Living Life Unfettered by Supernaturalism and Groupthink

From Greta Christina,  Alternet: “What is it like to be a black atheist?

Obviously, I wouldn’t know. But via Friendly Atheist, I recently read a piece by Sikivu Hutchinson for the L.A. Watts Times, titled‘Out of the Closet’ — Black Atheists. (A must-read, by the way.) Her piece focused on one side of this question — being an atheist in the African American community. But I was curious about the other side: What is it like to be African American in the atheist community?

I don’t think this is something atheists talk about enough. We’re too willing to let our most prominent leaders and speakers mostly be white; we’re critical of the negative effect religion has on communities of color, but we don’t look very hard at why the atheist movement is so predominantly white, or what we could be doing to make our movement a safer place to land for people of color who are leaving religion…Sikivu Hutchinson: As it is with many prominent issues of ideological/ social relevance the assumption that white male thinkers and writers are the definitive spokespeople on atheism is highly problematic. I would like to see more atheists of color rise to prominence as theorists and scholars of record on atheist discourse, rather than the continued privileging of the usual “authorial” white suspects (i.e., Dawkins, Hitchens, Sam Harris)…SH: Oftentimes white folk engage with the issue of people of color and religious observance in a very paternalistic way — musing about the “backwardness” of people of color, particularly African Americans, who subscribe to Christian and Muslim dogma despite their histories of colonialism, terrorism and slavery. Although religious observance among African Americans is paradoxical for these very reasons, the white critique of said world view is narrow and lacking in consciousness of the cultural context that informs black adoption of Judeo- Christian mores and values. Hence, the European- American atheist community can’t be truly inclusive unless there is some recognition of how privilege and positionality undergird the very articulation of atheism as an ideological space that empowers white folk to deconstruct the cultural tethers of organized religion, without having their authorial right to do so be questioned…SH: I was fortunate to have grown up in a very secular household. My parents were highly literate politically conscious writer-teachers and placed a premium on independent thought. That said religion was still a part of my life because it was so integral to much of African American extended family and community. My grandparents were very religious and I frequently went to their Methodist church when I was growing up. I had some vague notion of and belief in the existence of God up until the first year of high school when I was totally galvanized into agnosticism by an utterly brain-dead Catholic School experience which signaled the end of my suspension of disbelief!…SH: As I mentioned before religious observance is a powerful influence in communities of color. However, given the enormous political influence of white Christian fundamentalism in the U.S. it would be reductive to say that people of color are “more” religious than whites —- rather, religion, for better or for ill, has in many respects played a formative role in allowing people of color to navigate and survive institutional racism and domestic terrorism. This is the defining difference between white Christian fundamentalist observance and, say, African American spiritualism predicated on a notion of liberation theology that derives from a redemptive view of the moral universe. In this regard African Americans who have broken from these traditions have a more complex “meta-critical” relationship with organized religion than do white atheists who have rejected religion…SH:Clearly criticizing religion is not racist. One of the charges of atheistic discourse is foregrounding how there is nothing intrinsically superior about religious observance — its value for African Americans as a people derives from a specific cultural and historical context of institutional racism and oppression. The supposed basic moral precepts of Judeo- Christian theology — love for one’s neighbor, tolerance, doing unto others, non-judgment, etc. — are certainly not exclusive to religious doctrine, while the hierarchies, persecution and intolerance based on race, gender, sexuality and ideology that religious doctrine breeds effectively negate the moral preeminence that organized religion presumes. These contradictions open up a path for critical engagement by atheists of color with why organized religion has been so toxic vis-a-vis validating the rich diversity of communities of color. African American intellectuals and thinkers (see for example Frederick Douglass’ critique of “slaveholding” Christianity) have always challenged the role religious orthodoxy plays in African American communities. This historical complexity has just never been “officially” recognized by white scholars…

Sure atheism could use a PR infusion that extols the virtues and sexiness of secular belief. However, much of the discourse around atheism necessarily involves upending the orthodoxies and hypocrisies of organized religion that enshrine it as a “natural” and “normal” way of life for many. I for one think that there has not been enough political exposure of the massive welfare state entitlements that have been conferred on organized religion in the form of so-called faith-based initiatives. Atheist “activists” have an important role to play in shifting the discourse to frame organized religion (and highlight the theocratic nature of the U.S. and the continued degradation of the separation between church and state) as just another corrupt welfare swilling special interest that reflects a particular narrow and sectarian belief system — why let Rove, Limbaugh and the Fox regime control the terms of debate?

