19 November 2010

Is atheism/humanism a white man’s club?

The Four Horsemen of Atheism - Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris

Guardian writer Alom Shaha is an atheist. He is also of Asian extraction. In a ‘Comment is Free’ article, he expresses his worry over the predominantly white male demographic of atheist, humanist and skeptic groups in the UK and across the Atlantic. “Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, PZ Myers, James Randi […] – they are all white men. The atheist and sceptic movements are dominated by white men and I think this is a problem.” Shaha is correct in pointing out the preponderance of white male atheists/humanists/skeptics, especially in leadership roles. He may even be correct that this presents a problem, if only through projecting an image of humanism (for the purpose of this essay I will treat ‘humanism’ as synonymous with ‘atheism’) that doesn’t accurately reflect the diversity of its subscribers.

But Shaha then goes on to suggest that this regrettable state of affairs should be proactively remedied by the white male atheist majority. Shaha wants them to “stop turning a blind eye to this important issue” and actively encourage blacks and Asians to join atheist and skeptic movements. I believe he has misstepped here. While Shaha’s intentions are noble, his criticism is directed at the wrong target. Furthermore, he misrepresents the character of humanist groups and makes unjustified assumptions as to their role in the wider culture.

Before I continue, first a digression. Some respondents to Shaha’s article made comments along the lines of ‘atheism/humanism isn’t really a movement, and thus isn’t in the business of proselytizing or recruiting new members’, or that ‘atheist/humanists don’t constitute a community as such’. I disagree with these sentiments. In fact, I find them a tad dishonest. Humanism is a movement, in the same sense that abolitionism in the 19th century was a movement. Both share the fundamental goal of human emancipation from bondage, physical in the case of abolitionism and mental for humanism, with their respective success dependent on focused intention and continuous, dedicated action. Humanists are also members of a community, in that all those who identify themselves as humanists (and I would argue even those who don’t explicitly do so but nonetheless hold basic humanist convictions) share a similar worldview, and either actively work towards or passively desire the same outcome: a world with less superstition, ignorance and suffering arising from such.

So yes, humanism is indeed a contemporary movement, and all humanists are members of an admittedly nebulous community, notwithstanding the fierce individualism of many of its members. A herd of cats, if you will. Now that I’ve scratched that itch, on to addressing Alom Shaha’s contention that the humanist movement projects an unwelcoming ‘white man’s club’ image.

Shaha’s call for an affirmative action-style recruitment of ethnic minorities smacks of tokenism. It seems that to him, a movement, no matter how universal the values it champions, lacks moral legitimacy unless its ethnic mix mirrors that of the UN. Nevermind that the very essence of humanism is the belief in the dignity and inherent worth of all human beings. Nevermind that humanism entails the commitment to uphold and defend human rights everywhere in the world, for all people. According to Shaha, such lofty ideals are compromised by an insufficient quota of blacks and Asians in any humanist organization, even if it professes an inclusive, non-discriminatory ethos. He charges such organizations with the crime of unintentional omission, or as he calls it, “accidental exclusion”.

Shaha is casting, if not blame, then responsibility on the wrong party. It would be far more appropriate for him to upbraid religious ethnic communities on why their superstitious, xenophobic, insular, paranoid and ostracizing tendencies make it almost impossible for non-believing members to declare their atheist or humanist convictions. After all, it’s rather difficult to be loud and proud about your unbelief when your culture basically guarantees that you will become a social pariah, assuming that you aren’t assaulted or killed in a brutally deterrent manner as a warning to other would-be apostates.

But of course, to scold doctrinaire cultures for their oppressive proclivities would be to commit the cardinal sin of cultural judgment, an act that fence-sitting relativists find only marginally less heinous than blatant racism. One possibility, which Shaha does mention but in my opinion understates, is that freethinkers from ethnic minorities are intimidated not so much by the white male cliquishness of humanists, but by the hostility they face from their own not-white-male clique of religious dogmatists should they be caught associating with fellow (if pale-skinned) freethinkers. No amount of generous welcome and warm conviviality from humanists can insure such guests against the existential risks they take simply by socializing with unbelievers. While Shaha acknowledges that “there are issues that black and Asian atheists face that white atheists do not, for example, greater pressure to adhere to the religion of the communities in which they live”, I think he underestimates the power of cultural factors to discourage such people from participating in humanist activities.

Shaha is dismissive of responses pointing out that no one on the humanist side is preventing anyone, whatever their ethnicity, from joining the cause, believing that such remarks are “tragically missing the point.” Are they really? Would it be more to the point to observe that it is those on the religionist side who cajole, coerce and threaten in order to stop defections to reason? Let me reiterate: no amount of outreach from well-meaning humanists can remove the dangers and difficulties faced by those trapped in oppressively religious cultures. Shaha cannot be unaware of this. Yet he misdirects his call to action at those who can only do so much without resorting to aggressive soul (mind?) saving proselytism, while timidly withholding his censure from those actually responsible for the dearth of ethnic minorities in the humanist movement.

Sure, we humanists can all do our bit by reaching out to our brothers and sisters “specifically, not generally”, as Shaha implores us to. We certainly need as many free minds as we can get. But in the process let’s not indulge in a naivety that avoids confronting the real causes underlying this issue.


1 comment:

  1. Agreed, on all counts. Its a movement, get over it. Also there is a cultural barrier that needs crossing, but the "white man" cant force someone to cross it. I'm all for diversity, but I left my atheist group because it was not diverse at all. It's not that they were turning black and asian people away, but that none seemed to be coming.