More than Words: Humanists Should Stand for Secular Social Justice

Secular Social Justice, a conference sponsored by the American Humanist Association that will be organized around the cultural context and social reformation efforts of secular people of color and their allies, will be held on January 30, 2016, at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

While I am very excited to be a part of this event, I’m also a bit puzzled at how many people have questioned the necessity of holding this convention. It’s both frustrating and amusing that, for some, addressing specific social injustices is even remotely controversial, and yet those same naysayers attend any other atheist meeting without hesitation.

Much conflict related to human affairs stems from violations of universally understood social constructs. Part and parcel to justice and equality is the idea we term “human rights,” something that is habitually taken for granted. What lies at the core of this concept is the assumption of “human dignity,” an idea that’s existed since the early stages of human-recorded history and has been expressed in virtually all cultures and religions known to humankind.

The notions of human dignity and human rights are, for example, reflected in the Southern African humanist philosophy “Ubuntu.” It’s also seen in the often-cited “golden rule” that stipulates one should treat others as one would like to be treated oneself, an idea that far precedes its appropriation found in biblical text. The same is true for the fundamental beliefs of social justice, its intent built on identifying with the humanity of others and intertwined with the objective of human rights.

These basic components ignite within us a sense of kinship that allows us to treat each other with some level of appropriate decency. Nevertheless, the perpetuation of tribalism, negative stereotypes, and microaggressions that denigrate the value of socially marginalized groups are common. Despite wanting to be a nexus in humanity’s maturation process, this problem is conspicuously evident in atheist circles. The fact that this subculture mirrors disparities present within our nationwide ethos shouldn’t be surprising since no community exists within a vacuum.

Secular humanist author Dale McGowan once said, “Atheism is the first step. Humanism is the thousand steps that follow.” This isn’t me saying secular humanism is the ultimate answer, as what I’m discussing also applies to many who embrace the humanist label while also being committed to exclusionary thinking, whether purposely or unintentionally. Still, this statement eloquently summarizes the importance of development and implicitly cautions against stagnant complacency.

There are those within the atheist community who will appeal to a prescriptive definition of atheism when desires are voiced in favor of certain social matters that affect marginalized groups not usually featured in mainstream discourse. They’ll shout down or scoff at the concept of privilege. They’ll appeal to hasty generalizations or dismiss strawman constructs of social justice. They will do all of this while simultaneously objecting to Christian hegemony and campaigning for a narrow scope of social justice germane to a whitewashed secular agenda.

Why does this happen? How can so many recite declarations of “Good Without God” and ostensibly promote equality when their vision lacks the internalizing of a more inclusive mentality?

The problem is disconnect. Privilege—a myriad of social advantages associated with being a part of a particular ingroup—creates a rift based upon experience. Privilege exempts an individual from encountering certain realities outgroup members are routinely subjected to, biases judgment, and inhibits one’s ability to identify with the real-lived context of marginalized groups.

Shirley Chisholm—politician, educator, and feminist—once said: “Racism is so universal in this country, so widespread, and deep-seated, that it is invisible because it is so normal.” I’d argue this is the case with many states of structural oppression and not just racism.

It’s too often the case that those within movement atheism prefer to discuss the latest display of religious hypocrisy and not the wide-ranging expressions of transantagonism and homophobia. We’ll champion the importance of careful analysis while also embracing anti-Muslim bigotry that carelessly enforces a racialized and discriminatory false binary concerning Islam and Muslims. We’ll intricately deconstruct creationism yet gloss over the adverse effects of patriarchal, sexist, and misogynistic attitudes. We pride ourselves on having an intimate relationship with reality while denying the indelible influence white supremacist ideology has on our social systems.

As an atheist, I’ve encountered numerous believers who accused me of being mentally disturbed, or they imagined my lack of belief as the result of past trauma, or they asserted I hated god, ignorantly confusing atheism and misotheism. Atheist activists endeavor to allay these kinds of misconceptions, as well as advocate for scientific literacy and contest the preferential treatment extended to religious belief. The atheist activist is very much about confronting privilege and fighting for social justice—it’s just typically expressed in an overly-restricted form.

It’s awesome that there’s an influx of people choosing to think critically about the faith they were indoctrinated into believing, but let us not forget critical thinking isn’t limited to the realm of faith. There are various issues we should also be fighting the good fight for. It is only when these truths are more widely accepted that we will see meaningful growth within social institutions. Why? Because intersectionality—the intersection of privileges and discriminations—demands destabilization of the various streams of inequality for a fight against inequality to be broadly effective.

One needn’t observe a strict humanist philosophy in order to counter prejudicial views. Challenging imbalanced treatment associated with privilege that dehumanizes (depriving human dignity, human rights, and social parity) an individual or group isn’t exactly pushing for sainthood—it’s the consequence of a mindset that actually gives a damn about people.

Nonbelief in supreme beings and perceived holy edicts isn’t a panacea for social ills, nor does it preclude cognitive error. That said, it’s certainly possible for those who make up movement atheism—“movers and shakers” as well as advocates—to be contributors to a more evolved resolve intent on dismantling disparities and replacing them with more inclusionary, charitable, and empathetic ways of thinking.

Separation of church and state is important, but so is addressing the social, economic, and political deprivations that directly affect atheists within LGBTQIA, racial, and gender minority communities. A heightened sense of responsibility among those associated with movement atheism is reflected in the organized efforts that is Secular Social Justice. Whether or not a more intersectional approach will be adopted within “New Atheism” as a mainstream praxis remains to be seen.

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  • Nickie Lee Ewing

    Absolutely love reading your articles. Beautifully articulating the sometimes glaring obvious.

  • Ralph Oswald

    Outstanding essay Sincere. Thank you.

  • Joseph

    You SJW’s are ruining the atheist movement. Anti-Muslim bigotry — yeah, criticizing the abhorrent practices of Islam is bigotry. College students protesting over utter nonsense.

    • ahermit

      Criticizing abhorrent practices is fine; falsely attributing those practices to a billion+ people as if they are all responsible for the actions of a few and that’s all there is to it …. that’s bigotry.

  • Timothy Travis

    “Stand” for social justice or have a plan for actively advancing social justice? American Humanism is ripe for more overt political leadership. Perhaps a Humanist Party to organize and support progressive candidates similar to how the Tea Party influences the Right. The Tea Party does not run candidates. We need not either but if we make a difference in the 2016 elections, Humanism becomes a political force. James Croft wrote an excellent article; Humanism is Political, or it isn’t Humanism. Google it. He promises a follow-up article with more specifics.

  • Timothy Travis

    It will be interesting to see if an actual plan comes out of the AHA’s Secular Social Justice conference in Houston, 30 January, of if it is just more talk about social justice and the need.

  • Anthony Glaser

    The tone of this article has made me consider some of its content more openly and positively than I have before. I think Humanism has a lot to offer both Atheism and Social Justice movements when it comes to adopting an effective tone for conversation. I believe, as a humanist, that people naturally care about other people’s suffering and that people are curious about the factual world around them, even when it’s not what they expected or would like. When we can have conversations about these things without narcissists taking over and trying to end the dialogue with slander and shame, I think we can make real progress.