A generation ago a typical humanist group might have been little more than a few older, white men meeting in the basement of a Unitarian church, arguing points of philosophy that have little relevance in the real world. That has changed, as atheist and humanist groups have sprung up in a much wider range of settings, from schools to pubs to workplaces, and as young people, women, people of color, gays and lesbians, and others have helped the notion of personal secularity gain traction in the wider population.
But still, despite this expansion, many would like to see the secular movement experience faster and broader growth in African-American and Latino communities. Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson, a Los Angeles author and secular activist, is one of those working to expand the movement in communities of color. With the authority of churches in those communities very strong, she argues that the secular movement is unlikely to challenge that authority unless it firmly addresses issues of social and economic justice. This message resonates with many—especially among those humanists who see such traditionally liberal issues as being central to humanist ethics—but not with everyone. Some would prefer that the movement focus exclusively on church-state separation and other so-called "culture war" issues, for example, while some atheists even describe themselves as conservative. Below, I chat with Hutchinson about her views on this ongoing discussion.
DN: I attended a recent talk that you gave, and I believe one of the key points you made was that women of color in America have historically gravitated toward religion because it was one of the few institutions that validated their humanity. Could you explain what you mean by that?
SH: In my book, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, I argue that the literature on secularism and gender does not capture the experiences of women of color negotiating racism, sexism, and poverty in historically religious communities. The relative dearth of secular humanist and freethought traditions amongst women of color cannot be separated from the broader context of white supremacy, gender politics, and racial segregation. The writers Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston are generally acknowledged as pioneering twentieth century black women freethinkers. Yet, what few women’s histories of freethought there are celebrate the political influence of prominent nineteenth century white women non-believers, many of whom were suffragists and abolitionists. None contextualize these women’s influence vis-à-vis the race and gender politics that shaped both the feminist and freethought movements. For example, I have yet to see an appraisal that seriously addresses the racism, nativism and xenophobia of forerunning 19th century freethinker Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who used white supremacist imperialist rhetoric touting the intellectual superiority of white women to oppose the 15th amendment granting black men the vote) or the “curious” absence of women of color from freethought movements.
Historically African American women did not have the luxury to be freethinkers because they were constructed as the racialized hypersexual amoral other. White women were the gold standard for universal ideals of feminine beauty, morality, chastity and "civilization." Black women’s bodies were the backdrop to European American Enlightenment-based notions of individual liberty, humanity, and natural rights. And their labor was the raw material for European-American intellectualism.
Small wonder then, that the spaces that were available to black women became wellsprings for expressions of Godliness, both subversive and conforming. That the vast majority of black women were only afforded access to the worlds of work, the family, and church meant that their “genius” would by necessity be a reflection of those worlds. In the turbulence and terrorism of antebellum America “God” became ordinary black women’s medium for expressing genius, creativity, artistry, mastery, and invention. Hence, secularism was a potentially dangerous and untenable position because of the way black dehumanization was institutionalized. Where, for example, would black women go to be affirmed as persons? The courts, where their rights were not recognized? The Constitution, where their bodies were vessels? The education system, where their culture was demeaned as savage, primitive, and un-Christian? Government, where their bodies were deep profit for some of the nation’s most esteemed legislators and moral philosophers? White churches, where they were debased as Jezebels and amoral “Children of Ham”?
Under Jim Crow segregation Black churches were the epicenter of African-American solidarity, civil rights organizing, and civic engagement. Black women activists drew from their church networks to mobilize grassroots campaigns, fundraising drives, and political advocacy against sexual violence, lynching, job discrimination, and disenfranchisement. The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott—which, contrary to popular belief, was initiated by unsung black women activists like Jo Ann Robinson and Ella Baker and not Martin Luther King—utilized the social capital of local churches for public meetings, strategy and informational sessions. In many respects, black faith organizations remain vital to African American communities precisely because of the legacies of Jim Crow. The deep racial wealth gap, coupled with institutional racism and sexism in housing, employment, education, and health care has had a devastating impact on women of color.
For Latinas coming from Catholic traditions, the ubiquitous image of the pure as the driven snow self-sacrificing Virgin Mary is the traditional model for femininity. But the Virgin’s white purity is only validated by the fallen dark whore – the black, Asian, Latina or Native American woman whose body, in the words of bell hooks, is “the sign of sexual experience.” This is the cultural backdrop against which women of color struggle with religious and secular belief systems. Even as the moral weight of their communities—reinforced by the dominant culture’s sexist/heterosexist norms—is placed on them, many continue to seek refuge in faith and faith traditions because they provide a sense of purpose, direction, and meaning. This is especially true given that, to quote former Black Panther Party chair Elaine Brown, women of color, unlike white women, have never had the privilege to be “Miss Ann.”
