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Atheists’ Diversity Woes Have No Black-and-White Answers

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By G. JEFFREY MacDONALD
c. 2011 Religion News Service
Alix Jules is an atheist, but for years he felt uncomfortable at gatherings of nonbelievers. The reason: He’s black.
“I got really tired of going back and forth to free thought events and being the only black person there,” said Jules, 36, who lives in Dallas. “It was not necessarily inviting. I just felt like an outcast … No one was reaching out to me.”
Last year, Jules helped launch a local initiative to address what atheists regard as an international problem for their movement: a lack of racial and gender diversity.
From the smallest local meetings to the largest conferences, the vast majority of speakers and attendees are almost always white men. Leading figures of the atheist movement — Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett — are all white men.
But making atheism more diverse is proving to be no easy task.
Surveys suggest most atheists are white men. A recent survey of 4,000 members of the Freedom from Religion Foundation found that 95 percent were white, and men comprised a majority.
Among U.S. nonbelievers, 72 percent are white and 60 percent are men, according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey; the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that Hispanics make up 11 percent, and African-Americans just 8 percent, of “unaffiliated” Americans.
“Anytime you go to an atheist meeting, it tends to be predominantly male and white. We know that,” said Blair Scott, national affiliate director for American Atheists, which has 131 affiliate groups. “We go out of our way to encourage participation by females and minorities. The problem is getting those people out (of the closet as atheists) in the first place.”
Atheists are working to put a more diverse public face on their movement. A new group, Black Atheists of America, drew about 25 attendees at its first national meeting in October. Also last year, the Institute for Humanist Studies was born in Washington, D.C. with a goal of helping atheism become more diverse.
But diversity remains elusive. As of late December, American Atheist magazine hadn’t been able to find enough black atheist writers to fill a special Black History Month edition for February.
In another telling sign, the Council for Secular Humanism tried in vain to present a diverse array of speakers at its four-day October conference in Los Angeles. Most of the 300 attendees were white men, as were 23 of the 26 speakers.
“Considering the changing demographics of our country, we need to consider why our message is not resonating with Latinos, why it’s not resonating with people of color, and why it’s not resonating with women in the way that it could be,” said Debbie Goddard, director of African-Americans for Humanism.
One theory says minorities tend to be more reluctant than whites to “come out of the closet” as non-believers, in part because religion and culture tend to be deeply intertwined in minority communities, according to Anthony Pinn, a black humanist and professor of religious studies at Rice University.
“Within African-American communities, the question concerning black atheists is: Have they surrendered their allegiance to the principles and ideas that helped us survive?” said Pinn, who is also research director for the Institute for Humanist Studies.
The concern is that “the African-American atheists have surrendered some of what it means to be black and a survivor in the United States. They’ve lost touch with their tradition,” Pinn said.
Making atheism more diverse is important on various levels, according to atheist organizers. For starters, Scott said gatherings are enriched when atheists have varied backgrounds and experiences to share.
“We need to be more vocal, in the atheist community at large and in our (black) community, to let others feel more comfortable in coming out,” said Ayanna Watson, a New York City lawyer and founder of Black Atheists of America.
She and Pinn hope more blacks will feel more comfortable “coming out” as atheists when they learn about black atheism’s roots in American history, through such figures as Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Douglass.
Efforts to cultivate diversity in atheism seem to be gaining some traction among African-Americans, Goddard said, but not as much among Asians or Latinos. “I’ve seen no real success in outreach, no efforts really being made to the Latino community,” Goddard said.
There’s also sharp debate inside atheist circles about whether to create separate minority groups. Goddard and others believe such niche groups perform a helpful service by helping minorities embrace their nonbelief, but others say ethnicity-based gatherings betray the movement’s commitment to transcending racial and ethnic boundaries.
“Some argue (that) organizing any kind of group for a specific demographic … is inherently racist, is inherently sexist,” Goddard said, “and is not something that our groups should organize or promote.”
The white male profile of most atheist gatherings is not likely to change anytime soon, observers concede, especially if atheist minorities find their own community in specially designed separate groups.
Nevertheless, some activists like Jules are holding to a vision of integration. He chairs a newly formed diversity council for the Dallas Coalition for Reason, which includes the area’s 15 atheist groups.
Last year, the coalition started targeted outreach campaigns to minority groups, assuring local black gays and lesbians, for example, that atheist groups will accept them non-judgmentally.
Dallas’ Fellowship of Free Thought used to be almost exclusively white, Jules said, but now the group counts members with black, Hispanic and Middle Eastern backgrounds, including former Muslims.
“People think (atheism) is reserved for white academia,” Jules said, “but it’s not.”



