Atheists in America face some measure of discrimination, and we want a way to talk about that discrimination so that it’s taken seriously. But our approach thus far is setting us back, and may even be putting us in conflict with identity groups — indeed, religious identities — who could and ought to be alongside us in a struggle towards pluralistic understanding.

Many nontheistic writers and activists have selected the theory of “privilege” as a model of the normalized religious identity in America, and to describe their own disadvantage as American atheists. Both The Friendly Atheist and The Atheist Experience Blog have taken this approach. In a piece titled ”Religious Privilege and Citizenship,” Ed Brayton discussed how nonreligious folks are disadvantaged by U.S. citizenship tests which request that you provide a “religious objection” to any question about taking up arms to defend the country.

Sam Killermann at Its Pronounced Metrosexual recently compiled a popular list of what they deemed “examples of Christian Privilege” in America, writing:

“If you identify as Christian, there’s a good chance you’ve never thought about these things… try and be more cognizant of these items and you’ll start to realize how much work we have to do to make the United States a place that is truly safe and accessible for folks of all belief systems.” The list included items like the freedom “to worship without violence or threats,” “politicians responsible for your governance are probably members of your faith,” and “your faith is accepted/supported at your workplace.”

But absent in these notions of privilege is a dimension of normalization. Privilege, as a mode of describing social inequity, is rooted in the normalization of oppression, and the solidification of distance between classes. So in some ways, this language might thus seem intuitive, that nonreligious Americans face discrimination in a variety of walks of life, and therefore there should be some identity who enjoys a social security and mobility at their expense. However, not all social disadvantages constitute a notion of “privilege” as the term is typically applied in critical theory–and in fact, our current discourse around “religious privilege” or even “Christian privilege” does quite a disservice to a variety of religious identities that we should align ourselves with in our resistance to discrimination.

Read the full piece at Huffington Post Religion!

walker

Walker Bristol is a nontheist Quaker living in Somerville, Massachusetts. A rising senior at Tufts University reading religion and philosophy, he covers social activism and class inequality in the Tufts Daily and has organized in movements promoting religious diversity, sexual assault awareness and prevention, and worker’s rights. Formerly, he was the Communications Coordinator at Foundation Beyond Belief and  the president of the Tufts Freethought Society. He tweets at @WalkerBristol

How Conferences Kill Critical Thought

August 12th, 2013 | Posted by:

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In the last few days, voices upon voices have emerged raising accusations that some leaders in the atheist movement are perpetrators of sexual violence.  These assaults aren’t the product of just a few “bad apples,” and the fact that they have gone unheard of and unprosecuted until now isn’t a simple accident. That sexual violence runs rampant and unnoticed is a systemic problem, sanctioned by the structure of this movement itself. That structure: the (ironic) worship of our heroes.

I’ve been to several conventions put on by atheist and skeptic organizations over the four or so years that I’ve been a part of the political movement. As my views and understanding have drastically changed in those four years, so has my experience at these cons—I think it’s fair to say that I have grown consistently more cynical about my con-going experience.

Our movement, centered around critical thinking and challenging dogmatic authority, is grossly quick to defer to the interests and ideas of the powerful and subvert minority voices.  It seems that if a speaker has enough blogging clout, all it takes to get an applause break is to include a meme in their powerpoint and reiterate how atheists are smart, religion is dumb, and We are the future. Largely absent are discussions on issues such as how our movement should engage in social justice or even partner with other religious minorities. An underrepresentation of diversity views in these secular spaces have made me feel a bit ostracized in conference settings.

This problem is embedded in the structure of conferences, reflected in the mantra that certain speakers have more draw, therefore those speakers deserve that draw.  Atheist conventions in general (probably based on how conventions of any sort are typically run) relegate speakers either to one large space or one of several smaller spaces, putting the more powerful voices in the larger space to accommodate what they assume will be a bigger audience. But whether or not those sorts of speakers would draw that big a crowd, they’re still implicitly given the privilege of the big platform, which itself sends the message “my ideas are important, you want to see me.” Some people will go anyway, whether they know the speaker or not, whether they want to hear what they have to say or not, because in the end, they won’t want to miss the Important Ideas coming from the Big Important person.

