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.]

The Good Atheist

I can remember it like it was yesterday.

Standing at a microphone in the back room of his large Southern Baptist church, a young guy with an short but athletic build and close-cropped red hair stared blankly at the three atheists who were being interviewed for an adult Sunday School class. One of their number, a thin middle-aged man with glasses and a limp brown ponytail, had just asked the redhead what he would do if he discovered that God, in fact, did not exist.

“I suppose,” he began with some trepidation, “I’d go out and rape and steal and murder.”

The atheist replied, “Then I think we’ve all learned something about your character, no matter whether or not there’s a God.”

That moment stuck with me, hard. The entire experience did, in fact. I spent the next couple years with feet in both worlds; on most Sundays, I could be found right back at that Southern Baptist church, listening and discussing issues of theology and apologetics with the others in that Sunday School class. And once a month, I made my home with the atheists who’d come out that day, learning with them and discussing issues of philosophy, ethics, and the human experience.

I was attracted to both groups for a number of reasons. For one, I had only recently apostatized from orthodox Christianity, and I was exploring the idea of retaining my Christian identity while realigning my beliefs as a freethinker. For another, I was frankly disturbed to read about the terrible experiences my fellow apostates posted with relentless regularity online; I had grown up with only good experiences in churches, and with fellow believers, and I was hoping to reassure myself that houses of worship were still home to many, many good people. And finally, although spending time with the freethinking atheists was a tremendous joy for me intellectually, it did little to exercise my charitable impulses.

For that, I had to spend time with the Christians.

My favorite activity was something the church called their “Evening Stars” program. One Friday a month, members and other volunteers show up at the church’s children’s center at 6:00PM where families can drop off their special-needs children (and siblings) for an evening of respite. For my wife and I, it was a bit out of our comfort zone (having no children of our own, and precious little experience with them either), but at only a few hours a month it was an easy thing to do. And not, unfortunately, an activity that we could find among our local atheist organizations.

But that began to change. As our band of heathens began to expand and mature, those of us with experience in community outreach began to suggest activities that were less cerebral, and more charitable. Soon, I found myself doing as much good in my neighborhood in the company of infidels as I had previously with the faithful. And then when I heard that Dale McGowan, already considered by many to be the man who beat the humanist heart of the New Atheist movement, was starting a new foundation to encourage and empower charitable expression among the growing demographic of nonbelievers, I latched on immediately.

The Foundation Beyond Belief started in 2010 with little more than Dale’s good intentions and hard work, entering a landscape already dominated with some of secular humanism’s heaviest hitters. Both the American Humanist Association and the Center For Inquiry had charitable initiatives that had been in place for several years, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation had also recently started its very own. However, these existing charities all focused primarily on disaster relief, whereas the Foundation Beyond Belief sought to encourage regular giving patterns among atheists and humanists. As if that wasn’t enough of an uphill battle, Dale also felt strongly that the Foundation Beyond Belief should be able to work together with non-proselytizing religious charities who share our humanist values, despite their deep and profound theological disagreements with the atheists he hoped to recruit as members.

And yet, somehow it worked.

Today, the Foundation Beyond Belief has announced that their effort to herd the cats of the atheist community around the banner of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society has resulted in a total donation of $430,000, the largest-ever amount raised by a non-corporate team for the Society’s “Light the Night Walk.” Co-sponsored by the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, who matched every individual donation dollar for dollar, this achievement brought together 150 teams of atheists all over the country, all over North America even, with contributions and support by local and national groups like American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, Atheist Alliance of America, Camp Quest, the Center for Inquiry, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Secular Student Alliance, and the United Coalition of Reason.

But that’s only part of the story. The Foundation Beyond Belief also has over 1300 members who in just a few short years have donated enough to bring the grand total of humanist giving through the Foundation to nearly $900,000. And the Foundation Beyond Belief isn’t just all about the money. There is a network of grassroots organizations, just like my own in Dallas, which participates in volunteer outreach activities like bringing meals to lonely veterans, spending time with animals in shelters, and donating gallons of blood to patients in desperate need. Nearly three thousand atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists participate in the Volunteers Beyond Belief program, each of whom give of themselves, give of their time, give of their talents, not because a book tells them to, not because a god tells them to, but because their conscience, their empathy, their basic human decency propels them into it.

I’m not worried about how I would respond to a world without gods. I have no inclination to rape, murder, and steal; my previous beliefs did not bind my worst instincts, but neither did they give flight to the better angels of my nature. As my fellow freethinkers begin to experience the thrill of secular charity, or the humanist compassion that is embodied by organizations like the Foundation Beyond Belief, then I think that people like my redheaded friend will find that life’s most perplexing questions have answers they didn’t quite expect.

