Slaves like Us: American Atheists on the Plantation

“Look, A Negro! My body was returned spread eagled, disjointed, re-done, in mourning on this white winter’s day.”  –Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks


By Sikivu Hutchinson

The black body has always been an object of deep and abiding obsession in the American imagination.  Be it cavorting in “funky” abandon on a dance floor, vaulting off a basketball court in dunk mode, suckling apple-cheeked white babies, trotted out in a police line-up, or greased down, poked, prodded and staged on a slave auction block, the black body occupies that mystical place between corporeality and supernaturalism. Recently, American Atheists, a predominantly white group with a largely white leadership, slapped up a billboard in a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania neighborhood featuring a picture of a shackled naked black slave and a bible quote that said “slaves obey your masters.” The ad was intended to protest Pennsylvania’s boneheaded declaration of 2012 as the so-called “Year of the Bible.”  Much to the “astonishment” of AA reps, the billboard was reviled, defaced, and labeled a hate crime by some in the African American community.  Apparently offended black folk just weren’t intelligent enough to grasp the sage lesson that American Atheists, prominent champion of anti-racist social justice, was trying to teach them. Instead, some “misconstrued” the message as racist, concluding that, in a country where white nationalists have issued a clarion call to take back the nation from the Negro savage/illegal alien in the White House, “slaves obey your masters” probably still means them.

In the 2002 documentary Race—The Power of an Illusion,  Harvard science historian Evelynn Hammonds discusses how much of 19th century scientific inquiry on racial difference revolved around black bodies: “If we just take African Americans as an example, there’s not a single body part that hasn’t been subjected to this kind of analysis. You’ll find articles in the medical literature about the Negro ear, and the Negro nose, and the Negro leg, and the Negro heart, and the Negro eye, and the Negro foot – and it’s every single body part. And they’re constantly looking for some organ that might be so fundamentally different in size and character that you can say this is something specific to the Negro versus whites and other groups.  Scientists are part of their social context. Their ideas about what race is are not simply scientific ones, are not simply driven by the data that they are working with. That it’s also informed by the societies in which they live.”

Hammonds underscores the political “invention” of the black body through the lens of scientific objectivity.  The legacies of slavery and scientific research dovetailed with the popular display of black bodies as the ultimate site of racial otherness.  These legacies shape the experience of walking, driving and breathing while black.  They inform the terror of being a carefree teenager out for a casual stroll in the kind of private gated community where 17 year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed recently by a white neighborhood watch captain in Orlando, Florida.  The case made national headlines due to the “curious” fact that three weeks after the murder, the shooter (who claimed he was acting in self-defense) has not been charged and is still walking around free.  According to Martin’s family Trayvon was found with candy and ice tea on his body.

In the Harrisburg incident some black residents spewed anti-atheist slurs and labeled the AA group the Antichrist.  Vandals tore part of the billboard down and it was removed shortly after it was mounted.  But AA’s ahistorical paternalistic approach to “secular” public service messaging is one of the main reasons why New Atheism is still racially segregated and lily white.  Clearly AA doesn’t give a damn about the reality of urban communities of color in the U.S. vis-à-vis the institutional role of organized religion in a white supremacist capitalist context.  In my book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars I ground my critique of American religiosity in the social history of residential segregation and the cultural context of actual black communities.  Northern cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee rank among the top ten most segregated cities in the U.S.  All those churches that white folk have the luxury of not seeing in the segregated black neighborhoods they bypass on the expressway aren’t there because blacks are ignorant, backward neo-slaves; they’re there in part because urban retail, commercial and green space development is moribund in the so-called ghetto.  Take a ten minute drive from “South Central” Los Angeles (a racist misnomer used to ghettoize any predominantly black neighborhood in L.A. regardless of geographic location) to predominantly white West L.A. and the storefront churches, liquor stores, check cashing places, and bail bonds offices vanish while parks, schools, grocery stores, businesses, office parks, and retail centers proliferate.

So is AA on the frontlines of providing prisoner re-entry resources—the real regime of 21st century “enslavement” for millions of African Americans—to families and communities that are permanently locked out of the so-called American dream due to the legal disenfranchisement of former convicted felons in employment, housing, and voting?  Did AA even deign to consult with local interfaith and secular, humanist or atheist people of color about the cultural and psychological impact of the legacy of slavery in a nation where black bodies are still the primary targets of violent police suppression, racist criminal sentencing and capital punishment?  Of course not.  As I wrote in my 2009 article The White Stuff,  “It’s cartoonishly pro forma when white folk, ignorant of these historical traditions, swaggeringly insist that atheist discourse is implicitly anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-heterosexist because one, we white people say so, and, two, hierarchy is something only those knuckle-dragging supernaturalists do. It’s paint-by-the-numbers entitlement time when the so-called new atheist “movement” is resistant to the charge that racial and gender politics just might inform who achieves visibility and which issues are privileged in the broader context of skeptical discourse. It’s not PC to point out that traditions of scientific racism, secularism, and Judeo Christian religiosity went gleefully hand in hand for much of the West’s enlightened history.”

In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass contended that “revivals of religion and revivals in the slave trade go hand in hand together.”  Douglass prefaced his critique by contrasting the corrupt Christianity of a slaveholding nation and the so-called benevolent “Christianity of Christ” practiced by African slaves in liberation struggle.  Yet he was also critical of the hypocrisy of a nation that rationalized slavery based on secular Enlightenment ideologies of individual liberty and democratic citizenship for white men.  Slaves and the descendants of slaves gathered, organized, mobilized and resisted white supremacy in church communities because they were and continue to be some of the only socioeconomic, political, and cultural spaces widely available to black people.  Post-racialists say that’s past history, pimping the delusion that “we” can all lock arms in Kumbaya and move on, slamming by on the expressway out of the “inner city.”

It’s a travesty that Douglass, one of the greatest philosophers of the criminalization of the black body, would have chewed up and spit out, but of course Douglass wasn’t on that billboard.


Slaves like Us: American Atheists on the Plantation

112 thoughts on “Slaves like Us: American Atheists on the Plantation

  1. 1

    I do understand what AA was trying to accomplish, but they definitely chose the wrong subject matter. The moral deficiencies of the bible are legion, and there are a vast number of equally damning quotations they could have used that would not have rebounded on them so badly. In turn, the reaction of the African American community was entirely predictable, and entirely justified, so far as I can see. It’s hard for us who are white to really keep in mind the level of oppression that POCs face in this country, and probably even harder for those who haven’t studied race relations and/or American history very thoroughly. We don’t have to live with it, after all, but that’s not any reason why we should be ignoring it as much as we do. I’m not as much of an activist for race issues as a could (and perhaps should) be, but compared to most of the white people I’ve tried to discuss the matter with I’m like a white version of Malcolm X. I realize that Sikivu probably knows this much better than I do, but talking about race issues with American whites is like pulling teeth.

    1. 2.1

      My understanding of the definition of atheism is that it is the belief in the non-existence of God, gods.
      This is different than a “lack of belief” which is essentially a logical impossibility since belief is an inescapable quality of consciousness.

      1. Lack of belief is still the most appropriate description of atheism.

        I currently have 0 beliefs regarding any idea of god you might have, because I don’t yet know what exactly you might mean by the word ‘god.’ It is not a word with an uniform meaning.

        You don’t believe in no creasama, you have a lack of belief in creasama.

        This is the greatest strength of theism, but it is also its weakest point. People will generally assume that you mean the same thing they think of when they use the word. However, if you lack a belief in it, you probably also know that people rarely mean the exact same thing when they talk about it.

        If someone defines a ‘god’ in a limitless fashion, I don’t need to say that it doesn’t exist, because my idea of existence implies a limitation. Saying that a limitless being exists then become sonsensical, or meaningless.

        That says nothing about the possible existence of a limitless ‘god,’ but I am still an atheist because I have no belief regarding that ‘god.’

        Not even that statement qualifies as a belief about the actual concepts existence, it only lies in the meaning that is provided.

