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?

A Conversation With A Gay Christian

This last Friday night afforded me the opportunity to hang out with my best friend and his co-workers at The Dubliner on Greenville. I had the pleasure of meeting some cool new people, including a married lesbian couple. I don’t get this opportunity very often so I wanted to not only get to know my friend’s co-workers, but also see what I could learn and put some of my recent thinking on this subject to the test.

I had a brief conversation with one of the girls in which I minced no words explaining that I needed a better understanding of the issue of homosexuality and marriage, particularly regarding its relationship to Christianity. I did not lay it on too thick since I don’t ever want to “use” anyone just to get information and, since we had just met, I didn’t want to be a tool. We saw eye-to-eye on several things and didn’t take the conversation very far. I made a friend and was happy with that (she also let me check out her new iPhone 5 since mine had not arrived yet.)

Later on that evening, I had a chance to talk for quite a while with her spouse. I could not have anticipated this kind of discussion in all my life. This girl was raised Christian and still wanted to follow Jesus with all her heart, soul, and mind. I admitted my ambivalence but made it clear that judgement is not my thing and that I would rather communicate love in areas that aren’t as clear as many of us think than to alienate anyone. What I did not expect was that she empathized with my ambivalence. She didn’t know what to think, either.

So there we were—two people trying to figure out how to best follow Jesus. Both of us more repentant in some areas than others. Both of us ruminating on the mercy of God extending to every Christian who is not now and never will be fully repentant (at least not enough to stop sinning.) I told her many things that night, but the last thing I said to her was, “Don’t give up.” I hope that even an atheist having a conversation with her, seeing how much she loves Jesus, would tell her the same thing. That a Christian, who isn’t sure about what Scripture teaches on the subject (which we discussed for a while—anyone who thinks it’s as clear as many say it is has not done their exegetical or historical homework, or stopped when enough evangelical writers confirmed what they already wanted to think) would tell her the same thing.

Why do we feel the need to “win” this battle? Why do we want to levy political help to force our point? It pains me to think that another believer (who, in all fairness, is highly likely to be much more faithful than I in so many other areas) would do anything less than communicate God’s mercy, love, and grace toward us all. How repentant does someone need to be before you judge them worthy of your reiteration of God’s love for them? Does the cross fail to be an example at that point? Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” about the people who knowingly put him to death. Yet we assume that those who cannot imagine being anything other than gay somehow have a fuller knowledge and “know what they do” to the point where we’d rather win some apologetical battle than communicate the depth of the mercy and love of Christ as shown on the cross.

I can’t take that pill anymore. I’ve done my homework. I’ve weighed these issues carefully. I keep listening with the knowledge that I could very well be wrong. But until I have some face-to-face with God about the less-clear issues wherein He blesses my hermeneutic, I think I’ll go with what all Christians know is crystal clear: that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient, and that it shows God’s love to every one of us who is not fully repentant, and that it’s our responsibility to God and to others to communicate that.

Christians and Homosexuality—Part II

Historically, Christians have lost in the public arena. That is how it all began, in fact, with the greatest loss, the death of Jesus of Nazareth. His policies were not forced or voted upon to be implemented. He did not rally like-minded people for His cause. He gave up, lost, humbled himself. He loved while still proclaiming his message.

What would it cost a Christian to love without pretense? We hear of our offenses against those whom we invited to this or that social function if only to “witness” to them. Our message is so great we belie its patience and humility through our forced “boiling down” of the message and trickery. What if we gave up this battle against homosexual unions? What would it really cost us?

We tire of “the left” preaching tolerance when it seems to have tolerance only with its like-minded constituents, which is agreement, not tolerance. Yet we pretend to accept everyone with our gospel message while declaring war on them. Are we afraid that we don’t possess enough love? That God can’t love people despite their sin? Are we so sin-free that complete repentance is demanded of everyone else before we will give them an opportunity?

I want to take things a step further. What do we lose even if homosexuality is merely a preference? What battle are we really fighting? When did the gospel—allegedly our greatest responsibility—take a backseat to the issue of American citizens’ rights to homosexual civil unions? I ask because I don’t see the stand against intoxication, which is already legal. I don’t see the stand against obesity, which is already legal.

The point is not to give up and allow anything and everything. The point is to pick our battles against the right things. We are battling sin; not homosexuals. How much greater would our message of hope and love be if we conceded all the ground we feel entitled to in order to present a humble, weakened, compassionate, understanding Gospel? What impact has the gospel had in our lives that we attribute to Jesus campaigning and dividing the country on political issues? None—we proclaim his humility, his love, his willingness to die with the sinners and become one himself.

Can we still point sinful people toward the gospel? I certainly hope so. The world is sick and Jesus is its healer. Sinful people need to be pointed toward Jesus. We don’t need any more people being pointed toward homosexuals and pretending they are the enemy. We don’t need any more bad logic that says allowing homosexual unions means not preaching truthfully about sin. Do we really need to identify everyone’s individual sins before we can feel good about preaching the gospel? We are all born into sin, into a broken system. Suppose you do “fix” that gay girl or guy, what about their pride? What about their lust? What about their anger? What about their idolatry? What about their greed? Do you also need to beat them over the head about those things? Or can you stand firm in the truth of the Gospel that all are under the power of sin and all need freedom from it?

Picture this: you support homosexual unions and can tell a gay couple that you fought for their civil rights because you believe in their humanity and dignity as such; not as trickery or a “foot in the door,” but as a true display of humble love. You then let them know that you have tried to love as Jesus did, by humbling yourself even where you weren’t sure or disagreed; not to add another church-goer but because such a message of love ought to be proclaimed. You refused to dehumanize them because you love them. That is tolerance. You might have been sure that homosexual activity was sinful, but how sure were you that you needed to oppose it like you did? How sure were you that it was “the” issue it has become? How sure were you that you spent as much time sharing the gospel or sending money to impoverished people?

