Conquering Secular and Skeptical White Supremacy in America

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“If you are a white person, and you are not willing to interrogate your white privilege, your white entitlement, and your investments in legacies of white apartheid and white supremacy, you cannot rightfully claim to be a freethinker.”  —Sikivu Hutchinson

MY PARENTS RAISED ME ATHEIST since I was born, but it wasn’t my non-belief in deities that led me to humanism or to the skeptics’ movement, a largely secular movement that, as astronomer Carl Sagan often put it, views science as “a way of thinking.” Rather, it was the birth of my first child in 2011 that left me yearning to dampen the terror that soon overtook me. While new parenthood can be unnerving for anyone, I would later learn that I was dealing with postpartum Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, one of a few anxiety disorders that can occur or worsen during pregnancy or after birth. I was grappling with the darkness and the discourse suggesting that every choice might break my baby’s well-being, and I was lost. To my relief, within months, the skeptical parenting community, which applies the tenets of scientific skepticism to parenting—or questioning the veracity of claims and seeking evidence-based answers to pressing questions in a parenting context— appeared like a beacon that pierced the darkness. Learning to spot misinformation and some helpful medication and therapy gave me a new footing.

This entry into the skeptical and humanist communities led to my profession as a journalist and science writer. I’ve made countless connections through these movements, but over the years, seeing their racism has been like seeing a naked emperor. I’m hardly the first to call out this farce, but my perspective seems rare among non-believers and science fans. Along with my atheist upbringing and involvement in the skeptics’ movement, my coverage of racism and human well-being has revealed ghastly parallels between the foundational bigotry in science and the bigotry in the very movements that rescued me. This bigotry is not only an injustice. It’s a pseudoscientific failure to walk the skeptical and humanist talk. Secular racism, sexism, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry may be less obvious than the religious kinds, but they’re no less fallacious, abhorrent, and harmful. That’s why I’ve added my voice to those urging skeptics, freethinkers, and humanists to act with urgency to dismantle their own white supremacy once and for all.

Lily-white skepticism

Activist, musician, author, and founder of Black Skeptics Los Angeles, Sikivu Hutchinson has been among those at the helm in this fight for over a decade, regularly imparting lessons of the past. She has made clear that atheist and skeptical “supergroups” have long upheld “lily-white” leadership, just like rock’s most visible white male coterie of stars in the 60s and 70s. Hutchinson’s view is essential. In a nutshell, the original lily-white movement was a faction of the Republican Party—and of neighborhoods across America—following the Civil War. It embraced Jim Crow and sought to exclude Black leaders and enact and uphold segregation. This was an explicit movement with proudly racist membership, but the most insidious racism has evolved to be subtle and surreptitious. Modern-day lily-whiteness still taints the most rational of spaces.

There are too many self-styled humanists and skeptics who gripe at the discomfort of contending with racism, and who are more concerned about accusations of racism than the detriments of racism. But discomfort is imperative to progress. As Hutchinson put it during her acceptance speech for the 2021 “Freethought Heroine” Award, “it’s the task of a freethinker, period, whether or not one is considered to be a hero or a heroine, to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.”

This is the duty that comes with the title of freethinker—or skeptic or humanist. But some eschew this duty because of a pervasive misunderstanding of what racism and white supremacy are. The widely-held notion of racism brings to mind a tiki-torch-carrying, swastika-sporting caricature of a racist. Given this perspective, it’s only natural to be inclined to say, I’m not racist, and move on with the day. But this apathy is how contemporary lily-whiteness maintains itself. It can seem benign, but it’s not. It’s apparent at the tables where decisions are made that seat a majority of white folks, even when there may be BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other people of color) scattered among them. You might wonder, what’s so racist about largely white groups of leaders, especially with one or more non-white folks present?

As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait about how white people thwart justice with tokenism—or the inclusion of a small number of minoritized people while stopping short of equity: “A judge here and a judge there; an executive behind a polished desk in a carpeted office…all these were tokens used to obscure the persisting reality of segregation and discrimination.”

White supremacy and racism are no longer confined to the intent of individual actors. They’ve expanded to include the racist systems that ensnare us all.