DN: I wonder whether the situation you describe might explain why many of those fighting for social and economic justice have chosen to downplay personal secularity—atheism, agnosticism, and even humanism. Howard Zinn, for example, who was very much an atheist, once told me that he never considered secular activism to be important—because he saw firsthand the wonderful work of African-American churches in the South during the civil rights movement. Like many, he thought religion would fade, but only after society becomes more just. But is it possible that this thinking puts the cart before the horse—that a wider proliferation of personal secularity, reason, and humanist values is necessary if the human animal has any hope of getting beyond racism, tribalism, patriarchy, and misogyny, and making serious progress toward social and economic justice?
SH: The notion that secularists have a lock on “reason” and even “humanist” values is a fallacy that the mainstream atheist movement continues to embrace. For example, is it “reasonable” for humanist and atheist organizations, who scream about the supreme value of “science and reason,” to patently ignore (and profit from via the white privilege of segregated schools) the racist structure of American K-12 education which pipelines youth of color into prisons and ultimately results in the under-representation of African Americans and Latinos in STEM disciplines and professions? Earlier this year I attended a local NAACP function where my mother was being honored for her work as an educator. Many of the award recipients expressed fervent belief in god and cited their church involvement. Through their church leadership these primarily Baby Boomer generation women supported youth groups, spotlighted juvenile justice issues, provided scholarship assistance, spearheaded tutoring programs, developed college financial aid resources, mentored foster care youth and gave legal aid counseling. Their performance of religious fervor reconfirmed what I’d already known about black women’s organizing—namely, that social justice through faith-based communities was still the foundation for not just activism, but identity, self-affirmation and self-determination.
In the early-to-mid 20th century many non-believers and freethinkers of color, as well as radical whites, were deeply invested in the struggle for civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, the labor movement and anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist resistance. They were not primarily academic elites or high profile author/commentators (ála Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens) and came from all walks of life. Moreover, they understood that reaching across the ideological “aisle” to organize with progressive believers was an absolute necessity if they were going to gain any traction in local communities of color (the examples of A. Philip Randolph, James Forman and the Black Panthers are illustrative in this regard). So while there are some grassroots atheist groups spearheading their own social justice projects, the movement as a whole continues to be publicly defined by a handful of white superstars and their limited vision. The absence of a radical-progressive historical and sociological context for atheist politics, and its disconnection from social justice activism, will keep it in the lily white one percent column.
So I’m deeply suspicious of this notion of “getting beyond” isms. It’s impossible to “get beyond” isms unless structural oppression is redressed through wealth redistribution and desegregation. This also requires critical consciousness about the intersectional nature of power and oppression and how elites and advantaged people (straight/white/middle class/able-bodied/male/suburban) actively benefit from these regimes.
DN: It sounds like you’re saying secular groups might expand their social base beyond the white upper-middle class by putting more energy toward some of the issues that are most important to people of color. But I can think of several groups that already emphasize those issues—Green-Rainbow parties, for example, or various socialist parties, or even the Justice Party—and those groups are not exactly seeing skyrocketing numbers. Doesn’t this challenge the thesis that working for social justice and economic justice will necessarily attract more minorities? If so, what are the other missing ingredients?
SH: The organizations that you cite have not made substantial inroads into communities of color for precisely some of the same reasons that inform the atheist/humanist movement. There has been far too little work on issues of intersectionality—which entails ensuring that marginalized communities are respected in all of their complexity with regard to race, gender, sexuality, class, ability status and geography, rather than as a monolith in reductive opposition to white middle class hetero-norms. Also, the marginalization of radical-progressive political organizations needs to be viewed within a broader context of global capitalist domination and neo-liberal development. This is an era of extreme reactionary conservative backlash characterized by the GOP/Tea Party rollback of the civil and human rights gains that have been forged in the country for the past few decades. For African Americans and Latinos it is an era of grave recession/depression that has seen the virtual gutting of their socioeconomic mobility and progress vis-à-vis jobs, housing and education. It is an era in which the wealth gap between whites, African Americans and Latinos has grown to gargantuan proportions, such that even affluent people of color are more likely to live in lower income neighborhoods with little access to living wage jobs than are white working class residents. I don’t see these progressive groups organizing in neighborhoods like mine (South Los Angeles) that have borne the brunt of the recession/depression. For better or for worse, in poor communities of color some of the most visible frontline organizations advocating for economic justice and social welfare are faith-based.
DN: You seem to tie reason, logic, and rational thinking closely to social and economic justice, and I tend to agree with that. In fact I got involved in the secular movement because I felt that the marginalization of atheists, agnostics, and other nonbelievers was causing American public policy to veer sharply to the right, and that the emergence of the secular demographic would result in more human-centered (and humane) public policy. That said, however, I don’t think we can deny that the real core of secularity is religious skepticism – after all, atheism is defined as the rejection of gods, right? If so, what do you say to secular activists who, for whatever reason, feel that they want to expand the secular movement by emphasizing not social justice but things like atheist identity, the rejection of deities, and the challenging of traditional religious doctrine? Is there no place for this kind of secular activism in minority communities?
