In August, Daniel Trilling introduced himself as the incoming editor for New Humanist, stating that he would take over in September in a blog post at the Rationalist Association. New Humanist is actually one of the oldest continually published magazines, having been spreading the gospel of critical inquiry, science, and human rights since 1885; the magazine is published by the Rationalist Association, a UK-based secular advocacy group. Trilling’s blog post prefigures a heightened humanistic commitment to fighting oppression, and it’s important that humanists take note.

Though it operates generally as a rejection of broad tendencies exhibited by Richard Dawkins and as a promise that New Humanist will not be doing any of that, the introductory piece also identifies a few radical ideas Trilling will be attempting to advance as editor. Perhaps the most controversial idea Trilling lists is the fact that criticisms of Islam can be racist. Inevitably when this subject is raised, irrational atheists clog their ears, shout “Islam isn’t a race,” and conveniently ignore systematic subjugation and violence perpetuated against Muslim-looking individuals. Trilling anticipates this knee-jerk response and urges his new readership to explore political context rather than ignore it, and be wary of rhetoric which “paints the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims as a monolithic bloc, or tries to make out they are uniquely savage, or violent, as a result of their religion.”

Trilling urges his readers to apply skepticism liberally at studies purporting to show the intellectual superiority of atheists, noting that the metrics such studies take are highly suspect and rooted in factors like income, employment, and education—clear traits of high socio-economic standing. He also advocates a unity between the religious and nonbelievers, going as far to say that the “key to political progress is an ability to find common ground between people of different religious beliefs and none.” These comments are extraordinarily welcome to us interfaithers (but perhaps not too surprising given that New Humanist previously found Chris’s vision of religious pluralism favorable enough to give Faitheist a 5-star review).

For me, the most promising part of Trilling’s introductory piece came at the end, when he noted that while he hopes the Rationalist Association can work with Dawkins in the future, it’s more important that he can work with individual lay-folk. This pledge to value average atheists rather than placate big names comes at a time when the atheist movement is doing just the opposite.

Naturally, Trilling received a lot of flak in the comments for calling attention to Big Atheism’s problems as personified by Dawkins—all the more reason why what he has to say is so important.

Previously, Trilling has written for The Guardian and served as the assistant editor at New Statesman; he has also written a book on the rise of fascism and racism in Britain. While his work largely focuses on far-right politics in Europe, there are astonishing parallels to be drawn which make his writing relevant across the pond. Of particular interest are his analysis of the developing popularity of xenophobic language in politics, the need to defend the rights of protesters from a police state, and how expecting immigrants to acclimate to the English language perpetuates classist inequalities. Though Trilling has written extensively on these issues in the past, it is significant that he will now be controlling and directing such content explicitly towards nonbelievers considering how hostile we largely are to social justice issues (especially violence against Muslims, a group oft targeted by fascist British rhetoric).

Trilling’s paper trail is one that shows a commitment not just to free thought, but to an intersectional and inclusive ethic concerned with fighting global oppression. As the editor for New Humanist, he promises to advance atheism beyond its holier-than-thou narrative which has reigned for far too long. At a time when leaders in the atheist movement are increasingly failing to represent the values of compassion and nuance, Trilling’s direction is much needed. You should follow him on twitter. You can subscribe to New Humanist here.

Stephen Goeman is an atheist and interfaith activist. He studied cognitive and brain sciences and philosophy at Tufts University, where he also served as President of the Tufts Freethought Society. After becoming radicalized late in his undergraduate career, he joined a variety of social justice causes operating both at the student level and within Tufts’ administration. He is also an Interfaith Youth Core alumnus and VIA volunteer coordinator at the Humanist Community at Harvard. He tweets here.

A Great Dream’s Anniversary

August 28th, 2013 | Posted by:

Friend of the blog, Eddie O’Byrn, shares his reflection on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.

