August 15th, 2013 | Posted by: Vlad Chituc
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.
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.
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.
August 13th, 2013 | Posted by: Stephen Goeman
Like many American boys, I was raised on superheroes. I knew about Batman, Spiderman, and the X-Men before I knew how to walk. Their god-like status captivated me for years—here were people sculpted and clothed like Greek marble whose every action connected to broad ideas about justice and equality. It’s one of the reasons I was brought back to comics a few years ago and filled a bookshelf with graphic novels.
There’s something deeply embarrassing about liking comic books, however, and it’s probably not the reason you’re thinking of. Our heroes have got to be white, they’ve got to be men, and they’ve got to be oozing heterosexuality from every pore not obscured by spandex—relics which correlate with power in our own society.
We saw this when we were outraged that Nightrunner, the Batman of Paris and just one member of an international team of Batmen-and-women, was revealed to be Muslim. We saw this when we were outraged that Miles Morales, Peter Parker’s successor as New York’s webslinger, was announced to be black and Latino. We saw this when we were outraged at rumors that Danny Glover might play a black Spiderman or that the next silver-screened Human Torch might be played by Michael B. Jordan. And we saw this when we were outraged when an alternate reality version of the Green Lantern was revealed to be gay. We saw this by how fans respond to any inclusion of a hero who differs from the straight white male standard.
These responses are not helped in the least by the words and actions of comic creators. DC comics has been consistently mistreating women characters in its mythos for years while employing shockingly few women, perhaps reinforcing its status as a ‘boys club.’ Women are used as props: this is most evident through the fact that male superheroes frequently have to ward off the advances of any number of mostly-naked women with proportions that defy physics (Batman has his pick of Catwoman and Talia al Ghul, while Luke’s descendent Cade Skywalker is irresistible to Deliah Blue and Darth Talon despite having a greasy mop, scraggly facial hair, and a Reddit account). Bizarrely, these women are seen as “empowered” and “confident” and “not at all products of sexually awkward man-children.”
The industry response to these disparities has largely been characterized by a lack of concern and critical thought substituted with an abundance of hand-waving. Co-creator of the Kick Ass source material Mark Millar has referred to outrage over sexism in his media as “… meaningless. A tiny storm in a tea cup,” while remarking that such concerns “… don’t really [matter].” A recent panel discussion between industry giants Todd McFarlane, Len Wein and Gerry Conway expanded on these exclusionist ideas in full. McFarlane argued that objectifying women is OK because giving male superheroes perfect pecs is totally the same thing, Wein maintained that colorblindness is the best way to erode bias, and all three agreed that diversity within the medium would have to come at the expense of good storytelling. Conway noted that it wasn’t the responsibility for superhero comics to pave the way for a better society, but rather, “… the comics follow society.” This is exactly it: the genre replicates the values and social barriers we actually live with, serving as a mirror held up to our shortcomings. 1
In understanding the extremely toxic context the superhero medium finds itself in, it’s clear why criticisms that focus exclusively on Islam as especially misogynistic and socially harmful make me scoff. Who will save me from such ridiculous broad-brushing generalizations? Why, none other than the Burka Avenger!
Burka Avenger is a multimedia project consisting of a children’s cartoon, music album, and IOS game; the collective universe follows the exploits of Jiya, a Pakistani schoolteacher who augments martial arts with pens and books to thwart backwards-thinking politicians and hateful religious leaders. The cartoon features Urdu voice acting, and the first episode has been officially released with English subtitles on YouTube.
This character comes not just in the environment of the near-uniform second-class status women superheroes receive, but with the added context of the West’s suspicion and distaste for the burka.
The idea that the burka is an oppressive garment which subjugates women is not a new idea to atheism. Christopher “Women Aren’t Funny” Hitchens memorably praised the French burka ban as a step towards ending oppression against women, and this reasoning is the central line of thought behind FEMEN. Contrary to the opinion of many such firebrands, Muslim women, and those who have taken the time to respectfully engage with them, maintain that most who wear the burka do so autonomously.
As a Muslim superhero, Jiya has the opportunity to defy both the Western subjugation of women and the suspicion of the burka. She provides a beautiful visual metaphor for how Muslim women pursue justice through their faith. In donning the burka, Jiya is able to combat corrupt political and religious authority figures while advancing the values of equality and education; the fact that the burka is itself a religious garment clearly implies that these heroic actions are performed because of, not in spite of, her faith. In this way, Burka Avenger replicates a truth those of us interfaithers know all too well: Muslim women, hardly oppressed damsels in distress, are empowered women and crucial allies in combating religious extremism.
On their official website, the stated purpose of Burka Avenger is as follows:
The main goals of the Burka Avenger TV series are to make people laugh, to entertain and to send out positive social messages to the youth.
If the first episode can be any indication, mission accomplished.
- Of course, the industry is not ubiquitously hostile. Writers like Gail Simone have challenged the status quo by writing empowered minority characters, websites like ComicsAlliance have created socially conscious comic consumers, and public figures like Laura Hudson and Kate Leth have played public watchdog roles much like the atheist movement’s Skepchicks have. ↩
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 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.
“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, firstname.lastname@example.org). 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 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.