      2. The original claim that gods exist is yet unproven and unsupported with credible evidence. To say that I do not believe in gods is not a statement of faith. I have no reason to believe in gods in the first place. None. If you wish to claim that a god exists then provide the evidence and proof, for until you do there is no reason that I should believe your claim. All claims of gods are without credible evidence so the supposition that gods exist is false. Any statement made based on the possibility that gods exist is no more believable than a statement made on the basis that the tooth fairy exists. The non-believer need not prove anything nor is the non-believer making a statement of faith. It is both false and wrong to say that the non-believer is making a statement of faith when stating they do not believe, for the statement is based on fact. There is no credible evidence, never mind proof, that gods exist.

    1. 3.1

      By its very nature atheism runs counter to the deep traditions of faith held sacred by most African American families.
      Faith in a delivering God was forged in the crucible of enslaved torment over generations.
      Passed down in song, story, dance or allegory, as a source of hope and a means to cope, these beliefs are not easily parted from the collective conscience of a people.
      I think their animosity is more a result of their historic struggle than an organic dislike for the atheist position.

      The format and flavor of the billboard was ill advised.
      A billboard is something you glance at, not study in detail.
      Passers by simply reacted to what caught their attention.

      Of course this is only my opinion.

      I’m certain that I am somewhat mistaken to many and in gross error to others. Nonetheless I salute all who seek and stand up for truth regardless of our dissenting views.

  2. 5

    That billboard is an example of Appropriation (with a capital A). I saw a lot of that kind of appropriation when Occupy Wall Street was in full swing, people posting things on Facebook comparing being working class in 2011 to slavery in the nineteenth century. Many atheists interested in a movement and people in OWS need to learn the same lesson: you can’t divorce one issue from social justice from other social justice issues (i.e. you can’t talk about economic injustice without also talking about racial injustice). And putting up a billboard like that just to score points doesn’t cut it.

    1. 5.1

      Why do you think this was “just to score points”? The billboard is a critique of the bible and the unquestioned reverence in which it is held by many. They chose slavery as a universally condemned wrong of which the Bible approves and they used an image of African American slavery as a visceral reminder of exactly what that entails. Contra Sikivu, this is not ahistorical, the Bible was routinely used to justify American slavery. Also note that AA claims that their black members largely approved of the campaign. I doubt that’s going to satisfy the criticism of Sikivu and others, but a little Googling would have helped. Instead, I find this to be a very sloppily written article that doesn’t make it’s case well.

      On appropriation: no living person of any color in the US has experienced slavery of the type depicted. Why is it wrong for a ‘white’ person to say, “I condemn this, I find it morally repugnant, I sympathize with the people who went through it as a fellow human being.” ? It would be ridiculous to equate modern working class drudgery with chattel slavery but I don’t see the billboard doing anything like that.

      1. First of all, I think it was used just to score points because the atheist movement has no historic ties with helping America’s black community or fighting against racism in any substantial way. This ad obviously refers to 18th/19th century slavery in America. Were there any 18th/19th century atheists battling against slavery, assisting former slaves? Maybe Frederick Douglas did, but for every Douglas, there was a Jefferson who could hold humanist beliefs and own slaves without any apparent conflict. Where were the atheists during the Civil Rights movement in the USA? And where are the atheists now that America has a big problem with institutionalised racism and nobody wants to talk about it?

        I see too many atheists who are completely comfortable pretending to be “colourblind,” completely comfortable supporting people like Ron Paul who would do away with the Civil Rights Act if he got the chance, completely comfortable declaring that they are anti-racist just because they’re not overtly racist without even acknowleding what real racism is.

        And speaking of not acknowledging racism, many of these atheists cannot appreciate class differences either, which is the only explanation for how this paternalistic sign got made in the first place. No, as a mostly-white, mostly middle class organisation, you cannot simply go into a working class, black neighborhood and be like, “Hey black people, I totally know what’s best for you and have your best interests in mind. Stop being so silly and join my team instead.”

        Do you appreciate why so many black Americans stick close to the church (or to Islam in certain areas)? Because religion provides a community for them when they feel denied the community of mainstream, white, middle class America. Furthermore, there is a long, fraught history of white people knowing what’s best for black people and claiming to have their best interests at heart. Remember the Tuskagee Syphilis experiments?

        If you want to win over black Americans to atheism, being paternalistic, acting like you know what’s best and pretending you have their best interests at heart isn’t going to work. Better strategy: Work on erroding institutionalised racism in America, do some real work on economic and racial injustice and do some real work on the ground to offer alternatives to a community that revolves around the church.

        1. TK

          Word on all of this. I was born an atheist and will die an atheist, but I don’t pretend my lack of faith frees me from all cultural prejudices. And I’m getting tired of young, middle class white male atheists looking at other young, middle-class white male atheists and concluding that their atheism – not their class,educational opportunities, ethnicity, country of birth – has shaped them completely.

        2. mynameischeese your claim that there is no historic connection between atheism and anti racism is not only false but offensive. Ever heard of Asa Phillip Randolph, Hubert Harrison, Chandler Owen, James Baldwin, Butterfly Mcqueen, Zora Neale Houston, James Forman, George S Schuyler, John G Jackson,Joel Augustus Rogers, Lorraine Hansberry, Bobby E Wright,Langston Hughes, John Henrik Clarke, Richard Wright,WEB Dubois, and Huey Newton. These individuals were all black atheists and made great contributions to civil rights for blacks(too massive to list here). I agree with you that white atheists don’t focus enough on issues of race sex or gender. But it is abominable for you to pretend that the atheist civil rights advocates i mentioned don’t exist

          1. I don’t pretend that black atheist civil rights activists don’t exist. I mention them all the time in other comments on blogs like these along with many others that you didn’t mention.

            But none of the people you mentioned were involved with an organised atheist movement, and until recently, no organised atheist movement attempted to aid the struggle against racism. And certainly no organised atheist movement had a role in the fight against slavery in the USA. The closest thing to an organised atheist movement to aid civil rights was communism, which was atheist in ethos, but the atheism of communism was secondary to the political agenda.

            Racism, sexism, homophobia have never been priorities for organised atheism (until recently, and this is still far from the norm). Therefore, it is wrong for organised atheist movements to try to take credit for liberating people from slavery or racism.

            Let me use the Glenn Beck example again. If you see Glenn Beck on TV crying about the Holocaust, do you think to yourself, “This man is a hero who cares deeply about fighting anti-semitism.”??? Because I don’t. I think, “Here’s a guy who thinks he can score a few points by appropriating the holocaust.”

      2. Sorry, I should have answered your last paragraph as well.

        “no living person of any color in the US has experienced slavery of the type depicted”

        And yet many people of colour in the USA are still living with the consequences of slavery in the USA.

        Is it immoral for a white person to say, “I condemn this, I find it morally repugnant…”? No. Do things get a bit sketchy when the white person in question wants to deny the present-day consequences of slavery? Yes. Do things get even more sketchy when the white person in question isn’t simply condemning slavery, but is doing it because they have another objective (such as getting black people to join a movement)? Yes. That’s when appropriation comes into play.

        1. Re my being confused (comment 21)

          No, as a mostly-white, mostly middle class organisation, you cannot simply go into a working class, black neighborhood and be like, “Hey black people, I totally know what’s best for you and have your best interests in mind. Stop being so silly and join my team instead.

          It’s patronising. Fair enough. Actually, it’s pretty clear once I’ve thought about it. Mind you I can’t really think of anything to add that doesn’t sound patronising. So I’ll leave you yanks to sort it out.

          (Can we have Landon Donovan back, though?)

        2. What kind of neighborhood was this in? I can see the same thing being aimed at white people, who are always trying to make racism not their fault. Not that that’s much better.

        3. Thanks for replying. As for historic ties between atheism and anti-racist movements, you ask ‘where were the atheists?’ I would say mostly where they’ve always been, being a small minority and subject, like everyone, to the prejudices of their societies. I’m not a historian although a few examples spring to mind: Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken were harsh critics of the racism of their times. Darwin was an abolitionist. None of them are without problems by modern standards but they look rather good in comparison to their contemporaries. Richard Wright was a some-time communist member who portrayed them as much more sympathetic to the black plight in Native Son, (he later fell out with them) although I’m not sure how explicit his personal religious views were. He was friends with Camus and Sartre.

