By Frederick Sparks
Given that I may have talked to more atheists and religious people of color than even Be Scofield, I thought it appropriate to add my two cents.
I’ve observed a few the written exchanges between Scofield and Greta Christina and agree with the assessment that he is either sloppy or downright dishonest in his characterizations of what she says. And Greta of all people least deserves to be a target of criticism on the issue of diversity and the “atheist movement.”
Scofield quotes from Sikivu Hutchinson’s critique of the New Atheists blind spot with respect to social justice issues, and the interplay between African American religiosity and these issues of social justice. Yet if he bothered to read the rest of the book besides the passages criticizing new atheism, he’d see that Hutchinson hardly argues for walling off god belief and African-American religious institutions from criticism. Her critique is aimed at presenting atheism/secularism to African-Americans in a way that makes it relevant because it addresses issues of racial and economic inequality. Specifically she states:
“Those seeking to forge the same kind of community resonance and interpersonal connections as faith-based institutions (without the element of fear, superstition, profiteering and exploitative charismatic leadership)have a long uphill but winnable battle….Humanist community based organizations can provide…social welfare resources that have traditionally been delivered with supernatural strings attached by faith-based organizations.”
In referring to Dr King and the civil rights movement, Scofield also falls into the trap of “the Civil Rights Movement, Brought To You By Black Church”…a bit of historical revisionism that ignores, as professor Anthony Pinn points out, the secular philosophical influences, and that King himself complained that most the black churches were not involved and were not supportive. When Scofield, in a follow-up comment says “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”, he appears ignorant of the degree to which specific beliefs about God or heaven reinforce racial, class, heterosexist and patriarchal oppression. When he speaks approvingly of the work of the Metro Community Church with respect to AIDS, he misses the other side of the coin, in which the black church virtually ignored the AIDS crisis unfolding in its own choir pews. African Americans are most likely to believe in literal interpretations of the Bible; this phenomenon buttresses homophobic and sexist dynamics within the black religious community. The beliefs are therefore not separate from the social justice issues, they are part and parcel, and challenging them is most definitely relevant.
Yes African Americans have to some degree adapted religious institutions to positive purposes. At the same time, the $65 million West Angeles Church of God in Christ monstrosity on Crenshaw Boulevard has hardly brought $65 million worth of improvement to the lives of the residents of South Los Angeles. The presence of churches on every corner in black communities certainly hasn’t done much to cure the social ills. And this phenomenon, and the beliefs that undergird it, are most definitely appropriate targets of criticism.
When the Scofields and Karen Armstrongs of the world talk about how the new atheists just aren’t aware of the liberal, tolerant, sativa smoking, feminist, genderqueer god concept, my response is “I don’t believe in that motherfucker, either.” She’s just as poorly evidenced as the old fashioned patriarchal god. She’s also not the predominant god concept impacting the African American community.
I don’t see an either or proposition between advocating for rational thought, where beliefs are based on evidence, and confronting issues of social justice. The idea that black people should be left alone in their clinging to Jesus due to their history of oppression smacks of just as much paternalism as what Scofield accuses the white new atheists of here.