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 ;-)