That’s where I draw the line

There have been some interesting discussions coming up of late within skeptical circles, largely based on a survey report regarding religiosity in select populations of the US. The critical thinker in me starts asking these sneaky little questions, as usual, but in this case the answers may not be evident without a lot of examination. Bear with me a moment, here.

The census report in question is the US Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. The report illustrated some remarkable trends about racial and sexual demographics and the levels of religiosity within them. Now, the politically correct method of referring to people of darker skin color due to more recent African residence than the greater population is “African-American,” but I’m simply going to refer to such distinctions throughout this post as “black,” partially because there is no definition of “recent” (we all came from Africa,) but more because I’ve always found the phrase awkward and downright stupid. The premise is that the word “black” has negative connotations, but this is a serious stretch in any culture. But anyway, when we look at the report for percentages of populations, we find that secularism and atheism show noticeable departures from the average population in several demographics. In other words, men are more likely than women to be secular, and whites significantly more likely than non-whites (often referred to as “People of Color” or “PoC,” another stupid phrase.)

Among those that are activists, this is a call for action – only, which action? Two recent posts over at Friendly Atheist address this question, which is not to say that they answer it. With, perhaps, good reason: nobody is really sure why these differences exist. It is demonstrated that blacks overall attend church far more often, pray more often, and profess belief in a god to a higher degree. But what is the connection between blacks and religion?

In the middle of this sits one of the unwarranted conclusions: that white male atheists are doing something to exclude everyone else. Many people are proceeding on this assumption without actually determining if such a thing exists, which is a really hypocritical thing for any skeptic to be doing. We’re usually quite aware of confirmation bias, where someone pays attention only to confirming evidence for some belief, and ignores contradictory evidence. If we are pre-convinced that white males are discouraging others (because we’re misinterpreting what these survey figures mean,) we can then find evidence of this – but from what I’ve seen, the evidence that’s been presented has been so ambiguous and ephemeral that it can hardly be considered to explain the numbers from the report.

Let’s look at some other ideas for a moment. Women are underrepresented in areas such as hunting, fishing, and motorcycle riding. Men are underrepresented in areas such as artistic painting, knitting, and herbalism/alt med/homeopathy. UFO and comic book conventions see men (well, males.) Psychic and astrological conventions see women. I think it’s safe to say that nobody thinks that either men or women are excluded from any of these things by some prevalent attitude or action of the other – we accept that these reflect current interests, whatever the underlying motivation, and aren’t in need of correcting the abject bigotry.

Some might argue that these differences reflect older cultural norms, the remaining influence of male-dominated societies – men did “manly” things things like hunting, and women did “womanly” things like keeping house. But we have to be careful with easy answers like that. In the past half-century, the art world went from a male-centric pursuit to weighted towards females, though women seem to pursue art as a hobby a little more often than as a career. Up until recently, “chef” meant “male,” but it certainly didn’t take long for this to change. Blaming the lack of change on any gender influence doesn’t hold up very well – cultures can adapt quickly to desires.

So we should feel obligated to seek why there is such a radical difference between, for example, black atheists and white. And even to wonder if we’re not looking at the numbers effectively.

If I were to say, “There are far fewer atheists among regular churchgoers than average,” you’d congratulate me on this amazing display of logic and give me a cookie (if you were as sarcastic as I usually am.) We don’t, for instance, see any particular group of churchgoers as a target demographic for skeptical outreach – we simply address religious belief as a whole, to the population at large. Alternately, I am not using a “whites only” website, host, or browser compatibility – those of us pursuing skepticism on the web reach about as broad an audience as is possible. Also notable among skeptics, the percentage of LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender) population is significantly higher than the average – but is this because same-sex issues are given higher priority than racial, or simply because prejudice against sexual orientation is predominantly religious? Moreover, should we feel the need to reach out to the “straight community” to make the numbers more representative of the population at large?

Rap, R&B, Gospel, and Soul music are predominantly black. It’s safe to say that this is not from whites being excluded, but instead from a cultural (or subcultural if you prefer) influence. We all may identify better with a particular style of music, choice of car, choice of pet, vacation destination – whatever. We’re not excluded from the others, we just happen to prefer our choices. Bars, restaurants, and even local theaters may have a collection of “regulars,” which doesn’t mean that either the venue or the patrons exclude anyone else, but simply that the regulars are most comfortable in that environment.