The Truce on Christmas

Oh I’m a Christian holiday; I’m a symbol of original sin.
I’ve a pagan tree and a magical wreath and bow-tie on my chin!
Oh I’m a pagan heresy; I’m a tragical Catholic shrine
I’m a little bit shy, with a lazy eye, and a penchant for sublime.
Oh I’m a mystical apostasy; I’m a horse with a fantasy twist
Though I play all night with my magical kite, people say I don’t exist.
For I make no full apology; for the category I reside
I’m a mythical mess with a treasury chest; I’m a construct of your mind.

-Sufjan Stevens, “Christmas Unicorn

Though an atheist, I still enjoy putting up Christmas decorations, and I’m not alone in that regard.

On my fireplace, a long plastic evergreen bough snakes between an Irish Santa Claus, a Polish Angel, and a sitting Buddha. To the right is my childhood Christmas teddy bear, wearing a red sleeping cap trimmed with white fur, and to the left are Christmas cards from friends and family. In my refrigerator, a turkey from some Muslim friends waits patiently for the tandoori treatment, while homemade peppermint ice cream slowly freezes below. On my Christmas tree, fragile glass ornaments from my wife’s family intermingle with clunky ceramic trinkets from my youth as well as those I’ve collected from my various skeptical and atheist organizations. Hanging behind it are stockings for our son, our two cats, and one that reminds children to fear the wrath of Krampus. Opposite the tannenbaum are a family of snowmen surrounding a menorah, driedel, and gelt. All are framed by glittering white lights that wash the entrance to my house with a warm glow, echoed by seasonal candles in every window.

I think Tertullian would approve:

“Let, therefore, them who have no light, light their lamps daily; let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. You are a light of the world, and a tree ever green. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple.”

-Tertullian of Carthage, “On Idolatry”

No surprise then, to find out that this patristic Grinch didn’t celebrate Christmas. Indeed, it wasn’t even until the end of the Fourth Century that St. John Chrysostom in Antioch sought to make the 25th of December the official day to recognize Christ’s birth. A day which, as it happened, also celebrated the birth of the Unconquered Sun (Natalis Solis Invictus), though Chrysostom dismissed the coincidence: “But they call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered.’ Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord…? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice.”

Thus the early Christian fathers snubbed the original “reason for the season,” namely axial tilt.

Cultures the world over, and throughout human history, have celebrated the annual death and rebirth of the sun, typically with feasting, lights, decorations, and singing. These serve a practical purpose as well as symbolic; the solstice is the darkest of the dark days of winter, when good cheer is at a premium; also heralding the beginning of the coldest months of the year, during which extra livestock become a liability. At this time, the beasts are slaughtered, the new wine is drunk, and the candles are lit while all engage in revelry.

“The delusion you’re trying to cure is called ‘Christmas,’ Duncan. It’s the crazy notion that the longest, darkest nights can be the warmest and brightest. And when we all agree to support each other in that insanity, something even crazier happens. It becomes true. Works every year, like clockwork.”

-Community, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas

In many ways, the history of Christmas is the history of Christianity itself. As the Western and Eastern churches solidified their power and influence over Eurasia, Christmas adapted itself to the particular cultural mores of each society. The Catholic bishop of a minor Turkish town, whose only notable career achievement was being present during the routing of Arianism during the Council of Nicaea, inexplicably spawned a tradition of gift-giving among the children of Germanic people who lived a thousand miles away. Though the precise origins of this practice are lost to the mists of history, the myth has clearly eclipsed the man.

Saint Nicholas, usually with an unsavory helper (such as the demonic Krampus in Austria, Knecht Ruprecht in Germany, or Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands), settled into the well-worn route first used by the perennial visits of Odin during the midwinter festival of Yule. With Nick and friends were blended other traditions, such as the blood-sacrificing Wrenboys among the Celts, the harvest-celebrating Wassailers among the British, and the life-affirming Mistletoe throughout Northern Europe. Thus did Holy Mother Church pacify the newly-baptized heathens, by recontextualizing their idiosyncrasies within the ever-expanding boundaries of orthodoxy.

Undoubtedly, it was this Catholic indulgence of paganism that gave the Reformers absolute fits about the holiday. Martin Luther evicted the papish Nicholas and conscripted the Christ-Child himself to distribute holiday presents, and John Calvin (though he personally found moderate Christmas celebrations acceptable) through his theology influenced the Calvinist Reformers to abolish the holiday in Geneva in the 16th century, as well as in the Scottish Presbyterian Church.