          I wish I could say that atheism somehow made you put aside all your other biases but we know that’s not true. In historical terms I tend to see it as more aligned with a number of ethical and civil rights movements than the population at large, but that doesn’t mean that as a group they have been as active as those movements would have liked. Currently, I see a lot of support for addressing racism and sexism and etc. right here at FTB. Maybe I don’t run into the hard-core Ron Paul -types as much as you, in which case you have my sympathies. 🙂

          I think the sign got made because different people have different impressions of how to convey a message and how it will be received. I find it kind of paternalistic to say ‘Oh black people won’t get the intended message, they’ll just think it’s atheists advocating racism’. At the same time, if you click on the ‘billboard’ link in the OP, you’ll find a video with a guy who apparently thinks that is the message, although he hasn’t actually seen the sign. To some extent, any time you criticize people’s religious beliefs, you’re saying ‘I know whats best for you, stop being so silly.’ Yeah, it’s extra tricky when you’re dealing with racial lines, gender roles and whatnot. Given the backlash, I’m not sure this campaign was a good idea on the whole, but there is always a question of tayloring your approach to put your audience at ease versus confronting them directly on an important issue. People regularly disagree on where to draw that line. I don’t think it’s wrong to argue over the best way to approach someone, but I also don’t want to see the message get dismissed in endless bickering over the medium. I wonder what the reaction would be if a mostly black group had put the sign up? What if a similar sign with anti-homosexual passages had been put up?

          Yes, I appreciate that many black people feel very closely tied to the church as a source of community support and the adoption of biblical narratives as an analogy with and promise of deliverance from oppression. Those aren’t radically different feelings, psychologically and practically, from the ties of many white church communities. In the black churches I would say it is more crystalized around the black American identity and the particular issues of racism. In all cases I would like to say “It is holding us all back, it divides us, it makes us ignorant and fearful and ultimately it is a lie. Let’s keep the good things, the community, the call for social justice; but why compromise that with bigotry, with shame and foolishness? Why subscribe to a church that talks of racial equality with one tongue and vilifies homosexuals with another? Why feed the poor at a soup kitchen and vote down every scrap of the safety net established by government?” Towards that end I’m all for secular and atheist institutions doing more to be seen as an alternative.

          Who in question is denying the consequences of slavery? I don’t see anything inherently wrong with bringing up slavery in the context of “No, we don’t admire or respect this book, which endorses awful ethics, including slavery for one obvious example.” Again, I’m not sure the billboard made that point in the best possible way, but it seems like a legitimate point to make.

          1. Mark Twain. Bad example. Was he an atheist who was against slavery? Yes. Did those positions magically make him an anti-racist? No. Reread his work and pay attention to his treatment of Native Americans. Once you are able to see that he wasn’t completely unproblematic, you might also notice how the abolitionist position of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is mired in negative stereotypes of black people.

            Speaking of Native Son, did you notice how when the two white characters are trying to be friends with the black man, it does nothing but confuse him? Keep in mind that the black man didn’t trust the white communist until the communist did some work to try and help him (by defending him in court). Also, recall that the book draws attention to the fact that while the young white girl wants to befriend black people, she is meanwhile benefiting directly from racism as her father is a racist slumlord. This suggests that the black man’s suspicions of white people wanting to befriend him at the begining of the novel are in fact well-founded. You should be suspicious of someone who wants to be your friend while they are benefiting from prejudice against you. And in case you missed that point, Wright spells it out for you by having the white communist say something to that extent at the end of the book.

            So again, even though I am an atheist and interested in anti-racism, I am going to argue that the black people who defaced that ad were probably acting in their own best interest, despite the fact that AA thinks that it has their best interests at heart. If you want working class black people to be able to come out as atheists, you must first work to dismantle the racist and classist institutions that keep racism ingrained in the wider culture.

          2. @mynameischeese
            Looks like we’re running out of space.

            Was I unclear? I specifically said that the people I listed were not unproblematic. How many white 19th centery figures can you name that wouldn’t set off a few alarms with modern sensibilities? (Hell, how many black figures?) Much less the number of atheists/agnostics I can name off the top of my head.

            In Native Son, Bigger doesn’t act in his own best interest, although the point is that he has very few options in the toxic society around him. The strength of the novel is in making a largely reprehensible character sympathetic because despite being an ignorant, self-absorbed murderer the racism around him is still appalling. So it’s not, I think, that all his suspicions are justified, it’s that he is unable to discern any way to improve his lot or trust anyone because he is a product of so much abuse and so little chance of being anything other than what he is.

            It’s strange to me, then, that rather than trying to build a better community and break down barriers to racial understanding, people are reinforcing the idea that an anti-racism billboard is in fact racist. I don’t know what, if any, the long term consequences of something like this are. Maybe it will plant a seed of doubt in some believers minds, but if all it does is make black people feel angry or insulted then it was a bad idea. But, there is a meta-discussion about whether they should feel angry and insulted and whether we should be painting AA as bigots. It becomes this circular thing where the add is offensive because people are offended because other people don’t think the add is offensive.

          3. The Bible supports slavery and religion is used to justify slavery. Valid point? Yes. Now for the subtext of the ad: Black people should leave the black church, the centre of civil rights activism and provider of support when the government fails; and support what they view as a movement full of white, middle class men who will gladly hold onto their white privilege and ignore racism. Good idea? No.

            Not only are the white atheists you mentioned problematic, but some of them are even worse choices (from an anti-racism perspective) than their religious nutty contemporaries. Darwin. Atheist and anti-slavery? Yes. And yet he believed that so-called inferior races were destined to be wiped out by superior races. Compare him to his friend, Fitzroy, who was so religious nutty that the idea of evolution made him suicidal. And yet Fitzroy had compassion for the peoples he met in South America and didn’t see them as inferior. And Mark Twaine became anti-slavery when it was fashionable, but the Quakers who helped run the Underground Railway were way ahead of him.

            Personally speaking, I cannot seperate my atheism from my anti-racism, feminism, anti-ableism, anti-homophobia or anything else. But, as you can see just from scrolling down through the comments here, that is not yet the norm in the atheist movement.

            “It’s strange to me, then, that rather than trying to build a better community and break down barriers to racial understanding, people are reinforcing the idea that an anti-racism billboard is in fact racist.”

            Are you saying that I am not attempting to build a better community? Or that the OP is not trying to build a better community? The OP has helpfully drawn attention to the fact that the effect of that billboard does not match the intentions of AA. Looks like she’s trying to break down barriers for many people here, but as Bowen put it, “A barrier has two sides.”

            And if you read what I wrote, I didn’t say that the ad itself was racist. I said it was an example of appropriation. It’s a bit like when Glenn Beck gets all teary-eyed over the Holocaust. What did Glenn Beck do to prevent the Holocaust? Nothing! He wasn’t born yet! And what did AA do to end slavery? Nothing! It wasn’t invented yet.

            Last point I want to make: Loads of black people are atheists and don’t feel comfortable coming out. Plenty of people of colour have already written about what the atheist movement can do to help people of colour come out as atheists and join the movement. Read what they have written and learn from it (and learn from this billboard fiasco as well).

        1. the bible does though. it’s one of the few things it doesn’t contradict itself on. that’s not the same as saying all Christianities support or are based on support for slavery, since most Christianities are only loosely based on the bible.

  3. 6

    The issue of slavery was chosen (I think) because it is something that is accepted as unambiguously immoral and yet something the bible was used to defend.

    Dashing little children on the rocks could have been chosen instead, but would leave people claiming “that’s the old testament” and ignoring it.

    I remember sitting in church listening to the pastor give a sermon about a runaway slave and how Paul ordered him to return to his master and it made me sick to my stomach. I’d previously had no idea that anything like that was in the bible. I’ll bet a lot of modern people had no idea.

    1. 6.1

      Apparently the biblical position is that it is moral to obey existing laws. The underlying premise of individual liberty and inherent value of human life as “ordained by god” are supposed to engender in its followers to pursue changes in social orders, hence laws, to bring about equality for all.
      It is from this perspective that Christians claim the founders drew their foundational principles. if I’m not mistaken we still retain the right to redress of grievances against the ruling authority.
      That’s not to say that the system isn’t rife with corruption, crony capitalism, and a host of other injustices. We still have the best of the worst in our government.

      That’s my understanding.