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Today I write these words to help contextualize the great dreams of the many who have struggled to make America a nation of happiness and prosperity for all. We hope these efforts have not been in vain. I write these words to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., a revolutionary Christian who believed that overcoming the barriers that separate us of race, nationality, and religion, was possible. As a Christian, King believed in the power of his tradition to bring peace to our planet, but as a marginalized black man, he knew this task could not be done though the solitary actions of a single tradition. Rather than force his tradition on those who didn’t practice Christianity, King engaged with practitioners of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and folks in the Secular community. He didn’t believe in his message to spread Christianity to all the corners of the globe. His intention was driven by his interfaith convictions believing that we all have work to do in combating the existence of systemic oppression, whether oppression is racial, religious, sexual, or economic.

Fifty years ago, a great American, stood in Washington D.C. and addressed the Civil Rights March with his magnificent dream. Standing in the symbolic shadow of Lincoln he reminded many Blacks, Negroes, and African Americans that they were still not free a hundred years after slavery’s legal destruction. Still stuck in the chains of poverty constantly commodified by the whips of our material society; fifty years ago King’s words rung true in the hearts and minds of many folks here in America. He had a dream, and we must ask ourselves today if we still find it worth achieving.

King’s dreams were for more that just the end of segregation; a system that has simply morphed into gentrification and financial separation. He dreamed of a world where the sons and daughters of former slaves and slave owners could come together and discuss the complexity of the world. Instead today we have rekindled these master and slave relationships in our city streets, jails, and prisons justified by wars against terror and drugs. The grandchildren of former masters and slaves oppressing the grandchildren of former masters and slaves. He dreamed that we could use our new found strengths to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. And as he promised what we see today is people of all colors going jail together, standing for freedom together, struggling and praying together, but we still find difficulty getting our symphony of freedom and prosperity for all to ring across the nation.

King dreamed that his children would live in a world where they could be judged by the content of their character. But nowadays the color of our skin continues to be used as the justification for terrorizing civilians, predominately those who are Muslim. He dreamed of a world where the heat of injustice and oppression could be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. But the injustices of yesteryear have solidified themselves within the booming prison industry systematically incarcerating more Blacks and Latinos than ever before. All while oppression of our local youth continues. Everywhere we look there are images of the new generations being oppressed due to police violence, gunned down because of street violence, sold into a system of debt for education, or intoxicated by the allure of the music, film, and television industries.

King believed in his dream that even the vicious racists that imprisoned him in Birmingham, Alabama would be transformed. But alas today, profiling to discern a person’s immigration status has been legalized in many southern states, justifying racist practices against predominately colored folks.  He even dreamed that the glory of his God would be shown, revealing the promised land here on Earth for all of us to share. A dream to be shattered by fifty years of increased warfare, wealth disparity, and the banality of racism. Dr. King had a dream, and I often wonder if we will ever achieve it. But in our time of despair we must remember King’s words “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

We cannot deny that the world has come very far since 1963, but the very institutions that activists of the past hoped to extinguish have not disappeared. Segregation still exists today in the rural communities of our nation, as well as the neighborhoods of our metropolises dissected by wealth. In these fifty years we have invested in revealing apparent problems while intensifying those we often ignore. If King, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, or Stokely Carmichael were still alive today, they would agree with figures like Angela Davis, Michael Dyson, bell hooks, and Cornel West that we are still in a great struggle for the basic rights to freedom. A gift not to be handed to us by the powers of government goons or corporate thugs. If we hope to achieve a free world we must resist the corruptions of our institutions today. Just as King’s words asked us to do so long ago we must stay vigilant and not rely on hatred and force to solve our qualms, “In the process of gaining rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deed. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

Dr. King’s message was one of transcending the boundaries that divide us, not to forfeit our traditions to an unclear majority, but to incorporate and experience the beliefs of others. He came to this realization as a Christian, but we don’t need to be Christians to understand his message. Today we have been charged by the monolithic figures of our past with the responsibility of making their dreams a reality. As we continue pushing forward Christians, Jews, and Muslims must reconcile. Seculars, Agnostics, and Atheists must engage with the massive religious communities of our globe. Today we must take King’s message seriously and not judge each other based on our affiliations alone. Each of our traditions creates prejudice and it is up to all of us, believers and non-believers alike, to dismantle the institutions that disregard the content of any person’s character.

