Fellow Atheists: Quit Bragging About Our Prison Underrepresentation

Dan Arel’s piece on atheists and the prison population has been making the rounds, along with the seemingly inevitable assertion that the statistics prove that atheists are no less (and perhaps) more moral than theists.

I understand the impulse. Truly, I do. But that doesn’t make it any less problematic.

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Fellow Atheists: Quit Bragging About Our Prison Underrepresentation

From a Former Employee: 5 Reasons #CVSQuits is a Smokescreen

[Edited for clarity.]

This morning, the Internet was all a-twitter about #CVSQuits. CVS Caremark, the company that owns the CVS Pharmacy chain, has announced that CVS stores will be phasing out the sales of tobacco products. The move is an excellent publicity stunt, but, in my view, not terribly meaningful in terms of helping people’s health. Here’s why, based on what I know as a former CVS employee. (For the record, I left because I graduated college and got an office job, not because I was fired. Whenever I shop there, my former boss still tells me how much he wished I’d stayed.)

CVS isn’t really, or at least exclusively, a pharmacy.

Many of the people praising CVS on Twitter are asking why a “drug store” or “pharmacy” was in the business of selling tobacco products in the first place. The answer is simple: CVS stores are not pharmacies that happen to sell a few toiletries. Really, all CVSes are a full-on mass-merchandise retailers that happen to house pharmacies. In some areas, the local CVS serves as a general store. This is especially true when it’s a 24-hour store walking distance from working-poor neighborhoods.

CVSes in areas like mine actively participate in food-desert-like situations.

My store was the only walking-accessible store that sold groceries for several housing complexes filled with the working poor. Those with cars could shop at the closest grocery store, a Vons whose groceries were far more expensive than those from other local grocery chains. Those with cars who also had the time could go to an even further grocery store whose prices were better. I was lucky enough to have the time, work schedule, energy, and vehicle to make the trip to an Albertson’s several miles away. Many of my customers lacked that option. Their diets consisted of crappy food from our store which, to add insult to injury, could have been obtained much more cheaply from an actual grocery store.

CVS sells quack remedies.

Nearly everyone knows that smoking is bad for their health; smokers don’t smoke because they think it’s healthy. However, not everyone knows that CVS sells homeopathic “remedies” alongside actual medicines that contains active ingredients. The packaging and messaging is similar enough to ensure confusion. Meanwhile, cigarette packaging sports clear and prominent health warnings and tobacco products are hardly sold alongside, say, candy, or without age restriction.

CVS, like many retail stores, employs exploitative retail labor practices that create the working poor class.

Shuffling around hours regardless of people’s family life? Random scheduling at 24-hour stores that throws off sleep cycles? Punishing employees who call attention to scheduling mistakes by erasing their hours from the schedule rather than switching them with another willing employee? I’m not talking about Wal-Mart — CVS does those things all the time. I worked at a location where the regional manager was also the store manager and I knew people who worked at other stores in the region who had similar experiences, so schedule fuckery is hardly a one-off or rare occurrence. This might not be the case for other regions, but I happened to have worked for a fairly busy one.

Retail exploitation of labor leads to poor health outcomes, including nicotine addiction, due to stress and exhaustion. Sure, I read Nickel & Dimed when I was an adolescent, but nothing could prepare me for living like that myself: I was always tired. No amount of caffeine or supplements (both obtained at the oh-so-generous 20%-off employee discount) could alleviate the exhaustion that pervaded my life when I worked at CVS. I had the advantage of not having lived like that my whole life or having dependants. My coworkers were not so lucky. Many of them were parents and had other part-time jobs, which, along with the CVS gig, enabled them to scrape together a meager living. Their working-poor exhaustion reached levels I could not fathom. Judging or blaming them for using their 15-minute breaks to have a smoke would have been cruel.

Smoking rates continue to fall, but exploitative labor practices continue to rise.