  4. 9

    Stephen Jay Gould’s book titled The Mismeasure Of Man. 1996. is a wonderful history of the creation of “race”.
    Basically revised and expanded as a refutation to a white supremacist book, The Bell Curve.
    Seems most white folks are not aware of their seemingly privileged station in the U S.
    Thank you Mr. Hutchingson for this much needed article. The more we talk about White Privilege the more the possibility of
    white people becoming aware of how hurtful and unjust is their white privilege.

  5. 10

    Your comment about South LA sent me to the map and various reference sources. I had not known about that particular bit of cultural geography wherein the term “South” or “South Central” means “Inner City” even when it refers to communities that are not even in LA, as long as the populus is brown enough. I would love to see what happens if a neighborhood or small town in “South LA” turns non-black. Here in the Twin Cities, the term “inner city” is used by suburbanites around Minneapolis to specifically refer any city neighborhood with enough African Americans that one would notice them if driving by. I don’t know what they do over in Saint Paul.

    The skeptics movement, the atheist movement, and the humanist movement is years behind in understanding both matters of race and racism and feminism. Having gone (if gone anywhere at all) from racist and segregationist to “I don’t see color” or “Color does not matter” or as you heard the other day in Orlando “I do not haz a color” does indicate a desire to move in the right direction, but without the life-schooling, thoughtfulness, or even basic training that white people do in fact need in order to not make total asses of themselves.

    We (we whitish athesisty people), as a community (and here I refer to most of the writers here at FTB, many of the people at the Moving Secularism Forward conference, and most of the activists in various state and city Atheist groups) need to rethink and re-engage non-white communities and people on fair and respectful terms. For example, there is a problem in atheism if we fight internally over whether or not we should engage in organizations that have a religious component, if a widespread and vital universe of people and communities engage routinely with such organizations in carrying out the day to day business of social justice and other matters.

    This does not just apply to atheism. It applies to other matters of politics as well.

    Thanks for this very thought provoking piece. I loved your Orlando talk …. I wish those talks were generally available rather than on sale as a fundraising thing.

    1. 10.1

      You’re welcome, although I vehemently disagree that “I don’t see color” is moving in the right direction. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book “Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria” in addition to the eminent work of Louise Dernan Sparks, Carol Tanaga and Po Bronson deconstruct the fallacies of the colorblind “we are the world” pathway to equality myth. Colorblind devaluation of the complexity and inherent worth of cultural and racial difference results in the default naturalization of whiteness as the normative identity position, cultural heritage, beauty standard, belief system, historical agent and moral paradigm.

      1. I vehemently disagree that “I don’t see color” is moving in the right direction.

        It is definitely not moving in the right direction, nor is it in a good place. But, I recognize the intention of the 70 year old man as different than that of many others.

        I second Tatum’s book as something for those who like the idea of colorlessness to read. One place I’ve encountered the “fallacies of the colorblind” is among teachers in my race and racism (for teachers) seminars; “Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria” is an eye opener for teachers predisposed with an interest in the topic.

  6. 11

    You see this all the time. Plenty of male atheists out there care a lot about sexism, but only seem to mention it or do anything when it lets them score points against religion. For that matter, lots of Libertarians care a lot about racism, but only ever mention it as a reason to legalize drugs.

  7. 13

    Actually science would point towards socio-behavioral explanations for both racism and religious belief.

    1) Racism is an example of in-group/out-group identification. In Africa, racism isn’t the word used to describe this unpleasant phenomena – there, it’s called the curse of tribalism and has played key roles in most major conflicts, from the Sudan to Rwanda to the Congo. It’s the result of a primitive, uneducated mentality – resulting in people who say “I’ll only associate with / work with people who look like me, speak like me, celebrate the same holidays” – etc. A broad education does a lot to counter that inherent primate tendency.

    2) Religious belief in supreme beings must have arisen tens of thousands of years ago as a natural extension of the alpha-male structure of primitive human societies. Imagine the rise of religious belief in a group of Neanderthals, for example – things like thunder and lighting which they couldn’t explain would be accounted for by a great alpha-being in the sky, perhaps fighting with other alpha-beings. However, we no longer need such explanations, thanks to the rise of science and reason.

    P.S. You also left out the reason that prison populations in the United States (among the highest in the world, as a percent of the overall population) do not reflect the general population structure – drug laws and drug sentencing regimes that target poor people with long sentences and let wealthy defendants off with slaps on the wrist. Poverty plays a bigger role than anything else – most people who can afford to hire teams of highly-paid lawyers get vastly reduced sentences in drug cases, regardless of their genetic makeup and ancestry.

    1. 13.1

      ikesolem, re-read your first point. Just take a moment. Do you see a problem?

      You are critiquing racism as an example of in-group/out-group identification that can be remedied by a broad education while simultaneously creating an in-group/out-group identification. Using words like “primitive” and “primate” when discussing people in Africa is extremely problematic.

      What’s the role of colonialism in your explanation of “curse of tribalism”‘s “key roles in most major conflicts”? Do you forget that the continent of Africa was radically changed by colonialism?

      I remain unconvinced that racism is always an example of in-group/out-group identification. There’s an assumption there that there’s not multiple races within a group. That sounds an awful lot like an evopsych explanation to me that is a just-so story. You seem to confuse race with ethnicity a bit, as well (“speak like me/celebrate same holidays”–sounds like ethnicity to me, not race).

      Also, your P.S. paragraph looks an awful lot like whitewashing to me. Not only did anti-drug laws (specifically marijuana) historically target racial minorities ( and, race and income are not extricable things ( Do you seriously think that race plays no role in poverty in the United States? I also must question if you believe race is biological, as it seems that you do based on the end of your P.S. paragraph? If so, I hope you will do a little bit of research on this (you can start here: and

    2. 13.3

      Funny how what you say science “would” do is so different than what science actually did. The racist/sexist ugliness of that crap isn’t all in the past, plenty of evolutionary psychology studies seek to uphold the ideals of the privileged. That is a step up from the experimentation done on people of color, but it is still evidence of institutionalized racism that negatively impacts people of color as a class right now.

      The history of human experimentation on the underprivileged is worth studying.

  8. 14

    I appreciate your input on this issue. As a white “racist” it is useful to have an explanation of just why the billboard was ill conceived. I referred to myself as racist not because I harbor any animosity to groups unlike myself, but to acknowledge the reality of growing up “white” in America. I did live in Detroit long enough to have some real AA friends. In spite of that I am aware that I am not completely free of some of the attitudes of my youth which are paternalistic. I do,however, consider it a sign of growth that I can recognize, why the image on the billboard would provoke outrage rather than thought. Hopefully American Atheists will now realize that they are out of touch they are, and start getting outside advice on how to present a message.

  9. 15

    P.P.S. Of course atheist movements – or any ‘movement’ – or any person – can easily fall into the same in-group/out-group us-versus-them mentality described above.

  10. 16

    I liked the billboard. I looked at it and said, “Yeah! The bible’s morality is terrible and outdated, and this is another example of how.” I didn’t expect there to be such a backlash.

    And that shows why it is so profoundly important that white people not run around bouncing ideas like these off each other without input from the communities that are actually impacted by these ideas. I, as a white, heterosexual, cis, able-bodied woman, have all kinds of blind spots. I’m going to miss things, so I need other sets of eyes, eyes that are closer to the issue.

    One of the things that makes me sad about “diversity” in the atheist community is that a lot of people who want “diversity” want it without having to deal with the issues that a “diverse” population faces. We want black people, but we don’t REALLY want to deal with racism. We want white people, but we don’t REALLY want to deal with sexism. It can’t possibly work that way. As you said, we can’t just use “diversity” when it’s a good weapon against the other side.

  11. 19

    I’m very appreciative of Sikivu commenting on this issue that took place in my home town. The compelling disonnance that I struggle with is that we black folks wish to be apart of the collective without prejudice but wish to segregate when we do not want to associate with those that don’t share our faith. Many black folks know all too well what it is to be judged before we open our mouths but cannot see Christian privilege when we exercise it. I can better understand white people never being able to see privilege being white in a Christian theocracy. But why is it so hard for us to see the contrast…

  12. 20

    It sure seems to me that you’ve read more into the message of the billboard than intended, and, perhaps, than warranted, and yet perhaps, are placing more importance on the reactions of “some” of the “black” community than you ought. Is it that surprising that “some” who are adherents of a mythical religious faith, reacting against the disconfirmatory message of the billboard, should take it as a threat of some kind?

