Atheism: Living Life Unfettered by Supernaturalism and Groupthink -- Interview With Sikivu Hutchinson
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What is it like to be a black atheist?
Obviously, I wouldn't know. But via Friendly Atheist, I recently read a piece by Sikivu Hutchinson for the L.A. Watts Times, titled 'Out of the Closet' -- Black Atheists. (A must-read, by the way.) Her piece focused on one side of this question -- being an atheist in the African American community. But I was curious about the other side: What is it like to be African American in the atheist community?
I don't think this is something atheists talk about enough. We're too willing to let our most prominent leaders and speakers mostly be white; we're critical of the negative effect religion has on communities of color, but we don't look very hard at why the atheist movement is so predominantly white, or what we could be doing to make our movement a safer place to land for people of color who are leaving religion.
So when I read Sikivu's piece, I thought she's be a good person to ask about this stuff. She was kind enough to give me an interview, and we spoke -- well, okay, emailed -- about privilege, the intersection of race and religion, the history of Christianity in African- American culture, what atheism has to contribute to society, and more. Here is that interview.
Greta Christina: In your piece for the L.A. Watts Times, you talked about being an atheist in the black community. Can you tell me a little about the flip side of that? What is it like to be a African- American in the atheist community? Have you encountered much racism? Have you found it to be pretty inclusive? Is it somewhere in between?
Sikivu Hutchinson: As it is with many prominent issues of ideological/ social relevance the assumption that white male thinkers and writers are the definitive spokespeople on atheism is highly problematic. I would like to see more atheists of color rise to prominence as theorists and scholars of record on atheist discourse, rather than the continued privileging of the usual "authorial" white suspects (i.e., Dawkins, Hitchens, Sam Harris).
GC: On that topic: There's often an assumption in political movements (I've seen it in the LGBT movement) that being inclusive of people of color simply means not being overtly and grossly racist. (As a queer woman, I've seen something similar, where people or organizations make subtle or not- so- subtle assumptions of heterosexuality, but they think they're not being homophobic because they're not hurling epithets or turning us away at the door.) Can you talk a little about that? What is the difference between being actively inclusive and welcoming of people of color... and simply not being overtly racist? And how does that play out in the atheist community?
SH: Oftentimes white folk engage with the issue of people of color and religious observance in a very paternalistic way -- musing about the "backwardness" of people of color, particularly African Americans, who subscribe to Christian and Muslim dogma despite their histories of colonialism, terrorism and slavery. Although religious observance among African Americans is paradoxical for these very reasons, the white critique of said world view is narrow and lacking in consciousness of the cultural context that informs black adoption of Judeo- Christian mores and values. Hence, the European- American atheist community can't be truly inclusive unless there is some recognition of how privilege and positionality undergird the very articulation of atheism as an ideological space that empowers white folk to deconstruct the cultural tethers of organized religion, without having their authorial right to do so be questioned.