders know), please make a point to disinvite those individuals to your next event. I know I will, attendance be damned – the secular community does not exist for the purpose of organizing conventions, and we don’t need conventions to exist as a community.

If we in the secular community are truly serious about providing a counterpoint to the perceived oppression of women by religious institutions, then we’d damned sure better act like it. The next secular event I attend or organize will have a clear anti-harassment policy or it won’t happen. Simple as that.