The poll actually demonstrates this, too; it’s rather disturbing that many people never got down to this portion. When broken up, the numbers of black churchgoers is incredibly biased towards “historic black protestant churches,” even over “mainline protestant” and “evangelical protestant.” But this is no surprise – protestantism, especially southern baptism, was the first to become open to blacks following emancipation, and churches are, if nothing else, a community affair, relying heavily on tradition. Catholicism was very slow to open up to blacks, and upholds its strong roots to Europe – I’m also not making anybody’s eyebrows shoot up in shock when I point out that the Italian population, not just in this country, favors catholicism to a significant margin. We have to consider the idea that churchgoing is as much a black cultural thing as R&B music. Hell, we already know that the social interactions and status that churchgoing provides is one of the anchors of resistance to secular appeals.

There is another tricky part as well: black churchgoers are a part of the national average of churchgoers, from which we base our idea of averages to begin with. Are Italian-Americans underrepresented within the atheist/secular numbers? Well, nobody seems to have asked – and in fact, if former nationality were used as a division, a lot of people would have started getting upset, wondering why such a distinction needed to be made. Quite frankly, that’s a good point in itself.

When it comes to skepticism, critical-thinking, and decreasing the influence of religion in areas where it doesn’t belong, there isn’t anything that makes one population more or less susceptible than any other. The things that I cover on this site are human traits, and demonstrate no racial variations – in fact, there is no such thing as “racial” variation, since humans can interbreed with humans all over the world. While it is possible that some subtle influence would display a bias at any given point (like my typing in nothing but US English, or my use of slang and cultural references,) the distinction must be made between minor issues that might not resonate as much with blacks, females, or some other particular demographic (e.g., people that hate bugs,) and behavior that specifically excludes, denigrates, or condescends to such groups. Those are huge differences.

We even have a problem with defining the groups in the first place. Skin color is an easy out, but it’s not defined very well. Does it include Mediterranean and Egyptian? Mulatto and Filipino? Well, it’s self-reported, so it reflects the culture that someone wants to identify with, for the most part. We don’t even have a good reason to reach blacks in some distinct and separate way from all others, and trying to do so implies that there is something more different than skin color, which is getting into dangerous territory. We run the risk of many advertisers, who try to associate their product with basketball or hip-hop and instead look stupid, as well as pointing out that some special approach is needed in the first place. While more subtle than what we usually think of as racism, this still qualifies.

It’s okay, and in fact encouraged, to look for things that we might actually be doing to exclude any group in particular (and that’s an invitation for anyone to speak up in the comments regarding this site itself.) But separation of any group does not denote exclusion automatically, it simply denotes a smaller “community.” And community is a loaded term in itself. While the immediate implication is social bonding with like-minded people, it also serves to draw lines in front of those who do not “belong.”

I, for instance, am not part of an atheist “community” – it is a standpoint, not a movement, and I really don’t care whether someone joins up or not. I concern myself with the flaws of religions precisely because they create their own in-groups, ostracize people and behaviors that have no adverse effect on society as a whole, and rely on uncritical acceptance of certain posits, which leads to poor decision-making. Part of the reason this is so hard in the first place is because of religion’s acceptance within the “community,” and the amount of people who prefer to let others do their thinking for them, who want to belong. But “belong” shouldn’t take precedence over “right,” or even over “rational,” so I emphasize these latter two standards. Maybe that’s just me ;-)

2 comments to That’s where I draw the line

  • I_Claudia

    I’m going to try to break my comment of never commenting on the original post Hemant links to.

    I think there needs to be some distinction between addressing religiosity within the black community and making the atheist community more attractive. I don’t think that making the community more attractive will somehow magically make religiosity amongst blacks go down. However there could very well be black nonbelievers out there who don’t find the atheist community attractive. It might be because of cultural convergence; the atheist community is whiter, and so its cultural profile is more white and hence perhaps not as attractive to many black atheists. That doesn’t mean there are ill intentions at play, but it does have real results.