Understanding the words that describe these injustices is crucial. In 2021, leading American dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster revised the definition of “racism.” In addition to “a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race,” the updated definition includes “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another; specifically: white supremacy.” The definition of “white supremacy” has also evolved. It not only means “the belief that the white race is inherently superior to other races.” It also includes “the social, economic, and political systems that collectively enable white people to maintain power over people of other races.” White supremacy and racism are no longer confined to the intent of individual actors. They’ve expanded to include the racist systems that ensnare us all.

Meanwhile, as the religious right grows increasingly blatant in its bigotry, racism has also continued unabated in secular institutions, though it’s cloaked in less obvious language. Science is no different. As award-winning science journalist Angela Saini writes in her critically acclaimed 2019 book Superior: The Return of Race Science, “The truth that it is perfectly possible for prominent scientists to be racist, to murder, to abuse both people and knowledge doesn’t sit easily with the way we like to think about scientific research.”

Indeed, the language of science can deftly obscure racism. The authors of a 2022 commentary in the Journal of General Internal Medicine about calling out scientific racism are among many who see through it. They write that “[i]n 2003, the Human Genome Project showed that race had no genetic basis and that human beings are 99.9% identical genetically. Yet, the use of race to measure human biological differences stubbornly persists and, consequently, these structures and systems are absolved of responsibility, reinforced, and perpetuated.”

U.S. skeptical and humanist groups uphold white supremacy

By and large, people who identify with the skeptics’ movement value skeptical inquiry into spurious claims. As Sagan put it, skepticism sees science as a set of tools to “pursue the whole truth, no matter where it leads.” To me, the best part of Sagan’s view is that skeptical inquiry isn’t reserved for an intellectual elite. In his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World, he described learning about “skepticism and wonder” from his parents who “knew almost nothing of science.” They taught him “the two uneasily cohabiting modes of thought” that are central to the scientific method: “an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive they may be, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new.”

This is how white supremacy plays out— in the notion that what those in power deem is important or scientific reflects what actually is important or scientific.

I have written and spoken at length about my experience being tokenized as a speaker and associate for organizations in the skeptic community, including groups that Sagan helped found and popularize. You can read many details in my February 2020 article for the digital magazine Undark. I have regularly been the only non-white person on long lists of conference speakers—with my own brown face appearing most prominently in conference marketing materials. I have listened while famous skeptics who are celebrated for their contributions to the causes of “reason and science” have conversed onstage, glibly dismissing the concerns of the “regressive left” and complaining that terms like “the patriarchy” and “cis white privilege” are overly “jargonistic.” And I was harassed and ultimately ousted from one of the United States’ oldest secular and skeptical organizations when I held their feet to the fire over building truly inclusive leadership, starting with their predominantly white board of directors. You can refer to my Undark essay for more details.

From “Fund Black Scientists,” Cell, Volume 184, Issue 3, 2021, pages 561-565.

From the mid-2010s onward, many skeptic audiences seemed to love my talks, magazine articles, and interviews about the disinformation campaigns that stoke fear around food, chemicals, vaccines, and science-based medicine in the interest of hawking alternative products and ideologies. I continued to actively participate in the skeptics’ community, thinking that I had a responsibility to help bring about change. But I would eventually understand that I had allowed certain organizations and elements of the community to use me to create the illusion of diversity with an expectation that I’d toe the line. I had to exercise my own forms of privilege to help expose the white supremacy and racism in these movements, so I joined the ranks of my BIPOC siblings and shared my story, including in my 2020 essay in Undark and several talks for skeptical and secular audiences.

Calling one’s denial of systemic racism “reasonable” and “scientific” doesn’t change that the patriarchy, white privilege, and cis privilege are very real phenomena with ample empirical backup. Terms that are often derided as jargon of the “woke left” in truth describe the unearned benefits that society confers to people who are men, or white, or whose gender matches their sex assigned at birth. These terms elucidate that differences in the resilience or so-called achievement between races aren’t a result of categorical biological differences, but of the deleteriousness of unchecked privilege by dominant groups to the detriment of the marginalized. If the language around these facts seems overly jargonistic to those who claim to promote reason and science, and if they consider justice “regressive” then they’re doing a poor job promoting reason and science.

