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Journal of No. 118


April 6th, 2012

Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars by Sikivu Hutchinson @ 06:26 pm


I wanted to love this book. I wanted to hate this book.

Sikivu Hitchinson is female, black, and, I seem to recall, a communist. So based on thumbnail identifications, it wouldn't seem we had much in common. Then again, she's an atheist from Los Angeles. (Indeed, recently when fracking in the Baldwin Hills was in the news, I learned that her father lives a stone's throw away (though he's in the black Beverly Hills (we'll skip over why the black Beverly Hills is in the middle of an oil field) while we would be stretching the truth to claim being in black Beverly Hills adjacent.)).

Anyway, I keep an eye on her blogs, and find my reaction a mix of agreement and disagreement. And the same is true in the case of her book, though for the most part I can't say anything rose to the level of either love or hate.

On the good side, the book provides a very comprehensive look at the 'lived experience' of black America as it related to religion. The church is very central to black experience, both for direct services it may provide (food, tutoring, childcare, etc.) and for the general center of community it provides. And she spells out how a more successful atheist/humanist campaign would strive to duplicate or replace that social network, but with a humanist face. If you like, there are benefits that accrue to religious 'privilege' that the non-religious currently don't have the network to replace.

As a *practical* way of spreading atheism to the black community, this is probably a very valid tactic, and something organizations should address. At the same time, it smacks of bribery. Oh, you have cookies over there? Well, we have cookies that are even better over here! The missing ingredient is the actual truth of the matter. The book is curiously incurious about the actual state of affairs in the universe. (This, of course, is just my reaction as one of the old, white, scientist, atheists.)

Maybe atheism is simply assumed by the book, but if I were to characterize the implicit argument for it in the book, it would go something like this:


1) I am a feminist
2) Christianity is anti-feminist
3) Therefore, gods don't exist.

This is not so iron-clad. People can (and do) rehabilitate Christianity to include feminism, homosexuality, and/or divorce (when Jesus motherfucking Christ said that divorce and remarriage is tantamount to adultery). Not to mention the fact that Christianity is not the only god game in town. Indeed, she quotes another writer: "I personally don’t know how a woman who considers herself to be feminist/womanist could claim any religion other than Wicca or other goddess worship"

And finally, there is obviously the other pseudosyllogism:

1) I am a feminist
2) Christianity is anti-feminist
3) Therefore, I better rethink my feminism.

Which is all too common, and hard to circumvent. But I think Hutchinson and I are in agreement that pushing on these kinds of bits of cognitive dissonance is one way to split people away from their religion, or at the very least, make them more conscious of it, and to develop a more sophisticated view.

On the other hand, when an (admittedly rather ham-fisted) attempt was made to show the Biblical support for slavery, the NAACP didn't get upset at the Bible or Christianity, but at the atheists who put up the billboard, and "have asked the Human Rights Commission [to] brand the posting of the sign as a hate crime."

My other main complaint is the emphasis on 'intersectionality':
"Modern capitalist inequities that permit criminally stratospheric wealth and obscene poverty buttress America’s faith industry. So in the absence of an explicitly anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist and anti-imperialist critical consciousness there will continue to be a major divide between white atheist discourse and the lived experiences of humanists of color."

Again, I do think the insight she provides is helpful in addressing various minority populations, and, generally speaking, the atheist movement is anti-racist, anti-sexist and gay-friendly. But I don't see that to be successful, the atheist movement also has to be all things to all people. We don't look at the NRA or the JDL and declare them failures, because they aren't explicitly anti-heterosexist. As for anti-imperialism, I don't think the old white scientist atheist lobby is pro-imperialism, but when Hutchinson says "Although the Neo-Humanist statement alludes to these extremes, there is no acknowledgment of the need for wealth distribution and anti-imperialism," it's clearer that something closer to socialism or communism is what she wants. Or maybe just progressivism, I don't know. But I see this dividing people on political lines, instead of uniting them on anti-excesses-of-religion lines.

Finally, there are a few places where her adherence to some sort of ideological correctness leads her to say things that make no fucking sense.

"And if the culture of compulsory heterosexuality demands that men hew to rigid gender norms, it stands to reason that some closeted gay clergy will abuse their power by sexually assaulting young male parishioners."

Wait, compulsory heterosexuality with men hewing to rigid heterosexual gender norms produces predatory homosexual behavior?

"If all men are created equal, then some will by definition be more equal than others, and others will not even be deemed human."

What? I don't even know where to start. Did she read Animal Farm too many times? Equal is equal. By definition, equal is still equal.
 
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From:ian_tiberius
Date:April 7th, 2012 02:10 pm (UTC)
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Wait, compulsory heterosexuality with men hewing to rigid heterosexual gender norms produces predatory homosexual behavior?

I believe the argument goes something like:

1) Gay men in a heteronormative society enter the Catholic priesthood in disproportionate numbers, figuring that a) there's no reason not to enter a celibate profession, since they don't get to have sex and relationships anyway, and/or that b) devoting their lives to religion will somehow cure them of their homosexual urges.

2) If you put a shitload of psychologically damaged, sexually repressed people in positions where they have a) trust and b) power over children, children are going to be abused. And if your psychologically damaged, sexually repressed people happen to be mostly gay men (see point #1) then the victims are likely to be male.

Up for debate, certainly. And I take it that she doesn't bother to explicate it. But that's what I imagine she's getting at. Don't ask me to try to make any sense of the "some will by definition be more equal than others" quote, though.

And if the syllogism you provided is an accurate summary, then sheesh. I'm not a theist, but I don't imagine for a moment that my personal opinions about feminism or homosexuality have anything to do with whether God exists and/or condones/condemns those things. It's difficult to imagine that someone who thinks that way could be anything but a solipsist.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:April 7th, 2012 04:01 pm (UTC)
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I believe the argument goes something like:

Yeah, I can follow that along, but it does require a lot of intervening steps.

And if the syllogism you provided is an accurate summary, then sheesh.

Well again, she doesn't explicitly make any argument. She's providing lived experience. The church is important in black people's, particularly black women's, lives. Leaving the church brings ostracism. The church is also a patriarchal, heterosexist organization.
(no subject) - (Anonymous)
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:April 8th, 2012 02:15 pm (UTC)
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No, in theory, atheism entails not believing in any gods. No more; no less. And though that may free one from adhering to sexist/racist/homophobic religious dogma, it doesn't really determine what your stance on these issues should be. Atheists can and do have a variety of opinions about these things. But, generally speaking, the atheist movement I see is anti-racist, anti-sexist and gay-friendly.
My vision may be faulty, because I do not have the 'lived experience' of various minorities as they 'intersect' with atheism. Reading this book may have helped address that. I don't think Hutchinson would say the atheist movement is racist, but rather that it hasn't done enough to understand the needs that religion fulfils in the black community, and that it won't be successful until it too serves to fulfil those needs.
(no subject) - (Anonymous)
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:April 9th, 2012 12:37 pm (UTC)
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organized atheism has a very serious problem with sexism.

Would you care to describe this? I know the atheist reddit is a hive of scum and villainy (and not in a good way) but that's hardly organized atheism.

Journal of No. 118