So today we must ask ourselves if the American dream of plurality and equality can be achieved, instead of continuing to preserve the false image of a post-race America. Equality has not been achieved by the election of a president of color, just as equality wasn’t achieved in baseball when Jackie Robinson started to play in the major league. The dreams of Dr. King will continue to remain a distant hope as long as we ignore the plight of folks in America delegitimized by bad policies meant to control and categorize our population. Maybe in the spirit of all those Americans who have fought valiantly to transform America we should March in the footsteps of King. We can head to Washington and fight for the civilians of this country and this world against corruption, against greed, for prosperity, and for the dignity of our fellow human being. No one faith will do it alone without relying on domination, but if we weave our traditions together, build interfaith connections, and confront stagnant stereotypes, growth away from systemic discrimination is possible. Until then, all we will have is a dream.

PhotoEddie O’Byrn is an agnostic, mixed race, philosophy graduate student at Penn State. Born in California, and raised in Minnesota, his interests focus on contextualizing the significance of political dissent movements, social agency movements, and systemic inequality. He graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead, MN with a degree in philosophy, minoring classical studies.

Islamophobia and the Egyptian Massacres

August 18th, 2013 | Posted by:

https://twitter.com/Ian_Murphy/status/368255690353020928

Last week, sit-ins across Egypt in support of the former President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, were met with violent disruption by security forces of the new secular government. About 700 protesters were killed and 4,000 were wounded. The New Yorker reports:

On August 14th, [General] Sisi and his allies, claiming unconvincingly that the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators were “terrorists” responsible for hoarding huge quantities of arms, acted as a junta is apt to. The Interior Ministry promised that security forces would clear the streets with the gentleness of lambs, in order “not to shed any Egyptian blood.” Instead, they set out, at around 7 a.m., armed with tear gas and bulldozers, and moved quickly to live fire. They aimed, according to witnesses, at the head, neck, and chest.

You can mistrust the politics and the ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood. You can point out that, during its year at the head of an elected government, it exploited its victory to embed its religious ideology and its goals as deeply as possible in the new constitution. Its views on women’s rights, its efforts to intimidate journalists, and attacks by its supporters on Coptic churches and Christian believers are just a few of its deplorable features. The history of the Brotherhood and of its impact in the Middle East inspires no admiration. But how does a military coup, along with the kidnapping of an elected President, and widespread, indiscriminate arrests, announce the resumption of democratic practice? Islamists make up roughly a third of the Egyptian population. The slaughter on the streets will surely radicalize many of them, and set back democratic development throughout the region.

Politics in Egypt are certainly complex and thorny, and it’s true that no side has their hands entirely clean. But to further quote the fantastic New Yorker piece above, “There comes a point when a thing demands its proper name. A coup is a coup. A despot is a despot. And a massacre is a massacre. “All else equal, I agree that a secular democracy is preferable to an Islamic one, but not if it comes at the price of slaughtering hundreds of peaceful protesters. Though many of the Muslim Brotherhood’s policies and practices deserve strong condemnation, they have the right to peacefully assemble, protest, and engage in their countries’ democratic process.

One of the most troubling aspects of the massacre is how quickly the protesters were labeled “terrorists,” and how that was used to justify their slaughter. It seems that most definitions of terrorist are ignored when Islam comes into play. The Boston bombings were called terrorism despite any clear political motive, while the Sandy Hook shootings were labeled the acts of a deranged killer. Terrorism has more or less become dog-whistle for “anything we don’t like done by a Muslim,” with the ugly consequences clear in light of last week’s events.

Every so often, debates will surface about the appropriateness of “islamophobia” as a term, but it seems obvious to me that there are certain prejudices and irrationalities that operate specifically on Islam as an ideology and religion. Many critics of the term suggest “Islamophobia” is used to silence criticism of Islam—something I’ve only seen rarely, if ever—and others suggest that a word like “Muslimophobia” would be more appropriate, since you can’t be prejudiced towards a religion. I disagree.

