Ferguson: Why atheists should care — and what they can do
This guest column is written by Dr. Anthony B. Pinn, the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University and a leading scholar of black nontheism.
I’m troubled by the taking of yet another black life, but I’m also baffled: Why are some people, including many atheists, so surprised by the tragedies of racial violence—as if the United States hasn’t had a steady diet of discrimination? And why aren’t more humanists and atheists speaking out?
As Cornel West and W. E. B. Du Bois before him noted, race matters. It is a matter of willful ignorance to think otherwise; to deny the continued existence of racial hostility is a marker that one is out of touch with life in the U.S.
Sure, there are ways in which theological arguments can distract people from the harsh realities of life and blind some to the dynamics of racial discrimination. But theists aren’t the only ones who sometimes fail to grapple seriously with the consequences of racial dynamics in the U.S. Too many atheists and humanists assume their appeals to reason and logic are a prophylactic against racism.
This is a mistake—a bad mistake. Behind the humanist hero Thomas Jefferson was a host of dehumanized, enslaved Africans.
Humanists often claim to be informed, frequent readers, and more intelligent than theists—so the common mantra of “I just don’t know much about African Americans” doesn’t work. Those who make this claim in a society marked by easy access to information should be embarrassed by such intellectual laziness.
It’s just as easy to find a copy of Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk as it is to find a copy of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, okay?
I sympathize with Dr. Pinn. He thinks atheists should be more informed and better educated about the realities of racism in the United States. I’m inclined to agree with him, but there is a slight problem. If you read the entire post, you’ll note that he uses ‘atheists’ and ‘humanists’ interchangeably. This is problematic. Atheism is defined as ‘a lack of belief in a higher power or powers’. It is not a set of beliefs. It is NOT believing. Humanism is a set of beliefs. Specifically,
Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism).
Atheists are often Humanists-I’m one for instance. I do not believe in any higher power or powers, and I *do* believe in the value and agency of human beings, and I think that since there is no deity to assist humanity, it is our responsibility to use critical and rational thinking to solve the problems of humanity. I think that since we share this planet, and we as a species are social creatures, that we ought to do our best to minimize harm and maximize happiness, not just for ourselves, but for other humans, and animals as well. I’ve encountered and interacted with many wonderful atheists and humanists who feel the same way I do, and many of them are involved in the Atheist movement and seek to make it more inclusive for a broad range of people, especially those who belong to marginalized groups.
Not every atheist feels this way. As I’ve seen in the last 4-5 years, there are atheists who are concerned with making the world better, only insofar as it relates to the existence of religion and religious beliefs. Among this group are atheists who are actively opposed to efforts at making the Atheist movement a safer space for those who belong to oppressed groups. Some atheists dislike the idea of those in the movement advocating for social justice for women, LGBT individuals, People of Color, and other marginalized groups. In my experiences, these atheists are dictionary atheists who adhere to a limited definition of atheism-a dictionary definition. Their concerns are largely focused on eliminating the direct effects of religious belief in society, such as opposing creationism in the classroom or ensuring the continued separation of church and state (in democratic countries like-ostensibly-the US). They don’t want to go any further though. They think that atheism should end there.
As a result of this disagreement between dictionary atheists and social justice atheists, there have been a series of rifts in the Atheist community with Social Justice Atheists on one side of an ever growing chasm, and Dictionary Atheists on the other (my interactions with the DAs has made me despise a great many of them, and I’m more than happy for the chasm to grow wider). The lack of concern on the part of many Dictionary Atheists for their fellow humans disgusts me. I’ve seen them engage in sexism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, and ableism. I’ve seen them engage in an ongoing campaign of cyber harassment of female bloggers (to the point that some have withdrawn from online participation in the Atheist movement). I’m aware of one group of them that has set up an entire website dedicated to haranguing and opposing those atheists who also are interested in advocating for social justice. I am unsure if Dr. Pinn is aware of this group of atheists, but they definitely are not Humanists. It may be that these are the types of atheists he is criticizing for not speaking up about racism in the US.
