Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars

The so-called rise of the “nones,” or those who profess no religious affiliation on social surveys, is a phenomenon that has been widely publicized and talked about over the last few years. According to a Pew Research Center study, the number of Americans that fall into this group has gone up from 16% in 2007 to 23% in 2014.1 Corresponding declines in overall religious affiliation and with Christianity in particular were also found. Despite the optimism this may instill in some secular humanists and atheists, other research paints a bit of a different picture.

New Atheism has been a predominantly white male movement since just about the time of its inception. Aside from the presence of a very few select voices like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, most of its high profile speakers and figureheads, including the Four Horsemen themselves, have been white males. The Public Religion Research Institute has conducted several studies revealing how resilient religious belief continues to be among communities of color. Black Protestants and other non-white Protestants have the highest retention rates of those surveyed, even beating out white evangelicals by a substantial margin.2 Black Protestants have some of the most positive attitudes toward religion, too, and black Americans make up only 9% of the ‘nones.’

Although groups like Black Nonbelievers, Black Freethinkers, African Americans for Humanism, and Black Atheists of America are working to shift the tide in this area, many secular, humanist, and atheist organizations remain largely white in their membership and leadership over a decade after Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris first made their mark. Responding to the persistence of black religiosity and the whiteness of atheism with little more than a shrug – not to mention the outright hostility that does at times occur – is at best flatly ignoring the reality that New Atheism’s message is not speaking to communities of color.

Sikivu Hutchinson provides one of the most thorough yet broad and engaging reads on this greatly neglected topic in her book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (2011). Writing from a black feminist humanist perspective, she devotes several chapters to exploring the historical, social, and cultural moorings of black religiosity in the U.S., before taking a closer look at religion and white supremacy in society as well as the New Atheist movement itself. Along the way, she relays the often forgotten intellectual and moral legacy of many black humanists and nonbelievers, while also making frequent reference to the modern authors and thinkers carrying on in this tradition.

Hutchinson is a founder of the L.A. Black Skeptics, she has taught women’s studies, cultural studies, and other subjects at UCLA, Western Washington University, and the California Institute of the Arts, and her work has been published at The Huffington Post, The Humanist, The L.A. Times, and several other outlets. Her books also include Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels (2013) and White Nights, Black Paradise (2015). Visit her website at sikivuhutchinson.com.

I. Religion and Communities of Color

In an era in which African American communities nationwide are in socioeconomic crisis, the cultural dominance of organized religion merits critical evaluation. In a political climate in which the social justice compass of the Black Church has been broken by consumerism, institutional sexism, and faith-based witch hunts of gays and lesbians, its moral capital is increasingly dubious.3

When it hasn’t been busy mocking faith or attacking the need to believe, the atheist movement has sometimes acknowledged that religion can serve certain psychological and social ends. One of the main differences between Hutchinson’s discussion of religiosity and the discussion to be found in plenty of other atheist books is that she does not restrict her attention to the sensibility of religious belief and the harms caused by religion. Rather than merely nodding to the fact that some uncorroborated beliefs can be comforting to us, she unpacks the ways in which religion functioned as a critique and resistance to an empire founded on both white and Judeo-Christian identity that was intimately tied to the appropriation of black productive and reproductive labor.

The curse of Ham is just one example here. During the 17th century, it was much debated whether or not enslaved blacks who converted were really saved from their ‘sinful’ ways. Many slave-owners argued that Africans were descendants of Ham, who, according to the biblical Book of Genesis, was cursed by Noah into a life of servitude along with his offspring. Though the passages in question never associate this curse with skin color, folklore developed due to the resemblance of Ham’s name with another word meaning “dark” or “brown.” Thus, as Hutchinson puts it, “Christianity became an integral part of the lives of slaves because it was such a big part of colonial culture.” Concepts like redemption and forgiveness appealed to those struggling to find and maintain a sense of self under brutal, dehumanizing conditions.

Communities of color still suffer today under a variety of socioeconomic conditions, a number of which have been created by banking, mortgage, and real estate practices. Faith-based initiatives have been popular among black communities precisely because they were sold with the promise that they would rectify many such problems. However, these initiatives have come with costs of their own, including extreme non-transparency, toleration of religious discrimination, the privileging of certain denominations, and in some cases they have likely influenced the decision of some black religious leaders to move further away from the progressive traditions of the Black Church.

Even so, the church and religion speak to the needs of these communities in ways that government and secular institutions do not. This is part of what makes it imperative for humanist organizations to move beyond a fixation on church-state separation and science to take up real alternatives to supernatural belief systems that address these issues. On the other hand, movements like the civil rights movement and the American Revolution are often romanticized for their ‘spiritual foundations,’ Hutchinson notes, while most of these narratives neglect to consider how they might have been hindered by the same foundations.