    Do we even know whether it was as a threat to their fervent worship of their “Word of God”, or to their comfortable repression of cultural memories of racial oppression, that they were reacting? You might have a tendency to filter such events through the lens of your much study into the history of race relations.

    And, other than the portrayal of the shackled slave, apparently of African descent, what did this have to do with any historical fascination of those ensconced in “white privilege” toward the “black body”? If anyone wishes to expose the anti-humanism of the New Testament, should it have been as effective to show an example of some slave that didn’t have close African heritage?

    But, I sure do hope that the American Atheists confer with a more diverse group of people, in more intelligent marketing. Perhaps you ought to join them, to relieve them of that condition of being “predominantly white”.

  13. 21

    I’m not black, and I’m not even American so it’s perhaps not surprising that I’m puzzled.

    But I am puzzled. AA may have many things to be ashamed of, but with this particular billboard I just can’t see it.

    “Instead, some “misconstrued” the message as racist, concluding that, in a country where white nationalists have issued a clarion call to take back the nation from the Negro savage/illegal alien in the White House, “slaves obey your masters” probably still means them.”

    Is that misconstruing it? Does “slaves obey your masters” mean you? YES IT FUCKING DOES! Surely those white nationalists do mean you? Give the slightest excuse and won’t they use just that verse, for just that reason? And wouldn’t the Fundies join in?

    I’m happily ensconced the other side of the Atlantic but from what I’ve seen I wouldn’t trust those Fundie fuckers an inch. Even I get some of the “dog whistle” racism mixed in with the “dog whistle” theocracy.

    1. EJ

      Well, not being American, maybe you’re unaware of the role Christianity and Christian imagery played and continues to play in the anti-slavery and civil rights movements? You’re perhaps unaware, just to cite one obvious example, of the extensive historical use of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt as a metaphor for the struggle for African American civil rights?

      If so you should perhaps read up on the subject, and then you might understand just one of the reasons (among many) people found this offensive.

      1. “If so you should perhaps read up on the subject, and then you might understand just one of the reasons (among many) people found this offensive.”


        It’s a simple enough question why not just answer it? It’s interesting, I’m curious, but it’s not that interesting: I have no desire to research the history of modern America in detail. (Although not directly answered by mynameischeese, his comment above satisfied my curiosity).

        I do react badly to this idea that one should have an in-depth knowledge of a subject before one advances any opinion or asks any question. You may not have meant it to read as “ignorant Limey, until you understand America just butt out”; that’s how it reads though.

    2. 21.2

      The problem (explanation from another white European) is that this billboard simply used the histoy of slavery in the USA in order to score points to protest the stupid year of the bible.
      They appropriated a history that is still having painfull consequences for the lives of black Americans not in order to fight racism and segregation but to paint themselves as the good guys.
      That’s the problem.

      Please, people more knowlegable than me, beat me over the head with correction if I got it wrong.

  14. 22

    Sikivu, thank you so much for this. I am reading Moral Combat right now. (I purchased it at the Moving Secularism Forward conference) It is both humbling and exciting to find out how much I don’t know, and how many important voices I have yet to catch up with.

  15. 23

    I have a devilish thought – I want to create a tumblr or something similar on “Quotes from Black Thinkers, Authors, Statespersons, etc. that American Atheists Could Have Used instead of Going There with That Engraving”. Seriously, noone thought to google something more suitable? There’s a wealth of African American thought, literature, and culture available at their fingertips.

    “So is AA on the frontlines of providing prisoner re-entry resources—the real regime of 21st century “enslavement” for millions of African Americans—to families and communities that are permanently locked out of the so-called American dream due to the legal disenfranchisement of former convicted felons in employment, housing, and voting?”

    This would be amazing – there’s enough atheists/secularists/freethinkers with enough skills and money to do this sort of thing and yet they don’t.

    Anecdote isn’t data, I know, but in the city I work in, re-entry issues combined with low literacy rates keep the town in this limbo of poor reputation and poor management. For those living there, in the not-so-gentrified wards, it can suck. There’s few jobs, and there’s a significant problem finding workers capable of those jobs thanks to the racist project of gutting local schools. It’s a very personalized, very intimate confrontation with the realities Hutchinson speaks about in her post.

    The only efforts I saw to address these twin problems (at least the only with any viable funding and people-power) were made by the local churches. Churches are the lifeblood of this community – even the Big Local University plopped in the middle of its downtown – what could be an arm of workable secular alternatives or intervention – doesn’t do much besides send in some work-studies here and there. Token efforts from academe versus robust efforts from the local congregation? I know which side I’d trust more if I was in the residents’ shoes.

    If formal atheist groups want to make some inroads in this or similar communities, they have got to be humble, and have some honest self-examination of their privelige, their position, and the power it gives.

    1. 23.1

      “This would be amazing – there’s enough atheists/secularists/freethinkers with enough skills and money to do this sort of thing and yet they don’t.”

      So if an atheist society wants to be inclusive of a minority group, they have to be out there on the front lines, fighting all of the injustices that the group faces? Doesn’t leave much time for advocacy of atheism. I mean, helping to reintegrate ex-convicts into society is a laudable and worthwhile goal, but what does it have to do with atheism? We’re talking about American Atheists, not American Fighters Against Every Facet Of Social Injustice. We can’t fight all the fights all the time. AA has its own mandate, and it’s imperative that they be inclusive of, and seek the input of, minority groups, but proactively fighting for other groups’ causes isn’t being inclusive, it’s becoming a wing of that group at the cost of their own goals.

      1. @Greenspine – “we can’t fight all of the fights all the time” – fair enough. But advocacy of atheism without some sort of social justice component (to fill the vacuum left by religious institutions) just doens’t seem practical to me. Otherwise it sounds like “hey there’s no god! ok, bye!” Now what?

        From the American Atheists site, under their Aims and Principles:


        How else can “mutual sympathy, understanding, and interdependence” be encouraged without addressing the very things that prevent such sympathy?

        To use the example of re-entry programs, it’s a good thing to do, it’s morally right, it’s just, all that good stuff. Many, not all, but many atheists are seeking to demonstrate that it’s perfectly possible to do moral things in the absence of religious doctrines, communities, etc. Things like that are a way to make the theory meet reality, so to speak. So while I see your point, I must differ that this comes pretty close to the heart of what atheism etc. is for a lot of people.

      2. Part of that point might be, with all the skills and talent out there among aethiests, they couldn’t find someone with some basic marketing/outreach/communication sense to do a decent billboard. My high school business students would have laughed their classmate out of class if they brought in that billboard monstrosity.

      3. Thank you for demonstrating adequately what exactly is wrong with parts of the atheist community:
        You care more about one intellectual position with regards to the world than the actual lives of people.
        It’s the same old song: unless you put your money where your mouth is, just shut up.

        1. “You care more about one intellectual position with regards to the world than the actual lives of people.
          It’s the same old song: unless you put your money where your mouth is, just shut up.”

          Then answer my question: Does AA actively (I mean actively, not just giving moral support) campaign for *every* social justice issue? Does their unwillingness or inability to do so mean they don’t care about the “actual lives of people?” Or does it mean that they have our own issues we work for, and let other groups deal with the issues they were created to deal with? Has AA donated money or time to helping the victims of the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal? If not, why not? I guess they don’t care about those people, right?

          If the people who are members of AA want to work on other campaigns and issues, in addition to their work in AA, then great, go for it. There are a million other social justice groups out there. But AA as an organization has its own work to do, and expecting it to take up the flag of every other progressive social movement is ridiculous.

          1. Yes, but to cash in on these movements, to use their struggles to scose cheap points, that apparently is OK.
            So, yes, you can have it. You can have your Atheist organistaion that cares about atheism alone. Fine.
            In that case just shut up about racial issiues alltogether and admit your limitations.
            Stop appropriating the suffering and struggles of others about which you actually hardly care because you picked your fight and this one lost out.
            Either-or, it’s that easy.
            But if you go for the atheism only route and chose to ignore the issues of minorities, don’t wonder why it’s a white boys club.