SH: I don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive. Certainly if you look back at the activism of radical left public intellectuals like Hubert Henry Harrison and A. Philip Randolph there was a sharp emphasis on religious skepticism. But religious skepticism alone will simply not increase the number of people of color who actively and openly identify as secular humanists if there is no corresponding agenda for social enfranchisement. In Godless Americana and Moral Combat I draw heavily from the example of Randolph, who was raised in the African Methodist tradition, published a forerunning journal that was extremely critical of Christian orthodoxy and identified as a secular humanist for most of his life. However Randolph, astute organizer that he was, knew that the discourse of skepticism without a social justice compass was a dead end for African Americans because of the liberatory cultural, political and historical appeal of the Christian social gospel. This is why he forged ties with progressive faith-based organizations and churches throughout his career, founding the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters during the twenties in a period in which there was deep suspicion of unionization (due both to the racist white supremacist orientation of trade unionism, which were racially segregated, as well as its public association with communism, which rankled more conservative elements within the Black Church) amongst African Americans.
DN: If we draw an analogy to the black churches of the civil rights era, I think we should be mindful that those churches were established social institutions long before the civil rights movement took off. The church buildings, the theology, and the organized religious institutions were already part of African-American culture, so those churches became natural centers of activity when the drive for civil rights got traction. Because of this, I don’t think we can point to them as an example of how fighting for justice will necessarily result in a population accepting any particular theological or philosophical view. How, if at all, should this fact influence the strategizing of secular groups hoping to expand their social base?
SH: This is problematic for two reasons. First, you are speaking very narrowly of the modern civil rights movement. African American churches, religious societies and faith organizations have been at the forefront of the black liberation movement since the seventeenth century. These entities were critical to providing free and enslaved blacks with a forum and a language for political agency, civic engagement, cultural solidarity and resistance. These movements were informed by the themes of spiritual redemption, economic uplift and intellectual challenge to dehumanization which African Americans partly drew from their interpretations of the bible. So it’s important to understand that the modern civil rights movement didn’t just materialize overnight in the twentieth century with mass resistance to racial apartheid and Jim Crow. It was preceded by black antebellum civil and human rights activist traditions which represented the intersection of religious and humanist discourse and struggle. The atheist fallacy that people of color were merely passive consumers of white Christian dogma is a paternalistic view which ultimately disrespects the dynamism of black liberation struggle under the holocaust of slavery. It also discounts the profound impact these traditions had on shaping notions of American democracy, citizenship and individual liberty—notions which underscored the U.S.’ criminal hypocrisy and failure to adhere to its vaunted ideals of universal inalienable rights. This hypocrisy is exemplified by the U.S.’ unrelenting demonization of non-Western non-Christian nations as moral cesspits. African slaves stepping into the courtroom to protest their enslavement invoking both the framers’ secular ideal of individual liberty and Christian morality: black soldiers fighting in the American Revolutionary War of liberation from “bondage” despite British promises of black emancipation: Frederick Douglass’ attacking the evils of Christian slavocracy in his epic “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?” speech: Harriet Jacobs protesting the institutionalization of rape as a cornerstone of the plantation economy—all of these acts of resistance shaped American national identity. To paraphrase Toni Morrison, American freedom couldn’t have existed without black slavery.
Second, twentieth century black secular humanist activism (again hearkening back to the examples of Harrison and Randolph) was unsuccessful as a mass movement precisely because of the relationship between capitalism and racial apartheid. These regimes strengthen the outsized influence of religious institutions in poor and working class communities of color by undermining social welfare and deifying free enterprise, individualism, narcissism and private “charity”. The proliferation of churches in poor black and Latino neighborhoods is symptomatic of this. For example, in Los Angeles there are no storefront churches on the predominantly white “Westside” (a subjective designation which—post-1960—roughly referred to any neighborhood west of the San Diego freeway where black people couldn’t buy or rent). There are, however, tons of parks, recreational centers, retail/shopping centers, grocery stores, nonprofits, museums, government buildings, restaurants, movie theaters, industrial parks, corporate offices and the list goes on. Because people of color are disproportionately poor, segregated, demonized as racial others, over-incarcerated and denied equitable access to education we don’t have the luxury and the privilege to be secular or pursue a secularist agenda that isn’t steeped in economic and social justice. Given the realities of white supremacist capitalist heterosexist patriarchy (to use bell hooks’ term) those who claim that there are “other” avenues for promoting secularism to greater numbers of people of color are coming from a place of privilege.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the founder of Black Skeptics Los Angeles and author of the newly released Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.
David Niose on Twitter: @ahadave