“…holy days of certain saints commanded by man, such as be all those that the Papists have invented, as the feasts (as they term them) of apostles, martyrs, virgins, of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, and other fond feasts of our lady. Which things, because in God’s scriptures they neither have commandment nor assurance, we judge them utterly to be abolished from this realm; affirming further, that the obstinate maintainers and teachers of such abominations ought not to escape the punishment of the civil magistrate.”

-Church of Scotland, “First Book of Discipline (1560)

This theology emigrated to the United States with the British Puritans, and though they could not always ban festivities, made it reasonably clear that European-style revelry was not welcome in the New World. As Cotton Mather suggested (when speaking of not celebrating Christmas), “Good Men may love one another, and may treat one another with a most Candid Charity, while he that Regardeth a Day, Regardeth it unto the Lord, and he that Regardeth not the Day, also shows his Regard unto the Lord, in his not Regarding of it…” Indeed, the traditional American Christmas was in danger of being stillborn, were it not for the “Knickerbockers,” a literary circle that included Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Clement Clarke Moore. The former was the author of much of America’s early mythology, and reimagined the rowdy English customs of yore as quaint, cozy, and centered on the family. The latter is best known as the poet responsible for the 1822 verse “A Visit From Saint Nicholas,” (also known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), which reoriented the European figure for an American audience.

It was just this gift-giving character that thrilled Yankee merchants eager to sell toys and other trinkets to parents who were increasingly becoming softer in their child-rearing. Thus this refocus on the commercial aspects of the holiday season also depended on the emphasis of familial connection, both of which persist to modern day. Between Thomas Nast and the Coca-Cola Company, the standardization of the Santa Claus imagery and costume by the beginning of the 20th century had become an internationally-recognized signal of the season. From there, it was really only a matter of time before Kris Kringle replaced the Kristkindle as the primary representative of the holiday, along with the department store endorsements, coruscating displays of excess, and pink aluminum Christmas trees that lead many to recoil from the season’s consumerism (though Libanius noted similar excess regarding Saturnalia/Kalends in the fourth century).

“I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”

-Charlie Brown, “A Charlie Brown Christmas

As a boy, one of my earliest memories of the holiday is of the Ku Klux Klan seeking to and succeeding in placing a cross on Cincinnati’s Fountain Square, in competition with a menorah that had been erected to recognize the Jewish solstice festival of Hanukkah. Although the specific ramifications of the First Amendment to the Constitution were beyond my grasp at the time, I do recall understanding that, at least within a public space, even if one doesn’t like the message being presented, fair is fair.

Which is a concept seemingly inaccessible to the likes of Bill O’Reilly and his co-combatants in the War on Christmas:

Though his protestations and presumptions are likely to send atheists and Christians alike into apoplexy, O’Reilly voices the oft-irrational concerns of the common American: in this case, that the godless heathens are coming to take our Christmas trees away. And yet that couldn’t be further from the truth. What the long-suffering President of American Atheists (and, I daresay, most of the infidel contingent he represents) would like to see is for the holiday to resign from its government position, and instead to spend its time exclusively in the private sector. And certainly, when it comes to overtly religious displays (like a nativity scene or an angel or a cross) on public property, I think Silverman is justified in his push for state neutrality.

But I’m willing to consider a truce at this point.

In part because I love Christmas so much, in part because squabbling over the public square diminishes my enjoyment of the season, and in part because I think the holiday has already outgrown its religious heritage, especially here in America. Here’s what I propose: Christmas shall henceforth be treated as a secular holiday open to the interpretation and enjoyment of all. Christians are welcome to revel in the theological implications of the day’s symbolism, while atheists and others may pick and choose those aspects of the day which resonate with their own particular values. The Christmas tree in the square will be a malleable and inclusive symbol, able to support the weight of Magi, Menorahs, and Mohammed, as well as any other marginalized culture that would appreciate a little bit of cheer in the darkness of winter (including we joyless atheists).

Black night behind the tamarisks—the owls begin their chorus—
As the conches from the temple scream and bray.
With the fruitless years behind us, and the hopeless years before us,
Let us honor, O my brother, Christmas Day!
Call a truce, then, to our labors—let us feast with friends and neighbors,
And be merry as the custom of our caste;
For if “faint and forced the laughter,” and if sadness follow after,
We are richer by one mocking Christmas past.

-Rudyard Kipling, “Christmas in India

Is such a truce possible? Would it hold? I think so, and I think that many of us have already negotiated something similar with our own consciences. After all, if anything has been demonstrated over the past couple centuries in America, it’s that Christmas is a major part of our culture, and it has been able to adjust to the demands of a changing history. I think it can handle a few atheist decorations on the branch.