The Forked Road Ahead
"Humanist discourse is reduced to an endless echo chamber of evolution and the glories of the Enlightenment
The L.A. Times news item was buried at the bottom of the page in the bloodlessly tiny print reserved for marginalia. A 7 year-old black girl named Aiyanna Jones had been murdered in her sleep by the Detroit Police after a military-style raid on her home. In the wake of the shooting neighbors and loved ones placed stuffed animals in front of the house in memoriam. Rows of stuffed animals stared out from Associated Press photographs of the crime scene in dark-eyed innocence. In black communities across the nation Aiyanna's death elicited a firestorm of outrage from activists critical of police misconduct and excessive force. Recalling New York, Los Angeles, Oakland and other cities where black lives have been cut down by trigger happy police officers, many condemned the murder as yet another instance of law enforcement's criminal devaluation of black lives.
Reading the news about Aiyanna after I'd returned from speaking in Washington D.C. at the first African Americans for Humanism (AAH) conference was a stark reminder of the social justice challenge and progressive potential that Humanism represents for many freethinking people of color. Coordinated by DC Center for Inquiry director Melody Hensley, the gathering spotlighted the voices of Humanist, freethinking and predominantly atheist-identified African Americans. A generationally diverse group, representing a spectrum of regional, political and cultural backgrounds, the gathering was an often intense reminder of the gulf that separates the politics of black Humanist discourse from that of European Americans.
It is a politics that emerges from the legacy of the African slave holocaust—one in which it is difficult to imagine a universe where the murder of a little suburban white girl would be tolerated as "collateral damage." And one where it is impossible to fathom a historical moment in which innocence has not been associated with the lives of little white children. At this historical moment in the U.S., the reactionary right's demonization of President Barack Obama as a Muslim-terrorist-illegal alien-monkey-socialist-infidel underscores the deep and intractable heritage of white supremacy. From trashing ethnic studies programs in Arizona to striking references to slavery in the Texas school curriculum, the right's vociferous historical revisionism and backlash against social justice is reaching fever pitch. Deep in the wilds of 21st century "post-racial" America, the question of the "human" continues to define and terrorize African Americans in our quest for moral and political agency.
In her blog Unscripted, Institute for Humanist Studies managing director Mercedes Diane Griffin noted, "Most programs looking to address the lack of diversity within the Humanist movement are quite limited in their scope, often focusing solely on the low income African American community, ignoring all other communities of color (and economic strata within these communities) and rarely addressing the practical aspects of what feeds religiosity amongst the members of these communities." Indeed, for many black Humanists coming from African American communities where religion has become the opiate for a people under socioeconomic, political and cultural siege, the reductive science worship of the white non-theist world is a problematic luxury.
Colonialist practices in which the bodies of African, Asian and indigenous peoples were used by the scientific establishment to "measure" racial difference and verify social pathology were key to advancing Western rationalism and empiricism. European scientists typed and classified virtually every inch of the black body in the quest for some immutable marker of racial difference. In his book The Race Game, evolutionary biologist Joseph Graves details how scientists like eugenics pioneer Francis Galton used psychometry, "the measurement of human intelligence," to validate the theory of black inferiority and white European superiority. African American human rights activists Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass criticized the exhibition of "primitive" indigenous peoples and African "savages" in the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, which was designed to highlight the technological, social and scientific advances of the U.S. Alluding to this legacy in By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism, Humanist scholar Anthony Pinn notes that, "Black humanists can continue to make important contributions to humanist theory by challenging many of the assumptions made by Eurocentric, middle-class humanists…many white humanists embrace a dogmatic scientism. They believe that scientists are without biases…Black humanists…are less likely to rush blindly to the defense of science whenever controversial problems arise."
This blind defense of science is informed by the framing of science as the antidote to all social ills, at the expense of a broader lens that emphasizes social justice. At the AAH conference CFI field organizer Debbie Goddard challenged the insularity of prominent atheist and Humanist organizations such as CFI, the Council for Secular Humanism, and Atheist Alliance International (AAI), noting that their virtually all-white all-male boards becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of Eurocentrism (one need only look at the lily white line-up of this year's AAI Convention for further confirmation). In this regard, atheist and Humanist discourse is reduced to an endless echo chamber of evolution and the glories of the Enlightenment, the tyranny of religious belief, the "backwardness" of believers, church/state separation, and more doses of evolution. Questioning or deviating from the playbook, by historicizing the cult of science worship, is viewed with scorn by some non-theist whites unaccustomed to having the primacy of their cultural assumptions challenged (for example, see responses to my December 2009 article, The White Stuff .)