  16. 24

    The gist of this blog post that I’m getting is “I assume everyone in American Atheists is white, I assume no white people have a valid concept of suffering, understanding is only transmitted via kinship, and all white people are forbidden from portraying imagery of black people – because it’s racist!” Shame on this hypocritical nonsense.

    1. 24.1

      I am positive, just by reading your summary, John, you haven’t even thought about Sikivu Hutchinson’s first paragraph. If you want to tear something down, try reading it first.

    1. 25.1

      oh great; and now my typoing of Sikivu’s name is going to sit there like that for everyone to see


      – – – – – – – –

      anyway, just wanted to say that I really appreciated you writing this. it’s of course not going to make the self-obsessed little cupcakes change their mind any, but it does help make the racefails more understandable (and thus hopefully more avoidable) for the rest of us pasty atheists

  17. 27

    So as form of critique, during ‘the year of the bible’ atheists should not criticise biblical affirmation of slavery because atheists aren’t necessarily black.

    Equally, atheists should not critique the bibles mysogeny because atheists aren’t necessarily women, atheists should not critique the bibles anti homosexual bigotry because atheists aren’t necessarily gay, atheists shouldn’t critique religion because atheists aren’t religious.

    1. 27.1

      @27 Colin Mackay says:

      So as form of critique, during ‘the year of the bible’ atheists should not criticise biblical affirmation of slavery because atheists aren’t necessarily black.

      No; atheists shouldn’t post racist billboards. Especially in black neighborhoods, but atheists shouldn’t post racist billboards at all. It’s hard to look good questioning someone else’s morality when your own looks like crap.

      1. The billboard was not racist. A racist billboard might be one that said, “Those of African descent ought to be slaves.”, or that said “Descendants of Slaves of African descent are less worthy than other people.” This one said, “The Bible condoned slavery.”, and showed an image of someone apparently of African descent suffering enslavement, which might have evoked some identification with some, if not all, of the viewers, for the purpose of drawing doubt on the moral authority of that collection of books.

    2. 27.2

      if they’re going to do it this ineptly, no, they most certainly shouldn’t.

      there are ways to critique the religious contribution to various axes of oppression without appropriation of other people’s struggles and without contributing to that oppression.

      And make no mistake, this is exactly what that billboard has done: an organization that has done no work at all to improve the lives of the African American community using their struggles for their own purposes is appropriation; and running an ad that could, almost without changes, be run by a white supremacist organization, is inadvertently promoting racism.

  18. 28

    This covers so many salient issues so very thoroughly that I will simply say that this should be required reading for every member of the skeptical/atheist/humanist movement.

  19. 29

    While I do think that nonreligious groups should be doing a lot more in areas like prisons and re-entry (among many charitable areas currently monopolized by religious groups), I think we’re losing sight that we’re lucky we can even put up a few billboards at all. We’re still figuring out who’s here, much less what any of us want to do.

    In terms of design, the billboard is certainly a failure. The message you get by briefly examining it ranges from (at best) “atheists don’t know how to communicate” to “atheists support brutal enslavement of blacks”. But we seem to have taken bad design, and associated its failure with the entire message. Yet, the factual basis of the billboard is correct, as is the motivation to communicate it. I know I found it shocking when I learned that there is a Biblical basis for slavery (e.g. see St. Thomas Aquinas), and its verses were used for that purpose (e.g. see Jefferson Davis, George Whitefield). It shows how deep religion’s claws go, when former slaves willingly embrace a religion whose holy text, to this day, repeatedly embraces slavery throughout.

    We should not fear drawing attention to these things, for multiple reasons. One reason is that the descendents of slaves are not the only, maybe not even the primary, audience for this message. Beyond hate groups, what white person wants to be associated with slavery? Another reason is that we should not mistake religious defensiveness with racial offence. Some black people who understood the message are nevertheless upset. But it’s because they are religious, or they fear what the religious response will be. When religion is the cause, we must not let race be its cover.

  20. EdW

    I’ve read this post now three times, and I must say I’m confused. I’m just not seeing how the pieces fit together. The article seems to be talking past itself in a few places, and I’m having trouble following it. Correct me if I’m mistaken in this synopsis…

    1. There is a historical precedent of science and “enlightenment thinking” being racist and dehumanizing

    2. Churches and religion are a very important part of black communities, historically and today

    3. The legacy of slavery is very much a day-to-day part of black American lives

    4. AA does not address any of the real problems of black communities, like the institutional racism endemic to American justice

    Therefore… what, exactly? Unless your organization is on the front lines of the anti-racist battle, you can never use slavery as an example in any context?

    It also seems like S.H. is saying that encouraging secularism among African American communities is a bad thing, in part because the history of enlightenment secularism also includes racism, and because religious organizations are the only outlet available to these communities.

    All that aside, I just don’t see the connection between any of this and the billboard. The billboard’s message was “The bible encourages slavery, which is a moral evil. Having a Year of the Bible is therefore stupid.”

    It has nothing to do with teaching a paternalistic “sage lesson” to the ignorant black folks, as the article seems to imply. It certainly doesn’t make any claims to the historical righteousness of secularism and science. If anything, it seems to be a message to privileged white people — “remember this? yeah, you don’t want to support this, which is what you’re doing”

    Maybe I’m just completely missing the point here. Help!

    1. 30.1

      The point might be, that if the African-American community sees that the Aethiest-American community is bigoted, the conversation about aethiesm won’t even get started. Fixing internal problems first and making aethiesm seem more inclusive might be a good start towards being able to have that conversation. What’s the point of telling a group of people that their religion is just another tool for their domination when it’s also one of their only sources of comfort, cohesion, hope and stability? Give that group another option, something else to go to, another community with open arms, and they might actually have a choice.

      1. EdW

        That sounds pretty true to me, and personally I agree — but I didn’t read that from the article. I think I’m just getting tripped up by the “obsession with the black body” and how the heck that relates to this one badly-relayed message.

    2. 30.2

      The billboard’s message was “The bible encourages slavery, which is a moral evil. Having a Year of the Bible is therefore stupid.”

      that may have been the intended message. it was not the message received. the message received was “we won’t do shit to help you, but you should abandon your social support system for us anyway, because see? bible quote.”

      if you can’t craft a message in such a way that your target audience will read the intended message, you suck at advertising: you have wasted your money and alienated people, instead of promoting your organization.

      1. and that’s only if a person accurately interpreted the smallprint (and who puts inside jokes into a billboard? idiotic); if they haven’t, they’re likely to think this was put up by a white supremacist organization, because the only difference between this and such a white supremacist ad is that inside joke about bronze-age morality.

        1. It fails on so many levels.

          But leave it to atheists to insist on defending something hopelessly ineffective and arguably filled with racist undertones. Most of our reputation is, clearly, unjustly earned but there seems to be some truth behind the callous, nitpicky and smarter-than-thou atheist.

        2. Yeah because it’s hard to interpret the great big letters:
          “Slaves obey your masters” –Colossians 3:22

          As atheists condoning slavery? You know, the group who do not believe in the bible?

          Give me a break. It’s called wilful ignorance and it’s incited by the very fact that “Atheist” appears on the same billboard.

          It doesn’t even need the *getting an inside joke*.

          There could have been a depiction of an Irish slave up there and the result would have been the same. (You know, the group who had their population decimated from 1.5 million to 600k in a decade from slavery.).

          1. No, the response would not have been the same because:
            1. The Irish are now “white” (one of the consequences of both the institutionalization of American racial slavery in the 17th century and Jim Crow in the 20th century; e.g., see David Roediger’s book the “Wages of Whiteness” or Noel Ignatiav’s “How the Irish Became White”) 2. Have been the beneficiaries of a racial caste system based on white supremacy and capitalist exploitation of black labor 3. Did not employ Christianity as a vehicle to resist and dismantle white supremacist dehumanization (both secular and religious) and disenfranchisement from the era of racial slavery into the present and
            4. Do not suffer the contemporary effects of the legacies of slavery and racial apartheid in housing, employment, education, health care, and the legal/criminal justice system.