No, science isn’t colorblind

With all due respect for Sagan, there are flaws in his views of skepticism, and those flaws are worth interrogating. Though I didn’t know him personally, I would like to believe that he would approve. In short, not all thinking is hypothesis-worthy, no matter how scientific it may seem. Some thinking only garners credence because secular white supremacy has inflated the merit of the ideas whiteness spews. In The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan wrote that “skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new” is how “deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense.” But too often, the most fallacious and harmful old ideas continue to be scrutinized to death, only perpetuating deep nonsense.

That it is pseudoscientific to believe that the inordinate whiteness of intellectual spaces is only natural is as settled, scientifically speaking, as the fact that the Earth is not at all flat. Yet scientists have continued legitimizing the notion that there must be something innate about the whiteness of the occupants of the ivory tower for centuries. Scratch the surface and it becomes clear that these views are well-represented in the skeptical and scientific communities. Bigotry adorned in the trappings of science can easily pass as valid to the unpracticed observer. These ideas still thrive. There are myriad examples of these dehumanizing forms of pseudoscience in the top peer-reviewed journals and in the scientific community—including all secular ideologies and research that assumes that certain groups of people, like Black folks, queer folks, and neurodivergent folks, are inherently categorically different from or inferior to a socially constructed human default. Yet too many still buy into the fallacious notion that the scientific method is so devoid of bias that science cannot be racist or sexist. According to those who accept this ideology about science, the most intellectually worthy people who develop the best scientific ideas and experiments rise in rank. In this view, if the most prominent scientists happen to be white, it is simply because they put forth the worthiest ideas. The white supremacy built into science, and into the skeptics’ and humanist movements, owes its resilience to this faulty worldview.

Consider research that asks whether there are really reliable differences in the brains of men and women. It’s a long-known fact that there’s no such thing as the “male” and “female” brains. This has been confirmed time and again, including by a meta-synthesis of over thirty decades of research published in 2021 in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. Despite the body of evidence that demolishes the myth of the sexually dimorphic brain, the authors of the article write that most neuroscientists still assume “that larger studies, using higher-resolution imaging and better processing pipelines will uncover the ‘real,’ or species-wide differences between male and female brain structure and connectivity patterns. However, the present synthesis indicates that such ‘real’ or universal sex-related differences do not exist.” Continued “relentless scrutiny” here is unworthy. Or consider so-called science that continues to scrutinize the settled-to-death question of whether people of different races are genetically hardwired to have higher rates of complex diseases like diabetes or worse COVID outcomes. It appears too often in respected peer-reviewed publications.

The assumption that the fittest rise to the top of intellectual institutions suggests that the disproportionate whiteness and maleness of science are only natural. But if you end up with a mostly-white set of, say, skeptical leaders, then there are only two explanations. 1) The racist explanation is that BIPOC are not as qualified as white people. 2) The anti-racist explanation is that the organization has been operating in racist ways. There are no differences in the inherent propensities of people of different races, so the second explanation is correct.

There are disturbing parallels between the racism in the skeptics’ movement and in various areas of science, like biomedical research. In the February 2021 issue of the journal Cell, sixteen researchers explain that racial disparities in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding are the most insidious barriers to the success of Black faculty. They explain that this doesn’t only impact researchers’ demographic makeup. It also destroys innovation and produces biased science. In recent years, biomedical research with white principal investigators has been about twice as likely to be greenlit, with Black researchers spending twice the time writing grants to achieve the same funding and being more likely to burn out before reaching tenure. The authors complain that while there have been plenty of publications about this vast disparity, there haven’t been effective actions from NIH or related entities.

As for how inequity in NIH grants stifles innovation and produces biased science, analyses reveal that Black biomedical researchers are more likely to ask the research questions that will change the status quo—these are the population-level studies that can inform interventions to close racial disparities. By contrast, white researchers are more likely to look at genetic biomechanical factors within the body that impact our health. In theory, genomic studies can play a role in advancing medicine. But it won’t fix massive racial health disparities because race isn’t genetic.

Yet Black researchers regularly report being told that health disparities research “is not real science.” Take that pervasive myth that the most qualified individuals with the most worthy ideas and ostensible intellectual prowess rise to the top, and apply it to the makeup of a mostly white Board of Directors, or even to the makeup of researchers with the most funding, and it would go something like this: Choose on the basis of ability, and if you end up with a predominantly white group of scientists or directors, so be it. You have not practiced racial discrimination in arriving at this conclusion.