There are atheists, however, that have spoken up. I’ve interacted with these people, and they are passionate about improving the quality of life for all people, including-obviously-black people. I’ve watched these dedicated individuals working to signal boost the events of Ferguson over the last few weeks. Many of these people have tirelessly dedicated their time to helping spread the word of the horrible actions of the Ferguson PD, the death of Michael Brown, the militarization of the police in the US, gun violence, racism in our culture and more. Most of the updates on Ferguson that I’ve blogged about are the direct result of efforts of many atheists to get this information out to people. I’m very grateful to these people, and I’m proud to call many of them my friends. These are the type of people embodying exactly what Dr. Pinn advocates.
The boy asked his mother, “So I should just put my hands in the air?”
“Yes,” his mother said. “Just put your hands in the air.”
“If I put my hands in the air, will the police not shoot?” he asked.
“Probably not, but you can’t be sure. Some people say you should just kneel or lie down, don’t ask questions, just get down on the ground.”
“If I lie down on the ground, they won’t shoot?”
“Probably,” she said.
I recognized the exhaustion in that “probably”—a parent trying to explain a fundamentally unfair fact of life in the most neutral terms possible, so as not to make a child prematurely paranoid or cynical or bitter, and realizing that there are no words with which to do such a thing. After my son and I left the restaurant, though, I was disturbed by a mental image of this small boy dropping face-down on the ground at the sound of a cop’s voice—thinking just
maybe he wouldn’t get shot. I thought of Oscar Grant, who was detained by police on a BART platform on New Years Day, 2009, and got shot in the back anyway. To death.
“Is that what you’re supposed to do? Get down on the ground?” my son asked.
He’d heard about Ferguson. It was everywhere.
I said, “Not necessarily. Some police want you to put your hands up. Some don’t ask you to do that. It depends. I guess the main thing is to just do what the police officer tells you to do. Don’t make any sudden moves.”
“Can the police just shoot people?” he asked. He seemed genuinely worried.
“They’re not supposed to just shoot people,” I said. “There are supposed to be rules about when you can and can’t shoot a person. Sometimes mistakes happen and people who shouldn’t get shot do get shot. And there are other times when…”
And I trailed off because I realized I was evading the real issue.
“It happens, and it’s horrible,” I told my son,” and in a lot of cases the reasons why some people get shot and others don’t get shot are unfair, or they don’t make sense, but you….” I trailed off again.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“White people just aren’t as likely to get shot by police,” I told him.
“Why is that?”
“There are a lot of reasons why that’s true, and we’ll talk about them later, but that’s the bottom line,” I said. “It’s not right, but it’s the truth. That’s what that woman was telling her son about.”
My mind added: …in a conversation that most white dads would not be having with their white elementary school-age sons.
Why didn’t I say this out loud to my son? I don’t know. Something was holding me back.
Maybe it was the fact that my son has friends of different races and ethnicities, and I didn’t want to burst what I thought was an idyllic bubble, if indeed he lived in one, which he probably doesn’t.
No, that wasn’t it.
I wasn’t protecting my son from anything. I was protecting my son’s image of his father, or what I imagined that image to be.
And I was protecting myself from myself. I was lying to myself about myself.
I was reminded of something my best friend, a skinny Irish guy from Bay Ridge, told me. He was hanging out with his dad one afternoon. Out of the blue his dad told he should always be grateful for the greatest gift his dad and mom ever gave him.
“What gift is that?” my friend asked.
“Your white skin,” he said. “If you’re white in this country, you’re ahead of the game. You get more chances. You get more second chances. That’s the gift your mother and I gave you—and we didn’t have a damn thing to do with it!”
My friend’s dad was being bitterly sarcastic. But he was also being honest about white privilege.
I believe that there’s a difference between knowing something and understanding it. You know how you’ll try to communicate something very important to you to another person and sometimes they’ll wave you off with an impatient, “I know, I know”? That’s knowing: I got the gist, filed it away, I don’t need to think about it again. Knowing is comprehension; understanding is deeper because it comes from empathy or identification.
All of which is a wind-up to say: having grown up in a mostly black neighborhood near Love Field airport in Dallas, and having been a diligent liberal for most of my adult life, I already knew there was such a thing as white privilege, and was properly horrified by it, but I didn’t truly understand what it meant, on a deep level, until one summer night in 2006, when I was spared arrest or worse thanks to the color of my skin.
(read the rest here)
Their buddy, Darren Wilson, shot and killed Michael Brown, and somehow *they’re* the victims?!
For the love of all the nonexistent gods in the heavens, white people saying this, please shut up and listen.