Continuing the Class Discussion

February 12th, 2013 | Posted by:

In the wake of my Huffington Post piece last week, “The New Atheist Movement Should Care About Poverty,” a variety of commentators—some a part of the movement, some unaffiliated atheists and agnostics, some religious—have weighed in response. From what I’ve read I’ve noticed some pretty general themes that the responses generally take, that I think warrant addressing. Naturally, I wanted to follow up and keep the discussion going.

First, something of a misconception that’s permeated the general response is probably a result of clumsy focus on my part.  My main thesis was intended to primarily address class inequality, not just poverty. They’re certainly related: failing to effectively address poverty is indeed an instance of classism. “Class inequality”, at least in my definition, refers to something a bit more general though. Essentially, it’s the notion that in any given dimension of social justice, a (typically very small) class of elites are too distant from the underprivileged to understand or truly care about their plight (this is often directly correlated with income, which is why when you think “class” you’re likely to think in economic terms). Think environmental justice: the elites who don’t live in areas affected by climate change-induced drought or natural disasters can easily brush off the issue, as working towards fighting global warming often is at a disadvantage to them in the short-term.

inequalitySo with that in mind, the problem I see in the atheist movement isn’t purely economic. The prevalent condescending attitude towards believers and the let’s-change-their-minds-by-arguing-with (at)-them grand strategy are indications of a distance from the experience of religious people, who are believe as they do for a variety of reasons and as a result of a variety of external forces. Again, this is fairly obvious, I think, in the case of the movement’s treatment of poverty: in Debbie Goddard’s recent Skepchick post, she advocated for improving education in low-income communities as a more effective, and far more benevolent in the long run, method of enhancing critical thinking. A bus campaign in the South Side of Chicago isn’t just an ineffective tactic to this end—it’s actually harmful, both to the movement’s image and to the well-being of the community.

“The movement”—I want to be entirely clear in that my prescription is not an attack on atheists as a whole, nor is it a claim about what someone who identifies as an atheist would naturally or inherently believe. The network of individual activists and organizations that form the political movement that has emerged in the last decade was the subject of my piece, and is the subject of my criticism. I count myself a part of that movement, it’s the bulk of my resume, and operating in the mindset of “clean your own backyard”, I want to see its efforts to build a better world enhanced and properly directed. Whatever the definition of “atheist” or “humanist” is, I’m addressing a problem with the political movement, not necessarily with individuals.

That said, the movement’s leaders and loudest voices are indeed those that I want to change, primarily because they form of the image of the movement and have the sway to enact great change in its mission. One of those leaders, American Humanist Association president Roy Speckhardt, holds that the outreach done by the likes of American Atheists and Richard Dawkins, problematic or not, “aids in reaching out to a broader audience,” according to a recent article in the Christian Post. He offered praise for Dawkins, whose talks “draw thousands” and whose foundation has “600K followers on Twitter” (is that really a valid measuring stick?). In short, he decried the notion that Dawkins is “elitist” because he leads in the movement’s outreach. The misguidance here: regardless of how many their voices “reach,” those who will identify with and be sympathetic to their voices are going to be a vastly smaller set if what they’re saying is divisive and conceited. Further, given the nature of their statements and campaigns, they are right now still only reaching out to a particular overclass. Richard Dawkins is playing to the educated—not the clever, not the curious, but those in or connected to academia. His outreach, in hostilely mocking and demeaning believers—labeling them “deluded”, encouraging his constituents to “show contempt for the religious”, and, of course, likening religious upbringing to child abuse—is toxic no matter how many ears it reaches.

But, this next sentence, I think, is critically important regarding my intentions. I’ll put even put it in bold. Cntrl-B: I do not think that the movement never addresses poverty, or that specific leaders are wholly silent on the topic. And to be fair, I never said either of those. The problem I see is with the movement’s grand strategy, and with the focus and collective statements of the leaders. Yes: Sam Harris has written about taxing billionaires. Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, also holds that we should fight Islamic terrorism by devoting our time and resources proving the Quran wrong rather than aiming primarily to break down gender inequality, relieve poverty, and improve education in the Middle East. I don’t doubt that plenty of the movement’s membership thinks America’s rigged economic system and continued oppression of the poor are screwed up. What I doubt is that we’re taking sufficient measures to combat these modes of inequality, as they perpetuate other areas of social justice that we already and rightly care immensely about. And furthermore, I know of almost no places in the seminal atheistic literature that discuss class and economic inequality, despite extensively commenting on LGBT rights and gender equality. We all want to fast-track our goals in these dimensions of social justice, but we’re making that extensively difficult—if not impossible—when we maintain an elitist mindset.

Lastly, while I speak directly to the atheist movement, I certainly don’t think overcoming poverty is only or ought to be primarily on the shoulders of the nonreligious. The atheist movement simply has considerable power, in their institutions and their influence, and I believe it ought to be directed at combating the pervasive class divide that permeates and sustains so much of  the social and economic inequality in our time. This journey should be undertaken alongside our peer moral communities—and indeed, religious communities are our peers—for only through ubiquitous compassion, unmarred by tribalism, can we succeed. We have an obligation to strive to relieve the suffering of those less privileged than us—this begins with identifying who they are, and having empathy rather than ego.

Walker Bristol woke up this morning and realized, to his dismay, that he is the President of the Tufts Freethought Society and the Director of Communications for Foundation Beyond Belief. This is especially peculiar considering he grew up as a high school wrestler-pianist in North Carolina and intended to become Luke Skywalker for an undisclosed period of his life, eventually settling for a Star Wars tattoo. The Tufts Political Science and Religion departments suffer his enrollment. He writes about social activism and art in the Tufts Daily. His diet consists of hummus. He tweets nonsense on all these fronts @WalkerBristol.

  • Dhoelscher

    “only through ubiquitous compassion, unmarred by tribalism, can we
    succeed. We have an obligation to strive to relieve the suffering of
    those less privileged than us—this begins with identifying who they are,
    and having empathy rather than ego.” Well said. I would add that financially well-off atheists should know that the set of economically less privileged people includes some who are struggling hard to contribute to the growth and success of the skeptical movement, but that their efforts are greatly hampered by financial struggle and insecurity.

  • http://twitter.com/rspeckhardt Roy Speckhardt

    My point about Dawkins efforts to broaden the audience beyond the elites wasn’t made well in that Christian Post article because the author (or his editor) left out key elements of my response. Here’s what I also said to him.

    While Bristol thinks the new atheists have an elitist message, he has his timing wrong. It was their rise in popularity ten years ago that prompted our movement to broaden its message to increasingly wider audiences. Unlike past outreach via intellectual progressive magazines and mailings to members of groups like the ACLU and People for the American Way, it was now going mainstream via billboards and bus ads and other messages that could reach people of various races and classes. So Bristol’s criticism of “expensive” ad campaigns is off base, because it is through such campaigns that we reach general public audiences.

    I gather from your latest piece that you really wanted to focus on our movement’s lack of involvement in addressing class inequality, even though you also discussed poverty alleviation efforts and critiqued a perceived elitism as well as the harshness of anti-theistic efforts. I think those latter items distracted from your more interesting intended focus.