The Black Church has had numerous scandals in recent years involving money and sex abuse, but some problems in it, the author argues, go back to the origins of the church itself, as is the case with black patriarchy. That patriarchy endures in a community that is traditionally heavily religious will not be surprising to most nonbelievers. The religious left is such an elusive concept because religious texts like the Bible, Qur’an, and the Torah, do not make for unequivocal defenses and advancements of human rights. Decolonization and African American struggle require the rejection of rigid essentialisms, like those inherited from organized religion, in favor of a multiplicity of black identities.

II. Black Experience and Humanism

…secular humanism holds that humankind ultimately rises or falls on its own. Instead of demanding moral obedience to deities and supernatural forces, secular humanism frames morality in terms of principles of justice, fairness, and equality.4

Following a critique of prayer as the opiate of the people, numbing them to their suffering and often substituting for effective methods of achieving change, Hutchinson explores some of the virtues of living the humanist life and practicing humanist values. A progressive kind of humanism, she explains, will be one that is specifically concerned with the liberation struggle of disenfranchised peoples. Religion is only one of many forces in the world that creates and reinforces social and economic inequities. So, “instead of being an abstract trope with no bearing on everyday black experience, humanism is a vital lens for critical consciousness.”

In virtually every chapter, Hutchinson tells of the black men and women who have lived these humanist values throughout history. Frederick Douglass boldly standing up to pressure from black ministers who insisted that he thank God for Emancipation, declaring at an anti-slavery convention in 1870: “I bow to no priests either of faith or unfaith. I claim as against all sorts of people, simply perfect freedom of thought.”5 A. Philip Randolph’s criticisms of the role Christianity played in black liberation struggle, and his own struggle as a nonbeliever during the anti-communist fervor after WWII. The Harlem Renaissance and its wealth of black humanist and skeptical thought in such authors as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Nella Larsen.

Hutchinson’s deft combination of philosophical insight, cultural commentary, literary criticism, historical narrative, and political discourse in the book is a worthy contribution to that same legacy in its own right. Her engagement with humanist tradition is not as in-depth as the work of Anthony Pinn (whom she refers to quite a bit in the text), but it nevertheless makes the case she sets out to make. The humanism she advocates is very much a humanism rooted in lived experience, although there is some inspiration drawn from academic formulations as well.

One harmful idea that still seems to linger even among ‘enlightened’ secular folks is the idea of racial colorblindness. Hutchinson cites a 2010 study published by CNN that showed how white children react negatively to darker skin. In fact, there have been many such studies on learned racism in children,6 as well as other research to suggest that what helps counteract these problems is talking openly to your children about race.7 Adopting a colorblind approach merely allows racial hierarchies to go unchallenged. White parents therefore have a moral imperative “to teach their children about the beauty, value, cultural worth, and importance of communities of color to American society.”

It is not enough to simply repeat the mantra that everyone is the same. Morality, especially a humanist morality, should entail that we are taught to view other people of drastically different cultures, appearances, lived experiences, and sexual orientations as human beings with innate value and deserving of human rights.

III. Race and Gender in Atheism

Whiteness becomes the norm not only through racial segregation but through the discursive tools of defining value and worth. This status rests on having the right to write, analyze, classify, quantify, and have one’s conclusions recognized as universal truths, rather than as the culturally contextual products of a racist colonialist legacy.8

The way you hear some in the atheist movement tell it, bringing up race, gender, and sexual orientation at all only causes division. According to another perspective, though, these divisions have actually been there all the while, and the longer we pretend we can ignore them, the worse they are going to get. New Atheist and skeptic discourse has been perfectly happy to play to those themes when criticizing and attacking religion, but too often the message from the dominant group(s) in the community seems to be: ‘That’s the whole extent to which we want you visible here – otherwise, keep it to yourself.’

What’s strange about this is that atheism itself has become a meaningful identity to many people, served in no small part by things like the Out Campaign that have specifically sought to celebrate a vocal expression of one’s identity as an atheist. Exactly what are we communicating and what goals are we really aspiring to when we act like this is the only kind of identity we as a community are prepared to accept? Quoting Chris Hedges, Hutchinson notes that fundamentalist belief systems tend to harbor a deep dread of ambiguity, disorder, and chaos. They foster a world of binary opposites, like God and man, male and female, saved and unsaved. This rhetoric and thinking is not just limited to religion, either.

