Atheism and Ethnicity.

November 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

The observation that the atheist communities are not as welcoming as they could be to visible minorities crops up pretty regularly, this being a recent example. Ian Cromwell, as usual, has a very lucid perspective on the subject (among others), and he also has the benefit of experience in this particular area. I really only have two thoughts on the matter but as usual I can’t help but put them into about six hundred and fifty words. Bear with me.

First, I’m a bit suspicious of the way this accusation is deployed by religionists. This refers mostly to conversations I’ve had in person; a cursory google reveals that the bulk of discussion about this issue actually comes from atheist sources. This includes the original blog Ian responded too by the way. But in face-to-face interactions the fact that the atheist and skeptic movements have so many white spokespersons is regularly brought up as a pointed retort to something I say– a way of undermining the legitimacy of the atheist movement. I think this is backwards. This quote shows why:

“My own mother is a Christian Minister. My entire family, like most American families, are very devout believers. They express their beliefs freely and unselfconsciously because they enjoy the privilege of being a member of a major majority in America. I, on the other hand, must often keep my own beliefs to myself for fear of offending anyone or alienating myself any further from the family I love. This is a mere microcosm of what the Black atheists must face in regards to his entire culture.”

So the religious fight us tooth and nail to prevent their followers from leaving, then gleefully point to their own success as evidence that we are if not racist, then at least horrible jerks.

Demographic imbalance alone does not indicate that the atheist movement is hostile or uncaring toward minorities; the difference in community attitudes is such that I’d expect asymmetry like this if the internal treatment of white people and visible minorities was identical in every respect (and Shaha is right: It isn’t).

This is not to say that we’re off the hook. As the people interested in actually fixing the problem, we have little choice but to act. Given that the religious establishment pushes harder on minority groups, it follows that we need to step up our game in terms of pushing back. As the links above show, we’re having the discussion and that’s a good sign.

As I see it, we need two things in order to compensate for the current state of affairs. The first is an increased focus on making the atheist movement a safe place to come out into at an earlier stage. Atheist communities are, on average, wonderful places to be if you are outspoken, thick-skinned, and confident in your ability to think and discuss. But if you’re still on the fence or even close to it they can seem much less appealing. This is easily fixable and I think this particular problem is likely to get better as the movement matures.

The second source of change needs to come from within: We need more atheist individuals with religious backgrounds (visible minority or not) to step up as activists and show that embracing reason is not inconsistent with retaining the positive aspects of one’s cultural heritage. I have a lot to say about that but I’ll save that for now.

I’m glad that we’re having this discussion now– I look forward to seeing how quickly we can progress in this area. The important point for now is that while there is without a doubt a very real demographic imbalance within atheist communities, that imbalance is not itself an indictment of our movement. Some use it as such; they should be answered. And the best answer is a better community for all of us.

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