Friday, January 27, 2012

Reason and Racism in the New Atheist Movement

By Be Scofield 
Originally posted 1/26/12 at Tikkun Daily 

Perhaps one of the most widespread claims by the New Atheists is that religion is harmful. For Richard Dawkins it is a virus that spreads and infects the mind and is comparable to child abuse. For the late Christopher Hitchens religion “poisons everything” and is a “menace to society.” Greta Christina claims that the belief in supernatural entities makes people “more vulnerable to oppression, fraud and abuse.” Sam Harris likens religion to mental illness. One could go on and on with examples like these.

Given that the New Atheists ground their arguments in science, reason and logic it behooves us to hold these conclusions to very high standards when analyzing them. It goes without saying that truth or knowledge claims should be supported by data, cross-cultural research and empirical evidence whenever possible. This should be measurable and certain principles of reasoning should be employed. Claims of this nature should also be scrutinized amongst a community of experts to try and reach a consensus before drawing conclusions. Unfortunately, the New Atheists fail tremendously in this regard.

The idea that religion is “harmful” or “poisonous” should of course be a hypothesis first and a conclusion second. For whatever reason, these twenty-first century super-heroes of science seem to skip over this important step. There are of course anthropologists, sociologists, scholars of religion and mythology, historians, psychologists, and philosophers who have been studying religion for very long periods now. They’ve used peer-reviewed journals, scholarly book publishers, case studies, and other academic forums to present their ideas and receive critical feedback. Yet, there have been no scientific findings concluding that religion is poisonous, that belief in supernatural entities leads to harm or that it infects people like a virus. These types of claims are limited to a chosen few.

Case in point: How can any of these New Atheists claim that the Dinka religious tradition of Africa is harmful? They’ve probably never heard of it, let alone conducted any sort of anthropological or sociological studies to determine the degree of harmfulness it poses to its members or others. Dawkins claims “I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence.” I’d love to see the data and research he’s gathered to reach such sweeping conclusions about religion. Has he investigated the Japanese religion Tenrikyo? The Korean tradition Wonbulgyo? Have any of these atheists been to Iraq or Iran to interview any Mandeans? Do these atheists ‘know’ in some scientific way that the traditional mythological beliefs of the Inuit of the polar regions were harmful or led to more harm? Are the teachings of Native American religious traditions really child abuse?

The website currently lists that there are 4,300 different faith groups worldwide. Wouldn’t information need to be gathered from each of them before reaching scientific conclusions about whether or not the entire category of religion is harmful or poisonous? Furthermore, what kinds of research questions would need to be asked? What sort of variables would be involved? Are there measures that could be agreed upon by a community of researchers to analyze what makes a particular religion harmful? Helpful? Would the researchers be all white, middle/upper class men like those that have predominantly defined new atheism? Or would diverse voices from around the globe and located in various social locations be included? Given the widespread findings due to the varieties of religious expressions how would you summarize them into one neat conclusion? The simple answer is that you can’t. These atheists’ knee jerk conclusions are laughable and an insult to all of the legitimate efforts that qualified researchers and scholars have undertaken. In short, there is nothing scientific about them.

Greta Christina claims that with the belief in supernatural entities “the capacity for religion to do harm gets cranked up to an alarmingly high level – because there is no reality check.” This is a hypothesis that needs to be tested with some sort of measurable evidence and scholarly insight. Has Christina looked at how religion is expressed in cultures throughout the world, both indigenous and not and found data that supports her assertion? Is she in relation to anthropologists and scholars who have reached similar conclusions? Or is she simply an armchair atheist relying on anecdotal examples rather than evidence? What is the relationship between belief in supernatural entities and violence? It’s an incredibly complex question that Christina attempts to answer in a single blog post. None of her claims are backed up science or evidence for that matter.

Christina also states, “If people believe they’ll be rewarded with infinite bliss in the afterlife…people will let themselves be martyrs to their faith, to an appalling degree.” First of all, one could easily point out that there were many “martyrs” for Stalinism. Second, Christina’s claim is another hypothesis. But this one seems disproved on even the most cursory examining of the facts. What percentage of the billions of people on this earth who believe in an after life become “martyrs for their faith?” How many Inuit martyrs were there? The population of people who kill themselves in the name of God is very small when compared to those who don’t. Plus if you look at actual scientific research done on the subject such as Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism by University of Chicago professor Robert Pape you’d learn “The data show that there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world’s religions. … Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.” Furthermore, “The world’s leading practitioners of suicide terrorism are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka-a secular, Marxist-Leninist group drawn from Hindu families.”