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Hobbit

posted January 4, 2011 at 1:49 am


Interesting article; however as far as I know Ayanna Watson is not yet a “New York city lawyer.”



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cmaglaughlin

posted January 4, 2011 at 10:16 am


“People think (atheism) is reserved for white academia,” Jules said, “but it’s not.”
more like…ACADUMBIA…I guess ignorance comes in ALL COLORS!



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thominkentuck

posted January 4, 2011 at 11:56 am


I wouldn’t believe in the god that most atheists believe in, either.



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Dgirl

posted January 4, 2011 at 1:04 pm


thominkentuck
Are you kidding? Please tell me that you are not as ignorant as your statement makes you appear – “I wouldn’t believe in the god that most atheists believe in, either.”
There is no god, whether you believe it or not.



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Ranger

posted January 4, 2011 at 1:32 pm


Dgirl,
I assume you are just trying to get an insult in, but show a little grace in your reading. Thom clearly made a simple mistake It’s obvious that Thom meant that he too wouldn’t believe in the god that most atheists reject. I think it’s a realistic statement.
Having read almost all of the new atheist literature (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitch) as well as some of the lesser known stuff (Stenger, Carrier), I think I am justified in saying that much (but not all) of their attacks are against straw men. I don’t think this is necessarily intentional, but the media focuses on the loonies and most of the new atheist literature seems to be attacking the loonies. Whenever the new atheists venture into academic literature and argumnts they struggle mightily, partially because they misread and misquote, and partially because they do not seem adept at unrderstanding it.
Probably the clearest example would be Dawkins misquoting, misunderstanding and flat out disregard in regards to Aquinas on p. 100-104 in TGD. He seems clearly unfamiliar with basic philosophy here, and doesnt even understand the arguments well enough to respond properly. For instance, he responds to Paley’s argument fromm design in regards to Aquinas’ fifth way, when the two arguments are nothing alike. Elsewhere in the book he shows himself ignorant of biblical studies, theology and basically most topics outside of his specialty (science). He quote mines regularly from books (even to make the exact opposite point of that which the book is making). I think that most atheists who are scholars in these topics (Quentin Smith for instance) are embarrassed of such works because they are anti-intellectual in that they do not attempt to deal with what their opponents are actually saying, and do not respond in an academic manner. Thus, they are fighting straw men, and Thom’s comment about rejecting the god they reject seems justified, because they are rejecting and arguing against a god that most do not believe in, and no scholar is defending.
I hope that helps you understand Thom’s perspective.



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Ranger

posted January 4, 2011 at 1:34 pm


Sorry for the many spelling errors in the last comment. I am on a phone and the small keyboard messed things up!



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ahem

posted January 4, 2011 at 4:19 pm


What is atheism now–a church?



