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Reza Aslan and the Misrepresentation of Atheism at the American Academy of Religion

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Crossposted on Tikkun Daily.

by Be Scofield

The American Academy of Religion held its annual conference in San Francisco this past weekend. A large gathering that attracts many of the big shots -- both progressive and conservative -- in religious studies, the AAR meeting provides a space for critical dialogue about religion and the world. Not surprisingly there was a lack of discussion about atheism. But I was pleased to find one panel discussion on Monday morning called, "Beyond Atheistic and Religious Fundamentalism: Imagining the Common Good in the Public Sphere." However, my excitement quickly turned to disappointment when I realized they forgot to do one important thing: include an atheist.

After the panel, I asked the organizer John Thatamanil of Union Seminary why there was no atheist included in a panel about atheism. He responded that in the quest for diversity he was bound to leave someone out. "Yes," I said, "but this is a panel about atheism and you left out an atheist." He responded that there was a Buddhist on the panel and they are atheists. However, it was a scholar of Buddhism on the panel and just because someone is a scholar of a particular religion it doesn't mean they are practitioners. I have no idea what this person's beliefs are. But that is beside the point because the Buddhist scholar didn't represent atheist positions, nor did he defend atheism from the attacks by the other panelists but rather commented on how he felt Buddhism and the Buddha would see this debate.

I then asked the panel's presiding member Reza Aslan, author of No god but God, why there was no atheist included. To his credit he responded he had thought there would have been an atheist on the panel and was disappointed that there wasn't. Fair enough. However, he didn't seem concerned during the panel or discussion. One panelist spoke about Judaism, another Buddhism and the third about religion in a global context. Aslan then responded to their comments and added his own. By then he was well aware atheism wasn't being represented. And the lack of an atheist voice didn't give him any pause when critiquing atheism or the new atheists. Aslan could have expressed his concern in public saying that the discussion was limited by the lack of someone representing atheism. He also could have asked the organizer before hand who was scheduled to ensure an atheist was included.

I also challenged Aslan for easily dismissing the claim that atheists are persecuted in this country. I told him that atheists face discrimination on a daily basis. I shared the story about Damon Fowler, a graduating senior at a High School in Louisiana who protested that the school was officially sanctioning a Christian prayer during the commencement ceremony. As a result, Fowler was kicked out of his parents home, publicly demeaned by a high school teacher, physically threatened and ostracized by his community. Aslan responded that this was merely anecdotal and that fundamentalist Christians often say they are under attack by secularists. Yes, but I explained that America is both Christian and religiously hegemonic i.e. language, morals, customs, laws and beliefs are heavily shaped by these influences. Furthermore, this hegemony is often institutionalized. For example, you can't become president of the U.S. without being Christian. School boards work to exclude the science and history in textbooks which threatens their conservative understanding of Christianity. And of course being religious is better than being atheist in the U.S., regardless of your tradition. Polls show that Americans would vote for a Muslim before they would an atheist.

Aslan wasn't the only one skeptical of atheists' claims of persecution. Julia Belser, visiting assistant Professor of Women's studies and Jewish Ethics at Harvard responded to Aslan's comment about atheists falsely being under attack by saying that it is hard to imagine a group that isn't under siege today. Miroslav Volf, of Yale University went further suggesting that most people who think they are under siege actually aren't. It's just a "siege mentality," he said. Would these panelists say the same about racism or sexism? Can we dismiss them because everyone experiences some form of attack or suffers from "siege mentality?" No, of course not. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that atheist discrimination is the same as racism or sexism. But it is real and institutions reproduce it. This just reveals that like most religious scholars, leaders or practitioners these panelists still have a huge amount to learn about Christian and religious hegemony and the lived experience of atheists in this country. If you still have doubts that atheists face discrimination just read this piece by author Greta Christina called the " 10 Scariest States to Be An Atheist." Here's another.

I'm not writing this to castigate Aslan or the other panelists. Both Aslan and John Thatamanil were very friendly and open to my concerns. Nor am I saying this because I am an atheist or because I agree entirely with the new atheists. As I told Aslan, I've written extensive critiques of Christopher Hitchens, the new atheists and other atheist writers. I'm actually studying in a progressive Unitarian Universalist seminary which includes people of all different faiths as well as atheists and agnostics. But I do understand that atheists experience discrimination and have publicly defended them. As someone dedicated to countering oppression I believe that I have a responsibility to learn what it's like for atheists to live in a culture of religious and Christian hegemony. Furthermore, it's important to see how atheism is mitigated by racism, gender, class and geographical location. Despite me being in such a radically inclusive tradition I am still part of the dominant culture and thus, I believe, have a special obligation to challenge religious hegemony.

My hope is to inspire religious scholars, leaders and practitioners to listen to the every day concerns that atheists speak about. Unfortunately these experiences are largely lost in the high profile debates that focus mainly around God. And, honestly, I really don't think most religiously affiliated people care about atheists. But that's exactly why the panels like the one at the AAR should include positive voices for atheists. They can help shift the discourse from being so anti-atheist as there are still many stereotypes and prejudicial beliefs about atheists that dominate the day. Someone like Sikivu Hutchinson is an excellent example of who could be included. She is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars. An academic, writer and public speaker her work is a reasoned approach to atheism and religion that avoids the extremes but which also includes issues of race, class and gender.

What's it like to be you? This is a question that the religiously affiliated should be asking of atheists of all backgrounds who live in a culture that prioritizes Christian morals, language and customs. This, it would seem to me, is the best religious response to atheism that I can imagine.

Be Scofield is the founder of www.godblessthewholeworld.org and a Dr. King scholar. He writes for Tikkun Magazine, Alternet.org and the Religious Left. Be is studying to be an interfaith minister at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, where he is teaching a graduate course called "Dr. King and Empire."To read more pieces like this, sign up for Tikkun Daily’s free newsletter, sign up for Tikkun Magazine emails or visit us online. You can also like Tikkun on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

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