Racism In the New Atheist Movement

When Greta Christina says that religious people should be actively converted to atheism or Dawkins likens religion to a virus that infects the mind, they are effectively saying “we know what’s best for you.” This is the crux of the problem with the New Atheists. They’ve identified belief in God or religion as the single most oppressive factor in people’s lives and feel justified in liberating people from it because they have “reason” on their side. However, as Reinhold Niebuhr warned, reason is always tainted with the prejudices of the privileged groups in society. He called this the historicity of reason. Thus, the way the New Atheists understand the designation “harmful” or “poisonous” is largely shaped by what they view as most harmful from their own social location.

In her book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars author and atheist Sikivu Hutchinson describes the heart of the problem with the New Atheists:
New Atheist discourse purports to be “beyond” all that meddlesome stuff. After all, science has been cleaned up to redress the atrocities of the past. The “bad” racist eugenicist science and scientists of back in the day have been purged. Religionists of all stripes are merely obstacles to achieving greater enlightenment in the generic name of science and reason. Race and gender hierarchies within the scientific establishment are immaterial when it comes to determining the overall thrust and urgency of the New Atheism. Non-believers who argue for a more nuanced approach to or progressive understanding of the political, social, and cultural appeal of religion are toady apologists. Religious bigotry and discrimination are deemed the greatest threat to “civilized” Western societies. As delineated by many white non-believers the New Atheism preserves and reproduces the status quo of white supremacy in its arrogant insularity. In this universe, oppressed minorities are more imperiled by their own investment in organized religion than white supremacy. Liberation is not a matter of fighting against white racism, sexism and classism but of throwing off the shackles of superstition.
If you are in a privileged position, as many of the white New Atheists are, you may think that it’s easy to just give up your religion. But this of course ignores the complexities of how religion operates in the lives of people everyday. For African Americans, Christianity and Islam have played a central role in the process of humanization – both in the eyes of the dominant culture and in building up the community, personal identity and psychological resilience to resist white supremacy, slavery and segregation. “Reason” as articulated by the new atheists makes no room for marginalized populations need to resist these forms of oppression, nor recognizes the important role that religion has played in this process. Rather, the simplistic labels of harmful, poisonous or virus are carelessly used to discredit it.

The queer identified Metropolitan Community Church (MCCSF) in San Francisco played a central role during the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s. Their website describes it as such:
It is impossible to overstate the impact of HIV/AIDS on the life of MCCSF during those years when there were no effective treatments for HIV. During the peak of the crisis, it was not uncommon for there to be three or four funerals on each day of the weekend, and growth in church membership could barely keep pace with the rate of deaths. And yet, even in the midst of this virtually unbearable period, the church persevered, with fellow members supporting one another during the most painful times, and the church served on the vanguard of advocacy efforts for people living with HIV/AIDS.
I don’t think that belief in God or religion was the thing these people needed to be liberated from.
As citizens of the U.S. we of course live on occupied land. Over the course of hundreds of years we systematically wiped out Native American cultures that were indigenous to the area. The arrogance of “we know what’s best for them” dominated. Their religious and cultural traditions were prohibited. It was the height of cultural imperialism. Of course Native Americans are extremely marginalized and face numerous pressing social issues today. Rest assured, their oppression has nothing to do with their beliefs in God or their traditional religious practices and ceremonies. Unfortunately, when Greta Christina says we’d be better off without religion and insists that we convert believers to atheism she is reproducing cultural imperialism against Native Americans. She knows best because she has reason on her side. 

Furthermore, home foreclosures, poverty, homelessness, oppression, inadequate mental health and social services, poor health care and violence plague America. Whether we like it or not, religious organizations are often the first to provide the much needed spiritual, material and social services to this sick society. As much as the new atheists would like to pontificate about religion in a context free environment, there is no such thing. As long as these social ills go unaddressed religious organizations will continue to play central roles in combating them. The broad and sweeping attacks against “religion” by the New Atheists do little to advance any sort of helpful conversation about what communities or people really need. They also don’t adequately interpret the positive role that religion plays in these issues.

If many of the New Atheists want to hold to an absolutist position that religion is harmful (despite not being based on any scientific evidence) then they inherently sweep into their critique Native Americans, the gay men who benefited so immensely from MCCSF during the Aids crisis and the Dinka tradition of Africa. Any benefit that the Nation of Islam or the Black Church had for African Americans is negated by the insistence upon religion or belief in God as the single most oppressive issue. If they make qualifications and recognize that yes, there is something wrong with waving a finger at Native Americans and scolding them for their childish ways, then they must abandon generalized sweeping notions like “religion is harmful.” They can’t have it both ways. Either they lecture every culture in the world about their religious traditions (after all you’ve discovered the TRUTH) and as a result reproduce cultural imperialism or make room for a more complex analysis.

Many of these New Atheists claim that holding onto the belief in supernatural entities is absurd or irrational. However, there is nothing more absurd than whiteness, class oppression and patriarchy. Resisting these absurdities means a more nuanced approach to religion – one that recognizes the positive role it can play in undermining such systems of domination. Ultimately, it means relying upon relationships more than reason.