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cmaglaughlin

posted January 4, 2011 at 4:21 pm


I don’t see what all the fuss is about…Atheists DO NOT EXIST!
http://www.christiananswers.net/evangelism/beliefs/atheism.html



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Ken Granderson

posted January 4, 2011 at 7:37 pm


Unfortunately this article did not mention last year’s AAH conference in DC, which I traveled from Boston to attend, and which had attendees from as far away as California.
As a lifelong Black atheist who, like all of us, was born not believing in any gods and simply learned to question and analyze before I learned to believe uncritically, this past decade has been one of slow, but hopeful promise for more atheists of color ‘coming out of the closet.’
The excellent books by the ’4 horsemen’ were powerful catalysts in my decision to no longer remain silent and passive about my beliefs. However, it was the faith-based initiative known as the 9/11 attacks, and the Bush administration’s cozying up to the religious fundamentalists in the USA that demonstrated the folly of not speaking out against the insanity known as religion and helped me realize that civilization cannot afford to let those who want to live in ancient times continue to force their wills on the rest of us unchallenged.
Black atheist groups are thriving on social networks, and I expect that this new decade will see significant progress in our numbers.
In the long run, I am certain that atheism will become a viable philosophical stance across all demographics, because in my lifetime, I have seen religion lose much of its protected status in society, and today, people openly challenge and question religion in ways that were unthinkable 30 years ago.
Each generation perpetuates whatever it grew up on and views as ‘normal,’ so the ‘genie is out of the bottle’ in the game of religion being immune from criticism, and in future generations, religious ideas will be subject to the same sort of scrutiny that non-religious ideas get.
And since religions rely on faith without evidence and have no tangible facts underpinning them, it is just a matter of time before the religions of today become the myths of tomorrow. This is how it has always been, the main difference is that because we live in a globally and instantly connected information age, ideas that have enjoyed longetivity thanks to control of information can be deconstructed and demolished in relatively short periods of time.
It is a good time to be alive.



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Ranger

posted January 4, 2011 at 9:59 pm


Ken,
Although it is not clear from my previous comment on the lack of depth among the new atheist movement, I’m a Christian. I have lots of “evidence” for my views. I have the nature of existence, the contingency of nature pointing to a transcendental Act behind it, personal experience, historical events pointing toward transcendent reality/revelation, the traditional theistic arguments, the gift of the Holy Spirit and much more. You may reject these as “sufficient” evidence from your perspective, but they are evidence nonetheless, and your rejection is no less subjective than my acceptance of it as such.
It is the very dogmatism in your final paragraph that will keep people away from the movement. Your first error is to equate all religions. Sociologists are clear that only the naive could claim that there is a thing as “religion” apart from “religions.” Your second error is the assumption that religions are among those worldviews that are going to be quickly deconstructed and demolished. Your faith in this regard seems to contradict the reality of the situation in the world today. You may want to read the recent book “God is Back” by two prestigious atheists discussing the rebirth of Christianity among the academics in Europe, the elites in Asian cultures (such as China/Malaysia/Singapore) and even the rebirth in Sweden of all places. The data is there, but you have to do the research to see what it says.
Your third error would be assuming that Christianity has not been scrutinized over the past two thousand years. Such an assumption goes directly against the facts of history. Take for instance, the last three hundred years of historical criticism in regards to the Bible, the thousands upon thousands of pages that have been written in support of and against the traditional arguments for the existence of God, et. al. Furthermore, Christianity (which founded the concept of the university) has a long tradition of self-criticism that has led to some of the greater societal advances in history. You may want to read the book “Atheist Delusions” by David Bentley Hart, or “The Victory of Reason” by Rodney Stark for an account of some of these moves.
The very core teachings of Christianity have been debated (and are still debated) in the corridors of the most prestigious universities in the world by believers and unbelievers alike. Despite your assumptions about where “reason” will lead us, there has been a great revival of theistic philosophy in the past fifty years. In the late 1960s the theists in philosophy were far and few between. Today, according to the recent Phil Papers survey that analyzed professors from 100 of the top secular and state universities around the world, 72.3% of the target faculty in the philosophy of religion (those who analyze and study the arguments for the existence of God) either accept or lean towards theism, with only 19.1% accepting or leaning toward atheism (the rest were undecided). That’s vastly different than fifty years ago and shows what many have referred to as the “theistic revolution” in philosophy departments around the world.
I more than welcome open discussion of these topics and hope to see more of it in times to come. As you can see from my previous comment, I’ve read the “4 horsemen” and many others, and would actually hope that their anti-intellectualism does not characterize the atheism of the future, because if it does then the entire movement is dead in the water. There’s no use in “coming out” if you only “come out” in order to show off your ignorance of the topics being discussed by real scholars, which is how an intellectual can’t help but feel after reading the works of the ’4 Horsemen.’