New Atheism has undoubtedly challenged some presumptions about public morality and helped to elevate more secular voices. But, as Hutchinson points out, there is “little analysis of the relationship between economic disenfranchisement, race, gender, and religiosity in New Atheist or secular humanist critiques of organized religion.” The usual gamut of topics – science, church-state separation, and the rationality of belief in God – is not just narrow, it’s also quite limited in its cultural relevance. And some within the movement, like Debbie Goddard, have been sounding these alarms for almost as long as the Four Horsemen have been around.

The first step towards changing this picture involves recognizing that the U.S. has never been a meritocracy. Different advantages and disadvantages are conferred on different people through systemic policies and institutional practices. Inequities relating to race, gender, sexual orientation, and class are not simply due to the prejudices of single individuals. Recognizing this can help lead to a better understanding of how systems of oppression participate in the construction of power and authority.

Here, it is no longer a mystery or an inevitability that national secular organizations are so overwhelmingly white and male. Nor is it confounding as to why atheism is dismissed by some as ‘a white thing’ when much of our intellectual climate and establishment privileges the religious, philosophical, and scientific scholarship of white men. Lending this context to atheist, secular, and humanist discourse is not a popular endeavor, but without it we are really only defending an atheism that preserves and reproduces the status quo, as well as a humanism that is nowhere near as inclusive as we’d like to think it is.

IV. Conclusion

Moral Combat stands apart from other atheist books in being one of the few that offers an alternative, socially-informed lens for considering the harms of religion and the merits of a non-religious worldview. Though Hutchinson says little on contemporary progressive faith traditions, her analysis of the Black Church and the persistence of socioeconomic and other conditions that negatively affect communities of color strikes a resounding note on the gap that still exists between left-wing religiosity and many of the problems it purports to redress. It also acts as a valuable counterbalance to a lot of the Enlightenment- and European-oriented narratives of the secular humanist and atheist movements.

Looking back on this text in the post-Trump era, more than seven years after its initial publication, makes for an interesting reminder on the continuing relevance of these issues despite equally vocal protests that have dismissed them as unimportant and divisive. Hutchinson warns that the culture wars of the Reagan/Bush and George W. Bush eras have “morphed into a white nationalist backlash,” which may appear secular on the surface but has deep roots in a fundamentalist Christian agenda.9 Over the last couple years alone, the rise of white nationalism in America and abroad has been a subject of intense discussion and study.10 A great deal of controversy and debate has also emerged around the relationship of atheists and the so-called alt-right.11

Some progressive atheists have challenged this last association,12 but it remains a worthwhile question of how nonbelievers and the movement in general choose to respond to such claims. Denying and refuting specific arguments that often revolve around scale and scope will not address the host of other related problems that do exist and fuel these concerns over atheism swinging to the far right. As Hutchinson and others have said, it’s insufficient to simply regurgitate lines about the equality of everyone with a collective shrug towards responsibility. This speaks to one of the biggest problems with organized atheism that Greg Epstein wrote about in his book Good Without God. Religion isn’t just important to people because it deals with belief, it’s important to them because it deals with what we do, how we act.

To that extent, Moral Combat makes a strong case for a secular humanism that actively reaches across boundaries of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. It does not accomplish this by ignoring or downplaying our differences in experience, culture, appearance, and so forth, which is a doomed feat to begin with. Instead it calls us to practice and live those humanist values we profess, values like justice, equality, and fairness, as well as their corresponding virtues such as humility and compassion. One can see here why Hutchinson’s book is so appropriately titled. The humanist struggle against organized religion is not merely a struggle for intellects, but for the hearts and values of our fellow human beings, too.

 

Find this on Amazon

Sources:

1. U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious, Pew Research Center (Nov. 3, 2015). Retrieved December 20, 2018.
2. Robert P. Jones et al., Exodus: Why Americans Are Leaving Religion – and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back, PRRI (Sept. 22, 2016). Retrieved Dec. 20, 2018.
3. Sikivu Hutchinson, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (Los Angeles: Infidel Books, 2011), p. 2.
4. Ibid, 103.
5. Ibid, 113.
6. James Burnett, Racism learned, Boston Globe (June 10, 2012). Retrieved December 20, 2018.
7. Frances Aboud & Anna Doyle, “Does talk of race foster prejudice or tolerance in children?” Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science 28, vol. 3. (1996): 161-170.
8. Hutchinson, p. 218.
9. Ibid, 165.
10. Janet Reitman, U.S. Law Enforcement Failed to See the Threat of White Nationalism, New York Times (Nov. 3, 2018). Retrieved December 20, 2018.
11. Chris Stedman, Too Many Atheists Are Veering Dangerously Toward the Alt-Right, Vice (April 2, 2018). Retrieved December 20, 2018.
12. David Gee, No, Most Atheists Are NOT “Veering Dangerously Toward the Alt-Right”, Friendly Atheist (April 3, 2018). Retrieved December 20, 2018.