So I wrote a piece a few days ago, with a partial answer to the question, “Why do there need to be atheist groups for specific kinds of atheists? Why should there be black atheist groups, Ex-Muslim atheist groups, women’s atheist groups?” It was a fairly calm, civil, patient piece. But some of the commentary on it gave me a much less patient, much less charitable view of this, airquotes, “issue.”
No, the commentary wasn’t hostile. That’s not it. See, a number of people pointed out that there are plenty of “special interest” atheist sub-groups that are entirely uncontroversial. (Within the atheist movement, anyway: I’m sure the Christian Right doesn’t much like them.) There are atheist parenting groups. Atheist book clubs. Atheist hiking clubs. Heck, there’s an entire national organization, the Secular Student Alliance, devoted entirely to meeting the needs of a specific sub-group of atheists — namely, atheist students — and supporting their student-centered groups.
And in the years I’ve been involved in organized atheism, I have never once heard a peep of complaint about any of these.
I have never once heard anyone say, “Why do student atheists need a national organization just for their groups? Why can’t they just go to the regular off-campus atheist group?” “Why do atheist parents need their own group and their own activities?” “Doesn’t the atheist book club splinter and divide our community?” “Isn’t the atheist hiking group segregation — discrimination against people who don’t hike?”
Never. Literally never.
Quite the opposite. If these sub-groups and specialty groups can get enough members, and if the groups survive and flourish, it’s seen as a good thing. It’s seen as a way to draw new people into the atheist community: if there are atheists who aren’t that interested in the other group activities, but who like to hike or talk about books, the atheist book club or hiking club might bring them in. And it’s understood that parents and students have particular interests and needs — particular scheduling concerns, and activities they’ll want to do, if nothing else — so again, having groups dedicated to them is actually going to draw more people into organized atheism. And it’s also recognized that if a group is surviving and flourishing, then, self-evidently, there’s a desire for it. There might be a little competitiveness — especially if one of these special-interest groups shoots up as its own thing rather than as a sub-group of an existing group, and especially if it starts drawing members away. But as a general principle, it’s understood that these special interest groups are a Good Thing.
So why is it such a problem to have special groups for black atheists, or women atheists, or atheists from other marginalized demographics?
My not-very-charitable interpretation: A lot of people don’t want to recognize that women, African Americans, other marginalized demographics, even have particular needs and interests and concerns.
After all, if you accept that, then you have to accept that racism exists and is a thing, that sexism exists and is a thing, that other marginalizations exist and are things. To understand why black atheists or women atheists might want their own groups, you have to understand some harsh realities about what it’s like to be a woman or an African American — realities that make the experience of being a woman really different from that of being a man, realities that make the experience of being African American really different from that of being white.
And when you accept that racism, sexism, and other marginalizations really exist and are things, a whole lot of other dominoes start tumbling down. You have to accept just how large and pervasive and terrible some of these marginalizations are. You have to accept the fact that you, yourself, sometimes contribute to these marginalizations, even without meaning to. And if you’re a halfway decent person, you have to start working to make a difference.
It’s much easier to maintain the pleasant fiction that, while readers and hikers and parents and students might have their own needs and interests and experiences, marginalization and oppression can’t possibly shape people’s experiences — certainly not enough that they might occasionally want to spend time with other folks who’ve been through the same crap.
Accepting the reality of marginalization knocks over a whole lot of dominoes.
Starting a book club? That hardly knocks over any.
Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.