More Atheist Leaders Who Aren’t Dawkins or Harris: Bakari Chavanu

In June, I wrote a piece for AlterNet, titled 8 Awesome Atheist Leaders Who Aren’t Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. The gist: When a media outlet decides that atheism is important, they all too often turn to Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. Then, when Dawkins or Harris puts their foot in their mouth about race or gender — again — the reporter cries out, “Atheism needs better leadership! Why doesn’t atheism have better leaders?” Atheism does have better leaders — so I profiled eight of them, to bring just a small fragment of the range and variety of atheist leadership to more people’s attention.

At the end of that piece, I wrote, “And these eight are the tip of the iceberg… I could write a new profile of a different atheist leader every week, and still be at it ten years from now.”

So I decided: Why not do that?

I don’t know if I’ll do it for ten years. But for at least a while, once a week I’ll be profiling and interviewing a different leader in organized atheism.

This week’s profile: Bakari Chavanu.

GC: Tell me briefly what your organization does and what you do for them. (If you’re in a leadership position with more than one atheist organization, feel free to tell me about more than one.)

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BC: The purpose of the Black Humanists and Non-Believers of Sacramento is to specifically outreach to people of African descent who are either atheists or are thinking in that direction. Since we formed the group back in October of 2015 2014, we have mainly hosted tables at predominantly African American events in Sacramento, such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Expo, the Black Book Faire, and Juneteenth, as well as the annual Freethought Day.

We think it’s important to engage people at these events about atheism, theism, and humanism. Using Meetup.com, we also plan and hold social activities, including a monthly breakfast and book club. By having a presence on Meetup, several African Americans have joined our group, specifically because it is a Black atheist and humanist group which they felt more comfortable joining. [Note from GC: The group also has a Facebook page.]

Mashariki [co-organizer of Black Humanists and Non-Believers of Sacramento] and I are also board members of the Reason Center, which is a non-profit community center of atheist affiliated groups. Though we’re a Black atheist group, we also try to network with other atheist groups in the area and beyond.

Tell me about a specific project or projects your organization is working on.

In the coming months we plan to organize workshops around related issues, and I personally would like to see us hold formal debates with representatives of the Black theist community. There simply has not been enough public debates about religion in Black communities, though there certainly lots of discussions about religious and theistic issues.

Where would you like to see organized atheism go in the next 10 to 20 years?

I would like see a lot more outreach to young people because I think it’s critical that they hear both sides of the theist-atheist debate. I also would like to connect with atheists who support social and economic justice, because for me atheism is about what you don’t believe in, but humanism is what you do believe in. I would like to see humanism as a political ideology for shaping political, social, and economic policies.

What do you think are the main challenges facing organized atheism now?

Bakari Chavanu co-hosting table at Martin Luther King Jr Expo in Sacramento
The challenge I think is being able to reach out and engage people about the problems and even dangers of religious beliefs. Unfortunately, too many public and political institutions and social relationships in the US and around the world are still largely shaped by religious beliefs, practices, and discrimination. Though more and more young people are leaving the church, there are still large numbers of people who don’t get the opportunity to engage critically about what they are told to believe. Our role as atheist activists is to humbly reach out to those folks.

Do you consider yourself a “new atheist”? Why or why not?

No I don’t think I’m a “new atheist,” at least not in terms of how the media as seemed to frame term. Typically “new atheist” refers to the so-called four horsemen: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Bennet. Of course I am not one of them, though I read and respect their work and their contributions to helping build and spread the atheist movement.

I consider myself a humanist, and an advocate of modern socialism, because I think these ideologies could make the world better, by transforming humanity out of the destructive aspirations of economic competition, greed, and exploitation of resources — motivated by obscene wealth accumulation. My view of humanism is that it must encompass a struggle against racism and White supremacy, sexism, and the environmental destruction of the planet. The term “new atheist” doesn’t tie together atheism with issues of social and economic justice, so I can’t say the term applies to me.

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Coming Out Atheist
Bending
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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.

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More Atheist Leaders Who Aren’t Dawkins or Harris: Bakari Chavanu
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4 thoughts on “More Atheist Leaders Who Aren’t Dawkins or Harris: Bakari Chavanu

  1. 1

    The Meetup page shows events going back to December 2014. I think this group was started in October 2014, one year ago now. The 2015 must be a typo. I’m glad to hear about the good work they’re doing in the capital of our largest state. Thanks.

  2. 3

    One of the best stories regarding Black atheism in America of late was the “coming out” of Arian Foster. I hope he can get into activism at some point, he’d be a real drawcard.

  3. 4

    Bruce, thanks for highlighting the error about the date of the formation our group. That was my fault. You’re correct, it was October 2014. I sent Greta a message to correct it.

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