With regard to your second question, atheism has value for the uninitiated both as a means of unpacking the social and cultural contradictions that inform so-called religious morality, and as a means of living life unfettered by the conventions and hierarchical dictates of supernaturalism. It’s an antidote to groupthink and blind acceptance, a dynamic that has always informed my outlook on and approach to life’s complexities…”

Emphasis Mine


Of Elephants and Elitists

On Thursday, March 5 at the Independence Library, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Northeastern Ohio Chapter, hosted a presentation by John Fazio: “Can Secular Humanists and Theists join together to keep religion and matters of faith separate from the affairs of the state to facilitate peace, harmony, and tolerance? ”   This delightful and informative presentation was a variation on his talk: “The Elephant is still in the Living Room”.  Mr Fazio, who, unlike (speaking of elephants), Rush Limbaugh, has looks sufficent for television, a voice sufficent for the stage, and knowledge sufficent for his subject, began with listing the recent cannon of popular books on atheism: Dawkins, Harris et all, as well as some on cosmology – e.g. Hawking.

He addressed the ultimate metaphysical questions on the origins, fate, and size of our universe, and stated that in his opinion, modern science has no actual better answer to these questions than religion, and that we are arrogrant to think we do.  Covering very recent history (about 1000 years), he elucidated that organized religion has no monopoly on inhumanity, citing many specific examples, including the Soviet Union, and the Peoples Republic of China, which he describes as the twentieth century’s two great experiments in atheism.

On a common, self elevating theme of free-thinkers – that religion has been a cause of wars, he observed:  religion had often appeared to cause wars, but, beneath the covers,  the real reason(s) were always material.

In recorded history, religion’s influenced has waxed and waned, but always come back.  His conclusion, then, is that religion is here to stay, it is hard-wired into our brains, we should accept this, and sit at the table with our devout brethren.   ( “…I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be.”  – Saul Alinsky, “Rules for Radicals”. ) From a public relations point of view, he observes that our elitism and arrogrance will convert few.

Well stated and entirely valid: when Christians give us an equal place at the table, I will be happy to join.  As missionaries for Truth, Light, Reason, and the Human Way, we should keep his message in mind.

That having been said, let us consider the following:

The religions we have in the world today cover only 2500 years – a mere grain in the sands of our species’ time on this planet – and it is only about 300 years since the Enlightenment: the beginning of the end of Supernaturalism.

While we may not have advanced metaphysics, our science has, in its quest for ultimate origins, produced a vast amount of valuable wisdom.  Can the same be said for our mythologies?

All observed phenomena can be classified as having either a supernatural or a natural cause: the former is one basis for religion; the latter one goal of science.  As we explain more by natural cause, we have less need for the supernatural, and perhaps for  religion as well.  Is religion a relic of our evolution?

That the influence of religion has risen and fallen throughout history could be a result of many effects, including: a return to the ground of a basic human need, as Mr. Fazio suggests, or an example of action and reaction in history, as Dr. Marx proposed.

That the acceptance of religion is more widespread than the acceptance of science (e.g. natural selection), is a fact that we must keep in mind.  Another is that the tendency toward atheism among scientists increases with their level – is it elitist to mention that?

Returning to the question: “Can Secular Humanists and Theists join together to keep religion and matters of faith separate from the affairs of the state to facilitate peace, harmony, and tolerance? ”  Yes, provided that:

Theists gain the empathy and humility to accept that they have no monopoly on solutions, and listen to secular humanists.

Secular humanists gain the empathy and humility to accept that they may have no monopoly on solutions, and listen to theists.

The vast majority aquire learning sufficent to look for answers in science, not Genesis.

N.B.: The title: “Of Elephants and Elitists” is, of course,  a play on “Of Pandas and People”.