How much time did Jesus spend condemning people and fighting against their public rights?

How much time did Jesus spend welcoming outcasts, feeding the hungry, proclaiming hope despite sinfulness?

Christians and Homosexuality—Part I

I say “Christians and Homosexuality” instead of “Christianity and Homosexuality” or “Christ and Homosexuality” because I cannot speak on behalf of the latter two with any real confidence. I can suppose, derive, conclude, and assume; but none of those things would prove official enough. I can, however, speak on behalf of myself—a Christian—as well as on behalf of those Christians with whom I have spoken. Perhaps “Some” should go at the front of the title, but I’d like to retain enough gravity without the presumption.

Talking Past One Another

Christians who understand homosexuality as a personal preference do not understand why such a thing should carry so much weight. Of all the personal preferences humans have, why should this one make the headlines, alter legislature, or assume civil rights status?

Others, including some Christians, who understand homosexuality as equal to race or color do not understand why opponents would cite an ancient text in defense of limiting the civil rights of a group of human beings.

Do you see where we talk past one another? Both sides have a responsibility that each too infrequently assumes.

For Christians opposed to homosexual practice (as opposed to attraction without practice only) there needs to be a realization that, throughout its history, Christianity has been willing to bend and flex with science without risking biblical authority. With six years of formal exegetical training under my belt, I am fully aware of the limits within which the exegete must work. In other words, the Bible can only say so much and we can only make so much room for interpretation before we run out of textual warrant for the various interpretations we make. This does not mean that anything goes, or that anything is possible, nor that we cannot be fairly firm in our convictions about what the Bible teaches. It does mean, however, that we cannot be as reactionary. If patience is a fruit of the Spirit, our public presence should reflect that. If we are truly confident that God’s authority is behind the Bible, then we need not worry.

We need to decide what is really at stake in this discussion. I have yet to hear of such phobia, anger, outrage, and push for legislation over divorce—an infinitely more devastating problem than homosexuality could ever pose to traditional marriage. Two gay guys getting married has absolutely nothing to do with the sanctity of my marriage. It just doesn’t. Me not loving my wife like Christ loves the church? Me feeding sexual urges outside of my marriage? Where are the picketers for that? Where’s the presidential statement against that? Until I see people lined up outside of court houses protesting another divorce between two church-goers, I’ll not take seriously anyone’s “defense” of the sanctity of marriage or arguments against homosexual unions outside of those same court houses.

For others, including some Christians, defending homosexuality as a civil rights issue, please exercise patience and good judgment and take the time to actually explain things. Emotional outbursts and marches and parades certainly bring awareness and have their place; but they seldom teach anything to anyone who doesn’t already support the cause. They serve as public debates wherein the opposition hears no real argument and is given no opportunity to offer a real rebuttal. I know countless Christians, including myself, who are all-ears on this issue, waiting for good reason to overturn what was nearly universal opinion until relatively recently—that homosexuality was a merely a preference. Why? Because we strive to be people marked by love. Jesus was infinitely patient with the social outcasts of His day and we want to be just like Jesus. He also stood for things. Many things. So, we will stand where we need to while still being loving.

Christians are not bigots or homophobes for trying to be faithful to the God of the universe. If you believe that such a god exists, and act in accordance with what you think that god expects, then you are acting consistently as well as intelligently. No, really, if you think a god is “out there” and its opinion is the ultimate one and that there are consequences for siding against that god, anyone expecting you to be hypocritical about that is a fool. Granted, being faithful to God often takes forms that are anything but faithful and indeed bring shame and disgrace to the name of Jesus. But on what planet could you really lump together Billy Graham and the hateful punks of that “church” in Kansas?

That said, the argument against limiting freedom to a group of people because of their sexuality is a solid one, if indeed that sexuality is not a simple preference. If it is a simple preference, like ice cream or shoes, then it does not deserve the impact it’s having. If it does, then NAMBLA actually has a point (God forbid.) But be more proactive in educating people about the issue. Do you have solid scientific evidence that supports your view? Great! Then act consistently within the worldview to which you adhere and present your case on your terms. Holding on to what you know to be solid evidence while expecting others to bend to your emotional whims is not only irrational but ineffective. There are many who will listen, but not to nonsensical ravings. The Christian worldview has quite a history of being compatible with various philosophical systems, scientific theories, and sociological data. What would a truly “humanist” worldview look like if it promoted true tolerance and found solutions for bringing the myriad facets of humanity under one umbrella without the destructive hand-waving anger of a Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens? Anyone can be angry and exclude others; but true peacemakers appreciate the mess for what it is and work to bring the messy into the fold of the allegedly neat, which is what Jesus did.

In conclusion, each side talks past the other and both are too seldom willing to sit and listen, to actually consider the other viewpoints and maybe give a little ground here and there. Are we so committed to the “grey” areas that the only means of arriving there are “black-and-white” battles? And what if the evidence points the other way, for either side? Will that side be willing to admit a mistake? If you’re reading this and are already convinced that homosexuality is not a preference, that this is a civil rights issue, that Christians not on your side are dead wrong, how willing are you to back down if the evidence points the other way? Are you hanging your hat on evidence or on something else? As a Christian who believes in the authority of the God who somehow inspired the original words of Scripture, I’m willing to let some things go. I’m willing to admit wrong and to let God be God where I cannot be. I’m willing to let two gay guys have a wedding and get tax breaks and visit each other in the hospital. But don’t expect me to simply take your word for things, and I won’t expect you to believe the things I do.