          2. but it wasn’t an Irish slave, and the sign wasn’t placed in a predominantly Irish neighborhood. And that will never happen, either. And why do you think it will never happen?

            also, if the only hint at whether something is a white supremacist ad or not is your pre-existing knowledge about the organization in question, then you’re not doing a good job advertising for that organization. so you’re right; it’s not just the inside joke; it’s the inside joke and the reliance on people in the US having an accurate view of what atheists are and what they believe.

            which makes this an even bigger advertising fail.

      2. EdW

        So, I’m curious now. Is the wording really the problem, or the message itself? Let’s say that we made sure the message could NOT be misinterpreted. Let’s even say that every person who decided to put up the billboard was black. The message is clear and unequivocal:

        “the bible is a bad book, and was used as a tool to enslave. Our government should not celebrate it.”

        Would that in your view be a worthwhile thing to promote?

  21. 31

    you know what just occurred to me?

    so we have groups of atheist humanists that whine about the loss of atheist “souls” etc. blah blah, and how we need to copy religions by creating hierarchies, and having “trained leaders” to perform ceremonies, and building “temples” and having sermons, and making psychotherapists more like priests(!), and other such useless crap… but the one aspect where churches really do a massive amount of good and important work (social justice activism, and being the safety net that the state refuses to provide), that somehow gets labeled mission creep and not the point of atheist activism.


  22. 32

    Thank you for writing, not just this, but everything you’ve done. I second Marc Barnhill in that you should be required reading for all in the skeptical/atheist movement. Someone has to show us what we (white folk) can’t always see clearly on our own.

  23. 34

    It’s the same fucking crap all over again.
    Minorities tell the privileged majority “please, this really is paternalistic/condescending/racist/sexist” and the privileged majority starts to howl like a pack of wolves that surpisingly got two full moons at the same time*.
    If the majority can’t see why the point that is being criticised (after all, if they could they would probably not have done it. There are rare occasions where people notice they fucked up) was a bad move in the first place, the fault must lie with the minority group.

    If there’s one thing to be learned it’s that we still have a long way to go.

    *Yes, I know. Biological nonsense but you get the picture.

    1. 34.1

      “It’s the same fucking crap all over again.”

      Actually that was my thought on your post, Jadehawk’s, this very article…the same old theatrical anti-racist outrage at liberals, atheists, LGBT people, etc. who do not meet your precise vision of ‘right-thinking’ on race. (I am mixed race)


      Yet anti-racists constantly engage in paternalism and condescension towards blacks and other minorities by seeking to shield them from ‘offensive’ material, including as we see factual critiques of religion.

      As for “racism” you demonstrate that boldly and routinely as you judge the actions of whites solely on the basis of their being white (and encourage a mindset of perpetual guilt among ‘enlightened’ whites).

      The anti-imperialist/anti-racist left also engages in “sexism” by constantly making excuses for misogyny in Islam and conservative non-white cultures, through either open apologetics or constant deflections to more acceptable targets of criticism (Christianity, white-majority American culture, Israel, etc.).

      1. Oh look it’s elisabetht. again standing at the ready to defend the white man against the oppression wrought on him by all these mean minorities.

        You know I’m mixed race myself, and from one mixed race person to another, taking into account what you have said elsewhere on this website in the past, I tell you, you are a bigot.

        The anti-imperialist/anti-racist left also engages in “sexism” by constantly making excuses for misogyny in Islam and conservative non-white cultures, through either open apologetics or constant deflections to more acceptable targets of criticism (Christianity, white-majority American culture, Israel, etc.).

        You say you’re mixed race but you’ve never thought about the question of cultural dominance. But outside of that whenever misogynistic incidents have been covered from non-western cultures, I haven’t seen any post on this website making excuses for them. But surely since you seem so confident in making your charge, you’ll be more than ready to regale us with tons of links from this website where bloggers have done so?

        Also, even though the problem manifests itself here as well, I’ve found FtB one of the places where many, bloggers as well as commenters, actually understand these issues and do not tolerate sexism, racism or other types of bigotry, even to score a point.

        1. You know I’m mixed race myself, and from one mixed race person to another, taking into account what you have said elsewhere on this website in the past,
          I tell you, you are a bigot.

          Because I dare disagree with the all-mighty faith of ‘anti-racism’? There is along history of far left groups being venomous towards social democrats/liberals because we are not extreme enough for your tastes. I support democratic socialism, reason, secularism and a universal concept of individual human rights. If that makes me a “bigot” then I happily accept.

          You say you’re mixed race but you’ve never thought about the question of cultural dominance.

          Please share me your paternalism and condescension, I was exposed to Critical Race Theory as an undergraduate at Leuven. It did not impress upon me its worldview. And as an atheist I am concerned about “cultural dominance” that is the dominance of religion, I have no obligation to meet your other agendas.

          But surely since you seem so confident in making your charge, you’ll be more than ready to regale us with tons of links from this website where bloggers have done so?

          Well since I have to limit it to this site, meaning other leftist literature (e.g. Germain Greer, Fuambai Ahmadu, Counterpunch) is not allowed. Here is a start:

          As Professor Myers notes, it is astounding that banning stoning can cause objections (made based on far-left ‘anti-imperial’ politics).

          Then there was this example of deflection:

          As I note there, due to walton and others, a chilling example of religious violence and the assault on free expression becomes a forum for ‘anti-racist’ politics, so much so that words like ‘racism’ and ‘racist’ appear significantly more than ‘Islam(ic)’ or ‘Muslim’ (i.e. the actual subject). (On the positive side, your insults encouraged me to polish up my English these past few months before heading abroa for a research project. Sometimes we overestimate the quality of our English in Europe.)

          Also, even though the problem manifests itself here as well, I’ve found FtB one of the places where many, bloggers as well as commenters, actually understand these issues and do not tolerate sexism, racism or other types of bigotry, even to score a point.

          You mean there are a lot of people heavily committed to critical race theory and attempting to dominate the discussion through shows of right-thinking purity.

          1. Because I dare disagree with the all-mighty faith of ‘anti-racism’?

            If you’re going to decry emotional games don’t turn around and try and play them. Have a shred of integrity in your body.

            There is along history of far left groups being venomous towards social democrats/liberals because we are not extreme enough for your tastes.

            There’s a long history of that no matter where on the spectrum you are and the contempt is almost always a 2-way street.

            Anyway, it’s irrelevant. Whatever grudge you have against whoever is another issue all together. You’ve stated your concern is diminishing the privileged role religion holds in your society. I would assume you wish to do this through reasoned arguments and such.

            So you should know the validity of a position or view can’t be determined by political affiliation as you try to imply.

            Please share me your paternalism and condescension

            There was no paternalism there.

            re: pharyngula

            You realize comment threads there (especially as they break the 100 comment mark) rarely stick to a single topic or a single aspect of it. And when someone advocates deporting an entire population it is difficult not to venture into discussions of race and racism. This doubly true if one of the commentors is a law student specializing in border and immigration laws.

            (by the way, if you weren’t so determined to look down your nose as anti-racists you might have seen Walton and others criticize Islam, mock Muslims and belittle their claims of racism in other instances. You’re absolutist thinking is probably keeping you from realizing where the people you’re arguing with actually stand.)

  24. 35

    While I agree that the AA has alot of work to do and should have provided a little more thought to this campaign, I can’t help but point out (like many of the comments) that the Bible verse and picture are historically accurate!

    Also the AA posted this billboard because of the recent legislation passed by the PA State Senate for the “year of the bible” at the same time slashing the education budget by 50%. And you know who this will affect?

    Should AA approached the topic differently? hell yes! but do they have a point? hell yes.

    I have friends who live and work in that community of Harrisburg and it bothered me that they were more outraged about the billboard than the fact that they will be losing more services and teachers at their local schools.

  25. 37

    My question for Sikivu is the following: Is there room for disagreement and discussion? Some of us in the atheist/skeptic community have had backgrounds of religious oppression in the form of someone telling us, usually as children, that our ideas are wrong and evil and there is no room for disagreement or discussion because they know through an unimpeachable Source. The tone of your article is strongly reminiscent of that oppression. The tone seems to be that anyone who might disagree is racist (evil) and wrong (not to mention probably white), and needs to be educated. That is, there is no room for disagreement and discussion, only a one way communication: the truth from you to the ignorant.

