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Monday, July 9, 2012

Privilege for Atheists: An Introductory Guide

The following is a post based upon the talk that I gave recently at the Center For Inquiry's Leadership Conference; video/audio is not up yet, but I will be giving another talk with most of this one's content at the Secular Student Alliance's annual conference in just under two weeks' time. In it, I draw upon many sources, notably the work of Lorraine Code, to make a case for greater secular work for social justice.

TRIGGER WARNING: descriptions of violence

I'm writing about this today because I think the atheist/skeptic/humanist/insert chosen descriptor here movement is way, way out of touch with the world.

This concept shouldn't be too unfamiliar with any of you who read Ed's blog, or many of the other great voices on FTB; this network has become the awesome place that it is because it is so incredibly diverse, that rather than the echo chamber (or, as Jamie Kilstein put it at the conference, third level of hell) that the Pharyngula comments have become, FTB bloggers may agree on certain issues a lot, but the perspectives are incredibly diverse. It's not just scientists, but it's anti-racist experts like Crommunist, trans* activists like Natalie Reed, sex-positive writers like Greta, and utter badasses like Sikivu Hutchinson who are creating the discourse.

This is not to suggest that science, separation of church and state, or other issues that have traditionally been what the movement has focused on are unimportant. However, in the following post, I want to posit that, ultimately, their privileged status needs to be seriously reexamined in the face of what is actually happening in the real world outside of the communities who care about science over everything else.

Now, it is impossible for me in the space of a 20 minute presentation or a blog post to present the entirety of institutionalized oppression and violence in any way that would properly describe it. So, I'm going to focus on two issues that I think are most prescient to the discussion relating to atheism: reductionism and privilege.

The first I originally did not intend on including in the presentation, at least not under that guise. However, after Dan Fincke outlined it during his Blogathon for SSA Week, I realized that it fit quite well into my framework. He said:

Atheists sometimes have an annoying tendency in my experience to be reductionists, especially about matters that are part of the social or moral or psychological world. They often want to say things like we’re all really just a bunch of atoms. There is a tendency to talk like the only level of explanation that is at all meaningful is on the physics level. Now, of course everything in our experience is ultimately physical and made up of atoms, which are further composed of subatomic particles. But that does not mean that atoms are the only level on whichtrue things can be said. Those atoms combine in remarkably complex patterns that give rise to the objects of study in chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology. Those emergent patterns are real. It’s not like in biology we say, “There’s no such thing as evolution because this organism and its descendants are really still just patterns of atoms”. The differences in the patterns of atoms that make up one organism and its offspring are significant. They are worth saying there is something new evolved in nature when an organism is distinct enough in the patterns of its properties from its ancestors. These are real subjects of study. Real differentiations in nature. It would be stupidity to judge those patterns as somehow artificial simply because there is a way to conceptualize the organisms in purely atomic terms that pay no attention to the features that are interesting on the biological level.

In my thinking, this sort of reductionism is the kind of belief that leads directly to erasure and marginalization, as Dan briefly mentioned. The reductionist mindset allows one to remove the personal from life; when there are only atoms, why should we worry about anything that make them up? Whether or not this attitude is consciously constructed or not, it is the one that prevails currently in many atheistic circles, and what it has resulted in is yet another reinforcement of the old white male-driven hierarchies.

We haven't been looking to break down the old ways of knowing; instead, we have coopted them and slapped a secular label on them. We have been trying to create a permanent, ahistorical, neutral set of standards by which all knowledge and worth is to be judged; that of science, atomism, whatever we choose to call it. It's the same type of framework that has been used by popes, priests, and dictators for centuries; the enemies of freethought, of rationality, the things we have been supposedly fighting for. By inhabiting this reductionist philosophy, we have never looked outside the box; the framework does not allow, epistemologically, for questions of identity to enter our conception as being a worthy aspect of investigation, for it is such a subjective thing; our conceptions of our and others' being is always in flux, always depending on sense data gained from experience. It resists quantification.

The result of this rejection of identity has been ignorance of the concerns and circumstances of those who do not fit the norm set out by the knowledgeable class who propagate the ways of knowing I have briefly set out; the Dawkinses, Harrises, Krausses, etc., have never to my knowledge ever stopped for a moment to consider the issues and oppressions that their objective mindset, in a way, helps to reinforce; in the former's case, when he did, he ended up only 
revealing his ignorance on such matters.

Frankly, they have no compelling reason to do so. As I will come to below, issues outside of the malestream (to borrow from Lorraine Code) are frightening to those of us within our safe environs. We get worried over whether or not evolution is being taught properly in school; a trans* woman of color has to worry about being killed for being who she is every single day of her life. The majority of you reading this are, I am willing to bet based upon statistics on atheist demographics, like me in appearance; white, male, reasonably well off, probably college educated, have a dependable safe place to live, etc. You do not have to rationally worry about being shot at, or killed, or robbed, or suffer any other such form of violence. This is called privilege.

