Moving Social Justice organizer Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson.
“Here,” speaking as if she were one of the white men who are the public face of the New Atheism, “take this ‘We Are All Africans’ t-shirt and ticket to Darwin Day and sit down and shut the fuck up while we white atheists front like we’re Public Enemy Number One.” As Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson continued her opening remarks to the Moving Social Justice conference, I felt like somebody had just taken an industrial nail gun and nailed me to the back of my chair. I looked over at my fellow Sunday Assemblers, all white, middle-class, straight and mostly male, and thought, “Oh, Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
As an atheist-humanist-skeptic-rationalist, I had long prided myself (like many freethinkers do) on looking at the world through the lens of reason, focusing it with critical thinking. The evidence makes it plainly obvious that all humans are equal, male or female (or somewhere in between), straight or gay, black, white or brown, and if we just bring a scientific perspective to bear, we can solve the problems of poverty, environmental degradation, sexism and, ultimately, mental slavery to millennia-old mythologies. As an “enlightened non-believer”, how could I possibly be responsible for any of the inequities or injustices of the world? Oh, Toto, you have so much to learn.
Debbie Goddard of African American Humanists listens to hip-hop artist MC Brooks on a break. Photo by Noah Wiles.
Sikivu Hutchinson and the Black Skeptics of Los Angeles, along with African American Humanists, the People of Color Beyond Faith network, the Secular Student Alliance and the Center for Inquiry-West had organized this first ever conference to specifically address issues and concerns that affect communities of color, women, and sexual minorities. Noted speakers such as Dr. Anthony Pinn of Rice University, Debbie Goddard of the Center for Inquiry and Sunday Assembly-NYC board member AJ Johnson had flown in from across the country to sit on panels examining issues like homophobia/transphobia in the black church, the school-to-prison pipeline, the myth of color blindness and queers of color. Looking at the program, it was pretty obvious we weren’t going to spend much time discussing “In God We Trust” inscriptions on our dollar bills or the Ken Ham/Billy Nye debate at the Creation Museum.
A panel of distinguished speakers included Dr. Anthony Pinn, Donald Wright, and Raina Rhodes. Photo by Noah Wiles.
Over the course of the weekend, a few Sunday Assemblers sat humbly to listen and learn about how black voters got scapegoated for the passage of Prop. 8 in California, why many black and Latino gays are frustrated by the millions of dollars spent on marriage equality (or even oppose it) at the expense of funding for centers for homeless LGBT teens, how the LA County Board of Supervisors is about to spend $2 billion to incarcerate rather than treat the mentally ill (who are disproportionately people of color) and how black students (including preschoolers!) are suspended from school at rates many times higher than their white and Asian classmates. [And yes, Toto, those are all live links so you can begin to learn about these issues for yourself.]
The Rev. Meredith Moise from Baltimore, MD. Photo by Noah Wiles.
Many people might agree these are serious issues but wonder, “What does this have to do with my not believing in God?” Indeed, several authors and bloggers have said so online, like Michael Luciano (no friend of the Sunday Assembly) who proclaims that “Atheists don’t owe your social justice agenda a damn thing”. But what these atheists (who are, of course, almost exclusively people of privilege) fail to grasp is that these are real world problems that affect real world people. Fighting against imaginary gods is good, clean fun sometimes, but at the end of the day (or of our one precious life) what matters is what we have done to make the real world a better place. That’s what separates atheism from humanism, a distinction that seems to fall outside Luciano’s narrow view.
West Coast meets East: Los Angeles Sunday Assemblers chat with SA-NYC board member AJ Johnson. Photo by Noah Wiles.
At Sunday Assembly we like to say we don’t concern ourselves too much with atheism but are more interested in getting on with the business of celebrating life. But what does that mean? Life isn’t all amazing speakers, icebreakers and awesome pop songs. Sometimes it’s about struggle and effort to overcome obstacles, either external (as our fellow humans in the black, Latino, female and LGBT communities experience) or internal (like the ignorance of living in a bubble of privilege). When we “wonder more” about the realities we’ve been blind to and educate ourselves about them, we can “help often” so that our fellow humans of all descriptions can “live better”. And isn't that what we stand for at Sunday Assembly?
As Raina Rhodes of Chocolate City Skeptics said so poignantly this weekend, “If your humanist group isn’t doing anti-racism work, it’s not a humanist group.”