The numbers don’t lie. CEO pay is rising while worker pay and benefits are falling. What used to be jobs by which teenagers could earn extra cash (retail, fast food, and so on) now constitute many adults’ main source of income. Remember my coworkers who worked multiple jobs? There are very few full-time positions available in retail; most retail positions these days are “part-time” (read: 35-hour-a-week) jobs designed to ensure that people aren’t eligible for benefits. As a result, people with dependents are forced to work two or three jobs in order to make ends meet. This means juggling transportation as well as multiple schedules and uniforms, ensuring more difficulties for people whose lives are already difficult.

Meanwhile, smoking rates have been dropping relatively steadily and rapidly. This isn’t to suggest causation or even correlation, just disingenuity on the part of CVS. People who are working poor tend to have worse health outcomes due to a lack of healthcare, nutritious diet, and sleep.

Despite that tweet, CVS continues to engage in practices that encourage such outcomes in their workers, who, I guess, don’t count as “people” to them.

Until CVS starts treating its workers in a way that enables optimal health outcomes, moves like #CVSQuits are mostly publicity stunts to me. The only effect this is going to have is to elevate CVS’s profile and perhaps alleviate feelings of hypocrisy among their direct pharmacy staff. I doubt it’s going to make anyone much healthier.

From a Former Employee: 5 Reasons #CVSQuits is a Smokescreen

Atheist Priorities in Fundraising

Consider two examples of crowdfunding projects aimed at atheists.

Just before the holidays, Secular Student Alliance announced that it would be matching funds donated to the Los Angeles-based Women’s Leadership Project. As stated on its Indiegogo page,

Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) fills a vacuum in a school district that has few programs that specifically address the intersection of sexism, racism, misogyny and heterosexism in the lives of young women of color. The program is designed to redress the normalized violence that young women of color encounter on a daily basis and has trained hundreds of 10-12th students to question and challenge the normalization of violence against women and advocate for safer school-communities.

a Japanese high school classroom

As the project is run by secular author and activist extraordinaire Sikivu Hutchinson, along with Diane Arellano, it has a heartily humanist bent to it. The campaign ended last night having raised just over its $1500 matching funds goal.

As one atheist-aimed project reached its end on January 6th, another had begun earlier in the day. This one was for Ryan J. Bell, the pastor who decided that, for 2014, he would try being an atheist in the sense that he would live as if there were no god. An interesting thought experiment, to be sure, but after the announcement of the experiment, the man lost his sources of income with his perhaps unsurprisingly irate Christian employers. A GoFundMe campaign was created in response which asked for $5000. By the end of its first day, it had raised  triple that amount.

When I re-posted the link to the WLP project last night, I got responses that attempted to explain why it didn’t garner as much attention and raise as much money as the fundraiser for Ryan J. Bell. There were the “well, what did you expect?/Welcome to reality where page views and click-bait rule” type; these express a sense of capitulation and resignation to the status quo that I do not share. However, most of them were more along the lines of “Oh, I never heard of this so it must not have been promoted enough.”

I am not suggesting that the disparity was on purpose on the part of anyone involved. I am not suggesting that anyone promoting one fundraiser and/or not promoting the other is an evil, awful person in any way. I doubt that anyone deliberately looked at the one and then the other and said “meh, those lower-income female students of color can fend for themselves, I’m going to give my money to a white male Christian.”

Ryan J. Bell
Via http://www.ryanjbell.net/about/

That’s precisely the problem. So many of us don’t critically examine to what we pay attention and why, to whom we give our money and why, of what sort of news we keep abreast and why, about what we find out and why. We fail to recognize the disturbing patterns indicating structural injustices that emerge when we consider all the factors at hand and how these sorts of situations play out.

Obviously, fundraising isn’t a zero-sum game. There is more than one cause in the world that is worthy of attention and money. As someone who has suffered financially as a result of religion, I don’t begrudge Mr. Bell the money he will need as he figures out what to do in this brutal American economic climate. In the end, thankfully, WLP did exceed its matching funds goal.

Why do I bring this up?