Allow me a moment to emphasize: 
privilege is not a dirty word. It has often been treated as such by deniers in our movement, but, simply, privilege refers to all of the unearned advantages that a dominant group holds over others. To borrow Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's concept of kyriarchy, we hold many different forms of privilege at the same time, all of which intersect with and reinforce each other; for instance, we certainly live in a patriarchal culture, where the male gender is held in greater esteem above all other gender identities and thus holds greater power because of it. Rather than go into all of the technical aspects of intersectionality and make a long post even longer, I'll point you to Jason Thibeault's excellent post on the subject, as well as one of the classic works on privilege by Peggy McIntosh.

Ultimately, what these privileges do, by giving us power in society, is allow us to live free of oppression and violence. As a white male, I will not be viewed as suspicious by law enforcement; while living in 
one of the most segregated cities in America, I can choose to live in a neighborhood where violence does not happen at a higher rate than it does in Afghanistan. I don't have to worry about being catcalled or harrassed as I simply walk down the street, something that happens to my female-identified friends every single week.  I do not have to worry about such activities leading to being sexually assaulted, as one in four women report happening to them; since that number only includes official reports, the number is most likely far higher. As a cisgendered male, I do not have to worry about being murdered simply for expressing my identity as such, unlike Paige Clay, a trans* woman of color, who was shot in the head in Chicago on April 16th, or Brandy Martell, who was murdered in Oakland on April 29th. Agnes Torres Sulca was tortured and killed March 12, 2012. Deoni Jones was stabbed to death February 4th in DC. Lashai McLean was killed in DC on June 21, 2011. Cece McDonald has been sentenced to prison for defending herself against a group of transphobic attackers, during which she killed one of them, and will most likely be placed in the male section of the prison where she will serve time, and most likely not receive proper medical care during that time.

Those half dozen instances are the tip of the iceberg in terms of the avalanche of attacks on trans* people throughout the world, particularly against transwomen of color. A 
nationwide survey of bias-motivated violence against LGBT people from 1985 to 1998 by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that incidents targeting transgender people accounted for 20% of all murders and about 40% of all police-initiated violence. According to the same project, in 2010 
44 percent of LGBTQH (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and HIV-affected) murder victims were trans women, and in 2009 trans women were 50 percent of murder victims. Yet trans people as a whole are only about 1 percent of the LGBTQH population. Trans women also more often experienced multiple forms of violence and more severe violence, as well as more police bias and violence.
Against all of these happenings, I really cannot get pissed off or self righteous about whether or not it says God on my money or not. When people are being murdered in America at higher rates than those in decades-long war zones, I have a lot of trouble caring about whether we have free will or if it's all determined. 

However, going back to what was said above about intersectionality, that does not mean that I am saying that those issues do not matter. I would rightly be ridiculed if I were to say that proper, rational education of our children did not matter, or that I did not think that our nation should be a secular one, free of the influence of regressive religious institutions. What I am saying here is that if we want to be a movement that is relevant, that is interested in making our country and world more rational, more reasonable, a place where all are equal, then we cannot say things like "atheism isn't involved in social justice" or "our movement is only concerned with THESE issues; we should leave the others to the feminists/queers/socialists." In order to solve the problems that we have traditionally been associated with, we have to tackle issues of violence against marginalized groups too. In order to be secular, we have to be anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-transphobic, anti-homophobic, anti-every single aspect of oppression that plagues our society.

Admittedly, as I said above, I have not gone into detail on every aspect of intersectional oppression. However, what I hope I have done is provide enough of an outline to open a reader's eyes a bit more. To fully explain these issues in one place is functionally impossible. Instead, please follow the links I have included, and explore more about these issues; education is power. Particularly Jason and McIntosh's pieces are very important, and read the bloggers I listed as well. The 
Incite! Women of Color Against Violence collective has many excellent books out on these subjects, and I would highly recommend you support them. Resources are everywhere; as good skeptics, I think we can all find them and investigate them.

Right now, this movement at large does not include everyone. It does not give everyone equal time. Instead, it lionizes the classic fount of knowledge; the white, male academics. We must include everyone in our struggle, or be swept aside into irrelevance.


  1. "When people are being murdered in America at higher rates than those in decades-long war zones, I have a lot of trouble caring about whether we have free will or if it's all determined."

    Trying to say that issue X doesn't matter because issue Y is a far greater human tragedy is precisely what Dawkins did in his infamous "Dear Muslima" comment.

    1. I haven't done that. In fact, I explicitly state that I don't think science/In God We Trust on the money/typical atheist issue X shouldn't be set aside. But to claim those issues are "atheist" issues, and to move outside of them is a wrong move, is inherently unethical and morally wrong in my book.