Conference speakers, standing on a podium looking down at an applauding audience, are in an environment that social psychology holds clearly to be anything but conducive to critical thought. And when particular movement leaders occupy a sort of A-list elite, the ideas they speak into a microphone are more likely to go unchallenged by the riff-raff beneath them. This divide—between those who are ostensibly the “best” at atheistic critical thinking and those who are lesser—is as much a threat to intellectual integrity as is having the same sort of divide in a religious community.

I recently attended Secular Student Alliance conference in Columbus. Though this was a student conference where students were meant to share ideas with one another, headlining talks from prominent (nonstudent) bloggers and organization employees were largely double-booked with student talks. At one, the Atheist Community of Austin’s Matt Dillahunty admitted that he had nothing to offer on organizing debates (his talk was billed as a how-to-organize-debates-as-a-student-group), but instead shared what amounted to a BuzzFeed list of the common arguments against God’s existence. This talk essentially functioned as an opportunity for a popular blogger to perform in front of the student community, at the expense of members of that community sharing more tangible and practical ideas about actual problems facing student activists.

Later in the night Amanda Marcotte spoke on how atheism should align itself with feminism (a very fair and true point) to fight the religious right. As legitimate a topic as that is, the talk was even more out of place than Dillahunty’s, insofar as it barely touched on students at all. Again, a popular blogger performed. Thankfully, there were several questions in the audience that did address student concerns. “Should men be careful about stepping on women’s toes in feminism?” one student asked. Marcotte shrugged it off, saying yeah, we should be careful, but more than anything we should all fight religious misogyny. Applause.

Both of these speakers ignored student concerns, particularly concerns that are immensely relevant to, for example, a movement where men seem to be caring more and more about women’s issues, yet do so in a way that does step on women’s toes (earlier that day, I noticed one male student consistently interrupting and centering himself at the “Safe Space for Women” lunch discussion table). These speakers clearly weren’t asked, “Please address student concerns primarily in your talk, considering you are non-students entering a space that should be student-focused.” Quite the opposite: the nature of the conference legitimized these nonstudent voices and allowed them to speak without challenge. Students, some of whom paid for travel and housing so that they could attend and speak at the conference, who do the gritty work of organizing and came to share that knowledge with their peers, were relegated beneath the microphones of bloggers who already have immense platforms that they write from everyday.

Such a challenge would have been nice when some voices offered up particularly violent sentiments couched in friendly language (the most insidious kind of violence).  In the last talk on the first night of the conference, Todd Stiefel discussed the many virtues of Thomas Jefferson. Stiefel is not a historian; he really has no claim to a particularly insightful understanding of Jefferson’s philosophy. And so, we see the systemic problem out front. When slavery or racism or sexual violence are presented as parts of religious doctrine, we rightly hold them to be absolutely revolting. But Stiefel was on a platform, in a big room, with a big audience, and a big seal of approval by the conference where he was speaking, so he was entirely shielded from being held accountable for the fact that we’re propping up a figure who owned and raped slaves, with no mention of it whatsoever. Stiefel spoke on his honorable value system, and how he is a marker for our movement, and we are expected to temporarily ignore a particularly morally indefensible dimension of his character. No consideration was given to the experience of victims of sexual violence or racial violence in the audience, who could well have taken issue with the fact that we were revering a racist sexual assailant. Worshipping Jefferson in this way, subverting his moral failures to uphold some virtuous image of his good ideas, would without hesitation be denounced by the atheist community were it done in a religious context. Yet in a nonreligious conference room, it was given a standing ovation.

Furthermore, Stiefel offered up a quote that got several enthusiastic tweets during his Q&A: “If your identity is wrapped in fiction, it doesn’t deserve to be respected.” How nice. And how easily that could be interpreted as “Islam isn’t real, so if you are a Muslim, you don’t deserve respect,” particularly in our incredibly Islamophobic society (and see Richard Dawkins for more on the atheist movement’s Islamophobia problem). How easily that quote could be read to justify disrespect for an identity that experiences an immeasurable amount of violence in our society today. And how easily Stiefel was able to say it publicly, because there was no accountability for his statements whatsoever.