The Eurocentric insularity of the American Humanist movement—and the relative absence of people of color in prominent leadership roles—has limited the full inclusion of people of color in the U.S. CFI's recent dismissal of AAH Executive Director Norm Allen underscores this dynamic. Allen has been crucial to expanding Humanist discourse in Africa and was the editor of the AAH newsletter. CFI's official reason for Allen's unceremonious departure is the loss of key donor funds. As a result, other CFI staffers were also let go. Nonetheless, in an email describing the firing, Allen contended that he was never given any advance warning and was dismissed without acknowledgment of his work. Whatever the stated reasons for Allen's dismissal, he has been one of the few consistent advocates for black Humanist scholarship over the past few decades.
Issues of power, access and control have stymied black Humanism's reach in the United States. Africa, however, is home to a burgeoning Humanist movement. During the conference, Allen spoke of the positive reception his work has received in countries like Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya, where Humanism has emerged as a counterweight to religious persecution and ritual killings, oppression of women and state-sponsored homophobia. Although both Christian and Muslim indoctrination remains strong in many African countries, Allen stressed that African Humanists have been emboldened by a growing community of like-minded skeptics. Critiques of the colonialist imperialist origins of Christian and Muslim indoctrination have also fueled secular movements in Africa. Addressing the issue of homegrown American "colonization of the mind" Christopher Bell, author of The Black Clergy's Misguided Worship Leadership, assailed the black community's fixation on the white Jesus figure. Bell, who identifies as a religious skeptic, argued that misguided worship was a key factor in black "emasculation," resulting in high rates of incarceration and underachievement among African American males.
Certainly, misguided worship based on Eurocentric ideation undermines the black self-image. But the larger secular humanist challenge to the centrality of organized religion in black life was left unaddressed in Bell's presentation. Simply replacing a white Jesus figure with a black Jesus figure does nothing to address African American dependence on a brand of supernaturalism that often divides black communities into a Christian "us" and an immoral secularist "them." African American Humanists strive for a morality based on fairness, equity and social justice that is powered by deeds, not dogma. Moreover, the claim of black male emasculation has been widely criticized by black feminist theorists such as bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins, who argue that this premise relies on oppressive gender hierarchies which reinscribe masculinity and femininity as polar opposites. For example, the argument that white racism fundamentally deprived black men of patriarchal privilege is belied by the public dominance of black men over the Black Church. The correlation between the overwhelming religiosity of black communities and skyrocketing rates of intimate partner violence, sexual assault and HIV/AIDS contraction among black women bespeaks the gender crisis of African American faith-based traditions.
The influence of black patriarchy and institutional sexism on the Black Church and black Christian religious indoctrination has been a major topic of concern for black feminist secular humanists. My presentation examined this influence vis-à-vis black religiosity and the Christian ideal of the sacrificial good woman. Although black women have played a critical role in the black liberation struggle, full enfranchisement of women has taken a backseat to the "restoration" of black patriarchy. Judeo Christian ideology reinforced patriarchy and provided African Americans with what black feminist historian Paula Giddings has dubbed "biblical sanction for male ascendancy." At the same time, white supremacist notions of black female hypersexuality fueled black women's devoutness. Being in service to the Lord, biblical scripture and the family was a means of uplifting the race and resisting the slave era racial hierarchy that idealized white womanhood.
Under the terroristic conditions of slavery, black parents were often compelled to adopt harsh disciplinary practices with black children as a defense against institutional violence. These practices were reinforced and sanctioned by the Bible's endorsement of parental force. In her conference presentation, journalist Jamila Bey challenged biblical justifications of force for black disciplinary practices. Bey argued that black emphasis on corporal punishment in the home often influences violent behavior among some black youth. Hence, cultural and religious factors, coupled with the normalization of violence in mainstream media and the dominant culture, contribute to high rates of intimate partner violence and domestic abuse amongst African Americans. The dominant culture's near deification of violent masculinity is a human rights crisis that is pervasive in the U.S. but remains largely unaddressed by mainstream Humanist and atheist discourse. While many Western Humanists and atheists are quick to condemn misogynist violence, repression and terrorism against women in Islamic cultures, outside of feminist discourse there is little focus on the normalization of secular and Christian violence against women in West.
During the conference I called for a Humanist politics that is dedicated to social justice redress and an appreciation for intersectional issues: a politics that embraces multiple subject positions vis-à-vis race, gender, sexual orientation, class and disability. A Humanist politics that acknowledges the complexity of living in a national context in which the historic election of an African American president coexists with third world levels of incarceration of African Americans, state-sanctioned racial profiling of Latino communities and a re-segregated educational system that hearkens back to the era of June and Ward Cleaver. If some white Humanists are content to cleave to scientism, deny the contemporary influence of racism, sexism, heterosexism and classism and remain swaggeringly blind to their own privilege, they must not be allowed to define the Humanist or atheist movements. For if Humanism is to be a truly culturally relevant movement, a 21st century moral affirmation of social justice values, rather than a philosophical antidote to organized religion, there must be a reckoning with the kind of moral universe that tolerates the execution of little girls like Aiyanna Jones as just another ghetto blip on the national screen.