The Atheist-Skeptic Movement and Minorities

[Originally published in Freethought Kampala]

The atheist-skeptic community currently seems extremely preoccupied with having more racial minorities participate in their events and activities.

I’m not sure if their interest in having more minorities is primarily because they feel people from minority groups might have something useful or interesting to say. To me, it seems more because some people think not having enough racial minorities somehow makes atheists look like racists. I think this is that whole “white-heterosexual-male-privilege” conspiracy theory in full effect – fuelled by a large dose of white guilt.

In the essay “The age of white guilt: and the disappearance of the black individual” – Shelby Steele – award-winning African-American author, columnist, documentary film maker, and research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University (specialising in the study of race relations, multiculturalism and affirmative action), writes:

“What is white guilt? It is not a personal sense of remorse over past wrongs. White guilt is literally a vacuum of moral authority in matters of race, equality, and opportunity that comes from the association of mere white skin with America’s historical racism. It is the stigmatization of whites and, more importantly, American institutions with the sin of racism. Under this stigma white individuals and American institutions must perpetually prove a negative–that they are not racist–to gain enough authority to function in matters of race, equality, and opportunity. If they fail to prove the negative, they will be seen as racists. Political correctness, diversity policies, and multiculturalism are forms of deference that give whites and institutions a way to prove the negative and win reprieve from the racist stigma.

Institutions especially must be proactive in all this. They must engineer a demonstrable racial innocence to garner enough authority for simple legitimacy in the American democracy. No university today, private or public, could admit students by academic merit alone if that meant no black or brown faces on campus. Such a university would be seen as racist and shunned accordingly. White guilt has made social engineering for black and brown representation a condition of legitimacy…”

So in order to prove to themselves that they are not racists, the largely white-populated atheist-skeptic community seem to want to go out of their way to find minorities to join the fold. But just how do they plan to do this? No one goes into any details. What you do hear a lot of, though, is how the atheist-skeptic community needs to be more ‘welcoming’ of people of other races.

More welcoming? But how?

Do they plan to give out doughnuts to every black person who attends an atheist or skeptic conference, in order to encourage more to show up? Will every black person in attendance be assigned an attractive usher to show him around? Will there be a hip-hop music session between talks to make sure we don’t get bored during all the science presentations? Will they offer us special treatment, like seats on the front row? Will they tip toe around us at conferences and mince their words to ensure they don’t say anything that might have the slightest chance of ‘offending’ us? Will they not criticize us openly and ruthlessly (in the true spirit of skepticism) if we say something erroneous? Just what do they have in mind?

No one goes into any details.

As a black skeptic from Africa, its hard not to feel insulted if this was indeed their primary motivation. Its almost as if they want racial minorities just so they can feel better about themselves by assuaging their self-inflicted guilt.

Personally speaking, if I heard of an atheist-skeptic conference about to take place, and ALL the speakers were white, and ALL the attendees were also white, if I had the means to, I’d still want to attend because I want to hear interesting IDEAS.

Yes, interesting ideas. Not cookies, not ushers, not hip-hop, not special treatment – but interesting ideas. And why might that be? Perhaps its because I have a brain? Probably.

An African-American commenter at Abbie Smith’s blog, ERV, shares my view and drives the point home beautifully. He made this comment on a thread that was discussing Elevatorgate:

[…] even before this flareup got going I noticed bloggers consistently talking about bringing in more minorities and women. Trying to give advise on what the skeptic/atheist community ought to do to fix this problem.

So, as a racial minority, let me tell it to you straight.

The reason you don’t see as many minorities and women at these meetings and lectures isn’t because white, heterosexual men, high on their privilege, are rampant with subconscious racists and sexist mindsets. Heck, atheists in this country tend to be the most liberal people and socially progressive people on the planet. The main reason why we’re not there is because racial minorities and women in the western world statistically tend to be more religious then white men.

So all of you freedom fighter can relax all ready and stop getting bothered on behalf of me. Now, we can have fun trying to figure out why we’re more religious, but I promise you it’s not because the skeptic community is seen as too prejudiced to get involved in.

To be honest I’m kind of insulted that these bloggers think that if they are nicer to me that I’ll have more reason to be a skeptic/atheist. I’m atheist because there is no evidence for god/s; it is entirely an intellectual position on my part, not because I’m looking for a place to be treated like a delicate piece of porcelain. Every other atheist on the planet can be an egocentric jerk for all I care, I still would be an atheist because their still wouldn’t be any evidence for god/s.

In fact I think this whole political litmus test some are trying to make for atheist/skeptics is just plain stupid, and at least for me, a real reason why I might consider not showing up these sort of conferences.

I came to skepticism because I saw demonstrable value in it. If white atheist-skeptics want to feel guilt over anything, let it not be the fact that they are white – but the fact that those they are allowing to speak on their behalf assume that being ‘welcoming’ to us will somehow get us interested in skepticism. I couldn’t think of a more patronizing attitude than that!

Are you a white atheist-skeptic? Please don’t feel sorry for me, just because I am a black African. Do not. You owe me nothing.

Judge me not by the colour of my skin, or my race, but on the ideas I have to offer. And if those ideas are not particularly interesting or worth considering, do not feel obliged to pay attention to them. You owe me nothing. The onus is on me to generate ideas that are sufficiently compelling in order to garner the interest of others.

If going out of your way to be nice to people like me is how you plan on getting people interested in skepticism – you’ll be infiltrated by half-wits who are simply looking for a good time. They’ll water down everything and bring the movement down. You do not want that.

So let’s keep politics and political correctness out of skepticism. Let the facts speak for themselves, because to have a viable ‘movement’ what you want is people who are drawn in by the demonstrable value of applying skepticism in their lives – not people who got interested because you were ‘nice’.

Consider this: what if tomorrow this person meets a ‘nicer’ Christian missionary, Scientologist, or homeopath? If nice-ness is the point of entry then this person will susceptible to the very things skeptics are trying to discourage him/her from. Exploiting people’s emotions to get them interested in something is what religion and other forms of quackery does. As skeptics, what we want to do is stimulate people’s thinking and let them see for themselves how much good comes out of applying skepticism, right? So let’s do that.

If we are unable to effectively communicate the demonstrable value of skepticism to others in the first place, then I have to wonder what the point of having a skeptical movement is.


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