Many types of bigotry that sustain racism, for example—generalizing across all members of a group and using specific behaviors of individual members as indicative of all members—seem entirely at play with Islamophobia. That, and the tendency to treat any adherent to Islam as interchangeable, suggests to me that the prejudice stems directly from an attitude about the beliefs, not anything necessarily to do with the believers taken as an aggregate (explicit racism aside). Just as racism focuses on attitudes towards races, not necessarily individual people, so too does Islamophobia.

There is this difficult balancing act when it comes to Islam—Muslims are a marginalized religious minority that are often victims of severe prejudice and violence, but the extreme adherents of their religion display some of the most harmful prejudices. Delegitimizing Islamophobia seems to come from a place of aiming to preserve our criticism of those extremists, but I’m concerned it does so at the expense of the typical Muslim. Islamophobia is at play whenever massacres are justified by naming protesters terrorists, or when Muslims in San Francisco can serve as proxies for Muslims in Tunisia. If hundreds of secular protesters were killed by the Muslim Brotherhood, atheists would be outraged and denouncing the violence of extremist Islam. But now that the situation is reversed and Muslims are victimized, where are we? Whatever problems atheists are facing won’t be solved at the expense of other religious minorities, and our silence at the violation of their rights is damning.

Vlad Chituc is a Research Associate in a behavioral economics lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He has a pretty dope dog and says pretty dope a lot and is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

Photo credit to Monica Harmsen

Photo credit to Monica Harmsen

Tony Lakey, former president of the University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, and Agnostics (MU SASHA), has a post up at Columbia Faith and Values (FAVS) about the CFI conference I went to last month. Tony shared similar feelings, and he touches on a few of the points I discussed in my talk (in fact it more or less serves as a nice summary):

When Muslim extremists sent death threats to the writers of South Park over their depiction of Muhammad, students and figureheads in the secular movement celebrated an event like “Draw Muhammad Day,” where students chalked images of Muhammad around their campus. Though the event was ostensibly intended to display the need for freedom to dissent, it effectively targeted the minority Muslim communities on campuses – students who had nothing to do with death threats and violence perpetrated against dissenters.

This year, such events were called out as an example of poor criticism. Vlad Chituc, a blogger at NonProphet Status, was part of a panel on effective religious criticism, and he cautioned us not to use moderate Muslims – an already marginalized religious minority – as a convenient proxy for the fundamentalists that are the proper targets of our criticism. Such behavior “punches down,” effectively bolstering ourselves at the expense of targeting the proverbial “little guy.” Instead, we should act for social progress by “punching up” to attack oppressive systems.

I encourage you to read the whole post here. 

Vlad Chituc is a Research Associate in a behavioral economics lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He has a pretty dope dog and says pretty dope a lot and is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

I really enjoy having friends who are in the academic study of religion because you can learn so much and question a lot of the assumptions that often seem taken for granted. Today, we have a guest post by Marcus Mann, a Masters student in Religion at Duke, exploring how some sociology research can help assess and improve the atheist movement. 

Vanguard

In 2007, sociologists Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith published a paper in the journal Sociology of Religion titled “Secular Humanism and Atheism beyond Progressive Secularism.” In the paper, Cimino and Smith noted a significant change occurring within organized atheism and secular humanism, as organizations shied away from acting as the vanguard of progressing secularism in wider western culture and instead began to emphasize atheism as a part of minority discourse and identity politics.

This first frame, which I’ll be calling the “secular vanguard frame,” is deeply rooted in the famous “secularization thesis” which dominated the sociology of religion in the 20th Century. The idea was that the West was on a steady march toward complete secularization, with religion becoming functionally extinct in the not too distant future. Organized atheism enthusiastically bought in, and they billed themselves as the force instituting this change.