It’s amazing how the faulty reasoning crumbles, and how you can’t unsee the racism once you see it. This is how white supremacy plays out—in the notion that what those in power deem is important or scientific reflects what actually is important or scientific. It plays out in the notion that the overwhelming whiteness of intellectual spaces is a function of qualifications. To heed the words of one white man, the view of the late scientist and author Stephen Jay Gould in his 1980 book The Panda’s Thumb is one that I take to heart: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” For some skeptics of my own ilk, what drives us is the knowledge that brilliance is not the rare possession of a few enlightend geniuses but utterly common among humans, and that this brilliance would shine on us all if not for vast systemic inequity. We’re also driven by the belief that all people, no matter their ostensible benefits to society or lack thereof, have the right to live long, healthy, fulfilling lives free from oppression.

Not all pseudoscience

Where there’s pseudoscience—basically, beliefs, practices, or methodologies mistakenly thought to be based on the scientific method—there are skeptics fighting against it. At least, that’s what the skeptical movement wants to think. Reality is entirely different. This isn’t to say that some haven’t done worthwhile work; the movement just hasn’t grown beyond a far too narrow, and far too white, agenda.

Because so much quackery involves human well-being, it’s natural that there are several physicians and medical researchers among skeptics involved in opposing pseudoscience. Though their intent is probably altruistic, even the most prominent doctors and researchers involved in skepticism in America have been collectively upholding white supremacy, albeit perhaps unintentionally. The pseudoscience that skeptics tend to oppose is only a subset. By and large, what U.S.-based skeptics groups haven’t done in a concerted way, including many of the doctors at the helm, is address dehumanizing pseudoscientific inquiry, practices, and beliefs. What it has failed to tackle is that medical doctors still tend to hold erroneous, pseudoscientific beliefs about groups of human beings, like that Black people experience less pain or are statistically hardwired to have more body fat, or that certain Asians have narrower blood vessels (this is something that a doctor recently said to me), and so much more. It has failed to address that these beliefs are woven into everything.

Take the racism inherent in healthcare, such as racialized algorithms built into clinical tools, which I’ve covered in some of my recent work. One such tool, among several that have been making headlines as some hospitals try to eliminate them, helps doctors decide whether a child presenting with symptoms like fever is likely to have a urinary tract infection. If the child is categorized as non-Black, the calculator assigns more than a two-fold higher risk of infection—which can influence a clinician to do a urine test and pursue a diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics. Black patients in a similar condition are scored lower, making them less likely to receive treatment.

Racism and white supremacy aren’t just happening in doctors’ offices and hospitals. They are part and parcel of all other aspects of life that impact well-being, like education, law enforcement, residential segregation, lead exposure, air quality, the accessibility of nutritious food, and the distribution of wealth. The facts are clear that this systemic racism is what leads to significant gaps in access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

There is progress in some skeptics’ groups, but it’s often perfunctory. Consider the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS), one of the biggest annual skeptical conferences in America. Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed folks praising NECSS for diversity among its speaker lineup. While three out of ten of its speaker roster in 2021 were Black or brown people, this is only superficial diversity.

NECSS is produced by a few associated groups, including the New England Skeptical Society (NESS), the makers of the popular and amply-funded Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (SGU) podcast, and The Society for Science-Based Medicine, which publishes the Science-Based Medicine (SBM) blog. These groups are predominantly white, which is reflected in pretty much everything outside of their speaker lineup—including the contributors to the SBM blog, the leadership of NESS, and the SGU hosts, several of whom I have had a cordial rapport with over the years. None of this is to bash these groups. Rather, it’s to shine a light on the skeptical community’s shortcomings and to encourage sorely needed progress.

As of this writing, a search of SGU episode archives for the terms “pseudoscience” and “homeopathy” turn up around eighty results for the former and fifty results for the latter. A search for “racism” turns up two. Likewise, a search of SBM’s archive of content, almost entirely written by white people, for “naturopathy” turns up over forty pages of hundreds of posts, while a search for “racism”—which is among the most harmful categories of pseudoscience and bad science that happens in medicine—results in only a handful. On the occasions when SBM and similar blogs have mentioned racism, more often than not, they have been incorrectly dismissive of the reality of racism.

In a 2021 SBM post, for instance, clinical neurologist and blog founder Steven Novella, MD, writes, “many have pointed out the black community in the US has good reason to be cautious about the medical system. I do think times have changed since Tuskegee and the medical profession has gone a long way toward earning back that trust, but historical memory runs deep.”

