Here we go again.An article in the Guardian bemoans another kind of diversity deficiency in the atheist movement, this time the author picks race as his topic.That’s interesting.I think I know what he means, but really, race, that old flawed construct, and “asian” and “black” ? Is Obama “black” ? Those terms are meaningless and really shouldn’t be used, because they just add more blurriness and confusion.
We have this discussion every new moon, somehow, most of the time it’s the lack of prominent, leading women among atheist organisations that’s being brought up, and every now and then it’s another variant of “not enough of minority/oppressed group/religious group X.
So Alom Shaha in that Guardian piece presents 2 basic premises:
1.Person belonging to ethnic/religious/social group X would rather like to hear that god does not exist from another member of the same group than from Richard Dawkins, and the lack of people of the same group makes them not want to participate in atheist meetings.
2.The white leadership of the atheist movement ignores the special issues that black and asian atheists face(greater pressure to adhere to religion etc)
I start with number 2 first.Bollocks.There is no “white leadership”, and no central atheist authority or somesuch to start with.As Jen McCreight showed the other day, there are plenty of prominent women in the movement, some of those are actually black ! If you have been to any of the recent atheist meetings, you would have noticed the decent number of muslim, women, and non-white speakers.To say that the whities ignore the problems that non-white atheists face is frankly mindboggling.
Now to his first premise. Those atheist meetings happen in a certain social context, and this can not be ignored if we want to make a fair assessment here.An atheist meeting in Europe or the US will have lots of european or american attendees, because that’s where it’s taking place ! There is a reason people like Tasrima Nasrin can either not show up at those meetings, or only with bodyguards, and there is also reasons that we haven’t seen TAM Tehran, or Gods&Politics Riyadh, yet.As long as most if not all of the public atheist gatherings have to be conducted in Western countries, there will be more white people, but to bemoan that makes no sense at all in my opinion.
Nothing is precluding people from any given group, in any given country, to get organised(yes I know it is more difficult and dangerous to hold an atheist meeting in Iran or Uganda than in Germany or Mexico, but the point here is this “feel more comfortable with members of the same group” BS), and invite people from the same group to join in, I don’t see what white people have to do with atheist group attendances in Kampala or Nairobi.
So then, when we have one of those debates again, usually 2 things happen.One is that a group of neanderthals (oh yes, they can be found everywhere !) makes patronising and stupid comments down the lines of “It’s soooo silly to ask for second-best speakers/activists just to satisfy a minority quota”(check the comments to the Gaurdian piece).This is confusing “most published” with “most intelligent” or “most valuable”, and just plain stupid.
The other thing that happens regularly is that we get somewhat mindless responses with the general tenor of “Yes we atheists have been bad again, we are oppressing group/minority X for sure, it’s all so sad and we should go and beat ourselves up stat”.I exaggerate.But it feels like that sometimes.
The thing is, we are ignoring 2 important issues here, and there’s no point in being shy about it.
One, atheist and in particular sceptic meetings like TAM want to sell tickets.And in the places they are currently held, which is the US, Europe(and now Australia), white people are in the majority.So, although especially the atheist organisations are trying hard, there will at the moment be more white speakers, because they sell tickets.You can bemoan that all you like, and I certainly think it’s got to be changed, but that’s the reality.Until those organisations encourage or sponsor or organise meetings or conferences in non-western countries, with local speakers, this isn’t going to change in a hurry.
Two, we can’t hold atheist meetings in most Muslim and many African countries, it’s too dangerous.Hell, we can hardly have Muslim speakers appear at meetings in the west without armed guards !
So, I think there is no point in whinging about those old white men speaking at the high-profile atheist and sceptic meetings in the west at the moment.What is needed is to encourage and support local organisations, with local speakers, local people, and build this one from the bottom up.And that’s something the more prominent atheists and sceptics can help with, including the old white men.
The same by the way applies to “asians” and “blacks” in the west, say the USA, if there are indeed cultural gaps so wide that some people feel more comfortable discussing atheism with members of the same group, then we should be encouraging this, and try as best we can to support their efforts, like mentioning them in blogs and media.I do believe though that there should be no divide across “races” or other group memberships when it comes to lack in belief and rejection of religion, if there’s one thing in the world that should be able to bring people of all corners together, then it’s the rejection of superstition.