As we hear more and more of the heartbreaking stories about those who have been victims of sexual violence in our community, as we wonder how movement leaders could get away with something so horrible, it just becomes clearer and clearer: our movement loves its heroes. We love our big names. We love our popular bloggers, skeptical authors, and organization presidents. Unaccountability, intransparency, and corruption have split the atheist movement on class lines. Even if we say that we should always “question authority”, we still give them the privileges they don’t deserve. We still reserve the best for those with titles, for those with clout, for those with money.

For some reason, it’s okay for conferences to open a door for sexual violence, to make the word “student” synonymous with “secondary,” or to allow for someone on a platform to tell a crowd to disrespect minorities and to erase the moral revulsions of historical figures. This stems from a system where power isn’t challenged, largely out of a fear that the powerful will strike against us. Yet we easily forget that they already have, and will continue to until they’re checked.

EDIT: The registration fee at this year’s SSA con was waived for all speakers, and about 70% of student speakers, according to the SSA, received financial aid to cover travel/housing costs.

walker

Walker Bristol is a nontheist Quaker living in Somerville, Massachusetts. A rising senior at Tufts University reading religion and philosophy, he covers social activism and class inequality in the Tufts Daily and has organized in movements promoting religious diversity, sexual assault awareness and prevention, and worker’s rights. Formerly, he was the Communications Coordinator at Foundation Beyond Belief and  the president of the Tufts Freethought Society. He tweets at @WalkerBristol

 

More Than Just Human-ism

August 11th, 2013 | Posted by:

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“Intersectionality” is social justice vocab that essentially refers to how all modes of oppression, how all types of injustice that we generally think of as distinct, share principles and share strife. At their root, all causes are intersectional in that they are the “powerful” exploiting the “non-powerful.” It is a reaffirmation, what should linger always in the mind of any activist, that pain takes many forms but is pain always, and that your compassion can always reach further than it currently does.

To be a vegan, to reject the use and support of the exploitation of animals (often in terms of dietary decisions, rejecting meat, dairy, and eggs), is to expand compassion beyond the human experience. Human society implicitly defines animals as sub-human, and considers the world dominance of humanity to be deserved, and therefore give us the privilege to exploit other species for our continued prosperity. We are all born into a continued narrative of human-centrism, and told constantly that we have earned what we are given. It’s a story that doesn’t sound unfamiliar  to other groups of privilege.

Vegans resist that narrative, holding that other species—which demonstrably feel pain, have emotions and consciousness and meaningful interactions and ideas—ought to be treated better, and that we should live out compassionate values by striving to only take what we need, and respect their sovereignty. Humans came to dominate the landscape in large part because they (despite being herbivores by evolutionary design) began to eat cooked meat to survive the Ice Age, and thus reproduced and spread further than our peer species as it ended. Human dominance today is a product of chance—we happened to be best adapted to the environment of the Ice Age, we emerged with the best chance for propagation. Yet, our culture teaches us that our human privilege is earned, that it is just for us to exploit other species for our continued dominance. It’s a story not unfamiliar to other groups of privilege.

With that in mind, I and some of the other vegan atheists I know, in this regard, challenge “humanism” as it stands. Compassion and criticality are immensely important values, but they can be taken much further than they often are—I feel that we should extend them across boundaries of (human-defined) species. Other animals feel, and interact and have emotional connections, and have unique experiences and abilities. I believe we should respect the experiences of all species.