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Ranger

posted January 4, 2011 at 10:12 pm


That should say, “You may reject these as ‘insufficent’” not “sufficient,” haha.



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Mordred08

posted January 4, 2011 at 11:31 pm


cmaglaughlin: “I don’t see what all the fuss is about…Atheists DO NOT EXIST!”
Translation: “Atheists do not exist in the sense in which I choose to define the word for my own purposes.”



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Zachary Moore

posted January 4, 2011 at 11:33 pm


Ranger-
Just as it would be a mistake to characterize American Christian landscape through the lens of Pat Robertson, Rick Warren, and Joel Osteen, it’s a mistake to characterize the American secular landscape through the lens of Richard Dawkins, Richard Carrier, and James Randi.
It’s true that there has been a massive increase in the popularity of “New Atheist” books and events over the past several years, but as skeptics learn early on, correlation is not causation.
In my experience, the grassroots secular landscape is made up of people, such as myself, who rejected supernatural belief before Sam Harris ever put pen to paper. People who considered themselves strong religious believers, even potential or actual members of the clergy, for whom religious self-criticism came slowly, painfully, and at a great cost in terms of familial and social connections. These people have not arrived at their atheism by tilting at strawmen; quotes from Jerry Falwell are just extreme examples used to rhetorical effect.
To be a publicly unashamed non-believer in America today is to risk much. The number of non-believing politicians can be counted on a single hand, for good reason. The problem is even worse for those minority groups for whom religiosity is synonymous with ethnic identity, hence the subject of the above article. It’s in this environment that the grassroots secular movement is thriving and growing – not because The God Delusion was such a persuasive book, but because those people who don’t need a God in their lives have realized that they do need other people.
There are brilliant Christians, without question. Your own intelligence is clear. The point is not that atheists are stupid and Christians are smart, or vice versa. The point is that for whatever reason, Christianity no longer provides a compelling argument for itself in America, and nonbelievers still need a home.
Best,
-Z



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NESter

posted January 5, 2011 at 12:54 am


If the majority of us non-religious persons are white men, then it stands to reason that the majority of the members of the various secular groups will be white men. Trying too hard to represent minorities is a mistake in my opinion. I want all humans to feel welcome, but we have to work with what we have. The key to growing our numbers is education. Some might argue that this is why minorities are under-represented in our ranks, because they do not (statistically speaking) have as much access to education. If we encourage people to think critically and reject superstition, they can and often will determine on their own that they have no need for mythological explanations of the world. If the religious folks in power would spend more time trying to think like Jesus (the man, the pacifist, the humanist…) and less time trying to ram his alleged divinity down our throats, we’d all be better off.



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Ranger

posted January 5, 2011 at 1:10 am


Zach,
That’s exactly what I look forward to in the future. Reasoned, open discourse. I believe Christianity is true and there are good arguments to believe it to be so. You believe I’m wrong, and have good reasons for your rejection of my claims. Instead of calling each other “insane” or parodying each others views, we should listen, attempt to understand each other and be open to changing our perspective not just on our core values, but on how we relate to one another. I personally think Greg Epstein (humanist chaplain at Harvard) does this better than anyone. I think there are many compelling religious believers as well in this regard.
I also agree with you that the Christianity put forward by the media in America (usually associated with the names you mentioned) is not compelling anymore so than the atheism put forward by the four horsemen. Hopefully we can find a future beyond such simplistic rhetorical strategies and find ways to admit our differences, which are very deep, but move forward in discussion and partnerships on the things we agree upon.



