Why Social Justice Is Essential for Atheism

Greta Christina

I do a lot of writing about feminism, racism, other isms, and social justice issues within organized atheism as well as outside of it. I’m not alone in this: a lot of other atheist writers, video bloggers, podcasters, and so on are doing it too. We get a lot of resistance from other atheists. Some of that is not worth addressing: it comes in the form of ad hominem insults; flat-out falsehoods; racist, sexist, classist, and other slurs; ongoing harassment; and even threats of violence or rape or death. But some of it comes from people who I think are well-meaning and who simply don’t understand why the social-justice crowd keeps hammering on about this stuff. They see how explosive these issues are, how divisive, and they want atheists to all get along. They want us to stop focusing on the 5 percent of the issues we disagree on and instead focus on the 95 percent we do agree on. They want us to just focus on the atheist stuff—church-state separation, atheist visibility, anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination, etc. They see the social justice stuff as mission drift.

I have a lot to say about this. But the number one thing I want to say today is this: social justice issues are atheist stuff.

Sexism, racism, classism, ageism, transphobia, disability issues, and more . . . these are atheist stuff.

These are atheist stuff because there are female atheists. African-American atheists. Hispanic atheists. Working-class athe­ists. Blue-collar atheists. Young athe­ists. Old atheists. Disabled atheists. Atheists with mental illness. Atheists of Asian descent. Atheists of Middle-Eastern descent. Atheists of Native-American descent. Making the atheist community and the atheist movement welcoming to all of these people—that is not mission drift. That is one of our core missions.

And this is why social-justice activists in the atheist movement keep hammering on it. When the atheist community and movement fail to be welcoming to a large and diverse population of atheists, we have failed at our mission.

When women show up at Meetups and never come back because creepy guys were invasively creeping at them, we have failed at our mission.

When African Americans show up at conferences and don’t come back because almost all the speakers were white, we have failed at our mission.

When Hispanic people come to our Meetups and don’t come back because they were asked, “Are you in this country legally?,” we have failed at our mission.

When people of Asian descent come to our Meetups and don’t come back because they were told, “You speak the language so well!,” we have failed at our mission.

When people without a college education come to our meetings or online forums and don’t come back because they heard patronizing talk about how college-educated people are more likely to be atheists and this means atheism is smarter and better, we have failed at our mission.

When young people get invited to give input to local groups and don’t come back because every idea they offered got shot down by old-timers who don’t want to change anything, we have failed at our mission.

When transgender people come to our Meetups and don’t come back because they got asked invasive and personal questions about the state of their genitalia, we have failed at our mission.

When the very idea of having sexual-harassment policies at atheist conferences turns into a huge firestorm of bitter controversy that eats up the Internet for months, and when women outside organized atheism hear about this and say, “Screw that; I’m an atheist but I sure as hell don’t want to be part of that movement,” we have failed at our mission.

When poor and working-class people don’t show up for our meetings and conferences because they’re too expensive or aren’t near public transportation, we have failed at our mission.

When parents don’t show up at our meetings or conferences because we don’t provide child care and they can’t afford a babysitter, we have failed at our mission.

When people with disabilities don’t come to our meetings or conferences because they’re not accessible, we have failed at our mission.

When deaf people don’t come to our meetings or conferences because we don’t have sign-language interpreters, we have failed at our mission.

When people with mental illness come to our meetings or conferences and don’t come back because speakers or members were using the words crazy, cuckoo, or insane in mocking and derogatory ways, we have failed at our mission.

When African Americans talk to organizers of overwhelmingly white local groups about possible racism and are told, “We don’t exclude anybody”—as if not barring the door to black people was all anyone needed to do to make a group inclusive—we have failed at our mission.

When women come to online forums and don’t come back because they were called “bitches” and “whores” and “cunts” and when they complained were told to lighten up and grow a thicker skin, we have failed at our mission.

When marginalized people of all varieties don’t participate in our meetings, conferences, blogs, videos, podcasts, forums, chat rooms, and more because these were all about issues that primarily concern white, middle-class, middle-aged, college-educated, cisgendered men, we have failed at our mission. When marginalized people of all varieties point this out, ask us to pay more attention to atheist-related issues that are more relevant to them, and are told that organized atheism can’t do this because it would be “mission drift,” we have failed at our mission.

And when marginalized people of all varieties point out any or all of this and get gaslighted or dismissed or told to stop talking about it, we have failed at our mission. When marginalized people point out ways that they felt excluded by our meetings and conferences and blogs and videos and podcasts and forums and chat rooms and are told, “No, you didn’t” or “You’re being divisive” or “You’re blowing things out of proportion’” or “We didn’t mean to exclude you, therefore you didn’t feel excluded, therefore you should stop asking us to change,” we have failed at our mission. When people’s basic right to be treated with dignity and humanity and equality is called the “5 percent we disagree on” and we are asked to shut up about it so we can work on the issues that really matter, we have failed at our mission.

All of this, by the way, is stuff that has really happened. I’m not making up any of it. I have heard of, or have personally seen or experienced, every single one of these incidents in organized atheism. In some cases, I’ve seen them happen again and again and again and again and again.

There are a hundred zillion ways that we show unintentional bias toward marginalized people. There is more than ample research pointing to this conclusion: do a Google search on the terms microaggressions and unconscious bias if you want to see it for yourself. If, like most atheists, you care about science and evidence, there is no excuse for you to ignore this or pretend that it isn’t true. That doesn’t make us bad people: it means we’ve unconsciously picked up on the biases of our culture, and that’s entirely understandable. It would be hugely surprising if it weren’t true.

But it does mean that we have to accept this reality, take responsibility for it, and work to be better. And it means that, because we have a hundred zillion forms of unintentional bias, we have
to make a conscious effort to overcome them. There’s no other way that it’s going to happen. There’s no other way for organized atheism to become genuinely inclusive, genuinely diverse, and genuinely representative of all atheists as opposed to a very small sliver of us.

And if we don’t do it, then we will fail.

 

Greta Christina

Greta Christina is an author, blogger at The Orbit, and speaker. Her latest book is The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life (Pitchstone Publishing, 2016).


The number one thing I want to say today is this: social justice issues are atheist stuff.

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