We already tell our stories of how and why we strive towards a society pluralistic for humans, but let’s open the floor: why do we care about making society safe for all species, human and nonhuman? As always, tweet @NPSblog or email any of us (for me, walkerbristol@gmail.com). We’re always looking for new voices, and we’d love to hear the voices of those who see pluralism in ways we might not always expect.

walker

Walker Bristol is a nontheist Quaker living in Somerville, Massachusetts. A rising senior at Tufts University reading religion and philosophy, he covers social activism and class inequality in the Tufts Daily and has worked in on-campus movements promoting religious diversity, sexual assault awareness and prevention, and worker’s rights. Formerly, he was the Communications Coordinator at Foundation Beyond Belief and  the president of the Tufts Freethought Society. He tweets at @WalkerBristol

 

Faith Line Protestants Relaunch!

July 2nd, 2013 | Posted by:

The interfaith movement seeks to encompass people of all spiritual paths: indeed, atheists, but those too whose faith is rooted in conversion. Faith Line Protestants is an online journal of evangelical Christians involved in interfaith work and interesting in better integrating the evangelical and pluralistic communities. Two and a half years since its inception, and after being on hiatus since October, FLP has returned with several new contributors to continue the discussion on modern evangelism and a pluralistic society.

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Amber Hacker, the Alumni Relations Coordinator at the IFYC and one of the new SLP contributing authors, wrote on the tension between the centrality of proselytization to the evangelical worldview and the importance of mutual acceptance and respect in interfaith communities. “There are many places where proselytizing is appropriate, but interfaith work is not one of them,” she writes. “Being involved in interfaith service is bringing people of different religious and nonreligious backgrounds together to be partners in making the world a better place.” She further explains that the call to service–another dimension of the Christian identity–is an element central to the evangelical spirituality that is more important to engage in interfaith circles. Read her entire piece on the FLP blog.

Although of course conversion isn’t necessarily central to the atheist or humanist identity, it often does manifest, in the form of a drive towards spirited debate. And though the fact that interfaith efforts discourage that sort of engagement can be disconcerting, many atheists involved in pluralistic service and dialogue have taken a stance not dissimilar from Hacker’s: interfaith work is a place for our commitment to service and mutual understanding should take the fore, not our desire to strengthen our numbers or seek self-validation. We admit that we don’t know everything, and that we can be wrong–humbly listening to others, while working towards a world safer for diversity and for humanity, is perhaps the most enlightening experience we can have.

Follow Faith Line Protestants at www.faithlineprotestants.org or on Twitter @flprotestants.

walker

Walker Bristol is a nontheist Quaker living in Somerville, Massachusetts. A rising senior at Tufts University reading religion and philosophy, he covers social activism and class inequality in the Tufts Daily and has worked in on-campus movements promoting religious diversity, sexual assault awareness and prevention, and worker’s rights. Formerly, he was the Communications Coordinator at Foundation Beyond Belief and  the president of the Tufts Freethought Society. He tweets at @WalkerBristol

Sunday Assembly in NYC

June 17th, 2013 | Posted by:

Heads up to readers in the NYC metro area: Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, British comics and cofounders of atheist community congregation The Sunday Assembly, will be bringing one of their assemblies overseas to the Tobacco Road dive in Manhattan.

The Assembly, described by the founding couple as a “friendly community gathering for like-minded people”, draws generously from the structure of religious ceremonies in their Order of Service. Each congregation features several songs (Jones holds music to be very important to the “celebration of life”) interspersed with a guest speaker and a reading.  Evans and Jones have been working to spread the movement internationally by offering guidelines with which people can start their own assemblies, and given the unexpected response they’ve received, they’ve fundraised to travel to NY and help kickstart a local assembly there.

For more info on the Assembly, you can visit their website, or watch the video below to get another taste of the experience:

If you’re thinking of going, tweet us at @NPSBlog and we’ll connect you with other NPS fans planning on attending!

walker

Walker Bristol is a nontheist Quaker living in Somerville, Massachusetts. A rising senior at Tufts University reading religion and philosophy, he covers social activism and class inequality in the Tufts Daily and has worked in on-campus movements promoting religious diversity, sexual assault awareness and prevention, and worker’s rights. Formerly, he was the Communications Coordinator at Foundation Beyond Belief and  the president of the Tufts Freethought Society. He tweets at @WalkerBristol