    I see this as a problem because even if there is no “racism” at play (and I think that can’t simply be assumed, but I count on black/brown/latino/etc. atheists to alert to the nastier problems) the end result is an underrepresentation of a certain ethnic/cultural group. I’ve read from multiple black atheists that being nonreligious in the black community is very isolating and difficult, so I think its very much a problem if these isolated people don’t really feel like the atheist community works for them.

    So I think that without conducting witch-hunts, doing our best to make the atheist community (which I do feel a part of) welcoming to people of color should be a priority. I just think that the way you do that is by starting to talk about issues (poverty, the drug war, religion in the black community) that appeal to more than middle-class white folks. Hell, I think that even if it doesn’t widen the community, I think it’s important for the community to apply a skeptical eye to a wider variety of topics. It’s not like creationism, autism/vaccines and homeopathy are the only forms of bullshit in the world.

    • Al Denelsbeck

      I’m not unsympathetic to your view at all, but I see a couple of things from a different perspective.

      First off:

      I see this as a problem because even if there is no “racism” at play (and I think that can’t simply be assumed,…

      Just to be clear, I’d prefer not to see any assumptions, in any direction. Some people (by no means all, or even a majority) seemed to think that the numbers reflected something wrong, and I feel that should be established rather than assumed. That’s all. If there’s distinct evidence of it, then by all means it should be addressed. The positive side to this attention is that it makes people more sensitive to such matters now, and some of the more subtle aspects that might have slipped past before will get caught. But as I said, “subtle” and “overt” are two different things, and I doubt subtle racism could be responsible for such numbers.

      There are different outlooks on atheism. Many people, I imagine you among them (correct me if I’m wrong,) see it as a form of social activism; others simply see it as a standpoint, like roughly half of the religious folk, the “moderates” who simply don’t attempt to convert anyone nor change schools or influence laws. Personally, I aim to instill critical-thinking as much as possible, not as a community kind of thing, but as a minimum standard in education kind of thing.

      “Community” makes me a little leery, for a couple of reasons (again, we’re talking personal views here – I’m cool if someone sees it another way.) Critical thinking requires people to make their own decisions, and implies no small amount of independence. The message of “join us because we’re all alike” is kind of counter-message, you know what I mean?

      Also, there is a secondary aspect to a community, in that there is an “outside” to the “inside,” some group of people who do not belong. When done in response to a group already on the outside, such as atheists throughout much of US culture (at the least,) it has a certain positive appeal, making those who were outliers able to find a niche, rather than going it alone. But it also accepts the wall put up by the religious community, and can become (and has, in many places) dueling factions. For instance, I like the billboards which basically say, “I’m an atheist and I’m your neighbor,” which speaks to the religious as well, but I’m not comfortable with, “Well, we’ll just make our own club then,” in response to religious ostracism.

      This is why I actually don’t like the idea of a black community. We took a long time to get rid of “colored bathrooms” and such, but now we have black churches? Is it okay if it is self-inflicted, created by blacks themselves? Or is this subtly accepting those lines of distinction that we really want to get rid of? I don’t really know the motivations, and suspect that most people don’t know themselves – I imagine sociologists could argue for years over why such things exist. But for my part, I don’t want to foster it, and I don’t like seeing subcultures maintained when they don’t have to be. I think we have a tendency to believe that there’s a white middle-class culture largely because there’s a black culture – or at the very least
      we emphasize the distinctions further than are warranted.

      As for addressing items more varied than homeopathy and psychics, sure, I’m cool with that – just not with doing it with a particular goal or demographic in mind. Making that distinction still, to me, recognizes those walls. I’m as guilty as many of sticking with the items of biggest impact (like addressing religion more from the standpoint of the abrahamic faiths,) but I do try to mix it up and be as generic as possible. More effective, to my initial consideration of the matter, would be skeptical talks/meets in areas more predominantly black/minority etc. – this is tricky, since it is often hard enough to find just one place to meet, much less moving to different locales to try and reach more neighborhoods. Might have to think on this a bit, though – it could be more effective outreach.