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Jerry Bryson

posted January 5, 2011 at 8:14 am


It brings up a conflict: Is the organization going to promote Humanism or diversity? You don’t want to dilute the Association’s main mission.



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Michael E. Kelly

posted January 5, 2011 at 3:40 pm


I think the real issue here, and what this article demonstrates to me, is that belief in god is an inherently cultural phenomenon. That so few atheists are black, latino, etc. speaks to the cultural aspect of religion more than than the theological one. Religion has always been more a social force than a spiritual one anyway. It’s why conquered people so often simply converted to the religion of the conqueror (or conversely, retaining the “old ways” was the social bond that kept the resistance going – “us” vs “them”). It wasn’t really until the Reformation that individual “lay” people started diligently studying the bible. Most people couldn’t even read the bible until a few hundred years ago. Not to mention the millions who went to church regularly without ever really fully understanding a word of it because it was all in latin – a dead language used primarily by scholars.
Religions have always been co-opted by peoples to suit their needs in a particular time and place. Search “Christianization” on wikipedia to find out just how many cultural conversions in Europe were due to the spiritual “truths” of Christian beliefs rather than simply the convenience of adapting to new rulers or neighbors.
From a cultural standpoint, religion is dramatically more important to blacks and latinos. It’s a part of their cultural heritage in a way that it simply isn’t in many white European immigrants. I think this is why it’s so hard for many people to reject God, because it would mean rejecting their entire family and all of their friends. It’s not about God, it’s about culture and your social circle. My social circle doesn’t require that I believe in God for them to accept me, so I’m free to look at the evidence and decide that it’s completely lacking. Lucky me.



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pagansister

posted January 5, 2011 at 9:36 pm


There is as much proof that a supreme being exists as there is proof that one doesn’t exist. None. A god or no god is in the eye (brain) of the person who claims to believe in a god or doesn’t believe in a divine being. Some folks need a crutch in the form of an invisible being and some don’t.



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cknuck

posted January 5, 2011 at 11:32 pm


“The problem is getting those people out (of the closet as atheists) in the first place.”
Now that’s the kind of talk that will attract minorities.
“Considering the changing demographics of our country, we need to consider why our message is not resonating with Latinos, why it’s not resonating with people of color, and why it’s not resonating with women in the way that it could be,”
“Message” you mean preaching a sermon? What is religion, if not this stuff.
“Black Atheists of America, drew about 25 attendees at its first national meeting in October.”
Those numbers are a real threat. lol
“Last year, the coalition started targeted outreach campaigns to minority groups, assuring local black gays and lesbians, for example, that atheist groups will accept them non-judgmentally.”
Just another religion’s desperate attempt at proselytizing.
pagan the only supremacy expressed here is the so called atheist intellectuals here who think that religious people are dumb and that Blacks and Latinos are not atheist because they are dumb and uneducated when in fact there are more spiritual intellectuals that not.



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cknuck

posted January 6, 2011 at 12:08 am


pagan no insult intended but as I read atheist reasoning and posting their theme is atheism is a intellectual response and Christianity is superstition practiced by the primitive. I know you know what type of human operates from that sort of mindset.



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cknuck

posted January 6, 2011 at 9:03 pm


should have been; “when in fact there are more spiritual intellectuals than not.”



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Nixon Is Lord

posted June 20, 2011 at 3:52 pm


Being over 95% White and Middle/Upper middle class is the situation in Mainline Protestant churches and the Irish and German Catholic churches from which many US/Canadian Atheists come; the only difference with atheism is that the percentage of men is significantly higher than that of women.
Getting rid of the Sharptons and Jacksons and Farrakhans would be a great thing to do, but so long as there are thousands who believe (wrongly) that “They may be idiots/charlatans, but at least they’re OUR idiots/charlatans!”, you’re not going to attract many nonwhites/females to explicit atheism.



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