One of my friends is a Christian minister and he jokes that every atheist in America must have at least 3 websites apiece. He is on-point in that we godless types tend to have strong Internet presences. It’s about time that we take a good, hard look at which causes and individuals we choose to follow, talk about, and promote using these platforms. Furthermore, given that atheists tend to be in the upper income bracket of society, it is also important to look at to whom we choose to give our money.

Atheist Priorities in Fundraising

Why Are You an Ally, Anyway?

No, really. What’s your motivation to call yourself one, and maybe even to act like one?

This is the part where I talk about myself in an attempt to make it less about me (and you, if you’re also an ally rather than part of a marginalized group when it comes to one or more forms of oppression).

I have class privilege and was utterly blind to it for a long time. Oppression of every kind’s favorite mask (especially in America), the myth of the meritocracy, fit my class privilege pretty well. After all, had my father not come to the United States as refugee and worked his way up? Well after being granted entry into affluent North American countries, had my parents (and, later, my siblings and I) not lived frugally? I grew up watching families with much lower income than mine participating in activities my father dubbed “too expensive” and concluded that we must not be as well-off as others.


Much later, as a young adult, I discovered that such was not the case at all. My family was and is actually quite comfortable. We always lived in nice houses and my parents drove brand-new cars. My father earned enough to make such large purchases; his assessment of priciness with regards to smaller things like karate lessons or sodas at fast-food joints was a reflection of his personal preferences rather than our financial situation. My mother had both the desire and the financial freedom, thanks to my father, to be a homemaker.

I suddenly knew that I’d grown up in pretty cushy surroundings — and, privileged asshole that I was, I felt bad for myself. I couldn’t complain about my childhood anymore! Hell, who knew if the classism police would ever let me complain about anything anymore? Though that initially deep discomfort soon faded, it left behind a sticky residue of defensiveness, one that saw “you have class privilege” as an “I’m going to assume that your childhood was awesome and you got to have and do lots of stuff, you spoiled brat.” I didn’t even realize it until I had a relatively benign and silly Twitter exchange with someone whose upbringing couldn’t be more different from mine. She joked that we were “the princess and the pauper.”


Princess?! How dare she assume that my life had been charmed and that I’d gotten all that I’d wanted?! I started firing off Tweets about how much my childhood sucked. The more I typed, the more I realized that I was whining — acting like the spoiled brat that I was trying to prove that I was not. I was derailing by being the worst kind of so-called “ally:” self-centered and self-absorbed instead of open to listening to the people I was allegedly trying to back up.


I deleted some things and ended the exchange with a simple acknowledgment: “I have all the class privilege.”

I’m still working on it. This is a process, not an instant, magical transformation. If someone ribs — or even derides, is dismissive towards, or is mean to — me for my relatively cushy upbringing, I consciously work to quell the urge to go “but but but–“. I shut up and feel grateful that I only have to feel such a little bit of discomfort. On top of that, that tiny smidgen of discomfort, unlike the actual suffering of class oppression, is helpful to me: it reminds me of my position and keeps me on my classism toes.

It’s really easy to forget that “ally” is not a title that earns you free brownie points; it is, in theory, a state of being. The real me me me problem isn’t characteristic of a particular generation, it’s among those allies who really don’t help much and care more for their status as allies than about actually acting like allies. To appropriate an internet-famous quote, allyship doesn’t mean putting coins into oppressed groups in the hopes that friendship, forgiveness, or status falls out.


To quote a writer who will problematize the word “ally” for you in the most brilliant way:

Falling back on words and phrases that are intended to convey some sort of ideological purity won’t ever trump the transformation you’ll experience within yourself (and others) if you truly put yourself out there, be vulnerable, admit wrongs, take responsibility for your blind spots, hold your damn self accountable, not for show, but for real.

— Spectra on Straight Allies, White Anti-Racists, Male Feminists (and Other Politically Correct Labels That Mean Nothing to Me)

Why Are You an Ally, Anyway?