The advent of the Moral Majority, however, and the rise of Christian Evangelicalism in the late 20th Century, not to mention the resiliency of American religiosity in general, effectively delegitimized many conceptions of the secularization thesis and left sociologists scrambling to make sense of a religious landscape they didn’t anticipate. Cimino and Smith document organized atheism’s response to these revelations, and it was largely manifested in the adoption of what I’ll call the “embattled minority frame.” That is, the movement began to frame atheists as a disenfranchised minority under attack by oppressive forces.

But it seems that the worst of the secular vanguard and embattled minority frames are being employed in a way that is both inconsistent with current sociological realities and alienating to both outsiders and members of atheist organizations and communities.

First, the secular vanguard frame has experienced resurgence in atheist circles due to the rise of religious “nones.” Sociologists and other scholars of religion, meanwhile, remain hesitant to associate this trend with broader secularization. For some atheist leaders, though, the rise of religious disaffiliation in the US seems perfectly timed to validate as successful the New Atheism phenomenon and other recent aggressive approaches.

David Silverman of American Atheists, for example, conflated “Nones” with atheists completely after the Boston Marathon bombings. He says, “These tragedies affect all citizens, including atheists—the fastest growing religious demographic in New England,” but this is not true. Nones are the fastest growing religious demographic, but nearly 70% of them believe in God. Considered alongside his claim (that he supports using nothing but Google trends) that “firebrand atheism” is solely responsible for increased interest in atheism, this mistake in demographic categories has the effect of suggesting that militant atheism itself is responsible for the rise of religious disaffiliation in the United States—a claim that no sociologist or religious scholar has made or would ever support.

The more serious, and perhaps more insidious, trend in organized atheism, though, resides in the troubling implications of embattled minority framing. This is not to say that atheists aren’t often marginalized or discriminated against, because they are. But this embattled purview can mask problems within the movement itself, especially while culture war rhetoric often lends the movement the aesthetic of a group actually at war.

A lot has been written lately on sexual assault and Islamophobia within organized atheism, and I’ll leave it to those better educated, well-versed and with more personal experience regarding those issues to comment on them. My point is more general and perhaps more obvious: a group that perpetuates the idea that they are being cornered, or that they are at war, or that disunity of voice portrays weakness which means death, will almost always create a culture that demonizes out-groups for the sake of in-group morale, elevating its leaders beyond the reach of legitimate critique in the process.

How then should atheist organizations think of themselves and frame their mission? I don’t have a definitive answer to such a large question but I do think that internalizing a few sociological truths will help steer them in a better direction.

First, there is no evidence that atheist or secular humanist organizations are acting as the vanguard of an advancing secularism. Nor can they claim to represent the thoughts, wishes, or sentiments of the “Nones,” who are a much more diverse and religious demographic than organized secularists. Rather, they need to feel comfortable catering to their membership and their own organizational goals while seeking spaces of engagement with other religious groups that share their values. The secular vanguard frame is toxic to religious pluralism and interfaith relationships for obvious reasons, and discarding it will improve outreach and engagement with the wider community.

This point has profound implications for the embattled minority frame, as well. Seeking relationships with other religious minorities will temper bias against out-groups, provide the foundation for a broader coalition of marginalized belief systems, and bring more accountability to leadership as they struggle to serve a greater diversity of interests rather than dictate to only a few.

Some of the reactions to accusations of Islamophobia and sexual misconduct in the atheist movement have been predictable, with various voices doubling down on in-group exceptionalism and unity, respectively. But this is counterproductive in addressing the problems within the atheist movement and impedes our ability to become more accountable to each other and accessible to those that might consider our message. That’s a fiction I don’t care to take part in, and one that organized atheism and secular humanism can’t afford to perpetuate.

Marcus Mann lives with his wife and two cats in Carrboro, NC and is a Masters student in Religion at Duke University. He has been focusing on the sociology of irreligion, and is currently working on his thesis, which is an ethnography of atheist culture in the Triangle region of North Carolina. You can follow him on Twitter.