    Assuming that there is room for d&d, I will bring up a few points of disagreement. In the first paragraph, you mention the idea that Americans are fascinated (“deep and abiding obsession”) by the black body and give as evidence the fascination with black basketball dunkers. May I suggest that you probably don’t have much appreciation for sports or athletic prowess in general! The fact is, there are no “lily white” dunkers in the NBA who are able to do it with much beauty and grace. If there were, there is no doubt that they would be just as celebrated as black athletes. Certainly when white athletes do excel in popular sports they are greatly celebrated. Or when you point to black dancers being appreciated for great dance moves, once again, dancers of any race are equally appreciated. To sum up, based on my own feelings and my experience of other Americans, we are not more fascinated by the black body any more than any other race, much less have a “deep obsession”.

    Here’s another point of disagreement/discussion. You point out how 19th century scientists were unduly interested in every part of the black body, obsessed with differences and similarities, presumably with their own white “race”. “The legacies of slavery and scientific research dovetailed with the popular display of black bodies as the ultimate site of racial otherness.” Then you write that these legacies informed the shooting of young Trayvon Martin (actually he was 17, not 14). Very possibly racism that ultimately has historical roots in slavery influenced the event, but not obsession with the black body. I doubt very much if the shooter was thinking, “Ooh! Here’s a black guy, I’m so fascinated with his body that I’m going to shoot him.”

    And I don’t think you can credibly make the statement: “Clearly AA doesn’t give a damn about the reality of urban communities of color in the U.S. vis-à-vis the institutional role of organized religion in a white supremacist capitalist context.” Well, there’s a lot in that sentence, maybe there are members in the AA that don’t care about the capitalism part, but the whole point of the billboard was to make a point about the institutional role of organized religion in justifying oppression and slavery. It follows that they care about the legacy of oppression that resulted in disenfranchised communities of color.

    So now that I’ve disagreed with you, Sikivu, do you see me as racist and automatically wrong? If so, then, of course, there can be no discussion. This sense that I’m getting from your blog post may even be indicative of a reason you meet with resistance within the atheist/skeptic community (assuming that you are) that you may be unaware of. I note that the AA blog made the statement: “While we certainly respect the opinions of those who disagree with our tactics, we respectfully disagree with that opinion. We are unapologetic about the billboard and stand behind it 100%. There will be no apology from American Atheists for saying what needed to be said: sometimes the truth is offensive.” Although my own opinion is that the billboard was a mistake, I applaud them for standing by their beliefs, and what I believe were their good intentions.

    1. Eve

      “Although my own opinion is that the billboard was a mistake, I applaud them for standing by their beliefs, and what I believe were their good intentions.”

      From what I see of the billboard I also assumed that AA meant well but underestimated how the message would fly in the African-American community. But to say you applaud them for standing by their beliefs only alienates African Americans further. It is a mere reminder of religion and how the white community is going to shove it down our throats whether we get their intention or not(and no, I am not saying that only the white community forces religion on people).

      Would it not have been better to say “Hey, we think this is a good idea based on this principle but perhaps we should seek out other opinions and perspectives outside of the white community before we move forward the decision to run this ad”? Since no one from AA decided to ask nor bothered to look at it from another perspective, it leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths that it is merely more white overlords. Just this time it is not in the form of Christianity, it is Atheism.

      While I don’t agree with much of what the author has written, as an African-American female I can understand why African-Americans were offended. I can also see the other side from AA but that doesn’t mean they should come off as pompous and assume that everyone will understand their perspective.

      It’s like a male trying to relate to a female victim of rape. No matter how hard he tries he just won’t get it. That doesn’t mean he can’t be understanding. It does however mean that he should have some obligation to deal with her in manner where he at least tries to see things from her perspective in order to help her heal. For American Atheists to say “we’re sticking by what we did” basically says “screw you, we could care less if you leave religion so long as we get to say what we want”. Then American Atheists become the very thing the preach against. Religious zealots that say you have take whatever we say you do.

      1. Apparently, there were some black members involved with the board. I think the issue is that AA doesn’t get billboards in general. The black members are just as steeped in atheists memes as the white ones, so they got it. The idea it was a billboard, not a demotivational poster doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone until after it went up. That is basically the same problem as their last few billboards. They keep attributing the furor to people not liking their message when a big part of the issue is they aren’t communicating their message.

        1. Eve

          If there were black atheists involved in the creation of the billboard, in all honesty I would be of the opinion that they are under 30, educated, two-parent home, decent upbringing, and the exact opposite of the demographic this board was meant to target. Which would mean that the black atheists would be just as clueless as the white ones. I could be wrong but that’s what I think.

          I imagine the line of rationale went something like this:
          1. Put up a bible verse on a billboard that shows how derogatory Christianity is to African Americans 2. Put up an accompanying image of an African 3. This will trigger African Americans to argue that the bible doesn’t say such a thing and they will grab their holy book to see for themselves 4. They will then call AA to debate with them and AA members(or website) will engage them in dialogue and provide further proof that the Bible is based on racist principles 5. African Americans will hopefully start to question the rationale of being a Christian.

          However, because American Atheist only viewed things from their perspective, the meaning of the billboard went all the way to the left:
          1. Billboard appears with a picture of an African being called a slave by white Atheists 2. White Atheists use the “Word of God” to call black people slaves with a billboard 3. Blacks shout about how white people always paint angels and Jesus as white, blue-eyed, and blonde hair yet put a picture of a slave as an African man. 4. No thought is given to look in the Bible for themselves to verify the verse as their anger spirals out of control 5. No dialogue is started between African Americans and atheists from this billboard because AA(both black and white) erroneously assumed that this message would work with blacks just because this type of billboard might work with whites.

          And now, more than ever, black folk REALLY don’t want to hear shyt atheists have to say.

  26. 39

    I am what mainstream society considers white.

    The billboard is obviously a shock-and-awe tactic designed specifically to get attention. From who? I would argue everyone. One could say that they were “paternalistically” attempting to teach religious blacks a lesson or “alerting” privileged religious whites to their connection with a religion that promotes enslavement. But one could say a lot more than that, too. It all depends on who’s looking at it.

    I personally think they chose the image of a black slave because slavery is taught to a lot of Americans under the context of the enslavement of Africans in the US roughly 300-400 years ago. It is an image that everyone will understand quickly, unlike perhaps the use of an image of a 12 year old Taiwanese girl who works in a Nike factory or the image of a modern day American office worker 😉

  27. 41

    Black slavery in the United States is what citizens of cracker ass cracker states like mine (Texas) understand. Yes, there are other examples, but do we really have that much billboard space to explain ancient Roman slavery or the subjugation of indigenous peoples of the Americas? This billboard points out something evil in a form that is recognizable as evil. I got it. They should do more of them depicting other ridiculous evils espoused in biblical texts. There are many examples, as others have pointed out.

  28. 43

    I am an atheist. I am Black. When I first saw the billboard I could only think “What were they thinking?” There were so many ways to communicate that point without using an image of a Black slave. Why not just use a picture of a cage or something to gesture towards captivity in general? Blah.

  29. 45

    I stumbled upon this and have to post a question.

    Is the anger that this billboard creats here emanating from the perception that supposedly white atheists put it up, atheists as a whole put it up or simply because a black atheist group didn’t post it up?

    I cannot believe the things I’m reding here. It seems black America wants justice and equality which can only be had by having the conversation which is racism in America. This is a clear, apparent and easily understandable thing that they have done. Do you want to have the conversation or no?

    The bible condones racism, one of myriad horrible and unjust teachings of the book. It has enslave millions through history through fear and the power the so called righteous who claim to be acting through it/for it inevitably posess.

    Perhaps it’s the shear irony of it all which is causing this misplaced anger. That is a predominantly white, middle class, educated group put up a symbol that not only shows an atrocity the bible pushes but also that the people who were targeted in this historical occurrence still go back to this fictional book for guidance/sense of community.

    I know the AA has never called for slavery to be carried out, isn’t it ironic.

  30. 50

    […] privilege brigade has come full circle from American Atheists’ 2012 naked shackled black slave billboard to Cult of Dusty’s viral “Black Christians=Uncle Toms” You Tube tirade. According to […]

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