I wanted to comment on an important point. As someone who has experienced white, male, heterosexual and class privilege I’m most likely far more privileged than Greta Christina. This privilege is assigned to me by the dominant society whether I like it or not. As a white American I’m no less capable of reproducing racism or cultural Imperialism than Christina is. My article is not meant as an attack or a “gotcha.” I don’t address these sorts of issues like that – rather I try to uncover ways that we all might be reproducing forms of oppression. Despite my best intentions I unwillingly think and say things that are racist, sexist and that may reproduce cultural imperialism. Thus, by highlighting how some of the effects of the New Atheists or Christina’s ideas/actions may reproduce the same, I’m not saying that I’m better, more holy, or less racist. I’m fully implicated in these processes as well. People like Tim Wise have written entire books about their white privilege; I could do that as well. But here I’m talking about a few specific areas related to religion, atheism, and oppression.

I chose to highlight a few of Christina’s statements because she has publicly advocated converting believers into atheists as well as written passionate and sweeping claims about why she believes religion is harmful and wrong (the subject of my article). When I hear someone advocating the conversion of believers into atheism without any sort of qualifications or context it concerns me. Because I do think of African Americans in the 50′s and 60′s in the Nation of Islam and the Black Church. I do think of Native Americans. I think of queer people who find strength and solace in religious communities. I’m concerned that this statement can be viewed as a sort of panacea and is made without any real relationships to the people or communities that could be affected by it. I’m concerned that people will see this and believe that throwing off superstition is the most pressing issue, when I think it is a non-issue when compared with whiteness or class oppression. Again, I simply don’t see why believing in the afterlife is such an urgent issue to liberate people from. Yes, many religious expressions have reproduced sexism, racism and bigotry. But this is not because they believe in God or heaven (one can believe in those without having to be bigoted). It’s because the religions reflect the larger institutional forces of oppression. Dr. King and Malcolm X believed in God but also fought staunchly against white supremacy. Again, I simply don’t see how liberating Dr. King from his theism takes precedent over ending whiteness or is even an issue.

I do know that Christina has written lists of atheists of color and is perhaps one of the more concerned people when it comes to these issues. But she still makes sweeping denunciations of religion and publicly advocates converting believers from their beliefs. What is the context here? What sort of relationships are formed before doing this?

I simply wish that a fraction of the energy that goes into attacking people’s personal beliefs about heaven were to go into educating or writing about the larger social forces of oppression that also shape a believers life. Imagine if much of the passion and fire that characterizes much of the New Atheist community could be directed towards the racial, class and patriarchal oppression that believers experience rather than their beliefs about God or heaven. Of course, as atheists are marginalized in a Christian and hegemonic culture there is a need to resist this persecution. As I’ve said before I think those who are affiliated with religion have a direct responsibility to aid in ending this misguided attack upon atheism.

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Be Scofield is a San Francisco-based activist working to combine spirituality with anti-racism and social justice. Be is the founder of God Bless the Whole World, a free online resource with hundreds of videos of leading visionaries related to social justice and spirituality. Be writes for Tikkun magazine and Be's work has appeared on, IntegralWorld and FactNet.

1 comment:

  1. Having seen some of the vitriolic responses that have already emerged in response to Be’s latest piece, I want to throw in my two cents on the subject. As Be notes, Greta Christina has done an admirable job on a couple of articles covering the need for the atheist movement to respond to sexism and racism. PZ Myer’s response to Be’s article also highlighted efforts to increase diversity within the atheist movement and some of the tensions these efforts have causes.

    But to date I have never seen a cogent response from any of the big-name New Atheists addressing the fact that the religion of oppressed minorities (or majorities, as is the case with women) functions for many as a means of resistance against systems of oppression (white supremacy, cultural hegemony, sexism, heteronormativity, classism) in which the majority of public figures associates with New Atheism are implicated (as am I, as is Be).

    For me, the value of Be’s piece is not in holding up religious people as somehow removed from these systems of oppression that effect believers and non-believers alike. Quite the contrary, I think Be is well aware of just how implicated various religious traditions have been in the historical and even contemporary furtherance of the these systems of oppression.

    But what I would hope that readers of Be’s article would take away is the understanding that, even without calling for the ‘conversion’ of religious individuals into atheists, there is a deeply problematic power dynamic in play when someone who benefits from oppressive social and economic systems attempts to deny the validity of the modes of meaning-making used by impacted communities to resist those self-same systems. Failure to acknowledge one’s own implication in such systems while simultaneously advocating for the illegitimacy of the means of articulation by which groups suffering under these oppressive systems seems to constitute, at the very least, a pretty glaring conflict of interest, and at worse, as Be suggests, a denial of agency on the part of the oppressed and a direct furtherance of the oppressive systems in question.