Dr. Novella is in over his head. The medical profession has progressed perhaps a few measly miles, but it has light years to go to rightfully earn trust (and note that “trust” itself is a poorly understood and, at time, problematic concept). As the authors of a 2021 perspective article in the New England Journal of Medicine write, “attributing distrust primarily to [historical atrocities] ignores the everyday racism that Black communities face…those patients are probably not historicizing their frustration by recalling Tuskegee, but rather contemplating how an institution sworn to do no harm has failed them… Daily subtle mental assaults are more salient in explaining a lack of trust in medical institutions and, by extension, in COVID vaccines.”

Or as the authors of a 2020 commentary in Health Affairs put it, “mistrust Black patients may harbor toward the US health care system is a result of their never-ending mistreatment, not the cause of it. Suggestions otherwise essentially posit that trust, not racism, is the primary barrier between Black patients, equitable care, and positive health outcomes. This is simply untrue.”

Growing together

It’s heartening that some organizations and leaders are walking the humanist and skeptical talk. I spoke with a few fellow humanists in the course of my work for this essay, including Sikivu Hutchinson and Mandisa Thomas, founder and president of Black Nonbelievers, Inc., for the insight of seasoned leaders fighting for the rights of Black people and women of color in the secular and skeptical spaces. It’s clear that, just like science and medicine, the skeptics’ and humanist movements have a long way to go. The majority of non-believers in America are white and middle class, and they “are insulated by their white privilege from the lived experiences of POC folks who deal with the daily/systemic trauma and terrorism of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, state violence, and economic injustice,” Hutchinson says. “Moreover, greater numbers of white male atheists are aping the racist propaganda and anti-‘social justice warrior’ tropes of the alt-right. Unless this changes, these ‘movements’ will continue to be hostile to the fundamental needs and cultural contexts of POC.”

That change is underway despite detractors. “Sometimes it seems like it’s still a hard road—and it is,” Thomas tells me. But she is optimistic, explaining that “the more we continue to push forward and make these institutional changes, and have these institutions that are now more inclusive of our voices, that will speed things up.”

Calling oneself “rational” does not lead to sound arguments. Let actions speak louder than words, and the content of our discourse speak louder than labels.

With that optimism, there are ways to rise above some of these movements’ current limitations. One way to level up is from using “science” and “reason” as mantles of intellectual prowess to authentically and relentlessly seeking the whole, justice-driven, evidence-clad, context-aware truth—and not giving credence to continued “debate” over settled matters. Calling oneself “rational” does not lead to sound arguments. Let actions speak louder than words, and the content of our discourse speak louder than labels.

It’s also time to grow beyond science as a way of thinking alone. Neither a doctorate nor a lab coat nor calling oneself a skeptic nor employing highbrow rhetoric magically imbues someone’s thinking with the essence of science. We won’t prosper if we continue to grant some the exclusive right to claim that their thinking is “scientific” while the views of Black women and their allies are deemed unscientific for no tangible reason. To eclipse science as a way of thinking will mean perpetually taking stock of our own biases and collaborating to create equitable communities that think and act in evidence-based, truth-driven ways. Beyond a way of thinking, we can exercise skepticism as a way of building each other up, holding each other accountable, and taking action to foster equity.

Finally, I join those challenging all U.S. humanist and skeptical organizations to not merely reach for diversity but to implement radical inclusion at all levels—not only in speaker rosters. As Thomas tells me, “it needs to look like more people of color at the head of the major organizations.” There need to be “more people of color in leadership that are in paid positions” who are empowered “to make policy changes to these organizations.” “That needs to be deliberate.”

What’s next? Like countless other humanists, I’m darkly enamored with the human skull. It symbolizes the intersection between humanism and good science. There are no differences between women’s brains and men’s brains, no distinct skull shape separating so-called “races.” I’ll close with the wisdom of Tiffany Green, Ph.D., humanist, economist, professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison, and keynote speaker at Women of Color Beyond Belief 2021, which is produced by Black Nonbelievers, Inc. During my recent reporting on massive racial health disparities in America, she told me what so many in our communities hold dear. “My humanism informs my science. I know that there is no higher power that is going to fix this because this is a human-made problem. The solution has to be human-made.”