Empty Call-Outs: When Journalists Complain About White Male Atheism

If you are an outsider whose only exposure to atheism is through non-atheist outlets, atheism looks a Mad Men-style group but with less actual style. In the view presented from without rather than within, Richard Dawkins’s Twitter feed is atheist gospel and no voices besides Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, or (shudder) Maher matter. Atheist-land is bleak indeed.

If the outsider view were at all fair or comprehensive, that is.

This morning, I went on HuffPost Live to talk about the Chapel Hill shootings. The other guest was Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, a Christian leftist who wrote about the shootings at The New Republic. I had the chance to read her piece before we went on the air. While I agree with many of the points that she made, what struck me about her piece was the lack of representation for diverse atheist voices that is characteristic of many outsider critiques of atheism.

It’s old news to atheists that we have an across-the-board diversity problem. We know we are, as a whole, a little too educated, able (and ableist), middle-to-upper class, white, and male to claim that we are part of a truly inclusive movement. In the years since Dear Muslima, many people have been tirelessly working to make the movement better. If you take the excellent reactions on the part of many of the skepto-atheist-secular orgs into account, that work has not been in vain. If you rely on the Twitter feed of one of the down-to-three Four Horsemen to tell you what the “atheist id” might be, then the hard work of the non-white and/or non-male people and their white and/or male allies in the fight has been not only tireless, but utterly thankless.

I refuse to accept narratives that complain about the lack of diversity in atheism yet do nothing to promote those who are working to improve things. Such writing is complicit in furthering the damaging notion that atheism is the sole province of rich white men and erases those faces and voices within it who are struggling for recognition.

As D.I. MacDonald put it, “Media reporting on atheism needs to be converted from its Cult of Dawkins.” This non-atheist obsession with disregarding the voices of the alternatives in favor of elevating white upper-class male voices does nothing to help non-white and/or non-male people. Mentioning the issues with diversity within atheism without striving for inclusivity in representation makes for a rather empty and self-defeating sort of call-out.

Empty Call-Outs: When Journalists Complain About White Male Atheism

19 thoughts on “Empty Call-Outs: When Journalists Complain About White Male Atheism

  1. 1

    I agree that a lot of their popularity comes from white male privilege. But it also seems to me that the atheists who are most popular – Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, and so on, are popular in part because they focus on anti-Islamic rhetoric. There are plenty of great atheist writers who focus on criticizing other religions, and I don’t think it’s an accident that most of the news media hardly ever talks about them.

    And it’s worth pointing out that all throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and even into the early 2000s, almost every time Dawkins criticized religion, he focused on Christianity. He got popular at roughly the same time he switched focus to Islam.

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      He got popular at roughly the same time he switched focus to Islam.


      And here I thought Dawkins got famous for writing best seller books like The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion, and so forth, which have little to no discussion of Islam.

  2. 5

    @Enlightenmentliberal — Dawkins had a following pre-2000, though it was a bit limited. His books in the 90s sold well, for books on science, but they weren’t massive cultural phenomena.

    Hitchens was known among lefties, mostly in the US (I think he was more famous in Britain, for a lot of relatively accidental reasons). He didn’t hit the super big time until post 2001. Around then he had a huge split with The Nation. Anyhow, once he started going off about why we ought to bomb as many Muslims as possible the talk shows were willing to have him on. That’s no accident. (I find it also no accident that when the choice was between a guy like Hitchens and a guy who had more recent experience in the region and maybe spoke the local language, they went with the former).

    Harris was a bit more of a post-2000 phenomenon as he rose with the blogosphere, to some extent. But here too, it is a lot easier to get on the news when you rail against the brown people. (I think that while I agree with Harris in principle, he, like a lot of other largely white and male atheists loses the plot in some spots). Either way, for a lot of these guys the critique of fundamentalism fell a bit too neatly into going after the enemy du jour.

    After all, pre-2001 if you asked most people who weren’t in the know who the most famous atheist they cold name was, maybe they’d com up with someone like Stalin or Mao, on a good day you’ll get Madeline Murray O’Hair. Maybe some random scientist like Hawking, or a science fiction writer like Clarke or Asimov.

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    Richard Dawkins hasn’t been relevant for me since 2007. Funny how letting a septuagenarian use Twitter has worked out really badly. I suppose it’s because white men with English accents (posh or not) who hate Muslims can generally get an audience for whatever they spew.

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    If you are an outsider whose only exposure to atheism is through non-atheist outlets, atheism looks a Mad Men-style group but with less actual style

    As an insider—or more precisely as an atheist who is exposed within and without, it looks no different. And I don’t know what it looks as an outsider. There is however the Streisand effect at work with respect to Dawkins and Harris. As long as we take the trouble to point out that we will not be reading what Dawkins said, or hearing what Harris farted on Maher, this will fester.

    He got popular at roughly the same time he switched focus to Islam.

    I’d say that is a bit inaccurate, he was quite popular long before because of his books and talks.

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    I think the point about Dawkins is that he got popular among non-atheists when he started blasting Islam; prior to that, he was largely either ignored or lambasted. Prior to that, he was primarily popular among atheists who were happy to have a reasonably articulate and aggressive speaker.

    Heina: I admit, this line threw me a bit:

    We know we are, as a whole, a little too educated…

    I get what you’re going for, there–education is a very real privilege, and it’s necessary, when trying to push a secular agenda, to remember that you need to both inform and NOT patronize. But that’s just educating more people, isn’t it?

    Hell, I’d say that a big part of our current non-diversity issues arise from a lack of education and an embrace of ignorance, among people who are seemingly well-educated. But since education is one of the causitive factors leading to athesim, in many cases, I think the atheist population probably will always be a little more educated than the average citizen.

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    […] anointed “thought leaders”. Atheism became a brand, and that brand was male. According to the media, it remains that way three years after the death of one of those original horsemen, even though the base reality is […]

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